Black. Pitch black. The absolute absence of light. I’m trapped. And alone. But I’m alive and unhurt. And, finally, I can barely make out distant human voices filtering through the metal walls. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but after an eternity of silence there’s comfort in knowing that I’ve been found.
That a rescue is underway.
It’s hot. I breathe slowly. Keep my mind in a calm space. Not too much longer and I’ll get out of here…
The day started splendidly. After two weeks of killer stress, Tess was finally ready to fly again. The final diagnosis: Little flecks of rust from the copilot wing tank made their way through the various fuel filters and lodged in the carburetor float needle seat. This kept the needle from fully shutting off the flow of fuel when the bowl was full. That, in turn, caused the carb to overflow. The leaking fuel worked its way into the air intake, which is below the carb. The pool of fuel in the air intake pre-enriched the inbound air to the carb—so much so, that it caused the engine to stall right after starting.
The mechanic at Clovis, where Rio and I had been stranded weeks before by a plane that would start but not run even 10 seconds, had drained all the fuel, cleaned out the tanks, and put a smaller filter on the carb to catch any remaining particles. At our annual this year the offending tank will be removed and sent out for overhaul.
Sliding back into the cockpit again was soothing in the way a welcome easy chair might be at the end of a hard workday. I happily flipped familiar switches, prepped the plane for startup, and strapped myself in. She fired right up, sounding strong and steady.
I taxied down the long Taxiway Bravo, hung a right and glided past the terminal. The wind was from the north so I need to take off on Runway 4.
After runup and setting the mixture, I made my radio call and pulled onto the runway. Left hand on the yoke, right hand on the throttle I powered up and the damn plane jumped off the runway. It was so fast, such a short takeoff run, such a brisk climb that for a second I thought I must have been snatched off the ground by a tornado.
And as Tess and I rose into the cloudy afternoon sky, all my stress–my depression about the missed race costing me any chance of a Gold Champion trophy was left behind on the ground. Sure, victory is nice. But it’s really all about the flying. And after weeks of being grounded, I felt like I was back in my element. With each foot of altitude, my joy soared.
At the end of the runway I turned sharply to the left, toward the maintenance shop where I knew Rio stood at the window watching the takeoff. Perpendicular to the shop, I turned tail, wagged my wings, and was on my way.
It was the most beautiful flight that had no right to be. It was hazy, a hair bumpy, and I plowed through so many bugs that the view out the front was nearly obscured. But I was loving every minute of it.
Tess was performing like a thoughbred. Normally we have two power settings: Full forward to stay in the air, and reduce the throttle any amount you want to fall out of the air. Now I was backing off to avoid red-lining the engine. At 75% power, at 6,500 feet, the tach was barely short of the redline and I was plowing through the air with an indicated airspeed of 105 mph! Tess had never acting like this since she joined the family. I’m sure I had an idiot smile plastered on my face for hours.
Until the fuel gauge started to drop faster than ever before.
Do I carry on or land early for fuel? Now to the casual reader, that probably sounds like a stupid question, but my fuel “gauge” is a compass-like float on only one of my two interconnected tanks, and it’s notoriously unreliable. My best fuel gage is actually the timer on the radio. I put enough gas in the wings for three hours, and there’s enough for yet another hour in the header tank. But had the repairs changed our fuel consumption?
Passing Elk City, the gauge showed zero in the wings, but the fully reliable float gauge on the nose hadn’t dropped a bit.
The Garmin said I had 29 minutes to go to get to my destination. Even if I was running on the nose tank now, I should have a good 30 minutes or more of spare fuel. Butterflies gnawed at my stomach for a minute as the Elk City airstrip slid beneath my wings. I weighed all the facts and committed to fly on.
24 min to go. Still the fuel gauge on the nose showed a full header tank.
19 min to go. Still the fuel gauge on the nose showed a full header tank.
14 min to go. Still the fuel gauge on the nose showed a full header tank.
The butterflies settled down.
9 minutes to go. Still the fuel gauge on the nose showed a full header tank.
I could see the hangars, the narrow strip of concrete running north-south. Still the fuel gauge on the nose showed a full header tank. I was nearly to my destination…
Thumping. Then a grinding of metal. A faint glimmer of light strokes my retina, reflects off my crumpled flight jacket. “Down here,” I finally hear a voice. Clear. Strong. Then, “Hang on, sir. We’ll have you out in a minute.” A screech of metal on metal and a blinding flash of light stabs into my prison. Cool air rushes in. I blink. Squint. Look up to see three pairs of feet above me. Two wear the heavy yellow boots of fully decked-out-for-battle firefighters. The other set belongs to a woman. Polyester blue pants. Barefoot.
A burly firefighter reaches his arm down, I grasp it, and he lifts me bodily up and out of the stranded elevator. Yep. After a perfectly safe flight and uneventful landing, I spent the better part of my night trapped in the frickin’ elevator at the Hampton Inn. Apparently a brush fire knocked out the power to the whole city moments after I stepped into the elevator to go to dinner. The hotel had a generator, but only for the hallway and stairwell lights. There was no emergency light in the elevator, and I remained in tomb-like darkness with a low cell phone battery and barely any signal. I was able to call Deb back in New Mexico, and she tried to call the front desk, but all the landlines were down as well.
Finally a young boy heard my banging on the door and alerted the front desk clerk, who called the manager at home, who flew across town (barefoot) in her car to a sister hotel to get the only elevator-opening key the two properties share, and met the firefighters (fresh from putting out the grass fire that caused the whole debacle) who eventually freed me.
I’m all for fresh experiences, but I really can’t recommend being stuck in an elevator.
Still, it sure beats the hell out of a plane crash.
Which is what you thought your were reading about, wasn’t it?