Editor’s note: This article was awarded second prize in the fifth annual Richard Collins Writing Prize for Young Pilots. After reading nearly 100 entries, our panel of judges (including Richard’s son) selected Grace Eger of Michigan as the winner of the $2,500 runner up award. We hope you’ll agree that Grace’s description of a multi-airplane camping trip to a remote island in Lake Michigan with weather moving in is a fine tribute to a great writer and pilot.
“You guys, that really was the Coast Guard!”
Everyone sitting around the restaurant table looked up. “What?” someone asked, fork paused in midair.
“That plane that did a low pass this morning…the one we joked was the Coast Guard looking for us, remember? That was actually them. My dad called them!”
We all smiled sheepishly in disbelief. We had caused our parents a lot of grief over the past night.
The day before had started out innocently enough. I remembered stepping out of my car that morning, a warm wind playfully tousling my hair. Three airplanes sat on the ramp at Muskegon County Airport (KMKG) while a couple of guys wearing aviators tossed tents and bags into the baggage compartments. One of them walked up with a sleeping bag in one hand, and a pillow in the other, “Hey Grace! Did you bring the goods?” I smiled and pulled a cooler packed with food out of my backseat, “Yup, all present and accounted for. How’s the forecast looking?” He scratched his head, “Not too bad, I’m just trying to figure out how to stay within the weight limits right now!”
The ramp buzzed with excitement. I was going airplane camping for the first time with a group of my pilot friends. Our destination was a small island just 20 miles west-northwest of Charlevoix, Michigan. North Fox Island Airport (6Y3) boasted a 3,000 foot grass strip with trees bordering the sides and ends of the runway. Not far beyond those trees the pristine waves of Lake Michigan lapped at the pebbly beach that surrounded the uninhabited island. The sun beating down on us on the ramp made us hurry to get to that aviator’s paradise.
I joined in with the flurry of preparation, excited to set out on this adventure. Some people walked around preflighting, while others packed the camping supplies in our airplanes. I started arranging the baggage in my airplane of choice, a steadfast old Cessna 172. Originally manufactured in 1973, it was the very embodiment of nostalgia. Her pea green and orange paint job that earned her nickname, The Vomit Comet, was chipped and faded, hailing to the days of yore when her color scheme would perhaps have been labeled “groovy.” It was the kind of plane that people would look at and ask, “This thing still flies?”
And fly she did. With a whopping 150 horsepower that was dwindling daily, she flew with the gravity and dignity (perhaps with a little more gravity than dignity) of a soaring eagle. I plugged in my headset, gave her a pat on the nose, then walked over to the picnic table where everyone was gathered discussing the trip. One of my friends took charge.
“Alright, I think we’ve got everything ready to go.” He looked over at the guy next to him. “Dude, how’s the weather looking?”
He looked up from his iPad, “I checked and it looks fine.”
“Cool, I guess we’ll meet y’all there!”
We all nodded in agreement and broke up into pairs, ready to finally get off the ground. My friend, Niki, and I hopped into our trusty steed, and soon enough we were venturing into the wild blue yonder.
Flying from Muskegon to the Fox Islands takes you right along the coast of Lake Michigan, providing a spectacular view. And at the rate we were flying, we got to enjoy it for quite a while. From the air, the water was a work of art. Tiny boats cut across the vibrant blue surface, their inhabitants blissfully ignorant of the two girls hanging in the air above them, singing, “Hiiiiighwaaaaaay toooo the DANGER zone!”
We dilly-dallied our way north and eventually arrived safely at North Fox Island. Niki and I parked next to everyone else and pitched our tent under the wing of our plane. After setting up camp, we realized that in all our preparation for the trip, we had neglected to pack the chocks. Laughing it off, we inserted the control lock and trusted that the airplane would not fly off on her own. What could go wrong?
The rest of the day was full of good old-fashioned camping fun. We had the whole island to ourselves, with no reception and no distractions from the outside world. At the end of the day, we sat around the campfire, toasting hobo pies and marshmallows, enjoying each other’s company. But as the evening progressed, it got darker and cooler… almost… too cool. The wind started to pick up, the trees swaying back and forth. Then we heard it. BOOM, CRASH!
A wall of clouds quickly advanced from the west. Lightning flashed, illuminating several shocked faces in the dark. “To the tents!” someone yelled, and chaos ensued. We scrambled to pack everything and ran to our tents just as the rain began to fall. Before I ducked into the small backpacking tent Niki and I were sharing, I glanced at the Cessna 177 parked next to us. It was snugly tied down, chocked, and ready to weather the storm. The tie-downs. My stomach sank. I forgot to pack the tie-downs!
I don’t know if there’s a feeling more vulnerable than sleeping outside in a thunderstorm, besides, of course, sleeping outside in a thunderstorm under an airplane that you didn’t chock or tie down. Laying on our backs, we could feel every tremor of thunder through the hard ground underneath. Rain pelted the wing above us, the wind snapped our tent flaps, and the shadows of dancing trees reached out for us with their branches with every flash of lightning. I could hear the fuel sloshing in the tank overhead. A million thoughts raced through my mind: What if the plane gets blown over? What if a tree falls? What if we get stuck? What if… what if… the storm lasted long into the night, lulling us all to sleep as the rain slowed to a stop.
The next morning, we woke up to a silent, heavy fog blanketing the island. The stillness of the morning was soon interrupted as people began to unzip their tents. Everyone was alive, the airplanes were all in prime condition, and all was well. We gathered around the damp, smoldering remains of yesterday’s fire for a hearty breakfast of sausage and eggs. The comfort of daylight and a warm plate of food allayed our fear, and we were soon able to laugh at ourselves. Just as we finished eating, we heard the hum of an engine. Through the mist, we saw the vague shadow of an airplane drop down and make a low pass over the grass strip. “Guys, what if that was the Coast Guard?” somebody kidded.
“No way,” another person laughed, “why would they be coming out here?”
By late morning the fog had burned off, and it was time to go. After a flurry of tent-drying and packing, each airplane took off and headed south for Ludington (KLDM), where we planned to meet for lunch before heading home. As we gained altitude our reception returned. My phone buzzed. I looked down to a text from my dad: You guys alright?
How sweet, I thought as I responded, he was thinking about me.
At lunch, I realized he was not just thinking about me, he was worried that I was stranded! The storm that hit us that night had hit the Beaver Islands just north of us even harder. Many buildings had been damaged, and rumor had it that a few airplanes had been tipped over. Someone’s dad had heard about the storm and was so worried he called everyone’s parents and sent the Coast Guard to check on us! The moment we got reception, the whole group was inundated with missed calls and texts. While we were laughing about the mystery airplane earlier in the day, our parents were wondering if we were safe!
That afternoon I came home to a very relieved family. “So,” my dad said as I walked through the door, “I had the pleasure of speaking with many of your friends’ parents this morning.” He was teasing, but I knew that several hours ago it hadn’t been funny. My parents had experienced a lot of anxiety, and I was responsible.
The gravity of the situation hit me like a ton of bricks. As a young pilot, it’s easy to feel invincible. I was (quite literally) on top of the world flying in that rickety trainer. But the reality is that no pilot is safe from harm. You only live once. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to enjoy life, but make sure you enjoy it conscientiously.
Oh, and do yourself a favor… make sure you pack those chocks!