Mourning the loss ofsomeone very important to me, lost in an aviation accident, my father offered consoling words that have ever remained in my heart: “You will never again turn the key in the ignition without thinking of them.”
I became interested in general aviation in 1998. I worked in the field until 2008, though I still fly and consider it a passionate hobby. In the wake of losing friends, as has unfortunately happened, I came up with my own assessment: aviation’s greatness can be equaled only by its terribleness.
I’m referring to the bleak days in aviation, when the news spreads that an accident has happened. We check in with one another and find relief when they respond back – they’re okay.
Some people do, but I do not consider flying to be dangerous. We train for emergencies, we are hyper-aware of our own well-being and take precautions to make our flights safe. But. Things happen.
Aviation has taken some very special people; people I admired, that mentored me. These people were hugely influential in inspiring and sharing the passion for airplanes and flying that I hold dear. Not all were aviation accidents, but they all left an impression.
When we lose someone dear to us, there is of course grief. But when it is an aviation accident, a whole other dynamic comes into play, another layer upon an already devastating situation. These were good pilots, people worthy of respect, flyers far more experienced,talented and dedicated than I.
I’ll think of them at themost random times when I’m in the plane. Sometimes, I’ll hear their voice,coaching me on a landing or reassuring me about a quickly-executed decision. We lose them, but we never really lose them. They teach us, guide us, and will forever be our friends, no matter where they are.
While living in Tampa, Mike and I shared a spacious hangar at Brooksville airport (KBKV). Upon notice that we were being assigned to Albuquerque, we had many things to consider and plan for, including moving two planes out west. Mike took his Pitts S1S at the end of summer, flying short legs, completing the trip in three days. In Albuquerque, we chose Double Eagle (KAEG) as our new home airport. We moved to New Mexico at the end of August, and the Champ (named Daisy) remained in the hangar at Brooksville. I wished to wait for cooler, and hopefully, less stormy weather.
One of our hangar neighbors from Brooksville had, over the course of months, expressed a repeated interest in buying the Champ, and as life in Albuquerque picked up, the idea grew on me (I had initially waved off this notion with a flattered decline).
In November, I had to return to Florida for an art project I’m collaborating on. I had been in communication with the prospective buyer and planned to show the plane while I was in town. As the time grew near, the reality was giving me horrible anxiety; I had never wanted to sell Daisy. While I try not to get wrapped around the axle with possessions, my fondness for the sixty-year old Dame ran deep.
As the time grew close in which I was to show the plane, there was no word from the prospective buyer — and I made no attempt to reach across the silence. An excitement began to build for the next step: bringing Daisy home.
My trip kicked off to a picture-perfect VFR forecast and outlook.
When it comes to packing, I’m a total chick: I did in fact possess a hair dryer, curling iron, cosmetics, and a diverse array of clothes for an uncertain climate. However, there are three things that are absolute essentials, when it comes to flying:
• Garmin 495 handheld GPS, mounted on top of the dash
• IPad, for ForeFlight, as well as music (I cannot fly without music!)
• My trusty grey New Balance “flying shoes” – they have the perfect thin sole and rounded heel for flying, especially with Daisy’s heel brakes (that were intimidating at first, but I’ve come to love)
Lastly, I went to Publix and gathered a bag of assorted snacks and lots of water. And then, I felt ready.
The Ship: a 1958 American Champion 7EC, powered by a Continental C90; electrical system with lights, Mode C transponder, intercom & radio. Flight instruments limited to altimeter, airspeed indicator; RPM gauge and oil temp.
11/16/2018: I departed Brooksville into clear-blue-and-a-million skies. North/northwest bound and skimming the coast, I drank up the views of the shimmering flats that had played host to so many wonderful memories of my life. Manatees, grey torpedo-like shapes, loitered over swaths of golden sand. I observed a pack of dolphins aggressively circling and crashing upon a school of fish, the powerful thrust of their bodies and the frothy shockwave of water brilliant.
My first stop was Tallahassee for fuel and a quick break. The airspace was buzzing with traffic, mostly military. As I waited to takeoff, I held short for a C-130 on a missed approach. (A novelty, as this is the airplane my husband, Mike, flies for the Air Force.)
I continued west, communicating with flight following in the congested airspace. As I hummed along in the golden afternoon light, I heard the Blue Angels jet team interacting with controllers.
The sun had begun to slant in descent, casting long shadows on the acres of trees below. In the way distance, I could still see a little sparkle of the Gulf, and I felt a pang of nostalgia for the place I’d called home my whole life.
I had hoped to go a little further, but decided to stop for the night at KMVC, Monroe, Alabama. ForeFlight gave promising reviews, so I decided to see what was there. (When flying cross-country, at some of these out-of-the-way places, it’s never assured what you’re gonna find on the ground. This is all part of the adventure!)
The cold front had left behind limitless skies, streaked with a few feathery cirrus clouds. The airfield was quiet and not a soul stirred as I taxied in to a deserted ramp. I discovered a couple of employees inside the FBO, who assured me that I’d find decent lodging and food just across the street. I secured Daisy at the tie-downs, apologizing to her for the lack of hangar for the night. Lugging my three duffle bags, I bummed a ride to the hotel, which was only about a quarter-mile. If I didn’t have so much stuff.. (Please!)
The hotel was decent and after getting settled, I headed to the diner-style restaurant next door, AJ’s. The fried catfish and cheese grits were absolutely delicious and a perfect ending to my first day “on the road”.
11/17/2018: Up early, I bummed a ride with Betty, the hotel housekeeper, back to the airport. 8am, and Army helicopters were already coming and going; many of the small airfields in the region rely on the military traffic for a sizeable part of their fuel business. Conditions were ideal for the flight and I was eager to get airborne. Taxing to the run-up area, I swung Daisy’s tail around and held the brakes, sliding open the side window, pulling off my headset, and listening carefully to the engine (as I always do). However, my magneto check was frighteningly ugly, the engine violently lurching and struggling to make power, even on both mags. I tried the left magneto again, thinking fouled spark plug, but quickly decided this was way over my head. I taxied back to the ramp, befuddled.
The lineman at the FBO called someone, who then called someone else and a mechanic was located. He was nearly two hours away but willing to come out if he had the correct parts in stock. The plane had just come from its annual inspection in October, and I just so happened to have my logbooks aboard (thinking I would need them for the sale). Stored way in the back, I dug out the retro suitcase containing the logs. With this magnificent streak of luck in possessing the logbooks, I was able to tell him exactly what was equipped. By even greater miracle, he had the parts in stock. Freddy and his son Beau were a Godsend, overhauling both magnetos on the tailgate of their pickup truck.
Meanwhile, I drank coffee and killed time on the veranda at the FBO, enjoying the cool morning air and bright sun, watching the planes come and go.
I observed a woman setting up a small corral in the grass adjacent to the tarmac. A moment later, she returned with a litter of the cutest puppies I have ever seen. Naturally, I was over there in a hot minute. She was an employee of the county, the animal control officer. She explained that while the county operated a “kill” shelter, they worked with various programs to get as many animals adopted as possible. In this case, the pups were going to Florida through a program in which private individuals donate the use of their aircraft and their piloting time to transport high risk animals to new homes. I was becoming rather attached to the sweet little black puppy I had been holding; I inquired about his availability and learned that he, and all his littermates, were already adopted and enroute to their new homes. A bit misty eyed, I nuzzled his soft ears with my cheek and wished him luck. I handed him to the people that were flying him to Florida, to a new and hopefully wonderful life.
Inside the FBO, I was offered lunch. I learned that they cooked an assortment of food every day, which was hungrily devoured by the droves of military crews and hungry travelers. I helped myself to the soup, which was excellent, just as Freddy was finishing up on Daisy. He suggested that I make my next stop in Madison, Mississippi (KMBO). Starting the engine, I could instantly tell the difference – she felt like herself. I made one approach over the airfield, my confidence in Daisy’s repairs rising as I felt the returned strength of the engine.
It was a perfect, quiet, late-afternoon flight in crystal-clear air. I landed and taxied up to an elegant plantation-style FBO building. Quite impressive, it greeted travelers with soaring columns and potted topiaries. I was able to get Daisy into a hangar for the night and took a Lyft to a nearby Hilton Garden Inn. I was delighted at the availability of Bonefish for room service; hungry and beat, it was the perfect ending to a crazy day.
11/18/2018: The mechanical delay had cost me an important bit of time, as I was now dealing with another cold front passing through the Dallas area. While I had planned a more northwesterly heading, I was going to have to jog south to try an avoid the band of weather. Trying to gauge the edge of the front is difficult: what is going to be safely out of the path without compromising too many miles? I headed to KIER, an airport I could not pronounce, “Natchitoches”. The line guy just smiled and kindly offered the correct pronunciation (which still befuddled me). I took some fuel and studied the weather, as I was starting to see thickening layers of clouds and spots of misty, poor visibility. Limited options ahead, I decided to try for Lufkin, Texas, which was just over the state line. KLFK was reporting VFR conditions, but I was concerned that none of the other airports on the 248nm jog had any weather reporting capability. Those airports were remote outposts, but if I had to, I could always set down at one and wait for conditions to improve. This strategy in mind, I took off, happy to be making progress. The weather to the northeast was daunting, a thickening deck that was pushing me further south. I was able to maintain 1,500’ AGL but felt a pang when I looked behind Daisy to see a curtain coming down. The south was clear, but I didn’t want to use it unless I had to. With fifty miles to go I had two choices: continue to KLFK (which was reporting VFR) or go to one of the “remote outpost” airports. (I had a picture in my head of spending the night sleeping in the plane, not ideal.) Sometimes you can read forecasts all you want, but you just have to see for yourself. Knowing I could go south if I had to, I pressed onward, avoiding misty patches and breathing a sigh of relief as Lufkin airport came into view.
Shutting down and opening the door, I was shocked by an icy blast of cold air (my stop one-hour prior had been warm and humid). The temperature plummeted and as I had a look at ForeFlight, I saw the airport had just changed to MVFR conditions. I was relieved to be on the ground – again, not a complete day of flying under my belt, but I was in a friendly, safe place. Daisy had a large hangar, safe and sound from the cold and damp. The FBO was generous in allowing me use their crew car for the night: a gianormous, mile-long maroon Mercury Grand Marquis that had been formerly used as a law enforcement vehicle.
The light faded very quickly that afternoon and the sun succumbed to wet clouds. I found refuge at a Hampton Inn. At the hotel’s suggestion I tried Ralph & Caico’s, a New Orleans style seafood joint. I loved their shrimp stew and even bought a couple bottles of the hot sauce for home. It was tasty and warmed my belly on the cold and rainy night.
I set my alarm for 6am, hoping to get in the air bright and early. However, I awoke to the sound of rain sheeting against the window pane. I got moving and to the airport early anyway, hoping for the best. However, I was socked in. Even after the rain moved off, the tops of the trees were barely visible against the edges of craggy grey clouds. We weren’t going anywhere. I felt exhausted.
The FBO housed a great little restaurant, a breakfast and lunch place. I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of eggs, sausage and toast overlooking the rain-soaked ramp. I hung out at the FBO for most of the day, checking and re-checking an unrelentingly bleak forecast. Disappointed, I returned to the hotel and called it a day. Once again, the FBO was generous with the use of their crew car, and I was grateful to have landed in such a hospitable place.
11/20/2018: I launched into the bright morning sky, so different from the day past. Brownwood Regional would be my first stop. A friendly place, the line guy explained with a chuckle that I had to flip a switch to turn off the police light located on top of the Crown Victoria (another former law enforcement vehicle-turned airport crew vehicle). I took the car a few miles into the town to find a burger.
For a few hours I had zero cell service, which is a confusing thing altogether, because I was able to send a receive messages in the air in some very remote places. Back at the FBO, the manager addressed me, telling me to call my concerned husband and directed me to a landline. She explained that Mike had called looking for me, concerned when I had not checked in. So, I used a landline and called my husband, assuring him that all was just fine.
Pressing on, I made my next stop in Odessa. (Yep, still Texas!) I would’ve liked to make one more stop but was running short on daylight. For the overnight, Daisy was directed to an executive hangar, complete with heat, living it up among a crop of mid-size jets.
As I unloaded my bags and secured the plane, the line guys had questions about Daisy: did it feel different to fly a fabric airplane as compared to metal? How old was the Champ? And, everyone always asks me this question (I don’t know why): how long have I been flying?
Making small talk with the Turkish Lyft driver, enroute to the hotel, I hoped this was the last night on the road. As fun as the flying had been, I was weary.
11/21/2018: High clouds made for a grey start, although it seemed to be predominantly VFR across the northwesterly route. Directly west was clear, but I needed to jog more northwesterly, and I was beginning to contend with altitude.
I flew over miles upon miles paper-flat land, oil fields as far as the eye could see, some shooting bright orange flames into the dreary sky. The cloud deck descended, a soft white curtain falling, just fifty miles from my next stop. I was forces to turn back and land at a desolate airfield called Lea County. On the bright side, I was finally in New Mexico. But I felt like the only person on earth, shivering as I walked cautiously toward the small brick FBO building, uncertain as to what I would find. To my surprise, it was cozy and warm, and a television blared from the wall, though no one was to be found. I sat at the table near the window and discovered stacks of pilot magazines, none with a publication date more recent than 1979. I seriously wondered if I fell into a time warp as I pored over articles and advertisements boasting state-of-the-art avionics equipment that was now defunct.
An hour passed and sunlight began to stream through the clouds. I decided to take another shot at getting to my next stop, Roswell. The timing worked out and the clouds were breaking, revealing a changing landscape: small, taupe-tinged hills ranged in the distance.
At Roswell, I was cleared to land behind a C-130 (caution, wake turbulence!). Feeling very tiny, I taxied to the FBO, marveling at the rows upon rows of retired airliners parked on the tarmac.
The FBO fueled Daisy while I took their crew car to a nearby burrito joint. I was jittery for my next and final leg because of the mountainous terrain. I knew how the route appeared on the sectional but couldn’t picture it for myself. A lifetime flat-lander, I regard much respect for the rugged terrain of the west. Daisy’s density altitude performance was another unknown. My strategy was to climb and allow myself a wide berth.
As I climbed back in the airplane for the final leg of my journey, the sun shone brightly and the air felt crisp. The engine sprung to life; applying takeoff power, the tail popped up quickly, a good sign at the 4,000’ field elevation. We bid farewell and a happy thanksgiving to the friendly controllers.
On this leg, the landscape changed from flat oil fields, and steepened. I climbed first to 6,500 and as the mountains loomed ahead, kept going to 8,700’. We cut through the Sandias just south of an airport called Mountainair, and then, literally, we were home free. It was the last small jog of the journey, a cloudless, late afternoon, illuminated with bright sun.
Daisy does nothing quickly, always remains humble, but she took care of me, and as we touched down at our new home, Double Eagle, I thanked my sixty-year old airplane for her faithful service. Fabric and spruce, she had delivered me through a time capsule’s worth of technology, amid sleek business jets and modern airspace.
Mike was waiting at the FBO with the dogs and it was a joyful reunion, just in time for thanksgiving. As I begin a new chapter in Albuquerque, I have such abundance that I am genuinely humbled. This trip was extremely difficult for me, physically, and in turn, mentally, but it was an experience I truly wanted to see through. It was 19.7 hours of stick and rudder time and in my opinion, one of the most authentic ways to see the country in which we live. Daisy is from another era of aviation; when I fly this airplane, she forces me to slow down. With permission to live slowly, we open our eyes, our heart, and even our imagination. All of the friendly people along the way that helped get me where I needed to go reassured me that the heart of general aviation is still alive and well, and unspoken kinship still abounds. And with Daisy, I know I can go there – to a place that’s timeless.
One of the most gratifying gifts we can give another person isn’t an object, but an experience.
My father took me flying when I was a young girl. The thing I remember most about the day was how the flight made me feel simultaneously interested yet calm. There was so much to look at, between the airplane itself and the incredible view.
But, something I’ve noticed: When people learn that I fly, they almost always inquire “aren’t you scared”?
I’m so not a thrill-seeker. Flying fits my world view that life is meant to be enjoyed, which includes, being accepting of and embracing things (and people) with an open mind. Flying is what I want to do as a means to escape or take a break. I seek out an hour or so to get away; in the air, it’s quiet and beautiful. My phone doesn’t work above a certain altitude, so the act of unplugging is assured. I see things that move me beyond words; You haven’t seen a tree until you’ve seen its shadow from the sky, said Amelia Earhart. I wish more people would experience it, and understand how it works; I feel the fearful aspects would lose their power. Furthermore, I don’t feel that it’s as inaccessible as people assume.
You know what does illicit fear in my heart? Illness. Crowds. An inability to pay bills or fulfill my commitments. Car accidents. Cruelty. But flying? I don’t think it’s any crazier than many of the things people routinely engage in; To that end, we can search long enough to find the elements of danger in most anything. (Tide Pods anyone?)
Lastly, no, I don’t think I’m special because I fly. But I think that flying is special, and I want to share it with others.
I have taken people up for their first flights and it’s a gift to me to watch their joy unfold. I have a little mirror in my cockpit so I can see my rear seat passenger; we will be climbing out after takeoff and I can see their eyes gazing down, smile alighting their mouth. Then they’ve got their phone out, and their snapping pictures and guess what they’re doing?