Wednesday, August 24, 2005

"What's the Vector, Victor?"

Despite my many adventures in aviation, I really don’t enjoy flying. But yesterday an assignment required I wedge myself in the co-pilot’s seat of a Beech Baron 55 for a daylong crisscross of the Tar Heel State. As always, I followed my camera into battle, though not without a little trepidation. In the end, there was nothing to be concerned about, though the day did not lack a little in-flight drama. More on that in a minute, but first, lets meet our pilot...

Duncan Jones is Sales Manager of Lancair Certified Aircraft and one hell of a nice guy. All day long he tended to his instruments, exuding quiet confidence in his ability to launch and land his vintage Seventies-era flyer. Why, he barely batted an eyelash at the fidgety photog ridin’ shotgun, who flashed a hearty thumbs up one moment and looked positively green the next. Nor did he avert his perfect vision to the rear of the plane, where nervous giggles could be heard regularly emanating from one Jeff Varner.

Luckily I had a lens to fiddle with. With my full size fancy-cam stashed in the back, I wielded a down-sized Sony for most of the trip. It’s tiny controls and attachable wide-eye made for excellent diversions whenever I wished to ignore the fact I was thousands of feet in the air in a rickety five-seater. Forgoing the full color flip-out monitor, I squinted through the viewfinder and reduced the sweeping vista to a one inch black-and-white screen. Occasionally, I’d bump the co-pilots wheel with my elbow, causing little variation in the aircraft’s trajectory but triggering doomsday scenarios in my overfed imagination nonetheless. It was a long day.

Nonetheless, we accomplished our mission and took in some incredible views along the way. From the deliberate quilt-scape of the rolling farmland to the bright aqua pinheads of far below swimming pools to the billowing behemoths of cumulus cloud just off the wing, planet Earth is incredible from every altitude. Only once did things get hinky, just after lift-off from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. Just before our craft entered the base of a dark, towering thunderhead, the pilot keyed his microphone...

“We’re probably gonna get some rain, a few bumps - ”

Suddenly the plane lurched downward and to the left. As it entered the swirling gray mist, shadows fell over the cabin and deep rivets of rain streamed across the arced windshield. The propellers sliced pockets of unstable air and the twin engines fought for supremacy as the airplane shimmied and shook. By then I was no longer shooting, choosing instead to close my eyes and take whatever was coming like the pansy I am. As the beleaguered craft continued to buck and bounce I heard Jeff yelp a time or two over the headsets. ‘If this gets any weirder...’, I thought. As I did the skies brightened and the turbulence faded away.

Sunshine filled the cockpit as the twin engines hummed in accordance. I looked behind me and Jeff flashed his trademark grin. It was then I realized what would happen if we DID crash. The media would screech of an ex- Survivor’s untimely death while barely mentioning the additional passing of pilot and photog. I’d be the Ritchie Valens to Jeff’s Buddy Holly - if I were lucky! Somehow that notion, however morbid and unlikely, brought me a little comfort up there in the Great Blue Expanse. That and the thought that when I did get back on the ground, I’d have something to blog about.


Anonymous said...

What were you covering?

Kenneth said...

Stew, you came into my city and I didn't get so much as a call. How dare you. By the way, what where you covering?

The Colonel

Chris Morton said...

Vector is respectfully a line in which your eye is drawn from one area to another. i.e. anything that can lead the eye in certain direction. Planes tend to use it to stay on certain path or vector.

Anonymous said...

"though the day did not lack a little in-flight drama."

My hubby would have knocked you down for the chance. Diehard flyboy.

BTW, a "good landing" is any one you walk away from.

Anonymous said...

Many "near-death" experiences in small aircraft. Most notable was when I was pressed into service as the co-pilot one foggy morn. Apparently the pilot of the small, crowded commuter aircraft was not as well versed in the principles of instrument flying as he should have been. We had to land at a small airport in Indiana.

I was flying in the right seat and given a stop watch and told to count down from 30 seconds. If we did not see the end of the runway after 30 we would go around and try again. After 3 attempts the pilot opined that to me that we were running low on fuel and we'd better set it down this time. We finally broke thru the dense fog after consuming all of our 30 second countdown plus 10.

Unfortunately we were at a 30 degree angle to the runnway we wished to land on. After standing the plane on it's wing and we were on the right approach but we had used most of the runway. We were all over the place as the pilot stood on the binders. We came to stop with less than 50 ft left. Dead silence. Finally one of the passengers quietly said, "Is there a rental car agency at this airport?" I flew on to Detroit.

Lenslinger said...

Thanks all for the input, especially Anonymous's horror story. I know well what its like to weigh the options of driving the next leg of a trip while white-knuckling a particularly bad landing.

In answer to your question, Colonel, we we were riding with Aalong with a private plane owner as he flew a lady and her baby from ther Fayetteville home to a much needed medical appointment in Charlotte. The program is called 'Angel Flight' and it made for a great profile.

Thanks everyone for reading. I pledge to better answer comments in the future to further the conversation. Group Hug!