Watch Out, Red Baron

The 'Pipe breaks loose

The first time the 'Pipe flew in an airplane was in the 1960s, on a cut-rate, midnight, Pan American Airlines flight from New York to Puerto Rico. The airline made passengers line up at the gate an hour ahead of time, like shoppers on a 1930s breadline. Elderly women maneuvered overstuffed "carry-on" suitcases, family members shouted anxiously at cranky children, and two men pulled knives on each other. The fight was quickly snuffed out by other passengers, though no one thought to stop either of the opponents from getting on the plane. What the hell. Tailpipe was already half-drunk by then, and he continued to sip from a flask of rum, certain that his short life would soon come to an end.

The late-night flight seemed to dip in and out of a spin cycle of black, treacherous tropical air, shaking the plane for extended periods of time like a maraca. Sitting next to a window, the 'Pipe could see streaks of light racing past nearby, making him think that the plane must be barely skimming some rooftops. What were those sadistic fools in the cockpit doing?

"It's OK," said the 'Pipe's traveling companion. "Those lights are just clouds lit up by the plane."

"Don't talk to me," Tailpipe said, sitting rigidly upright, holding onto the armrests for dear life. "I have to concentrate. I'm keeping the airplane in the air."

When the plane landed in San Juan, there was a round of applause so loud and raucous that you would have thought a liberating army had just thrown open the doors of a concentration camp and declared a general amnesty.

Tailpipe has flown many hundreds of thousands of miles since then, and he has learned, after a lot of abuse to his liver, to sit back and enjoy flying. But he had flashbacks the other day when he accepted an invitation from an organization called LetsGoFlying.com for a free introductory flying lesson. Flying in a jetliner is one thing, but tempting the skies in a light-weight, single-engine plane that, when it's not in use, has to be tied down like a balsa wood toy is something else altogether.

The 'Pipe's instructor was a droll flying enthusiast named Nathan Padilla from American Flyers, the venerable flight school that has operated out of the Pompano Beach Airpark for eight years (and a total of 29 years in Broward). When he introduced himself, he gave Tailpipe a searching look (apparently standard procedure among flight instructors, who understandably seek to weed out the googly eyed lunatic element before hitting the skies). Padilla went to a computer in the company's office and checked the weather from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website: patchy high clouds, offshore wind at 14 knots.

"So it's a good day to fly?" the 'Pipe inquired.

"Every day's a good day to fly," Padilla said lustily.

Tailpipe wasn't so sure. That wind seemed pretty strong.

Apparently, recreational flying may be in some jeopardy nowadays, what with the cost of fuel and the general lack of disposable income in the present economy (though you couldn't prove it at the Pompano field, whose general aviation traffic actually went up by more than 14 percent last month in the midst of the national nervous breakdown). The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which runs LetsGoFlying.com, is out to show all of us land-bound mooks how much fun we're missing.

Padilla, 40, a former Navy rescue swimmer who's been flying for just three years, gave Tailpipe a detailed rundown on controls in the cockpit of the Cessna 172 Skyhawk. This included the double-handled steering controls and the "six-pack" of metric dials (air speed, acceleration speed, altimeter, attitude indicator, turn coordinator, and directional gyro).

"I'm going to put you right here in the pilot's seat," Padilla said. "You'll be flying the plane."

Tailpipe could feel his palms go sweaty.

Fortunately, it was the instructor himself, using controls on the passenger side of the cockpit, who handled the takeoff, directing the Cessna down the landing strip, churning over Federal Highway and the Pompano beach, and aiming the plane out over the ocean. The plane wobbled across the seething seas, a few hundred feet below, and veered south.

"All right," Padilla said. "Try to keep us between 400 and 450 feet."

Tailpipe took the controls and, checking the instruments in front of him, saw the plane immediately dip low and drift back toward the beach. He pulled the controls, overcorrecting to about 500 feet. The trajectory of the Cessna must have looked like one of those hedge-jumping sheep that people count when they're trying to fall asleep.

"Uh, you're getting a little close to those buildings," Padilla said.

The Cessna, drifting in the crosswind, was close enough to see the whites of a woman's eyes on a Galt Ocean Mile apartment terrace.

Padilla took the wheel, guiding the plane back toward the Atlantic.

"You know," he said, "someone could write down the registry number on the side of our plane, call the FAA, and complain that we're buzzing their building."

Buzzing, the 'Pipe could handle. It was that other kind of airplane-to-building encounter, involving smashed machinery and broken window glass, that he worried about.

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