If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother

This three-part story was originally published in the November 2007 issue of Piper Flyer magazine. As a result, I received my first ever piece of fan mail – a reader asked if I could possibly put him in touch with my mother regarding a conference that he thought she might be interested in.

As an epilogue: My mother will be visiting Germany and Rome in August and I couldn’t help but notice that she’s already purchased commercial flights for the trip.

Heide is a highly respected literacy practitioner and researcher based in New Mexico. She is highly regarded within her profession and invited all over the world to speak at conferences. She crosses the Atlantic at least once a year and usually ties in the conference with a trip home to Germany to visit her family. She flies United Airlines when she can. She’s very efficient and likes for everything to be just so. She’s also my Mother.

When she told me she was going to be in Italy for a week and then a further week in Germany, I started making plans to meet up with her. I made the mistake of copying my boyfriend on the email with her travel plans. He immediately mailed her.

“Don’t book a flight yet – Sylvia can fly you from Rome to Mannheim.”

Er, Sylvia can do what?

My mother was thrilled. I went into an immediate panic with deadlines looming but Cliff soothed me, promising he’d do the footwork and phone the airfields and sort out the navigation and all I would have to do is fly the plane. How hard could it be?

I relaxed. Big mistake. A week before we were due to fly to Rome, I suddenly realized I had barely flown in the past few months. A look at my log book confirmed my fears: I had not managed to take off a measly three times in the past 90 days, the minimum required for taking passengers. The thought of telling my Mother that I wasn’t going to be able to fly the plane (or at least, not with her in it) spurred me to immediate action: I needed to get up in the air and fast.

The problem is Málaga. Málaga is “the only real airport of merit in Andalucía” and the fourth busiest airport in Spain. In 2006 they handled 13,000,000 passengers and over 125,000 flights.

To put this into perspective, JFK International Airport handled 42.6 million passengers with 25 miles of taxiway and four runways. Málaga has a single 10,500 foot runway with a single parallel taxiway. They are building a second runway, planned for 2010 but in the meantime, it’s a bit busy there.

As a result, Málaga does not allow circuits and have gone so far as to ban VFR traffic during the weekends. The simple solution is to go to Axarquía, the small airfield 30km northeast of Málaga where I did my initial flight training. That’s where all the light aircraft go for practice and I knew I was being unreasonable in trying to avoid it.

I’ve not flown to Axarquía since the flying school took the Cessnas away and I did my conversion to the Piper Saratoga. The airfield is surrounded by hills and the runway is 1090 meters (3500 feet) but it has a displaced threshold and thus the landing distance available is actually 637 meters (2000 foot) if you land on the numbers. This was fine for the Cessna 172s that we trained in but I didn’t fancy trying to get the Saratoga in safely. I knew it could be done: Cliff had taken me there just to prove it was possible. Even then, I closed my eyes as we appeared to race towards the trees at the end of the runway.

However, given a choice between admitting to my Mother that I’d let my license lapse and landing the plane on a runway with an LDA twice the minimum length stated by the pilot’s operating manual, the way was clear. We went to Axarquía.

Cliff relocated the plane from Málaga, a process that involved an hour of prep and 5 minutes in the air. I drove there so that we would have the car: we wanted to leave the plane at Axarquía for its 50-hour check. Also, I wanted to have lunch at Las Cruces, one of my all-time favorite restaurants which is near the airfield but not quite in easy walking distance.

During the week Las Cruces acts as a type of venta, a Spanish restaurant aimed at the working class offering what I like to refer to as “old-fashioned fast food” with a set menu that the waiter rattles off. There are always three starters and three main dishes – you pick one from each category and choose a drink: water, beer or red wine. Because there are so few dishes, your food arrives in minutes. At Las Cruces, they are a bit more up-market: they offer a third course of dessert, again with three options. After your food, the waiter reappears with a cafe sólo and takes your money: a set price of 8 Euros per person. I have seen them deal with difficult tourists who wandered in looking for an authentic experience and then want to personalize their dish: “Can I have chips with that? Substitute the vegetables with some salad, please!” I always cringe but the waiters take it with good grace and comply when they can. Las Cruces is off the beaten track so they don’t get too many tourists, the place is generally full of farm workers and truck drivers shouting jokes at each other as they make their way through the quick and hearty meal.

On Sunday, the scene changes to cater to the after-church crowd with a full menu and more traditional pricing. They run it with a single seating, you are expected to stay the afternoon. They have a huge outdoor barbecue which they fire up at noon with two people working through the dishes as quickly as they can. Lamb chops, slices of pork loin, beef entrecote. Grilled peppers, grilled cheese, grilled bread rubbed with tomato and olive oil. If they can put it on the barbecue, they will and everything is done to perfection.

But the Las Cruces barbecue is off-limits on a flying day: weight and balance would be seriously skewed after such a meal. I knew, deep down, that I shouldn’t combine flying and a three-hour lunch and that it wouldn’t quite be the same if I couldn’t sample their house red wine and so, with regret, we arranged to go in the middle of the week.

I drove up to the airfield and let myself in. There was a new banner draped across the fence advertising the flying school but the place seemed deserted. No one was outside at all. The television at the bar blared the local news into an empty room. A German Shepherd which I remembered well from my training (he ran across the runway in fright as I was landing from my first solo nav flight) was locked behind a chain link fence, watching me balefully.

When I had been here before, everything was organized by the instructors who had flown in from England. I remember them complaining about how lackadaisical everything was, shaking their heads at the street map with Málaga’s visual reporting points drawn onto it, finding out about the local airfields and where we could go for the cross country navigation or even just a few circuits. I hadn’t realized at the time, but they’d livened the place up immensely: from the moment I (or any other student) walked through the door, we were greeted and organized. As I crossed the dusty courtyard, it felt like a ghost town. Cliff had just touched down and parked the plane while I went in search of someone to talk to. I found a woman in the back office who looked unhappy to have been disturbed. I told her that I was planning to fly circuits and she told me not to bother her until I’d done them, then I could pay.

I’d rather hoped for an excuse to put this moment off but Cliff had thoughtfully refueled the plane in Málaga and there was nothing for it: it was time to get into the air. I got into the plane and remembered my first solo flight here: I spoke to myself, DJ style, throughout the circuit. “You’ll be just fine, Sylvia, they wouldn’t have let you out here if they didn’t think you can do it, all you have to do is get the plane up into the air, turn it around, and bring it back down.” As I remembered that first solo, my fear suddenly melted away. I’d been so worried about the short landing distance, the hills, the lack of a tower and blind radio calls that I’d forgotten the huge advantage that this airfield held for me:

I learned to fly here.

I spent 50 hours flying in and out of that airfield, compared to a few hours at any other airfield. I could hear Tom’s voice from the start: telling me to leave my hands on my thighs while I taxied to curb my urge to “steer” with the column, showing me where to pull off the runway and how to best angle the plane into the wind for my power checks without blocking access for other planes. As I took off I immediately heard him telling me that it was inconsiderate to fly too low over villages and that I should turn crosswind just a little bit early to avoid the buildings we could see coming up, the corner of Vélez-Málaga. I knew exactly where the circuit was, as if someone had drawn the lines onto the ground for me to follow.

I struggled a bit trying to get everything done in time for what is definitely a small and very fast circuit in the Saratoga but it was not a big deal – there was no reason for me to be nervous about the airfield at all. By the second circuit I was on top of things and Tom’s voice stopped nagging me by the third. I did two more for luck and then landed the plane just as the banner planes started to head out for their afternoon run over the beaches of Marbella.

My reward followed at Las Cruces. A cold glass of San Miguel, a bowl of picadillo (a soup made with chunks of Spanish ham and pieces of boiled egg) followed by a hot plate of pork in garlic. I was feeling pretty good about everything. In a few days, I would be in Rome, taking my son to see the Coliseum and the Vatican City. Cliff had plotted us a route over the Alps with a slight diversion so that we could fly over my cousin’s Bavarian bed and breakfast on the German-Austrian border which we were saving as a special surprise for my mother. Our destination was Mannheim, the city where I spent a good chunk of my childhood so I was sure I would have no problems finding the airfield, which was quite conveniently located just five minutes away from my Uncle’s house where dinner would be waiting.

What could possibly go wrong?

Part Two: Sylvia’s Mother Said

Category: Excerpts,

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