The Navigator: Part I

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“That layer of clouds is closing in more rapidly than I would like, Little Dude.”

Jake just cocked his head at me, then stepped his front paws on top of the instrument panel and peered out the forward window.He yawned, showing his sharp white teeth. Unconcerned, Jake hopped down and curled into a tiny little ball on the co-pilots seat, let out a deep sigh and went back to sleep. Some conversationist. I was blind tired, and talking to the dog was about my last resort. But even on this trip and this day, my birthday, the dog could care less.

I’ve spent the past two days on the go couriering parts from a manufacturer in central Ohio down to a small airport on the east side of Atlanta and back using our lovely aged Grumman Goose. Three trips altogether, carrying small crates of machine parts for some kind of plastic extruding equipment. The contract was time sensitive, and the company that chartered the flights was no picnic. At first they wanted to send six of their corporate people with the first load. I think they were heading to the Master’s in Augusta and wanting an easy ride. After I had asked for everyone’s weights and the packages, that was not an option. Not one of the corporate guys was under 250 pounds and the equipment was large enough to require me having to yank four seats out of the Goose just to fit it all in. So they settled for two people and the load. Every conversation was about how time sensitive this entire charter was, yet they showed up two hours late for the first flight. Since this charter came in from a broker network I belonged to, I wasn’t familiar with the companies nor really cared. The money was good, enough to afford the new engine for the Stinson, and possibly enough left over for the deck on my house. But these guys reminded me so much of why I left the corporate world years before and started working for myself. Their conversations were rude, often aggressive and the older guy with the beard, well he didn’t think much of his management team. Apparently he was the only one with a good idea, and could not comprehend how twenty other college educated business professionals could ever have a different opinion on what he thought mattered most.

The flight to Atlanta with my passengers and first load of cargo was smooth despite the two hour delay at departure awaiting their arrival. Jake took his customary seat beside me in the cockpit. He was quite used to the flying now, having spent a year and probably a couple hundred air hours in various small planes as well as the Goose. The Goose was surely his favorite, much quieter and no need to wear the mutt muffs to protect his hearing. When the plane was flying light on cargo or passengers, he would curl up by the aft entry door and sleep the trip away. And when the plane was full, he took to the co-pilots seat and did his best to keep me company – at least acting as a sounding board when I felt like rambling on about the weather, flight conditions, mixture settings, or the new house that was being built which included its own three thousand foot grass runway. He made me feel less crazy for talking to myself on these trips.

But our passengers on this flight, who I have to refer to only as the two fat men since I forgot their names early on, conversed constantly on the trip. I paid little attention to the conversation, yet could certainly get the tone and it wasn’t too pleasant. I imagine that there was a reckoning coming for some of the employees. They also consumed a high volume of alcohol on the trip. I had furnished them with a couple glasses and some ice and water from a small cooler I kept for these occasional charters. The older fat man brought his own scotch, and I’d say they made good progress drinking the neck and shoulders off that bottle by the time we started our approach to land.

When we landed, there was a car waiting on the ramp to collect the two fat men and their bottle of booze. Off they went, a quick handshake and good bye, and just like that I was able to part ways with two rather unpleasant people. A small box truck was also there to collect the cargo, and two very southern men to help move the load from the plane to the truck. It would take another hour and a half with the head wind to make the return, an hour to reload, and then make one more trip with the intention of landing just at sunset that night for the second load. We made arrangements to meet and exchanged phone numbers so we could get in touch in case of any further delay. I’d return late back to Ohio and bunk down at the airport so I could make an early departure the next day for the last cargo run, putting this charter behind me swiftly. Over all, everything went according to plan, and the weather cooperated well until the return on the second day when the clouds started to advance and the barometer was dropping quickly.

“Better go find a more secure seat, Little Dude, think we’re in for some bumps very shortly.” And with that, the plane bucked and Jake went ass over nose and ended up laying upside down with his legs pointing to the cabin ceiling. “These spring thunder bumpers are going to be a doozy this year. After the winter we just had, Sarah keeps telling me we are going to end up with a hell of a summer. Go find your seat in the back.”

Jake hopped down from the seat and scurried off the rear of the plane and curled up in his blanket, hiding his head as best he could. Lightening shot horizontally across the sky just a few miles ahead. And that cinched it, I was too tired to fight through a spring thunder storm and with no storm scope in this plane, it was time to find a place to set down and wait this one out. Sure, modern planes can climb up, around or pass through some of this, but in a plane built in the forties, its best to find a place to wait it out. These are the choices I made when I picked vintage airplanes to run my little charter business. However, as old as the Goose was, she was equipped with a GPS and I set my course for an airport five miles to the west with a runway long and wide enough to accommodate the Goose. I had never been there before. It was an uncontrolled field, and the facilities directory had little remarks or services other than fuel on the field. Good enough.

The rain started pounding then, limiting visibility down to a few miles. I started a descent and turned on heading to the airport. It was still VFR, but falling rapidly and I wanted to get on the ground before I would have to call up a pop up IFR clearance. The field sat on the north side of a small country town, and with the dimming light from the overcast thunder storm clouds, it wasn’t long before I could see the street lights from the town and more car head lights popping on marking the edge of the town. Looking to the north, the field came into view. I called up the radio for the Unicom and announced my position and intention to land. The radio was silent, signaling no other traffic, or at least no one crazy enough to be up flying on a day like this. The rain eased a bit on my approach, and the wind wasn’t too gusty as I turned to downwind, dropping my gear and lowering the flaps. The sky got increasingly dark, lowering the cabin light to a point that I flipped on the navigation and landing lights. It might have been mid-day, but it felt like twilight. Coming onto final, I felt the airplane sink and then rise, signifying unstable air. I kept the speed on target, and lowered the final notch of flaps. Just as I came onto final, I turned around and looked back at Jake. His head was up, looking at me, then he yawned and lay back down. “Hold on, little dude, I’ll do my best to grease this one on.”

The Goose settled onto the runway on the two mains and the tail lowered slowly with a light bump. Throttles at idle, we coasted down the runway and bled off speed. Just as I was braking to make the taxi way, the wind picked up and shoved the Goose hard. I used opposite braking and throttle on the right engine to correct for the wind and make the turn. A bead of sweat trickled over my eye and I realized my left hand knuckles had turned white with their grip on the yoke. I forced myself to breath and relax. We were on the ground safely and just in the nick of time as this storm will be raging in minutes.

Taxing to the FBO, I saw no signs of anyone home, but I did see they had a large hangar just on the east side of the FBO office and its door was wide open. I had a gut feeling that we’d all be better off if I could get the Goose inside that hangar. So I pointed the old girl for the open door and throttled my way straight inside the large open door. I’d worry later about how I could pull it out. Lightening flashed and thunder roared, the rain and hail started pelting the tarmac. I shut down the engines and the plane fell silent, but the rage of the storm was in full force now. Letting out a long sigh, I massaged my neck and closed my eyes, just listening to the storm. Then I pulled myself from my chair and went into the back of the plane with Jake, stretched out on the floor, curling a small pillow behind my neck and closed my eyes for a very welcome nap. Jake crawled over to my side, curled up, breathed out a sigh, and closed his eyes too.

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