Sylvia’s Mother Said
This three-part story was originally published in the November 2007 issue of Piper Flyer magazine.
Part One: If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother
Come back on the 26th of June for Part Three.
When my mother announced she’d be in Europe for a few weeks, I asked for her itinerary so that we could arrange to meet. She had an eight-hour day dedicated to traveling from Rome to Germany to see her family in Mannheim.
Cliff jumped into the conversation and told her that it was only a three-hour flight in the Saratoga, flying from Roma Urbe direct to Mannheim City Airport. The small airfields at Roma Urbe and Mannheim were clearly much more convenient. She could avoid all the lines and the security checks and the standing around waiting for something to happen. She wouldn’t even miss lunch.
He then told her I would be happy to fly it.
I panicked. I tried to come up with coherent arguments. Meanwhile, my mother was telling everyone how excited she was, stopping strangers in the street to inform them that her daughter was a Real Live Pilot and was going to take her flying and that it was more direct than a commercial flight and wasn’t even going to cost her a cent.
Cliff promised he would sort out all the navigation and planning: all I had to do was fly the plane. We could buy VFR charts there, meanwhile he’d plan it using IFR charts. The clincher was my son. He was so excited about going to see Rome and Grandma that he didn’t even complain about having to travel in the “little plane”.
By the time Cliff flew us IFR to Italy to meet her, I was almost excited. The views on the inbound flight were stunning. I stared down at the dusty Mediterranean coast, jagged and harsh against the bright blue water shimmering beneath us. Islands floated atop a glassy sea, tiny lighthouses on their edges.
My son sat in the back, playing his Gameboy and occasionally muttering “uh huh” when I told him to look out the window. Eventually he closed the window blind to keep the sun from reflecting off his screen. I gave up on him with a stern comment that when we were flying with Grandma in the back, he better pretend to be interested. He agreed and I left him in peace.
Ah, Rome! So beautiful and ancient and vibrant: you could never mistake this for any other city. We were thrilled with every minute despite the heat and the crowds of August. It wasn’t until the night before the flight that my fears came back to me: was I really going to put my mother and my son into that little plane? Did they really trust me to be in control of it? What if I lost concentration and twiddled the vertical speed knob counter-clockwise instead of clockwise, causing us to dive into the ground, ending up a fiery inferno on an isolated Tuscan farm?
These visions of disaster are a standard part of my pre-flight ritual. I have, on one occasion, twiddled that very knob the wrong way. The moment the nose tilted down, I disengaged the auto-pilot and tilted it back up. No drama, no fuss. I know the fear isn’t rational. But, still. My mother doesn’t like getting into a car with me driving but she was willing to climb into the plane? Was she out of her mind?
We arrived at Rome Urbe at nine, expecting my mother to arrive at eleven after everything was ready. The plan was to get away promptly and arrive in Germany in time for a late lunch. We were greeted by a tall man with a gray uniform and a scowl on his face. He asked what we were doing here. We pointed at the plane and smiled ingratiatingly but he was not so easily impressed. “Passaporto, please.” Italy and Germany are both members of the Schengen treaty, there are no border controls. Flying from Rome to Mannheim is like traveling from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Savannah, Georgia: a hefty dose of culture shock but no red tape nor official processes. We shrugged and complied but he didn’t seem satisfied. “Follow,” he told us. “Fill out.” Forms. Lots of them.
An hour later, we were still grappling with the paperwork. Our sour-faced friend had put every bag through the metal detector and been making ominous noises about searching the plane itself. A French pilot subjected to the same absurd treatment lost his temper in the heat, “Are we here not in Europe?”
Cliff dealt with the customs man while I dragged the luggage to the plane and did the walk-around. We were no further along when my mother arrived to be greeted with the same surly suspicion: what was she doing here?
I eventually convinced him that she was with us while Cliff continued to struggle with the forms. A embarrassed gentleman was at the desk trying to help. I asked him about charts for the local area. He explained that Urbe is split between two terminals and that I would have to go to the other terminal for that. And fuel? The man’s eyes widened and 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.
Part Three: Mother Told Me Not to Come