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.