Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Late Breakfast

The sun was shining blue sky above the trees from my window, but the weather afield was a bit different - overcast at a thousand, chance of fog in Kenai to the south (clear above that layer) and visibility down to the ground, freezing fog swallowed Palmer and Wasilla to the north. So I called J - a man similarly feeling the itch to fly, for he'd found one thing or another come up for months. His wife answered, amused, and told me he was out checking the progress of the plane's preheat - he'd been been up and at it, off and on, since five in the morning.

When I came over, we quickly decided to leave his patient wife the van, and he moved about the garage with a purpose, gathering things to take on the trip. Down coats close kin to sleeping bags went in the car, and the survival gear already in the plane, but ah! headsets! So inside went went as he unearthed the bag and searched through it in the warmth of the house. I had brought my own, and we compared our cousin models of the David Clark lineage under his wife's tolerant eye. He'd misplaced his hearing aid, but puttered along fine without it (that is what the headset's volume knob is for, after all), and with everything gathered, off we went.

N78RR stood shining in the winter sun, generator putting along quietly, as we pulled up. "Already got the wing covers and tail covers off her." J announced, pleased - all that had held him earthbound long enough for me to come, it seemed, was the stubborn tendency of cold oil and cold engine to stay cold, thermal mass in single-digit temperature air taking a long time to heat for gentle engine starting. When everything was in the plane, though still tied down, he grabbed the propeller and turned the engine around with powerful shoves. I watched, noting the careful placement of his body - the man knows how to handprop, and I don't. But even with the cylinders turned so warm oil would lubricate the cold metal, the engine wouldn't turn over on the first, or third try. A careful shutdown, a few more hand cranks, and the next time round was a charm. Untied, he pulled the plane out of the parking spot, and I ran back to my car to ease it out of the way and into the tiedown. Then I ducked against the cold prop blast, and ran for the passenger door. I couldn't open it against the prop blast until he leaned over and popped it open from the inside, and my hands felt faintly numb as I secured the door and drew my seat up to proper distance for my legs.

We taxiied toward the runway as I opened the supplemental and checked the instructions for heading south - it's been well over a year since I last departed the ground from Merrill's runways, and the careful instructions full of local landmarks and altitudes to be under and over by such needed reviewing. It was here that I realized most acutely our differences - as a member of the geeks who inherited the earth, I'm easily adapted to acronyms and titles. We were listening to the ATIS information version Charlie, then taking the Campbell Creek Departure south. (There are a multitude of departures and arrivals, each carefully crafted in regulations.) But to the owner of the plane, a man who'd been born in the Great Depression, we were as he told ground control "headed south with weather Charlie."

ATC tried to get him to fit to narrower conventions. "Are you taking the Campbell Creek departure?"
"Yep. Headed south."
So much for acronyms.

He had me get the checklist - no shortcuts where it matters - and we ran through the well-handled page with its peeling lamination. And away we went, into the bright blue yonder. His handling of the plane was smooth and sure, gentle and controlled as if he wore it. I shadowed him on yoke and rudders, a little awkward at being in the copilot seat, a little awkward at being in a complex plane with its manifold pressure and prop control, with the extra gauges that monitors, and a little awkward at being back to toe brakes after the supercub with its heel brakes. But south we went, climbing on the proper path and course, climbing where we should, until we were over the Turnagain arm with is discs of frozen seawater clumping the channel like a forgotten petri dish. Along the way, the heater finally started living up to its name, and the speckled frost on the windshield melted away.

Above us, the brilliant blue sky, marked with faint scattered checks of high-altitude cirrus, shone brightly. Below us, the land was a patchy spread of grey-black barren forest threaded and splotched with wide white courses of rivers and lakes. To our left, until we turned and put them at our tail, the maintain rose above the darker forest clawing at their sides and crested in brilliant white snow, lined with dark rock where winds had blown the cover free. Far ahead, we could see the oil platforms in the ocean, squat structures mere dark blocky shapes against the icy waters by day. (By night, they blaze with light, like a string of stars in blue and orange captured from the heavens and strung down the middle of the channel) But in the middle distance lay a long, soft white cover like a woman's dropped shawl, wispy at the edges and puddled into opaque wite, near-flat. We eved the overcast. From above, shining white and serene, it may as well have been mist, creeping among the trees - but this mist hung at a 1200 to a thousand feet above the ground, and we descended to head under it for Kenai.

Never hug the base of a cloud - the air is hazy there, visibility limited. Still, ducking under leaves you in misty grey, the horizon hazed by merging of snow and cloud in sight lines, the world painted cold and dim by blocking the sun. It tempts you to hug the cloud, for you feel too close to the trees below, going too fast. We had neglected to bring the GPS (a shame; I'd have liked to see the 296 in action), so we unfolded the charts, dialed in the Kenai VOR, centered the needle, and headed for it. Nobody else seemed to be flying by the silence on the airwaves, and we both committed verbally to turning around if the weather dropped below feeling safe.

On and on in that dim grey light, wondering just how far to the VOR, scanning every patch of white ahead for the witch's hat shaped building. And then, J relaxed - he pointed at a long streak of white ahead. "There's Kenai."
I frowned, looking at it. He'd let me have the controls, to feel the airplane, but I couldn't resolve the patches of grey and dark grey into anything recognizable. "I don't see it."
"Look. There's the river, coming up..." And he drew the shapes before us into landmarks he knew, until I spotted a black arch against the white, and knew the bridge between Soldotna and Kenai. He called tower at 8 miles out, too the controls, and descended into a long, easy 45 degree entry into downwind. Once close, the long white strip resolved itself into a snow-covered airfield, with a snow-covered runway. "Braking action fair" the weather advised, and I was amazed to see how fast the plane came down, and how smoothly. The Cessna 182 is a monsterous version of a 172, and J advised me it was wise to carry power, have some throttle in, as you land her. She sinks like stone in a rapid-running river with flaps in.

Parking in transient was easy, and we took advantage of the lack of even light wind by not digging out tiedowns to attach to the frozen ground. Instead, out through a gate in the fence, and to the cafe in the main terminal. A sign admonished us on the way out to register and to close our flight plan. We'd filed no flight plan - though J's wife knew very well where we were going, and when we ought to be back - but I queried him on the seemingly mandatory registration. "Ah, I do it sometimes, just to see who else has been in and out of here." He replied.

On the way to the terminal, a man came out a side door. He too wore his grey and white hair proudly under his ball cap, uncaring of the temperatures. "hey, is that door open?" J called.
The man grinned. "No!" A pause. "It's shut now, but it will be when you get there!"
"Great!" J called back, in the affectionate enthusiasm of old men yanking each others chains everywhere. "Just what I need to start my day, a smartass!" They grinned at each other, and we went inside.

The food was good, the conversation very interesting. Over chicken fried steak for him and biscuits and gravy for me (and hot chocolate for us both), we talked of his learning to fly, planes he'd owned, my upcoming trip, and planes we'd flown. Like many pilot conversations, it was periodically interrupted by our heads swivelling to watch planes taking off and landing. Stuffed and warm, it was time to hit the bathroom before flying.

A man who seemed comparatively young to my gracious host, maybe only fourty-odd, was shilling for signatures in the terminal near the cafe, for the clean water initiative. (Basically an attempt to outlaw any commercial mining in southwestern Alaska, in the name of keeping the water sacredly pure for fish.) He was locally dressed, in well-worn carharrts and scuffed boots, and polite with everyone passing by. Another man headed to the water fountain, dressed near-identically, gave him an appraising scowl after politely declining to sign. "Are you an Alaskan?"
"Yes, sir, I am."
"How long have you lived here?"
"Nearly forty-two years."
The hostility evaporated, and the passing man nodded. "Well, I understand your aims, but it's the wrong way to go about things. I can't say I agree." They fell to quiet discussion, neither likely to be moved to the other's point of view, but both willing to test their arguments and defenses against the opposition.

J and I headed back out to the plane, and he motioned me around to the pilot's side afte we took the engine cover off and put it away. The controls are interchangeable, but the tradition is ironclad, and all the gauges are aimed at the person on the left. I ran through the checklist, a little shaky with nervous energy, and we gave the engine a hot start. It took a lot more power to taxi than I'm used to, but it wasn't long before we were holding short, requesting takeoff from the tower, and climbing out.
We went north this time, staying where cloud base was higher, aiming toward the golden band of sunlight off the mountains that shone between grey cloud base and grey snow. North past the VOR, north near to the coast, then following the cost and the single road along it until we ran out of road. J found his backup GPS, and started it as we ran along, pacing past Fire Island and the approach into Anchorage International on the other side of the Turnagain Arm. The cloud cover ended abruptly, and we were back in the brilliant sunshine. I took the opportunity to try some gentle maneuvers, then bolder ones. My shoulder still isn't back to anywhere near normal strength (I fear it never may be again), and I could not haul the nose back far enough, with the engine roaring merrily, to make a power-on stall. J noted lightly that he really wasn't out to stall the airplane anyway, blithely moving past my body failing to pull once-easy maneuvers with the same disregard shown for official names for departures. It wasn't a big deal; why worry about it?

Across the inlet, down into the regulation territory - I was pretty far behind the plane, struggling gamely to catch up, though at least the land below was intimately familiar. Low on final, and adding plenty of power to carry through to the runway - really, adding power, discovering that alone wouldn't make it climb, and adding more. Over the end of the runway now, and easing back the power, waiting, letting the airplane settle. Caution came to me - the nosewheel has the same big tire as the mains, making it easy to taxi and unlikely to get stuck on soft sand or snow, but also prone to tail strike as a higher nose meant a lower tail. So I put aside worries and embarrassment, and concentrated on the feel, power out, of the airplane. wai...wait...raise a little...wait...raise, raise, gently now... in near-calm wind, the mains touched just as the stall horn came on, and the nose lay gently down soon after. Not quite on centerline, but not bad.

We taxied to gas, which like breakfast, he refused to let me pay, and he taxied to parking, to tie down and cover. It was nearly five, with 1.8 on the tach, and the sun was blazing its dying glory on the western sky, as it'd taken almost all the daylight to fly to breakfast and back. We'd be home for the wing covers drying in the garage and putting them back on by the glow of the streetlights and headlights of his van. Worth every bit of cold, every second of cloudy grey skies, easily the best breakfast in months.


  1. I must tell you lass, you've a way words.

    I could picture everything you wrote as if it twere myself there instead.

  2. AWESOME story!
    Thanks for the great read!