Cold Weather Story

Do what you know is the right thing ... and always remember to break one rule every day.


That year winter arrived on the heels of a cold front that marked the end of an interminably long and hot Ohio Valley summer, one that lasted nearly to Thanksgiving. Arriving at the 'drome for a flight check I got a brutal reminder that airports are the coldest places on the planet. Back to the painful bite of the wind while you knock frost off a wing or struggle to get fuel into the tanks, perched on a rickety aluminum ladder, gloved fingers numb and soaked in 100LL. Tears from the cold wind running down your cheeks to join the rivulets of snot from your nose. Not too elegant, but what pilot who's battled to launch an airplane in cold weather hasn't asked himself, "Is this really worth it?" Snot, tears and all, the answer's an unqualified "yes." But where's global warming when you need it?

In really frigid situations I've been tempted to limit preflights to the important stuff: Are the tires round and is anything (other than my nose) dripping? It's the same flaw in reasoning behind Martha's Law of Magneto Checks: If you're departing someplace where there's no mechanic ... why check? Fortunately, more often than not, basic survival instincts prevail (or somebody's watching) and I do a good preflight inspection. You can bet your Bernoulli that the lower the temperature the more likely something's going to break off, freeze shut or stick open. 72B snoozes in an unheated T hangar so I use an engine block heater and a big blanket to keep it cozy on cold winter nights. And to keep me honest and careful, a world-class torpedo heater lives in the hangar.

Nobody's ever accused me of growing up, maybe because I didn't have any kids ... sure proof there is a God who watches out for children. Neil Armstrong, Joe Kittinger and Peter Pan are my ultimate heroes, so Never-Never Land scenarios work best for me. Like, I've just learned that some Bad Guys have booby-trapped my plane so I won't get through with the microfilm (computer chip?) hidden in my lipstick case. It's curtains for our country, heck, for western civilization, unless I can find the missing bolt, the crack in the spinner, the broken safety wire or, God forbid, an out of date sectional or expired ELT battery.

I learned to change oil and the spin-off filter bolted to the firewall without dropping the bottom cowl on the 180 with another scenario: I'm alone in the Gobi Desert where Mongolian bandits have drained all my oil. No, of course I don't know why, but they did. Anyway, I'm almost out of water and I'm down to those disgusting green Tootsie Pops. I do have plenty of fuel, a case of 100W oil, safety wire and some Marvel Mystery Oil cleverly hidden in the baggage compartment. I have to get 72B and me back to civilization or my VOR check will expire. So I concentrate on how Mike Wells patiently taught me to find the quick drain (and remember to put a bucket underneath). Then spin off the old and on with the new filter, safety wire it properly and dump in 12 quarts of oil … oh, and the Marvel. You also have to remember to close the quick drain or it gets ugly. And, when it's been a while, I have to lie underneath on the creeper, gaze up at the filter and ponder the "lefty-loosey, righty-tighty" thing.

Stay with me. I'm back in the real world, now.

I learned to fly in January. After demonstrating the intricacies of an Ercoupe preflight inspection, Larry Whitesell would send me out on the frozen field while he watched from the office window, sipping hot coffee and dreaming of a career with Delta Airlines. Later, in "fed" life, I worked an accident that happened because the CFI, watching from the office window, failed to observe his student's failure to observe a bird's nest under the cowl of a Citabria. It was well below zero on the ground, but I guess it got plenty warm in the air when the engine caught fire. They made an immediate landing in a snowy field and were blessedly okay, but pieces of the nest were still smoldering when help arrived. Guess who got the violation for an inadequate preflight?

Rhoades Aviation is based in southern Indiana, hauling freight with a fleet of hard-flown DC-3s and Convairs, a crew of resourceful mechanics and pilots who were an interesting mix of Indiana farm boys, soldiers of fortune, retired airline pilots and unrepentant rogues. The Indianapolis FSDO usually assigned new inspectors to the company; maybe it was a trial by fire thing or maybe the older hands just refused to go. Anyway, I went there a lot from both Indianapolis and Cincinnati, when the company was between check airmen or somebody needed a type rating. And I was always just a little in awe of, and mildly in love with, Jack Rhoades, the elegant, eagle-eyed, irascible and fascinating owner who bore an uncanny resemblance to my ex-husband, Ebby Lunken.

It was a cold February morning and the FAA's "policy of the week" allowed me to rent a privately owned A-36 for the trip. Life was good. I was going to Rhoades to fly DC-3s and I had a great airplane with a working heater, not to mention a big paper cup of McDonald's coffee. I should be on top at 6,000 feet and, the eternal optimist, had filed for and was cleared "direct." Once in the air, of course, Cincinnati Departure kept me at 4,000 feet and sent me off in the general direction of Chicago, clear of their sacred but obscene blob of Class B airspace.

Well, I'm blessed with pretty long-range tanks but I hadn't even leveled off when I had to go ... like right now. No, not back to Lunken; no, not a stop at Greensburg, and certainly not all the way to Bakalar Field at Columbus. Right now. The good news was I had that humongous-size paper coffee cup. The bad news was I'd only drunk about half out of it. I briefly pondered the merits of using the "space available" versus gulping it all down and having the whole cup. The latter option seemed more realistic so I drained the cup, engaged the autopilot, released the belt, slid the seat back and started peeling down my jeans. Naturally, Cincinnati called with a clearance to 5,000 feet. By half-kneeling on the floor I could reach the push-to-talk button on the yoke, select 5,000 feet on the autopilot, increase the power and request to briefly leave the frequency. They agreed but the situation was so comical I was convulsed with laughter. Getting myself together, literally and emotionally, was something of a challenge. Factor in that this maneuver had to be carried out with flawless precision. My boss had issued a reprimand when the owner called him because he found popcorn kernels and a Tootsie Pop wrapper on the floor the last time I flew the Bonanza. Imagine the ramifications after this flight if ... .

All went well, if you'll pardon the expression, and everything was almost back to normal when I felt the slightest little "pop" in my lower back. It was a spasm, a bad one, and I could barely move.

I gritted my teeth, offered up the pain for the poor souls in purgatory (it's a Catholic thing), climbed to 6,000 feet and finally made it to Columbus. There's an ILS to a nice, wide runway at this old military field and, when I got off the runway, I called Callie on unicom. A bunch of Rhoades guys met and hauled me out of the airplane, yelping, moaning and giggling all at the same time. Lots of Advil and some hours later, Jack Rhoades or Bud insisted on sending a pilot to fly me home and another airplane to bring him back. Good friends, good guys. I miss them.

Allowing a "civilian" to fly in a government rental airplane would mean another disciplinary action but this time nobody found out. And FAA's disciplinary actions for bad inspectors (like me) were something of a mystery. I took Mary along to an airshow in a rented airplane and got a letter of reprimand. About five years later I broke the rule again but with very different results:

Out punching holes in the clouds, "proficiency flying" in a Duchess on a cold Saturday morning in February (not my favorite month), I landed 30 miles north of Cincinnati at Lebanon-Warren County. Johnny Lane was suiting up to fly his T-Craft to Lunken for a multiflight check in that very Duchess. John, an old friend and mentor, had given me a multi rating years before in an Aztec ... another story. Then he was just shy of 80, a Flight Instructor and Mechanic of the Year, a Charles Taylor and Wright Brothers awardee, and an FAA examiner and safety counselor forever. The weather was supposed to get better but it was still something like 800 and 2, so when he asked if he could ride along, I said, "You bet." And if he needed a ride home after the check ride, I'd take him back to Lebanon in my car or the 180. This wasn't T-Craft weather and the worst that could happen was another letter in my file ... right?

About an hour after I got home the phone rang and it was John. The weather was clearing so I assumed they'd launched on the check ride and the guy blew it ...

"Short flight check, huh?"

"No, an accident," he said.

"What? You guys okay?"

Well, everybody except the Duchess was okay. John failed an engine early on the takeoff roll with a mixture control, but he neglected to pull the other mixture when the applicant didn't immediately close both throttles. The little twin took off into the boonies, wiping out the nosewheel in a ditch and shedding other bits and pieces along the way. I called my boss, who said I should "work" the accident. And late that afternoon, I drove John home, grateful that I'd been there to do the investigation with a minimum of angst. Everything was straight forward and John felt bad enough without some officious "expert" making it worse.

I'll never know if it was in innocence or an attempt to make points but a "cowboy" on the field came to my boss with the information that he saw me land and I had John in the airplane. He'd even heard us talking, he said, because I was "checking John out" in the Duchess on the way to Lunken. When the hammer fell I figured I'd just have to take my medicine, probably another and more serious letter of reprimand ... right?

Wrong. The rules had changed ... a lot, and I went home for six weeks. Expensive? You bet. Did I learn a lesson? Absolutely: Do what you know is the right thing ... and always remember to break one rule every day. I'm proud enough of my personnel file that I read selections at my retirement party. But then there were no FAA people in the crowd.