Rising from Viral Ashes

A delay of game at KMRN turns into a P-51 Mustang airshow for patient pilots. Dick Karl

Call it renewal or redemption, but flying has taken on a more important, maybe even precious, role in life. COVID-19 made sure that flying for all of us was sharply diminished. As we started to come back, I found the cadences and clearances to be more like diamonds, each exquisite and pleasing in a lapidary way.

Quarantine wasn’t much effort for me, I’ve got to admit. Living in Florida, my wife and I were away from the accelerating deaths in New York and Boston. We had plenty of space, access to Instacart for groceries, bicycles to amuse us, and light weights to fool us into a sense of health.

Until then, our flying had been active, interesting and very occasionally challenging, but we were oblivious to the approaching storm housed in a tiny RNA virus. Our last Cessna Citation CJ1 flight was on March 8, from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to San Antonio to clear customs to Tampa, Florida (KTPA). Who could ask for a better trip?

Additionally, I had recently been blessed by some part-time work as a first officer on a CJ2+. The last flight for me on this lucky gig was March 18 from Hilton Head, South Carolina (KHXD), to my home, Tampa, of all places. Then the avalanche of dire news, predictions and stay-at-home instructions gave way to a slow understanding of what was at stake. Our own airplane lay fallow for six weeks until I just couldn’t stand it anymore and flew to Vero Beach, Florida (KVRB), to exercise the airplane and myself, and to buy some cheap jet-A. I wore a mask. My friend Rob came out to say hello, and the hardest part of the whole thing was not giving him a hug.

A flight to Melbourne, Florida (KMLB), was to consult with Avidyne guru Mike Kiernan, who adjusted our fuel-flow “K” factor to improve accuracy. Again, I was masked and distant. Total flying for April was two hours.

Another two weeks went by before the Hilton Head CJ2+ opportunity popped up its very welcome head. With Capt. Bill, our assignment over four days was to test-fly the airplane locally, fly two pax to Tampa (the so-called “home overnight” treasured by all working pilots, whether flying Part 91, 135 or 121), fly two passengers back to KHXD, and the next day fly two folks to Foothills Regional Airport (KMRN) in North Carolina and bring them home that afternoon. Of course, commuting from Tampa to Hilton Head can be done by car (five hours and 34 minutes each way, traffic permitting, and 40 gallons of gas total for $120), by airline (four hours and 50 minutes each way, $585 total) or, well, maybe just take our CJ1 (one hour each way, convenient departure and arrival times, 2,000 pounds of gas, or about $1,100).

Capt. Bill, who lives in Orlando, agreed that this last option was best, though it did eat into my pay.

Read More from Dick Karl: Gear Up

It is well-known that sitting for long periods of time is not good for a plane or pilot. For this reason, I was especially eager to get our CJ1 up in the air for longer than 30 minutes. The first flight was scheduled to take an hour and three minutes. With Bill in the right seat, we taxied out from home base and were surprised by the tower. Though we were still a mile from the departure end of the runway, we were cleared for takeoff. The customary wait for two Southwest 737s to arrive and a delay for departing traffic from another runway was not in evidence. Multiple heading instructions kept us clear of growing CBs, and we were soon descending toward a landing on 21 at KHXD. I was interested in testing the new Avidyne IFD550 and the LPV approach. It all went flawlessly, including the fuel-flow calculations. I buttoned up our airplane while Bill hooked up a GPU to the CJ2+ and began to upload nav data and charts into the Collins systems: the magnificent Pro Line 21 and 3000-FMS.

Next, I went to pick up a rental car at the airline terminal. When I returned, I found Bill on the phone with Collins. Next, I made a dinner reservation. When I returned, Bill was still butting heads with the FMS. I began to fear for our dinner—we still had a test flight to do. We agreed that we were glad we weren’t trying to do all this the following morning, with an 8 o’clock show for a 9 o’clock go on the schedule. But we were soon in the air, checking out the gear and pressurization. We clocked into dinner only 15 minutes late. How about that?

The KHXD-to-KTPA trip is about nine minutes faster in the more elegant CJ2+. The next morning, with Bill in the left seat, we were back to Tampa by 10 a.m. I felt like I was looking down at COVID-19 from a safe distance and wondering about its lethal reach.

The next day, I rode my bicycle from home to the airport with some cleaning gear, vacuumed out the CJ2+, removed the used cups and newspapers, and placed the seat belts in a neat array. This exercise in airplane cleaning, even though it wasn’t my airplane, brought me great satisfaction. I was at my home base on a sunny day, surrounded by line folks I have known for more than 30 years. The airplane is owned by truly fine people. I can’t believe that they pay me to burn their jet-A. I was suffused with a sense of well-being. Little did I know, there was more fun to come.

Our trip to KMRN included a four-hour sit, so we had time to savor the small-airport feel. Jeffrey urged us to delay going to lunch in order to witness the locally based P-51 Mustang take off and then took us out in a golf cart to get a bird’s-eye view. Clatter turned to roar as the P-51 rotated right in front of us. Jeff’s sister drove up with her new baby. I felt like part of the family. Clear skies and temperatures in the 70s added to the smell of new-mown spring grass to bring me that same sense of well-being.

Did the interruption of life by a virus make these experiences even more dear? I think it did.

This story appeared in the September 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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