Operation: Promise

I was using part of my lunch hour to check the weekend weather when one of my colleagues dropped by to give me her condolences on Mick’s passing. Her keen sky-blue eyes caught sight of the weather maps on the company computer and she asked what I was up to. I launched into a perhaps inappropriately enthusiastic description of my plans to take Mick for a ride. We got a second chance, thanks to the crappy weather, I told her, the snow was so bad her internment was delayed. Looks like we can take her for her last flight after all.

A horrified shadow crossed my colleague’s face, but she maintained her composure. As I could see her carefully choosing her next words, I was internally analyzing the potential weirdness of my plan. Finally my colleague said, “Aren’t there… ummm… you know… laws or something that you need to be careful about?”

Oh, I told her, We’re not scattering her ashes, we’re just taking the urn for a ride before it’s buried.

My colleague literally collapsed against the door frame of my office, “Cremated! Cremated!! Oh thank God! I didn’t realize she was cremated! I was picturing you strapping her corpse into the plane!!”

OK. Now that would be just… wrong.

Sunday dawned clear and bright with not a breath of wind. I gently lifted Mick’s heavy urn into the Plane Tales Plane and placed the bouquet of flowers that Deb had made from the wreaths and sprays that decorated the altar at her mother’s service on the seat next to the urn.

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Then I preflighted Tess. I checked the oil and added a half-quart. I made sure no mice or birds had made nests in the engine, drained a few ounces of blue av-gas out of each fuel tank’s sump drain to ensure that no water had gotten into the system, then did a walk-around—gently caressing the leading edges of her wings, prop, and tail, and checking the hinges of all the control surfaces. Then I pulled the hangar doors wide open and pulled Tessie out into the sunshine. It was a great day to fly.

As we taxied out, Deb stroked the urn, “Time to fly, Mom.”

Just shy of the runway, we stashed Mick safely in the luggage compartment behind our seats, did our run up, set our radios, and tried to synchronize our GPS to our iPad. With no luck.

“Now what?” asked Deb.

We do this old-school, I replied, we fly by landmark. Then I made my radio call, pushed the throttle forward, and rolled out onto Runway 01.

I lined up smartly on the center line and advanced the throttle smoothly to the firewall. Tess began her takeoff roll, and then suddenly everything went deafeningly silent. The engine stopped. The propeller lazily spooled down and stopped turning. The plane slowly coasted to a stop about fifty feet down the runway.

What the…?

We sat there in the middle of the runway in the bright beautiful sunshine in dead silence, stunned, while my mind tried to process what had just happened. I had a momentary vision of Tony dragging Mick across the tarmac to their car. I shook my head to clear the thought, shut everything down, then turned everything back on and pulled the starter. The engine obediently roared to life.

I made a U-turn and taxied back to the runup area. I tested, and fiddled, and ran the throttle up and down. Everything seemed fine. I still have no idea what happened. At least it happened on roll out, not 50 feet in the air.

We took off and the engine ran fine for the rest of the day.

Snow still decorated much of the landscape below, and the cool early morning air was decently smooth. We hit the occasional bump, reminders that the air is alive, but nothing too disconcerting. We sailed over Santa Rosa Lake, then I aimed Tessie’s nose for the distant notch in Apache Mesa that I knew would lead us to Las Vegas.

We cruised up the Gallinas River Canyon, slowly gaining altitude, popped out the other end and soared over Las Vegas at 1,000 feet above the city. Around we went, once, twice, thrice.

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I climbed slowly, thinking it might be a nice day to visit Hermit’s Peak, but at 8,000 feet ripples of wind coming off the tops of the San de Cristo mountains turned the air into a churning torrent of turbulence that shook and jolted our tiny craft like a raft in a stormy sea. I slid the throttle back and let Tessie drop back under the layer of angry air, and turned for Storrie Lake where we planned to drop the bouquet in one last ritual for our departed crew member.

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As we approached the target, I slid my door down halfway into the belly and an icy blast of wind tore though the cockpit. I reached up and slid Deb’s door up and over to the left until it touched mine, leaving her side open like a car’s window. I leveled the wings and realized that I had no idea when to drop the flowers to “hit” the lake. Get ready, I told Deb as the lake filled the windscreen. As the shoreline passed under our nose, I told her Now and she reached out and let the flowers go into the slipstream. The bouquet disappeared in an explosion of ivory pedals and green leaves.

Over the lake now, I could see that it was frozen over. I slid the copilot’s door back down to the right and pulled mine up into place. The icy breath of Father Winter was choked off and the distant roar of the engine through my headset was the only sound. I throttled back and banked right into a shallow turn. (Debs isn’t a lover of steep adrenalin turns like Rio, Lisa and I are.) We gently corkscrewed down, down, down, down. I scanned the ice but saw no sign of Mick’s flowers. Maybe we missed the lake and they were buried in the snowbanks on the shore. Maybe the bouquet disintegrated into individual flowers that fell like snowflakes onto the ice, each too small to see from our lofty perch above. We’ll never know.

But were getting low. Low on altitude, low on fuel. I powered up, lifted the right wing and turned for the Las Vegas field.

We’d kept our promise, in spirit, at least. I guess Tony finally decided to let Mick have her flight. And I’m sure that as we took her mortal remains for her first flight, her spirit took wing on her final flight, to be with Tony again, somewhere in the sky, high above us.

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