Lost Lambs–Chapter 6

We lifted off smoothly, but once airborne, our climb rate was sluggish. Maybe the big antenna created more drag than I expected. Maybe it was the extra altitude—2,086 feet higher than our testruns back at home base. Maybe it was the heat, our fog delay let the day warm up, robbing us of performance. Or maybe it was just one of those things. But ten miles from the airport, we were still below the pattern altitude.

I wasn’t much liking this.

I modified our course to stay well clear of the cars and tucks moving along Interstate 25. I didn’t check the iPad, but I was pretty sure I didn’t have my 500 feet above any “person, vessel, vehicle, or structure” yet.

Tessie’s climb rate was worse than anemic, but the terrain was flat and we were ever so slowly crawling our way upward. We were lowish, but safe, so I decided to stay the course.

Our search for the turtles would be largely over uninhabited wild lands, where there’s no specific legal minimum altitude. You just need to be able to land safely if the shit hits the fan. With the flat land spreading out around me, 400 feet was as safe as 500 feet. It would be OK.

But I would have been happier if I had more zip.

We had tested the tangle of wires and adaptors that Adrian had picked up at Radio Shack on the ground and thought we’d be able to talk to—and hear—each other while Adrian could still hear the turtle transmitters, but it didn’t work out that way. Once airborne, I could hear Adrian, but he couldn’t hear me. So he talked and I made wild hand gestures back at him.

I planned to enter our search area a ways off to the southeast to give him time to set up. That didn’t work out as planed either, but in a good way this time. As soon as my wings leveled Adrian said, “Whoa! I got her! I got Leigh! The little turtle! No… Wait… I’ve lost her again.”

I banked right, entering into a 360-degree turn to take us back over the target. Adrian whipped out his pocket GPS and started stabbing buttons. We were five minutes into our search and we had already accomplished 50% of our mission. Plus, it was the 50% I was pessimistic about accomplishing, given the weak signal from the smaller transmitter.

Leigh had migrated downstream, much more than anyone had expected, or seen before, and had moved well beyond the spot Adrian would have abandoned searching for her. The beauty of the air: We can search a hundred times faster, and farther, than on the ground. Score one for the SAF—the Science Air Force.

We came around a third time for a final fix, then turned and flew upstream in search of Roberta. Ten minutes later we had her, too. After weeks of working out details, we’d found the two turtles in no time at all. Not that our careful preparation went to waste; mission success correlates to mission planning. But somehow, after all that build up, the success was—oddly—a letdown. I mean it was a wild success. We found both the missing critters. I should have been jubilant. But I felt, well, nothing. Not even a sense of pride or accomplishment. I have no idea why.

Adrian texted his mom on the ground, but apparently only one word: Success, leaving her chomping at the bit wondering whether we’d only found one or both turtles. “Kids!” she huffed about it later.

We pulled the big antenna into the cockpit, Adrian folding the six arms flat, one at a time, like origami as he retrieved it, and at once Tessie responded, shooting up 800 feet before I pushed her nose over to hold the altitude. “Can we get some pictures?” asked Adrian, holding up his camera.

Sure thing, I said, forgetting for a moment that he still couldn’t hear me. I gave him a quick thumbs up and turned back downstream. Adrian blazed away with his camera as we overflew the new-found locations of his two missing study subjects.

Then we turned back for KLVS, now high enough to fly leisurely over I-25 to lead us back to the landing field. We circled once to get my bearings (they had recently repaved both runways and the runway numbers are yet to be repainted). Then smoothly touched down and taxied to the fuel pumps where 100 low-lead awaited Tessie and Starbucks awaited Adrian and me.

I pulled the throttle back to idle, pulled the mixture out to full lean, and shut off the magnetos. The engine went silent and the prop stopped spinning and it was done.

And I figured that would be the end of the story. But not quite. A few weeks later Lisa showed up at the house with box and a twinkle in her eye. Inside was a special gift from Adrian, a thank you for helping him find his missing Chelydra serpentine.



Fly Write

I, a 51-year-old aviator, and a veteran of more than three decades of wielding a pen professionally, have no excuse for not having not read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry earlier. He’s the quintessential aviation writer, renowned for his lyrical descriptions of the world a-wing. But somehow, I never made time to read him.

Then last month I was gifted a first-edition French copy of Pilote de Guerre, but despite my last name, I know only a word or two of the tongue of my ancestors. Still, the un-readable gift was a reminder of a duty undone, and it galvanized me to go to Amazon, where I scored a first edition, third printing hardcover of the English translation, entitled Flight to Arras (the same book with a very different title—the French translates to Pilot of War), for $14.95, and I’m reading it now.

St. Ex is famous in both literary and winged circles for his command of language and his ability to paint vivid pictures with words that speak to the souls of flyers and non-flyers alike. My French-reading mother assures me his command of French is unrivalled by any other author, and that every page sings.

Sometimes St. Ex waxes overly philosophical for my taste, but his prose does not disappoint. On page 79 I found the most marvelous description of a contrail I have ever read, and I just have to share it with you:

The German on the ground knows us by the pearly white scarf which every plane flying at high altitude trails behind like a bridal veil. The disturbance created by our meteoric flight crystallizes the water vapor in the atmosphere. We unwind behind us a cirrus of icicles. If the atmospheric conditions are favorable to the formation of clouds, our wake will thicken bit by bit and become an evening cloud over the countryside.

…like a bridal veil… meteoric flight… a cirrus of icicles… cloud over the countryside… Wow! Poetry and science. Science and poetry.

That man could sure write!

Lost Lambs–Chapter 5

The weather was forecast to be beautiful but we’d been lied to. I looked sourly at my watch. It was now 8:15 a.m., fully two hours after our scheduled lift off time at Civil Twilight. Then I gazed out at the grey mass of fog, searching vainly for the sun. We were totally socked in.

What the hell time was sunrise? I ask Lisa, looking at my Citizen E6B watch yet again, as if it could magically supply an answer to the question. Again I scan the grey horizon. There’s not so much as a bright spot to suggest where the sun even ought to be.

This was not going according to plan.

We had pre-flighted the Plane Tales Plane by headlight and flashlight. Checked the fuel and oil levels, inspected the control surfaces, air intakes, propeller, tires and tail.


Then we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

To while away the time we chatted, looked at our watches, looked at the same grey sky and listened again and again and again to the AWOS, the field’s Automated Weather Observing System, on our handheld aviation radio. It played the same old song: 200 foot ceiling, mist, temperature 12° Celsius, dew point 12° Celsius. I wonder whose voice that is on the recording?

Then we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Finally, like a distant sandstorm, a band of light appeared on the horizon to the southwest. The wind picked up. A flock of Grackles took wing, just to tease me.

Grackles have no flight minimums.

Then patches of blue above. First bold and clear, then smeared white and grey with fast-moving mist, then clear again. The weather was breaking. Let’s go, I told my non-pilot navigator.

We pulled Tessie out of her hangar and into the brightening morning, unhooked her tow bar, and rolled the giant rumbling hangar doors closed behind her tail. A shaft of sunlight lit the windsock.

If that’s not a good omen, I don’t know what is.

I mounted Tess’s left wing, Lisa the right, and we slid into the cockpit, pulling the Plexiglas doors up over our heads behind us. Lap belt. Shoulder belt. Headset.

The last of the grey mists dissolved around us like ghosts fleeing the sunrise on All Soul’s Dawn, and we were bathed in glorious sunlight. Master on. Mixture full rich. Carb heat off. Mags to both. I give the old Continental 85-12 motor two shots of prime, crack the throttle, and pull the starter. The prop swings once, twice… Then the engine roars to life. The plane lunges forward, nose down, tail up—a hunting dog on a leash that’s caught the scent of prey.

The oil pressure gauge snaps to life, solidly in the green. Power throbs through the fuselage. I flip on our beacon switch, the radio switch, and the 12 volt power switch that feeds our GPS. Each switch is a lovely, heavy, thick, time-worn toggle shaped like a miniature baseball bat.

I release the brake and nudge the throttle forward. Tess rolls across the gravel toward the runway, as eager to fly as I am.

Short of the runway threshold we stop for our run-up, a final safety check before we lift off. I set our transponder to altitude encoding, advance the throttle to 1500 RPM, check the mags and the carb heat, then advance the throttle still farther to 2000 RPM. The little plane shakes and bucks, straining against the brakes. I gently pull the mixture knob towards me, seeking the perfect balance of air and fuel to maximize the power of every one of her 85 horses. At some point, the RPM drops, I advance the mixture a hair again and the power rebounds.

Got it!

Time to fly.

Above and to the west, clear sky. East, a wall of white and grey, moving off. Weird. Two different worlds side by side. I make my radio call, release the brakes, and roll onto the runway. We line up with the centerline and I smoothly advance the throttle. Tess rolls forward, gaining speed every second, and we are off on our adventure.

A little past the first taxiway I ease back on the yoke and Tess rises into the air, a magic carpet, a thousand pounds of aluminum, plastic, rubber, steel, and fuel flying as effortlessly as the Grackles; a creature of the sky.

I watch her shadow drop away from us as we rise into the brilliant sunlight and bank around to our right. A mile away to the east the clouds and fog, a 400-foot thick blanket, extend as far as the eye can see. North and west, the mesa tops of our destination bask in the sun. I roll onto our course line for KLVS where we’ll switch copilots, dropping off Lisa to make a much-needed Starbucks run, and picking up Adrian and his radio gear for the short hop to the search area.

Adrian’s lost turtles are out there somewhere. Will we find them today?

When the Tale Continues: The search.