The Flying Lady
"Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards. For it is there that you have been and it’s there that you will always long to be." Leonardo De Vinci
Terror on Approach
In a swift second, everything changed. The screws on the top of the throttle were loose and the handle was falling off! With my heart beating fast, seconds to spare, I said a silent prayer. My direct final approach to the field at Columbia Airport in the Sierras had massive evergreens on either side of their twenty-six hundred foot landing field. As my passenger screamed, “Oh, God,” I managed a clean touchdown with only the sharp metal stick to control my descent, the runway rushing up to greet us in a violent embrace.
“Quite alarming,” I winced, looking at my sore red hand, as we taxied up to a tie down and commenced to look for a mechanic.
“Wasn’t just alarming, scared the daylights out of me,” shouted my shaken friend. “We need a beer,” she cried out.
“Oh, no, if you take to the bottle you can’t touch the throttle. Rules are not to be broken,” I replied. “Let’s grab a soda or coffee and visit the town while the plane’s being fixed.”
Leaving my red and white Piper aircraft with the rangy, sandy-haired mechanic, we wandered into town, as the cold, clean wind rushed down the mountain. Besides the mechanic’s bright blue hangar stood airplanes of every size and shape, behind which was a shallow weed-grown ditch with a scattering of blue lupine crawling across the landscape. Fresh fallen autumn leaves, brown and red with a glint of yellow were showing off the season’s colors. What a pretty town I mused.
Flying home late that afternoon, I said, “If you hear that call toward the sky, as many thousands of people have, challenge it. It has been the most rewarding, spirited and entertaining hobby I’ve ever had.” Into its realm I had been enveloped, and always upon landing and touching the earth, what euphoria.
A Female’s Lust for Adventure
My sheer lust for adventure had led me one day to our small county airport. Located on barren land in Northern California, the airport had only one landing strip and no tower. It was here I started taking flight lessons in a small two seat single engine low-wing Piper. I sailed through the lessons, advancing to a bigger four seat aircraft. One day after I landed and taxied off the field, my instructor, an old Navy WWII pilot, jumped out of the plane and told me it was all mine! I was now going to fly all alone, lift off and fly the pattern, do a “touch and go” and come around for a final landing. The great day had come at last.
My next test was to do a cross-country trip landing at three designated airports. After calling for weather advisories, plotting my air routes, and cruising altitudes, I filed my flight plan and took off early one morning, setting my compass to three-hundred ten degrees, heading north over San Francisco to Santa Rosa at a cruising altitude of eighty-five hundred feet, my thoughts suspended toward the horizon.
Upon notifying their tower of my approach, instructions were given to land. I immediately taxied out again, and with approval for takeoff, flew on to my next airport at Red Bluff, with nothing in sight but rigid bluffs and brown rolling hills everywhere, only the engine’s murmur in the silence of the sky.
The orange hue of the sun reflected off the foreboding terrain below, which appeared devoid of any human trespass, as I cruised along at sixty-five hundred feet, buffeted by winds, wrestling to keep the plane on a reasonably straight course.
After an hour, the last bluff behind me, I began my descent to the airport, occasionally passing groups of animals resting or grazing. I throttled back, banking to the left to line up to the runway, glad to touch down and park my aircraft, eager for a snack.
As I entered their small airfield restaurant, with a wood planked floor and a radio blaring in the background, the cook appeared in a dirty white apron. “It’s been some time since we’ve seen a female pilot land here,” he grinned. “Welcome to Red Bluff.”
“Thank you,” as I grabbed a chair and stretched out my legs. The aroma of hot coffee was inviting, and along with a quick sandwich was ready to continue on my journey, proud I had made it this far.
After a ground run up, I lifted off, visibility unlimited, heading southbound on my third leg to Sacramento, my last designated airport. After touching down on their runway, with a vertical climb I navigated for home, with the feel of the controls alive in my hands. Fixing my eyes on the horizon, the peaks of the mountain range before me glowed in the light of the sinking sun.
Flying over the crests of these slumbering giants, and finally descending, I dipped my wings as I flew over my own home. Then, continued into the pattern on the downwind landing approach to our South County airport. Upon landing, I stepped out of the Warrior, smiling back at it with great affection. It had taken me on a great trip through the skies. The round robin had taken a little over four hours. I had successfully flown my cross-country test; the written FAA exam was next.
My family and I were away in the Sierras at Lake Tahoe skiing when the pilot exam results were mailed to me. My son, Brian, who had stayed home hurriedly called me with the good news. My husband and sons, Kevin and Gary, looked on in disbelief as I screamed with delight. “Let’s jump into the hot tub to celebrate,” I eagerly shouted as snowflakes fell down upon us. “Congratulations, Mom,” chuckled Kevin, “I knew you could do it.” “When can we go up with you,” shouted Gary.
I now had to make extra sure that I did not hurt myself skiing in order to be fit to fly as soon as we returned home.
Once I had passed the written FAA exam, I could carry passengers and rarely flew alone. I joined a Ladies Pilot Group at our airport and we had monthly meetings and sojourns together. At one of our luncheons, I met Amelia Earhart’s then 90-year-old flight instructor.
Alarming Dilemmas in Flight
Sharing this call toward the sky with one of my sons, we decided to fly to Yosemite the next day. I would teach him the controls, maybe even let him fly the plane. As Brian took over as co-pilot on our return flight, he suddenly yelled, “My passenger door is partially unlatched!”
“Don’t worry,” I shouted above the noisy wind. “We’ll be landing soon. It’s still latched sufficiently to get us home,” silently questioning the airworthiness of 8414Alpha. What a way to initiate my son into the joys of flying! I sadly left behind this old 160hp Piper Warrior as I advanced to a faster 180hp Acher.
The fog in Northern California creeps in without warning. Though a pilot checks weather reports and wind conditions before take-off, this is the type of weather one cannot always foresee in advance. Such a flight I took north to Mendocino along the Pacific Coast shoreline, across the strip of ocean west of the Golden Gate Bridge, and its city, San Francisco. I had flown to this beautiful rustic artists’ colony before. This day, however, the trip would be different. As I approached the airport on the downwind leg, the sweeping fog was about to envelop us. I held my breath, and in a split second, with a steep bank, secured my landing.
My passenger’s expression was one of fear, as we came to a stop and disembarked. “I was petrified,” she said. “I was too frozen in my seat to say anything!”
“Yes, a dicey moment. However, a minute later, my alternative would be to deviate from my flight plan and turn back. Pilots must always be alert of situation awareness.”
As we crossed the tarmac, a forlorn-looking elderly gentleman wearing owlish spectacles, with arms crossed, greeted us outside the door of his office. “You’re the last plane allowed to land today. Lucky you didn’t buy the farm (crash)! Hope you plan on staying for a night or two – weather’s unpredictable. You can use my phone to rent a car and a place to stay,” stubbing out his cigarette in the dirty ashtray.
“I can just imagine the disbelief on our husbands faces,” said Ellie, when we tell them we can’t make it home this evening due to inclement weather.
“Yes,” and my boss too. “He’s always telling me not to fly too low.”
One bright sunny morning, our flight took us up to Calistoga, in the Napa wine country region, skirting San Francisco. A blanket of brown haze hung beneath my wings. Pilots were aware of Calistoga’s precarious short field, and the sky divers who practiced there as they approached the runway. If one did not control their rate of descent and landed long, only a fence would be there to save you.
All of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye, a skydiver appeared out of nowhere. “The right of way is yours,” yelled Chris, he’s high enough above you and notices us.” After extending flaps to permit a slower approach speed to their short runway, landing safely and securing our plane, we strolled the block into town. “Let’s get a mud bath, and explore the interesting gift shops in town,” smiled my friend.
While having lunch of crumbly tortillas and salad at a quaint café, we talked with our friendly blonde waitress, in her stained checkered uniform, about a rental car. “Oh, you can borrow mine!” she enthused. After giving her a grand tip and thanking her profusely, off we drove, very carefully, to the nearest winery where gifts of merlot, burgundy, and chardonnay were purchased. Our journey ended beautifully, with an invigorating mud bath, delicious lunch, and a kind waitress to make it happen.
A planned one day flight flew us northeast into the Sierras, spending the night in Mariposa, due to a westerly storm moving in from the Pacific. Deciding to fly back home the next day, we dropped down into the Central Valley where a fog bank awaited us. “We’ll have to try and get into Livermore. Their airport is north of here,” I frantically said in a choked voice, as a glimpse of horror crossed my passenger’s face, her hands balled into fists. “The overcast is too poor to continue west,” as I listened with confidence to the hum of the powerful engine. My eyes fastened on the instrument panel and altimeter, and flying low through breaks in the vapor, I followed the railroad tracks to Livermore, safely landing on their much welcomed misty glazed runway. No flights were allowed to depart that afternoon, so yet another night was spent in another town due to bad weather.
The following morning, I checked the weather forecasts, still gloomy with light sprinkles. However, spotting clear skies over the low-lying mountains and checking on the ceiling level, take off was decided and cleared. Several other pilots stood about waiting for a better clearance, all of them being male and all flying north instead of my southerly route. I wondered what their thoughts would be, as the only female pilot in sight stepped into the cockpit of her single engine plane?
It was less than an hour flight home and because of the intermittent rain and overcast that continued after departing Livermore, flying above 3,000 feet was not an option. “Scud running,” below 3,000 feet, is frowned upon and only done in emergencies. Wasn’t getting home to our families and jobs an emergency? I understood the euphoria of flight – how it can at times substitute the cares of family and earthly life, and once on the ground the experience a pilot has of readjustment.
Descending into the landing pattern at my home airport, and returning safely to our rain-slick runway, the field manager was outside to greet me with a questioning smile. “Flying kind of low, weren’t you?” Little did he know of my fearless desire to fly beneath the Golden Gate Bridge someday - a plan which, if accomplished and noted, would surely strip me of my license by the FAA forever.
Joy of Flight
Many other flights were had as pilot in command or co-pilot in California and Hawaii, all in much sunnier and less crippling weather. I would escape to the sky again and again.
Looking back, fear was never on my mind, only concentration in flying these magnificent airborne machines, and the high excitement of flying. I did not fly sophisticated aircraft, had no GPS or advanced technology, nor was I instrumented rated. My motto was – Lady Pilots don’t stall around!
Slicing through the skies as free as thought I soared through the air many times, up, up into the mirrored blue. What peace aloft in the majesty of space, out of touch with earth, within a small world of my own. Feelings of freedom, power, faith, and control so few are able to experience in this realm. I have been lucky to have slipped the bonds of earth and soared and chased the wind.