“Mike! Get the Stinson out now!” I was yelling as I was running back to the FBO office. Dog ran after me, he thought this was a fun new game. Sarah was standing on the ramp, just watching the plane fly low and off to the east. Inside the office, I grabbed a sectional chart from behind the counter and yanked it up, laying it out over the counter.
Sarah came in, “Are you going after him?”
“Absolutely. How much fuel was left in that plane?”
“Maybe half a tank, no more than an hour to an hour and half of flying.” she said.
“He will have twenty minutes on us, and only maybe ten knots slower. But the daylight is waning quickly, and that plane has no electric, so he’ll have to put down within the next half an hour or risk landing in the dark. I somehow think he’s too smart for that. This man has a plan. He was deliberate. Your plane and my jacket. Why?”
Mike came in through the side door. “She’s ready to go, fuel’s full.”
“Mike, need you to stay here. Call the cops and get a hold of CAP over at MTSU. They can start sending out search planes as well.”
From behind me, “No, I’ll do that. You take Mike and Sarah and go. Go now before he gets further away. And be careful, Jack. The weather is starting to turn.”
Olivia had come in the front. I had thought she had left for the day, but I was glad to see her. The more eyes I had in the air with me, the better chance we all had to find where this crazy old fart. Olivia pulled out a handkerchief from her purse and wiped the blood from my face. The bleeding had stopped, but I am sure I looked a mess.
Mike was looking at the radar using the FBO public computer. “Front’s lining up to the southwest. I figure we have about twenty minutes before the ceiling starts dropping and rain comes in.”
“Ok, let’s go. Sarah, you’re riding co-pilot, Mike, you’re in back and grab those binoculars.”
I snatched the keys from under the FBO counter for the Stinson and we all made haste to the flight line. I knew that plane like the back of my hand, every knock, tick, and hum. My fingers moved over the control switches and just as soon as everyone was seated, I had the engined turned over. Brakes released, we made a quick taxi to the runway. I didn’t bother with the usual run-up, just pushed in the throttle and let her fly. With full fuel and three adults on board, we used a good portion of the runway, but the Stinson 108-1 was a reliable, sturdy plane and like all planes of her age, she longed to fly. She might have been built in 1946, but under the care of Mike Shephard, this old Stinson flew like it had just rolled off the factory line – maybe better.
I turned east immediately at coming airborne. We were just high enough to clear the tops of trees and neighboring houses, keeping the throttle to the wall, leveling the plane out just a few hundred feet above the ground to quickly build speed. I was sure I’d get a nasty letter from the local residents for buzzing so low over their homes, but they all ended up in the same general file cabinet under the desk next to the shredder.
As the plane leveled into maximum cruise speed, I throttled back just a bit to keep the engine from running too hard. Unfortunately, the Stinson and the RNF were will matched close on speed, and I was only hoping that the pilot might throttle back to 75% power setting instead of pushing hard not expecting us to actually pursue. Sarah was leaning forward in her seat, staring at the horizon. Mike was bouncing back in forth in the back, looking out each side window with the binoculars. I glanced over my right shoulder and back to the southwest, seeing the looming gray clouds amass a weather front that was surely going to make the evening interesting.
“We could have taken the Goose,” said Mike.
“True, would have had over twice the speed, but also needed a much longer runway. This guy isn’t going far. We’re not going to find him at another airport, he’ll find a place; field, grass strip, something small and off the path to land and hide.
“Look, this chase is a long shot at best. Only hope is maybe to pin point where he headed and direct the authorities. We can’t stay up here long and expect a safe return with that front moving in.”
Sarah looked at me and I knew she heard my words, and that realization made her heart sink. But as I looked at her, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on. I knew little about this woman, where she came from, or what she was mixed up in. I didn’t even know her last name, and I suddenly started questioning what she had been telling us all day. I attend a lot of aviation events every year, and to my memory I have never seen her nor that RNF before. The Waco community isn’t that large, and like most tight knit clubs, everyone knows everyone who owns one, even if they aren’t a club member. Sarah and her RNF were a mystery.
“You said you’re here visiting family?” I asked, looking at Sarah out of the corner of my eye.
“Yes, my Uncle.”
“What’s your family name? I was just wondering why I had never seen your plane at any events in the past few years.”
“We just had its restoration completed. And the name’s White. Sarah White.” She stopped her gaze forward and faced me in the cockpit. “Why do I feel like you’re grilling me now?”
“Oh, no interrogation. Mere curiosity. It’s not everyday someone swipes your leather coat and a strangers plane from under your nose. Starts to make a man curious.”
“About what’s behind it all, I guess. I got close enough to that man to learn some important things, he was probably in his sixties, and he was strong as an ox. He knew what he wanted and didn’t hesitate to take it. That just means to me there is a point here, and not an old pilot who just wanted to take a joy ride.”
Mike said, “Come on, Jack. Give her a break. Let’s just find the plane.”
I paused then shrugged. “Sure, Mike.”
Sarah’s look lingered with me for a time, but I ignored her gaze and focused out the windows, scanning the landscape below looking for any sign of those crimson wings. When the town faded out below and only the fields and farms lay beneath us, I started flying south. Unless that man was making a bee-line for Knoxville, he had either landed somewhere or we were in the wrong spot of air. So now I did the best thing I could think to do, start flying lanes. We’d head south for five miles, turn west for a mile or two, then head back North. I’d do this as long as I could, searching the fields below, looking for any open field, runway, or place that man could have set down the RNF.
Light was fading quickly, and I turned on the Navigation lights and strobes. The Stinson had full electric and could fly at night, but that only meant as the dark approached, our chances of finding the plane was coming to a close. I turned the radio over to the air-to-air band and called out for any Civil Air Patrol planes that might have gotten airborne. No one answered, which meant the Commanding Officer probably wouldn’t launch a search with the impending weather and dark looming. I saw the occasional aircraft, usually much higher, and the cast of their lights meant it wasn’t the plane we were looking for. Time was running out, and I was starting to loose faith and certainly running out of ideas.
“There’s one last place to check. Mike, isn’t there an abandoned grass field around here?”
“Yea, the old Brewster place. Should be about ten degrees to your right, maybe five miles. Getting harder to see the landmarks with the sun setting behind those clouds, but if you follow those road lights, it will be on your left just south of the next street intersection. That should be easy enough to spot.”
I followed his instructions and took the Stinson down a few hundred feet and followed the road. Light was nearly gone, just a purple haze of twilight. This was the last chance we had to find the plane or it was time to head back. Just as suddenly, a flash of lightning lit the sky behind us, illuminating the inside of the cockpit and proving that time was gone.
“Guys, this is the last chance. We don’t spot anything here, we’re heading back to Murfreesboro.”
I saw the intersection just ahead, but I still couldn’t make out the old strip. I knew it was an abandoned farm. I had driven by it more than I had ever really paid attention to it from the air. I knew there was a white house on the Southwest corner of the property. It had a long winding gravel driveway, lined with trees, and the grass strip ran east and west, maybe fifteen hundred feet long. There was a pole barn off the main house and when I first moved to Tennessee, the owner kept a small Piper Cub in the barn. I recall always thinking that it would be a nice property to own, but I have preferred living at the main house at the airport now and avoided any kind of commuting even by air.
“Right there, Jack.” Mike said. “Eleven O’Clock.”
“I see it,” said Sarah.
“Got it. I’m going to come directly over the property just to the east, then circle back.”
Just as I was only a half a mile out, all three of us saw the same shadow pass over the road at the same time.
“My plane!” Exclaimed Sarah. “He’s still airborne. Right there at our two o-clock!”
I couldn’t believe we had spotted him. He was lower than us, but not by much and probably only a half a mile off our nose. I put the Stinson in a shallow dive, building speed and pushed the throttle to the wall. The airspeed indicator shot into the yellow and the engine screamed in protest.
“Jesus, Jack!” yelled Mike. “This isn’t a dog fight!”
Mike sat back in his seat and I knew he was pulling his belt tighter across his waste. I saw Sarah also tightening her shoulder harnesses. I banked the Stinson thirty degrees, and put the Waco just to the right of the nose. We were on a straight line collision course but with my speed, I figured I’d time it close enough to pass in front of the Waco enough to get his attention. The closer we came, though, I started to think I might be too close.
The Waco was on final and descending to land, his power was reduced just enough, and he put the airplane in a slip. That was the room we needed, and at near 130 mph, we sank in low and skimmed right across his path not more than one plane length away. I yanked hard on the yoke with both hands, and kicked the rudder turning over to the left at forty-five degrees, climbing and turning 180 degrees about. There were a few stupid things I have done in life, and that was certainly one of them. True enough, could have followed him in to the runway but I had every other intention to escort this guy right back to Murfreesboro and the authorities there. Call it pilot justice, but you don’t walk into my house and steal my shit. That simple.
The gamble worked, or so I thought. The Waco broke off his approach, fazed enough to abort the landing and climb out, heading straight back to the west. I circled the Stinson around and came in beside the Waco on my left wing. I could see the pilot clear enough in the rear seat, and he was frowning at me behind his goggles. I gestured with my hand and pointed to him and then to the west. He didn’t have a radio, so I hoped that it was clear I wanted him to follow me back to Murfreesboro. I actually thought I saw him nod.
“See,” I said. “Message clear and received. Now, let’s see if we can all get us back home before that storm rolls in.”
“I’ll be,” said Mike, “can’t believe that worked. You must have scared him good, he’ll want to check his shorts when he lands. Then again, I might have left a skiddy myself. Don’t do that again, Jack. Seriously. Ever.”
Sarah was quiet. I gripped the yoke and the throttle, afraid that if I released them everyone could see my hands shaking.
We flew in formation for a good minute, and just as the adrenaline was starting to drain from my body and fatigue taking over, the Waco pilot did something completely unexpected. He banked the Waco up and started climbing, heading directly for the storm front.
“Shit!” I said.
“Where’s he going?” asked Sarah.
“Jack, he wouldn’t, would he?” asked Mike.
“Guys, we can’t follow him to the storm. I’ll get as close as I can go, maybe he is trying for another landing spot. We’ll follow until we can no more.”
I banked the Stinson in pursuit, pushing the throttle to the wall again and was able to gain a few knots on the Waco, keeping me just a few hundred feet off his tail. He leveled out at two thousand feet, but his course never faltered. There was no way he was going to find a landing spot with the light now all but gone. His only chance was to follow us in to land, but seems the he had other intentions and we were just flying to the scene of an accident.
“Folks, shows over. We can’t go further. I’m calling it in,” I said, reaching for the radio controls and about to call in a Mayday.
Just as I started turning the radio knobs there was a bright flash and a sudden blast of noise that felt as if my ear drums had burst. Pressure filled my chest and the hairs on my arms stood on end. I managed to look through the windshield and saw the outline of the Waco just for a second before a second flash of blue white light filled my eyes, then nothing but blackness.
Flickers of light.
Recognition that it was my voice whimpering in the microphone.
I blinked once…twice…
My eyes shot open.
Daylight filled my vision.
Crimson wings flashed by, banking hard and descending into a spiral. I caught my breath, physically telling myself to breath. In and out. Green trees lined the field below me, and suddenly I felt the odd sensation that the world was pulling backward and up, but the attitude indicator in front of me showed a slow turn to the right and a gentle climb. I heard my old flight instructor in the back of my head screaming at me to pay attention to the instruments, and I instinctively leveled the plane using instruments, ignoring the sensations my body felt. In just a few seconds the spatial disorientation began to subside, though my stomach still felt a bit queasy.
As my body began to recover, my brain also started to catch up with the present surrounding, and it wasn’t believing in what it was seeing.
Where were the clouds?
Where was the night?
The sun was hanging off the horizon to the west with what had to be two or three more hours of daylight left.
“Mike, Sarah?” I turned and looked at my passengers. Mike was coming around, and he had thrown up all over himself, a putrid smell filled the cabin. Sarah was unconscious but I could see her breathing.
I remembered seeing those Waco wings, and they had been banking to the north. I turned the Stinson in a shallow, slow turn. The air was reasonably smooth, and the old Franklin seemed unfazed. The plane responded to everything I asked of it, and for that I was grateful. It was the one thing that made the most logical sense right now. So I trusted in what I could physically see and touch. We were flying, under power and in control. That’s all that mattered and so we flew, basic stick and rudder skills.
As we turned back to the North, I scanned the fields below, looking for the Waco. Then I saw it, just a quarter mile off on the right. It was on landing approach, right back into that same farmer’s field. There was the white house and the small pole barn. Only now the landing strip didn’t look much like a runway, just a grassy field that paralleled the road. There was nothing marking the boundaries of the runway. I followed the Waco in and entered a left base leg. I saw him touch down and roll out to the barn.
Pulling the power back, carb heat out and slowing the Stinson for landing; these were motions that I let my instincts guide me through. Logic and thought had left the building for the time being. I just wanted to get on the ground and maybe wake up from this nightmare.
I turned from left base to a final leg and lined the ship up for landing, feeling for the wind and correcting with rudder and opposite aileron. I kept my speed slow, wanting to touch down on all three wheels at the same time at the lowest possible speed, unsure of the grass conditions.
Just as I cleared a row of bushes, I flared the Stinson and held it back, letting the stall horn blare as she eased onto the soft grass. Remarkably the field was reasonably soft and smooth. We rolled out without brakes until the airplane nearly came to a stop. I advanced the throttle then, and taxied the old Stinson up alongside the Waco, shutting down the Franklin. I removed my headphones and set them on top of the instrument panel. I heard the gentle breeze flow through the grass fields and trees and the tick of the engine cooling.
The Waco pilot was leaning against the plane waiting for us. He was smiling. Sarah began coming to and moaned. Mike was awake and staring out the window without word. I looked at him over my shoulder and he met my eyes, a look that confirmed what I was thinking.
If we are dead, why do we all feel so terrible. I popped my door open and climbed from the Stinson cabin, walking up to the old man. My knees were shaking a bit, but my nerve was returning and my hands balled into tightly clinched fists.
“Easy son,” said the man. “Maybe you should sit down. It’s a hell of a kick that ride.”
“What?” I muttered.
“Not, ‘what’, son. That’s the wrong question.”
“The wrong question?”
“Yes, son. When. That’s the right question.”
The he laughed.