Gear Up: A Broken Heater and Lunch

Keeping it in the family.

FLY0310_gear_1000x674.jpg
Three generations of Karls (and only
one of them a mechanic) come
together at one table at their Hanover,
New Hampshire, home.

Sitting at Mickey's Diner in Enfield, New Hampshire, across the lunch table from my almost 90-year-old father, I tell him about the heater on the Cheyenne. The heater had stopped working on a flight from Tampa to New England. It got very cold up there at 25,000 feet, so we landed at Westfield-Barnes Airport in Massachusetts, near Hartford, to warm up and get great service and cheap gas at Five Star Aviation. Naturally, the heater worked on the next short leg to New Hampshire, so I called Jim Celentano at Columbia Air Service (well-known Cheyenne specialists) in Groton, Connecticut, the next day for advice. It is Jim's message I'm telling my dad.

Since he is mechanically intelligent and I am not, my father is a good one to whom to tell the tale. He listens intently; macular degeneration has stolen his vision. He tracks every nuance of the discussion, from the effects of high altitude and cold on the likelihood that jet-A will atomize in the heater to the need for accurate fuel pressures and for preheated air if the damn thing is ever going to work. If anybody understands how difficult it is to diagnose an ailment, whether mechanical or medical, that is intermittent in its appearance, it is my surgeon-mechanic dad. As we eat our ritual BLT sandwiches, my mind goes back to the early days of my flying and my father's role in making it happen. I got really hooked on flying while in college, and as sort of a graduation present, my parents agreed to spring for flight training. It wasn't until after the first year of medical school that I got the chance to take them up on the offer. I'm thinking about back then.

It is the winter of 1967 and my father is taking me on a Christmas shopping excursion in New York City. He's trying to find something that I might like, and I'm trying not to appear too greedy. On the sixth floor of the original Abercrombie and Fitch, there are rifles, shotguns and safari gear. The old world order is still in place. On the first floor I spot a Telex headset, a new concession to the changing times. I'd like it, I say.

I had learned to fly the previous summer. For 10 glorious weeks I had lived in San Francisco, working during the day at the Cardiovascular Research Institute at the University of California San Francisco. At night? Well, it was the Summer of Love there.

At Oakland International I had gotten a private ticket. Back in New York, I lived in a room — as in one room in a medical-school dorm. Airplanes were remote from my life, just a summer memory. But the Telex headset was a connection.

Not that it was connected to an airplane. When I could get to Teterboro and find the cash to rent one, there was no jack to fit the Telex. But in my dorm room, that headset held promise. One day, I'd get free and get loose. I'd get up there, where the airliners were, flying the river approach to LaGuardia.

This was the beginning of my father's emotional, not just financial, support of my flying. It was, I'm guessing, not something he would have chosen for me, but he is a wise man and he knew then that a young man must become what he wants to be, not necessarily what his dad would choose. That headset became the repository of many dreams, all of them about flying.

After internship I got drafted into the Army and bought an airplane, a Musketeer. A jack was installed. I flew it everywhere and talked on that headset; it had gotten connected to an airplane.

My dad was cautious about the airplane and his first grandchild's transport in it, but he never caviled, never scolded. He was always attentive, especially to matters of safety. When transponders came along, he was sure to suggest I get one, and he was sure to pay for it. I know it is hard to remember a time when transponders were optional, but in much U.S. airspace, they were. Now we were radar-identified.

Over the years, my father and mother had many escapades with me in the air. I remember some flights clearly — these may not be the ones Dad remembers, however. When I lived in Chicago and had a Cessna P-210 based at Midway, I volunteered to fly my parents to my sister's graduation from law school in St. Louis. All six of us (one wife, one sister with her husband, one set of wary parents and I) piled into the airplane. I was not prepared for the lackluster climb of the fully loaded airplane, as it might have been the first time I flew it anywhere close to gross. I remember wanting to be very professional about the flight. This was a pressurized airplane (my first), fully deiced (ditto), with radar (again ditto), after all.

There was lots of convective activity on the route, and I was a neophyte at the radar operation, but we were doing OK, in and out of cloud. I thought things were under control and my passengers were reassured by my airmanship — until we broke into the clear for a moment and my dad said loudly over the headset, "We could land there!" He was gesticulating wildly at a small grass strip set in the middle of a cornfield. My aspirations of airlinelike operations took a hit. We survived, nonetheless. I remember having to add power just to taxi in after we landed.

Many years later my wife and I were flying my parents from West Palm Beach to Tampa in our new-to-us Cessna 340. On winter mornings, moist Florida air can get foggy near the coast, where it settles over cold ground. I had to wipe the condensation off the windshield prior to taxiing, a maneuver I was hoping nobody would notice. The airplane shed the moisture on takeoff, and we enjoyed a beautiful, clear early morning over central Florida until I got the Tampa ATIS. The weather included an indefinite ceiling and visibility of less than a quarter-mile. We were sent into a hold at the bridge intersection. All the while I happily told my dad, who was in the copilot's seat, that we had plenty of gas and could divert inland to Lakeland if necessary; in the interim I went on and on about holding patterns, teardrop entries, etc.

When we were finally vectored to the approach, the weather wasn't much better but the airlines were getting in. It was the ILS 36 Left. Down we came. It got darker and darker and then, suddenly, we were in the clear over Tampa Bay. It turned out that this was temporary good fortune only; the clear spot was over an inlet, where warmer temperatures had forged a clearing. We soon plunged back into fog, descending more or less on the glideslope. All the while there was silence from the copilot. At the decision height, I spotted the rabbit, a second later the runway environment. It was the loud "Whew!" that reminded me that all parents are never quite sure their children have grown into competency.

As my parents aged, they flew with us less and less. Then suddenly last summer the stars lined up. I was going to fly from New Hampshire to Delaware to see my daughter, her husband and their two little boys. Fully expecting the answer to be no, at dinner I asked my folks if they'd like to ride along and spend one night in Delaware. I thought they said yes, but I was fearful when I called them the next morning, thinking that they most likely had changed their minds. But, no, they were packed and ready.

Off we went over Massachusetts and Long Island and the Atlantic Ocean in that magnificent Cheyenne. Now riding in the back, my folks slept right up until landing, but they sure came awake when those two great-grandsons showed up on the ramp.

There are questions, still. What about all the airplanes Dad has been in, all the commercial flights he has made? How about the time he worked his way back over the Pacific, hitchhiking in C-47s at the end of World War II, to examine his firstborn — me? When was his first jet ride? Did he have, long ago, a romance about flying about which I don't know and we've never spoken? Was it the summer weekend excursions out of the city up to Westchester County Airport in that slope-backed 1950 Buick Special that started the aviation thing in the back of my little mind? Did we go there to please me, or him?

Then there were all the newspaper clippings about various aviation topics he's sent to me over the years. The calls alerting me to a special on the History Channel about the DC-3; the heads-up when a Learjet went missing at Lebanon, New Hampshire, where he lives. All this interest in my thing: flying. Was I ever as attentive about his woodworking, gardening or mechanical feats of, when you think about it, amazing accomplishment? I doubt it. He did these aviation-related things, I think, as a way of connecting, just as I tried to learn to play chess so as to sit across from my son Brian and listen to what was on his mind. Now Brian will soon be a father and will carry on the adaptation of a parent as a new life springs into being.

All this history of flying and family cascades through my mind as we sit in a roadside restaurant on a gray New Hampshire winter's day. Dad will never be able to see a sunset from the air again, nor feel that great sense of speed that you get when you break out on top. But as we talk about the heater, he's still there, still thinking about the problem, not agonizing about the loss. In the end, we agree that the BLTs taste great.