Sometimes the aviation equivalent of a drive in the country can be a bit nerve-wracking.
After I earned my private pilot's license in 1987, I naturally wanted to get out and actually use it. Whenever time and circumstances permitted, I subjected friends and family to my shiny new aviation skills, seizing upon any excuse to "go up" for a flight.
It so happened, then, one fine Sunday morning in April of 1989, my boyfriend John and I were tooling along in my friend Mike's Piper airplane on our way to the Napa County Airport in Napa, California. There was (still is) a nifty restaurant at the airport, Jonesy’s Steak House, that was well known for its special way with steaks. I figured what better way to impress one's beloved than with a light-airplane flight just for lunch? Besides, I loved flying Mike’s airplane, and took it out every chance I got.
On that day, the flight thus far had been uneventful to the point of being boring. The airplane was performing nicely, the day typical California - sunny and beautiful, and the air was cooperative and calm. It was so calm that John even managed to relax just a bit, which was quite an accomplishment for him. Riding in small planes usually gave him a case of nerves, but he'd agreed to come along just the same.
Our route that day would take us over Travis Air Force Base. Before we traversed their airspace, regulations required that I establish contact with their control tower and request clearance through their airspace. I twiddled the radio's knobs to the Travis frequency, put on my best Mr. Professional Pilot voice, and gave 'em a call.
"Travis control, Cherokee 2318T five miles out, requesting clearance." Standard procedure, and any minute I expected they'd respond and clear us through.
I waited. I waited some more. Nothing but silence. I called the tower again, dropping down to my less confident student pilot voice. Still no answer. Then, I realized I wasn't hearing anything from the radio at all - not even an occasional burst of static. This isn't right, I thought. I fiddled with the radio's knobs a bit more, still nothing but dead silence.
Since the airplane had two radios, I wasn't particularly concerned - yet. Obviously the first radio was having a problem, and all I needed to do was switch to the backup radio. Just a minor annoyance. My confidence began to erode when the second radio exhibited the same problem. I felt that icky feeling you get near the pit of your stomach when you suspect something bad is happening. In case of radio failure, there’s a procedure for getting the airport control tower’s attention. It usually involves buzzing around the tower in a prescribed fashion, dipping your wings to indicate a problem, and then receiving landing instructions via light signals from the tower. That’s what the flight manuals say, anyway.
My mind was racing, trying to remember what those damn signals were, when I got hold of myself and realized I hadn’t switched the speaker to the second radio! I flipped the switch. The Travis controller’s voice came blasting through the speaker, and I don’t think he was amused by my apparent failure to respond to their calls. I, however, was somewhat pleased that I hadn’t turned into a simpering idiot at the first sign of possible difficulty.
Once I had that little misadventure sorted out, I turned to the compass heading that I had earlier determined would take us to our destination. Through the whole thing, I’d somehow managed to keep a calm face, mostly for John’s benefit. Turning to him, I remarked again on how nice and smooth and lovely the air was (little did he suspect my insides had turned to jelly for a while). Shortly, the airport came into view over the horizon, and it was time to start the landing procedure.
The Napa County airport had a control tower, and controllers, to make flying in and out all nice and easy - if the control tower was in operation. At that time, Napa's control tower was closed on Sundays (budget cuts, if I remember correctly), so pilots were required to use their radio to announce each part of a departure or arrival. Specifically, as you turn on each leg of the traffic pattern, you’re to call out your position in the traffic pattern, stating the name of the airport, your airplane’s identification, and what exactly you think you’re doing. As we entered the pattern I, like a good pilot, was following this procedure to the letter:
"Napa County traffic, Cherokee 2318T is on base leg for landing, Napa County." and so on around each leg of the traffic pattern.
We were on the final leg of the pattern, all set up for landing, and descending nicely. I was again feeling like Mr. Professional Pilot, when John called out that he saw another airplane to the right of us. I saw it, and wasn’t quite sure from where it had appeared, but I didn’t think there was any cause for concern. "No problem," I said, "he’s way over there and is probably departing the field. I wonder why he didn’t call out his legs . . ."
A few minutes later, I was scanning the sky for other traffic, just about ready to land, when John sang out:
"OHMIGOD! LOOK!! THE DAMN THING’S LANDING RIGHT IN FRONT OF US!"
I snapped my head forward and, sure enough, just outside the windshield, there was that other plane appearing to descend right on top of us. Now, I was taught that if you find yourself on a collision course with another airplane, if possible you should execute an immediate sharp right turn. Almost without thinking, my training kicked in, a stream of expletives issued from my mouth, and I whipped the airplane over to the right. As I did, I saw the other plane continue and finish his landing.
Since we were now pointed away from the airport, I obviously had to break off our landing, so I gunned the motor, gritted my teeth, and swung the airplane up and around to position it for landing … again. As I did so I announced on the radio, in very precise, crisp tones, our intention to go around. Once we were back in the traffic pattern, again setting up for landing (with any luck, unaccompanied this time), I cooled down just a bit. I looked over at John and, aside from being very white in the face, he seemed to be as calm as anyone who's just seen their entire life flash before their eyes. Just then, the voice of the other airplane’s pilot came over the radio, with a profuse apology to no one in general. He hadn’t been, he said, calling out his legs. No kidding, I thought.
So I set the airplane up for final approach, and we landed, a bit bouncy as was my well known style. John and I finally got to enjoy that steak lunch, and fortunately it was worth what we went through to get it. Funny thing, though - we were together for a few years afterwards, but I was never able to convince him to go flying with me again. As for me ... well, it was certainly the most "eventful" flight since that time I thought I was about to slice my way through a bunch of skydivers ... but that, as they say, is another story.
7/21/05: minor edits; many thanks to kermitov for jogging my memory regarding details of California airports.