By James R. Walters, photo by Peter Skadberg
Captain Steve Acuff, a fellow T -38 instructor pilot, called me on the phone right after supper.
“Jim, you’re into civilian flying — where can I get checked out tonight in an aircraft that I can take right away on a cross-country to Emporia, Kansas?”
“Steve,” I answered, shaking my head, “Nobody in Lubbock, Texas is going to check you out at night and turn you loose on the same night. But what’s with the rush to get to Emporia?”
Steve explained that his friend Sheila’s father had just suffered a heart attack in Emporia, and she needed to be there right now. The airlines could get her from Lubbock to Dallas, but it would be the next morning before she could connect to a flight to Kansas, and that would just be to Wichita anyway.
I took a deep breath and said, “Okay, here’s the plan. I have access to a Piper Comanche owned by a friend. You go pick up your friend Sheila and then meet me at the middle T-hanger at Horton Aviation on the east side of municipal airport. I’ll be pulling a blue and white Piper Comanche out of the hanger.”
I beat them to the airport and had just enough time to check weather and file a VFR flight plan. After a quick taxi to runway three-five right, we are lined up for takeoff, looking down a dark strip of concrete with lights on either side. All checks are complete. It is a moment all pilots are well acquainted with. We have loaded an innocent passenger and are about to launch off on a journey planned on short notice, across three states in total darkness. Is the plan up to this? Are the pilots up to this?
Twelve hundred feet down the runway, the theory became reality, and we turned to take our first strides to the east, into a clear night sky as smooth as a glass of fine wine.
A certain satisfaction comes once the wheels are tucked up on a long cross-country whenever time is of the essence. I let Steve do most of the flying, to keep him occupied, while I pondered our course and eased the manifold and propeller back into their cruise settings. In the dark of night, that faithful old Lycoming engine settled into cruise like a cat curling up in her favorite chair. We droned on at 140 knots, pointed straight toward Emporia. No connections or plane changes needed, ma’am, this is executive aviation.
Two easy hours later, and we were hailing Emporia unicom, in vain of course. The small-town operators were already home catching the late show by the time we entered a wide base leg and dropped the gear. At least they left the lights on for us.
Beside the dark hangers, not a creature was stirring, but we did find a dimly lit phone booth that looked like something out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. She called and we waited, until her ride showed up and they raced toward the hospital. Then, feeling very good about the capabilities of general aviation, Steve and I returned to the air and headed southwest, to Wichita, in search of fuel and coffee.
“How do you know we’ll be able to buy gas at Wichita this late?” he asked.
“Steve, Wichita is the capitol city of general aviation. We could buy ourselves a whole airplane in the middle of the night in Wichita, if we wanted one bad enough.”
Sure enough, Yingling Aviation had a fuel truck waiting as we pulled in, and the coffee was less toxic than the Air Force stuff Steve and I drank every morning at home. In short order, the Comanche was again cruising over the badlands where yet other Comanches, the kind that preferred horseback, roamed more than 100 years ago.
Beacons winking at us from small town strips marked the passing of every hundred miles, and lonely farm houses actually looked pretty cozy down there amidst a sea of tall, dark grass, where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the sky is not cloudy all day.
Oh, we did see a few isolated thunderstorms along the way, prowling about like lions seeking their prey. They were too few and too far apart to be anything but paper tigers to us. We made a little dogleg around one, before we got too close. I reminded Steve of a phrase from Ernest K. Gann’s story, On the Beak of an Ancient Pelican, “Why trade this much peace for that much war?”
What is it about night cross-country that makes flight so real that it’s almost surreal? Even the same seat that’s cramped after a long bumpy ride in the daytime seems more commodious at night. There’s a gentleness to the air, and a serenity to the fewness of lights twinkling in the cavern of darkness.
A waxing moon had risen behind it, bringing a soft glow to the tops of the wings. The effect of this gave me a lightness of being. In the middle of a night like this, the whole world seems cleaner and more at peace with itself. Aloft at night, you can sense a kind of spiritual harmony between man and machine. I look down at the earth, but at night I don’t see the grime or sense the crime that so gripes the surface of this planet. Sailing along under the stars, captains of our own little ship, all is as it should be.
A reflection of the moon bouncing off the surface of a prairie lake caught my attention, and reminded me of a line from a Paul Simon song, “Moonlight shining on a midnight lake.” Below, all is as it should be. Aloft, it is also well with my soul. Let the moonlight shine, let the lake waters catch it and throw it back into the night sky.
Soon (too soon for me), we’re pushing the Comanche back into the middle T-hanger at Horton Aviation. It’s dead quiet out here, except for the familiar clicking of cylinders in the stillness. Steve hands me a check that will cover most of the cost of the trip, but who’s counting the cost anyway?
What price do you put on doing someone a favor, when the favor is flying cross-country over middle of America. Who’s actually doing who a favor here, on a night where moonlight shines off a midnight lake.
Jim Walters is a former USAF fighter pilot and instructor who lives in Littleton, CO. Jim is an active pilot with the Bell Ornithopters Flying Club.