My Dad is a retired flight instructor, and recently he asked me to assist him with a project that involved framing a photograph of the plane he used to fly and teach his students in. The plane has now been sold, and the picture he asked me to frame was the only one he had.
I asked him if he would mind if I played around with it and try to improve the print because the one he handed me was of very poor quality. I am happy to report that I was able to “fix” the print and bring it back to life!
While working on the print, I was reminded of the one and only time I have ever flown with my Dad. It was one of those eye-popping, jaw-dropping experiences, but not for reasons you might think.
Some years back, I got a phone call that my mother was headed into emergency heart valve surgery and I was urged to get to Spartanburg, South Carolina quickly. Due to my mother’s other health issues, the prognosis was iffy and the outcome was not good. I called Dad to let him know and to alert him that I was going to head out. He quickly said he would fly me down there in the plane. That was a hugely generous offer on his part, because of the expense involved, i.e. rental fees, tarmac fees, fuel, etc. But within a couple of hours, we were airborne and on our way.
I had never flown in such a small plane. I had to wear a headset in order to protect my ears and also to be able to hear my father and my father to be able to hear me. The flight down was quick and we flew mostly inside the clouds. It was as if we were wrapped in cotton. I kept waiting to see another plane appear out of nowhere right in front of us.
My mother’s surgery went well, I got to spend some quality time with her post-surgery. After a visit with all of the family, and an overnight stay at a local hotel, Dad and I headed back to Charlottesville. The start of our journey was beautiful, the sky was a majestic blue with no clouds and the landscape lushly verdant. I remember thinking the trees looked a bit like broccoli. However, my delight was soon to turn to terror and tears.
“Hey Dad? What’s that strange knocking noise?” He calmly replied “I don’t know” and then tried to determine the source but was unable to find it. “Hey Dad? Why are all the instrument gauges spinning in circles?” Dad looked and again calmly replied, “I don’t know”. We sat there watching each gauge die, one by one, and then Dad decided to just turn the entire electrical system off.
I remember asking over and over what was wrong. Dad never responded and never showed one hint of panic. Now me, I was close to hysteria thinking that we were going to crash. I did not want Dad to see me crying so I kept my face averted away from him. He would pat me on the leg or the arm and smile to let me know that we would be o.k. I remember him yelling something about how we would now have to fly by landmarks, and he started taking the plane down a bit lower so he could more easily see where he was and follow the highway home. We had no power to work the headphones so our communications were difficult. You cannot imagine how loud the engine of a small plane is especially when you are basically sitting right next to it.
For the next hour or so, the atmosphere was tense but not panic mode. Dad was very careful, watching our flight pattern and scanning the sky to be sure that there were no other planes around. Somewhere during all of this I realized that we were up in the air and we had to come down, some way, some how. It would do me no good to sit there crying and I told myself to suck it up and deal. So I did.
I helped Dad watch the skies on my side and helped him pick out the landmarks below us. We had become a team. About ten minutes outside of the Charlottesville airport, Dad turned on the electrical system one more time hoping we had enough juice left to alert the air controllers that we were coming in, the plane was in distress, and that we would have no radio. We did have juice, just enough, the air controller responded, and we headed in.
We landed with no problems, although I can tell you that when my feet hit the tarmac after off-boarding that plane I almost fell down they were so weak and felt so rubbery! And my Dad never once broke a sweat, never once showed a bit of fear, and was so professional about the whole event. Over the years I was often to hear this about him when it came to his teaching methods and time spent in the plane.
We laugh when we talk about it now. It turns out the alternator burned out which in turn caused the electrical system to go haywire. By turning off the electrical system of the plane, he saved the last bit of battery power that allowed him to make contact with the airport.
I’m sure you will not fault me when I tell you that I never went back up in that plane. No offense meant, but as I once told Dad, “I believe YOU can fly. But I can’t and I prefer terra firma.”