A story from my flying days . . .
In the Oklahoma Hills
The morning started well then went splat, she thought, as the Seneca chugged along on autopilot. She woke up at four, hustled out to the airport and managed to get the plane out of its stall without dinging or breaking anything. Then she ran back to town for passenger snacks, picking up some for her people as well as for another pilot’s load. Except she hadn’t looked at the number of his passengers, and didn’t get enough. She offered him her donuts and pastries, but he said no, and told her to go back and get more for him. He’d take care of her people. As she charged out the door, headlights turned into the parking lot. Guess who? The ranking pilot sighed and said not to bother. She made a last “pit stop,” and emerged to find that he’d taken over, to the point of introducing her to “her” passengers. Which she could understand, because he knew them and went to church with two of the three. But it still stung.
The first twenty minutes of the flight bumped along in the darkness before dawn, rumbling through air roughened by a passing cold front. Fortunately everyone fell back to sleep once the plane leveled off, leaving the pilot to her thoughts without having to sweat about queasy passengers. If only she’d looked one column farther right on the page, none of that scene would have started. She looked out the window to the paling eastern sky and dropped tight shoulders. The past few days had been like that – absent minded and perhaps a bit careless. She was tired. Very tired of office politics and the office in general, truth be told. The glitter of passing cities soon drew the pilot’s attention back outside the plane, watching the golden grids of light that marked Omaha, Lincoln and Beatrice slide under the nose. Soon ribbons of color traced through the high ice-clouds overhead, hinting of the sun’s arrival.
The long northern twilight teased more color through the thin veils above the small plane. As the sky above lightened, the world below remained in purple shadow. The rising sun began to make eye-on-chart navigation more challenging as the town lights faded into the dawn, removing the easy landmarks. To the east, the horizon seemed amazingly flat, revealing the presence of a thick layer of haze floating somewhere below the speeding Seneca. At last the sun crossed the edge of the world, a crimson ball cut by horizontal stripes that grew paler as it passed through the haze. The pilot shook her head, because it looked for all the world like the logo used by a certain hotel chain. Life imitating art? The light flamed painfully bright gold as it escaped the dusty, humid lower layer of sky. Rustles and the smell of coffee announced the awakening of her passengers, and the pilot gave them a time update and checked on the temperature – a bit cool, so she turned the heat up a notch.
Abeam Wichita KS, small patches of cumulus clouds began appearing, their bases the same height as the haze layer. As the still-low sun shone over them, the craggy clumps turned into islands, floating in a thin, foggy sea. Below, like small fish, the light reflected red-gold off scattered lakes and ponds, appearing then vanishing as the plane passed through the cool morning sky above. Ahead, the haze turned into popcorn. Unstable air churned the water into puff clouds, the small siblings of thunderheads looming south of Oklahoma City. The Seneca descended through the jouncy layer and turned a long approach for Guthrie Municipal airport. The pilot had driven past the place, and flown over it twice, but never landed. So the drop off at the south end of the runway came as a distinct eye opener. And the left engine decided to quit. On the ground, fortunately, but the pilot bristled at the fussy motor’s show of temper. How embarrassing!
Falls color ringed the hillcrest airport, providing a back drop for the two rows of small planes tied down on the ramp. The passengers quickly clambered out the door and stretched. Three hours is a long time in an airplane seat if you’re not the pilot. Their ride arrived shortly after they finished collecting briefcases and bags from around the plane, and they told the pilot to plan on a one thirty departure. She nodded, watched them go, and tidied up the back of the plane. From atop the wing-walk, she could look south across the Cimarron River valley and see Oklahoma City in the distance. Colored trees filled the distance and hemmed in the northern view. The southeast wind puffed moist, cool air that seemed to carry familiar scents. The young pilot paced around outside, enjoying the scenery. She liked being “up,” able to see the land falling away around her. It probably had something to do with her lack of stature, combined with growing up in the High Plains of Nebraska and Texas.
The morning passed quickly in reading and conversation. At eleven the airport manager handed her the keys to a tan Lincoln “Land yacht” (her words) and pointed the young lady north towards town. She passed three or four fast food outlets, noted the gas stations and wound up in the historic part of town. After circling the block, she ended up leaving the car in a free public parking lot and walking along the busy streets of the old Downtown. Brightly painted Victorian stone and plasterwork competed with thriving shop windows for her attention. At least four antique shops filled ground floors on the south side of the street, bringing a grin to the pilot’s face. Good thing a friend of her’s wasn’t along. Far too many temptations for a die-hard antiquer lined the main drag.
After an excellent lunch at the Chinese buffet, the pilot opted to stroll around and look at the buildings. The afternoon remained cool under a deck of clouds, and she had no where to go otherwise. Besides, she wanted to find some postcards, if possible. As it turned out, a rack of cards and an open door led her into the Frontier Drug Store museum. The wide-planked wooden floor creaked a bit under foot as she marveled at the cases and shelves stuffed full of remedies, bottles, packages and equipment. Some she recognized, some made her shake her head. The poison register caught her eye. Back at the turn of the century, one could buy arsenic, cocaine, laudanum and other good stuff if you registered and listed what it was for. “Killing rats” seemed to be popular, along with “medicine” and “killing skunk.” Popular tonics like the (in)famous “Lydia E. Pinkham’s Medicinal Compound” had their own displays, as did some of the more esoteric medical instruments. She even found a box of ‘”Carter’s Little Liver Pills.” The building smelled like herbs, dust and books.
Back outside, she ignored the antique shops, turned away before the Indian crafts and art gallery sucked her in, and looked at the carvings and gingerbread decorating so many of the brick and stone buildings. Guthrie had been Oklahoma’s first state capitol, before Oklahoma City captured the title, and the people of Guthrie took pride in keeping their main street alive. One interesting-looking store sold nothing but mandolins, guitars and fiddles. Across the street, another antique shop also housed the “American Four String Banjo Museum.” The pilot yielded to temptation and wandered into a dry-goods store to look at the broom skirts for sale. The window display featured a long, Victorian-style skirt in gray-blue taffeta, with a simple, white-cotton, band-collar blouse. A beautiful beaded collar, almost more of a dark metallic blue and green bead shawl , draped over the top. She didn’t even dare look for a price tag. Too many neat clothes hung from the round racks opposite bolts of Western-printed fabrics, and she looked, tried and sighed. In the end, a denim and tan broom skirt followed her out of the shop.
The more she looked, the more she liked the “feel” of the town. Guthrie had a warm tone to it, very open and friendly. People smiled a lot, and twice drivers stopped to let the slow turning airport Lincoln into traffic, grinning and waving. The pilot’s mood swung full circle from the morning’s bitterness. She wished she could have more time to poke around and explore the city, see the Capitol and other historic buildings, but duty called. She put some gas in the big car and headed back up the hill to the airport. Once there, she used the outside pay phone to call the weather service and get an update. Exciting to the south, getting lower around the local area, but good up north. She filed her flight plan and went back to the office to wait.
The trio arrived exactly when they said they would – between one and two. They talked business and finished getting the bar-b-que off their fingers while she waited, then all four boarded the plane. The Seneca took off under lower, gray skies. The southern storms had begun reaching up over the Oklahoma City area, just behind the tan twin. Everything ran smoothly at first. The rear seat passengers chatted, while the tall, rangy boss napped in the front seat. About forty miles south of Wichita, building cumulus clouds sent the Seneca around, then finally up. Way up, leveling off at eleven thousand feet. She couldn’t remember if any of these people had altitude problems, but no one seemed to notice the thinner air. Off to the west, anvils streamed off shining white thunderheads, the descendents of the cumulus towers popping up around the twin.
When she checked in with Wichita Approach, the lady controller acknowledged, then after a pause asked “Weren’t you through here earlier this morning?” The pilot grinned into her microphone “Affirmative. I’m that bad penny that keeps coming back.” No response, but she didn’t expect one. A Luftwaffe pilot kept the controller busy with his non-standard phrasing and slow responses, while a few helicopters popped up and down. Once past Wichita, the pilot found two concerns to deal with. First, keeping the ride smooth as the clouds climbed higher than she could (without oxygen on board). Them, she had to figure out her position relative to the restricted airspace around Manhattan, KS and try to avoid it. Not as easily done as said, trying to find landmarks through the cloud holes to compare with the radio beacons.
As the Seneca passed twenty miles north of Salina, the clouds abruptly stopped after the Seneca clipped the edges of one last crag. It looked like someone had taken a straightedge and cut off the clouds. Ahead lay open sky and bare ground, as far as the eye could see. Behind and to the west, the cumulus forest stretched away. She’d crossed the cold front. With Center’s approval, the twin descended back to nine thousand feet, into thicker air and better winds. Although haze reduced forward visibility, the skies remained clear all the way over Lincoln and past Sioux City. As the pilot prepared for landing, she kept in mind the engine’s temper fit, and kept the fuel control a little on the leaner side. That seemed to keep the motor happier, and she went from touch down to parking without the engine whining or dying. The passengers seemed very pleased with the trip and departed with smiles. However, the day wasn’t finished. When the ranking pilot heard about the little excitement during the first landing, he asked if she always set the mixtures full rich. “Yes.”
“You don’t need to.”
She started to say something and caught herself.
“Well, what?” he asked.
“All my instructors said put everything forward in case of a go-around, unless the density altitude is too high.”
“I’ve never had to make a go-around,” came the authoritative reply.
All in all, she thought, it’s been a very good trip. If only the beginning and end hadn’t been so grrrrrrrrrrr. She flipped through her new postcards, sank into her favorite chair and smiled. Definitely a place to go back to, some day.
(C) 1999, 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved