Gear Up: The Hiccup

An old friend remembers a split second of astonishment.

Gear Up Hiccup
Hiccups and anxiety are less common now that I fly turboprops and jets.Courtesy Dick Karl

When I first started flying Part 135 on five-day rotations, I ­anticipated meeting up with earthbound friends on overnights in ­Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, New Haven, Boston and Bozeman. I further expected to fetch up in various locales with flying friends on their trips. For airline friends, I thought Baltimore, New York, LA, Oakland, Sacramento, Chicago or Dallas might be common crossing fixes where we could share a drink, a dinner and a laugh. With 135 pals, I thought we’d find ourselves happily tucked away in Aspen or Martha’s Vineyard. Little of this activity has occurred in almost three years and 1,000-plus hours of flying. There are just too many variables, routes, overnights, schedules and unexpected developments.

It is true that it is easier to catch up with nonflying friends — they are more stationary. I’ve had fun meals in LA, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Boston and Austin. But flying friends have been in scarce supply. Doug Commins, my sim partner at Higher Power in Dallas on the Boeing 737, and I have spotted each other on the ramps at Midway, Marsh Harbor and Teterboro, but we have yet to dine ­together spontaneously.

Phil Smith, my sim partner at ­JetSuite on the Cessna CJ3, has moved on to Delta, and I’ve seen him for dinners in Austin, Tampa and ­Atlanta; considerable effort on Phil’s part was necessary to make these events happen.

Because JetSuite crews often end up in the same place for an overnight, I’ve made many friends among my company brethren. These meetings are especially rewarding because we are all dealing with the same set of variables: the same airplanes, dispatchers, rules, crew members and uniforms.

But it is the odd evening when I get back in touch with an old friend from another day in another profession that I find the most fun. It ­happened last spring when First Officer ­Charlie Ellison and I found ourselves in New Haven, Connecticut. Without Charlie’s knowledge or approval, I texted Walt Zawalich, Ph.D., an old friend from my days in the pharmacology laboratories of Washington University in St. Louis.

It is the odd evening when I get back in touch with an old friend from another day in another profession that I find the most fun.

Walt, whom I called “Zeke” (we were in our 20s, after all), spent 35 years teaching at Yale University, and he agreed to meet us for dinner. What a night.

Walt was and is irrepressible. ­Funny, warm, keenly intelligent and possessed of a Boston accent, Walt sweeps into a room. All waitresses know him by name within minutes. His stories, fully edited, flow like champagne at a wedding. He turned to Charlie and asked, “Did Dick ever tell you about the hiccup?”

I knew immediately what he was talking about: a half-second event that occurred 43 years ago. I had ­acquired a 1967 Beechcraft Musketeer while serving in the Army, and I was eager to fly from St. Louis to New ­Hampshire for the Christmas holidays. I offered Walt a seat on “sumptuously private, personalized air travel.” He was probably not aware of the Musketeer’s interior ­dimensions nor its cruise speed of 110 knots, so he said yes.

I remember the trip with startling clarity. A cold front had marched west to east, promising northwesterly tailwinds over most of the route. I knew there would be ­weather at the easternmost boundary of the trip but reasoned we could get started, catch up to the bad ­weather, and land just before it got ugly. My understanding of where cold fronts came from, their low-pressure centers at the top, and the “commas” and perils of the backsides of the lows were about as new to me as my ­understanding of where babies came from. Blessed with an astonishing ­naiveté and not burdened with any actual weather knowledge, I reasoned we could spend the night in a motel and wait for the front to finish its job of scouring the ­Northeast, providing us with clear skies the next morning.

I offered Walt a seat on “sumptuously private, personalized air travel.” He was probably not aware of the Musketeer’s interior ­dimensions nor its cruise speed of 110 knots, so he said yes.

I don’t remember if I mentioned all this to my wife and our 6-month-old daughter. Like I said, we were in our 20s. I was also most likely oblivious to the kind of surface winds such a front can manufacture and that it might be difficult to define where the weather would get ugly.

My ancient starter logbook says our first leg was from St. Louis to Erie, Pennsylvania, a distance of 522 ­nautical miles. That leg took 4.8 hours — and that’s with a tailwind. The next leg from KERI to Rochester, New York, was a scant 127 miles. That took 2.3 hours, according to the yellowed pages, and I remember well why. We sailed along on top, calling Flight Service frequently, heading for Albany, New York. It soon became clear that Albany was below minimums, so I requested a change of destination to ­Syracuse, New York.

Vectored for the arrival, I contacted Approach only to hear that the airport was closed; it had gone below minimums too. We’d have to reverse course, fly into that mighty wind, and crawl back to Rochester where the weather was deteriorating rapidly. What did I know about lake effect, cold fronts, winter or anything else for that matter?

Anxious about fuel and struggling westward, we were finally cleared for the ILS 4 at KROC. (Does that runway heading tell you something?) When we landed, the tower instructed me to report clear of the runway; the controller couldn’t see us for the snowfall. A young pilot learns. My mouth was dry.

I was also most likely oblivious to the kind of surface winds such a front can manufacture and that it might be difficult to define where the weather would get ugly.

We taxied into the FBO while I envisioned a warm hotel and a glass of bourbon. As I swung the airplane around to park next to an Aztec, we slid sideways, blown by the wind over the snow-packed ramp. I could see our prop gnawing its way across the Aztec’s wing, so I killed the engine and sat there until the dust (snow) had settled, inches from the Piper. A young pilot learns more — and we haven’t gotten to the hiccup yet.

The next morning was clear, cold and windy. Well slept, we boarded up — I had yet to learn about preheat. The engine started, and I gave it 10 minutes to warm up. We were now taking off to the west; the front had indeed blown through.

I was completely unprepared for the robust performance of the mighty Musketeer in such cold, dense air. It seemed to leap directly into the air, whereupon the engine stopped completely for one hiccup, then roared back to life as if nothing had ever happened. There was no time to react. I just sat there. It never happened again, but even the baby must have known. A young pilot learns about trusting his equipment.

Last April, it was clear that Walt still remembered that one fraction of a moment when he wished he had stayed home for the holidays.