During my first winter in Hawaii, soon after I arrived in what was to become my permanent residence, I was flying a rented aircraft between the islands on my job as director for University of Hawaii Peace Corps training, when my USAF flight training surely saved my life.
When our Grumman-American Cheetah left the runway of Pearson Field, Vancouver, Washington, on that Saturday morning, my wife and I anticipated a pleasant, scenic flying weekend. It turned out to be that and much more. But we had no idea that this takeoff was the beginning of a trip that would mark a milestone in our lives.
The ATC frequencies are still pretty quiet. It’s easy to get direct routings and weather deviations most of the time. And FBO ramps are not often crowded. But corporate and charter flying are back. In fact, many charter, membership and fractional ownership aircraft operators are reporting record interest, mostly from first time private flyers.
The day I remember as yesterday was a warm spring day in Fresno and I decided to fly to enjoy the beautiful day and weather. I started my checkout and everything seemed OK, except when I checked the fuel I removed the cap and heard a hissing noise. The tank usually had a wire gauge that stuck up from the cap to show how much gas was in the tank, but I didn’t think anything was amiss.
I never stopped loving airplanes, never stopped loving the ever-changing nature of the sky or the process of planning and executing a flight, be it on the little Rotax-powered Pelican or on the 737. But I did get a little tired of layovers and lost birthdays and anniversaries away. I wanted more family time. Then came COVID-19.
As we have progressed through our aviation career we have events that occur that add to our experience and skill base. But even if we have played the “what-if game” some events can surprise us from unexpected quarters. Such was the case when we flew an inaugural flight across the Pacific through Guam and Manila with the destination Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport.
We were on about a half-mile final when the controller decided to add some information for us: “Be aware of Coast Guard aircraft doing routine engine maintenance adjacent your touchdown zone.” I didn’t have to look far to spot the gigantic C-130 in its Coast Guard markings.
I will admit up front, this is the most scared I’ve ever been in an airplane! We were flying a B-1B, non-stop from Andersen AFB, Guam, to Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota. We were heading home after a lengthy deployment; we were all looking forward to family reunions and that Big Hug! Just past the halfway point, we suddenly got hammered by an extremely pungent odor in the cockpit!
There have been various books written about bush pilots. We are great storytellers about our many escapades, but a lot of what has been published does not get to the crux of what makes a bush pilot. So here is my take.
Flying internationally has its challenges. In the West, there exist synergies between weather services and Air Traffic Control. This is something we take for granted. In other parts of the world, not so much. Below is a story of one such time where a latent threat could have caused an undesirable state.
Just then the controller came up: “Descend to 4,500, call the airport in sight, cleared visual approach Odessa-Schlemeyer. The airport is five miles at one o’clock. Cancel IFR this frequency or on the ground. Cleared local frequency.” OK, so where is that airport? Black. That was all I saw. Just black.
As we started down, day became night in thick clouds. My wingman, Mark, tucked in tight, fixed on my flashing wingtip strobe. Just then, inexplicably, the loud static began. Still in the clouds and unable to receive or transmit to ATC or my wingman, I got that I see bad trouble ahead feeling.
It was either the third or fourth day and night of almost continuous flying. Ray and I had taken turns flying while the other slept. This had been working until I recall waking up and realizing Ray was asleep in the left seat. We were flying straight and level and on course—the Beech 18 had no autopilot but was extremely stable in the air. On the ground it wanted to taxi all over the airport.
Flying Boeings and Bells was how I crossed paths with Charles Lindbergh, Mustapha Chafik, the Shah of Iran’s nephew, Mohamed Ali, Leonard Bernstein and Richard Nixon. Geopolitics and the ups and downs of the airline business played a hand as well.
Upon hearing of the recent passing of Galen Hanselman, my thoughts immediately turned to the awe-inspiring flying trip I took in the Utah backcountry exactly one year ago. The current prohibitive travel restrictions make it an even more valuable experience today. The memories stirred by looking at the video and the pictures puts a smile on my face every time.
All went well, I reported final on 07, and was getting ready to perform a smooth touch down right past the threshold. Then, about one minute before touch down, I heard somebody saying something like, “LZPT taking off runway 25.” I was not sure I heard right. I mean, I just reported my final about a minute ago. Surely anybody on the frequency, let alone a pilot sitting in his aircraft about to take off, must have heard me?
We banked north and both of us saw what had been developing while we were engrossed in our pattern work. There was a beast sitting on top of Paris Mountain and it seemed intent on eating airplanes. KGMU was in front of us at around one thousand feet of elevation. Paris Mountain was only four nautical miles north, extending another thousand feet above that. The beast stood a few thousand feet over Paris—close and imposing.
Miles ahead, the familiar view of the Sacramento Delta with its intricate sloughs, channels, and levees, had been replaced by an enormous inland sea. There was no mistaking it. How could I not know about this! I queried ATC with a mixture of bafflement and curiosity.
I planned to have Piper 4308M from 0900 to 1300 for my long solo cross country. As I pulled into the parking lot, my instructor’s pickup was already there. I had spoken to him about arriving early to pre-flight the Piper. I had been obsessing about the weather leading up to this flight and repeatedly looked at each airport along my route. I was worried about high winds in the days prior to my flight.
I grabbed a chance to take a ride on the Experimental Aircraft Association’s restored B-17, Aluminum Overcast. I had grown up with stories of those airplanes and the men who flew in them. I had to take the chance to ride in one. And so it was that one beautiful spring day, I clambered aboard and took a seat in the back of that big machine.