stuck in Lodi, again.
--Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lodi
As part of private pilot training in the United States, after students pass their first solo they are expected to do at least three cross-country solo flights. This isn’t as daunting as it might sound; "cross-country" in this case means flights to and from an airport at least 50 nautical miles distant from the airport where the student is training. The idea is to get the student well versed in flight planning, navigation, and solo flight, before the day of the all-important checkride with the Federal Aviation Administration's designated examiner. The student, however, is not expected to have "adventures" on these flights.
It so happened, then, that one fine day in 1987 my instructor Tom Lynch and I decided that the Lodi airport, out in California’s central valley, would make for a nice little student flight. Not too far, not too close, and, except for the foothills just off our airport, lots of flat terrain in case I had a problem. I got out my sectional maps, my aviation calculator, my flight manual, and a reference book on California airports, and got to work. In about half an hour, I’d planned the entire flight and showed the results to Tom.
"Now, that looks ... just ... fine, Tom said, in that precise, deliberate way of his. "Did you ... remember ... you'll need to check ...for jumpers?"
"Oh,yes! There’s a skydiving club at Lodi ... and they might have some jumps ... going on that day. I don’t think you’d enjoy ... plowing through a bunch of skydivers."
Well, that put a new, shall we say, spin on things. The only consideration I’d ever given to skydiving was to wonder why anyone would jump out of perfectly good airplanes. Tom advised me to call the FAA’s Flight Service desk and find out if any jumps were scheduled for the day of my flight. We finished going over my flight plan and Tom wished me a good flight, with the usual stern admonition to call him once I'd returned home (as a student, I was required to check in with my instructor at the conclusion of a solo cross-country flight).
As soon as I could, I put a call through to the FAA's Flight Services office. Though the FAA operator seemed unusually surprised, and perhaps a bit bewildered at my query, he nonetheless informed me that no "skydiving activity" was scheduled at the Lodi airport on that day.
After a routine checkout of the aircraft and its systems, and an uneventful takeoff, I climbed to flying altitude and set the airplane in the general direction of Lodi. After a while, I turned to the compass heading that I figured would take me to the Lodi airport and reflected on how my good luck with California weather was still holding. It was a nice day, sunny and warm, with no clouds and very calm air. I checked the instruments – altimeter, air speed, and compass – and everything looked just fine. Settling back, I continued to scan the sky for other airplanes and continued on my way ("Keep ... your head ... on a swivel, I could hear Tom saying).
After a while, I spotted the Livermore airport on the ground below -- a familiar landmark for anyone flying east from San Jose. I made a small course correction and it wasn't long before the Lodi airport came into view. Pulling back on the power, I began a gentle descent that would put me into the correct altitude for flying the airport's traffic pattern. Soon, it was time to turn to a 45-degree angle so that I could enter the pattern. Since Lodi had no control tower, I had to announce each segment of the traffic pattern that I flew via radio. Doing so, I turned slightly to the left onto the downwind leg. A few minutes later, a right turn to the base leg. Finally, another right turn onto final approach. I was a bit farther out than necessary, so I gave the bird a bit of power to remain on the proper angle of descent.
Now, I was set up to land at Lodi, and feeling just a bit pleased with myself for executing all the maneuvers so well. Just about that time, I happened to glance up at the sky above and ahead. There was an airplane well above me and it appeared to be one of the larger Cessna aircraft. As I was trying to figure out what model it might be, I saw a figure drop from it. Then another. And another. The damn thing was dropping skydivers, and they looked as if they were heading right for me!
Almost immediately, I had visions of some unsuspecting diver falling right into my propeller. I was startled, yes, but fortunately I didn't panic. Again my training kicked in as I pulled the power from the engine, and made a somewhat steeper than normal descent toward the runway. I wanted to get that plane on the ground, pronto! The end of the runway approached, and I tugged on the control yoke just a bit to keep the plane flying until I reached the end of the runway pavement. Pulling back the power again, the airplane settled down and I made my usual bumpy landing – the type I'd become well-known for around our airport.
Slowing the airplane down, I arrived at the turnoff to the parking area and, once parked, shutdown all the systems. I hopped out of the bird and took a few deep breaths to calm down a bit. No skydivers, indeed, I thought. Guess the FAA isn't quite all-knowing after all. I tied the airplane down and took a look around. Spotting a restaurant on the field, I decided that it was lunchtime (whether it was or not). I locked up the airplane and strolled over to the restaurant.
It was the kind you might find at any small airport – not quite a greasy spoon, but not fine cuisine, either. I entered, seated myself at the counter, and ordered a cheeseburger & fries from the waitress. The meal wasn't bad; in fact, it was quite good, better than I'd expected. The waitress was friendly and kept my Coke topped up nicely, a sure sign of good service. Halfway through the meal, having nothing else to do, I began scanning the many bumper stickers fastened on the wall behind the counter. They had the usual sort of slogans on them – trucks, women, kids, witty (?) sayings, and so forth. I was mildly entertained until I got to one near the right-hand side of the wall.
"AIDS is God's way of killing fags!"
There were a few more stickers of that nature, and that made me just a bit nervous. In fact, it made damn near as nervous as the episode with the skydivers.
I suddenly decided it might be a good idea to eat up, pay up, and get the hell back into my airplane, and get the double hell outta there. I was nearly finished with the meal, so I caught the waitress's eye and paid the check. Thanking her, I stood up and strode out of the restaurant as inconspicuously as I could. Once at the plane, I did the preflight check, as if nothing were out of the ordinary and I had every reason to be there. As luck would have it, I didn't need to gas up the plane and could therefore leave immediately.
Once in the cockpit, I quickly started up the plane and did the pre-takeoff final checks. I grabbed the radio's microphone and announced my intention to take off. Pushing the power knob right to the firewall, I trundled down the runway and lifted off once the airplane reached takeoff speed. Soon, I turned out of the traffic pattern and headed home with all available speed.
After I returned to our home airport and secured the plane, I found Tom relaxing back at the airport office. As I related the details of my flight, he signed my logbook to verify I'd successfully completed the cross-country flight. Of course, he had a good chuckle, largely at my expense, when he heard about the skydivers. I didn't mention the bumper stickers, but I think I learned why one doesn't want to get 'stuck in Lodi again'!