Flying Inside the Envelope

by Flighttime

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.

Molly climbed into the small cockpit and firmly pulled the door shut, making certain it latched securely into place. Before she engaged the sounds of flight, she carefully scanned the instrument panel-taking stock of everything, making sure nothing was visually askew. Reaching out, she touched the dials, running her fingers over the gauges and indicators. She thought further on Burly's teachings.

"Flying is about feeling." His words filtered through her head, "Be aware of how the plane feels through every phase of the flight. Remember how I told you about my training? About how 'I got it' when the hammer hit me? When you're in tune with how everything feels, then you are in touch with the plane and what you're experiencing."

With Burly's words firmly implanted in her cortex, she snugged the canvas straps tight across her chest.

Molly ran through all the items on the checklist making sure each knob was set correctly and every gauge was precisely calibrated. Satisfied with herself and her machine, she leaned into the open window.

"CLEAR!" She screamed to the empty tarmac.

She pushed on the tops of the rudder pedals to apply the brakes and turned the starter key.

Thuga-thuga-thuga, the prop turned over several times before catching and after a quick burst of energy, quickly settled into a harmonious idle. The engine gauges climbed into their normal in-the-green positions. Molly twisted the radio dial and tuned in the ground control frequency. She called the tower for her taxi clearance, parroting the phraseology Burly had drummed into her.

Before she soloed, Molly always wondered if, with every radio call, the tower knew just how green she was. Would they see she was still fumbling along?

But they promptly replied, without any hesitance or judgment, approval to her request. Pleased with herself, Molly released the brakes, applied a little throttle and taxied slowly along the path to the fuel depot.

The young fuel attendant topped off her tanks as she prepared her sectional maps for the trip-carefully arranging them on the passenger seat with the sectional map folded to the area she would need to refer to first. She fastened a small board to her thigh and jotted down frequency numbers and other information she would need along the way.

Molly used the attendant's stepstool to reach over the wing and check the fuel caps; just to make sure there were tight, even though the attendant had closed them securely. The engine started and with clearance from ground control secured, she taxied to the end of the runway.

She performed her run-up checks making sure, as a matter of course, that everything was set. By all rights, she should have been more nervous, but Burly's voice instilled a calm within her. With seamless precision, she changed the radio selector to the tower frequency and keyed the mike.

"Whiteman tower, Cessna seven-two X-Ray Delta, ready for takeoff." Her voice projected nothing but confidence.

Barely a beat passed.

"Seven-two X-Ray Delta cleared for takeoff."

With smooth precision Molly pushed in the throttle, taxied to the end of the runway and applied full power. Without missing a beat, X-Ray Delta picked up speed and headed down the runway straight and true, on the centerline.

Molly kept her hand on the throttle knob and watched the air-speed indicator as it climbed toward the necessary speed for rotation and flight.

Burly's voice echoed instructions into her head, "Remember to scan, watch your instruments, listen to the engine, does it sound right?" Her ear keyed into the beat of the motor as his words and teachings guided her actions. As the plane reached the proper speed, she eased back on the yoke and the nose lifted off the ground positively. The main wheels smoothly parted from the runway surface not more than a second later and Molly was airborne.

She was alone and completely in control, as her plane continued to climb positively into the sky. The end of the runway passed beneath her as she prepared for a left turn into the traffic pattern. She looked quickly to the right, and then to the left, making certain she was clear of any opposing traffic. She then executed a perfect coordinated turn, keeping the ball perfectly centered.

Instruments are good. Her eyes scanned the panel-oil-pressure, the RPM, air speed, altimeter, and gyro, were all working properly and indicated their numbers precisely. Her gaze moved to the outside as she began to execute another left turn onto the down-wind leg of the airport traffic pattern.

"Seven-two X-Ray delta, watch for traffic in the pattern turning base, a Piper your twelve-o-clock." The tin voice of the control tower radio crackled into her headset.

She immediately peered deep into the sky directly off her nose, searching for the bogey. There it is. She felt proud, identifying its position quickly. The sun glinted off its white wings as the fellow craft began its turn to the left.

Molly pressed the mike switch on the control yoke. "Whiteman Tower, Cessna X-Ray Delta. Traffic in sight."

She smiled, big. She was doing it. Molly was a player in a new world that had a methodology unto itself. A way of doing things that had no bearing to anything that was now a thousand feet below her. She knew it was clichŽ but she couldn't help thinking about that 'surley-bonds' prayer.

She maintained 1000 feet altitude over Whiteman until she flew out of the pattern while continuing to climb. She had to be at 3000 feet before she arrived over the Newhall Pass. She could then ascend to her cruising altitude of 6500 feet.

The entire San Fernando Valley laid out in front of her. The air was crystal-clear, not a lick of smog or haze anywhere. During the relatively short time she'd been learning to fly, Molly couldn't recall having seen it quite this bright and clear. She continued to be vigilant of any and all air-traffic as radio calls from multiple pilots to nameless controllers found passage through her headset, moving in and out of her ears. She listened intently for her own numbers to be identified within the constant chatter.

This was one of the busiest air spaces in the country, with Whiteman, Van Nuys and Burbank airports nearly overlapping each other. Commercials jets, corporate jets, light twins, everything with wings or rotors flew through this air space with a small margin for error. Newhall Pass was like the waist of an hourglass for air-traffic in this part of California and it wasn't uncommon to hear news reports of planes going down in the pass for one reason or another. Molly would not be one of those statistics.

Her altimeter read 2700 feet as the pass lay about one mile off of her nose.

Whiteman Tower contacted her instructing her to assume her own navigation and contact Los Angeles center for flight following. "Have a nice day." Followed by the positive ID of her call letters made the controller's reflexive good wishes a nice comforting deposit in her confidence bank.

She depressed the mike button, acknowledging their transmission and repeating back the information.

Burly's voice sprang into her head. "Always repeat the tower's instructions back to them. That way they know you heard them." She reached over to the radio-set and turned the knob to the proper frequency. The red LED numbers tumbled on top of each other until the she seated the correct frequency numbers in the spaces. The radio chatter between Los Angeles Control and the myriad of other random aircraft traversing the tightly regulated airspace instantly invaded her headset. She felt as if she'd stumbled into the middle of a play with no discernable line between the players in the game and the audience watching.

Molly was at 3000 feet above sea level as the Newhall Pass raced 200 feet beneath her plane. Dots of cars on the freeway, high tension wires and scrub brush flitted by too fast to be of any concern. A twin-engine Comanche zoomed by to her left about 500 feet from her position on its way to Van Nuys, the pilot and co-pilot clearly visible through her front windshield. The weakness of fear crept in behind her knees as she realized how close she'd passed to another plane.

She pressed the mike button. "Los Angeles Control, Cessna seven-two X-Ray Delta." She always wondered, in that lag time between a call and a reply, if there was really anyone there.

Los Angeles Control answered her call.

She gave them her position and heading, while performing her scan outside and then glancing at her instrument panel.

The controller's voice mechanically responded with an affirmative and assigned her squawk numbers to dial into her transponder. She twisted the knob on the transceiver to her given numbers and pressed the small button on its face. Molly imagined the signal zapping from her plane to the radar control room and her little plane appearing on their screen.

Burly's voice rang through her head again. "Always be scanning. Let your eyes sweep across the sky and then across the instruments, and listen, listen, listen. What is the engine telling you? Am I running okay? Do I have ice in my carburetor? Am I leaned out enough or am I running too rich?"

She scrutinized her instruments, assimilated all the information quickly and instinctively made the correct adjustments. Turn in the mixture knob a pinch. Tweak the VOR dial. Tap the fuel gauge.

"There are only a thousand things you need to know in order to fly a plane." Burly told her, "The thing is, you have to know each one really well."

Her altimeter read 6500 feet. The Cessna bounced a little in light chop as she leveled off and checked the sectional map. Her finger moved along the pencil line she'd drawn for her dead reckoning course. Agua Dulce Airport should be passing by on the left right about now. She looked out her window and inspected the mountainous terrain below. She was spot on. The familiar strip of runway pavement passed by underneath, and was then behind her, becoming almost an afterthought. X-Ray Delta passed over the last mountain range and out into the Antelope Valley. In front, the huge expanse of the Mojave Desert lay wide and flat. She looked to the far end of the valley, toward the Tehachapi Mountains where her destination airport was nestled between the hills.

There it is, she thought and looked at her watch, fifteen minutes to go. The straight lines of the desert floor would guide her the rest of the way. The small Cessna began to bounce around the sky a bit more now. Her reflexes anticipated the plane's movement, knowing columns of rising hot air would add to the turbulence.

A glance out the window acknowledged Fox Field as it passed by on her left. Molly had flown there with Burly during one of her lessons. It was a comforting, familiar sight. She continued on her course with the asphalt pointer of the Antelope Freeway helping to guide her.

Hundreds of huge wind-mills came into her view now; their massive blades slicing through the air, spinning at high speed. It didn't take much wind to make them turn, but they seemed to be going a little too fast. The small hairs on the back of her neck began to stand on end. X-Ray Delta reacted to the forces working around the sky considerably more. Molly was aware of the shifting winds blowing around her and the plane. She felt the gusts increase trying to veer her plane from its course. Her control inputs became broader as she struggled to stay ahead of the curve.

Molly dialed the frequency of the Tehachapi Airport into the radio and called the field to get a weather report. The female voice calling back from Tehachapi was not one of an overworked controller in a dark screen-lit room, but more friendly and concerned, like she was sitting in her living room waiting for Molly to drop in for tea.

"Honey? You got a thirty-knot crosswind blowing from three six zero gusting to forty. Even the crows are hunkered down."

Molly's heart thumped hard against her breast. X-Ray Delta was only designed to handle twenty-five knots, maximum.

It's okay. No big deal. We planned for this, right?

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