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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

(3) BANG! THE PLANE STRUCK THE RUNWAY CRABWISE.

April 16, 1963                                                      
      With ten hours of solo and three cross ‑country trips behind me, I have overcome any lingering qualms about flying, but I will think long and hard before I ever get on another motor scooter. Ed’s latest toy weighs only seventy pounds, travels for miles on a teacup of gas, and folds into a compact case that fits neatly in the baggage compartment of our Comanche. And there it should stay, in my opinion.
     We flew up to Rockland, Maine, and with the help of a couple of fellows at the airport, Ed unloaded the scooter and assembled it.  I hopped on behind him, wrapped my arms around his waist (ah, this was fun!), and off we started on a sightseeing trip.
      We were traveling at a pretty fast clip when the scooter began weaving back and forth in an alarming fashion.
      "Hey, what are you doing?"
      "Fixing the handlebars.  They're not adjusted right."
      The progress of the scooter became more and more erratic until finally he lost control altogether.  Perceiving that we were in for a nasty tumble, I chose to jump off rather than land in a heap with 70 pounds of metal and 160 pounds of husband.  Ed stayed with his new toy and went rolling head over heels down the embankment, while I hit a bed of cinders, skidding along on my  "quien sabe" and tearing the seat out of my shorts.
      We jumped to our feet, exclaiming, "Are you all right?"
      "I think I broke my collarbone.   Ed winced, touching a bump on his neck.  Broken collarbone or not, the man was determined to fly back to Norwood rather than risk getting stuck in a hospital in Maine.
      "Promise me you won't faint. You know I haven’t learned how to land the Comanche yet."
      I was able to do the straight and level flying, but Ed was in charge of the takeoff and landing.  He kept his promise and didn't faint until we got to the South Shore Hospital, where the act of removing his T‑shirt briefly put out his lights.
      The doctor made the mistake of mentioning that a broken collarbone in a young boy heals in ten or twelve days, but with older folks takes two months or more. Since Ed regards himself as being in the former category, he is sure he'll be flying his plane ten days after the accident.  How he expects to manage the controls with his shoulder in a plaster cast, I don't quite see, but I don't argue with him. Flying gets to be like a drug—if I were deprived of it for very long, I'd rave, too.
April 18, 1963
      After months of study, Ed finally was ready to take his instrument flight test.  He wouldn't  admit the day has arrived, but I could tell.  He went to bed at 9:00 last night, instructing the children not to wake him if they valued their lives.  And instead of announcing every day or two that he wasn't going to tell me when he was scheduled for the test, he was now reminding me of this every five minutes.  "If I don't pass, no one's going to know a thing about it."
     He got up at six, kissed me good‑bye, and looked startled when I said, "Good luck, honey!"
     "Who told her?" I could see him wondering.
""THEY'RE COMING IN NOW," BRUCE SAID.
     A few hours later, as Ed was homing in on runway 35 at the end of his flight test, I was taking off on  runway 17 and climbing straight toward him.
     "Here comes old Dad now, on his ADF approach," my instructor drawled.  "We'll soon know whether he passed or not."
     Bruce climbed out of the Colt as soon as I landed and waved me on my way.  I did a couple of "supervised" solos, but got little attention from the supervisor, who was clearly more interested in how Ed made out than whether I landed upside down or right side up.
     "They're coming in now," he said, climbing back in beside me.  "I'll be able to tell if he passed the minute he steps out of that plane, even if he's five hundred yards away."
     But Ed crossed him up by taxiing back to the hangar, so Bruce was unable to interpret the jaunty or non‑jaunty set of his shoulders, no matter how he craned his neck.
     "We won't know now till we get back to the office," he said with an air of frustration.  "I guess that's enough now, Barbara, that wind's getting stronger, we might as well go in."
     What was getting stronger was Bruce's curiosity.  Had Ed made the grade or not?
     "The boy got his rating," Charlie Melley called to us as we were tying down the Colt.
     Thank goodness!  Great White Eagle kept his nose in those books of his for so long, I'd forgotten what he looked like.
     I reached a goal, too, in my Small Eagle way.  Having completed my third hour of supervised solos, I am qualified, it says here, to go out and practice by myself.  The prospect scares me—I wish I had as much faith in me as Bruce does. 
April 20, 1963
     "Simmer down," I said to myself as I drove to the airport.  "So you broke a mirror this morning.  That means nothing whatsoever."
     Popping a stick of gum in my mouth so I'd at least look nonchalant, I walked into the office to find out which Colt I was supposed to take.
     "Looks pretty good out there today," Bruce said.  "Wind's out of the east at the moment.  Be sure to look at the tee every once in a while in case it changes."
     "Suppose they change it and I'm the only one that notices?  If I switch to another runway, the other pilots will think I'm a crazy woman driver."
     "No, they won't," said Bruce.  "I've told you they're like a bunch of sheep—you lead the way, they'll follow.  Jump off a cliff, they'll be right behind you.  A bunch of sheep, that's what they are—baaaa!"  When my instructor talks like that I vow I'd rather die than join the herd.
     I taxied to the east runway and for the first time went through my pre-takeoff run-up without surveillance.   Checking the sky for traffic, I continued to the center of the runway, took a deep breath, and pushed in the throttle.  He‑e‑e‑re we go!
     Do other tyros feel the qualms I do as the earth drops away, or do they face this new challenge with cool‑headed equanimity?  Alone in the sky, with no Bruce standing by to catch me if I fall, the only cool thing about me was my feet.
     "What in heck am I doing up here?" I asked myself, looking down at the runway, 850 alarming feet below.  "I must be out of my mind!"
     Getting the plane off the ground is simple with all that nice soft air to fly into. Getting back down  again is another matter. That chunk of asphalt is hard, lady.
     When it was time to make my descent, my mind shifted from a disorganized jumble to a complete blank except for a question in headlines: HOW DO I GET THIS AIRCRAFT BACK ON THE GROUND?”  
     I got it down the same way I always have, but were the butterflies in my stomach impressed?  "No way," they said, "that was pure luck and you know it.  Why don't you quit while you're still in one piece?"
     Resisting the temptation to take their advice, I wiped my perspiring hands on my shorts and took off again.  Two more respectable landings appeased the butterflies, although they were still jumpy about the weekend traffic.
     Checking the tee to make sure it was still facing east, I noticed that three fellow pilots had taxied onto the grass at the edge of the runway.  I was wondering why all three quit at the same time, when suddenly my plane began to jounce and rack around in a peculiar fashion.  I had a difficult time trying to make a respectable landing and was glad Bruce wasn't around to see me smack the asphalt at a sideways angle.
     I followed the one remaining pilot around the traffic pattern and observed that he, too, taxied off the runway as soon as he landed.  What was the matter with these fellows, were they all afraid of a little crosswind?
     Two minutes later I found the wind had grown from a little crosswind to a large one.  No matter how I struggled with the controls, I couldn't point the plane down the center of the runway.  Those four planes were lined up on the grass like ten‑pins, and the wind, now directly from the south, was bowling me toward them at eighty miles an hour.
     If I hadn't managed to avoid them, my memory would have been an unpopular one at Norwood Airport.   Safely past the quartet of airplanes, I concentrated on making as unspectacular a connection with the ground as possible.
     The wind was toying with the Colt as if it were made of paper.  There were updrafts and downdrafts and other strange atmospheric phenomena that made me wish I'd stayed home with my mending.
     Bang!!  The plane struck the runway crabwise and bounced toward the edge as I tried unavailingly to straighten it—too late, I was off the pavement and bumping along on the grass.  I braked to a stop and sat there for a minute, recuperating.   It's amazing what a terrible landing you can make and live to describe it.
     I walked into the airport this morning, scared green at the thought of flying again and found Bruce and a couple of other instructors chatting over their coffee.  Silky Sullivan said, "Barbara, I was just telling Bruce what a good job you did with that last landing yesterday."
     I stared at him.  "Are you serious?" 
     "I mean it," he said. "I landed just before you did, and I don't know when I've had such a hard time getting a plane down.   I watched you coming in, and believe me, you did well."  
      I didn't believe him, but that’s okay, the butterflies did.  Their confidence soared.  
      I stopped shaking, sauntered down to the Colt, and calmly, with hands dry, performed several quite passable take‑offs and landings. . . .     

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