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golden gate bridge

At the time of this picture I had an engine with a crack in it. I also had a very pregnant wife sitting at my side.

At the time of this picture I had an engine with a crack in it. I also had a very pregnant wife sitting at my side. A day before, my elderly 80-year-old father toured the Bay with me in the same seat. Both times just a few hundred feet separating our compromised ship from the cold and often violent currents of the Pacific.

I had no idea.

If we had to put down I would be lucky to make a beach. More likely a pregnant woman and/or an elderly man would be swimming.

The photo of the bridge disappearing into an unknown would tell the story that I was also flying into an unknown. But rather than the whiteness of a marine layer, it was the blackness of oil. Blowing out my cowling. While I flew on unawares, my wife shifted in her seat, looking out into the horizon, as if she knew already that life traded on the thinnest of margins.

A pilot has to fly about 20,000 hours they say before statistically dealing with a single engine failure. Another way to calculate these impossibly small odds is insurance: an airplane, in many cases, is cheaper to insure than a car. An engine crack is just a rare thing.

In this case it was also a priceless thing. What’s the value of a life yet unborn, in her mother’s body, whirling down the central coast? A decision she had no say in.

Plans are God laughing they say but here it is a nod to our mortality and inevitable agency. I had a choice the whole way. A choice to ditch. A choice to not fly at all. A choice to do the simple math on hours and a new plane from Van Bortel.

We take these risks because we must, or perhaps we just chose to, but never should we take them lightly. Those margins ever creeping.

I was lucky. I flew my pregnant wife on and we landed at Monterey. Cylinder kits were back-ordered a year. We appeared stranded. A local mechanic found us a shop with a rebuild on its shelf and a week or two later we would be on our way. Van Bortel sent a good man out. We made fine.

“A bad plan is better than no plan at all” my wife said. What is your plan when there are so many unknowns? We cannot know what we don’t know, yet life is a giant act of dealing with the unknown. When this baby arrives, I’m at best an early warning system for what lies ahead for her. Our job, as parents, is merely to soften their landing. Yet not too much. Lest their agency be stolen.

This time I got lucky. I got lucky marrying the right girl and hopefully having a healthy baby.

I could hope for all this but I also hope I have a plan. A better plan than flying 500’ over the towers of a National Monument, and below that, water. With a cracked engine.

This is the message of age. Get some altitude. Learn from others. Better to glide to the known rather than fall towards the unknown.

Flying under the Golden Gate from Peterson Conway on Vimeo.

Peterson Conway
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1 reply
  1. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Great story with a great conclusion. Yes, alway fly the airplane first! BTW, I lost an engine on my OV-10 Bonco over Cambodia with somewhat less than a 1,000 hours of flight experience in my logbook. Fortunately the engine on the right wing kept cranking. I landed at the Phonhm Pehn airport where a fellow FAC picked me up and flew me back to Thailand. I actually declared ‘Mayday’ (the only time in my 22 year AF career) and distinctly remember one of my fellow FACs flying overhead as I rolled out after landing — unbeknownst to me, he had followed me to that landing in case I had to eject short of the field.


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