Mother Told Me Not to Come
This three-part story was originally published in the November 2007 issue of Piper Flyer magazine.
After spending over two hours filling out paperwork at the Rome Urbe airfield, I asked the one friendly person in the place for details about getting fuel for the plane. He looked at the clock. “It is Sunday,” he said. “They will leave at noon.” It was 11:30.
“You must hurry,” he told us.
Cliff dashed out to the plane and then came straight back with a scowl. The battery was dead.
We soon found the culprit, a light switched to the on position in the back. My son went pale. Connor had blocked up all the windows to avoid the sun glaring on the screen of his Gameboy and when he found he was sitting in the dark, he had turned on the overhead light. In the excitement of arriving, he had forgotten all about it. And now, the battery was dead.
He ran straight to his grandmother as the only person who might protect him from the lecture that was clearly due. I made a mental note to sort out a passenger check-list for the future flights.
Funnily enough, this took the pressure off as we now had no chance of getting away at a sensible time. We called the people at the gas pumps who expressed sympathy for our situation and arranged to send out help. They committed to staying until we were able to taxi over and get fuel, I was still going to be able to fly the family to Mannheim today. Just one issue left: I still needed VFR charts.
I invited my mother to join me in a visit to the main building to sort out the charts. A long-haired man in a rumpled shirt greeted us. This place looked much more like a general aviation terminal and he confirmed in very slow Italian that this was where in future all pilots would go, but not yet.
His English was minimal and my Italian worse. I waved my clip-board at him and he handed me a blank flight plan which I filled out quickly.
“The time? Do you have the time?” Assuming no further problems, we should be able to take off within half an hour. I tapped my wrist, the spot where my watch would be if I hadn’t lost it.
“Dodici,” he said followed by a moment of thought before he remembered the word in English. “Twelve.”
“No, it’s not,” said my mother. He frowned, wondering what he’d said wrong. “It’s two.”
“Two,” he repeated uncertainly.
“No, twelve,” I said. My mother frowned. “Zulu,” I told her and then more helpfully: “It’s the time in GMT.”
The man didn’t appear to be sure what the problem was. “Dodici,” he said, just to be clear. I nodded with a smile and then tried to ask him about charts.
I drew a rough outline of a boot kicking Sicily on the back of the flightplan with a little dot for Rome and a box around it. He smiled in comprehension. He led me to a table with a glass-encased chart of the area on it. It was beautifully done, clear VFR paths shown for all directions out of the airfield.
It was exactly what I needed. I smiled happily and told him I’d like one.
He looked at me in bemusement for a moment and told me I couldn’t have it.
I tried again: I want to buy one?
Nope. This was his map. It is there, for looking at.
He refused to part with it. I got a blank flightplan and sketched a more precise boot, with notes of our route and the visual reporting points we would pass. I just hoped I could find them again on the IFR chart.
I returned to find the battery charged and the plane fueled. The customs man admitted he had no further reason to detain us. Three hours after our planned start, we were finally ready to go but I was still nervous about not having the local VFR charts. I had tried recreating our route on the IFR charts, using the VORs to cross-check, but it wasn’t exact. I told Cliff that perhaps we should cancel the flight.
Hot and grumpy, he showed little patience: “Well, we could just never fly anywhere when we don’t have the charts.”
“Well, yes, precisely,” I muttered under my breath, with just enough self-preservation to ensure he couldn’t hear me.
On the other hand, I couldn’t quite imagine the response at the airfield if, after all the waiting and the jump start and staying on to get the fuel, I told them that, on second thought, I wanted to cancel owing to bad planning. I looked at the IFR charts and my notes again. It looked straight-forward and there were frequent VOR references for the route out. I was pretty sure I had it right and we had the GPS to ensure I knew where we were at any given time.
We flew at 2,500 feet, following their low-level routing as I watched for my landmarks and reporting points, some of which were marked on the GPS making it even simpler than I’d imagined. As we joined our flight-plan proper, I started to feel more confident.
“Yes, Mom?” She had been so quiet up to now, I was impressed.
“You are talking really fast when you are on the radio. It makes it hard to understand you, especially for non-native English speakers. You need to slow down.”
I closed my eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. I knew that her words were undoubtedly true but I really didn’t want to set a precedent of my mother helping me to fly over the next three hours.
It was surprisingly easy to understand the Italian guys on the radio. The only problem was place names, I’d never heard of most of them and finding them quickly on the map wasn’t easy. Report where? Pruja? I can’t find it! Ah, Perugia! I dove for the chart over and over again, ignoring my mother’s entreaty to keep my eyes on the road. Each time I found the place in question and we carried on, climbing in preparation for the Alps, the sun streaming in through the windows. Even Connor (still suitably chastised) looked out the window and pointed things out for us to look at.
We crossed the border to Austria and switched frequency to Innsbruck as we climbed to FL105. The view was astounding. Lakes nestled in dark green valleys surrounded by rough mountains glistening with snow. Glaciers loomed up ominously at us, too close for comfort. My instinct was to climb further but we couldn’t get much higher without needing oxygen. I stared, amazed and nervous, at the mountains so close to us; spell-bound until ATC interrupted me with my next reporting point: Brenner Pass.
I had been totally distracted with the view and panicked for a moment – unnecessarily, the pass was part of my route and clear on my map. But still I stuttered and by the time I had responded, we had already reached the pass. I immediately reported it. He sounded vaguely impatient as he asked me to report the Sierra VRP.
Busted – that was neither on the map nor marked on the GPS. I asked if I could report the Patscherkofel VOR instead please.
“Sierra is just south-west of the VOR,” he told me. “You should have a VFR chart with you.” I turned beet red. I could hear my mother shifting around in the back, clearly aware that I was being told off but not sure why.
“If you look down,” he continued. “you might notice there are mountains. It is dangerous.”
I struggled for a moment for the correct response. Affirm? Roger? Wilco? Nothing seemed right. “Understood,” I said after a moment. I prayed for another plane to cause a distraction but the radio remained silent: the other pilots in the air were no doubt grinning quietly as they listened to him reprimand me.
My ink pen chose that moment to begin leaking violently – my fingers and clipboard turning a deep blue. My friend at Innsbruck continued his lecture, this time receiving no response at all while I tried to minimize the staining. I wanted to make a note – “always bring pencil for high level flights!” but my pad was covered in ink. Innsbruck finally concluded the tirade with “report the VOR”. By now I had reached it. I reported this, leaving a blue fingerprint on the control.
We exited the pass and as we gently turned left the autopilot disengaged with a loud series of beeps.
I made sure we were straight and level and then checked – my dark-blue fingers weren’t anywhere near the button. The switch was in the correct position. I re-engaged the autopilot and it took control. Someone must have knocked it.
I was relieved when we switched frequencies to Munich and entered Germany, for which I had the correct maps. Then the autopilot disengaged again. Definitely no fingers near the button, the switch was normal. The electric trim was on, the power settings were correct. I re-engaged the auto-pilot. It disengaged.
My mother became very quiet as I cursed.
I was uncomfortably aware of how long it had been since I had needed to hand-fly the plane. Every time I spoke on the radio, I deviated 5 degrees or 50 feet.
We stuck with our routing but I was sweating, blue ink now smeared on my forehead.
Munich switched me to Stuttgart who cleared me to transit at not above 3,500 feet. I have not tried to fly a precise height since I got my license. Cliff volunteered to do the radio so that I could simply concentrate on keeping it straight and level. I glanced at him and realized that he had turned an odd shade of green: his offer was a desperate attempt to stop me pitching up and down like a rollercoaster.
I agreed and took the chance to check the gadgets again. I reset the electric trim and looked for any anomalies. I made sure I knew where we were on the map and shut down the GPS, resetting everything. It booted up nicely and the autopilot gave me a warm beep to say that it was ready, immediately followed by a series of jarring beeps as it disengaged itself again.
But without the distraction of the radio I was getting back into the swing of it, remembering the thrill of getting the plane perfectly in trim and letting go of the control – look Ma, no hands! She looked terribly disconcerted at my hands in the air, which made it even more of a pleasure. In no time at all we were over-flying Heidelberg and coming into Mannheim. We would arrive just in time for dinner.
As I focused on the approach, Cliff tried the autopilot and it engaged. I couldn’t help but take it personally, we were now ten miles out from our destination and I no longer needed it. I disengaged it and brought the plane in smoothly.
We parked by the terminal and my mother thanked me for a very interesting flight … but would I be terribly offended if next time she just went commercial?