Lisa’s first emergency (and my first heart attack)

OK, it wasn’t really an emergency. And I didn’t really have a heart attack. But we both had a heart-stopping moment, that’s for sure. Here’s the Tale…

As regular readers know, the official Plane Tales airplane has been down for maintenance for a loooooong time. For so long, in fact, that new readers can’t be blamed for wondering if I fly at all. They probably think that I’m just one of those pretenders who puts on an aviator shirt each morning before he hits the tequila. That’s actually true, but I’m also keeping my skills from atrophying, thanks to the kindness of my plane pal Lisa, who lets me fly her Warbler once a week after her solo practice session. Lately, I’ve been working on improving my Lazy-8s.

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This week, to save MoGas, we drove to the airport together before dawn. I helped her preflight her plane as the sun rose, then off she went. While Lisa taxied out, I busybodied around the hangar. I changed a light bulb, restocked the fridge with water and the humidor with fresh cigars, and I killed four scorpions. Like hangars everywhere, we have spiders, but being a desert ecosystem, we also have their more primitive cousins. Personally, I have nothing against scorpions, but I’m unwilling to share my sacred aviation space with them.

Warbler’s engine warmed up and the runup done, Lisa made her radio call and pulled out onto the runway. I stepped out of the hangar to watch her takeoff. I heard Warbler’s engine smoothly increase in volume and watched him steadily accelerate down Runway 19. Lisa rotated, leveled off into ground effect for a short time, and then started to climb. About mid-field, his engine suddenly went silent.

So too, did the rest of the world.

No dogs barked. No cars honked. No crickets chirped. Time stood still.

But gravity didn’t.

In dead silence Warbler drifted back down out of the sky and disappeared behind the trees.

Still, silence reigned.

That’s when I had the heart attack. Then, that out of the way, I dashed for the handheld. Did Lisa have enough runway? Or was she down in the Juniper trees off the end of the threshold? Or worse yet, in broken, scattered pieces in the canyon just beyond? Trying not to sound panicky, I made a radio call. “Niner-four-one-one-six, Santa Rosa Unicom.”

Silence.

“Niner-four-one-one-six, Santa Rosa Unicom, do you read?”

More silence. Whereupon, the handheld, which hadn’t been in its charger, let out a burst of static and died.

Seriously? I bolted for my car, tore out of the hangar side of the airport, shot up Airport Road, blew through the stop sign at U.S. 84, barreled down the highway to the official entrance to SXU, and set a new land speed record getting to the gate at the Terminal. As I frantically punched my ATM code into the gate control, I saw Warbler taxi leisurely by.

Relief flooded over me. Relief, followed by a brief flare of anger. Obviously, his engine was fine. What the hell? If she was going to practice an aborted takeoff—and who does that?—she should have announced it on the radio!

Rules be dammed, once through the gate, I turned on my emergency blinkers and pursued her up the taxiway. She didn’t return to the runup area. Instead, she crossed 19 on Charlie and headed back for the hangars.

OK. So something was wrong. But what could it be? I hung on her six and we crossed the airport as if she were towing me with an invisible rope. Back at the hangar she shut down and I jumped out of the car.

“What happened??” I demanded, climbing up on the wing.

“Didn’t you hear my call?” she asked, perplexed. She had heard the call I made right before my handheld died, and responded. Who knows why I didn’t hear it. She was on the far side of the airport, that’s nearly two miles away, and there’s no straight line of site. Maybe it’s too much to ask of a handheld.

“I lost my airspeed indictor,” she said, pointing at the instrument panel. Apparently, the takeoff had started normally, but as she made her post-lift off scan she was shocked to see her airspeed indicator giving her the middle finger. It read zero. She had no clue how fast or slow she was flying.

Lisa said she remembered the time it happened to me, and decided in a flash that her best option was to get down fast. She chopped the power and put Warbie back on the runway. “It wasn’t the best landing I ever made,” she said, sheepishly.

I disagree.

I think it was the best landing ever.

 

Supergirl and the aviation hex

From his hospital bed, Lisa’s latest instructor assured her that she wasn’t hexed. Although, given her turbulent ride toward a pilot’s license, no one could blame her for beginning to wonder…

Yes, Lisa’s new instructor, who had proclaimed that she could “probably pass” her checkride, but wanted to strengthen her skill in a few key areas before he signed her off, had what we were told was a minor motorcycle accident. A minor motorcycle accident that shattered his collar bone, punctured his lung, and left him grounded until sometime in October.

That’s a long time, but it’s probably moot anyway, given that it’s now high summer, and the density altitude in Santa Fe often approaches Warbler’s service ceiling. But seriously, getting a pilot’s license shouldn’t be this hard. Not that Lisa’s hexed, or anything.

Still, Lisa soldiers on, spending her weekends sleeping in her hangar at SXU and flying in the cool early morning hours, practicing for her checkride. At least that’s what she’s doing until her solo endorsement runs out at the end of this month. Then she’ll be required to fly with yet another flight instructor—who will have to get familiar her plane before he or she learns that Lisa can fly just fine, thank you—to get an extension on her student solo privileges. That’s a frickin’ hassle, but hardly a hex. It’s just the FAA.

Last weekend, I was in the neighborhood of the airport in the early morning, so I decided to drop in for a cup of coffee with my plane friend. It took me a while to get into the airport. The security gate which has been broken and left wide open for three quarters of a year, is now fixed and I couldn’t remember the stupid gate code. I kept punching in the code from my ATM card and wondering why I was getting neither money nor access. I don’t actually believe in hexes, but this long-plagued gate could well be the exception to the rule.

Car window open, and cursing myself for having such a poor memory for numbers, I heard a familiar aircraft engine: A soft baritone with distinctive high notes. Warbler!I looked to the runway just in time to see Lisa’s Armycoupe lifting off and climbing high into the sky, chrome propeller flashing in the early morning sun. I stuck my head out of the window for a better view as the little plane flew by: Brown-green body, bright yellow wings, dark grey glass over the cockpit, the large red Fifanella midway down the fuselage, and another flash of yellow on his tail feathers. I smiled. Lisa’s Warbie is a hell of a nice-looking bird.

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After looking up the gate code to my own airport on the internet using my phone, which is apparently smarter than I am, I get through the high security chain-link fence and park in front of my hangar. As I pull the massive doors open, they let out a heaving groan, like a sleepy giant reluctant to get out of bed. A breath of trapped of warm air escapes and I step inside to survey my domain: Part art gallery, part museum. Framed art and memorabilia cover nearly every inch of the walls. My air race trophies are on one side, a post-flight bar on the other. Flags hang from the towering ceiling, gently swaying to and fro. I walk across the mirror-like concreate pad, then my feet crunch across the gravel as I make my way to the back of the hangar to take a seat at the workbench. There’s no airplane in my airplane hangar, and as I look around I find the empty space a huge, lonely void. Usually, I love being here, but today a melancholy mood settles over me. In the last year, I can count on my fingers the number of days that Tess has been in her nest. Not that she’s hexed, or anything. Well… maybe…

I look at my watch. Damn. It’s too early to break out the Aviation Gin for a gin and tonic.

Lisa’s voice crackles on the radio, “Santa Rosa route sixty-six traffic, Erco niner four one-one six, left downwind, runway eight, touch and go, Santa Rosa.” I get a cigar from the humidor, tuck a folding camp chair under my arm, and trudge around the hangar to Lisa’s runway-view side of the building to watch the show. I set up in a narrow ribbon of shade outside her doors and settle in. Here comes Warbler. Down, down, down. Nearly silent, his engine close to idle for the descent. Then, as his wheels reach out for the runway, his engine comes to life, and he skims along above the pavement. Lisa is getting the feel of ground effect. Lisa and Warbler flash by and I light my cigar. Atta-girl, Lisa!

After she lifts off and turns left into the traffic pattern, I lose sight of her. She’s eclipsed by the hangar, but I can still hear Warbler’s soft growl above and behind me. I can picture where Lisa is in the pattern. She’s midfield. Now turning base. Now final. Here comes Warbler again. Down, down, down once more. Nearly silent again, his engine close to idle for the descent. This time his wheels chip as Lisa touches down. Then up comes the throttle as she starts her touch-and-go. His nose comes up, then he climbs slowly, at a crazy-steep angle. Ah. She’s practicing the technique for a short-field takeoff with an obstacle near the end of the runway.

I take another puff on my cigar, and as Lisa and Warbler fly past, a feeling of pride washes over me. Watching her alone in the air, in perfect command of her airplane, I’m like a proud papa of a newborn baby—although one with nobody to pass cigars out to. Not that I can really take credit for teaching Lisa to fly. Sure, I introduced her to flying. Showed her the basics. Perhaps served as a mentor, or at least a sounding board throughout her long journey. But it was others who honed her skills. Rick and Steve, who taught her to read and ride the winds in a sailplane. Greg, who while he basically robbed her, and didn’t teach her much, at least exposed her to grass and tailwheels. Larry, who patiently guided her out of despair to the brink of her license, but then Flew West right before the job was done. And finally, the wonderful motorcycle maniac, a perfectionist with much to teach.

As the pale blue cigar smoke wafts around my head, and the dull drone of Warbler’s engine fades into the distance, I consider Lisa’s long path to her license. She’s sure has had more than her share of bad luck and expense on this project. On top of multiple instructors, she’s had an unusual number of bad weather days in a state known for its good weather; her Ninety-Nine’s scholarship papers mysteriously disappeared; Warbler had a number of truly bizarre breakdowns; and now—with all these delays—her written exam is about to expire.

OK, so maybe there is a hex. A small one, at any rate.

But through it all, Lisa soldiers on. As she always has. She’s the first in her family to go to college, and she took it all the way to a master’s degree. She’s a cancer survivor. A black belt. Warbler makes another pass. I can almost feel the mix of joy and concentration emanating from the cockpit as Lisa and Warbler rise back up off the asphalt.

Really and truly, I realize, it’s not me nor anyone else who’s taught Lisa to fly. She’s taught herself how to fly, the same way she’s done everything in her life. By hard work. By study. By practice. By perseverance. And, to be frank, also with a good dose of mule-headed stubbornness. Yeah, it’s been a long journey, but Lisa is made of steel.

Yeah, she’ll get that license.

Up against this girl, that poor hex doesn’t stand a chance.

 

That’s baloney!

The flight plan called for us to proceed up Airport Road, turn north to a heading of 350 degrees, pass between the truck stops, go over the hill, under the interstate, and park at the dollar store.

Yeah. It was time to replenish the airport snack baskets.

Regular readers may recall that my plane pal Lisa adopted the SXU terminal back in the winter of ‘17. It used to be one of those ratty, Third World kinda terminals that we cross country fliers are all too familiar with. In fact, it was that very familiarity that inspired Lisa’s adoption. After seeing the worst—and the best—that small local airport terminals had to offer during our SARL travels, she took things into her own determined hands and gave our little terminal a serious makeover. Now visiting pilots often tell me what a nice little FBO we have.

No small compliment.

Some of what she did was simply cleaning. Some of what she did was organizing. Some was hanging art on the walls, and hanging shear curtains to frame the windows. Missing light switch covers were replaced with new ones that look like cockpit instruments to create the appropriate aviation atmosphere.

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But a lot of the transformation came down to amenities. The fridge is now always stocked with bottles of water and a variety of soda—both regular and diet, some with caffeine and some without. There’s now a microwave, and one of those Keurig coffee pots you find in high end hotels—the ones with the instructional hieroglyphics on the side that make one cup of coffee at a time.

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Image: Amazon

In the bathroom, a shiny, round metal tray holds a glass bottle of mouthwash with one of those little metal pouring spouts, and a stack of Dixie cups. And then there are the snacks. Lisa found two large baskets and filled them with all manner of “snackage.” Chips. Cookies. Candies. Crackers.

I never realized until just now that most snacks start with the letter “C.”

She also got Cup-a-Soup (there we go again) to sustain those weathered in for a few hours. Now most of you know Lisa as an amazing aviation photographer, but that’s actually a very small sideline for her. Her day job is that of a part-time Adjunct Professor for a community college. That means slave wages and no benefits. So while she didn’t mind some sweat equity, and even absorbed the startup costs of the project, she could ill-afford to be the airport’s benefactor. Accordingly, she set out some donation jars.

At first things went well. Passing pilots donated generously, and when the snacks ran low, shee had the funds to replace them. Then, over the last six months, things started to change. Donations dropped off. Coins became more common and bills rarer. Then, donations nearly dried up. To make up the short fall, she passed the hat among the local pilots.

Which, of course, is just the two of us.

That wasn’t sustainable. We discussed the problem. Are we suddenly getting a rash of cheap pilots? Or did the visitors think, as they were buying gas, they were entitled to some free snackage—not realizing that the airport had nothing to do with the amenities? Or was it that most people don’t carry cash anymore? Or… worst of all… could someone be stealing money from the jars?

I didn’t want to think that.

One day, not long ago, we came to the airport to find the food cleaned out and exactly 12¢ in the jar. Lisa blew a gasket. Well, three or four gaskets, actually. Reluctantly, I went online and found a secure donation box, which Lisa—literally—bolted to a table so it couldn’t be stolen. Well, at least not easily stolen.

In the first two weeks the new box collected $54. All bills. No coins. Yeah. I guess we were being robbed. By whom? Who knows? Maybe by some ex-city worker with a grudge and the gate code. Maybe by one of the trash truck guys. Maybe by outlaw drug-smuggling pilots who are down on their luck.

But, that mystery never to be solved, we now had the funds to do a serious restocking of the snackage. Hence the flight plan to the dollar store.

And it was at the dollar store that a can of bologna caught my eye. Yes. A can. I’d never heard of canned bologna. I mean, bologna is typically in the cooler section with sandwich meat, hot dogs, and those fake cheese slices that are individually wrapped in plastic, right?

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But of course, sandwich spreads come canned. Anyone over the age of 45 will remember Underwood Deviled Ham, which the dollar store still sells for fifty cents a can.

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And Vienna sausages come in cans, I realized. As does tuna. And White meat chicken. Hams are sold in cans. And, of course, there’s Spam in a can.

So why not bologna?

Heck, what did I have to lose but a dollar? Plus, although I was stuck on the ground, the can was offering me a way to continue to visit distant new horizons, and experience new adventures. If only in a very small way. I snatched up the can.

Lisa thought I was mildly crazy, but she knows I get a little bonkers when I can’t fly (and for the last two years I’ve been getting increasingly loco as long periods of maintenance-induced groundings take their toll).

When I got home with my new treasure, Grandma Jean, the original adventurer, was enthusiastic. Rio, cautiously so. My wife, on the other hand, was having nothing to do with bologna in a can. She called Texas to check on the progress of the plane’s repairs.

After searching for about half an hour for our rarely used can opener, I clamped the plier-like tool on the edge of the can and twisted the handle, recalling that at one time canned goods were such a part of our culture that most households had electric can openers. The top off, I turned the can over and gave it a shake. Thump!went the solid mass of meat as it fell out of the can and onto my cutting board. It was bologna-colored, but only smelled vaguely of bologna.

I set the disk of meat product on end. Like jellied cranberry at Thanksgiving, the lump of bologna had the ridges of the can’s lid embossed in its surface. Taking a knife, I cut the disk into four thick slices. It cut easily. Smoothly. More like butter than like meat. Of course, I’ve never sliced bologna before. It generally comes pre-sliced. All you have to do is pull the red paper off before you put it into a sandwich.

How’d it taste? Not quite like traditional bologna. The flavor was milder, but pleasant enough, with—as they say in wine tasting—notes of Vienna sausage. And the consistency was different, too. It was softer than traditional bologna, but not as soft as Vienna sausages. All of that said, I enjoyed it. It has a boxed mac & cheese comfort vibe to it.

Grandma J liked it, but Rio, usually a fan of all food not jicama, was uncertain. He didn’t hate it, but didn’t give it his seal of approval either.

That said, he ate his entire share.

Lisa was in the same cockpit as Rio in her evaluation. And in her lack of left overs. Maybe she would’ve liked it better with a can of wine. And yes, they sell wine in cans now, and they’re not bad either.

No baloney.

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