The iPhone Alarm ringtone is the digital-age equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard. It blared at the set time of 5:00, jolting me awake and leaving me wondering why I hated myself so much.
I reached over and snoozed my phone. A sound, peaceful night’s sleep had eluded me. Lying in my hotel bed, staring straight up at the ceiling with clear focused vision and considering my noticeably elevated heart rate, yes – I was awake. No turning back now.
I swung my feet out of bed, stretched myself upright, and pulled the curtains back to peer outside. From the vantage point of my hotel room, I could see Interstate 44 humming with activity. Traffic zoomed both directions – north and south – while a steady stream of plastic debris carried by the wind bounced lazily northbound along the median and shoulders like contemporary tumbleweed.
Even at 5:00 in the morning, the Crystal Meth Highway was awake. It probably didn’t get much sleep either.
In the adjoining room of our suite, Paul stirred. I flipped on the television and turned it to a polite volume. The weather was exactly as had been predicted all week. A deepening low-pressure system was moving south-southeast, and would hit Cape Girardeau, Missouri, with a series of strong thunderstorms later this afternoon. I was not worried about that – Paul and I would be long gone, hopefully nearing Corpus Christi, Texas, by the time the storms showed up.
What did have me worried was, as predicted, a mass of air rushing north-northeast to meet the low-pressure system. Wind reports were consistently coming in at 12 to 15 mph on the ground, with gusts up to 20 mph. Aloft, the wind velocity became geometrically more severe. Various cities in Texas and New Mexico were measuring wind gusts in excess of 80 mph, and even areas over 100 mph.
Our flight path was a deliberate southwest track, heading 210 degrees – directly into the wind. We would be battling a headwind, swimming against the current, driving uphill, all the way to Southern Texas. I cursed Wesley, the name given to the low-pressure system, and got dressed.
“Need anything besides smokes?” I asked Paul as we stepped into the service station. I felt anxious to get moving. Daylight was fast approaching. Actually, the anxiety I felt was quite familiar – I get that same feeling when we make a cutting of alfalfa at the farm, with rain in the forecast, and we have one day to get it all done with no machinery breakdowns or unforeseen complications. “Make hay when the sun shines!” is a fantasy. I felt that same “let’s get moving” anxiety as I grabbed a few bottles of water, and immediately became cognizant of the amused glances of the service station attendant. From my peripheral vision, I could sense him watching me. On occasion as I scanned the shelves our eyes met, and the amused look on his face grew more pronounced. Something about my presence in his shop at 5:30 in the morning was clearly entertaining him.
I made my way to the register to pay. There were bars and thick glass separating me from the cashier, who wasn’t even trying to hide his amusement at this point. “And how is your morning going?” I locked eyes with him.
He burst into laughter and shook his head, “I’m sorry man, y’all just look so damn cute in your matching uniforms!” and nodded toward Paul.
At that moment I realized – Paul and I were wearing exactly the same outfits. We matched perfectly. Jeans, sunglasses on baseball caps, and denim button-up work shirts from John Ellis’s repair shop – we couldn’t have planned it better if we had tried, and this was exactly the levity I needed. I threw my head back and laughed at the unexpected cheerfulness, “Well, we’ve got an extra shirt in the truck if you want to join the club!”
The attendant passed my change through the slot underneath the glass, laughing and shaking his head, “Nah – looks like y’all got it under control.”
I very genuinely wished him well, and chuckled all the way out to the truck. Daylight had reached the twilight zone that made headlights useless, and the wind showed no sign of tapering off. Paul and I merged onto the interstate, and drove the few miles south to Cape Girardeau Regional Airport.
In anticipation of an early start, we had meticulously packed the airplane the day before. With what we brought from the hotel, the aircraft load would include a tarp for the cockpit, two small bags of luggage for us, a parcel of Wisconsin cheese as a gift to the Navy airshow coordinator, a set of spare magnetos, snacks and bottles of water, a very special empty gallon jug which I shall explain in due course, and a case and a half of oil. I guessed our cumulative gross weight at just over 2,600 pounds. Full of fuel and oil, we would take off heavy, and get lighter as the trip progressed.
I walked around the airplane, performing the preflight inspection. I double-checked the fluid levels. I checked all surfaces and control points. Once more, I opened my flight GPS and studied our intended route. I checked weather, winds, radar and any flight restrictions along our path, and generally looked for an excuse to not take off.
As unusual as it may sound to look for an excuse to abort the trip, one of the more dangerous aspects of flying is a condition known as “get-there-itis.” This condition affects pilots who are so focused on achieving the end result, that they miss subtle nuances that should have prevented their departure in the first place. I didn’t like the wind, but it would be manageable, albeit annoying. Besides, waiting would actually exacerbate the situation. The forecast for Cape Girardeau included deteriorating conditions, whereas conditions along our route were expected to improve.
By now, Paul had climbed aboard and was situating himself in the passenger seat with the safety harness. I peered into the pilot’s seat to verify that the magneto switch was turned off. I returned to the front of the airplane and palmed the propeller. Gingerly, I pulled the engine through several revolutions to clear the cylinders of any pooled oil. I say gingerly, because imagine hand-starting a lawnmower by turning the blades with your hands. You would do it gingerly too.
No oil came out of the exhaust stack. Each cylinder held compression, which I felt through each turn of the propeller. Satisfied, I climbed onto the wing and slid into the pilot’s seat.
“You good back there, DEWD?” I asked Paul, emphasizing the word to suit our own dialogue.
“Yee-ap!” He responded in true form.
I clicked on the master switch. A jolt shot through the PT’s electrical system, indicating power. I flipped the magneto switch to “Left”, because you never start a Ranger on the right magneto (that’s not a metaphor, that’s actually a crucial detail). I moved the fuel mixture lever to full rich. Three full pumps with the throttle, and then cracked open one-eighths of an inch. My right index finger moved to the starter button. My toes put pressure on the brake pedals. I yelled out, “Clear!” to warn anyone who may have moved to the front of the plane. My left hand gripped the wobble pump, and I eyed the fuel pressure gauge as I pumped pressure into the fuel system.
My right finger pressed the starter button. Ahead of my position and forward of the firewall, the milk jug-sized starter motor ground to life, contacting the crankshaft and turning the engine. Forward yet, the propeller windmilled through two rotations.
A cylinder popped, another fired, and I disengaged the starter motor while quickly flipping the magneto switch to “Both”. With all 12 spark plugs firing, each cylinder caught, and a puffy blue exhaust cloud ejected itself to the rear of the airplane in a similar manner to which someone passes gas first thing in the morning when they arise. The Ranger engine roared to life.
I scanned the engine gauges and turned on the transponder and radio. Paul and I established communication through our headsets over the idle roar of the Ranger.
I performed one more scan, looking once again for a reason to abort the trip. The airplane gave me none. My consciousness welled as I realized this was it – we were literally about to fly ourselves to a military base in Corpus Christi, Texas. Time to make hay, sunshine or not.
To be continued…