Gear Up: A Connecticut Yankee in California Court

A trip out west serves as a metaphor for life.

Gear Up Dog Art

Gear Up Dog Art

Mark Twain's fanciful novel featured an industrial age New Englander transported back in time to the court of King Arthur, but this true tale is about an East-Coaster, his family, his airplane and a trip to Carmel, California. The basic plot ingredients feature a 35-year-old Piper Cheyenne I turboprop that they've owned for 16 years and a "treat-yourself-once-in-a-lifetime" monthlong vacation on the West Coast. The cast includes Corbett, a 10½-year-old Labrador retriever, his owners (my wife, Cathy, and me) and various friends who had promised to visit our VRBO (vacation rental by owner) cute little cottage.

It looked for a while as if the whole caper was not going to get off the ground. As the departure date arrived, several confounding factors reared their ugly little visages, making the enterprise seem ill fated, or at least ill advised. I thought I had arranged for the entire month off (imagine!), only to hear that our Part 135 company was so busy that I was obligated to three days of flying during the month of May. In my previous life as a surgeon, I never experienced an entire month off during a 43-year career, but now that I have flown Part 135 for less than two years, I have come to expect it. Funny how quickly one can adapt.

Even so, three days out of 31 didn't seem like much until other developments threatened to delay our departure. Illness struck suddenly and it wasn't the innocent kind. Cathy developed a heart arrhythmia; she had so many extra beats that it seemed as if her heart was going to jump out of her chest. A fancy (Holter) monitor found 8,200 extra contractions in 24 hours, surely a record of unenviable magnitude.

Corbett took this opportunity to become listless and lose his appetite. A trip to the vet showed an enlarged heart. Subsequent evaluation showed a collection of fluid around the heart inside the pericardial sac. This fluid in a closed space kept the heart from filling and thus reduced his cardiac output. For one week during this period, I was the only animal in the house without a cardiac echogram to his credit.

Was there a message about age and mortality in here somewhere? Could this be a lesson about the importance of time? Would these events knock our long-planned vacation off the tracks?

Not if you had made a down payment like we had. Corbett had a surgical procedure to remove a portion of the heart sac, allowing the fluid to drain into his chest cavity. We still don't know the cause of the fluid, but cancer and injury are the most common. Three days later he was acting like a 6-month-old puppy, allaying our fears that he wouldn't be able to negotiate the stairs into the Cheyenne. And Cathy somehow took command of her beating heart and the symptoms went away without treatment.

Since starting to fly Part 135, I have garnered some "out West" experience, making this trip less daunting than it might have been. Over the years I've flown a Cessna P-210, a Cessna 340 and the ­Cheyenne on Western trips from home in Tampa, Florida, but not many. In the CJ3, I've flown out there maybe 15 times in 18 months. But a turboprop at 22,000 feet doing 235 knots is a different kettle of fish when compared with a jet doing 410 knots at Flight Level 430.

The same gods in charge of curing the passengers organized the weather such that Nexrad showed not a drop of precip between Tampa (KTPA) and Monterey, California (KMRY) on the day of our departure. Further blessings included relatively cheap fuel stops and zero headwinds once we were across the Mississippi River. This must be a reflection on clean living — or just luck.

We had a quick, three-hour-and-25-minute trip to Shreveport, Louisiana, at Flight Level 220. The net headwind was 24 knots. The good visibility and a long overdue reunion with personal flying made for a sense of fulfillment different from 135 flying. On this trip, I was alone in the cockpit. Cathy sat in the back while connected to the front by headset. Corbett did what all good dogs do: rest. Occasionally, he'd come forward, place his front legs on the wing spar and inspect our progress and my flying technique. With a quick nod, reminding me to center the heading bug, he'd go back to sleep. The only time he attempted to breach the cockpit was when I unwrapped a sandwich.

Being up there alone has its benefits of serenity, but I do miss another pilot up front. The folks I fly with professionally are all more experienced and better than I am. They teach me a lot. That is not to say one isn't learning when flying alone. One always does. In this case I learned how rusty I was at landing the Cheyenne. As we taxied in at Shreveport, Cathy said simply, "What happened?"

Thanks for that.

A Flying-reading Mooney driver greeted us all enthusiastically. The service at TAC Air was quick and very friendly, and we were soon back up to FL 220, zooming across Texas at 230 knots groundspeed or better, remarkable for a westbound trip in May. Green gave way to barren and soon the mountains came into view. We were vectored for landing on Runway 3, and despite the smooth air, I still pranged it on. I was upset, but not as upset as I might have once been. Professionally flying teaches you that perseverating over bad landings is a fruitless pursuit. Analyze the problem, seek professional help, and move on.

Next morning we were out west for sure, taking the southern route to California via J6 and making the turn northwest at the Palmdale VOR. Clear skies prevailed except for at our destination, KMRY. I scurried into the Jeppesen FliteDeck iPad approach plates and found a couple of RNAV approaches to Runway 28L. Jeez, it is more mountainous there than I thought. Fortunately the clouds parted and I could see the runway from 15 miles out, and we were cleared for the visual. Bump, we were on, prompting one word from the peanut gallery: "better."

The VRBO rental turned out to be better than expected, and we were soon well settled. A week's worth of exploration found us local experts on restaurants and hikes, so it was with great anticipation that I readied the Cheyenne for a trip to Burbank, California (KBUR) to pick up some friends. I'd been to Burbank in the CJ3, knew the FBO and hoped that some familiarity would make things easier.

Though the forecast was benign, I saw rain, some of it heavy, when I consulted the Nexrad on the Avidyne EX500. I had filed for FL 230 and soon saw that this would not top the clouds over Paso Robles. The clouds weren't that high and I wasn't that concerned until I got there, when I got a Yankee's thrashing of a decade. Note to self: ­Innocent-looking clouds out here in the west, where onshore winds and steep terrain can make for some interesting atmospheric conditions, must always be regarded with suspicion. The landing at Burbank was the best by far, which is usually the case when there are no passengers.

I briefed my friends on the rocky ride down and then "quick-changed" my flight plan on to Flight Level 240. Bruce and Diane seemed undeterred, and after filling up, they and their dog, Cassie, hopped on. As further luck would have it, the weather had moved slightly to the east and I was much more insistent on minor deviations. By now I was accustomed to saying "SoCal" and "NorCal" to various controllers. The RNAV approach was necessary this time, making me glad I had the chance to do the visual previously. Still, a procedure turn was necessary. I hadn't done one in a year, but the runway quickly made itself known and the landing wasn't terrible.

After a raucous few days, we headed back to Burbank. The ILS 8 was by now familiar to me, as were the 15-knot crosswinds. "Hang on to your hat," I said to Bruce as we flared. Bang. Good thing he didn't have a hat.

As I planned our return trip, including a stop to visit my brother in Big Sky, Montana, it occurred to me that this trip was more than an extravagant west coast experience. It was a metaphor for life and its fragility. Illness clouded the departure. The airplane and its pilot were of a certain age. Neither the airplane, its pilot, nor its passengers will be doing this forever. But we ain't dead yet.