Gear Up: An Airplane Hanger-on

How a piece of clothing became part of an airplane.

Dick Karl
"I bought this coat out of necessity on a trip long ago. Now, it’s one with the plane."Dick Karl

This old coat has been hanging in the back of our airplane for more years than I can reliably estimate. It has greeted me on countless occasions as I ascended the airstair of the Cheyenne on the way to the cockpit. It hangs just to the right, in the aft cargo area, waiting. Waiting for what, exactly, I can’t quite remember.

I do remember how I bought the coat. My wife, Cathy, and I had arrived in Nashville, Tennessee, for a conference. She was the conference-goer and I was the “arm candy,” if one can use that term sarcastically. As we got out of the airplane, I removed our suitcase from the forward baggage compartment. I expected Cathy to bring the garment bag as she exited the airplane, but all she had was a hefty “portable” laptop.

“Where is my suit, and where are your dresses?” I asked.

“Probably in the back of the car in Tampa,” she replied, deadpan. We both understood at that moment that our jeans and T-shirts weren’t going to get it done at the executive committee dinner that night.

Once in the rental car and checked into the Opryland Hotel, we journeyed not far to a cut-rate mall. None of the other hastily bought clothes survives, but that sport coat has hung in our airplane for 15 years or more. I should include it in the basic empty weight.

The coat is made of material of unknown provenance. That’s a good thing, too, as I have abused this indoor coat many times with outdoor activities featuring rain and snow. It never seemed to mind. The shape of the lapels may give away its approximate birth date but does not betray the weather abuse.

I remember, vividly, refueling in Madison, Indiana. After arriving in sketchy weather with marginal ceilings, I elected to defer getting gas until the next day. Relieved to be safely on the ground, I neglected to notice two things: Heavy rain was forecast, and jet-A was self-serve. The next day I wore that coat to stay warm as I pumped fuel into all four tanks in a pelting cold rain. It kept its shape, more or less.

Passengers often laugh at the sport jacket hanging in the back of the airplane. They kid that I must be so important that I have to be ready to be on television at a moment’s notice. They wouldn’t say that if they looked closely at the coat, or me, for that matter. It has a small checked pattern that would look bad on TV, and so far nobody has asked me to appear.

Dick Karl
Over time, the coat has taken on the intoxicating aroma of the airplane itself. It smells of jet fuel and Janitrol heat, coffee and leather.Dick Karl

I have used that modest coat to stand in for other, more formal clothes when I have forgotten such things on other trips. Once, while giving a lecture to a surgical group in St. Louis on the use of checklists in operating rooms to prevent errors of omission, I had to admit that I’d left home without a checklist and therefore had no suit jacket. When I described pressing the sport coat from the airplane into service, nobody seemed to mind, though their laughter went on just a little bit longer than I had hoped.

Over time, the coat has taken on the intoxicating aroma of the airplane itself. It smells of jet fuel and Janitrol heat, coffee and leather. I love that smell. Sometimes, after landing, I will take the coat with me just to keep the pleasure of the flight close at hand, or should I say nostril. When land-based activities aren’t as much fun as flying, I’ve got the coat to keep me sustained.

Recently, another weather example of the standby usefulness of this out-of-date garment was made clear. As I preflighted the airplane in Georgetown, Delaware, I was surprised to feel a temperature 20 degrees cooler than anticipated. I donned the coat. Our flight there two days before had been made to attend a funeral, always a time for taking stock. This morning, we were coming back home, reminded of life’s fragility and the warmth of family. The airplane was cold, and I kept the coat on as I settled into the left seat, turned on the master and counted with satisfaction the seven warning lights that should be illuminated before start-up. The heat would come up soon.

It’s no secret that I have in mind selling this faithful airplane. It has been an amazing experience, nay, privilege, to own and operate her. As the three hours ticked away on a smooth day, flying from Delaware to Florida, I sat in heated splendor. We were at Flight Level 200 for winds, but when Jacksonville Center gave us a heading off course I inquired if a higher altitude would allow us to carry on toward home. Could we climb to FL 230 to top a military warning area? Of course we could. The Avidyne EX500 said that what we lost in groundspeed we made up for with the direct routing. How can I part with such a magnificent airplane?

What will happen to the coat? I mused. We hope to get another airplane — more about that soon — but there is always uncertainty when trading in a trusted steed, especially an airplane. Will an upgrade be better? Or will it cost more and yet not do what the Cheyenne can? Will the coat come to hang in the new airplane like a talisman? Somehow, I doubt it will.

The funeral reminded me that I have entered my 70s. Whatever flying lies ahead of me, it will be shorter than what lies behind me. I can read the actuarial tables, and I have a familiarity with the obituary pages. That coat may outlast me.

Whatever its future, this old coat has had an exciting travel past. Like a sentry, it has stood guard over an empty airplane on ramps from Monterey, California, to Bar Harbor, Maine, not to mention Canadian capers to Victoria, British Columbia, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. It has accumulated hair from three dogs and supervised the first flights of five grandchildren. It has witnessed more happiness than most coats could ever hope to see. Regardless of what happens next about airplane ownership, I will keep the coat.