The Long Road Home

||| |---|---| | | | It seemed such an innocuous decision at the time. Life had gotten a bit much, I was behind schedule, the late August weather patterns looked bad, and I needed to get home to California for some meetings. "Well," I thought. "I'll just leave the airplane in New York for now and come back and get it in a couple of weeks. Life will be calmer, the weather will be better, and the trip will be much more relaxed."

Talk about famous last words.

Two weeks later, life was anything but calmer, and my airplane was suddenly grounded near ground zero of one of the most horrific events ever to occur on U.S. soil. Truth to tell, I didn't really mind having my airplane grounded at first, because I didn't much feel like flying-or doing anything else, for that matter. But I had to deal with getting the plane home at some point. Westchester County Airport was soon granted a limited exemption for Part 91 flight, but VFR flight was still prohibited not only in New York, but in the 30 biggest metropolitan areas in the country.

And yet, the new airspace and flight restrictions were just another challenge in a trip that had already begun to feel more like the epic journey of the Greek hero Ulysses than a simple cross-country flight. The original plan had been straightforward. I was just going to stop in New York and visit for a couple of weeks before heading back home. But then the Cheetah's engine started having problems, and I decided it would be prudent to get it fixed in New York before heading back across the continent.

Unfortunately, Jerry Parks and his team of wonderful mechanics at Panorama Aviation didn't have the tool required to do the work, and the engine shops I checked out on Long Island and at Textron-Lycoming in Pennsylvania were backed up for weeks. But the solution-oriented customer service folks at Lycoming were kind enough to loan Panorama the needed tool, and all seemed well. Then my starter died. Then my battery died. And now VFR flight out of Westchester County Airport was prohibited. I didn't even want to ask what would go wrong next-a wise move, as it turns out. Because the answer, had I been able to get it, would have involved thunderstorms, hail and tornadoes. But I get ahead of myself here.

The immediate problem was getting the plane out of the restricted New York airspace. Rescue came in the form of my friend Bruce Williams, a Microsoft FlightSim manager who's not only an instrument-rated pilot, but also a CFI-I. Bruce thought the trip sounded like enough fun that he offered to fly to New York and help me get the airplane home. Had he been able to foresee the tornadoes or how much time he would spend in Jackson, Mississippi, in the course of that effort, I suspect he might have rethought that offer. So perhaps it's sometimes a blessing that we can't see too far around the corner or down the road.

Returning to New York at the beginning of October was an interesting experience in and of itself. I'd seen the photos and television footage, of course. But walking the streets of lower Manhattan with my Aunt Lane, whose local firehouse alone had lost 10 men, brought the reality of the events home in a way no photo ever could have. So, too, did the view upon my departure from Westchester County.

A cold front had passed through the day before we left. And while that meant that I found myself doing my preflight with gloves on-an experience I'd almost forgotten since moving to California-the front also left the skies a crystal clear autumn blue, with visibility stretching 30 or 40 miles. As Bruce and I climbed out over the colorful fall landscape, I could see from West Point to the West Side of Manhattan, all the way down to Battery Park. I'd grown up with the New York skyline-a contour that, as long as I could remember, had been dominated by the World Trade Center towers. But now they were gone. It wasn't some awful dream. They were really gone. And my eyes and heart ached with more than the cold as my hometown receded into the distance behind us.

For the rest of that day, we were blessed with good weather as we made our way over beautiful fall foliage in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. Our luck ran out the following morning, however-a fact that surprised Bruce more than it did me. I have found, you see, that I seem to have a strange and powerful relationship with the weather gods. My general conclusion is that somewhere along the line I must have really ticked them off, and they have yet to forgive my transgression. Another explanation suggested by a friend is that I'm actually a weather goddess, able to change the weather wherever I am. I kind of like that explanation better but, whatever the cause, I seem to bring unusual and dramatic changes in the weather wherever I go. I'm not kidding. I've already ended drought in two places and brought unseasonably sunny weather to Seattle.

I landed in north Florida a year and a half ago in the midst of a dangerous drought that was causing wildfires all over the area. I called Flight Service to check on weather the following day and was told there was "zero" chance of precipitation.

"Zero?" I asked incredulously. "In Florida in June?"

"That's right," the briefer answered. "We're in the middle of a terrible drought here. It hasn't rained in months."

"Ah, but I'm here now," I said. "That could change things."

The briefer failed to get my humor. But sure enough, I awoke the next morning to a downpour that continued all day. Several weeks later I landed at another field and asked them to put my plane in a hangar, because I'd seen some nasty-looking buildups coming that way.

"But we haven't had thunderstorms here since February," the line guy objected.

I nodded with a resigned sigh. "That may be," I answered. "But, you see, I'm here now. So I think we should put the airplane in the hangar." Two hours later, booming thunder and hailstones were pounding down on the ramp.

It's just how things seem to go with me. So when unpleasant and unforecast weather problems cropped up as Bruce and I were preparing to leave Louisville, Kentucky, the next morning, I wasn't surprised. We'd planned to go to Kansas City, Missouri, but a nasty cold/warm frontal system was bringing bad thunderstorms and even a chance of tornadoes to the region. So we opted instead to head south to Jackson, Mississippi, and try to sneak around the southern tip of the front the following day.

Fat chance.

The next morning, I awoke to find the front had turned into one of the worst weather systems of the fall, moving almost imperceptibly slowly, with severe weather stretching from Canada to Mexico.

"This is really strange weather," the meteorologist on The Weather Channel intoned to his colleagues as he pointed to the tornadoes that had now moved from west of Kansas City to just west of Jackson. "It's a classic bad spring system, but it's October now. I don't know why we're having this kind of weather this time of year."

I thought briefly about calling the station to explain my own personal theory on the subject but decided instead just to call the airport and ask the line staff to put my plane in a hangar. It seemed, I told them, that we might be staying a while. Even Bruce's instrument rating wasn't going to get the Cheetah through a line of thunderstorms and tornadoes.

For two more days, Bruce and I cooled our heels in Jackson as we watched the sky turn weird shades of gray and heard repeated National Weather Service emergency warnings of tornadoes touching down in counties nearby. Finally, on the third day, it seemed the worst had passed. The weather was still IFR, but we thought if we got past east Texas early enough, we could get beyond the front before the thunderstorms kicked up again.

We thought wrong.

Well, actually, we did manage to get past the existing front. It's just that an unforecast second front suddenly developed further west, and we found ourselves heading straight into it. The weather in Waco, Texas, was supposed to involve only a 4,500-foot broken layer of clouds with 10 miles of visibility. But we found ourselves in the clouds for most of the flight, and by the time we got to Waco it was raining with a ragged ceiling of about 1,000 feet and three miles of vague and misty visibility in darkening gray conditions. The good news about that, I suppose, is that I got some good instrument practice. And, you know, I've got to give this instrument flying stuff this: shooting an approach through clouds and rain has an amazing way of wiping anything else that might be bothering you right out of your mind-at least for a little while.

But when we got on the ground and checked the weather, I couldn't believe what I saw. That nasty red circle of tornado activity that had followed us from Kansas City to Jackson but should now have been behind us was, once again, bearing down on us from the west. My Cheetah had become not just a drought-ender, but a tornado magnet.

"Where are you now?" my mom asked that night when I called.

"Same place we've been for four days," I answered. "Wherever The Weather Channel is calling the most severe weather location in America."

Waco, Texas, was its own adventure. "Yeah," our taxi driver said as we passed by a site announcing the World Series of Horseshoes competition that weekend, "We've got the President's ranch on one side of town, the Branch Davidians on the other and world class horseshoes in the middle. That kind of sums it up."

Well, almost. You'd have to add the tornado warnings that continued all night and sharing a hotel with the University of Nebraska football team to really get the full picture. But finally, a mere seven days after we'd set out, the great wide state of Texas was behind us and we were making our way through the blessedly clear skies of Arizona and California.

I dropped Bruce off in Ontario, California, after winning a final race with a Southwest Airlines 737 that was approaching the parallel runway there. "Keep max speed to the runway," the tower ordered. "You've got a 737 just behind you on your right, but if you keep your speed up, he'll never catch you."

Bless that controller. I want a copy of that tape just for posterity's sake. My Cheetah's ego has never felt so good. Shooting over the numbers at 125 knots was a new experience for both of us, but beat the Boeing we did, and by at least 150 yards.

A day later, I was home. It had been more than three months since the Cheetah and I had left California for the East Coast, and that day now seemed a lifetime ago. It had not taken me Ulysses' 10 years to find my way home again, but I felt a strange affinity with the Greek seafarer nonetheless. The winds of life can change as swiftly as the weather in Texas, and whether we're on the ground, upon the ocean or in the air, it's sometimes all we can do to change course, trim the sails or tabs and ride or sit out the storms.

But the reward for our endurance is more than just the strength that Friedrich Nietzsche said our struggles could build-or the peace that Amelia Earhart said our courage could purchase. It's also the view that awaits us-and which we then appreciate all the more-when the clouds finally pass and we reach a place where the sun is shining once again.

Thirty flight hours after leaving New York, I came out from under an overcast just outside of the San Francisco airspace. Home was only 35 minutes away, and my fatigued, travel-worn body just wanted to be on the ground. And yet, the bright light to the west caught first my eye, and then my entire attention. To the far west, the late afternoon sun had turned the Pacific Ocean a shimmering golden color, and low-lying coastal clouds were rolling and tumbling like liquid cotton past the Golden Gate Bridge and into the San Francisco Bay.

I couldn't help but smile. Sometimes, when the journey is frustrating, sad or hard, I almost forget what a beautiful place the world is. Fortunately, I have an airplane that helps me remember again. An airplane that is, at long last, home.


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