This Side Up

Planes are the scary part about flying


“Charlie delta zero three five five.”

“Zero three five five,” Howard repeated as he set the digital display in front of me. It was one of scores of instruments in the cockpit. I had a rough idea of the purpose of some of them. Temperature, oil pressure and fuel tank gauges were obvious. Directional heading and altimeter didn’t need explanation, but what on earth was 0355?

The muffled sound of the engine filled my head. Providence tower had no more immediate directions, so I felt it safe to question Howard. I pulled the microphone from the headset close to my mouth and spoke.

By setting 0355 we would be identified by that number on control tower screens as long as we were in Providence air space. And, pointing to another number, Howard said we were in that sector of Providence air space, which on the charts looks like a purple watermark with Green Airport at its center.

At that moment there were two Providence sectors. That grew to three as air traffic entering Providence control increased five minutes later. At especially busy times, there could be five to eight sectors, Howard said.

I scanned the horizon. In the distance, beyond the fuel tank farm on Wampanoag Trail, a band of white smoke rose.

“Looks like a fire in Seekonk,” Howard’s voice came through the earphones.

After Howard said what scares him most about flying, I wasn’t worried about a fire 20 miles away. If the Providence tower just added a third sector, that could only mean more air traffic. Where were the planes?

I looked to my right and ahead. Rhode Island stretched before us. Providence was in the distance. We were 2,900 feet above 95, like a ribbon, weaving patch quilts of housing developments, farms and forest. The URI campus was perhaps five to seven miles to our right, and beyond that, with the sun reflecting white, was Narragansett Bay and the bridges.

Before taking off, Howard had said two things worried him about flying. I thought for sure that having the engine die or storms would be at least one of them.

“Being hit by an airplane I don’t see,” he said, naming the first, “and being hit by a plane I see.”

With that, and knowing air traffic had just increased, I looked for airplanes. There was nothing, although one of the screens in front of me, no bigger than a postcard, showed a line parallel to our flight path. There was something out there. Howard wasn’t perturbed, so I guess I shouldn’t have been.

Flying was not what I was planning to do Saturday. I expected to be wielding a broom, a paintbrush or hammer as members of the Narragansett Yacht Club in Riverside readied for another season. The tiny clubhouse – it’s a single room unless you count the head – was locked. The docks were empty. No one was to be seen. I had that feeling I had misread the e-mail and that the work party was actually next Saturday. It’s rare that I’m early to an event, but that appeared to be the case. It turned out to be fortuitous.

Howard McVay lives close by, so before heading back to the West Bay, I thought I would at least say hello. I pushed the button on the intercom. His voice answered almost immediately. He was in his second floor office with a great view of the bay.

“I’ll be right down,” he replied.

Moments later, he was brewing coffee and updating me on family news. His wife, Fran, came in from her attack on yard vines and overgrowth to give me a hug and cut me a generous slice of home-baked banana bread. A friend, Joe Sheppard, a recently retired boating pilot who had since moved to South Carolina, was a houseguest.

“How about lunch on Block Island?” Howard suggested. Also a boat pilot, I knew that Howard had taken up flying in the past several years. He has a plane at North Central Airport.

The plan was hatched that quickly.

Howard went off to check weather conditions and file a flight plan. Soon after, the three of us were on Route 146 on the way to North Central. Fran stayed home to tackle the garden vines.

Hardly an hour later, I was ordering a BLT and a Coke at Bethany’s, the restaurant in the Block Island Airport. We weren’t alone. Others had flown in for sandwiches and burgers served in plastic baskets with a bag of chips and slices of sweet pickle.

On the way back we stopped at Westerly to fuel up and then made a beeline for North Central. It all seemed that easy and it was all that close.

Now I scanned the sky looking for traffic. We flew over the state landfill. At 2,900 feet it looks like it could be a ski slope with its ring of roads. The air was fresh. I didn’t see a single seagull. How deceiving.

I searched for planes.

“There’s one there,” Howard said, “about 12:30.”

I looked and looked.

“Just below the horizon.”

Finally I saw it, a distant tiny white cross skittering across the leafless trees of Lincoln. The plane was on the downwind leg of its approach to Runway 23. There was comfort in knowing where it was. We followed her course.

Howard eased back on the power. We were on the final leg. The plane glided. The ground grew closer, the white center line of the runway bolder. The stall buzzer sounded, we touched down softly and Howard turned off the runway.

I can think of no better outcome to misreading an e-mail, or for that matter, a better way of ordering a BLT.


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