Flying Inside the Envelope


Tags: Ma/Fa, .

Desc: Action/Adventure Story: Student pilot Molly DeBassel takes a solo cross-country flight, but almost doesn't make it home.

Molly stood for a moment outside the flight office and sucked in a big lungful of air before she stepped onto the wooden deck. It was a cool, fall day. Much like biting into a juicy apple, the air had crispness as it tickled the hair on her arms. She savored the freshness of the air, which mixed with the common smells of the airport. Molly had grown to love the bouquet of avgas and engine exhaust. It had almost become a perfume since the flying bug took hold of her. To non-flyers it was just another odor, but to her it had become the scent of adventure, the call of the sky. It would always bring her back here, to this moment in time, in this place.

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and an unexpected storm had blown through the holiday, causing her to consider aborting the trip, but that day had dawned so bright and fair, it energized Molly to go for it.

Calvin's DeBassel's sudden death forced Molly to take a sabbatical from flying, but Burly convinced her in short time to continue with her lessons. "That's what your dad would've wanted." She knew her flying lessons were a kind of gift to her father, something he never gave himself.

Do I have everything? She paused briefly before moving through the sliding glass door of the flight office, thinking about every aspect of the flight.

As her flight training progressed, her flight instructor, Burly, had encouraged her to do this cross-country flight. The trip had been clear in her head for two weeks as she mentally flew the route time and again. On her dining room table, the sectional chart had been a tablecloth for several days, and she visited it more and more as the chosen day drew closer.

It would be simple; leave Whiteman, fly out through the Newhall Pass and turn right. Her finger touched the airport symbol and slowly moved over the penciled route. Methodically, she had deciphered all the cryptic symbols on the chart; high and low altitudes over the terrain, radio frequencies, alternate airports. Her last dead-reckoning calculations would have to be done on the day of the flight when she had her final winds aloft report. She was learning the language and every unfamiliar symbol or term sent her flipping the massive sheet around to search the key. The Santa Clarita Mountains were clearly indicated by a variance of color and numbers indicating their maximum elevation. Her finger traced the path, moving over a large blue circle with tick marks evenly outlining its perimeter, indicating compass directions.

The Lake Hughes VOR. This'll be easy. She smiled as her finger passed over paper-mountains and printed landmarks that would help her navigate the varied terrain over her projected route. Just follow the VOR frequency directly due north and I can't miss.

Her eyes had scanned the rest of the sectional route as her brain visualized the landscape, which would take her over the hills and out over the Mojave Desert.

Easy peezy. Burly and I have already been to Fox Field. That's halfway there. I can do this easy.

The Mojave Desert could be unrelenting at times, with winds that were often fierce and unpredictable. A desolate wasteland by Molly's standards, but easy to navigate as nearly every surface feature ran north, south, east or west. Still, she could never figure out why anybody would ever want to live there.

There were a number of restricted airspaces Molly would have to be cognoscente of, but they would be easy to navigate around. Her goal was Tehachapi; a small town nestled in a tiny valley at the western edge of the desert surrounded by looming, electricity-producing windmills.

As a matter of being prepared for "what-would-happen-if," she located her alternate airport of California City, which was directly due east from Tehachapi. But she knew it was only a precaution, something in her back pocket.

That morning, she had woken early, excited, and immediately checked the weather, listening to the automated forecast, scribbling down the coded information. She listened to it twice just to make sure she had digested all the information she needed. The report was favorable with northeasterly breezes at about ten knots forecasted for Tehachapi airport. The winds-aloft report was quite variable with forecasts of about 15 to 20 knots at her planned altitude, well within the parameters of the plane's design. She packed her things in the small brown pilot's flight bag and headed out to the airport.

She stepped through the open glass door, into the flight office, and up to the desk where the open reservations book waited. Bill Hanson was behind the counter. A weathered, old codger, he was close friends with Burly. Molly would sit and listen to them out gun each other with horrific war stories filled with overblown bravado. It was something she tired of.

"Hiya Molly. Goin up today?" his youthful, gleaming eyes belied his age.

"Yea Bill, gonna do a short cross country out to Tehachapi in X-Ray Delta. How's she running?"

"She's running fine as far as I know. Andy had her in the barn yesterday changin' her plugs." Bill picked up his blue mug and took a swig of coffee.

Molly glanced down at the reservations book to see if Burly was giving any lessons today. Somehow, seeing his name in the book would have buoyed her confidence, but his scrawl wasn't listed anywhere in the day's schedule.

She clenched her eyes for a second, as she stood at the point of no return. Burly had taught her well and wouldn't have signed her off if she weren't proficient. But another part of her was nervous knowing he wouldn't be around to pull her out of any situation. Like every student pilot, she was being pushed out of the nest. She boldly signed her name in the book, taking possession of the plane knowing Burly would be behind her.

"How many hours, you got now, Molly?"

"I'm at fifteen hours as of today." She said it proudly. She wasn't completely green after all, and was humbly beginning to feel a part of the club.

"That's fine. Now you be safe out there, Molly, and have a good flight." He handed her the keys.

"Bill, how many year's did you fly with Burly? Wasn't 'safety' his middle name?"

"Is that what he told you? I don't quite recall that being his middle name." Bill laughed at his memory. "But there were a bunch of others we used."

Molly laughed. "Now that sounds more like him." Burly was a personality to be reckoned with.

She picked up her bag, and with the airplane's keys held tightly in her hand, she walked out the door and onto the flight line.

The two rows of Cessna trainers sat waiting in neat rows, wingtip to wingtip, their tie-down chains reaching up from the ground to hold them securely in place.

She instantly picked out her favorite. Seven-two X-Ray Delta was at the end of the row nearest the taxiway. She only flown three different 152's and she liked this one the best. In the short time she'd been flight training, she just seemed to bond with this machine more than the others. A Cessna 152 Aerobat; its surname was given because the airframe was reinforced for training aerobatics. She just felt safer in this plane, knowing if she got into a rough situation, it would always get her through.

She unlocked the door and put her bag on the passenger seat.

Molly punched the red master power rocker switch and X-Ray Delta responded with her mechanized waking sounds. The rising whine of gyros spooling accompanied the electric powered instruments as they bounced up from there resting positions. Okay, power on, flaps down. She moved the lever to the full down position. Power off. With the switch off, the plane settled back into dormancy.

She began to circle the plane, inspecting everything.

Burly had taught her to be meticulous about her preflight. "A small problem down here could turn into a huge catastrophe up there," he would always say. "Don't take anything for granted. If it doesn't feel right, fix it, or forget the flight. Remember I told about that time I had that nose gear collapse on me because I didn't check it right? I was lucky I was only taxiing. Remember, it's better to be down here wishing you were up there, than to be up there wishing you were down here." The words echoed in her head during every preflight.

"Remember, flying is all in here," he would tap the side of his head with his middle and forefinger and then tap the cowl of the plane. "You control both. Don't forget it."

She challenged every control surface, testing everything, making sure all the right things moved or didn't move in the right directions, just as Burly had taught her. She finished her ground checks, satisfied that everything was in fine shape. The flight school did a good job of maintaining their fleet. Andy, the head mechanic, was meticulous about making sure all the little problems were taken care of, and logged them appropriately. It was a matter of procedure, not choice or good mechanicmanship.

She climbed up on to the top of the wing and peered into the fuel tanks. "Never trust the fuel gauges, but always check the tanks visually before a flight."

Half full. She replaced the fuel caps, climbed down from the wing, and looked over the printed checklist to make sure she'd covered everything.

Right, everything done and checked. She undid the wing tie-down chains and let them fall to the ground in a light, clanking heap. She pulled the nose wheel chocks and stowed them in the rear of the plane.

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