A Curve Ball

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This page last updated on 02/28/2014.

Copyright 2001-2014 by Russ Meyer


"It's a test."  - Larry Meyer on everyday misfortunes

It had been a long, exhausting week at work.  The weekend was finally here, and I just wanted to get away and do something different.  My daughters had invited a couple of friends over to spend the night on Saturday.  Five squealing little girls running all over the house.  Yep, Saturday night would be the ideal time to fly far-far away!  I called my flying buddy, James, to see if he wanted to come along.  I reserved a Cessna 172, 62885, from 6 to 10 PM.  We were all set.

James and I eventually arrived at the airport at 6:25.  We were already almost 30 minutes late.  While going through the preflight ritual, I discovered a broken seat locking cable.  It's connected to a pin that holds the pilot's seat to the seat tracks.  The pin has to be released before the seat can be adjusted fore and aft.  The release cable had broken and I couldn't disengage the pin to slide the seat forward.  Well, I couldn't fly the plane where the seat was...not unless I had 5 foot arms!  Unfortunately, the FBO was closed so I couldn't grab a mechanic to help.  We puzzled over the problem.

I started scrounging around in my flight bag to see if I could find anything that would help.  I really didn't know what I was looking for...just anything that might give me an idea.  Hey, what's this...glory be, my Leatherman!  Years ago my brother-in-law had given me a Leatherman.  It's a multifunction tool, kind of like a Swiss army knife.  It's got pliers, screwdrivers, blades, etc.  I threw it in my flight bag where it had rattling around disused for years.  I had never even opened the thing before.  I pulled it out and gave it a thoughtful examination.  Hmmm...we should be able to do something with this.  After a lot of experimentation and fooling around, James and I were finally able to use the Leatherman to disassemble the pin locking mechanism.  With the thing disassembled, it was easy to manually disengage the pin and move the seat to the correct position.  We put everything back together and were ready to go.  It was almost 7:15 by the time we finished hassling with all this.  Heavy sigh...I had wanted to get off the ground by 6:30.  The late start would probably alter our plans since we were supposed to get the plane back by 10.

The original plan was to fly to Commerce, Mount Pleasant, Gilmer, and back home.  With all the delays, it looked like we wouldn't be able to do that.  Well, the only thing I really wanted to do was make it to Gilmer before dark.  I had landed there only one time before, late at night.  That one landing was the worst landing of my life.  I kind of wanted to get back out there and see the place in the daylight.  On the way, we would pass near Commerce.  Commerce has this really cool little airport.  It's really nothing but a desolate little airstrip with a couple of forlorn airplanes parked on the ramp.  Still, I just love that place; it holds some kind of mystical, magnetic attraction for me.  I don't know why, but I just can't resist landing there if my course takes me anywhere within 30 miles.  It takes great will-power to force myself to fly past it (which I've only succeeded in doing once).  On the way to Gilmer, we just had to drop into Commerce!

We finally took off around 7:25 and set an Easterly course for Commerce.  James took the controls as we settled in at 3500 feet.  The flight was smooth with only an occasional bump.  James flew the airplane all the way there, including setting us up on downwind in the pattern.  We shot a couple of landings then decided to head directly to Gilmer.  It was about 8:10 and it would be getting dark soon.  It wasn't clear we would make Gilmer before nightfall, but we decided to try.  I tuned in the Quitman VOR and James tracked the 126 radial inbound.  When we were about halfway to the VOR, it became apparent that we wouldn't make Gilmer before nightfall.  That was a real bummer.  The runway at Gilmer has a wicked slope and is nestled in some hills.  That coupled with darkness had really thrown me last time I landed there.  My landing was basically a controlled crash on the runway.  Absolutely horrible...can't believe I didn't damage the airplane!  I had no desire to repeat that fiasco.  I cringed at attempting another night landing there.  With trepidation, I decided to press on to Gilmer anyway and run the pattern.  We could do a go-around if things weren't perfect on final.

We arrived over Quitman VOR.  James altered course to track the 105 radial outbound.  That should put us almost on top of Gilmer.  A few minutes later we spotted the Gilmer beacon.  Over-flying the airport I noticed the windsock was hanging limp and lifeless; at least the wind wouldn't give us any trouble.  James got the plane set up on a 45 left downwind for runway 18.  I took over the controls and ran the pattern.  The lack of wind made running the pattern a piece of cake, although I came in a little high on final.  On short final, everything looked good.  I had a clear view of the runway illuminated by the landing light.  I was ready for the optical illusion caused by the slope of the runway, and it didn't seem intimidating.  I decided to go for a landing, and it came off fine.  Whew!  We taxied off the runway, over to the gas pumps, and shut down.  There now.  That wasn't so bad was it?

We got out of the plane and found the airport deserted.  We wandered over to a large hanger and found the hanger doors half open.  We walked in and stumbled upon some really neat planes.  A T-6, Stearman, Tiger Moth, and something that I'm pretty sure was a Lockheed Electra.  We found a water fountain, got a drink, and headed back to the plane.  It would be great to get out to Gilmer in the daytime...I really must make sure I accomplish that someday.  There are a lot of hangers on the field.  It seems like it must have a vibrant aviation community.  Interesting little airstrip.

We piled in the plane with the idea of heading back to Addison.  On the way back, I wanted to take one last detour to Mesquite airport for a night landing.  That and the landing at Addison would give me three night landings for currency.  We took off, climbed to 4500 feet, and headed Southwest to intercept highway 30.  James took the controls and trailed the ghostly, luminous line of the highway West.  It should eventually lead us right to Mesquite.  Along the way, we took several shots off VORs to verify our position.  The night was serene without a ripple of turbulence.

The moon had not yet risen, but at 9:20 a brilliant Mars climbed above the Eastern horizon.  It was near its closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years and was extremely bright.  I turned the instrument lights down low, and we cruised along in almost complete darkness.  I really like cruising at night with all the cockpit lights off.  There really is something special about night flying.  It's so peaceful.  The world and all its cares seem a million miles away, maybe because the ground is hard to see.  It's more than that though; at least it is for me.  Everything seems clearer somehow...what's important and what's not.  In night flying, far away from the city lights, it's just you and the airplane.  Life seems so simple and childlike.  The airplane and it's demands and you alone.  Nothing else in the whole world seems to matter.  I drift along in this dark sanctity as a distant, bemused observer of Earthly things.  They are, for the most part, trivial and cacophonous distractions.  Unworthy of even a passing thought from the perspective of eternity.  It is a blessed reverie.  I somehow feel much closer to the true meaning of life in these times.  It is always with a certain offended and disappointed feeling that I encounter the glow of metropolis lights on the horizon.  The petty, squalid existence of man is about to tramp through the cool, quiet garden of Eden like some horrible, out-of-tune, New Orleans funeral band.

Ah, and now the Mesquite beacon on the horizon.  James pilots the plane to a left downwind for runway 17.  I make my landing and we take off again.  The dirt racers are running full blast out at the Devils Bowl Speedway, just off the departure end of the runway.  On straight sections of track the cars appeared to be moving faster than we are, and we're going about 90 knots!  Man, I can't believe those guys go that fast on such a small track.

As we depart to the North, I tune in Addison ATIS.  The terminal information states that we can expect the field to be closed from 0300 - 1100 Zulu for maintenance.  A cold shudder ripples down my spine.  Oh man, when is 0300 Zulu?!  I mentally fumble trying to convert local time to GMT.  Uh, uh...0300 Zulu is 10 PM...what time is it now...gaaahh...it's 10:17...Addison is closed!  I am stunned.  The little New Orleans jazz band has announced its arrival with a raucous horn blast in my ear!

I tell James the field is closed.  We sit there speechless for another minute.  Finally, I realize the airplane is flying no particular direction...we've been wandering aimlessly.  OK, OK, get a grip man!  The field is closed...that's all there is to it...get over it...figure something else out.  I toy with landing at Love field, but that is pretty far from both of our homes.  We would need one of our wives to come pick us up since our car was at Addison.  McKinney?  Yeah, that's where we need to go.  It is pretty close to James' house and only 20 minutes from my house.  OK, where are we now...how do we get to McKinney?  I fumble for another minute figuring it out.  We'll just pick up highway 75 North and follow it to McKinney.  James pointed the plane Northwest and we were on our way.

We arrive in the pattern and James coaxes our tiny craft onto left downwind for runway 17.  The tower is closed so we make CTAF position reports.  After landing, we taxi all over trying to find a suitable place to tie down.  I can't figure out where they are hiding their transit tie down area.  There are no signs or anything.  I finally just taxi way out to the North parking apron and stop.  We tie down, get our stuff, and walk to the terminal building.

Well, here we are in McKinney, now what?  I use my pager to inform Jane of our predicament.  She gets on the phone and calls some friends of ours, Shawn and Holly, who are just leaving a wedding reception.  Their daughters are spending the night at our house.  Shawn and Holly detour to McKinney to pick us up.  As soon as we arrive at my house, James and I hop in my van and drive to Addison, finally arriving there at midnight...two hours later than originally planned!  James and I drive both cars back to my house.  James headed home, but I had another problem...how to get the plane back to Addison.

Addison airport was due to reopen at 6 AM.  I planned to go up to McKinney at about 5:45 to fly the plane back, arriving at Addison just after the field opened.  Before I went to bed, I checked McKinney field information and found that it was only attended from 7 AM to 10 PM.  If I got there at 5:45, the gates might be locked and the plane inaccessible.  It would be better to wait until someone was there to let me through the gate.  (Security is much tighter since 9/11.)  Heading up there around 6:30 seemed a better plan.  While I was ferrying the plane back to Addison, Jane would wake-up the kids and load them in the van.  She would drive to Addison and rendezvous with me there at 7:30.  We'd drive back up to McKinney to retrieve the other car and head back home.  It was now 1:45 in the morning.  Jane set an alarm clock for me and I hit the hay.

The alarm goes off 4 hours later and I pop out of bed.  I try to shake off the bleariness and gather my stuff together.  I drive to McKinney and find the FBO already open at 6:45.  Great!  I walk through the FBO and out to the ramp without any trouble.  I begin a leisurely stroll to the airplane.

It is so quiet and still...a beautiful morning.  The sun is just peeking over the Eastern horizon, painting yellow the faint wisps of fog skulking in shadowy glens.  Here it is again, this feeling of peace and clarity.  I often sense it when I am alone with the airplane in a quiet place.  The man, the machine, and all else tranquility.  The beckoning sky, the foggy ground like a half remembered dream.  Not a test or challenge, rather a rejoining; a merging of soul, instrument, and opportunity.  It's calling me in my gut, almost like some distant instinct...I feel I must go to it.  I don't know why.  My brain kicks in, begins to rationalize.  Maybe if I just did touch-and-gos for a few minutes...  Checking my watch I realize I don't have time.  It would keep Jane waiting.

Man oh man, it was a superb morning for flying though...I really had to fight the urge and stay focused!  I resolved to do a "dawn patrol" real soon though.  After a brief preflight inspection, I fire up and contact ground control for taxi clearance (the tower had opened).  I receive a prompt reply and also hear another Cessna call for clearance.  We both taxi to the runway at the same time.  As I perform my run-up, the other Cessna takes the runway and is off.  A few moments later, I taxi into position and follow.

On climb-out I hear a woman breathlessly call on the radio, "McKinney tower, hot air balloon XYZ we are just off the North end of your runway and wanted to make sure it was alright."  The tower asks her to repeat her position.  "Right off the North end of the runway!," she exclaims.  She is so excited that she must have been right over the top of me or something when I began my takeoff run.  Man, I had not even seen her!  How could the tower or I have missed a hot air balloon for Pete's sake!  By this time I have turned far enough to the right to see the North end of the runway behind me.  I don't see any hot air balloon up there...then, way off in the distance, maybe 7 or 8 miles Northwest, I see one lone hot air balloon.  Sheezh, the way that woman sounded on the radio, you'd think she was in imminent danger of colliding with someone!  The tower eventually called her and said they had her in sight and assured her that she was well outside their normal traffic area.  The tower promised to keep and eye on her and warn passing traffic.  I mean, you'd have to be blind to fly right into a balloon...oh brother!

I headed Southwest following highway 75.  I got on the approach frequency for Addison and listened for a while.  That Cessna that had taken off just ahead of me called on the radio asking for clearance to Addison.  Ah ha, I bet this guy had been caught out after the airport closed just like I had.  I called for clearance too and was granted a squawk code.  I dialed the code into the transponder and hit the ident button.  "RADAR contact, six miles South of McKinney," the controller announced.  I buzzed happily along for a few minutes and was handed off to Addison tower.  It was such a relief to hear the familiar voice of the Addison tower controller again.  I've been flying out of Addison for 16 years and this woman is running the tower at least half the time I call in.  One day, I really must visit the tower and meet this person.  I'd just like to see who it is that has been on the other side of the radio all these years.  Anyway, I heard a number of Cessnas calling in from all over.  Seems like airplanes were flocking back to the airport after being caught out after the field closed.  Well, at least I wasn't alone in my misfortune!  I was given clearance to land right after that Cessna I had been following all the way from McKinney.  I landed without incident, glad to be back on the ground after all the trouble I'd been through.

I taxied to FlightLine and shutdown.  I got the airplane tied down and locked up.  I was just walking through the gate when I saw Jane driving up...what timing!  I got in the van and she drove me to McKinney to pick up the other car.  Man I was beat, but I was also glad the ordeal was over.  What an incredible hassle this had all been.

It just astounds me how much trouble the field closure caused.  It had mightily inconvenienced so many people.  I had wasted about 5 hours of time and lost a lot of sleep in trying get things straightened out.  Maybe if we had not had a delayed departure from Addison, or not stopped at Commerce, or skipped the landing at Mesquite we would have made it back to Addison before 10 PM as originally planned.  The field would have closed but we wouldn't have cared and maybe would not even have known.  Because we were 15 minutes late, all this trouble befell us.

I could have known in advance about the field closure, if I had checked for NOTAMs before the flight.  I've been flying out of this field for 16 years and this is only the third time I've ever seen the field close.  The first time was when a jet crashed on landing and the other time the field was closed for maintenance.  It's such a rare event that I had just become complacent about checking NOTAMs.  I'm going to be more diligent about that in the future, that's for sure!  Like my Dad says, stuff like this is a test...a test of character.  How are you going to react?  Get all upset and wound up or roll with the punches?  Rolling with the punches is a lot easier on everyone.