Not only to fly, but to bring the world's eyes...skyward.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Twenty turns about a star…

Right about now in 1990, I was sitting on my bed in some nondescript motel in Wichita, surrounded by manuals for the Swearingen (later Fairchild) SA226 Metroliner II and Air Midwest, the company who owned the several dozen I was training to fly, and I was probably trying to find a radio station that wasn't playing M.C. Hammer or C&C Music Factory.

I could - not - believe - I was there.

I had about 800 hours, only about 100 in multi-engine airplanes. I don't think I'd flown ten hours in actual instrument conditions or shot more than a handful of approaches to published minimums, and I had yet to "go missed" or divert to an alternate. Air Midwest's hiring minimums were 1500 total and 300 multi-engine, but they were known to make exceptions for college aviation degree holders. I was the one from my school that year.

I had yet to (legally) buy a beer. Yet I was about to spend six weeks preparing to take joint responsibility for 19 poor souls at a whack who'd discovered Air Midwest's de facto company motto, "It's Us, or the Bus," and found themselves crouching to strap their rear ends to something that looked like a sewer pipe and a cruise missile had taken a shine to each other - one of the few airplanes I know of that's significantly longer than its wingspan.

It had no autopilot. It had no autothrottle. It had no flight director. It was an ergonomic disaster set to the buzzing throb of two engines that idled at 70% of their maximum speed. It would supposedly fly on one engine - after the gear was up, although it often required the extra 200 rabid hamsterpower that water injection afforded it to stagger into the air in the first place. But good God, when it all worked, which it nearly always did, could it ever haul ass. 250 knots is the speed limit below 10,000 feet, and the Metroliner had a killjoy redline on its airspeed indicator at 248, but we all knew it was easily a 330-360 knot airplane - and it was built so brick-outhouse-like, it felt like it could punch a hole right through the middle of a Kansas thunderstorm and come out the other side wearing the same evil grin under its needle-nose, with those damned direct-drive Garretts still shrieking like banshees, seeming to tell the world what it could do if it had some eff-ing problem with airplane noise.

About a quarter of them didn't even have flight instruments on the right side of the cockpit, and we FO's had to look off of the Captain's Jepp charts, but we were still expected to "pull our weight" and fly half of the four to ten (yes, that's one-zero, TEN) legs a day on our schedule, flying cross-panel through the same weather-concentrated slice of troposphere they did. We were always in the goo, in the bumps, in the ice. The only weather we could out-climb was fog. The guys I flew with there were the best I've ever seen, and I owe so much of what I've learned about flying to them.

Soddamn Inssein invaded Kuwait that same summer, and struggling Air Midwest began its long, pitiful slide into extinction by selling its Brasilias, Slaabs, and Junkstreams - and furloughing me. But after a long 80 days, I was back, and later that next year reluctantly kissed my friend the Metro goodbye as our new owner, Mesa, force-fed us Beechcraft 1900C's faster than we could train for them. Apparently, Larry Risley preferred airplanes that cost more, weighed more, used more fuel, and broke down more often, but carried the same number of people (but with their bags - in the same plane!) in marginally better comfort.

I'd have gone back to the Metro before you could say "buzzkill."

A couple of long years later, that's just what I did. My old Metroliner ground school instructor, Ben Crawford, had long since gone to work for SkyWest, so I tracked him down and got an interview there. The pilots interviewing me seemed suspicious and asked me point-blank why I wanted to make a "lateral" career move. I couldn't help but laugh.

A few weeks later, SkyWest's Camielle Ence called to offer me a class date of February 9, 1994, which, of course, I didn't yet know was about ten months before my "camping trip" in Martinez Canyon which would give me the idea for my "Christmas in Kydex" post.

Camielle apologetically told me the class would be for their Metroliner III, but that a Brasilia slot would probably open to me within a year. Would I be ok with that?

"That's just fine, Camielle," I managed to choke out with my heart in my throat.

"I love Metros."

Friday, June 18, 2010

One in a Million

A tweet prompted me to toss my hat in the ring at Book of Odds' corporate blog's "One in a Million" contest page, and now, with profound gratitude, I'm thrilled to announce that my story of surviving a plane crash and recovering from a spinal cord injury was chosen as the winner. "The prize," you ask? A $50 iTunes gift card. But wait...there's more.

Ten years of bachelorhood set me up with a music collection of which I'm already quite proud. Rather than finally capturing and preserving for my progeny fifty more songs that beg for a volume knob that "goes to eleven," I thought I might try to help someone add a few more bricks to their own wall and give what I can to some people who are still missing, yet so richly deserve, what I was mercifully given back after my crash.

So, with Book of Odds' blessing, I'm running a contest of my own - a hybrid, actually. "The prize?" you ask? Well, ironically, that same $50 iTunes gift card. How can you win it? Comment to this post. Your comment must contain the word "miracle" in at least one sentence and a bid for the iTunes card, with 100% of the bid going to Paralyzed Veterans of America. Comments/bids will close at MIDNIGHT on July 1, 2010. The iTunes card will go to the highest bidder as of 11:59:59 on June 30. In the event of a tie (not that people wouldn't gladly pay more than face value of the card, knowing that every penny of their cost was going to what I feel to be one of the most worthy of causes), I will choose a winner from amongst those placing the bids tied for highest, based on the inspirational value of their comment.

We all owe everything we take for granted in this country to veterans like my stepsons, brothers, sister, father, uncles, grandfather, and many other brave relatives, stretching back to the Revolutionary War. And I owe a lot of what I used to take for granted to God and the people of His who together worked a miracle in my life, delivering me from a life separated from my destiny - to be a pilot.

I can't think of any better way to honor all of them, except perhaps by getting a book I'm writing about my experience published someday. Any publishers or literary agents interested in a very different kind of memoir, please contact me for a full proposal.

So, what's your Freedom, the full use of your arms and legs, and a $50 iTunes gift card worth to you?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

My Polaris

We Western guys have made quite a reputation for ourselves over the eons for the things we'll do for the love of a woman. Every age sees us find some new way to make a big, bold, sometimes eminently public statement meaning, and invariably ending with, the same two truly magical words: "marry me." When I was a kid a guy couldn't go wrong with getting a radio DJ to dedicate a song to his girl, or, if he had the money, he might be able to find a pilot to tow a banner overhead or skywrite a message for her. I'd bet my next paycheck no one ever paid for anywhere near 140 characters. Today we have athletic and entertainment venue billboards and, for those of us less well-connected, the internet.

It only seems to happen in the movies, but I suppose there has to have been a few guys over the years who've either lost, or come really close to losing, the love of their lives and done something huge, even if only in the most deeply personal context of their relationship, to get her back. Like, take out the trash without being asked, for example.

But seriously, I think the couples who manage to stay couples never get to that point because they have, or find, ways to keep from taking each other for granted. Enter yet another blessing my flying career provides. Every week, I have to say goodbye to my love, for several days, and return to the singular lifestyle I was never really that hot about for the first twenty-eight years I lived it. I often relish the peace and quiet (it does wonders for my writing), but I always miss my friend.

While trying in vain to sleep on my break high over Paraguay one night in May, I kept returning to an audio program of classic movie themes, some of which took me back, in my semi-lucid state, to the days of my youth when they were popular.

As my friends and family know, I never went through a "wild oats" phase. I've always adored women but I could never pick (on) more than one "favorite" at a time. I jokingly tell people I started looking for a wife about the time I outgrew my Big Wheel, but it's not far from the truth. If you don't' believe me, my first fiancé (from first grade!), now just my dear friend Tisha Brady, will back me up.

Listening to the themes from Arthur, Superman, An Officer and a Gentleman, Ghost, When Harry Met Sally, and Beaches, I remembered like it was yesterday the longing I'd had for one girl after another as those hormones worked their magic. It occurred to me that if I could put any one of those songs on the radio right then, perhaps prefaced by one of Casey Casem's trademark Long Distance Dedications, or, better yet, just click my heels three times and wake up in my living room, then just stop what I was doing, pull my wife to me, and dance with her the way I'd have died to all those years before we met, I would. But I was 4000 miles away—six of them being vertical.

Sadly, the distractions of Life and Parenthood rather effectively keep such moments from happening spontaneously, organically, magically, the way they so easily and frequently did when we were young—even if only in our starry-eyed "Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So" daydreams. So if, as we must, we're going to nourish our relationships with such indulgences, they must be planned, which is, admittedly, a big-time buzzkill.

Enter yet another blessing my so-called writing career provides: it does take two to tango (or just stand there holding each other, shifting our weight from foot to foot and s l o w l y turning circles, like what every generation since the 1960's has called "dancing"), or to successfully dedicate a song that's on the radio for perhaps three minutes, but I can tell the blogosphere how much I love my wife and my life with her all by myself, and, sooner or later, she'll get the message.

To dedicate, or call just one song "ours," would be quite a task for a music lover like me, and even music and lyrics are, at best, still imperfect means of communicating emotion, so I'm not going to bother. Instead, I'm just going to say that my wife and I are having a milestone anniversary this year, albeit a year late.

We met on this date in 1998, married a year later, and have been each other's best friend since the magical week in between when we discovered that there's something between us that makes what we both previously called love seem a sideshow. If, as the song goes, love's a rollercoaster, then I'd have to say what we have's the real estate on which the damned thing's built: solid, level, immovable; hidden in plain sight from all but the very few who know what was there before and what will remain.

We're waking up in Miami on our anniversary this year, but that night I'll finally get to pick her up and take her "into the night." What we'll do in Rio the next couple of days is not yet a memory, but I know a few dances are overdue.

If I could fly

I'd pick you up

I'd take you into the night

And show you a love like you've never seen


Happy Anniversary, baby

Got you on my mind

An aviation love story...

Twilight landing at LAX

Martinez Canyon Rescue