In this beautiful and heartbreaking article, Mark Fay shares the story of an emotional day. It involved plenty of flying, from a night IFR takeoff to a gusty landing. But the real lessons have a lot more to do with family, grief and decision-making under stressful circumstances. It’s a reminder of the unique perspective flying can give you on life and loss.
AS FIGHTER PILOT. NOT REQUIRED STANDARD.
Sixty four years after that assessment was penned into my pilot’s log book by the CFI of No. 2 Operational Training Unit at RAAF Base Williamtown, I still have a twinge of shame and regret.
It was a rough flight. One of those flights where you think to yourself, I should have taken up boating. It started as a routine mountain departure. Typical go now in the 30-minute window between snow, sunshine, and the rapidly approaching rain clouds. After clearing mountainous terrain, I picked up my instrument clearance and looked at the broken cumulus build ups in front of me. Be a good chance to use my new Avidyne IFD440 in some real IFR I thought. And then the fun began…
About a year after buying an already-built Van’s RV-6 and spending a very hot July earning a tailwheel endorsement, I thought I knew the airplane well enough to attend a formation flying clinic being hosted by the Ohio Valley RVators at the not-too-distant Parkersburg, West Virginia, airport. As interesting as it sounded, the very idea of it caused me quite a bit of stress.
The closer we got to the airport the lower the sun was on the horizon and the longer the shadows became. The haze was really getting thick and hanging close to the ground. It seemed the more we strained, the less we could see. We knew the airport was right out there somewhere.
As we crossed into Michigan, the satellite downlink picture beyond Lake Huron showed an irregular line of large thunderstorms stretching on a 35 degree angle from right to left across our path. I had been warned about scattered thunderstorms across Ontario leaving Green Bay but this looked more than scattered and I could not tell if there was a gap at least 50 miles wide for us to go through.
A flight from LGA to JFK was normally nowhere near as short as you might think. Although the direct distance between the two airports is less than 10 miles, the flight itself often involved a tour of Long Island nearly out to Montauk to fit into the arrival pattern at JFK. It was not uncommon for the off-to-on time of this ferry flight to exceed 30 minutes.
“It’s snowing in Chicago and Indiana, and there won’t be any open roads or airline flights to Chicago until next week” – a prediction which turned out to be absolutely correct. This announcement tended to make it seem somewhat difficult for the groom to get to the suburban Chicago wedding by Saturday night – two days later.
After a few more minutes of discussing the round dials and radios, my wife began to ask about the clouds in front of us. I did my best to be nonchalant about the approaching wall of smooth, white clouds, but in the back of my mind was the thought that this was the first time in over 10 years that I would be in actual “hard” IFR. I could feel that my smile lacked some sincerity when I joked about the weather.
There was some apprehension as we approached the terminal as we could see a lot of military personnel and when we parked, I left the No. 3 engine running until I was assured of an airstart as we had no APU on DC-8 aircraft. I opened the forward door to be met by a six-foot Ugandan soldier holding a rifle at me.
I lined up on the centerline and advanced the throttle. The aircraft accelerated rapidly and broke ground. This was my fifth solo takeoff in this aircraft, a North American P-51D Mustang. I raised the landing gear, and the climb speed reached about 175 knots. Approaching the airport boundary, the engine began shuddering and vibrating.
An earthquake struck Ecuador on April 16, with catastrophic consequences for the province of Manabi. On April 19, I received a call from the owner of the FBO where I keep my Cessna. He had organized at the hangar a collection center for food, water, tents and medicine, and was asking for help to transport by airplane the collected goods and doctors to the quake zone, as the roads were badly damaged.
At Ripon, I put the 182 over the railroad tracks and motored on at 1,800 ft. MSL and 90 knots toward Fisk, now listening to the Fisk Approach controller giving directions to aircraft ahead of us. Then it was my turn. “High wing aircraft with the landing light on the left wing, rock your wings.” I did. “Welcome to Oshkosh!”
I started my descent from 1500 feet to 1000 feet. Everything checked good. Wait a minute, why is the prop slowing down? Fuel gauge says there is fuel. Electric fuel pump is on. RPM is at the bottom of the green arc and falling. Got big problems!
George gave me my first hour of dual instruction that day. Flying over a world covered in the flat white of a fresh snow, I was lost from the moment the wheels left the ground until the engine was shut down an hour later. I knew right then that I was never destined to fly. How in the hell did anyone up there know where he was? I was truly discouraged and downhearted.
One of my goals since I got my Private ASEL has been to own and fly a flying boat amphibian. About two years ago, I purchased a Coot Amphibian in need of repair and currently have that airplane in my workshop. I had been looking to train for my seaplane rating in a hull-type seaplane, but the nearest location was some distance away. Imagine how pleasantly surprised I was to find an advertisement for seaplane training at Shannon Airport (KEZF), where I keep my Cherokee 140.
On December 1, 1984 a remotely piloted Boeing 720, loaded with specially formulated anti-misting Jet A, was intentionally crashed at Edwards Air Force Base to determine if the fuel would preclude or suppress a post crash fire long enough for occupants to escape. It was a bold but ill-conceived experiment that went up in smoke.
I advanced the power and the 300 hp Continental IO-550 began to barrel us down the runway while I continued looking at the trees at the far end. Racing toward them, I checked my airspeed and fuel flow and began to rotate… and just before I did… the engine died! Like in Dead.
I said goodbye to an old friend today. My friend won’t actually be gone until January 13, but I had to make a special trip to pay my respects. Lots of pilots in the West know my friend, some with tender feelings, others not. My friend was one that challenged the skill, or nerve, of every pilot who came along. I was lucky enough to learn from my friend, and in fact love that dear airport.
It would be the longest VFR cross country for me by far, with precious cargo across Tornado Alley in springtime to the “Greatest Spectacle in Sports.” But I was 26; what the hell did I know? It was before the internet, weather channel, online anything. No TFRs or alphabet soup of airspace.