Gear Up: GA Provides Unexpected Benefit for New Grandfather

General aviation makes flight possible for premature baby and family.

Gear Up
Baby Josephine and her mother, Kelly, got the chance to warm up in Florida last winter thanks to grandfather Dick Karl and his Piper Cheyenne.Courtesy Dick Karl

Josephine Marie was supposed to be born in mid-May, but she got into an argument with her mother long before then. As January ice-walked into February during a cold Boston winter, the argument grew testy and then became life threatening. Kelly, her mother, reluctantly took to bed and soon thereafter submitted to hospitalization at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, one of the best in the world.

Kelly, with a doctorate in neuropsychology, was well aware of the risk to her pregnancy but less able to sense the risk to herself. By the first week of February, Kelly’s liver had begun to fail and her platelets, those little tiny chips in our blood that allow us to clot when injured, were falling to precipitously low levels. Kelly had a syndrome called, appropriately enough, HELLP (hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count). This is how women used to die in childbirth.

Kelly wanted to hang on as long as possible to give her baby girl a chance. But when I saw her, I hoped for an immediate C-section. Kelly, you see, is my daughter.

Josephine was born early on a February Monday morning — a “micro preemie.” A visit from the neonatal staff was not reassuring. I heard words like “redirect care,” “cremation” and “burial.” I knew Kelly to be capable of fierce application when challenged, but I was struck with wonder as I watched her fight for her baby. She sought counsel from another neonatal expert, a friend of hers, and he had a more hopeful outlook. Kelly and her husband, Chris, decided to press on. The baby had a breathing tube for months, suffered from hemorrhages into her brain, and required an operation for necrotizing enterocolitis, a disease of premature infants that can cause perforation of the intestine. If it weren’t for total parenteral nutrition, surfactant, modern antibiotics and the ceaseless dedication of her caregivers, she would have died many times in the first days of her life. One hundred and eleven days after she was born, Josephine went home on oxygen.

What does any of this have to do with Flying magazine, especially a renewed and rejuvenated one, which is all about airplanes and those who fly and maintain them? It turns out that GA in its many forms can provide things that we might not often think about — and that may have a profound effect on our lives.

Yes, my wife, Cathy, and I are privileged to own a Cheyenne turboprop and, yes, we have homes in New Hampshire and Florida, and, yes, though we like to think we worked hard for these things, our lives have been unbelievably fortunate (blessed!), and we like to think we know it and we show how grateful we are for it.

So fast-forward almost two years to last January. Kelly and Chris wanted to get out of the cold and bring Josephine to Florida, but her pulmonologist forbid travel on an airliner. It turns out that premature infants are especially susceptible to lung infections during their second winter of life. By then they are mostly off oxygen, and the focus is on growth, learning and physical therapy. This is when parents can decide that a flight on an airliner with 150 other people can’t be all that risky. The next thing you know, one of those passengers has passed on an uncommon pathogen to an unsuspecting, helpless, premature child.

So if we wanted to give the family a chance to warm up in Florida, our Cheyenne would have to ride to the rescue. After consulting with Josephine’s pulmonologist, a cabin altitude of 6,000 feet (about 2,000 lower than most airliners) was deemed safe. Our 35-year-old airplane can do that while cruising at Flight Level 230. How, we wondered, would the baby do?

For that matter, how would I do? While in New Hampshire for the holidays, we planned to bring Kelly and her family with us to Florida in the Cheyenne. The weather in New England was below seagull minimums for four days in a row. 
I had hoped for a January 1 flight to Tampa, but I needed the weather gods to smile upon us. After so many days of fog, freezing drizzle, ice and pestilence, the forecast called for 5,000 broken and headwinds of manageable proportions.

We picked the kids (I should say parents) and Josephine up in Norwood, Massachusetts. The weather was good. Despite headwinds, we were refueling in Newport News, Virginia, before two hours were up. Everybody seemed fine. Josephine played and had a snack. There were high hopes for a nap on the next leg, the longer one, to Tampa. We were lucky; we were home before dusk — ebullient and pleased with ourselves, the baby and (in my case) the airplane.

Josephine Gear Up
Josephine's first six months were a life-and-death struggle, so a little private-plane service seems well deserved and enjoyed.Courtesy Dick Karl

Chris had to fly back to work in Boston commercially, but we enjoyed a full 11 days with Kelly and Josephine. The dire predictions of the baby’s growth and development have so far proved to be overly pessimistic. She calls me “Pop” and herself “Jo-feen.” I’m good with that.

The return to Norwood looked good for Monday. Tailwinds were predicted, but that happy circumstance came with winds at the destination forecast to be 270 degrees at 17, gusting to 35. Nobody would sleep through these classic postfrontal passage gusts.

Fltplan.com put our trip at FL 230 at three hours and 42 minutes over a distance of 1,037 nautical miles. This is probably the best tailwind component I’ve experienced over this route. We were slated to burn just 1,694 pounds of jet-A, leaving a cushion of 750 pounds (110 gallons) of reserve — good enough for almost two hours of flying. This, I must proudly point out, is to go from almost the bottom of the United States to almost the top of the country.

Sure enough, the winds were gusting to 34 when we started the visual to Runway 27 at KOWD. The Cheyenne does best when I fly the approach at 120 knots, look to cross the numbers at 100 knots, and touchdown at 94 knots. That day I kept an extra 5 knots at each phase — but wait, was that the stall warning I just heard? It was. Our shear was plus-minus at least 10 knots. We landed without guile and taxied in.

The return from Massachusetts to Florida was another matter; it took five hours plus 44 minutes and 3,500 pounds of gas. Good thing I was alone.

But the job was done. The airplane gave us a gift I never would have imagined we would need when we bought it 16 years ago. Back then we had no grandchildren and plenty of hopes. What a ride it has been.