In the Pawnee at Gaylord

An angry spirit inhabits this place.  It slaps and jars my little ship with contempt.  I am accustomed to turbulence, but this is something different.  It has personality.  The gusts and eddies of its breath do not just shove the airplane around, they strike it with sharp jabs from all directions, like a circling boxer.  My head, encumbered by the crash helmet, bobbles atop my shoulders, sometimes raps against the side windows.  I am in a boxing match, but I cannot raise my guard and I cannot fight back.

I have a strained relationship with the Pawnee.  Over the field it is a stable platform and it turns well.  Farmers say that its spray coverage is better than the bigger machines and the owner loves its lower operating cost and ability to get into obstructed fields.  But it has annoying traits which include a small hopper and relatively slow airspeed, leading to endless ferrying, and an abysmal roll rate.  The angry spirit probes, sees an opportunity, and sets its lips into a grim smirk.

The field is beautiful from a spray pilot’s point of view.  One hundred fifty acres with no wires within its boundaries, only a large, self-propelled irrigation line to dodge while spraying.  On the east, a powerline runs along a road, perpendicular to my path.  On the west and north, tall trees bound the field then follow terrain which falls steeply away. The wind, as usual here, is from the north.  It comes roiling up and over the hill then spills sharply over the tree line into the field.

The little Pawnee bobs gently over the crop, climbs briefly to clear the irrigation pivot, then settles again over the field.  She is full of fuel and full of material and flies a little like a bathtub in the hot, humid air.  As the west tree line fills my windscreen I pull and, for a sickening half-second, feel the airplane mush in the approaching downdraft but it soon recovers, scrabbles out of the hole and labors over the treetops.  I have spent most of my zoom and the airplane wallows.  I widen and make shallow my turn.  It is impossible to hold a constant bank angle; gusts shove the wings one way and then another and I correct, over and again, the stick waving back and forth as I fight the lee wind for command of the ship.

The Pawnee has a small windscreen; I see only the tossing heads of trees below as I turn back toward the estimated location of my next swath.  Bouncing along, I restore the bank angle yet again and am hit hard by a stronger gust as I pass through a heading of south-west.  My upwind wing is struck by wind racing over the hill and lifted high, increasing my bank to perhaps 75 degrees.  My left hand jabs the throttle forward, my right hand buries the stick against the right stop but the Pawnee’s little ailerons are a poor match for the lifting force on my right wing and, even with full control deflection, my bank continues to increase as I begin to descend toward the trees. 

At bank angles much over 60 degrees increasing the elevator only increases the centripetal force, committing available lift to accelerate the turn – a bad idea in this situation.  Top rudder could be used to raise the nose but at my airspeed the resulting lack of coordination would soon produce a spin.  The only way to escape the limbs now growing large the windscreen, is to gently move the stick forward while holding full opposite aileron, remaining below the wing’s critical angle of attack while fighting my way back to a level attitude.

The gust, of course, subsided and the whole episode, which I have perhaps inflated to an epic, lasted only a few seconds but I can still see that dark green hole in the forest into which I was quickly and helplessly turning.  Perhaps I was terrified, I just remember being mad.  I cursed the little airplane and increased my margins.  I grumbled through turn after ragged turn over the wind-swept hilltop. The angry spirit smiled. 

During the first load, turns on the east side of the field were smooth by comparison and flight over the field itself uneventful but during the second load the wind began to increase. 

I find it a beautiful and natural thing that an airplane should leave the earth and fly about the sky.  I find it much less desirable that a pilot should leave his seat and fly about the cabin.  Still, as the wind began to accelerate and its waves to solidify, the west tree line had become punishing.  Though my seat belt and shoulder harness were fastened, they were clearly not tight enough.

Turning back into field, I cross the treeline and lower the nose.  Suddenly I am flung from my seat, my shoulders straining against the harness.  A flying bottle of Gatorade whacks my arm; Windex and paper-towels are cascading from the shelf behind my head to my lap and then to the floor.  The ground is coming up fast, but it is difficult to work the stick as my body bounces back to the seat.  I compose myself as best I can during the spray pass and make a wide turn at the other end, taking time to clean house and tighten each harness strap until it presses into my skin. 

So far, I am having no fun, but the work is getting done.  The wind over the field is about 12 miles per hour with minimal gusts.  It is bumpy here, always bumpy.  You could wait a week for calm conditions.  If you can put your spray on the crops accurately without drift and without hurting your equipment, you spray.

But today, the spirit is a little angrier than usual.  Wind over flat terrain, usually, is not a complex foe.  It may come hard and vary in speed, but it is somewhat consistent and, thus, may be compensated for.  And so, even though pounded while over the trees, I was and expected to be in a stable environment over the field.  Crabbing, perhaps, to stay on swath, and using elevator gently to maintain position, but the ailerons are generally still.  This is necessary in any case because the wings and spray booms are near the ground.  Lift one wing and the other drops, very possibly into the crop, bringing a sudden and climatic end to spraying activities.  And so, I was rattled when, while spraying over the middle of the field, a gust hit and one wing dropped almost thirty degrees.  I did not strike but I easily could have.  I finished the load at 8 feet and headed back to park the airplane. 

This, too, at Gaylord is easier said than done.  Over several weeks I concluded that a more suitable name for the little runway we use is ‘the Devil’s Driveway’.  It is plenty long at over 4,000 feet but not much wider than the Pawnee’s wings, the asphalt is rated ‘poor’ and a 20-foot slope appears about one third of the way from the west end.  You may ask, as I have asked, why the runway was laid east to west when the wind is almost always whistling from the north.  You might marvel at the swirling effects created by the broken tree line along the upwind side of the runway.  You might conclude, as I have concluded, that the real purpose of this facility is weed out incompetent crop-dusters.  It has certainly exposed me.

I noted the other day that the Pawnee’s right main shows a bit more wear than the left and I know why.  Most take-offs and landings here are performed on that wheel, the airplane’s nose hunting up and down to maintain the desired angle of attack from one swirling parcel of air to the next.  I have made both horrible and wonderful landings here and, from a non-pilot’s point of view, they probably looked a lot alike.

After one very busy but soft and short upwind-wheel landing I cut power and rolled for about twenty feet then suddenly found myself ten feet above the runway with, of course, very little airspeed.  I jammed in power and fought my way back to the surface and centerline for another soft one-wheel touch-down and thought to myself “That may be the best landing I have ever made and my loader is probably thinking ‘What an idiot!’”. 

Then again, several of my landings on that driveway were the work of an idiot.  Once, after a wind shear-accelerated full-stall landing I bounced into space and, while in this vulnerable state, weathervaned into the stiff crosswind and returned to earth headed directly into a runway light.  I did what little I could with the left brake and braced for the sickening sound of the spray boom being ripped from the wing.  Somehow, I missed the light.  I cannot tell you how, except to say that God often has mercy on this fool.  I tried to taxi in a nonchalant manner as I twirled around in the grass and rolled back to the loading rig. 

That is the last time I attempted a three-point landing on a hard surface in a crosswind with the Pawnee.  Between the springy bungees that support the gear, the big bouncy tires, the low wing-loading while empty and its little ailerons, this airplane seems – in my hands – like a bounce waiting to happen.


It is a family photo, much like any other.  Sabrina, a cute six-year-old, looks back from the center of the image, held securely in the arms of her smiling parents.  Big brother, standing slightly aloof, wears a serious expression befitting the dignity of late adolescence.  The brilliant afternoon sun gleams in their hair and divides the scene into sparkling highlight and dark shadow.
It is a typical family photo, except the family is standing in front of an airplane, preparing for a long ride home.  The smiles, on second glance, appear a bit worn.  And Sabrina is curiously limp; her arm hangs straight down and her father’s hand cradles her chin, his fingers gently directing her face toward the camera.  It is not that she will not look there, but that she cannot.
Sabrina is losing control.  It began three years ago with a steadily increasing clumsiness.  Three-year-olds are not noted for grace, so it was easy to hope that this would pass in time.  A year later, she began to stutter.  Not long after, her arms began to move in strange, repetitive patterns and Sabrina could not make them stop.  There were many doctor visits but no solution and, over the next few months, Sabrina gradually lost the ability to walk and, now, the ability to talk.
The answer came about four weeks ago; Sabrina has Tay Sachs, a rare disease that slowly and relentlessly disables the nervous system, isolating body from soul.  Sabrina is alert and passionate, but her body is a car without a steering wheel; it goes where it will and she is along for the ride.
This week, the family has been at a research hospital in Minneapolis conferring with doctors who study the disease.  They offer little hope; current treatments are painful and ineffective.  Dan and Ensenia decide to spare Sabrina that trauma; to surround her with love, to do for her what she can no longer do for herself, to pray that her little body is not coasting to a stop.
We load up and depart the small airport at St. Paul, swaying in our seats on this warm and gusty afternoon.  When we have settled into a climb over southern Minnesota I ask Dan a few questions.  As he answers, I unwrap the chocolate bar I had just secured from the FBO’s vending machine.  It has been a busy day and, nutritious or not, it looks good.  I break off a piece and offer the rest to Dan.  He declines, telling me that he loves sweets but does not eat them anymore.  When Sabrina became ill he vowed to abstain until she got better.  He does not say this for effect, does not say it to reduce my enjoyment, but the candy bar goes back into the wrapper.  I savor, quietly, the bite I had already taken, savor the knowledge that my three beautiful daughters are well, settle into the awareness that Dan gracefully shoulders a load of loss and worry and sorrow that might crush me.
I remember the moment of looking for them as I walked into the FBO.  They were not hard to spot; it was a small lobby with but one family inside.  A tired family far from home and far from well, but Ensenia’s smile turned on like a beacon turns on, registering recognition and filling the room with its light.  There is much darkness pressing in around this family, but there seems to be something stronger pressing out, a light that overwhelms the darkness.
As we drone along, I look back occasionally.  Ensenia holds Sabrina close, nestled as any young child would into her mother’s lap, and smiles to indicate that they are ok.  In the back, young Adam reads.  He wants to be a physician, Dan says.  Even now, Adam plays an active role in Sabrina’s care and in consultations with the doctors.  He reads their reports and understands much of their discussions and helps Mom and Dad process their recommendations.
I am struck by the irony here: the disease attacks Sabrina’s connection to the world around her, but inadvertently strengthens it.  This family is not just managing the disability of one member; it is reconfiguring itself to remain complete.  Sabrina cannot protect herself, so Dan works and prioritizes and sacrifices to somehow provide the shelter she needs.  Sabrina cannot understand her illness, so Adam lays aside some of his youth and applies his strong young mind to learn how medicine can help.  Sabrina cannot care for her own body, but Ensenia can see in her eyes and hear in her voice enough to understand and meet the need.  Disease has silenced Sabrina’s speech and has stilled her hands and her feet, and so her family has become her voice and hands and feet.  The attack tries to make Sabrina a prisoner, but her family’s love makes her a queen.  What disease has stolen, love has replaced. 
True, to replace is not the same as to restore, and help is provided at great expense.  Sabrina remains disabled and, often, frustrated.  Dan, Ensenia and Adam are not free to do what they might otherwise have done, unencumbered with Sabrina’s care.  But I don’t think they see it in those terms.  Dan speaks of God’s plan for them, even now, as if love’s counter-attack can succeed, as if Sabrina’s story is not, in the final telling, a tragedy after all.  As if, in their serving and sacrifice, the members of Sabrina’s family are not diminished, but rather clarified and made complete and Sabrina, though separated from her own body, is set free from our common fear of being left alone. 
Sabrina’s life is sharply divided between the dark shadow of her terrible disease and the brightness of her family’s love and faith.  She cannot tell me how she feels, but I look back to see her nestled in her mothers’ arms, at peace.
In him was life, and that life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
John 1:5

First Lesson

I walked to my car the other day among a swirl of leaves.  Autumn has snuck up on me again and, as it always does, kicked up a storm of memory, a swirl of images bright as these first brittle leaves, borne along by unseen zephyrs.  They lie still for a just a moment, then scatter again.  Scatter like the faces of friends now long unseen.  Scatter like the years.  Scatter and are borne along by forces beyond my understanding.
There is a bright image in my mind as I pile into the car: The runway is falling away behind us, magically. I knew it would but I did not expect it to feel like this.  Wonderful.  Terrifying.  Somewhere inside me, a suspicious organ squirms, reminds that this is not normal.  It is 1978 and Bruce is giving me my first lesson in the 150.  I look at him and think, Can I do this? 
There have been a lot of autumns since then, a lot of faces and a lot of runways.  Can I do this?  I am still answering that question.  Flying is more wonderful every year.  No longer terrifying, but challenging, variable, vast.  Perhaps, like the poet, I have been allowed this gift: “to slip the surly bonds of Earth and touch the face of God”, but I know He stoops to make it so. 
And I stand on the shoulders of better men.  As I write this, I feel Larry’s calloused hands banging on my shoulders in the tandem Cub, his laughter ringing through the intercom in genuine delight when (at irregular intervals) I do it right.  I hear Bruce, my first instructor — well, the words are gone by now, but the cheerful and reassuring tone echoes still.  I think of Bryan, who welcomed me back into flying with his patient instruction and his — now my — wonderful old V-tail.  I remember Barry, moving methodically through an examination of my knowledge and skill, yet unable to suppress his love of the craft and his desire to make every pilot better.  I hear the friendly and soothing voice of Richard who, after many televised hours of wisdom and humility, seems almost a friend.
 Well, my car is at the airport now and soon the runway is falling away behind us again.  But it is Jason’s hand on the yoke today, a bright young man with the head and the heart to carry this flame nobly.  And it is my voice droning over the intercom, my voice praising and cajoling, my voice that will rattle around in his head for years after his initial training is complete.  My hands are in my lap, except to slap his shoulder in celebration of good work and, on occasion, to keep him safe until the measure of his skill approaches the measure of his love. 
I suppose that it is my autumn now.  Or, let us say, late summer; there is yet some strength in me and, I hope, many more years of work in airplanes and out.  But the trend is clear.  Like the leaf which has soaked up the spring rains and summered in green vitality, I have received much and I am thankful.  It is my turn to collect what I have learned from Bruce and Larry and Bryan and Richard and Barry — and a dozen other personal heroes – and find a way to package it up and give it away.  For this treasure, this privilege of flight can only be preserved by passing it on.
A few weeks have passed.  The warm, long evenings of late summer have been supplanted by the chill winds and early dusk of late fall.  Jason will solo tonight.  A few landings together and I shake his hand, tell him he’s ready and step clumsily out of the airplane.  He trusts me, knows that I trust him, and so trusts himself.  He taxis back toward the end and I wonder what else I should have said. 
Too late now; I’m pretty much a soccer mom on the side of this small-town runway, a spectator far from the action, camera around my neck.  I look over my shoulder and see that I will have action after all.  Half a dozen deer are grazing near the runway, having just slipped from the woods a hundred yards off.  I don’t remember the procedure specified in the Airman’s Information Manual; I just run at them like a fool, whooping and waving my clipboard over my head while Jason calmly performs his run-up. 
And it strikes me that this is what I love about flying: that God allows His face to be touched by any man or woman willing to reach so far.  It is a stretch, it is a risk, it is a gift almost beyond belief.  In taking to the sky, we renounce the spirit that says “security first”.  We entrust ourselves to our machines, to our skill, to the physics of an orderly but untamed atmosphere.  We visit a world that is not our own.
Jason has finished his checklist, takes the runway and barrels ahead.  I stand a quarter mile upwind; he hurtles toward me, the roar of the old 172 shifting phase as he approaches, lifts and soars overhead.  Jason is a pilot.
I do not often string together three such graceful landings as the student did that night.  I’m sure it had more to do with his love of the craft than the quality of his education, but I’m proud to have been there to cheer him on.  Proud to have stood alongside that little runway, shivering in the fragrant autumn dusk with my head full of grateful  memories, knowing that I have cherished this treasure and this privilege that others handed to me, and that I have served  it, too,  by handing it along to another.