Soon after he left the city, he stopped at one of the larger truck stops. He was once again amazed at the luxury and low prices of the truck stops versus the tourist areas.
The truck stops had showers, too. He showered, changed clothes, and grabbed a booth. The waitress came over.
"What'll it be, hon?" she asked, snapping her gum.
"Coffee, black (better bring the pot), ham omelet, buttermilk biscuits, and a Danish. Get yourself a coffee too."
"You're not trying to pick me up, are you darling? I see where you've taken off your ring."
"Well, um..." The waitress was about 60, and as round as she was tall. Her name tag read "Doris".
She laughed at his embarrassment. "Take it easy, sugar, I'll be right back with the coffee and Danish, a few minutes on the rest."
Mark flipped through the stack of magazines he had bought on impulse when paying for his shower. Popular Science, Discover, Penthouse. Hm, better put that one back in the bag. Esquire... Cosmo (that was marginal, didn't want anybody questioning his testosterone level, but there was an amazing babe on the cover, and titles promising to reveal the True Sexy Thoughts of various people).
He sighed. The ads, and most of the articles, were about toys, things he could afford, but he still didn't want. What did he want?
He probed his psyche gingerly, as you would a fresh tooth extraction with your tongue. There was the dull familiar ache of the loss of his family. There was the lust for oblivion, which he had nearly satisfied last night. And, there was something new.
The waitress brought the coffee and Danish, glancing over his magazine collection. "College boy, right?" she chuckled, nodded and snapped her gum meaningfully, and headed back toward the kitchen.
He considered her comment for only a moment before returning to his self-examination. Something new, all right. Something painful, and exciting, and frightening, and fascinating.
"Damned if I know what it is, though." he said aloud.
"It's a ham omelet, hon, just like you wanted. And biscuits and jelly. You OK?"
Mark considered answering in detail, which would take some doing, but realized in time that she was just asking about the food. He reassured her, salted and peppered his eggs, spread the jam on the still warm biscuits, and started to eat.
He read his magazines, trying to lose himself in the surface gloss of technological and sexual daydreams. Every so often, the waitress would check on him, and she even refilled the pot once. Mark didn't realize how hungry he had been, nor could he remember where or what he had eaten last.
Finally, satisfied in belly if not in spirit, he paid his bill and left the truck stop. It was another sunny day, but cool, and the light glared brightly from the windows of the other cars. Mark tried to stay in the moment, feeling the thrill of driving a sports car on a somewhat winding highway over the foothills.
In Ellicott City, he passed a virtual replica of Storyland called Enchanted Forest. This one seemed to have been appropriated as an entrance to the local mall. Mark's mind wandered as it often did, twisting the phrase...
"Enchanted Florist" (he imagined a fairy godfather creating bouquets of flowers with his magic wand).
"Implanted Chorus" (imagining one of those irritating singing greeting cards surgically inserted in someone's ear)
"Depanted Doris" (imagining the waitress from the truck stop bottomless)
The last mental image caused him to cry "Ack" and swerve a bit.
"Too much coffee!"
He stopped for a moment at a roadside rest area, and continued up the hills to Frederick, home of the Aircraft Owners and Pilot's Association.
Mark used to belong to that organization. He used to be a pilot many years ago, back in a previous life, long before he met Laura and her kids. It was an exciting time, when anything seemed possible. In a lot of ways, that era was as deeply buried during his marriage as his memory of his married life was becoming now.
Mark worked for a small software company at the time, and, as part of his compensation, got free flying lessons in a Cessna 152. This two seat single engine prop plane was just the thing for novice pilots, slow, non-aerobatic, and almost too forgiving of bonehead mistakes.
He was a natural pilot, kind of like he was a natural pool player. He also became bound up in the analytical side of the sport, just like he had in pool. There were plenty of pilots who just flew through feel and experience and raw talent, and a few who flew well because they knew how flying worked. Mark loved talking with the latter about coefficients of drag and lift and angle of attack, and such. He could talk his way through any discussion, arguing from either side.
After he got his license, he did fly for a while, but it was rather expensive without the company subsidizing his way. They would pay for an upgrade to an instrument flight rating, but that wasn't in the cards. Mark was terrified by The Hood.
The Hood wasn't where the Boyz lived, but rather a device for simulating instrument weather conditions, which restricted the wearer's field of view to the cockpit instruments. It looked like a welder's mask, flipped up. The instructor pilot would sit in the right seat, view unobstructed, while the student would be operating the controls from the left seat, focusing only on the instruments and not what the seat of his pants were telling him.
For Mark the seat of his pants was telling him to throw up, simple as that. The moment he put on the hood, vertigo set in. He could still fly the plane, by throwing all his trust onto the instruments in the panel. It felt wrong, though, and, to not put to fine a point on it, scared the crap out of him. He procrastinated about taking instrument lessons, and finally ceased trying completely.
However, he still flew, in good weather. For some reason, though, even in good weather he was plagued with carburetor ice. Cruising along at altitude, minding his own business, the engine speed would fall off 50 RPM... then 100, then 200. Soon the engine would be running rough and trying to die.
Although he knew that a plane flies perfectly well with the engine off, just not very far, this always increased what the hangar jocks called "pucker factor." He did follow procedure though, and recovered gracefully each time. The real thrill was when he had a passenger, a non-pilot, and he tried to keep his own racing pulse and adrenaline rush out of his voice as he reassured the passenger, "We're going down now. I mean! We're descending to make an approach now."
Cross country travel was problematic with a fair-weather license, and made even worse by the fact that Mark was restricted from flying at night. This was due to a fairly arbitrary rule about distinguishing red from green, and many pilots had trouble with it (including Mark's own flight instructor). Most were able to pass the color test by repeatedly taking it, though. Mark just didn't have the will to lie about his defect to the Federal Government.
The last time he flew cross country was a trip down to Holden Beach, NC. He accompanied his on-again, off-again girlfriend Rhiannon to her family's time share on the beach, and was driven quietly crazy by them for a few days. When it was time to leave, he was ready to fly at all costs.
When you're ready to do something unnecessary "at all costs", it's time to re-examine your motives. This was not a safe decision.
They took off from Brunswick County Airport, near Southport, into a blue sky with some "cumulo puffies", as he used to call them. They climbed up to a comfortably cool cruising altitude of 3500 feet, and started home.
They flew over Wilmington and as far as Manteo, straight up the Outer Banks. It was getting a little cloudier, and the clouds were a little lower. The wind was strong and gusty, but right down the runway (not unusual for a beach airport).
Mark called Flight Services, and they expressly did NOT recommend continued VFR (Visual Flight Rules) flight into this weather. It was a judgment call, though, and Mark and Rhiannon were eager to get home. So, up they went, bouncing a bit on takeoff through the gusts. Things did calm down nicely once they got above a thousand feet, though.
The cloud layer got more and more dense, and finally closed in over them. At one point Mark started diverting to the west, to get around a particularly nasty looking bank of clouds. Then he saw lightning in the distance. Shit.
Part of the problem was that he was Pilot in Command. He was Responsible for Lives. He was almost never in that position, as few people would ride in the passenger seat of his car, and he had no children. The pressure was enormous, and there was absolutely no way of just saying "Fuggit" and lying down. He had to land the plane, and he wanted to do so without panicking his girlfriend.
A panicked Rhiannon was not a pretty sight, and the presence of dual controls in the Cessna 152 (one set in front of the passenger as well as one in front of the pilot) made him doubly cautious. She was an epileptic, and had a tendency to lock her muscles and freeze in times of stress. Not good if she had just grabbed the controls before doing so.
The ceiling got lower and lower, and finally was getting very close to their new cruising altitude of 1000 feet. The relatively trackless North Carolina countryside was nothing like his home area, clearly bounded by the ocean and two rivers.
Finally, he did sight a triangular pattern off to the left, and made for it. During World War II, many temporary airfields were set up to provide training grounds for new pilots. After the war, when private aviation was at its peak (fueled by Veteran's Administration dollars), some of the fields were paved and made into local airports. This particular one was Warren County Airport, near Washington, NC.
They landed safely, just before dark. The airport was deserted and the terminal building was locked. The silence was deafening.
"Let's take off again, find another airport," prompted Rhiannon. "This place is creepy."
"Can't. It's dark, and I'm not supposed to fly at night. We're stuck until morning."
Just then a set of headlights appeared on the gravel road leading up to the terminal building. An amazingly old station wagon with a rather noisy sticky valve drove up, and a man got out. Mark was cool on the outside, stepping back away from the fuel pump he had been examining, and waving at the man.
"What in hell are you doing out here? Airport's closed!"
"We had to land, the weather boxed us in," replied Mark. Just then it started to rain, hard. "Can we get a cab?"
"No cabs out here. You need to stay the night?"
"Yeah. We need a hotel."
"Well, I'll drive you in, and pick you up in the morning. I'm Ben, I'm the FBO here." The FBO is the Fixed Base Operator, the Jack of All Trades who pumps gas, fixes planes, sells maps, teaches flying, and whatever else will make a little bit of money out at the airport.
After a very brief settling-in at the motel, they sampled the wild night life of Washington, NC, as they went out to try to buy beer. The local teenagers would cruise around.... and around... and around... not the main drag, or the center of town, because there really wasn't such a thing. There was, however, a mall. So around and around the mall the kids would cruise, showing off their trucks and their rusty old Camaros and Firebirds. Mark and Rhiannon went back to the room and ate pizza, and drank beer, and watched the three channels of television until they passed out.
The next day started much like the first, with blue skies and cumulo puffies. The clouds were bigger, lower, and a bit darker than the first day, but there was plenty of blue. Once again, Mark made a judgment call, and they took off to the northeast. This time, though, he'd climb for all he was worth and fly "VFR on top".
VFR on top is legal in the United States, but not many other places. It means that a pilot without an instrument rating, in a non-instrument plane, can go up above a continuous cloud layer where he is still maintaining control of the aircraft through visual means. How he's supposed to navigate is left up to the pilot. Dead reckoning, with the compass and a clock, is a perfectly legal way to do it.
Well, this plane did have a few instruments, and a VOR was one of them. That device tells you what direction in which to fly to get to a radio beacon you choose. One of those beacons was in Franklin, Virginia, and he set the instruments to that.
"Piece of cake. We won't know exactly how far out we are, but we can tell based on how long we fly and how twitchy the needle is. No problem."
It wasn't a problem, really, except that the highest altitude this particular plane could reach with full fuel and two passengers was about 10,000 feet. It just wouldn't go any higher. Of course, since they weren't going very far (a hundred and fifty miles or so), they didn't want to spend a lot of time climbing anyway. They just needed to be high enough to stay legally above the clouds.
Soon after the cloud deck solidified below them, Mark noticed that it seemed to be getting closer. Rhiannon ooh-ed and aah-ed over the beautiful white shapes of the clouds, which contrasted well with the pure blue sky above.
The cloud tops grew closer and closer. Finally, they couldn't be dodged with small maneuvers to the left or right, and Mark didn't want to deviate too far from their course. The Franklin VOR wasn't in range yet, either, and Mark had been flying by dead reckoning for a while.
He made another judgment call, to keep on, and not turn back. After all, if they turned back, they might get lost, and the clouds might not be lower behind them any longer. So into the cloud bank they went, the windows getting grey around them.
He told Rhiannon that he was going to start a gradual descent through the cloud layer, so they could see the ground and navigate that way. He reassured her that the VOR would come alive any second, and they would be able to follow that needle as well.
They flew straight ahead, gradually descending from 10,000 feet. It seemed to take forever, but Mark didn't want to get too far outside the normal cruise speed and descent rate, when he had no visual references. His hands gripped the yoke hard, white knuckles, and he forced himself to relax.
A thought occurred to him. He remembered those previous times that the carburetor iced up, and that it was most common near a lot of water, as in a cloud. It was also more common within a certain temperature range. Mark looked up at the outside air temperature gauge, which was basically a thermometer stuck through the wall above the passenger's head. He blinked and made sure he was reading it correctly. Yes, cold enough. Anything under 60 degrees Fahrenheit was cold enough, because the carburetor cooled the intake air even further. Shit again.
He wrenched his gaze from the OAT and looked back at the artificial horizon. Holy. Fuck.
The gauge showed them to be in a steep nose-down attitude, tilted 60 degrees to the left. Sometimes known in the aviation literature as the "Death Spiral". It's the most common cause of fatal accidents among non-instrument rated pilots flying into instrument weather.
Mark was scared shitless. Nonetheless, he was the only one who could save them. It was all up to him and his incomplete instrument training. He remembered to breathe, and to move slowly. The first thing to do, he thought, is to throttle back and get rid of this 60 degree bank. If I pull the nose up while tilted over like this, it will just hit us with G forces, just like the Tilt-A-Whirl at the carnival.
Without making any sound, he slowly, very slowly righted the miniature representation of the aircraft in the artificial horizon. It was still 20 degrees nose down, but rising quickly. He glanced very quickly over to Rhiannon, and was relieved to see she was totally oblivious to the drama unfolding.
As the airplane in the artificial horizon reached horizontal, Mark applied forward pressure on the yoke, to prevent the plane from overshooting and going nose high. In that way lay stalling, and the possibility of a flat spin. He wasn't sure he could get out of that.
The plane stabilized, and the airspeed settled back down to their cruising speed. He pushed the throttle back in, back to cruise RPM, and trimmed (adjusted) the controls for hands-free level flight. He then took stock.
Mark's mind was clicking double time: "3,000 feet. Heading... well, the gyrocompass may not be right after that spiral. Have to check the wet compass. Oh look, we're receiving the Franklin VOR! Hang in there, stay in range, while the compass settles down. OK, I can read the wet compass. South West? that's away from Franklin (I think) oh well, lets set the gyrocompass and make a nice gradual turn to the right heading." All this within the space of a few seconds of straight ahead flight.
"Why are we turning?" asked Rhiannon. She hadn't noticed the spiral consciously, since they had entered it so gradually, but her inner ear had habituated to it. Now she thought they were turning the opposite direction when they were flying straight.
"We're a little off course, but we're OK. See, we're picking up Franklin!" While he talked, he eased the plane into a gentle turn to the right, in the direction she probably already thought they were turning.
Once established, he continued the descent. Lower, and lower. At some point the clouds below began to get darker and darker. Mark hoped that was a good sign. Either the clouds were getting thinner below, or the ground was getting very, very close. Lower, and Lower they went.
At 1500 feet by the altimeter, Mark began to get nervous. The VOR needle was also acting up, and he wasn't completely sure he was going the right way.
At 1200 feet the clouds below became very dark. If the barometric pressure had changed much since their takeoff, the altimeter could be off by quite a bit. He wanted to see ground.
At 1000 feet, the clouds below broke up, and he could see patches of ground a reassuring distance away. Although 1000 feet was the normal minimum over populated areas, he couldn't see a city below, and he wanted to get below the clouds. Down to 850.
At this point he saw, right below him, Franklin Airport. He keyed the microphone and announced his position to other potential traffic on the Unicom frequency, his voice shaking in relief. A somewhat bouncy landing later, he stopped the plane and tumbled out onto the ramp.
"We're alive." he whispered. "Still alive."
Well, an argument ensued, whether they should fly back to their home town from their or call their home airport. Mark lost the argument again, and they took off towards home. Luckily, the ceiling was lifting now, and they were back up to 2000 feet in time to cross the river.
After that trip, flying seemed unsatisfactory. Why go to all the expense and bother of killing yourself by falling out of the sky, when there are much easier ways close to home? What's the point?
Mark flew after that, on special occasions, but he never went on a cross-country trip again. He started drinking more heavily, and his health deteriorated to the point where he was afraid to take the medical exam. After a while, it didn't seem to matter.