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Flying on Autopilot- Part 1

It was early one Saturday morning as Frank turned the corner on Doolittle Drive. The sun was beaming through the windshield and glinting off his Ray Bans.

“I look like a pilot with those Aviators on, just like I felt like one,” he thought.

“Hey, Sarah, get your stuff together, we’re already running 20 minutes late,” said Frank, as he sped well north of the posted speed limit of 25 mph. Sarah glanced at him with that usual frustration as Frank never made an appointment on time.

“Frank, slow down before you get us both killed. We’re not in the airplane after all,”

“Okay, okay,” said Frank dismissively, with his typical aurora of cockiness.

Frank already had his seat belt off as his Mercedes jetted around the turn into the parking lot of Wings Over Here Flight School. An obvious play on words as the owner, James Tannis, not only loved flying but eating wings as well. It showed on James, too.

Frank and Sarah hurriedly entered the flight school and began checking out the aircraft they had rented that morning. The Piper Saratoga or PA32 was a beaut. Since Frank always told Sarah that kids would just weigh them down, they never had any. Frank could load that baby up with golf clubs and suitcases alike and fly real far too. Today, however was a quick meeting with a client for a late breakfast at an airport up North about 75 miles.

“Oh darn, I have to take this call. Sarah, why don’t you start the preflight and I’ll be out in a few?” Said Frank.

“I don’t know what I’m looking for, Frank.”

“Just give me a break, Hun, you got that, and I’ll get this,” hollered Frank as he went into the weather briefing room to take his business call.

Sarah headed for the flight line while shaking her head. The Dispatcher’s eyes would have been rolling already if she hadn’t been well familiar with Frank and Sarah from previous rentals. In fact, the entire flight school knew about the fancy pair from the big city with the fancy car from the big lot.

Sarah did in fact know a lot more than she gave herself credit for. She had flown hundreds of hours with her husband in all types of aircraft and all types of weather. Today, they were renting the Saratoga and that one was straightforward to preflight, she recalled.

She was making her way around the nose of the aircraft with the checklist when Frank shouted from the flight school. “Hey Sarah, will Monday evening work for our meet with the Fergusons at the racquet club?”

“Whatever you want, Frank, I’ve got nothing going on that day,” said Sarah.

Sarah, again shaking her head and wondering what she sees in him continued with the preflight. She checked the propeller for nicks and pulled the cowl plugs. Okay she thought, back to where I started. Preflight Complete, Check!

Frank scooped up a dozen Buffalo wings in a nonbiodegradable Styrofoam container and finally made his way out the door, still chatting on and awkwardly juggling with his phone. At times, his animated voice sounded incredulous as he spoke to his business partner, Ned Stevens.

Frank suddenly stopped short as he heard a prop gaining in intensity. All at once, he dropped his phone and lunged back as he was almost hit by a high wing Cessna taxiing from its parking stand to the run-up area. Shocked at the pilot’s obvious stupidity for not seeing him walking towards the flight line, he gestured an unkind missive to the passerby.

As he crouched to recover his phone, he was now mad as the iPhone 12 was shattered and seemingly unusable. He wished his wife had given him those Air Pods he asked for earlier in the year. Maybe for his birthday, he’d get them. He did preserve the box of wings, however and picked up one of the mild sauce-laden chicken legs with its scrumptious breading.

"Why does this always happen to me?” he mused.

He saw Sarah positioned on the top on the wing like a model. He was a big shot, living the dream life. He made great money, flew a cool airplane, and had a hot wife. What more could a guy want, he thought. As he stepped up onto the right wing, he realized how well he must have taught Sarah to preflight since she was already done with the task.

She reported,” Preflight Complete, Captain,”

Frank always liked being called this when they were in and around the airplanes. Another muted smirk by Frank seemingly went unnoticed by Sarah. Captain, yes, that will work, thought Frank, I am the Captain.

Frank and Sarah stowed their gear and plugged in their Bose A20 headsets. Within minutes, the engine was primed and Frank was cranking away on the starter to no avail. Frank’s confidence in the airplane was always present. Sarah knew that for all Frank’s idiosyncrasies, he must have been good pilot. After all, he never had an accident, Sarah thought, and then looked for some wood to rap on twice. Well now, everything is plastic or leather in here, she realized.

A moment later Sarah spotted James Tannis hurrying towards the aircraft and waving his hands over his head.

“Stop cranking,” shouted James, the owner of the flight school.

“Hey Frank, here comes old Jim Tannis, he’s saying stop, I think,” Said Sarah.

Frank indeed stopped cranking away at the engine and quickly muttered a few words.

“What did you say, Frank?” asked Sarah

“I said this plane never starts right away; I’m going to give Jim some hell for this. Open your door a little,”

Sarah cracked the upper latch on the door and then unclasped the lower. Jim was now standing right behind the right wing and she motioned him up. Her eyes enlarged as if saying it wasn’t me, Jim.

“Frank, Frank, you over primed it. You flooded the engine. You can see fuel dripping from the engine cowl. Here, let me show you how to do this again,” said James Tannis.

“I followed the checklist. I did it right,” shouted Frank

“I know, I know, this plane…” replied James Tannis.

Jim held his patience as he knew Frank and Sarah put a lot of hours on his planes in general. Did the benefits out way the costs, he was always wondering? Maybe, thought Jim, just maybe. I need a few more years and then I’ll sell all this and retire, thought Jim. Cocktails and Wings, he envisioned, would be the name of his tropical oasis on the Yucatán coast.

As Jim let out a contrived smile, he spotted the pre-start checklist on the floor wedged beneath the flap handle. Jim passed along his starting hacks to Frank. Knowing Sarah, the smart one was paying attention, he felt assured that they would figure it out eventually before either burning up the starter or draining the battery dead.

“Okay, thanks Jim, we’re running really late,” said Frank.

With the engine now racing at 1400 rpms, Frank released the parking brake and allowed the beauty to roll forward with a fury. It was as if he was stepping on his partner’s toes on the dance floor. Frank quickly envisioned himself on the flight deck of a Boeing 777 powering away from the gate in some foreign and exotic city halfway across the world. This was his element; it was his greatest achievement in life. He was an aircraft Captain. Beyond all the boardrooms, the balls, and bars, this was his “Gin Joint”

“Okay, Sarah, run the checklist,” commanded Frank.

“Where did you put it?” she asked.

As they noisily taxied to the run-up area on the field, both Frank and Sarah noticed several people over by the picnic tables covering their ears and shaking their heads. Frank said, “you know Sarah, someday those folks too will make it to where we are.” Sarah gazed over at Frank and smiled adoringly, as if thinking, oh my God, you just don’t get it, do you, you’re such a child.

Despite the obvious shortcomings of her husband, Sarah loved the lifestyle. She loved their Fall leaf viewing excursions to New England as well as their early morning breakfast runs out West. No, I’ll keep Frank a while longer, she figured.

During their run up, Frank raced the engine even more, moving many levers and dials, adjusting several gauges and buttons, and finally proclaiming, “we’re good, let’s get on with the show,” All at once Sarah’s audio dropped out and she realized things were a bit quieter now. Maybe it was just her noise cancelling headset doing its job, she figured. After all, Frank bought the best money could buy.

“Frank, how do you read me?” asked Sarah, while tapping on her headset mic boom.

Frank never let Sarah speak on the radios, mostly because he was the Captain. She would need more formal training to be able to handle that part of their missions, he thought.

“Wings Field, this is the Saratoga departing runway 20.” broadcasted Frank.

“Uh, Saratoga, this is King Air 634RD on short final runway 20 at Wings, please hold.”

Fully unaware of this arriving aircraft, Frank rolled his baby onto Runway 20 as if in a hurry to get the show started. The combination of power and brake application seemed to equal one another. Each working as advertised. With the directional gyro in alignment with the runway heading now, Frank was satisfied all was Kosher. He applied full power to the “toga” and began his takeoff role.

“Wings Traffic, King Air 634RD going around runway 20.”

Frank was used to making big deals with big people all day long, Monday through Friday. Today, this takeoff didn’t seem like a big deal, instead it was a carefully orchestrated dance between he and the Gods of science.

Like the roar of the Lycoming IO-540 engine, Frank’s inner roar was shouting to himself. “Yes, you got this, check that airspeed, hold that centerline, more right rudder, 80 Knots, etc.” Vroom, like that car commercial. Frank wasn’t a passenger in this aircraft, Frank was a piece of the airplane itself. The aircraft essentially moved on its axis around Captain Frank.

Meanwhile, back at the picnic tables, the would-be pilots and spectators and plane spotters alike were cringing with fear as they witnessed the near collision. That big King Air and the powerful single engine which pulled onto the runway as if not even looking for any traffic nor monitoring the radio really shook them. Their gasps were muted only by their hands subconsciously covering their mouths in fear for what would come of this tragic unfolding of events. As if in chorus, they sank towards the tarmac with the uncertainty of how this one would turn out.

James Tannis too found himself mystified as to how he continues to rent his airplanes to Frank. How could he be so seemingly successful in the business world yet so bad in the world of aviation. How could he not be better than this as James knew he rented his airplanes to Frank for more than 200 hours in the last two or three years, alone. James heard the emerging scuttle over the CTAF frequency broadcast on the flight school’s radio. He too immediately cringed with fear and peered outside towards the runway. Frank, it must be that Frank, he concluded.

The Saratoga was now traveling faster than Frank typically drove down Doolittle Drive. The airplane roared to life after he abruptly applied full power. Sarah too, seemed to forget all about Frank’s shortcomings. This was why she stayed with him, she thought. Well, maybe one of the few reasons. Frank never saw that King Air climbing out above and ahead of them as he was meticulously scanning his engine gauges and flight instruments for their proper indications. Hum, that’s strange, thought Frank, to himself.

As the plane’s nose wheel broke its grip from the asphalt below and simultaneously drifted left of the centerline towards the runway edge lights, Frank smiled with pleasure. At that moment, he forgot about everything else in his world.

As if entering a Zen moment like at the Yoga studio that one time, Frank now gazed skyward and said, “Hello Blue Skies, I’m Here!”

Meanwhile, an older lady in her Aeronca Champ tail dragger was dancing back and forth on the parallel taxiway as she moved towards Runway 20 for a departure. As she steered back to the left, towards the runway she saw the larger low wing Piper with its three-blade prop coming right at her and her prized possession. More right rudder, she thought, as she was shaking her head in disbelief at the pilot of that Piper. They’ll rent airplanes to anyone these days, the retired United Airplanes Captain figured.

Sarah was always amazed each time the plane broke ground and they once again defied gravity. Was it the machine or the man, that amazed her more, she wondered? Her nostrils suddenly flared with a new aroma. She quickly remembered the half-eaten box of wings and looked down to find them. Sure enough, they were strewn all over the floor between their seats and spilling into the map compartment just behind their center console. That answers the first question she thought. But that wasn’t what she was smelling. That couldn’t be what she was smelling, unless those wings were burned. There was no shortage of fresh air available in the cockpit as the plane stepped into the sky so what was this new aroma? It smelled like something burning, yes it did.

“Frank, Frank, look, what’s that all over the windshield?” Asked Sarah.

“What’s that, honey? I can’t hear you,”

Sarah pulled Franks headset away from his right ear and shouted over the engine noise. “I said what’s all over the windshield?”

“You mean windscreen, honey, don’t you?” replied Frank.

“Uh yea, whatever, Captain, but seriously what the heck is streaming onto the window?” asked Sarah.

Just as Frank realized what Sarah was talking about, the engine began to cough a little. The engine began to sputter as if to say, nope, not me today, I’m not ready to go anywhere, not with you two anyhow. Frank knew quickly he had a problem with the Saratoga. It was oil streaming back onto the windscreen and a lot of it too. Glancing forward along the pilot’s side of the long nose cowling of the PA32 Frank quickly found the source of the problem. The oil compartment door was fully open and he could see the distinct yellow dipstick of the oil reservoir peeking out above the compartment’s opening.

“Sarah, you left the oil dipstick unsecured!” Declared Frank.

There it was. This was Frank’s Reason for being. He trained for this moment his entire life. Wax on, wax off, or was it paint the fence, he wondered. Just then, as if stepping off an airliner in the islands, sweat beaded on his forehead and his hands were now slippery on the yoke. He found himself gripping ever tighter to that steering wheel in the sky. Only, he was no longer in control. His heart was pounding in unison with the sputters of the engine and at only 700 feet, this was not going to end well.

“Tighten your seatbelt, Sarah!” Frank solemnly stated. As if with full composure, he also told her to slide her seat aft and away from the hardness of the dashboard and all it’s useless instrumentation now. Maybe this was rote recall of procedure or maybe at this very moment, Frank knew that he had failed his beautiful wife, Sarah. He sought to shield her from this fine mess he’d gotten her in. This would have never happened in the boardroom, he thought.

Frank found himself subconsciously lowering the nose of the Saratoga to preserve his airspeed and as he did, he revealed a windscreen full of trees at the end of the runway. It was clear now that in his carefully orchestrated dance between he and the Gods of science, perhaps she did not consent to being taken to the dance floor. Had he overstepped his place that morning? But, did Frank listen. No, Frank never listened to anyone or anything but his ego. It was never Frank’s fault. Frank took no accountability when it came to his life and those consequences. It was with this notion that Frank continued to try and control the situation by muscling his airplane toward an eventual seat on the crowded side of the dance floor.

Every input he made was thwarted by the ultimately more in command Saratoga. She was to remain in control that day, and not this over confident blow-hard from the big city who drives his fancy car from the big lot. She would take her last dance in her own way today, saddled with stupid, yet soaring with a silence she angled towards the dirt and trees near the airport’s perimeter fence.

“Brace yourself, honey, we’re going into the trees, cover your face. I love you my darling, I’m so sorry,” Nervously shouted Frank. But which girl was he speaking to? Perhaps both of his girls. Perhaps that was the problem all along. There can be only one, he recalled from the famous line in The Highlanders. Frank wrestled with the human urge to hold the nose up and clear those trees but his awareness of his speed bleeding ever closer to a stall kept that in check. He was losing this boardroom battle which was undoubtedly a new sensation for him. Unfamiliar territory is never comfortable, but this would down right hurt when all was said and done, he realized.

With a face full of tree now, he spotted two rather large oaks that seemed to call on him like goal posts on the gridiron. He recalled an article he read about a plane crashing through the middle of a couple of large trees like them which in turn absorbed much of the energy on contact. He edged the plane slightly left in an effort to align his and Sarah’s fate. Would this be a three-point play today or would they be lucky to just be alive after this event.

As the slow dance tune began fading to its conclusion and the engine had quit, the airspeed was perilously holding above a stall and their altitude was diminishing faster than he could come up with a new line to woo his girl back onto the floor. He resigned himself to their fate.

“Hold on now, hold on now, this is it, Sarah, hold on, we’re going down. I love You so much. Dear God, please, if you see fit to give me another chance, I swear I won’t sue the flight school for this,” Blurted Frank.

Well, God’s not dead, seemingly and neither was Frank nor Sarah. The trees ripped off the wings and slowed the hulk of carefully crafted metal to rest about 80 yards beyond the oaks. The Saratoga sat twisted at a 60-degree angle to the right and listing mostly on its left side. It’s dance partners groaned in pain and fear of their rather unknown fate.

“Frank, Frank, are you ok?” Asked Sarah.

“I’m okay, how about you? I’m so sorry,” replied Frank.

“We have to get out of here. Are you able to move?” Said Sarah.

Sarah was able to unlatch the passenger door and she helped Frank remove his seatbelt. Bumps and bruises seem to be the worst of their troubles as they had no problem squeezing through the door which seemed to beckon them to stay put. They got a few more cuts on their legs and arms as they slid passed the exposed root of the right wing and its jagged spars.

They quickly noticed the small fires burning behind the plane where the wings were ripped off by the mighty oaks and ignited the Avgas.

“Care for some roasted acorns, Sarah?” Said Frank.

“Umm, no thanks, I think I’ll hold out for some of those wings from the flight school. You’re such a dummy!” Said Sarah.

As Frank and Sarah limped arm in arm back towards the airport boundary, they found themselves shaking their heads in disbelief.

“Maybe there were some things we could have done differently,” She told Frank.

“What do you mean? What did we do wrong? I need to speak to Jim, now,” Replied Frank.

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Serving as editor in chief of the Vortex, the storied publication of the Jersey Aero Club, since 2021, I am excited to pass the task over to the capable hands of Elias Zwillenberg. Throughout my tenur


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