If one was silly enough to co-own an airplane, one would need to fly now and then, wouldn’t one? But to where, I wondered.
I was still pretty new to it all, but I’d logged a hundred and some hours by then, mostly on my own. Sure, I’d taken my father on a little tour of the local airports, partly to entertain the guy who’d not that recently lost his legs and was still morose over his self proclaimed “freakishness”, and partly to prove to him that his son wasn’t the moron he’d thought, not all together at least. And I’d done the fly to Lewiston Montana for a grape Nehi and to ride the mountain waves; six hours in the air for a bottle of soda and a break from the ordinary. (I’ve since discovered computer games and while they are even more a vacuous waste of time, they are at least far less expensive)
I’d hopped to here and there, enjoying the godliness of gravity suspension and the feeling that I’d conquered a little boy dream. But most often I’d traveled alone and it was beginning to annoy me. There is nothing so fun for me as to share something I have, something I know, even something I feel deeply if it can be done. But of course at that moment I was newly divorced and maudlin at the prospect of starting that ridiculous process all over again, and my list of friends, due partially because of said maudlin-ness, has dwindled to a very few mostly co-dependant creatures. Even a ride in an airplane wouldn’t bribe many to put up with my whine for a few hours. Luckily, I had Sparky.
To explain in short form, his name is S. Park, ala, Sparky. Our relationship began in our teens and though we’ve had more than one major falling out, for whatever reason we’re still connected. Then, I wasn’t all that fond of him, but he was a warm body. He spoke little, but would feign attention when I did. And he liked ice cream and playing pool, and as it turned out, flying.
Once my ex wife fled I had a house to myself, and I knew Sparky was struggling with life so I offered him free quarters. It wasn’t as grand as it sounds, he was relegated to the basement, albeit a mostly finished cellar with its own bath and the laundry. It was a catch 22 I was living; I wanted to help him, but I didn’t want to “marry” him. More than a few hours in his company and I tended to go “batshit”, so I made it clear that the living arrangement was a separate but equal kind of thing, to save myself being followed day and night like the reluctant owner of a Siamese twin.
Still, I did enjoy his company so long as the time was regulated in some secret way. So he became my flight partner. He would, of course tell me how to fly now and then, just as he’s told me how to do just about everything I’ve ever done that he hasn’t. That’s part of the charm of being Sparky. In fact he once argued with me about the depth of the pond behind Moorsby Watch, even though I’d lived there for 8 years by then and had accidentally waded in it more than once. But enough of that, this really isn’t about Sparky, but flying, or not flying as the case may be.
I discovered soon after receiving my pilot’s license that there was a “Dairy Freeze” directly across a rural highway from the Litchfield airport runway, a town about 45 miles from my home field. That was about a half hour jaunt each way, so we spent a few Saturday afternoons zipping off to Litchfield, spending near 80 dollars in fuel for an 85 cent cone. But though I do love my soft serve, that became boring soon enough, so I searched my maps for a more distant target. I found a most perfect spot while perusing the north country, a runway quite close to the Canadian border in the heart of canoe country, an interesting looking blotch on the chart that was both a land and seaport astride a body of water called “Devil’s Track Lake”. Now who the hell wouldn’t want to go there just for fun?
It was a bit tricky to find, navigational aids being slightly less automated than they are today, but it was a pretty amazing couple of hours flying over some of the grandest forests of the state, dodging a fairly large military base and then cruising along the shores of the largest fresh water lake in North America. The strip itself was dinky but I was pretty confident in my abilities by that stage, so I curled from north heading to south and made a lovely, only slightly bouncy landing at the Grand Marais Cook County Airport.
I’d expected little more than an FBO (Field base operator, often just a gas station) but to my surprise the parking area next to the runway was the same parking area for the “Devil’s Track Lodge”, a little log cabin style hotel and pub. You can’t imagine how cool it was for a dweeb like me to drive my aircraft into a “stall”, park, and saunter into a woodland lodge for a burger and a few games of billiards. Even I can’t imagine it any more, but I do have one photo of the plane so I know it wasn’t all a mirage.
This became our hidey hole for the rest of the summer, the most unpretentious pretentious thing I could think of to do with what was far more money than I needed to live in my fairly simple style. Sparky couldn’t afford to spend a dime, but that had never been an issue to me throughout my life. If I wanted to do it, and wanted to share it, I was fine with paying for it, and as aviation gas was damned expensive and a plane goes through it like a camel at a fire hose, there was a lot of cash changing hands that year. The flights did eliminate some of my divorce depression, so it was money well spent all in all. It likely would have gone down a less adventurous rathole if not this one, so I felt no compulsion to find a more prudent hobby, until my last trip the Devil’s Track.
It was fairly late in the day when I felt the wild hair working its way up my rear. We’d played pool for hours and it was really time to get back. I had flown at night and was fine with it, but things were so much easier in daylight. So we packed up and headed out to the plane. That’s when it struck me.
My great uncle lived sort in between where we were and where we were going. I say sort of because in reality, as I soon found after consulting my charts, he was about 200 miles off course, which would be 400 hundred miles off course presuming I wasn’t staying there, which I hadn’t planned on. I did my little time calculations, and then my fuel mathematics. If I really kicked butt, I could fly over my great uncle’s town and see his airport so as to store the vision in memory for a later visit, and still make it home before the sun had completely winked out. And I easily had enough gas, including the half hour’s safety leeway. So without thinking further, which is my normal operating procedure, I headed off for Park Falls Wisconsin for a flyover of Uncle Ernie’s house.
Uncle Ernie was this really cool guy, my father’s mother’s brother, who lived with them for a time before the war. My grandfather’s name was Ernie, as was my father’s, and so they called him Sonny, so the last Ernie in the house got the moniker Uncle Ernie. (I’m sure he heard plenty about the Who’s Tommy, and didn’t like it one bit; but the name stuck) Ernie aimed the first naval shell at the battle of Guadalcanal. Hey, everyone has to have something to pin their hat on. I only wish I had a copy of the Stars and Stripes newspaper that printed the story of it. But as always, I’m wandering.
We did find Park Falls, and I did make a couple of passes over the field before turning for Minneapolis. It was then that things got weird.
Only I could feel it. I suppose it was light enough it only moved through the yoke and as Sparky had his arms crossed over his chest as he drifted in and out of consciousness he never felt a thing. But I could. It buzzed, sort of, like a tuning fork might. Something was vibrating, I thought. I didn’t panic, though I did start thinking much too hard.
Park Falls you see in is the middle of nowhere. Drive in any direction from Park Falls, and what you’ll see is trees and swampland. So there’s really nowhere to land if I were to get into actual trouble, unless rather than using the “crow flies” method, I followed some paved road to my destination. Sadly, the paved roads run east and west and my direction was on the southwest diagonal. I gave it another 20 minutes before I started to get nervous, and then found a track to shadow. That’s when the vibration became slightly more intense.
I first gained a little altitude. If you’re going to die, the distance from the ground won’t be an issue, but if you have a chance, the longer you can glide the better off you are. Then, I cut the engine back a little. I figured if the tail was about to leave the plane, a slower speed might make the disintegration of my steerage take a bit longer.
Truly, I was not freaking out. In spite of how I must seem, in time of impending doom I generally assume the best result, cuz, what’s the point of assuming the worst? If it’s coming, it’ll get there soon enough. I simply made some adjustments and paid closer attention to how the plane was acting while taking precautions in case of an emergency. I did need to tell Sparky though,. In fact, I didn’t much worry about death, my divorce had taken that fight right out of me, but I had no wish to take anyone with me; even if I could argue that Sparky’s life was no prize either, it was not my call. If not for his being there I might have simply bore ahead on my planned path and taken my chances with providence. In the end, it would have been the better call.
Because of my detours, night came well before I’d reached home, though as the stars began to twinkle the city lights absorbed the darkness below. It was complicated to fly as a car would drive. The twin cities airport is huge and has an enormous restricted zone, and there are quite a few regional fields that need to be skirted when flying fairly low. Again, I flew visually, sticking to the freeways, watching like a hawk for any and all metal parts that might suddenly start flapping in the wind and tear off the wings on their way past.
Finally I reached Flying Cloud Field and set up for landing. At the slower speed I’d chosen, the vibration had never increased, so I figured I’d made all the right decisions in a nerve wracking situation. I was pretty happy with myself to be honest. I called the tower and got my permissions, settled into the pattern and just before my wheels touched the tarmac I pulled back into a perfect flare. Just as I did, the engine stopped. Cold Turkey.
Landing was smooth as silk, but I only had enough roll to reach the end of the runway and not turn off it. I tried to start the engine but couldn’t, and after a few tries I called the tower to arrange a tow. It wasn’t likely anyone would be right behind me, but I didn’t want to take that chance. Then, all I had to do was sit and wait, and try to stop my heart from exploding.
What was it I wondered that had stopped the engine, or better yet, that had allowed the engine to continue right up until we were a few feet off the ground and at minimum speed? Was it the motor that was shaking? Could it have come right out of the cowling and into the windshield as we passed over some unnamed bog in Nowheresville WI?
I did keep trying to start the plane, partly in desperation. I wanted to think it was a fluke, some oddball stroke of bad luck, completely removed from the vibration thing which would turn out to be nothing as well. But when the engine popped off and ran just as cleanly as it had when I’d taken off nearly ten hours before, I knew something dreadful was in the explanation. Still, I’d saved myself a couple hundred dollars in avoiding a tow to the hanger. At least there was something to be grateful for.
It wasn’t until the next day when I’d come back to the field to find a cause and set up repairs if need be before I figured out what had happened. The shaking as it turned out was nothing really. The electrical system of that particular plane used a device called a magneto, and it was firing erratically and needed to be replaced. It was nothing that needed immediate attention; just a bothersome problem that would create just the scenario I suffered. The engine quitting on the other hand, was a bit more interesting.
I was right in Devil’s Track when I’d computed my distance, time and fuel. But I was right “as the crow flies”. It hadn’t even occurred to me with all the, what Linda would call dipsydoodling I was doing, I’d added near an hour to the flight, which easily eliminated my reserve.
The gas tanks on a plane are in the wings; two runnerish bags called “bladders”, with a tube running from the center of each to the engine. When a plane is flying normally, the wings are angled fairly flat, and so the fuel flows freely to the last drop. But upon landing, a pilot flares, which raises the angle of the front of the wing upward to keep altitude while dropping engine speed, and the gasoline rolls to the backside of the bladder, just as it would in a car’s tank on a hill.
I’d run out of gas. Just as I flared. Had I traveled another half mile out of my way at any time during the day, had I been at a higher altitude when I’d started my decent, had I… name a hundred variables… Sparky and I would have been a news item in the local section of the newspaper, unless of course we’d found our way into the roof of a car or into an active bedroom on our way to the fireball.
It was a while before I flew again. I wasn’t afraid, but damned self punishing for having been so incredibly stupid. I seldom carried passengers from that point, and I never stopped by the Devil’s Track Lodge again, but I did fly a few hundred more hours before a sudden change in finances forced me into retirement. I did have other edgy moments, but none so simple, so avoidable. Now I do my best to not pat my head while rubbing my tummy at the same time. Obviously I can only deal with one pleasure at a time.