Heading Home: A Flying Story

Another night, another, yawn, flight. The redhead sniffed the night air and stretched, rolling her shoulders before shaking all over like a wet dog. Just after supper a cardiac trip had paged out, bringing the King Air and its crew in to the capitol. The early autumn weather had played its usual tricks as cool Canadian air rolled over the still-warm ground. The not-too-thick clouds that resulted stayed a thousand feet or so above the fields and towns, with good visibility beneath their flat bottoms. Instrument weather, good practice, but nothing dangerous. The pilot looked at her pager and yawned again. She wasn’t really tired; it just seemed like the thing to do at midnight.

Catherine had just thanked the fuel truck driver and seen him off when her pager sounded. “Call Dispatch ASAP” flashed on her personal code. Another trip? A problem? Weather check? She trotted into the hangar and used the phone on the mechanics’ desk. “Dispatch. This is Melissa.”

“Hi Melissa. Its Catherine on Three. What can I do ya for?”

“Hi Catherine. We have a patient for you to take back with you. He has terminal cancer and is going to St.Theresa – Scottsbluff.”

The pilot scribbled a note on a stray scrap of someone else’s paper. “No problem. Any family?”

“No. They’re all back out west. He weighs one sixty.”

“One sixty, no family. About forty minutes then till my crew comes back?” The crew usually bought cokes for the ambulance driver while they were finishing their run report at the hospital.

“Yes. They’re here now,” the unseen dispatcher confirmed.

“OK, thanks.”

“Bye.”

Catherine’s pager flashed a run number and launch notice while she did paperwork for the next trip. Thinking back, she’d never done a flight like this one – loaded from the capitol back to her base. Oh well. A quick check of the weather confirmed what she’d seen on the way in. The clouds in the eastern half of the state had thickened a bit to three or four thousand feet, but once past Grand Island they scattered apart. Scottsbluff was clear and chilly, as usual. Catherine filed her flight plan, thought for a bit and opted for sixteen thousand feet as a cruise altitude. She got a coke and indulged in a chocolate bar for a late snack, munching away as she sat on her plane’s doorsteps and waited for the crew to arrive.

Dispatch had it right on the money. Forty-five minutes after she’d called, a company ambulance rolled through the gate and up to the waiting propjet. Catherine climbed inside the plane as the ambulance’s doors opened and the driver and her RN got out. “Hullo again!” Catherine teased. Dave waved paperwork at her, which she caught and laid in a front seat.

“Are we going as Lifeguard?”

Dave shook his head “No, we don’t need to this time. Oh, he’s a retired airline pilot. Flew with Pan Am for thirty years, after he finished his Air Force tours.”

“Neat!” the young pilot exclaimed, handing down the ramp.

She could hear Shelly, the paramedic explaining, “As soon as we level off, if you like Mr. Robertson, you can sit up. But for now I’m afraid you have to lie back.” The thin figure shrugged as the burly ambulance driver and petite blond paramedic rolled the gurney up to the foot of the ramp.

This had to be the lightest one hundred sixty pounds Catherine had ever lifted into the plane. Even in the dark she could see how thin the former-pilot’s face and arms had become, eaten from inside by cancer. He looked around curiously, interested in the plane and disappointed that he couldn’t sit where he could see the cockpit. “How thick is the overcast?” He asked as Catherine nudged the foot of the cot into place.

“Only two thousand feet, with clear skies above. It goes broken to scattered west of Grand Island.”

“Typical fall in other words,” the veteran chuckled.

“Yessir.”

As soon as Dave and Shelly were aboard with the door shut, Catherine fired up the engines and started rolling towards the runway. “Mercy Flight Three taxi into position and hold Runway Three Six right.”

“Position and hold three six right, Mercy Flight Three.”

As soon as the white and navy King Air lined up with the center stripe of the runway, Capitol Tower announced “Mercy Flight Three cleared for takeoff, left turn on course approved.”

“Cleared for takeoff, left turn approved, Mercy Flight Three.” The fuel-heavy turboprop lumbered slightly before accelerating up the runway. Catherine eased back on the yoke until she felt the wings start to lift, then held the pressure. The white nose rose slowly but steadily and almost imperceptibly the King Air broke ground. In one practiced movement the pilot raised the landing gear, turned off the landing lights and also flipped the strobe and flashing beacon switches off. Flashes in clouds have lead more than one pilot into nasty cases of vertigo, an experience Catherine didn’t care to add to her life list.

Within three minutes the big plane had pushed through the tops of the low cloud layer, soaring starward as Approach reported “Radar contact.” The red-head in the front seat eased the nose slightly lower, exchanging climb rate for speed. She felt movement in the rear of the plane, and heard Shelly ask if that was more comfortable. The med crew must have let Mr. Robertson sit up so he could see out. Catherine returned her full attention to the “office,” changing radio frequencies and eventually leveling the plane to cruise at sixteen thousand feet above sea level. Once everything looked to be in order, she dimmed the instrument and radio lights as much as practical and relaxed back into the thick fleece of her seat.

The cabin lights clicked off a few moments later, at Mr. Robertson’s request. Without city lights to block the view, the winter stars hung close enough to touch and the Milky Way stretched like a dusty rainbow over the steady plane. The pilot listened to the murmur of voices from the back and yawned. Would be nice to have an intercom and listen in she thought, then shrugged. “Mercy Flight Three contact Denver Center,” Kansas City Approach ordered.

“Denver Center, Mercy Flight Three.” Catherine turned the radio knob, noticing farm lights appearing through widening slashes in the cloudscape far below. “Denver Center, Mercy Flight Three level one six thousand.”

“Roger Mercy Flight Three, Scotts Bluff altimeter setting two niner eight niner, expect the visual, advise when you have the local weather and confirm you are negative lifeguard?”

When did he breathe? The pilot wondered. “Two niner eight niner, negative lifeguard, wilco, Mercy Flight Three.”

In the silence that followed, Catherine glanced back and saw the patient nodding to something Dave said, while Shelly shrugged. Fifteen minutes later the first lights from Scotts Bluff appeared out of the distant darkness. The stars outnumbered the ranch and farm lights in the sandhills to the north, giving the pilot a momentary jolt of confusion. After flying out here for three years you should get used to it Catherine scolded herself, debating whether to tell Center she had Scotts Bluff in sight. Nah, seventy miles out was a bit much.

All too soon, Catherine requested and received permission to start down for the airport. Behind her, the monitor beeped twice, then a long third time. Must be printing she thought. The pilot eased back the slick-to-the-touch throttle levers, allowed the nose to lower and hitched forward in her seat, scanning for the airport lights and any traffic. Not bloomin’ likely at three in the morning, but she’d been surprised before. “Airport in sight.” She leveled off, lowered the flaps and received approach permission from Denver, who advised that she was off his radar. Catherine rogered and confirmed that she’d cancel her flight plan once she landed. Five clicks of the microphone button turned the airport lights up and advised the ambulance that a plane was coming in. Her landing was firmer than she liked, but otherwise uneventful and Catherine closed her flight plan before shutting down beside the ambulance.

When she got out of her seat to help unload the patient, Catherine did a double take as Dave laid the end of the blanket over Mr. Robertson’s face, then looked up at the startled pilot. “He had a D.N.R.* order. We talked for a bit after you leveled off, then he said he felt tired and would take a nap. His heart stopped just before you started the descent.” As Catherine shook her head, Dave went down the stairs and looked up at the clear sky.

“Well, we were bringing him home, weren’t we?” Catherine asked as she handed down the loading ramp.

Shelly looked thoughtful, then nodded. “I guess after sixty years in the air, he knew where home was.”

After the ambulance quietly left for the hospital, the young redhead leaned against the King Air’s nose, looking out into the distance. Above the black emptiness of the bluffs, numberless stars hid winter’s constellations. So high as to be silent, a set of red and green nav lights slipped over westbound and Catherine wondered, then smiled, and saluted. “God speed, sir” she whispered, then turned to the light of the waiting hangar.

* Do Not Resuscitate

(C) 2016 Alma T.C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.

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5 thoughts on “Heading Home: A Flying Story

    • Yeah that was an . . . interesting isn’t the right word. And to say it was one of the best flights doesn’t really fit, but the med crew and pilot involved (who told me the story when I came on duty) said it was probably one of the most rewarding flights, if that makes any sense at all.

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