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"I can't believe Andrew's graduating high school," I told Avalon Eden as Central Illinois rolled by six thousand feet below us. It was Tuesday, with my son's ceremony slated for Friday, and California a good two days ahead. It was going to be tight, but I'd make it. "Why, I still remember his first Watsonville Airshow, when he was just learning to talk back. What was that, two, three years ago?"
"Fifteen," replied my first and favorite flight instructor. "It was right after I died."
"But he's just a baby," I mimicked Andrew's mother, and we both laughed over the whine in the David Clarks. You know the sound -- a combination "whoop, whoop" from the tail strobe and "wheeeeee" from the alternator, just below the level of consciousness. It's been there ever since I patched the intercom into the King audio panel, and no BFC (Big Filter Capacitor) can seem to eliminate it. Avalon and I have learned to ignore the sound, so we're always surprised when a passenger who's never before flown with us dons a headset and asks, "What's that noise?"
We've been flying together a lot lately, Avalon and I. Ever since my first marriage ended, and then my second. ("You can't count that one," Avalon insists. "The divorce proceedings lasted longer than the marriage.")
"You're the only woman who ever understood me," I recall telling her once. "Too bad you gave up the ghost." Avalon groaned, then grinned. What did she expect? Who was it, after all, taught me how to pun?
A loud, brief, high-pitched squeal brought me back to earth, so to speak. "What's that noise?" we both thought at once, but the sound was gone before we could form words. Then again, for just a millisecond, and then it disappeared. Once more, for just a bit longer -- what is this, strobe howl on steroids? I reached down, fingered the filter cap below the panel. Yep, still attached.
I flipped off the strobe switch, and all sound went away. Switch on again, and the howl was back, louder, and this time steady. Well, good, I thought, at least it's constant. I've never liked troubleshooting intermittents. If something's dead, it should damned well stay that way!
Avalon winced as I thought that thought, then tapped the ammeter -- full discharge!
I reached at once for the strobe toggle, found I'd turned on the landing light by mistake, got both off in a hurry. The ammeter showed little improvement. "Shit," we both exclaimed. "Alternator failure."
"Chicago Center. Say again?"
I know damn well I hadn't keyed the mic. Oh, well, stranger things than that happen when Avalon flies with me. "Six Tango X-ray has an electrical failure," I told Center, and they intoned, "Say souls on board."
"Two." Avalon wagged a finger reproachfully. "Er, make that one."
"Sometimes I wonder why I bother to fly with you," Avalon chided as I started flipping switches. It was good visual flying conditions all the way to the Coast, so I shut down everything but the number one Comm. Sure, I could get the gear down without electrical power, I reasoned, but I'd best save any surplus battery to get it up again in the event of a go-around.
"Six Tango X-ray, say your intentions." Have controllers no imagination?
"I'm looking for a place to land," I told Center, and they replied "Dwight Airport is at your one o'clock, five miles. You're cleared down to three thousand feet; report reaching."
An airplane like Son-Of-A-Beech doesn't really need electricity to fly, any more than a radio needs gasoline to play. But as the airspace has become more structured, we've become increasingly dependent upon electronics for navigation, communications, radar identification, and what the Government euphemistically calls Air Traffic Control. Sometimes I think the system is designed not so much to control traffic, as to limit it. It's a manpower-intensive design which goes into overdrive when an airplane loses electrical. Center would just as soon have me on the ground right now, and you know what? That's just where I'd like to be.
"So why do you?" I finally asked Avalon while scanning for the field.
"Do I what?"
"Fly with me?"
"Oh, that. You remember Donald Shimoda?"
"Sure. He's Richard Bach's, er, um . . ."
"Guardian angel?" Avalon prompted. She let that sink in.
"Don't tell me," I finally said.
So she didn't.
I backed the power off, set up a gradual descent, and began poring over my charts. "What are you doing?" Avalon inquired.
"Examining my options," I replied. "I'm looking for another field."
"With Dwight right under our nose? Are you crazy?"
"Look, Avalon," I reasoned. "That place is deader than you are. How am I ever going to find a mechanic? I'd sure hate to miss Andrew's graduation."
"You're going to miss a lot more than that if you don't put this plane down right now. How many times do I have to tell you? Never overfly a suitable field in an emergency."
"But this isn't an emergency." I insisted.
"Right. And how far do you plan to keep flying until it becomes one?"
There's just no arguing with a guardian angel. So I pulled the power back some more, trimmed the nose up, and reported canceling IFR.
"Squawk one-two-zero-zero," intoned Center. "Frequency change approved. Good day."
I've had better, I thought.
"I've had worse," Avalon mused.
"Say again?" said Center.
Manual landing gear extension is a tricky business in Son-Of-A-Beech. If you do it wrong, you might not get a second chance. The idea is to get the airspeed under 100, pop the landing gear circuit breaker, flip the gear handle down, and then dump the hydraulic fluid that's holding pressure to keep the uplocks secure. There's a valve for that purpose under the trapdoor in the front left floorboard, and a tool to twist the valve open, a quarter turn counter-clockwise, stowed on the left wall panel.
"Ever done this before?" asked Avalon, remembering full well that it was she who taught me how. On every biennial flight review. I just scowled.
"Ever have the gear fail to lock?"
"Every now and then," I admitted. It was a logical question. If the airspeed's slow enough, the wheels gravity freefall until the over-center springs snap them home. But if you're carrying too much airspeed, the air pressure fights the springs, and the wheels stop halfway down. When that happens, you need to raise the gear and start all over again.
Except that the hydraulic pump which raises the gear is electric. What do you do if there's not enough juice left in the battery to drive it? You land wheels up, and that's a noisy option, as you hear all your hard-earned dollars beating a hasty retreat from your wallet.
"Better slow down to eighty, just to be sure," Avalon suggested. I did, and was rewarded with three green lights.
OK, now, time to land. I turned a close-in left base, a thousand feet above Dwight Field. There below was the skinniest strip of asphalt I've ever viewed from pattern altitude, running right through the middle of a wide green fairway. "Think I should opt for the grass?" I wondered silently.
"Nah, you never know what it might be hiding. Better to stick to pavement."
"I dunno, it looks pretty narrow."
"Twenty one feet," Avalon confirmed. I still didn't like it, and told her so.
"What's your gear track?"
You know damned well, I thought. "Twelve foot eight," I said.
"That gives you four feet two on each side," winked Avalon. "Piece of ass."
"Cake," I corrected.
"To each his own."
"Easy for you to say, you dead lay."
We get like that sometimes, Avalon and I.
I double-checked the windsock while turning final, and immediately wished I hadn't. Ten, twelve knots, straight across the runway. This was going to be a little bit of work. I held the left wing low, right rudder to track the centerline, eased off the power, and bounced just once on landing. "My, it's gusty," offered Avalon, ever the diplomat. As the wheels settled the second time, the ammeter kicked to full charge, just for an instant, as if to mock me, before dropping off line again. Good, I thought, it's not popped diodes, probably just a broken wire. I can fix that! We're gonna make that graduation after all.
Taxiing back to what seemed to serve as a ramp, I saw the landing lights protruding out of the grass, center of the pasture, two straight rows down the sides. "So why didn't you tell me about the lights?" I needled Avalon.
"So why didn't you ask?"
I was right. The field was as dead as my flight instructor.
Dwight had once boasted a booming fixed base operation. Forty planes tied down here, primary and advanced flight instruction, charter, air taxi, maintenance, fuel, the works. Today it's nearly abandoned, little more than a duster strip. Not a soul in sight, save Avalon. Just as well, I thought as I grabbed my tool bag. Last thing I need is an FAA inspector ramp-checking my credentials.
"Not to worry," offered Avalon. "He's from the Government and he's here to help. Besides," she consoled, rummaging through her flight bag, "I have my A&P certificates in here somewhere."
"Have you forgotten? Your licenses all expired back in 'eighty."
"But they were issued for life."
"Yes, they were."
"Oh. Right." And at that moment, Avalon looked like death.
I got to work, easing screws out of the cowling. "Aren't you glad I'm always here to help?" asked Avalon, lounging against the fuselage and lifting nary a finger.
"So where were you when I needed you? Why weren't you flying with me over 'Nam?"
"Couldn't. I was alive back then, remember?"
"If I could remember the 'sixties, wouldn't that mean I wasn't there?"
"OK, so you were somebody else's responsibility then. And he did one helluva good job."
"How do you figure that?" I inquired.
"You came home, didn't you?"
"When were you planning on putting it all together?" Avalon pressured.
"Cut me some slack; I just uncowled the engine. Now I gotta locate the broken wire..."
"No, no, I mean you. The world. Your life. When are you going to settle down, learn the meaning of it all?"
"Found it!" I exclaimed.
"The meaning of life?"
"No, the broken wire. Just as I suspected. Field wire parted at the crimp. Now, if I only had a #10 ring lug..."
"But you do," Avalon offered, and when I checked my pocket, sure enough, it was there.
"Well, I'll be damned."
As I rummaged through my tool bag for a crimper, Avalon pressed on. "I mean it. Ain't none of us getting any younger. Take Muriel, for example. And the sooner the better."
"I know," I replied. "Brain the size of a planet, figure of a Greek goddess, a face to launch a thousand... but Christ, Avalon she thinks just like a man!"
Avalon chuckled, but the humor escaped me. Finally she asked, "Do you remember Ed Friedman?"
"You bet your sweet ass. He was that sexist son-of-a-bitch who used to co-pilot your Bahamas run in the DC-3, wasn't he?"
"Right as rain. One stormy night, we were out there just beyond Lauderdale, socked in solid, with an electrical failure just like this one. Holding flashlights in our teeth, we were, when the left fan up and quit."
"Isn't the left one the critical engine in a Gooney Bird?"
"Well, actually, it's just there to keep the pilots cool. And when it quit, you should have seen us sweating!"
"So, what did you do?"
"What the hell do you think? I flew the plane! I caged Number One, banked into it, ran Number Two up to full power, and told Ed to shut up and work the navcom. I just flew the plane. After we landed in Bimini, Ed paid me the highest tribute his feeble brain could concoct. 'Avalon,' he said, 'you fly just like a man.'"
"Wait a minute!" It just hit me. "Landed in Bimini? I thought you were based in Nassau."
"How many times do I have to tell you?" Avalon repeated. "Never overfly a suitable field..."
"...in an emergency," we chorused together.
Once the laughter had subsided, my curiosity overcame my tact. "Why'd you keep flying with Ed, anyway?"
"He couldn't help his prejudices," she replied. "Ed was a World War II ace, a product of his times. And a goddamn fine stick and rudder man. He had a lot to teach. I had a lot to learn. Ed kept flying with me for years. Even after he died."
"He wasn't with you that night, fifteen years ago, was he?" I asked after a long pause.
"No, he wasn't. He figured it was time for me to solo."
And all at once, I knew what Avalon had been driving at. She had a lot to learn about life, back then. I do, now. We all do.
"Tell me more about Muriel," Avalon prompted as I danced the strip-and-crimp. "Does she like to fly?"
"Funny thing. She has General Aviation in her blood. Grew up on the Bloomsburg Airport back before they paved it. Her uncle owned the strip. Her mother was the airport secretary, father the chief pilot and flight instructor, cousin the mechanic, grandmother actually did the rib-stitching when they recovered their Cubs. Muriel lived upstairs above the Columbia Aviation hangar, back during the years her father used to ferry Pipers across the pond with Max Conrad. Bob flew into a mountain when she was twelve, and except for a few trips with me, Muriel hasn't been up since."
"It's not hard to see why. I gather she never got her ticket."
"Never even soloed. Only one in her family not to. Her father's accident left quite a mark. Even though it also came as a relief."
Avalon wisely refrained from touching that one. "Why are you air-breathers so afraid of death?"
"You damned well know I was!"
After a pause for me to clip a tie-wrap, Avalon asked, "So why don't you marry the woman? It isn't hard to tell you're in love with her."
"What's that got to do with it?"
"But you don't see her up here in the cockpit with me, do you?"
Avalon bit her lip. I wondered what she was suppressing. Finally, she sighed, "So what's bothering you is that she's not a pilot."
Damn, I hate talking to shrinks. Especially dead ones. "Bull!" I shot back. "Suk was one fine pilot, and look what that got me. She up and flew off with what's-his-face..."
"After twenty years," Avalon tried to comfort me.
"Twenty damned good years for her, thank you very much!"
Another long silence while I re-attached scat tubing to the air ducts. Then, she said, "You must think I died young."
"Dammit, 'Lon, fifty-one ain't no Methuselah."
"I was about as old as you are now," she reminded me gently.
"Thanks. I needed that."
"Yes, as a matter of fact, you did. You've been living your life like it's going to go on forever. Well, I'm here to tell you that it isn't. One of these days, it's going to be your alternator that quits, and it's going to be too late for regrets then. A twenty year marriage is a gift. Why can't you treasure it?"
I turned my back on her and lost myself in my work. Fired up the engine, and the battery was taking a fine charge. The whine all gone; it's time to re-cowl. Avalon waited patiently, until I was satisfied with my handiwork.
"Look, just a couple of days ago, you'd be lucky to make it past forty." I knew she meant a couple of decades ago, but let it pass. Death does strange things to your sense of time. "Marriages didn't have to last beyond twenty years, because people didn't. 'Til death do us part' was much easier back then. But times change. People change. Lifespans change. You and Suk did just about as well as could be expected, and now it's time to file a new flight plan."
"I tried that with Janet," I fumed. "No thanks."
"Rebounds don't count. That one was just a touch-and-go. I'm talking about a long cross-country. If you're lucky, maybe this one will last another twenty years. After that, who cares? You'll be flying right seat with some young, ungrateful smart-ass. Meanwhile, it's time to make something of your life."
"Gimme a break!" I shot back. "Didn't I get my CFII, and my Ph.D. in record time? What about my hundred publications? And how I landed tenure, made Full Professor, got tapped as Executive Director of..."
"I mean your personal life," Avalon cut in.
"You're a fine one to talk!" I was boiling now. "Just what did you accomplish in fifty-one years, Miss Earhart? Four marriages, two torrid affairs - and with married men, for Chrissakes!"
"I taught you to fly, didn't I?" she intoned gently. Then, more forcefully, "And at least I died in the left front seat, like Muriel's father! The way you're going, you're going to bore yourself to death, Prof."
"Thanks, Avalon. I knew I could count on you to straighten me out."
"Any time." And I was afraid she meant it.
"That's what this electrical failure is really about, isn't it? Me and Muriel?"
"You know you wouldn't be listening if I hadn't grounded you."
I snapped the last Camloc back into place in the upper cowl. "Guess you're right." Of course she's right. She always is. When I get home, I'm just going to have to ask Muriel to marry me.
But that will have to wait. Right now, there's my son's graduation to attend. Brakes set. Gear check. Mixture rich. Fuel boost. Masters on. Mags hot. "Clear Prop!"
Now, where the hell is Avalon?
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this page last updated 14 June 2007