Dear readers: I’m spring-cleaning in a huge way, and so have not had time to pen a decent column. I offer an interesting older one you might enjoy...
A bench in the secret garden looked inviting, so I lay along its length and idly watched an inbound jet slowly descend toward Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Airport. A passing single engine plane droned along high above it. I closed my eyes, enjoying the spring scents…
Suddenly, a shocking 46-year old memory resurfaced.
February, 1976. Joe and I, proud parents of three-month-old Jenny, were living in Santa Barbara, California. As a new physician, he covered our living expenses by working in an LA emergency room three nights a week. On his free days we enjoyed biking, or walking the nearby ocean beach with our beautiful baby. I loved being a mom, but Joe looked thoughtfully at me one day and diagnosed a mild case of restlessness. “There’s more to life than diapers and feedings: take an occasional morning off when I’m here and learn something new, Dee.”
I thought about it. He was right: I needed a challenge...
Ha! I’d learn to fly! Always wanted to. The airport was close by, and lessons were quite affordable. Gas was really cheap then, and instructors were eager to teach aviation skills to anything that walked and talked sensibly. Joe heard me out and declared it a splendid idea. So, setting aside one morning a week, I enrolled in ground school, studied hard, and passed the written tests.
Neil, my no-nonsense instructor, taught me the art and science of flying using the school’s dependable Cessna 150s, a plane that is very forgiving of student awkwardness.
For months, Neil hammered home a vital lesson. “No matter what happens- bird hits, engine failure, smoke in the cockpit, any sudden emergency- fly the damn airplane. React emotionally to unexpected events ‘upstairs’ after you’ve landed safely and shut it down.”
To emphasize his point as we flew, he’d reach over and kill the engine without warning, or stall the plane, or begin a spin, or even turn me nearly upside down, until I learned to stop unraveling and address each novel situation efficiently.
I flew the airplane, no matter what he threw at me.
The FAA guy awarded me my license after I’d passed his rigorous flying test - (if he’d had to touch the controls even once, I’d have been toast). Now, with my pilot’s license in hand, I decided to fly to interesting places one morning a week. (Pilots need to fly regularly to stay competent.)
One day, after filing a VFR (visual flight rules) flight plan, I pre-flighted a rental Cessna (i.e. checked every inch of it inside and out), hopped in, taxied out when the tower’s Ground Control granted permission, and was cleared for takeoff. The plane rose obediently while I dialed in data issued by Santa Barbara Flight Control.
What a beautiful day!
About one minute into ascending to my assigned altitude of 5000 feet, the radio crackled to life to transmit an urgent new order. “Cessna four-three-six-zero-niner- this is Santa Barbara Control: immediately turn right 90 degrees while DEscending 500 feet!”
Wha…? This was a weird deviation from my previous clearance.
“This is four-three-six-zero-niner; roger that,” I responded, changing course as I repeated the order.
The radio crackled again.
Hearing a most unprofessional “God!!!” on the tower’s open microphone, I raised my eyes from the control panel to look out of the cockpit window- and gasped! A massive blue passenger jet materialized from a fluffy cloud, only slightly above my previous flight level: had I not responded instantly to the urgent course change, our noses would have merged. There came a muffled cheer from the tower as the monster thundered over me and continued its orderly descent.
Reaching my assigned altitude, I busied myself leveling the wings and trimming the plane, ready to carry on to Santa Cruz when released from the previous order.
I was too stunned to process what had just transpired.
Right now, fly the damn airplane.
(I found out much later that the guy was being trained as an air traffic controller. He’d somehow managed to overlook the incoming passenger jet on his radar screen when assigning me my flight path.
Fortunately, his instructor had noticed.)
Still saucer-eyed, but calm, I continued out to sea for another mile or so as per orders, before a different controller cleared me to turn back inland and resume my flight plan. He then allowed himself these words: “Nice job, four-three-six-zero-niner.”
I flew on to Santa Cruz, landed slick as spit 40 minutes later, parked the plane, and tied it down in case of winds.
Only then, when I began to tremble on the tarmac, did I wet my pants.
Neil had taught me well.