by Michael E. Lloyd
Table of Contents
Chapter 24, part 1
Chapter 24, part 2
appear in this issue.
Chapter 25: Plane Sailing
part 1 of 2
Salvatore was briefly awake in the middle of the very warm night. He could feel a mild hangover coming on, but he was used to those, and he knew it would soon pass. He drifted back to sleep.
Soon after daybreak he looked out of the window, saw some very fine weather all around, and decided to go ahead with his plan for the flight.
He called Toni’s room. No reply. Damn! Then he thought again, and called Maelene’s.
A very sleepy voice answered. ‘Huh?’
‘It’s me, Maelene. Is Toni there?’
‘What?? Oh Sal, that’s the second time you’ve done this to me!’
‘Is Toni there? I want to apologise to him.’
‘Oh, I’ll never understand you! Hold on ...’
‘Sal? What do you want now?’
‘I’m taking you flying this morning, Toni. Sort of getting things together again, you know — two guys doing stuff ...’
‘What? You’ve actually booked a plane?’
‘But Maelene and I have made plans ...’
‘Oh, come on, it’s only an hour or so in the air. And I bet you’ve never been flying before, have you? We’ll be finished before lunch. Plenty of time for Maelene after that!’
‘She won’t like it, Sal.’
‘But would you?’
‘Well, yes ...’
‘I’ll book a cab. Eight-thirty, downstairs.’
* * *
Carla, who had been on un-made sentry duty in the lobby since dawn, was fascinated to observe Toni and Salvi apparently reconciled and going off somewhere together. She was also very pleased to note that Homeland Security was not yet around to pick up their trail. And since she had nothing else to do, and Maelene could probably look after herself better than either of them, she decided to have a quiet day out with the lads.
By the time their taxi reached the airfield, Homeland Security had finally taken up her unwisely delayed watch for Toni, back at the hotel lobby.
The Cessna was ready, just as promised, and Salvatore completed his business transaction in a discreet corner, borrowed a local aviation chart from the owner, and marked up the route of the little trip he had already planned using his own road map.
Then he walked Toni round the aircraft, explaining everything as he carefully ensured that all was just as it should be, and the fuel was adequate, and the various external lights were working, and so on. Then they climbed in.
‘Wow! Dual controls!’
And Salvatore continued the tight running commentary as he worked his way through all the flight instruments and internal equipment.
Toni had raised his eyebrows several times during this process, and the pilot finally spotted it.
‘Surprised I’m working from a checklist, Toni? Don’t be. Every pilot does, all the time, on the ground before departure — even the pros in the big commercial jets. It’s stupid not to, even though you’ve done it all so often before. But you don’t use one when you’re airborne, in a light plane — once you’re up there, you look at the instruments and what’s going on outside, and you work from memory!’
‘Makes sense,’ said Toni, now reassured rather than concerned.
Five minutes later, the checks were complete.
‘Right, all done. I’ll start up soon, and then I’ll call the tower. Quick passenger briefing first, though — it’s a legal requirement, right?
‘Here’s how the seat belt works — watch me. Now do it with yours, OK? Good. And here’s how you open the door, right? Seat adjustment — like this. Fire extinguisher, here ... and first-aid kit, here.
‘Now, you shouldn’t speak to me while I’m busy talking or listening back on the radio — but apart from that, we can chat all the time on the open intercom. And don’t worry if the engine fails — it won’t, but if it did, the plane would glide down to land all on its own. I’d just have to find a nice flat field for it! Oh, and if you feel unwell, tell me straight away, and we’ll handle it, OK?’
‘And here’s the route I’ve planned on the chart. We’ll fly out to the north — look, follow the lines I’ve drawn — then we’ll go west, then around the south of San Pablo Bay, then over to the Pacific coast, and back via the bay bridges. About a hundred and sixty kilometres — should take around an hour and a quarter, nice and easy. OK?’
‘Still OK, Captain!’
‘Hah! Right, headsets on. Can you hear me OK?’ ... ‘Good. Comfortable?’ ... ‘Good. Starting up now.’
He opened the window a few inches.
As they taxied towards the departure runway’s holding point, every ounce of Salvatore’s attention was going into his careful English language radio communications and his steady navigation around the still unfamiliar airfield.
So his brain all but ignored the grumblings starting to emanate from his stomach, and simply put them down to the lack of breakfast.
* * *
They had been aloft for about fifteen minutes, and were gently cruising south-west along the shoreline of San Pablo Bay. Toni was loving it, and he said so.
‘Ah, it gets even better now,’ said his pilot, who was also enjoying himself immensely. ‘Take the control column in your left hand ... no, hold it really lightly ... that’s it ... and just rest your feet on the rudder pedals. Now, follow me through as we do a couple of gentle turns ... right first, get the feel of it? ... then left ... see how easy it is? Let’s do another one to the right ... good ... feel the rudder pedals moving ever so slightly as I use them to balance the turn? OK, another one to the left ... good ... and straighten up. That’s great. Oh, by the way Toni, I’m not touching anything now — you’re flying it all by yourself. You have control. Keep it going, nice and easy, just follow the line of the bay ... you’re doing fine ...’
And for the next ten minutes, Toni flew the plane very smoothly, with Salvatore’s hands and feet just giving it a gentle nudge from time to time to keep things on the straight and level. The pilot’s attention was still focused one hundred percent on ensuring this would be a very well-managed sortie.
Once they were tracking west again, and approaching the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, Salvatore said ‘OK, I’ll take it back for a while now, and pick up the route for the coast. I have control.’
Toni sat back, exhilarated from this unexpected new experience and feeling much better disposed to his obviously now contrite old rival.
And then the food poisoning from the undercooked shrimps hit Salvatore like a brick.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Stomach cramp! Awful. Aaaggh! And I’m feeling sick ...’
‘Well, try and relax, and ...’
In less than two minutes he had broken out in a heavy sweat, and even Toni could see that his pilot had stopped consulting the map and was not concentrating on his instruments properly either. The plane still seemed to be flying level, but it was definitely in a gentle right turn, rather than on a nice straight course towards the Pacific Ocean.
‘Toni, I can’t give this enough attention now! You’ll need to help me ...’
‘Well, of course I will ...’
‘Just take up the controls and keep it in this turn, like I showed you before ... aaaggh! ... and I’ll check out our position. That’s fine, you’re doing well ...’
Toni was not about to argue.
‘OK, we’ve gone round in a couple of circles but I can see San Rafael down there at the end of the bridge. Turn left, and we’ll head away from the water for now ... aaaggh!’
Toni brought the plane round onto a northerly heading, straightening up when Salvatore told him to, and the pilot raised the nose a little to get them slowly back to their previous altitude.
‘What do we do now, Sal?’
‘I’m not improving, Toni. Aaaggh! There’s only one option. We can’t fly it all the way back like this — we need to land soon, before it gets even worse. I’ve found the nearest airfield on the map — it’s only about eight minutes away. I’ll call them now ...’
And he called, and identified his aircraft, and gave his position, and made his request for an unscheduled landing. He did not mention his condition, but the radio operator had good ears and was no fool.
‘November-27, are you declaring an emergency?’
‘N-27, roger, cleared for zone entry, runway 31, pressure 2995, left-hand circuit, 1000 feet, standard join, call overhead, descend dead-side, call downwind. Three in the circuit, you are number four.’
As Salvatore read it all back out loud, he suddenly realised this was crazy. It had taken him hours of training to even start to master the circuit-to-land procedures. Toni simply wouldn’t be able to handle those challenges here and now. But he still did not want to call a full-blown “Mayday” alert, today of all days, with his licence not exactly legal. No, he would go for the lower-grade “Pan Pan” urgency call.
‘N-27, your read-back is correct.’
‘Tower from N-27, still negative emergency, but now Pan Pan, Pan Pan, Pan Pan, request immediate landing, straight-in approach, pilot feeling unwell ...’
‘N-27, roger your Pan Pan, straight-in approach approved, your are now number one, report four-mile final ... Break ... all other traffic, Pan Pan exists, remain in circuit for duration, keep good lookout for landing Cessna now on long final, maintain radio silence.’
‘Toni, we must do this together, right? I can still read the instruments, but I can’t see clearly outside ... aaaggh! Just do what I say, OK?’
‘I’ve re-set the altimeter for landing. We’re at sixteen hundred feet now, with five miles to run. That’s good. Can you see the airfield? It should be over there ...’
‘Good. OK, we’re heading north-west. Turn gently right, onto north on this instrument, see? ... good, now fly straight again, and I’ll reduce the power for the descent ... aaaggh! ... now I’ll put some flaps down ... now pull back gently on the column to slow us down ... good ... now let it forward again and I’ll trim it for the approach speed ... good ... aaaggh! ... OK, hold it like that ... I can just make out the field in my side window now ... turn smoothly left and you’ll find yourself on the runway centreline ... good ... straighten up now ... descent rate is good, now twelve hundred feet ... stay with it, Toni.’
He pressed the transmit button again.
‘Tower, N-27 is four mile final.’
‘N-27, roger, cleared to land, surface wind 290 degrees, eight knots.’
‘Cleared to land.’
‘And N-27, do you require an ambulance?’
No more radio calls now. Back to Toni.
‘Doing great, Toni. Speed is good, descent rate still good ... keep your body pointing at the centreline, and keep coming down towards that big number 31 at the threshold. Don’t be scared of it ... keep coming down towards those numbers ... four hundred feet, one minute to go, you’re a bit high, no problem ... full flaps now, I’ll help you adjust to the change ... aaaggh! ... that’s good, keep it going, nearly there ... now just look straight ahead ... I’m removing most of the power ... now pull back gently on the column ... hold it there, hold off, hold off, don’t land yet, don’t land ... OK, we’re down ... keep it rolling straight with the pedals, I’m helping ... right, I’m braking now, slowing nicely ... we’ve stopped. Phew! Well done. Aaaggh! OK, I’ll take it back for the taxi, but we’ll both watch where I’m going, right?’
‘Right,’ said Toni in a state of near-shock.
‘Tower, N-27 landed, runway vacated. Request taxi and parking instructions.’
The airfield manager had been alerted, of course. He watched the Cessna move hesitantly but safely to the allocated parking area, and he watched the adequately-executed shutdown procedure, and he watched the two men as they left the aircraft and walked unsteadily over to the control room — the passenger looking very shaken, and the pilot looking a whole lot worse.
The Handler of the unseen radimote was not feeling too bright either, but she was as relieved as her comrades were that the immediate danger had clearly passed.
* * *
‘Is he still refusing a medic or an ambulance?’
‘Yes,’ answered Toni, still on cloud nine.
‘Very well. But I have to follow procedure after an incident such as this. I need you to help me complete this form on his behalf ...’
‘I’ll deal with that,’ said Salvi rather weakly from the easy chair in which he was uncomfortably resting.
‘As you wish, sir. Here’s a pen. Please answer all the questions, and while you’re doing that, I’ll take down the details from your licence ...’
Salvatore sighed, pulled his papers from his jacket pocket, handed them over, and made a start on filling in the very complicated form.
‘Excuse me, sir — I need your Restricted US-PPL, as well as your European licence.’
‘The Restricted US-PPL. You need that to fly an airplane in the USA.’
‘Never heard of it.’
Toni didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on, but he decided to chip in.
‘I don’t have one either, but that didn’t stop me landing the plane!’
‘Pardon me, sir. I appreciate you’re the hero of the hour here, but if you choose to interfere with this procedure again, I shall be obliged to report you for complicity ...’
Toni walked off and stared out of the window.
‘OK, I’ve filled out your stupid form. I’m leaving now.’
‘You’re in no fit state to fly that airplane, sir.’
‘I know that, man. I’ll contact the owner and arrange to pay all his recovery costs. Toni, would you please call us a cab ...’
* * *
They arrived back at the Beechland Hotel around half-past two. Salvatore’s stomach was still complaining angrily, and he struggled up to his room and flopped down on his bed, rejecting his own saviour’s offer to call out a doctor.
In Toni’s case it was his legs that were still feeling very wobbly. He made straight for Maelene’s room, but there was no reply. For a moment he wished he had phoned her while he was kicking his heels at the second airfield, but then he thought it through, and decided he wouldn’t call her, even now — it would definitely be better to tell her what had happened in person, and after the event ... whenever she reappeared.
So then he went back to his own room and, like Salvatore, tried to forget it all with a nice long afternoon nap.
Carla again took up her unseen watch in the lobby, with a clear view of Homeland Security, who was wondering just why Murano and his pal had decided to go out so early that morning, and had come back in such obviously bad shape.
To be continued ...
Copyright © 2006 by Michael E. Lloyd