Gear Up: The Therapeutic Effect of Flight

Looking for a spiritual lift, I entered Signature Flight Support in Boston with its soaring cathedral ceilings and even higher fuel prices. I had hoped to beat Capt. Courtney Crain to the FBO as she was airlining in from Palm Beach, Florida. We had not flown together in months. Alas, she was already hunched over a computer preparing for our noon departure to Teterboro, New Jersey. She greeted my wife, Cathy, with enthusiasm.

Cathy knew I had been in a slump; we even thought we knew why. The pace of airplane acquisitions at JetSuite had slowed and a captain upgrade seemed to have disappeared. While in Orange County, California, for recurrent indoc I had heard of plans that disquieted me. As I was digesting this development, an old friend called me to say that a mutual friend of ours, one I had met during my surgical internship 44 years ago, had died suddenly. Another friend my age had recently told me about some memory loss. I was about to turn 69. In a sense I was looking at the end of life's runway. I hadn't flown anything but the simulator in 25 days. I was looking for reaffirmation. I was looking for signs of life, not death and infirmity.

Courtney is my kind of captain. Bright, well read in general and wise aeronautically, she's got a nice presence to her. Approachable and kind, she's generous with giving the FO flying time. I had high hopes for the next five days. Little did I know what a tonic they would be.

Cathy came with me as I removed the engine covers and stowed them. It felt good to be on the ramp. Our passengers arrived 10 minutes late and Boston was departing 22 Right, requiring a few runway crossings to get to the active. This made our taxi a bit longer, setting off a domino tumble that would have me working the phones some five hours later.

Our flight to Teterboro took 57 minutes, though the distance is only 165 nm and the jet can do 400 knots. This takes so long because the route is circuitous and the trip is flown down low at slower speeds. The United Nations was meeting in New York, the president was giving a speech and the weather was not great, and this all meant we'd get back to Boston at 3:16 p.m., even though our next flight, to Newark, was scheduled at 3 p.m.

Our KEWR passengers were not pleased. They were catching a 5:20 flight to the West Coast. When we called for clearance, we were given a 40-minute delay. This put the commercial flight connection in peril. Our guest services folks did the best they could, but there was little anybody could do to salvage the situation. The conversations weren't that much fun. I was reminded that no matter who you are, except for the actual president, your flight can be delayed. By the time the dust settled, it was decided that we would fly the airplane empty to Teterboro for scheduled maintenance.

Calling for clearance again, we were given a wheels-up time of 8 p.m., some 13½ hours after Courtney had gone on duty in Palm Beach. Fatigue figured for both of us, a diminished mood for me. Chief pilot Paul Proffett worked with scheduling to arrange for another crew to fly the airplane to Teterboro. Courtney was ambivalent about this development. She knew she was tired, but in a male-dominated flying world, she was mindful of appearing weak to other pilots. In the end, she made the braver decision.

Muskoka, Canada, was our destination the next day in a different airplane, and what a pretty place it is. The trees were changing colors as if on cue. We descended for the RNAV approach to Runway 36, broke out at about 2,500 feet and were stunned to see the colorful carpet of Canadian forests and clear lakes. The wind was right down the runway but I still didn't get the landing I wanted.

Minutes later a Falcon landed and we exchanged pleasantries with its crew. The old male chief pilot had a female FO and he congratulated me on having the same. Unfortunately, I had to admit to him that I was the FO, not Courtney.

Our passengers were a delightful couple with a beautiful springer spaniel. Bound for Houston, they were closing up their summer home and had more luggage than we had anticipated. It took me a couple of goes before I could get most of it arranged in the commodious compartment that makes the CJ3 such a great airplane. While I worked up a sweat in the 40-degree weather, Courtney recalculated the actual weight and balance. We were within a few pounds of max takeoff weight.

My takeoff briefing acknowledged that we were over max landing weight and that we'd likely divert to Toronto if trouble developed. If we were on fire, though, we'd accept the overweight landing. Fortunately, all the plans for catastrophe went unused and we were soon at Flight Level 400. The passengers were reading the paper and enjoying Wi-Fi. The spaniel was asleep on his master's lap.

Customs at Houston Hobby Airport was a stern affair. Officer Miranda chastised Courtney and me for incorrectly filling out our crew declaration forms. Courtney, who flew freight out of Miami to the islands, knew this to be untrue. She cleared customs every day. It was hot on the tarmac. The officers demanded to see the documentation for the dog. The passengers couldn't immediately lay their hands on it, so I unloaded the luggage and a search began. Despite the rather intimidating circumstances, I admired the passengers and their equanimity. They were gentle with each other, unhurried and calm. Nice to see. The paperwork was produced and we taxied over to Atlantic Aviation, handshakes and thanks all around. This was a splendid flight of over 1,100 nautical miles, carrying truly elegant folks on time and without a hitch. Very satisfying and, dare I say, restorative.

Courtney found a restaurant called Pass and Provisions, and it was fabulous. We used Uber to get to and from the restaurant. It worked great. OMG! Country baguette, Caesar wedge, braised BLT with shrimp thousand island dressing for me; vegetables for Courtney. Excellent. The drink menu was more than I needed. Courtney made a joke about the abuse of the term martini. "Some of these drinks have a sip of gin and, on a skewer, a slice of orange, an olive or two and a copy of Dorian Gray stuck on the end for balance." How many pilots know the Oscar Wilde classic and use it in cocktail conversation?

We thought we'd be stuck in Houston for a day or two, but when I logged on the computer in the morning, I learned we'd be flying across the Gulf of Mexico to Fort Myers, Florida, and then on to Jacksonville. Flying over the Gulf in September can be exciting, but all the bad weather was south of our route. Courtney lives in Fort Myers and had just bought a home, so we went for a quick house tour. I liked the hominess. My mood was lifting further.

Our passenger to Jacksonville was understanding when we got a route almost 100 miles longer than the straight-line distance in order to avoid thunderstorms. I did OK until instructed to descend to 3,000 and slow to 210 knots. After leveling off, I was slow to bring up the power. Just as I said to myself "210 knots, Dick, not 180," the controller chastised us for lousing up his conga line. My precarious psyche wondered if I was ever going to get it. The landings were still just OK.

The next morning we repositioned to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Now, this is some kind of flying. We started with Jacksonville Center. It helped us top some thunderstorms at Flight Level 430. Miami Center is in charge most of the way. Then comes San Juan, and then Santo Domingo. With almost no international experience aside from the Bahamas and Canada, I found it difficult to understand the controllers. Not because they had thick accents in English, but because many of their conversations were in Spanish. It was surprisingly difficult for me to sort out what was for us.

Our arrival was fun. Servair manages the FBO, and after a certain amount of negotiation as to how we were to pay for our fuel, we were bused to the FBO. A Servair driver took us into town, a half-hour drive. We ate fresh snapper for dinner, a memory I will keep because two days later American Express informed me that my credit card number had been used at a mall for $1,400 worth of Apple products! Luckily the purchase was turned down. I never left the hotel, so the list of individuals in contact with the card was short.

The next day we flew three great people to Nassau. The islands were beautiful. I finally got the landing I was looking for — so smooth — a testament not to the pilot but to the guy who invented trailing link landing gear.

Heading to home base in Palm Beach we dodged some buildups and were finally vectored for the visual to 10 Left. Again I got a sweet landing. "This is when Cathy smiles," I said to Courtney. I was so pleased with myself that I shut down at customs with the flaps still extended. But the therapy had worked.

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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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