Snakes on a plane

OK. I confess. It wasn’t snakes. It was ants. But any sort of uninvited wildlife in the cockpit makes a flight interesting, if not necessarily “B” movie-worthy.

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The Santa Rosa Route 66 Airport is actually quite the wildlife sanctuary. We commonly have small herds of deer inside the perimeter fence, rabbits abound, quail scurry, coyotes lope. We have assorted lizards, and once we followed a turtle across the tarmac.

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Turtles on the Tarmac actually has a better ring to it that Snakes on a Plane, but it’s not a title likely to bring the horror-seeking crowd out to the theater. Actually, speaking of snakes, I did one time see a snake on Runway 26. Another time we had a black widow spider in the hangar, and one year there was a plague of yellow jackets. And of course, like everywhere in the world, we have ants.

But I never gave much thought to the ants. Not until I was taxing down Alpha toward One-Niner with Lisa onboard. The week before I’d made the mistake of watching Fearless Flying with her and Rio. It’s a great flick about the development and history of the Plane Tales make and model. But the narrator said that in the 1940s research showed that, on average, people could solo in an Ercoupe after only four hours of instruction, half the usual length of training at the time.

In perfect, synchronous motion, Lisa and Rio turned their heads toward me and glared.

“What?” I squeaked.

Both Lisa and Rio have waaaaaaaay more than four hours in Tessie. In my defense, I’ve yet to become a flight instructor, so I can’t sign them off for solo. But that said, I really have no excuse for not at least teaching them to land, for their own safety as frequent copilots, if for no other reason.

So I agreed (at gunpoint) that the very next weekend we’d all go to the airport and get to work on landings.

Both my copilots are getting formal training in sail planes, and Rio is also getting powered Light Sport Training in Santa Fe. When it comes to flying Tessie, Lisa is an ace at the long haul. She can hold a course and altitude like no one else. Probably better than I can. She just can’t turn. Rio, on the other hand, tends to wander a bit through the air, but is more capable when it comes to maneuvers. So Rio wanted to focus his practice on the approach and landing phase, while Lisa just wanted to do some pattern work and get good at the basic turns.

We headed out a 5am, before there was even a hint of light in the eastern sky. On the 45-minute drive to the airport, the sky gradually revealed itself, turning first pale green on the horizon, then butter-yellow behind grey clouds. When we got to Santa Rosa, a brisk breeze from the south rippled the U.S. flag over the truck stop next to the airport, so we knew before we got to the hangar that we’d be operating off Runway 19. As we opened the hangar doors to the familiar screech of metal on metal, the sun, still hiding beneath the rim of the earth, painted the bottoms of clouds above the eastern horizon blaze orange.

We did a group preflight and pulled Tessie out into the first rays of the rising sun. Rio was first to fly. He and I debated a bit about the merits of which seat he should take: Left or Right. Flying from the left would be more globally useful to him in his training, but flying right would make more sense for Tessie flying, as that’s his usual post. The right side also has a slightly better view of the world, given how the panel is designed. In the end he opted for the right hand seat.

We took off and worked the pattern. At first, the air was rough and Rio was annoyed. Not at the air, but at himself. He felt he should be controlling the plane better. The first pattern was pretty bad.

But both the atmosphere and Rio settled in. He’d enter the downwind leg and fly parallel to the active runway, in the opposite direction. The push-to-talk switch on his side of the plane got stuck in the “talk” setting on the way to the Big Muddy air race, and I had to cut the wires. We haven’t got it fixed yet, so I made the radio calls for Rio. Abeam the numbers I reduced the power and he was on his own.

Possibly from his sail plane training, or possibly from innate instinct, he showed an amazing talent for pitch control. As he turned base, and then final, he kept the nose perfectly set for descending turns—neither too high nor too low. It was fluid flight.

It was beautiful.

The only issue was that on short final the runway wasn’t in front of the nose where it needed to be. Instead, it was waaaaaaaaay off to the left. We came down low, low, low over the grass to the right of the runway, added power, screamed down the length of the runway, and rose back into the sky to try again.

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Over and over we did the pattern. Each time better. Once Rio brought us in smartly over the numbers and we did a full-stop landing, me with two fingers on the yoke coaching him over the intercom: “Pull back. Back, back, back. Hold it… hold it. Back a little more…” And with a screech the tires kissed the runway.

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Then it was Lisa’s turn. As she buckled in, she said, “Huh, an ant,” plucking a quarter-inch long red fire ant off her pants and pitching it out the open window onto the apron.

Little did she know that he had company.

Now, for background you need to know that fire ant colonies are usually easy to spot. In excavating their subterranean homes, the tiny bits of rock they remove pile up around the entrance, creating miniature volcano-like mounds. Unless, as it turns out, the ants have made a home under a strip of asphalt, moving in and out through a badly sealed crack. Then there’s no telltale mound. And if you park your car next to the crack you might not notice that you’re standing in a swarm of fire ants while you’re putting on your sun screen.

At least, that’s what our after-the-fact analysis determined.

We fired up the engine, exited the apron and headed down taxiway Alpha to One Niner. Suddenly Lisa yelped. “Ouch! Son-of-a-Bitch!” She started swatting her knee and then yanked up her pants leg. “One bit me!”

I looked down to see a small dot of blood on her left leg, right below the knee.

“Do you want me to stop the plane so you can shake out your pants?” I asked.

“No, no. It’s fine,” said Lisa.

Five hundred feet farther on, almost to the run-up area, Lisa let out a long string of expletives that demonstrated that she had an impressive command of the Anglo Saxon language, and started swatting at her leg again. I pulled the throttle and mixture, switched off the mags and killed the master. Before the prop stopped spinning Lisa bailed out of Tessie faster than Chuck Yeager out of a burning jet fighter. While she danced around the plane on one foot, pulling off her pants and screaming obscenities, I saw another fire ant marching across the bench seat toward me. Lisa had been kind enough to throw the first one out. I squashed this one with my finger.

My eye caught a hint of motion on the floor. Another fire ant. I quickly dispatched it to Ant Valhalla.

By now Lisa had succeeded in getting her pants fully off and was frantically sweeping her hands up and down her legs. Then she violently shook her pants to dislodge any remaining invaders.

Rio later told me, “When you stopped, and the plane was silent, I thought something had happened to the engine, so I started to walk down the taxiway. But I couldn’t figure out why Lisa was dancing around the plane with her pants off like some sort of crazed witch doctor.”

De-antified, Lisa climbed back into the plane and I fired up the engine again. Of course, once you’ve been bitten not once, but twice, your skin becomes twitchy. Any contact to the skin from breeze to clothing sets off alarms. Lisa was… jumpy.

And it was contagious. Soon, I was scratching and swatting imaginary ants as we ran up the engine.

But at least there weren’t any snakes in the plane.

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