Just Another Cessna

I. Out of the Blue

There we were, up northeast of Everett in the club’s Cessna 310, an early model with the original square tail and an orange-ish paint job.  If you remember Sky King from TV, this is what the Songbird looked like (the second version, not the old T-50).

In the front were Dave and Bob.  Bob was an experienced pilot who showed up at Issaquah one day and quickly made a name for himself, becoming a towpilot, my glider student, (the only person I ever signed off for an instructor checkride), and then my instrument instructor.

I was in the back seat for this flight, so my logbook provides no details. Can it be that Dave was just now preparing for his multi-engine checkride?  The program seemed pretty thorough.   I remember a simulated engine failure, a drag demo (where we compare the aerodynamic penalties of flaps and landing gear), and then some practice instrument approaches at Paine Field.

Our airplane’s registration number was N3400B.  At one point in talking to the tower, Dave read back a clearance or missed-approach instructions or something, and rather than ending his transmission “Zero-Zero-Bravo,” as the situation required, instead, out of habit, he said, “Two-Niner-One.”  Everybody else, including the controller, immediately understood what had happened:  that number was the abreviated call-sign for the Cessna 172 that we were accustomed to flying around in.  It was a popular plane, and no wonder — it was in nice shape for a club aircraft and had several amenities not available in most rental Skyhawks — a built-in intercom for example, and a panel-mounted stopwatch with a push-button on the yoke.

We were in the area for a while and sometimes the controller would address us playfully as “Zero-Zero-Bravo-or-Two-Niner-One” or vice-versa.  On maybe our last trip around, we were rapidly coming up on a transition point and Dave keyed the mic and said, “Zero-Zero-Bravo expecting a turn” and the tower replied something like “Zero-Zero-Bravo turn right heading such-and-such to intercept the localizer etc. etc.” and then explained, “If you were in Two-Niner-One you wouldn’t be there yet.”

II. My AeroFlight Checkout

On a Friday evening late in 1988 we were gathered on the ramp at Boeing Field.  Some months had passed, because by now Dave had bought a twin of his own, a 400-series Cessna, probably a 401.  The rationale for this purchase was that the plane would provide a test bed for the laser-based landing system that he was developing and hoped to sell to the Navy. To help pay for its room and board, Dave had the plane on leaseback at AeroFlight, though it was not getting rented out much there.

It’s a shame to see an airplane just sitting around, so Dave and a fellow named Cliff had come up with an excuse to fly the twin to Ephrata, a hundred and some miles away.  There was business involving another aircraft that fortunately required their presence.

In a plane this size, that proposed mission would mean a lot of empty-seat-miles. The person slated to fly the plane back to Seattle after dropping off Dave and Cliff would be an AeroFlight instructor, so why not take me along to get some multi-engine training on the return trip? And while we’re at it, why not invite my new girlfriend, so that she could see just how glamorous life was going to be, hanging out with accomplished aviators such as Dave and myself?  I called Alex, whom I had known for about three months, and lured her down to the airport.

And so it came to pass that on this particular evening all these characters boarded the twin, were strapped into their various seats, spoke quietly among themselves, and waited for the magic of flight to commence. The reading of checklists gave way to the throbbing of internal combustion engines.  But then, after a few moments, the throbbing ceased and the explanations began.

Each of the two engines had its own alternator, but one of those had failed to come online after its engine was started. Good sense, and sometimes FAA regulations, suggest not beginning a trip with an aircraft that has already lost some of its redundant equipment. With varying degrees of disappointment, the characters now disembarked.

So there we were, standing around the AeroFlight lobby.  We were joined at some point by owner Mike Reid.  I had met Mike maybe once — he bought my lunch at the Blue Max, over in the terminal building, on the day that my former student Willi introduced us, so my opinion of him was quite favorable. But I was not yet a customer of his. In these days AeroFlight would sometimes take over the scheduling of our club aircraft in the absence of our officers; but the Flying D was still thriving, up at the other end of the shorter runway, so we were more like competitors.

There were plenty of other airplanes tied down outside, visible to us through the big windows; and since Dave was still on the schedule, Mike still owed him a ride across the mountains.  Especially since AeroFlight was responsible for maintenance on the twin. The instructor had probably wandered off by this time, and eventually attention turned toward me.  A new plan began to form. We could take a 172 to Ephrata instead, and I could fly it back, this not being considered a demanding task. Alex would not accompany us, since, let’s face it, the glamour quotient was beginning to dwindle by now.

The minor sticking point was, though Mike knew me slightly, his insurance company did not.  Anybody, no matter how famous, who wanders into the local FBO and wants to borrow a plane expects to have to ride around the patch with an instructor, demonstrating a knowledge of Which Knob is Which, so that the required paperwork can get filled out.  I didn’t know of an easy way around this.

Mike looked at me for a moment, and then turned to Alex and said, completely deadpan, “If he doesn’t come back, burn his logbook.”

We were off.

III. Night Flight

So here we now are, the Cascades behind us, past Ellensburg, me and Dave and, in the back seat, this fellow Cliff, previously unknown to me. Their hurry to get to Ephrata is because of some scheme involving the purchase and/or transport of another aircraft, a Pitts S-2 I’m thinking.

It is late at night. Maybe these guys will sleep at the Seattle Glider Council clubhouse and continue their errand tomorrow; I don’t recall.  I’m along because this 172 that they rustled up at the last minute needs to get back to Boeing Field before then.  It is mid-December, calm, cold and startlingly clear, a reminder that flying in the dark can be one of the greatest of life’s pleasures.  Between us and the nearest stars there is no obstruction to visibility.  The Earth is similarly black, a carpet whose texture sometimes reveals little handfuls of glitter.  Dave is saying something about the lights at Ephrata and after a moment I realize that I”m gazing at Wenatchee instead. A good idea to have somebody else along to see that you end up at the right spot.

Next, we’re down and clear, stopped on that very familiar Ephrata tarmac (other nights, I’ve slept under my glider wing here).  Maybe I go inside, but at least I trade seats and after the farewells I start the engine again and taxi past the tetrahedron and out to the threshold of Runway 21.

Ephrata is a big airport, geographically.  It had been an Army air base — I knew a guy who flew B-17s here.  In the summer, during the day, it’s busy with gliders and aerobatics contests, but now there’s nobody around.  You could walk the length of the runways and no one would know.   No control tower, too late for Flight Service, I’m not required even to turn the radio on.   It’s always fun to Talk Like a Pilot though and so I reach for the mic;  but as I glance at the instrument panel I notice that I can’t find the airplane’s call-sign. Either the little plaque has fallen off or it’s tiny or grimed-up. Where are my reading glasses? My little flashlight?  Expecting to be a passenger, I haven’t brought all of my kit.

I take off and climb back into the night.  I rummage in the glove box and then the seat pockets, expecting to find some clue about the plane’s tail number, like an aircraft manual or a squawk sheet. The problem is, calling up the tower back at Boeing will be awkward unless I can tell them who I am.  Who flies an airplane with no idea which one it is?  My back-up plan is to land at Wenatchee, another uncontrolled airport, then step out and carefully note the tail number. But it’s late and I’m tired, and the descent, landing, taxi and take-off loom in my imagination as great obstacles.

Another idea takes shape. If I can’t see my registration number, well, neither can the tower. How about when I get there I call them up, using a fictitious but plausible call-sign, and within ten minutes the whole business will be finished and nobody the wiser?  What are the risks of getting caught?  I’m reluctant to lie, but I’ve never been exactly keen about gabbing either.

I try to imagine a call-sign that will work.  It mustn’t be a number that they will recognize as belonging to a different sort of airplane — I’m sunk if I happen to give them the number of a famous bizjet or a courier they talk to every day. Plus, this needs to be a nom de vol that I can easily remember, or else I’m likely to tip my hand at the start.  I have the better part of an hour to think this over.

Out of the mountains again and flying west along I-90, I begin to feel confident.  Over Issaquah I turn my attention to the radio.  There are four controller positions at Boeing:  Eastside (short runway), Westside (long runway), Ground Control, and Clearance Delivery.  This time of night the short runway’s closed and they’re all the same guy, and I will talk to him on the first two or three of these frequencies by turn.

Before that though, there’s a test to see if I’ve got the current airport info, so I dial up the Automatic Transcribed Information System. On this frequency there’s at least one recorded weather observation for each hour, and their names cycle through the last half of the alphabet (Sea-Tac gets the first half).  Let’s say that their most recent broadcast is called “November.”   By the time I pass the eastern shore of Lake Washington I have pared my story down to maybe twenty syllables, the first one there mostly just to break the squelch:

“And Boeing Tower, Cessna Eight-Zero Two-Niner-One, North Mercer with November.”

Notes:

  1.  Fairy tales begin, “Once upon a time. . . .”  Sea stories begin, “This is no ****.”  Flying stories begin, “There I was . . . .”  This one is copyright 2020 by Scott C. McKee, all rights reserved.
  2.  There was another alternative for arriving anonymously at Boeing, though it didn’t occur to me until decades later.  Aircraft without radios still sometimes showed up — NORDOS, in FAA parlance.  The procedure was to join the traffic pattern cautiously and wait for signals from a “light gun” always at hand in the tower.  I’ve actually done this at Boeing on two other occasions.
  3.  Really, the plane in question was N53483.  Interestingly, I don’t think I even remembered the “Zero-Zero-Bravo-or-Two-Niner-One” episode until this was all over.
  4. I knew of a guy who thought it would be fun to do a touch-and-go at SeaTac in the middle of the night.  There was no prohibition against this, and the tower happily went along, but some time later the owner of the airplane that he was flying received a bill from the Port of Seattle for a landing fee.  Seems it was only $25 at the time, for a small airplane at least.  Our story suggests that a practical joker could have had some fun with this; but also that sometimes there’s somebody actually taking notes.