Wolf Creek Pass (way up on the great divide) behind me, I dropped the Robin’s egg blue Piper Warrior down into the loving arms of the San Luis Valley. The air was smooth, the hard part of the trip was behind me. I trimmed the plane for level hands-off flight, sat back, and pulled a Camel Hard Pack and a Zippo from the sleeve pocket of my flight jacket. I tapped a cancer stick free of the box, lit up, then snapped the lighter shut one-handed, enjoying the satisfying snap-clunksound of the Zippo as I exhaled a stream of blue-grey smoke towards the cabin roof.
Ain’t life grand? What a view. I inhaled deeply, the tip of the cigarette glowing bright orange for a moment, and scanned my instruments. What a lovely panel, midnight black with a bank of avionics that exceeded my net worth five times over. Enough dials, switches, and needles to make me feel like I was a full-grown adult flying a corporate jet, not a teenage boy in a four-seat put-put.
The next order of business was lunch. I tore open a bag of Fritos and positioned them on my lap. I was reaching for the can of Pepsi when Bam!
My seat belt dug into my gut. My head hit the ceiling. And a cloud of yellow Frito chips levitated out of the bag, dancing, suspended in air around my face like a swarm of giant mosquitos, turning and twisting as if in the zero gravity of space.
Then everything was deathly still. The plane calm. Fritos rained noiselessly down from the ceiling, bouncing off the throttle quad, the glare screen, and the empty copilot’s seat. Holy shit. I looked left. The left wing was still on. I looked right. The right wing was still on. Hand shaking, I gently took the yoke. Gentle bank left. Gentle bank right. Nose up. Nose down. Everything is working as it should. What the hell…?
Then I realized: I’d just had my first encounter with clear air turbulence, what pilots call a pot hole in the sky. It was just an angry patch of air in an otherwise friendly atmosphere. I’ve learned since, by experience, that these isolated butt-kickers pack a bigger wallop than the turbulence you get when the whole sky is in chaos, but I’m not sure why. It’s just one of those things.
I scooped the Fritos from the copilot’s seat into my mouth, and thought better of opening the can of Pepsi, just in case another pot hole was lurking ahead in the deep blue sky.
When I landed at KGXY, after slipping over the last bastion of the Rockies at La Veta Pass and flying IFR up Interstate 25, I parked at the furthest tiedown spot from the Imperial Aviation building so I could surreptitiously clean up the mess. Everybody smoked in their planes in those days. But Fritos? That was a no-no.
I thought I did a pretty good job, but about three days later one of the instructors stopped me on the ramp, “Hey, Wil, the weirdest thing happened the other day. I dropped one of the checklists on the floor when I was pre-flighting Eight Two Charlie and there was a ton of Fritolay chips under the pilot’s seat. You know anything about that?”
“Nope,” I lied with a straight face, “if I was going to have Fritos in the plane, I’d eat them, not pour them out on the carpet under the seat. But I do smoke in the plane all the time.”
“Yeah, yeah, well, we all do that,” said the instructor, snapping his Zippo shut one handed and blowing a stream of blue-grey smoke towards the flight line. His eyes narrowed as he studied the distant horizon, “Huh, I wonder where the heck those chips came from?”