Plans A through D

It’s that kind of day at Sheble. Hot as hell by the time I roll into the airport at 6:45. “Senior” (what everyone calls Mr. Sheble himself) is in the back office raising hell with whatever’s gone wrong this time, while the Jared thumbs through the weather books for his upcoming MEI test. Lucas is already up with Bob, the official “CFI instructor”, getting the last-minute spin endorsement before his 9:00 checkride with Senior.

Lucas is a kid, just 18, but a good-hearted and earnest one. Plus, he’s third generation to flying – his father’s a captain, and grand-dad still flies bush in Alaska. He’s modest and nervous, but we all know that he can rope a com maneuver to test standards in his sleep. Still, a little bit of apprehension’s not a bad thing thing here – the CFI checkride is the toughest one in the whole book.

They taxi up just as I’m settling in to start writing my own, and Bob asks me to fuel ’79H for our own morning prep while he runs into town on an errand. I’ve never fueled a plane here, so I ask Danielle at the front desk what the protocol is. They’ve got an ATV tug pulling a trailer tank; I’ve not been briefed on how to operate it, but she tells me “It’s pretty straightforward – call me if you have any problem with it.” Uhhh, okay…

Perhaps straightforward for someone who’s grown up around ATVs, but I’m a bit nervous. Still, I don’t want to be a whiner, so I go out, straddle the ATV, and try to figure out what combination of switches I need to kick it into life. I fail.

Head in and grab Jared to ask him for a hand. He walks me through the steps, but there’s no joy on the starter – the battery is dead. Go to Plan B: maybe we can push start it?

I disconnect the trailer hitch and position myself to push. Jared rides the switches, and off we go. After half a non-productive lap around the ramp with me as the external propulsion unit, he switches to Plan C and steers for the Sheble Hangar O’ Surly Mechanics.

They glare as we roll up and he dismounts. “What?”, Mojo asks accusingly. Jared offers “Battery’s dead.” “Get off. Get out of my hangar. Now.” At first, I assume the Mojo’s joking, but Jared backs away quickly, leaving the ATV on the threshold. I decide that it sounds like the better part of valor to follow him.

I go back to the abandoned fuel trailer, and am working on Plan C.1 (how to get the plane fueled without the tug), when I see another student walk up to ’74H, open the door and toss his flight bag into it. Uh oh.

I decide that it’s time to find Bob and ask him to figure out what’s up. Technically, I’m the customer, and I don’t see any point in getting into an argument with anyone else paying for their flight training.

Turns out that Bob’s already ahead of me, and is engaging the Flavio, other student’s instructor in polite but slightly tense conversation on the nuances of airplane scheduling. We’ve officially got the plane, but there’s some contention on whether instrument students get priority in 79H, since it’s the only one with really good gyros at the moment. Eventually Senior intervenes, and I retreat to the classroom to let things blow over.

A few minutes later, Bob sidles in; we’ve been informed Ex Cathedra that we’re going to take 43H instead. No worries – I go to grab the “can” (the binder of documents legally needed onboard for flight), but it’s not in its slot in the office. Last pilot must’ve left it in the plane.

It’s not there, either. Bob joins the hunt as we start checking classrooms and countertops. By the time we make our second pass over the plane, Jared’s joined the hunt. The keys, normally kept in the can, turn up on the plane’s fuel selector valve, but the can itself is still AWOL. We start looking for whoever flew the plane last, but that information is in the manifest log which is, of course, in the can itself.

The instructors reach consensus that X was probably flying it last. He’s up with a student at the moment, but Jared reaches him on radio. After asking the suspected culprit to switch to company frequency, I try to make out the somewhat cryptic conversation. When it’s done, Jared shakes his head in disbelief. The can, legally required for the aircraft to fly, has been left at Laughlin airport, about 40 miles away. How is this possible? None of us are willing to speculate. One pilot in the briefing room asks “So why don’t you just fly 43H over to pick it up?” Silence descends briefly as we all look him over with a did-you-really-just-say-that-out-loud look, and Bob and I start looking for Plan D.

I find it first: 68U, the Cutlass, isn’t scheduled. Even though we won’t be able to spin it, it’s the plane I’ll be flying for my checkride, so I’ll take any chance I can to fly it. I grab the can (mercifully found in its slot in the office) and begin preflight…

…just as Lucas comes out from the back classroom. He’s aced the oral part of the exam, and now it’s time to demonstrate his flying chops. Which, of course, needs to be done in 68U, the only complex single-engine airplane on the line at the moment. No one scheduled the airplane for him, but there’s no way I’m going to begrudge him a moment here – I hand him the can and wish him luck. Not that he’ll need it; we already know that he’s impressed the hell out of Senior.

It’s now coming up on noon, and I’ve failed three times to procure an aircraft for the morning’s flight. I decide to call it an sign, and retreat again to the classroom. Ive made it through almost two more lesson plans (power-on stalls and minimum controllable airspeed) when Bob finds me again. Zero-One Hotel is fueled and parked by the side gate, ours for the taking.

Okay – once more into the breach! Bob and I head out with can and headsets in hand, and start ticking through the preflight.

Somehow, it feels cooler now – the heat’s broken: we’ve got a plane, and we’re really going to fly. My checklist reverie is snapped by the sound of thunder, and I loop up to realize that the “coolness” wasn’t just a state of mind. Dark, towering cumulus clouds are rolling off of Mt. Hualapai to the south, carrying a curtain of rain toward us in their wake. I take my hat off, bow to the aviation gods, and surrender for the day. One last time, back to the classroom to write lesson plans. Tomorrow’s always a good day to fly.

Lucas taxies in again. The smile says he’s finally realized that he passed. I congratulate him, settle back in, and realize that it’s been forever since I’ve updated the blog…

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