Into the storm


Ten years ago, I flew an open-cockpit biplane from Pompano, Florida to Santa Monica, California, a distance of 2700 miles that began a mile from the Atlantic and ended a mile from the Pacific. The airplane, a WACO YMF-5, was elegant but primitive, a 1935 design with wooden wings covered in cloth and braced by long sets of wire held in place with sawed-off broom handles. Owing to the poor aerodynamics of old biplane designs — fat wings, fuselage and landing gear, a big, round nose and a 60-year-old engine driving an eight-foot wooden propeller, it could only manage a cruise speed of about 100 miles per hour. The tanks contained enough fuel for two hours of flight, but with the wise law that requires pilots to land with half an hour of fuel left in the tanks meant that those 2700 miles would have to be broken up into 150-mile legs.

One hundred miles per hour for a 2700 mile flight does not translate neatly to 27 hours of flying, or, for that matter, 2700 miles. It would take more than that because neither airports nor weather position themselves conveniently. Air masses over the United States move from west to east, so, though the wind at any point on the surface might blow from any direction, westbound flights at low altitude will be subject to a headwind over the long run, and the speed of the airplane’s travel over the ground is reduced by the amount of that wind. In a 20 mile headwind, a 100 mph airplane would pace a car going 80 on the highway. 

The airplane did not have the instruments you need to fly in the clouds, so those had to be flown under or around, rarely over, because the plane didn’t have the power to climb higher than any but the measliest of clouds. It also had a minor engine problem, not a dangerous one, but it was consuming too much oil and the caution that necessitated also meant having to abbreviate flights when the temperature climbed into the red. Crossing the country took about five days and 17 stops.

Summertime flying, especially over areas like the desert that reflect the hot sun from bright surfaces, can result in a lot of turbulence. Turbulence of any amount never bothered me, but without protection of the roof of an enclosed cabin overhead, with just the sky up there and the ground over the sides of the airplane, with the hurricane force of the wind just outboard of the cockpit, I sometimes fond myself holding the stick between my knees to keep the plane level and using my hands to grip the steel fuselage tubes on the sides of the open cockpit. This was out of an irrational — idiotic, really — fantasy that the seatbelt could be induced to fail when a heavy bump yanked me on it and, no longer attached to the plane, allow me to be shot off into the air. I imagined the bolt attaching the belt to the fuselage shearing, or the tab it was welded to cracking. That was one of the two things I would think about in motels overnight: I could feel and visualize the whole process, popping out of the airplane and watching it fly away, a wing dipping and it entering a spiral with no one on the stick, as I plummeted to the ground (the other thing I thought about was cell phone towers, their steel frames and rows of black cables, which I always suspected of lying in wait to clip a wing for me when I flew below their height). You might find this as strange to read as it feels to write, but I’m scared of heights. That was never a problem for me flying other airplanes, probably because of the false sense of security of the roof of the cabin overhead. But in this open cockpit airplane, I hated to get up too high, as if falling from 6000 or 9000 feet would be any worse than falling from 100. I think it was the idea of the long fall to the ground. All that time to reflect. Seeing the ground approach, always faster until the lights went out. The whole thing was stupid, because the things that I imagined breaking were in fact extremely secure. I had checked them ten million times. Yet my mind gravitated to the fact that if you aren’t wearing a seatbelt when the plane pitches over, you would depart the plane at whatever speed it’s traveling at the time. You would simply rise from the cockpit the way a trampoline would bounce you, up — for only a moment — into the slipstream, and then fall the way you do in a nightmare.

The weather might cooperate sometimes, but this was late spring, and all through the southern tier of the country that meant thunderstorms. It took two days just to make it out of the 600 miles of Florida and into the panhandle because storms built so rapidly in the morning. When there is a squall line of storms you have to wait until it passes. But if the thunderstorms are isolated, as they were all the rest of the way, you can fly around them if you have enough space. How much space you need depends on the severity of the cell. You can’t fly into them, because even the tiniest of cumulus clouds are like hitting a road with the pavement torn up. The big ones can bend wings, pop rivets, put creases in the sheet metal of wings, or simply smash an airplane of any size to pieces. You can’t fly under them, because a microburst of wind might decide to slam you into the ground like a spitball shot from a straw. Jets fly over them, but in an underpowered crate like the WACO that’s not an option. You can’t risk getting too close to the sides because they might let loose with some hail. Otherwise you can fly around them easily enough. Just ask Charles Lindbergh. When he was flying the mail in biplanes in the 1920s he never once allowed the weather to ground him, even though that strict ethic resulted in his having to parachute out of them four times. He always found the wreckage and secured the mail, though.

Of course, where there is one thunderstorm cell the conditions exist for more of them to pop up in front of you while you’re committed to a route between them. Other than only flying where I could see a clear way ahead, I relied on two things for guidance. The main one was a GPS that displayed current NexRad weather radar returns in real time. As long as that worked, I could see if what I was seeing from the cockpit lined up with what was on radar. Whenever possible, I backed this up with a conversation on the radio with air controllers who had weather radar.

“It looks like if you go another ten miles on your present heading and then get to the north side of that cell before you turn south, you should be okay,” the crackling voice on the radio would say. It was nice talking with them. Some pilots don’t like talking on the radio, but I always enjoyed it, especially on solitary flights over the mountains or the desert and even more so at night, when there’s more magic to a voice reaching you as you bore through the clouds or a black sky in a small plane, when the instrument lights reflect dimly in amber and green and blue on the window and there is a depth to the darkness beyond that is like nothing you ever see on the ground. What a privilege it is. It places you on a scale that leaves you in no doubt as to how tiny and insignificant you are. Sometimes you see clouds ahead, or all around you, and see another airplane miles away, and that plane is nothing but a gnat, and you know you are nothing but a gnat, too, flying among mountains twice as tall as the Himalaya.

One storm came up in a way I had never experienced before. It was along a dry line in Texas, a place where atmospheric conditions mix in the ideal way to feed high-power storms. One large cell was off my left wing and another to the right. I had plenty of room. There was another cumulus cloud building ahead, but it didn’t look like it was going to be a problem. Within a few minutes, while I approached it, it grew into a spontaneous mountain nearly 60,000 feet high, as if it were a time-lapse film of a thunderstorm growing. The returns on the GPS’s radar display went from green to yellow to red just like that. There was nothing to do but to turn around — the only way to do any of this is never to leave yourself without a way out, a lesson I now wish I had taken more to heart  — and land at Odessa, Texas and spend the night there, lying on a bed in a motel waiting for the hearing in my right ear to return from the beating it took in the open cockpit from the prop wash on long flights, studying sectional charts for the details of the terrain ahead and thinking about cell phone towers and falling through the air.

These days, no longer allowed to fly, I find myself looking at the radar returns more intently than I did back then. Instead of NexRad on the GPS I see them on a cellphone app, and instead of an open-cockpit biplane, it’s to see what’s coming for Roo in this tiny camper. I don’t know if it would be better not to have the information. But there it is, and I stare at the damned thing all the time, especially when it gets critical, the way it is now. 

We’re expecting three days of thunder, and it’s just coming on now. I watch the screen to see if there’s going to be enough of a break to get Roo out to pee (there isn’t, and she won’t). Roo can’t be left alone with her paw wounded because if I’m not with her she will in her panic try to dig a hole in the dinette seat and it would tear her stitches open. So I have to time showers, trips to the store, getting her out and fed, everything. All around thunderstorms.

Dr. Stokes called yesterday to schedule taking her stitches out and I had to to ask him if we could make the appointment when the predictions firmed up a bit, because Roo would be unmanageable if there was a thunderstorm when she had to go there. Getting her in and out of the car would be impossible, getting her inside the office out of the question, and then she would just flail wildly. How could anyone be expected to take eight stitches out from the webbing between her toes with her like that? Staring at the radar and the predictions, it looks like there might be a break on Thursday afternoon. Dr. Stokes said if the wound looks sufficiently healed, he’ll take them out then. If not, it’ll have to wait until Monday. I could do it, but better to have her see the doctor for proper followup.

Meanwhile, it’s going to be a rough night for the Kahoo. The first of the thunderclaps just landed. There’s no turn we can take. 

We have to fly into the storm.