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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

(11) STREAKS OF LIGHTNING FLASHED ALL AROUND US.

     For weeks Ed has been saying he was going to take advantage of the long holiday weekend and visit his father in the Keys. Solo, he says. Without me.
     How do I react to being left behind with the housework, the laundry, and the snow shoveling? I tell Ed it’s a great idea; it will be good for him to spend a couple of days relaxing with his folks. “No, I won't be lonesome, I'll get along just as I do when you’re away on business.”
     He next announces that I am to go with him. He can live without me during the day when he’s busy fishing with his father, "but what am I gonna do at night?" He'll even steal a couple of extra days so we can have almost a week. It hardly seems like a good time for an argument.
     We file for a 10:30 departure but have a four-hour delay when Ed finds something wrong with the left auxiliary tank. Turns out to be a lump of ice clogging the line.
      I fly the first leg to Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s getting dark when we arrive, and I dislike flying at night, but since I’m not speaking to Ed, I can't protest against continuing. I’m not speaking to him because he was critical of my landing. I told him (before I stopped speaking) that if he'd kept his hands off the wheel we'd have bounced only once instead of three times.
     As we fly on through the darkening sky I begin wondering how, in an emergency, we could find a safe place to land among the winking lights on the black-carpeted earth. There are numerous airports along our route, but few with lighted runways, and how can you spot one in a hurry? Suddenly Ed grabs the flashlight and exclaims, "What the devil's wrong here!"
     "Wh‑what do you mean, what's wrong!"
     As Ed jerks at the throttles, the red rays from his flashlight gleam on the nose of our plane, suffusing it with a glow that looks like a fire under the hood. Oh, great.
     "I don't know," he says, directing the beam toward our altimeter. "For a minute I thought we were losing power, but I guess we were just in a climb."
     "Automatic rough," they call it. This condition affects a smoothly running engine only at night, changing the sound waves en route to the pilot's ear from a purr to a sputter. I inform my husband that four more hours of automatic rough will make me an automatic ex‑pilot, and will he kindly land at the next airport.
     Charleston is 10 minutes ahead of us, a very long 10 minutes during which I am either casting suspicious looks at our airspeed or gazing morbidly at the unpromising vista beneath us: sparkling cities surrounded by black voids.
     As we near Charlestown, Ed is told by a regretful voice, "Sorry, sir, our lights are not operating at the present time, we're in the midst of installing lights on the other runways."
     How far to the next airport? Seventy miles? I am contemplating a nervous breakdown when the man speaks up again. He has just learned that runway lights will be available.
     Ed makes a perfect landing, but I decide to overlook it.  He probably isn't being intentionally disagreeable. This morning he flew down to the Keys to go fishing with his father, will be back tomorrow night. I have forgiven both him and the Comanche for being so difficult.
     Our next flight was a little too adventurous. We were on our way home from Florida, flying via the instruments through a layer of stratus clouds overhanging the tobacco fields of North Carolina. We'd seen little of the ground since our departure two and a half hours earlier. Ed was in continuous contact with the Air Route Traffic Control Center, but I wondered if the fellows down there had any idea what it was like up here. Rain had turned to sleet, which was clattering with a nerve-wracking din against the windshield; beads of ice lined our wings; the bumps were getting bumpier.
     As we continued on into worsening weather, the Comanche lurched and rolled like a ship in a typhoon. Streaks of lightning flashed all around us.
     "Honey, I don't like this," I said, wishing I could crawl under the seat with Moppet. Maybe she had the right idea about flying, after all. "Let's turn around."
     "I don't like it either," Ed said, "but we can't deviate from our flight plan without getting a clearance."
     "Well, for Pete's sake, get a clearance, then!"
     At that moment my eyes fall on the airspeed indicator. It has gone out of its mind, the needle racing around the dial so fast that it looks like a miniature propeller. I couldn't have been more shocked if our automatic pilot had suddenly started singing "Someone's Rocking My Dreamboat."
     My vocal cords paralyzed, I could only point at the whirling needle with a shaky finger. Ed, attempting to raise the Center, grimly nodded his awareness, his hand already reaching for the pitot heat. Quickly scanning the rest of the panel, I find some reassurance in the normal appearance of the rest of the instruments.
     "Washington Center, this is Comanche eight one nine zero poppa, requesting permission to descend to four thousand feet."
     And now my heart stops again as our one and only engine coughs and stutters . . . carburetor icing! Ed applies carburetor heat; for a minute the oxygen‑starved engine continues to run raggedly, then falteringly takes hold. Meanwhile, the airspeed indicator has stopped spinning and is back on the job.
     "Do I understand you wish to descend to four thousand feet?" a voice inquires languidly
     "Good Lord, yes!" I say.
     "Affirmative," Ed says calmly.
     "Stand by, nine zero pop."
     We "stand by" while all hell breaks loose. An avalanche of sleet batters us from every direction. The ice bordering our wings has thickened, the added load reducing our airspeed to 110 knots. Forked bolts of lightning illuminate the gloom beyond our wingtips, followed by ear‑ and nerve‑shattering salvos of thunder.
     Even more terrifying is the turbulence that has seized our 2500-pound Comanche and is shaking it as a ferret would a rabbit. I have been doing enough reading on meteorology lately to have some knowledge of the destructive force of mature cumulonimbus cells that sometimes lurk in stratus clouds.
     Wondering how long the plane will hold together, I lean back in my seat, half resigned to our fate. The Comanche ploughs on through the storm, her engine still sputtering erratically. Lightning flares again, this time so close we can see its jagged outlines through our frost‑coated windshield.
     "Ed, it's getting worse!" I exclaim, coming to life and sitting upright. "To heck with the rules, let's get out of here!"
     "Washington Center, this is nine zero pop. How about that clearance, I've got thunder and lightning and everything else up here."
     Permission granted at last (have we been waiting an hour or was it only sixty seconds?), we begin our descent. As we break through the overcast, never did tobacco fields look more beautiful!
     We land at nearby Salisbury, wait an hour for the local thunderstorms to move eastward, take off into blue skies and VFR weather. Pretty tame, we agree. We like it that way. 

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