Tuesday, August 26, 2008

I Knew I Was Dead

A funny thing happened on the way back from an airshow. It was years ago, but the photo in my office still makes me smile—and shudder.

At the time, I was an Air Force pilot instructing advanced jet students, but this particular flight made my apprentices look brilliant. I had fabricated a military “strip chart” to fly the bi-plane I built from Lubbock, Texas, to Marana airpark near Phoenix. My compass was so-so, but since I navigated by the sun and section lines, it was never a problem. (Okay, I’ll admit I also read road signs and the names on water towers, but none existed during this particular adventure.)

All was fine on the way out, but the cold front that pushed through the morning I was leaving forced me to deviate off my strip chart. No problem, I mused, having gone through pilot training in that region. But that “warm and fuzzy” feeling quickly vanished as everything looks different at the altitude I was flying. The strong tailwind was great for heading east, but posed a significant problem if I turned back, so I pressed on, hoping I’d make Albuquerque before my fuel tanks ran dry.

When I rounded a mountainous bend, a wall of weather closed the door on my plans. My only choice was to land and wait it out. At times like this, it’s best to have an airfield nearby, but today, a two-lane road would do. All I needed was a break in the traffic. While waiting for that to happen, I spotted a turnoff where I could pull the plane off the road. I ended up landing behind an RV that probably bore a bumper sticker reading, “Spending Our Kid’s Inheritance.” I swung the tail around at the turnoff and pulled the plane behind the stop sign, in front of the cattle crossing.

So there I was, somewhere in New Mexico at 7,000 feet, freezing in my cotton Tee and denim jacket. All I needed was someone to point me towards Albuquerque and the weather to clear. I figured my first need would have been the easiest, but no one wanted to approach me or my airplane. Apparently, they figured my red, white, and blue bi-plane was the perfect rig for running drugs. Yeah, right.

I must have stared at the “no trespassing” signs across the street for an hour before getting the courage to ignore them. I parted the cattle inside like Moses did the Red Sea, marching toward the ranch house, certain its owner would fire a warning shot, followed by one through my chest. With my heart hammering, I rang the doorbell, knocked on the door, and peered into windows, but that wasn’t enough to convince me the gun-toting rancher wouldn’t appear from behind a wall. But with no sign of human life anywhere, I had no choice but to retreat.

By now, the weather had cleared and I was eager to leave. I was about forty feet from my airplane when a car pulled up to it. I sprinted directly at my plane, flinging mud off my shoes and onto my head. Apparently my running spooked the driver because the car sped off just before I got there. But just to show that God was enjoying my predicament, a pickup truck drove down the same dirt road my airplane and I were blocking. Thankfully, the driver stopped, and I was able to ask for a vector to Albuquerque. He pointed toward a hill, I thanked him, fired up my plane, and took off, spotting New Mexico’s capitol thirty minutes later. When I landed, I pictured the pickup driver sharing a drink with the RV’s occupants.

Thankfully, I never got shot, the cattle didn’t stampede, and I never ran out of gas, but I must admit those things had me going for a while. Then again, isn’t it the element of uncertainty that makes stories fun?


Jean Henry Mead said...

Great story, Mark. If that had happened here in Wyoming, I think the motorists would have been friendlier. Most of the ranchers have planes, themselves. :0)

Jean Henry Mead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chester Campbell said...

Good thing you weren't in the area I traveled Saturday, Mark. We had to go up and down a tree-shrouded, corkscrew-turning road in North Carolina near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But your adventure made a great story. Just don't try that trick with your FedEx monster.