It’s a bit hazy, but other than that, I have no complaints about the sky. If there are any clouds out there, they’re hiding behind the distant horizon. The air is delightfully still: Hardly a breath of wind stirs the ground. I’m glad. I don’t want the sky gods messing with today’s mission.
It’s too important.
Rio and I are comfortably crammed into Tessie’s cockpit, a space never intended for the width of two fully-grown modern men. If I could change one thing about the Ercoupe it would be more shoulder room and more leg room, which I guess is actually two things. But I’ve adapted to both shortages, and have learned to live with the cozy cockpit. Our shoulders stuck together as if velcro’d into a single unit, I reach forward to slide the throttle up. The EGT’s advance, the tach springs alive, and Tess starts to roll. I can feel pressure building in the elevator, the yoke becoming heavier. I push it forward to keep Tess glued to the runway until I’m ready for her to fly.
Faster and faster we go, runway lights now zipping past like scared rabbits running for cover. The white needle of the airspeed indictor is in the green arc. I ease back on the yoke and Tess’s nose lifts, then her mains break with the ground, our shadow falling away beneath us. And, after a long hiatus, Rio is in the air again.
He hasn’t flown in 114 days. First, just shy of his First Solo, he had a chain of lessons cancelled one right after the other: Weather, instructor down with the flu, maintenance issues on the rental plane, and on it went. Every Monday he’d get out his sacrificial shirt, only to have to put it away again for the next week. Then Rio himself was down for maintenance for a couple weeks, having his wisdom teeth—all four of them—removed. He was just about to go back into the air again in early April, when tragedy struck: His CFI, a wonderful (if slightly crusty) seventy-two-year-old instructor named Larry, was killed in a plane crash on a training flight. I haven’t written about how his loss affected my families, both the family under my roof, and my airport family. My pen is not up to the task. All I’ve been able to manage so far is the title,The Windsock was at Half Mast,which popped into my head at his memorial service at the airport: A crowded affair held in a large hangar where his beloved black-and-white Citabria, now an orphan, stood watch over a table of photos of Larry, arranged around his favorite oil-stained baseball cap.
Lisa, who flew with him right before the crash, and is the last person on the planet to see Larry alive, wore her grief on her sleeve, but Rio—who’s more stoic to start with—didn’t talk much about what he was feeling. I didn’t push, but I worried. It was his first loss as a young adult of someone he was close to.
Lisa figured Larry wouldn’t want her to quit, and with grim determination climbed back into the cockpit to continue her training, only to be cut off at the knees by the labyrinth of regulation that surrounds our industry. You see, she had only one more flight with Larry before the “checkride” for her license. But with Larry Flying West, she’d have to find a new instructor to sign her off for the test. A new instructor who would first need to learn about Warbler’s capabilities and oddities, and then confirm that she could perform all the skills necessarily to pass her checkride.
But there’s more. Her solo endorsement, the logbook page that allowed her to practice in her own plane by herself, expired. She was so close to finishing, Larry had seen no reason to update it. So now, if I’m not around to help, all she can do is sit in the cockpit and make airplane noises.
And that’s not the end of Lisa’s troubles. Following the crash, the examiner who was to administer her test announced he’d no longer offer checkrides for the Light Sport ticket. With no way to practice, no one to instruct her, and no one to give her the test for her license, Lisa has a lot stacked up against her, and all of this coming just when she was within spitting distance of completing her training and joining the family of licensed pilots.
Meanwhile, with the school closed down to deal with the loss, and Tess down for maintenance, Rio had no plane to fly. And so the days ticked by with Rio’s feet on the ground. And days turned into weeks, weeks into months.
Finally, with Tess back in service, and a pair of long cross countries planned to the last of the spring SARL races, I talked to Rio about his role in the flights, to which he responded, “I don’t even know if I can fly anymore.”
I assured him that it would take no time at all to knock the rust off.
He gave me a surprisingly cold look for someone with warm brown eyes. Then he told me he wasn’t worried about rust. He told me didn’t know if—once back in a small plane—he’d “completely fall apart” emotionally, or not. A few days later I overhead him telling his grandmother that “many pilots” never flew again after something like this happened.
There was only one way to find out. Sooner or later, he’d have to go up into the sky, face his grief, and find out if it was overpowering, or not. He agreed it was time. We drafted a set of ground rules. I’d be left seat, handle the take off, and slowly climb to 7,000 feet. After that he’d take the controls. If at any point, he was uncomfortable, we’d immediately return to the airport.
I didn’t even want to contemplate what would happen next if that turned out to be the case. I tipped-toed around my fears, never letting them take full shape.
Passing through 5,500, just off the end of Runway 19, I turn down the Pecos Canyon, following the river below. Power strong. Tach below the red. Huh, cylinder number two is running a little on the warm side. Oil pressure and temperature good. We’re climbing sedately at 250 feet per minute. I cast a sideways glance at my copilot. Rio’s face is impassive. Carved in marble. I never know what that kid is thinking.
Passing through 6,000 feet, we continue in companionable silence. The air is a smooth as churned butter. I know this because Debbie bought Rio and I a small hand-cranked butter churn for Christmas.
Passing through 6,500 feet, I tweak the trim to lower Tess’s nose a hair, and side the throttle back to her cruise setting.
Leveling off at 7,000 feet I say, “You have the plane,” letting go of the yoke and holding both my hands up the same way I would if a robber jumped out of the bushes with a gun, demanding my wallet.
“I have the plane,” Rio responds, the first words he’s spoken since he buckled his seat belt and secured his shoulder harness before I started Tess’s engine.
We continue flying straight and level, Rio’s face impassive. Still marble.
For a long time, we drone on through the sky, flying south. Then, ever so gently, he turns the plane to the right. To a west bound course. And after yet more time, another turn. Left this time. Shallow. A three-sixty. Still his face is impassive. I don’t know what’s going on inside his soul, but there’s nothing wrong with his flying. I lean back, stop worrying about the plane, try not to worry about Rio, and focus on enjoying the view.
Rio continues a series of gentle, shallow turns, with long periods of flying straight and level in between them. He’s flying less aggressively than he used to, but he’s precise. And he’s showing no signs of wanting to head back. We’ve been up for over an hour now, and we’re far to the southeast of the field. Our wing tanks just dipped below one-eighth, and I begin to worry about our fuel supply.
But without my saying anything, Rio reaches up to the FlightPad, places his thumb and index finger on the touch screen, then spreads them apart, zooming the field of view outward. He nods his head to himself and gently banks Tess back to the northwest, toward home.
Above the field he gives the plane back to me. We’d agreed in advance that landing practice can wait for another day. I fly the pattern, touch down, taxi to the fuel pump, and shut down. We pull our headsets off, slide the doors down into the belly of the plane, and sit for a moment.
“How did you feel?” I ask.
“OK,” he says.
I don’t know what to say next, and finally decide on, “Well, that’s good. Did you enjoy they flight?”
Rio thinks for a moment, then says, “Surprisingly, yes.”
Welcome back. My son: Civis Aerius Sum, still a citizen of the air.