Out of Pittsburgh on Southwest Airlines at dusk, somewhere a couple of hours short of my connection in Las Vegas. I’ve got Alanis on the headphones, which tells me that I’m emotionally exhausted – her voice is this quiet, comfortable place I tend to go to when I’ve run out of everything and need to hide for a little.
It has been an exhausting couple of days. You’ll recall that I said I was taking an unexpected side trip to Pittsburgh, but hadn’t said why. Pretended it was a cliffhanger, but I think it was probably me not wanting to jinx anything. Ah well.
Last time I found myself in Pittsburgh was an oddly emotional time. It was just last summer, and when we got on the plane home I felt, unexpectedly, like I was saying goodbye, letting it go. When we’d first moved there, oh 14 or so years ago, Devon and I had decided: it was the place we were going to raise our kids, the place we were going to grow old. We lived in Mr. Rogers neighborhood. Literally. It was a dream come true. And it didn’t work out. Less than four years later, we were packing up the moving boxes, giving up on the dream and going “home”, back to California. Devon and I spent a lot of time mourning the loss of that dream.
And then, unexpectedly, this last time through town, it was okay. Pittsburgh was the old flame who I could once again see and not feel those pangs. We could joke about the old times, the good times, and yet remember enough of the past not feel a longing to return to it.
So – what brought me back again? An airplane. No, that’s not what I meant, but technically, that’s also true.
But you remember the Deb? Our Beechcraft B33 Debonair, the trusty little four seat airplane that’s been “in the family” now for about seven years. We share her with a couple of other pilot friends, and she’s carried us up to Seattle, down to Los Angeles and San Diego. Out to Colorado, Wyoming and the Grand Canyon. She’s shuttled us to and from Tahoe more times than I can count. And always done it quickly, and in style. She’s a lovely plane and a delight to fly.
Problem is, as our family has grown, well, we’re starting to push up against some of her limitations. She’s not a young bird, but she’s got a new engine, modern GPS and digital avionics, and immaculate maintenance. She’s been well cared for, and it shows. But the kids have grown, and they don’t fit quite so well in the back seat anymore. They weigh a bit more, too, and taking off from Truckee on a hot summer day requires a little more calculation in terms of how we trade off fuel vs runway ahead.
Rich and Chris, my partners in the Deb, have been running up against these limitations too, so after some soul searching, we started looking around to figure out what would fit our expanded mission requirements. Turns out that the Deb has a couple of younger siblings that meet our mission profile beautifully (for you pilots on the list, I’m talking about the turbo-normalized F33A and the A36).
Well, a couple of weeks ago a Beech F33A Bonanza that looked like the cat’s meow showed up on the online markets. In Pittsburgh. We spent a bunch of time exchanging email with the owner over the past week or two, and got to the point where, well, someone had to go out, test fly the thing and decide whether to cut a check.
I want to be clear that this was not strictly a rational economic exercise. Yes, an airplane is a machine. It was riveted and welded together in some factory in Kansas. It’s just blocks of steel riveted to sheets of aluminum, stuffed with Plexiglas and molded plastic.
But pilots tend to be poets and romantics as well as engineers. It’s why we fly. I’ll wager that I’m not the only one who pats the spinner after putting my plane away after a flight and says – under my breath, so no one will hear – “Good girl. Thanks.”
The connection goes deep. According to the logs, our Deb, N9756Y – aka “Five Six Yankee” on the air – took her first flight on January 23, 1963, the day I was born a bit over 49 years ago. We’ve been flying her for a long time, and as I said, we’ve been some amazing places together. You don’t just start shopping for a new plane lightly.
Our mechanic had heard we were looking, and one day, when we were in the shop, was making a laundry list of planes we ought to be looking at. Rich confided afterwards, “You know, I don’t like talking about other planes in front of the Deb.” Neither do I Rich, neither do I. Like I said, we pilots tend to be romantics.
Anyhow, airplane shopping aside, the time in Pittsburgh was great fun. Between popping into Google’s Pittsburgh office, test flying the new plane and coordinating the pre-purchase mechanical inspection, I got to spend a bunch of time with my dear friend, mentor, and former hangarmate Jay Apt. It’s hard to overstate the help, support, guidance and encouragement Jay gave me and Devon during our worst days at the end of our Pittsburgh chapter, so it was a joy to spend time with him under better circumstances. Life has been kind to the both of us in many ways – we talked technology (he’s doing very cool research at the intersection of energy policy and technology) and we talked travel. We talked kids. And of course, we talked about airplanes, non-stop. Enormous amounts of fun.
I kept Jay apprised of every step as we moved forward with the F33A – he’d actually helped get the ball rolling by going out to have a look at the plane for us while we were still back in California (nothing gets a seller’s attention like having an ex-astronaut stop by to check out your plane). And he insisted that I stay with him if I came to town to look at the plane myself.
I had some conversations with the owner, and decided to flip my SFO return for a convoluted three-stop itinerary that would get me through Pittsburgh for a couple of days. Jay’s mechanic agreed to do the pre-purchase inspection. Jay’s been a Bonanza pilot from way back, and Dennis, his mechanic, knows these planes inside out. I landed in Pittsburgh on Monday afternoon and went straight to the Beaver County Airport to meet the owner. The test flight was great. Rich, Chris and I talked it over and agreed: unless there were any big surprises on the mechanical inspection, we were all in. The owner accepted our tentative offer.
And today? Today was the day. Dennis had gotten up to the airport at 8, and was going over our presumed new baby with a fine-toothed comb. I called around 11, before heading out there, for an update. He’d found a few small things, gear doors a bit out of rig, some old, minor hail damage. But no real showstoppers. Just had a few more things to check before he was done.
I grabbed my bags and threw them in the care, then headed west on I-376 with my checkbook on the dash. I was ready – ready to commit, emotionally and financially, to this new bird.
Well, the details aren’t particularly informative, but you can guess the punch line. Some time while I was on the road between point A and point B, Dennis found a showstopper. Owner was surprised by it too – looking at the logs, it’s not the sort of thing that he would have known about and tried to hide. No harm, no foul. But as I said, it’s an emotional journey, and we’re back to square one. At least we will be, once I make my connection in Las Vegas, land at SFO and get picked up by Devon (who gave away her ballet tickets for tonight to retrieve and nurture her emotionally spent husband).
But yeah, back to square one in the airplane department, starting to look all over again. Before I start, though, there’s something I’ve got to do. Before I look at any more listings or make any more calls, I’m going to go out to the Palo Alto airport and go see the Deb. Then I’m going to pat her on the spinner, and remind her what a good girl she is.