A Mile of Runway

            This was not a great day to fly. The sky was smeary and overcast, like the way it is when you get spattered by errant raindrops. Not crappy enough to actually rain, but crappy enough to be unpleasant. The wind was what bothered me the most – 12 to 15 miles per hour sustained, with gusts up to 20. It blew steadily from the southwest – the exact orientation of our flight. There was no other way; we would be fighting a direct headwind.

            The Ranger engine grumbled at an idle, like an old man bitching about having to get up to check on a baby. Seated directly behind the firewall, I could smell the distinct aroma of thick oil being suddenly warmed up as it circulated throughout the engine. More than a gallon of oil moved through the Ranger at any given time, with an extra four gallons in reserve. That was the thing with Rangers – you smelled oil vapor more than fuel or exhaust.

            Further up front, the propeller wind milled, forming a translucent disc at the nose of the PT-19.

Not a great day to fly

            I moved the stick to the left, and to the right. I turned my head to verify free and correct movement of the ailerons, and then turned to look at the rudder. The wind from the propeller buffeted my head as I moved. All was well. Seated directly behind me, Paul had his head down, probably adjusting his safety harness or repositioning the case of oil between his feet.

            I took my first airplane ride when I was four days old, which is more of a testament to my mother than it is to me. I grew up around grassroots aviation, and have never tired of the sheer privilege of being able to fly. I love the freedom, I love the view, and I love the camaraderie. We even get to speak our own language. Take this exchange with Cape Tower as an example:

            Me: “Good morning Cape Tower! Fairchild one-niner-golf-papa is at the T-hangars, looking for a departure to the southwest, climbing two thousand, five hundred feet.”

            Cape Tower: “Fairchild one-niner-golf-papa, taxi runway two-zero via foxtrot, winds two-three-zero at one-five, altimeter three-zero-one-five.”

            Me: “Cape Tower, two-zero via foxtrot, thank you!”

            I was looking for a reason to abort our trip to Corpus Christi Naval Air Station for the Wings Over South Texas Airshow, but thus far had found none. I keyed the headset and talked to Paul, “You good back there?” He responded in the affirmative, and I moved the throttle lever forward. Shuddering under its own horsepower, the PT-19 rolled ahead.

Cape Girardeau Regional Airport. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

            It felt good to be moving, even if we were only taxiing around the airport. Yeah, I felt a twinge of nervousness, but also a great deal of excitement. I had planned out our intended route with fuel stops, rest breaks, and we would be avoiding any major airspace.

            From Cape Girardeau, Missouri, we would head southwest through the entirety of Arkansas, split through northwest Louisiana before crossing into eastern Texas over a stringy body of water marked as the Toledo Bend Reservoir. Still heading southwest on a heading of 206 degrees, we would fly direct to Galveston. This was the portion of the trip that I was most looking forward to – Galveston to Corpus Christi, right along the Gulf of Mexico. The left wing would stretch out over the water, while the right wing over land. On one side, endless blue, on the other, green. We’d be able to smell the ocean, and look down at the beach.

            As the PT-19 taxied toward the runway threshold, I got a chill. Not from the raw air, but from the realization that if all went according to plan, this afternoon I would be landing at an active military base in damn near Mexico. As John Ellis pointed out in his signature Southeast Missouri drawl, “Dan, I believe this is the trip of a lifetime.”

Our intended route – The trip of a lifetime

            I taxied the PT-19 to the edge of runway two-zero and brought the aircraft to a halt. I scanned the gauges, again looking for a reason to abort the flight. I again moved the controls, visually checking for free and clear movement. I pointed the nose into the wind, and held the brakes. With my left hand, I brought the throttle lever forward, increasing engine revolutions to 1,700. Tremors rippled throughout the airframe, but the brakes held. The PT felt like a boxer held back before a fight, coiled and tense, ready to strike.

            Aircraft are, and have been, designed with a sense of redundancy for the simple fact that a small malfunction can quickly lead to disaster. In a car, you can be hurling down the interstate at 75 miles per hour, and can most likely coast to a stop, or simply exit the interstate should a problem arise. Driving is so reliable and so predictable, that people actually divert their attention to other things while driving. They check their phones, have conversations, eat food, solve puzzles, get dressed, apply cosmetics; even go through the actions of making babies – all while hurling down the road in something with less physical integrity than a tin can.

            Flying an antique airplane offers no such luxury as distraction.

            I flipped the magneto switch from “Both” to “Right” as I performed the compulsory magneto check. The engine went from silk-smooth to a touch rough, and the RPMs dropped slightly, but all cylinders continued to fire, with no misses. I switched to “Left” and noticed no change – still a touch rough, but no misses. I flipped the switch back to “Both”, and the engine resumed its silky-smooth roar.

            Each cylinder in the PT-19 has two spark plugs – a left and a right. An engine-driven magneto fires the left spark plugs, which is totally separate from a second engine-driven magneto that fires the right-hand plugs. Thus, the six-cylinder Ranger engine actually has twelve spark plugs and two separate ignition systems for, you guessed it – redundancy.

            This way, if a plug fouls or one of the magnetos fails completely, the engine will continue to run safely enough to divert to a nearby airport for repairs.

            Still at 1,700 RPM, I pulled heat through the carburetor via a control on the dash. This circulated warm engine air through the intake, rather than cool outside air. As expected, the engine ran rough and the RPMs dropped slightly. This is always checked, because under certain atmospheric conditions, the carburetor lines can ice up, causing the flow of fuel to stop and, you guessed it – the engine to quit.

            In all my years of flying, I have only experienced carburetor icing twice, and never an engine failure. At Cape Girardeau Regional Airport, about to fly to Texas, I left the carb heat control open for a few extra moments – no need to start now.

Cape Girardeau departure on our route, zoomed in

            That was it – there was no reason to abort the trip. I keyed the headset and asked Paul, “All right man, this is it – you all good to go back there?”

            He responded immediately and enthusiastically in his signature, “Yee-ap!”

            I continued my aviation flirtation with Cape Tower, “Cape Tower, Fairchild one-niner-golf-papa is at two-zero ready for departure.”

            The headset crackled with the response, “Fairchild one-niner-golf papa, runway two-zero clear for takeoff, southwest departure approved.”

            I rolled the PT onto the runway. Nearly 4,000 feet of pavement stretched out before me. The wind buffeted the aircraft. I checked the time – 6:55 a.m. I released the brakes totally, allowing the PT to roll forward. I moved the throttle lever slowly but deliberately full open, and the Ranger roared ferociously. The translucent disc disappeared altogether as the propeller spun faster and faster. The aircraft pulled suddenly to the left due to the rotation of the propeller, but I expected it and compensated with a slight right rudder input.

            Almost immediately, we began to pick up speed. I pushed forward on the stick, bringing the shopping-cart tailwheel off the ground so that the airplane stood up on its mains, like a ballerina en pointe. The wings began to rock as we generated speed, but not quite enough to produce lift. Slight rudder input, either left or right, kept us moving down the runway centerline.

            There it was – that slight but intuitive pull at that crucial airspeed. I pulled back on the stick with steady, even pressure – we were off! The feeling never ceases to amaze me, and I reveled then, as I always do, at the sensation of flight. As a child, I would look out the airplane window and watch the tires spin as the earth dropped away. They would continue to spin, even as we climbed high above the trees.

            I could not see the tires from my seat in the PT, but I imagined them spinning. As we climbed, I imagined the vision that I so enjoyed as a child. I wondered when and where would those tires spin again? Would we make our designated fuel stop? Would the wind or mechanical issues force us to land somewhere else?

            A mile of highway will take you one mile, but a mile of runway will take you anywhere.

To be continued…