Thursday, August 10, 2017


   I assumed I would be learning how to fly Plane Horrible (my private name for her) on one of Norwood's runways.  I was mistaken.  Silky’s strategy in dealing with a shrinking violet was to direct her to the shortest, most crosswind-bedeviled landing strips his fiendish mind can conjure up. “Conjure up” is what he seemed to do, particularly with a field so well concealed by trees that even he has trouble pulling it out of his hat.
     “Bank her a little to the right, it’s down there somewhere . . . there it is, you can enter your downwind now.”
     “Where, where?” I stutter, turning to the heading my instructor recommends and peering apprehensively at the forest below.
     “You’ll see it in a minute. Give her half flaps and turn base.”
     “Okay, I’ve got it,” I say, catching a glimpse of asphalt and trying to sound more composed than my damp palms indicate. I dry them hastily on my slacks so the wheel won’t slip out of my clenched fist and swing toward the piece of adhesive tape Silky is calling a runway. With an aggressive crosswind on our left, the Skyknight—as big as she is—comes in sideways as if averting her eyes from what lies ahead. Crunch!
     “Your flare-out was a little late,” Silky comments mildly, while the plane and its pilot pull themselves together. “Okay, Barbara, full throttles. Don’t let her dig in, be sure to break ground at 105 so we’ll clear those trees.”
     My nervous system will never be the same again, but I understand what my instructor is aiming for: if I can learn to take off under exacting conditions, a run-of-the-mill approach will seem simple by comparison.  What a splendid word "simple" is.
     After three or four hours with Silky, I’m turned loose. I’m as eager to take the Skynight up alone as I am to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
     “She’s just another airplane,” says Charlie.
     To an astronaut, I suppose, Apollo 13 is just another rocket.
July, 1970
        It’s a fine Saturday morning, ideal for flying.  As we’re getting ready to leave for Norwood Airport, Ed asks me if I feel all right.
      “Great!” I say.  “Why?”
      “I feel awful—stomach cramps.”
      “Maybe we’d better forget about going to Martha’s Vineyard.”
      “No, let’s go.  I might as well be miserable there as here.”
       Under the circumstances I will be pilot in command.  I’m sorry about Ed’s indisposition but find myself looking forward to the responsibility with eagerness instead of the gloom of the past few weeks.  During the last two or three lessons I began to sense that Plane Horrible and I might be ready to forget our differences and establish an amicable relationship.
     “I didn’t like your takeoff at all,” Ed says, scowling at me as we climb toward 1,000 feet.
      “It was good, wasn’t it!” I grin, turning out of the traffic pattern.
      “Too good.  You’ve taught me something, though.  I’ve been taking off a little too soon and climbing too steeply.  And you’re right about easing the nose down a hair after you’ve raised the gear.  With that 120 miles an hour safely established, you don’t have to get the heebie-jeebies if you lose an engine.”
      “Maybe you and Ernest Gann don’t—I do!  Keep purring, baby,” I say, switching on the prop synchronizer.
      “You forgot one thing,” Ed says with a touch of satisfaction.
      “Oh, my fuel pumps.”  Glancing at the fuel flow, I turn off the left, then the right pump.
      “You did that too fast.  Silky wouldn’t approve.”
      “I was watching.”
      “Silky says you should wait a few seconds, without taking your hand off the switch.”
      “Okay, okay.”  I might grumble, but next time I’ll remember. 
      I tune in Martha’s Vineyard Omni and fiddle with the heading needle until the little airplane on the pictorial display says, “Turn this-a-way.”  Amazing gadget, to be so much cleverer than I am.  But I’m smartening up.  Two weeks ago I wouldn’t have had the foggiest notion which combination of switches and knobs would bring in the nearest Unicom.
      Our recent eight-hour flight home from Fort Lauderdale provided me with ample opportunity to ask questions about the Skyknight’s panel.  “Hey, Ed, what’s this?  How about that one?  What’s a voltage regulator?  Silky told me, but I’ve forgotten.  When do you use it?  If something goes wrong with the electrical system?  Oh . . . sorry I asked.”
      But back-up instruments are vitally important if you’re going to fly IFR.  Without them, our trio of space explorers would never have found their way back from the moon.
      At this point, all I want to do is find my way to a small island southwest of Cape Cod.
      “Kind of hazy out,” I remark.
      “About six miles, I’d say.”
      It soon becomes evident that the haze is going to turn into clouds when we reach Buzzard’s Bay.  
      “Did anyone think to check the weather at Martha’s Vineyard?” Ed asks.
      “I didn’t—did you, Moppet?”  Our poodle stretches her ears in an east-west direction, yawns, and goes back to sleep.  
      I called Otis Approach Control to report that I’m east of New Bedford and planning to land at the Vineyard.
      “Martha’s Vineyard is IFR,” the controller says, not caring whose clambake he’s ruining.
      Ed shrugged.  He’s had several instrument flights in the Skyknight, but I lack both experience and confidence.
      “Ceiling 400, visibility 3 miles, light rain and drizzle,” the voice on the radio goes on.
      “So we’ll file,” Ed says.  No problem.”
      “Let’s turn around, “I protest.  “I can’t make an instrument approach.  I’m still too scared of this airplane.”
      “How about putting her on automatic pilot and changing seats?”
      “What about your stomach cramps?  Suppose you break out in a cold sweat and faint at 500 feet?”
      “I feel much better.  In fact, I feel fine.”
      “Are you sure?”
     “Honest!  I wouldn’t say so if there were the slightest question.”
      We exchange places, to the annoyance of our canine passenger who doesn’t appreciate lap-swapping in the middle of a snooze.
     Ed calls Nantucket radio and files while I circle New Bedford airport, VFR at 2,000 feet.
     “Thanks, old girl,” he says, taking over the controls.  “Y’know, you’re one of the handiest gadgets I’ve got aboard.”
      With the help of radar vectors from Otis and a few backseat-driver comments from me (“Watch that bank!”  “Aren’t you going too fast to put your gear down?”), Ed makes his approach to the Martha’s Vineyard Omni.
      Conditions have improved to broken clouds at 600 feet and four miles visibility.  In an attempt to show me that it isn’t necessary to use up 3,000 feet on every landing, Ed flares out at 80 knots, five feet over the runway.  I was about to make another helpful remark like, “What do you think this is, a Colt?” when thump, we’re down.
      “That was lousy,” Ed said.  “I was trying to grease her on and got too slow.”
      “It felt like one of mine.”
      “No, what you do is, you fly it right into the ground.  If you’d flare out 30 seconds sooner and raise the nose a few degrees higher . . .”
      Thus do we keep learning from each other.  In time, I might even come to think of Plane Horrible as Plane Deelightful.
July, 1970
     Not having a calculator handy, I count on my fingers. It’s late July, we traded the Comanche in on the Skyknight last November . . . good grief, It’s nearly nine months since I’ve flown an airplane alone. This is a pause altogether too pregnant. I’ll have to stop stalling or there’ll be a lot of raised eyebrows in the family.       ‘How’re you doing with the new plane, Mom?” my sons ask.  Ted and Tim, both pilots now, are earning a living swordfish spotting for professional fishermen. 
      “Well, I don’t hate it anymore,” I concede.  “In fact, I’m beginning to enjoy flying again now that I can get her down without bouncing.  A few more good landings . . .” 
     Silky and Ed have been telling me for weeks that I’m free to take off any time I feel like it. Well, I don’t feel like it. I have a sore shoulder, the garden needs weeding, the weather is always too hot, too windy, or too hazy for me to face the challenge of soloing in this Baby Airliner. How can 122-pound weakling who can’t even reach the gas tanks without standing on tiptoes, start up those big engines, taxi out to the active runway, and go through a series of complicated procedures that will lead to a condition known as airborne? One cannot become “a little bit airborne” and then change one’s mind. There is a traffic pattern to be re-entered and a landing to be  accomplished.

          “S-a-a-y!” Ed said today, as our two and a half ton Skynight touched the runway as delicately as a butterfly. “What’s happened? That’s the third grease job you’ve done in a row.”
     “I kept the power on all the way. You’ve been doing the same thing lately, and I noticed it seemed to give you more control over your landings."
     “That must be the answer. Up until now this airplane has been flying you, but all of a sudden you’ve started flying her.”
     “I have to admit you were right, she’s easier to land than the Comanche,” I say, blushing at this heresy to my erstwhile favorite.
     The thought of taking off alone has lostt its terrors. Today Ed accompanied me on two trips around the pattern, then said, “You’ve got it made, kid, be sure the door is closed tightly,” and disembarked.
     I taxied onto runway 33 with about as much trepidation as a housewife driving to the corner grocery store.
     “Okay, sweetheart,” I say to my former archenemy. “It’s a hot day and a short runway and there’s trees in them thar woods. Let’s not fool around.”
     Raise the nose at 90, lift off a little sooner than usual, lower nose slightly to build up airspeed. What a good, obedient girl she was. Why had I found her so intimidating?
     As I turned toward final I gave myself the Missed Approach Lecture.
     “Just because you’re on final, remember there’s no law that says you have to land. If you don’t like the way things look down there, you can always go around again.”
     Having attended my lecture, I forgot about it and began concentrating on making the most beautiful landing in history for my husband. Not that I'm unaware of the airplane sitting at an angle on the left side of the runway; I just assume the pilot is aware of me.
     Actually, the only aware person in the vicinity is Ed, whose hair stands on end when he sees the pilot taxi behind the yellow run-up line, and without a glance at the incoming traffic (me), casually begin his run-up. Ed runs toward him, shouting and gesticulating, but is unable to get his attention. As the Skyknight crosses the barrier, the smaller plane moves toward the center of the runway. Suddenly the pilot’s head jerks upward and he brakes sharply. A large unidentified flying object directly over his head convinces him that this isn’t his own private runway.
     Ed had recuperated by the time the Skyknight hummed down to that perfect landing. When I taxied her back to the parking area, he was clasping both hands in the air and doing a celebratory jig, oblivious to the stares of passengers boarding a nearby aircraft.
     I jumped out of the plane, threw my arms around my husband and said, “Mmmm, I love you!”
     “I’ll bet you say that to all your instructors,” says Ed. Then I patted Plane Deelightful and told her I loved her, too.

©2011, Barbara Malley  
(copyright for Great White Eagle, one of seven unpublished books.  My tax accountant wonders if my out-go will ever be matched by my in-come.)

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