In July 2007, we planned our most ambitious flight. It would double as a trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a week-long family reunion with my siblings and a once-in-a-lifetime chance for my husband to land a plane at Kitty Hawke, on the very field where the Wright brothers made their famous first flight.
The travel plan was to include two 3-hour flights — the first from Chicago to Charleston, West Virginia, and the second from Charleston to Kitty Hawke, North Carolina.
The first leg was largely uneventful, as we traveled through smooth air, topping out at 5,000 feet. As we neared the airport, I was stunned to see that the landing strip was situated atop a steep mound of terrain with a sheer drop on either side. My left hand developed a cramp from gripping the base of my seat so tightly. But my husband lined up the plane perfectly with the runway, touching us down smoothly. “Great job,” I whispered, along with a silent prayer of thanks.
After completing the post-flight check and tying down the plane, we checked into a nearby hotel and had some dinner. We walked around the tiny town, grabbed some ice cream, and returned to the hotel, flopping into bed and falling instantly to sleep.
The next day, Sunday, we returned to the small airport, late morning, ready to begin the second leg of the journey, thoughts of a soulful connection with Wilbur and Orville in our heads (well, in my husband’s head, mostly … mine involved the usual effort to quash my fears of potential turbulence, engine failure, electrical storms, and mid-air collisions).
It was a beautiful day, with a clear blue sky and hardly a breath of wind — perfect for flying, I thought with relief. We were the only travelers that day, with a polite young airport attendant awaiting us in the office.
We began the pre-flight routine, checking the oil, pumping gas, and re-loading our bags onto the plane. Once strapped in our seats, with head phones in place, my husband started the check list recitation, calling out, “Clear prop,” and turning the engine key.
“Clear prop,” he said again, turning the key.
Tick-tick-tick. The Saratoga trembled briefly and went still.
“Clear prop,” he said a third time.
Nothing. “OK. This isn’t good,” said my husband, showing his penchant for quietly stating the obvious. My legs already jellifying, and my palms assuming a clammy sheen, we unharnessed ourselves from the seats, pulled off our headsets, and climbed out of the plane.
We approached the office to discuss the problem with the polite young airport attendant, who informed us that no mechanic was on duty, given that it was Sunday and all. He did furnish us with the phone number for the mechanic who was typically available the other six days of the week. He added that this gentleman usually enjoys fishing on Sundays.
My husband dialed the number for the mechanic and left a voicemail. I pictured this guy lazily tossing a fishing line onto a glass flat lake somewhere, without his cell phone off. I silently cursed him.
As the realization of this General Aviation Predicament settled in, I called my sister in the Outer Banks to warn her that we might be arriving a little late.
My husband continued to call the fishing mechanic. We began discussing our options, thinking that we still had plenty of time to make it to Kitty Hawke before sundown, if the problem could be diagnosed and fixed soon. If not, we would have to stay another night in Charleston and leave the next day. By now it was almost 2:30 in he afternoon.
Then my husband’s phone rang. The fishing mechanic was on his way. He arrived a half hour later.
He and my husband spoke quietly and peered at the Saratoga’s engine, as I retreated again to the office to submit another progress report to my siblings. This time I explained that we were reaching the crossroad between leaving and staying.
By now it was after 3:30. Upon rejoining my husband and the mechanic, I learned that the battery was dead, but that it could be jumped. The mechanic was already working on this task. My husband climbed into the cockpit, and on his signal, turned the key. The Saratoga shuddered to life, and continued shuddering violently.
My husband jumped out of the plane and then uttered to me the eight words he will probably regret for the rest of his life: “He said it will charge in the air.”
What I heard was : “This plane has about an ounce of battery juice, and while our chances of survival are about as slim as a fart in a hurricane, I’d like to make a go of it.”
My response, of course, was to assume panic-attack mode, answering in a hitching, “I-can’t-do-this-I’m-not-much-help-to-you-I-can’t-even-take-in-what-you-just-said-I-don’t-think-this-is-a-good-idea……”
Before I could lose another cognitive or physical faculty, he said dully, “OK. I think we better drive, then.”
My head still jerking with tiny sobs, I returned to the office to make a final call to my sister and share the revised travel plan. The mechanic continued to work on the plane, and it was decided that a full tune-up would be completed in addition to charging the battery.
After pulling our bags from the Saratoga, we walked in silence to the nearby rental car office, which, to my great relief, was open for business. A few minutes later we climbed into the rental car, clutching the paper maps provided by the agent — me licking my wimp-wounds and my husband wrestling with thoughts of a dream deferred.
Around 9pm, we reached my sister’s house at the Outer Banks. We spent two days there, having to make the return drive to Charleston on Wednesday to beat a storm system that was brewing in Iowa.
The flight from Charleston to Chicago was the most turbulent I’d ever experienced. My husband agreed fully agreed that it was one of his as well — we bumped and dipped and jerked the entire three hours. I recited a loop of Hail Marys non-stop, in between attempts to unclench my hands, now fused to either side of my seat.
It was my last flight in the teeny weeny plane.
It would be commercial aviation for me from now on.
But, you know …. the security lines stretch for miles, you’re charged for every bag you check, the engines are loud, the cabin is dry, it’s crowded, your knees get bloodied by the chair in front of you, pretzels seal your tongue to the roof of your mouth, and seriously, have you ever arrived on time anywhere ?