The Five Hundred Dollar Burger

A high, thin whine was coming from somewhere in the front. I tried to localize it by probing under the panel with the mike of the second set of earphones. I suspected the vacuum pump. I landed in Winslow, Arizona after my first full day of flying. The vacuum pump hose didn't seem blacker than usual. I decided to deal with it in the morning.

It was seven, and there was no one in the flight office except a bunch of crash-test dummies, looking a little spooky. The door was locked. An Indian from the Mayfair Motel came out to pick me up. He told me he's going broke, that not enough people were coming through town. He charged me $19.95 for a room that had seen better days. I asked him which was better-the "Mexican Bar and Food" or the "Chinese Restaurant", both a stroll away from the motel. "I never eat out" he said. From the smell of the curry, I wished he would invite me to eat with him. I chose Chinese and watched a Navajo couple eat their entire meal without comment.

In the morning I had huevos rancheros at a Navajo diner. The man sitting next to me at the counter started talking. It was clear to me I better listen to him because he was in pain. Seems his wife is a frivolous socialite. He loved managing his pizza restaurants, she was on the verge of asking for a divorce. But the immediate problem is that his eighteen-year-old daughter ran away with her boyfriend, and he had tracked her down in Winslow. She was in an apartment motel across the street as we spoke. He knew his life was getting shaky. I told him the problem seemed to be the mother, not the daughter. He was relieved to hear that. Clearly, he loved his daughter. He told me he's from Front Royal. I told him I flew over his house two days before. And I told him not to be angry with his daughter. "Be grateful you found her." I left Winslow without doing anything to the vacuum pump. The buzz was gone, and there was not a cloud in the sky. The engine was running smoothly. I landed in Alexander, New Mexico for fuel.

I called a friend in Santa Fe on the chance he was there, and I could have lunch with him. A machine answered. I left a hello message. I flew up Monument Valley to get a good look at Shiprock. I took some photos, and soon I was over Prescott where I heard someone say on the radio "Prescott tower, this is Two Two Tango, leaving your area." I once thought that would be a good tail number.

Soon I was flying into the heat of the desert. I flew over Twenty Nine Palms and contacted SOCAL traffic control as Palm Springs was passing by on the left. I came in over Santiago Peak at 7500', the famous LA aviation soup nowhere in sight. Orange County was 8 miles away when the controllers handed me over to the tower.

I was high, and I came down fast and when I entered the pattern as I thought I was cleared to do, the tower came on in a voice with anger and panic, as if two heavies were about to collide. "What are you doing? Make a right turn now." I realized I had extended my downwind and was about to enter NAS airspace several miles north of the Orange County Airport. I thought I was number two on 19L. There was a 757 on final for 19R, and there was no other traffic on downwind in front of me that I could see, other than the Cessna on final. I turned right and asked for instructions.

"Circle the UC Campus". Something that looked like a campus was several miles away, and I flew in that direction. It seemed to me I was being directed to re-enter the pattern. After a few minutes of circling I asked Tower what he wanted me to do, and he vectored me into the downwind leg, the one I had just left. I was number three. I landed and taxied to the ramp. Shaken by my sloppy performance, I went over what happened. I was too high too close to the field when I was handed over.

I should have asked SOCAL Control to let me contact Tower about twenty miles out. On the other hand, Tower panicked when he could have simply directed me to turn right, go around, instead of vectoring me. He was working the heavies landing on 19 Right, and three or four of us little pesky guys on the left runway, so he was stressed. I think controllers like that should spend a few days in Oshkosh to learn about directing really dense streams of traffic. On the other hand, the next day in the LA Times I read that a Brazilian A310 veered in front of 747 coming into LAX. The Brazilian was setting up for a landing on the wrong parallel runway. That must have stressed the hell out of a bunch of people.

I finished sipping my Coke as my friend Dale pulled up in an incredibly white BMW. I was spending the night at his house, and he told me about Orange County as he navigated the freeway. "This used to be all Lima bean fields. Eddy and John Martin started the airport. Eddy was a barnstormer, and he was everything else you could be if you had an airfield. During the war he tested and delivered P-38s for Lockheed. My father knew both of them. Eddy once offered to take me up when I was a kid. Now this field is named after John Wayne, who tried to have the airport shut down because the planes taking off to the south flew over his house, which annoyed him."

Dale fixed us drinks and we cooled off in his pool. "You see that on my new roof? What kind of bird would do that?", he said pointing to a huge blob of white bird poop. "I don't know Dale, but if he was on a mission, he's getting the Distinguished Flying Cross right now. Can you reach it with your hose?" I replied. "Boy, I doubt it. Looks pretty high, I'm gonna have to tell the gardener to bring a ladder", he said. I was beginning to relax. Nothing does it like small talk with a good friend.

The next day I said goodbye to Dale and his wife Ann and departed John Wayne around noon. I wanted to be in Utah that evening when the light was right to photograph the desert landscape with a camera I had mounted on the fin of the Falco. It was the chief reason I went on this trip. My first landing was in Palm Springs, where my wife had FedExed my camera mount. Earlier when I had called her to tell her I forgot to pack it in the rush to get in the air, she said "Are you sure you want to be a photographer?" "Maybe I could just fly, and nothing else."

By evening I was in Utah over St. George, where the red Painted Desert begins. I flew low over the rocks, up canyons, over mesas. I did split S's to get the right angles. I worked and frolicked all alone. At dusk I landed in Escalante. There was a list of six motels and their phone numbers on a piece of paper taped to the inside of a phone booth. I called a number on the list. The number was disconnected. I called the other five numbers and heard the same message. Maybe aliens had taken over the town. I didn't want to find out. It was almost dark and a ridge near the runway was making me nervous. I got back in the Falco and took off for Page, the nearest airport. I cleared the canyon wall easily and climbed to 8000 feet. It was smooth, as only night flight can be. The lights of Page were shimmering sixty miles away. That twinkling glow is the best CDI there is.

Page was humming with tourists. I noticed the hum was French when eating dinner in a restaurant near my motel. Then I noticed everybody was talking more intensely than Americans would over a meal. The clothes were casual, but expensive. The T-shirts on the teenage kids were a little off, with strange messages like: "We Are Your Children and We Will Kill You When We Grow Up" or "America Best Gear Company". Back at my motel the woman at the desk told me the French were arrogant and demanding. The Germans not as bad, which surprised me. "But I guess their money is as good as anyone else's" she said. Behind her, high up over the counter wall was a large photograph of a solid-looking kind of businessman. The black-and-white print had been tinted brown and pink. "My husband founded this business, and it's been good to us. He passed away fifteen years ago", she said noticing my glance.

The next morning I took photographs of Lake Powell. As I was taxiing behind a Cessna 207, I noticed PATROL was painted in large letters across the wings. I called on Unicom "Cessna ahead of me, what does "patrol" on your wings mean? "We are with the National Park Service". Okey dokey, I thought. You ain't gonna catch me flying over your goddamn precious canyon, it's been photographed to death as far as I am concerned. And I flew east into the badlands of orange rock and a thousand other canyons that are in the heart of the Navajo nation. No tourists below me, no fanatics there whose rage would be stoked by one decibel of airplane exhaust. No nothing-just vast space and me in it, through it, over it, feeling like the eye of God on the day of creation.

By seven that evening I was in Bartlesville. I called on the radio about 25 miles out to see if anyone was still there. "I'm closing up now, but I'll wait for you," was the reply. "Are you gonna need the courtesy car?" The courtesy car. It never ceases to amaze me, that simple, artless desire to be helpful you find at most rural airports. Was the whole country once like this? Or was it always a special instance, the fraternity of airmen?

The next morning my TV was on at six. The weather channel folks were happily chatting up a storm. There was a classic weather pattern slowly spinning itself into a frenzy of wind and snow on the East coast. The Dreadful Noreaster. A noreaster with a possible blocking high-pressure area that could make it spin in place for days, like a stuck yo yo. So my last day was going to be a race. I had a meeting on Saturday. Here it was Thursday morning. I took off from Bartlesville by seven thirty, punched in PSF on the Northstar, just to get the suspense up, and settled in for a long day.

I almost made it. It was an easy flight without a single deviation, brushing St. Louis and Indianapolis airspaces. I had a light tailwind, but it was not enough. The ceiling turned 1500' broken, 3000' overcast in northern Ohio. That worried me because if the weather was marginal in Ohio, it was always much worse in Western Pennsylvania.

Soon I was in and out of snow showers, in and out of scud, flying as low as was-what's the right word?-prudent. I was hoping to break out near Scranton, then fly over the plateau into the Hudson Valley before the really bad weather came in. I began deviating to the south, following the hem of IFR conditions. I would see some clearing, and turn North, only to encounter snow or low cloud.

Finally I punched in "Nearest Airport" on the GPS, and started a one-eighty, in and out of cloud. I figured Williamsport was somewhere in a southerly direction, away from the crap. But names I didn't recognize scrolled by, followed by things like 1800' TURF. The Northstar is a wonderfully soothing instrument, but, I was finding out, not always. Finally, Williamsport came up. Distance 11 miles, heading 100 degrees. That information lowered the heart rate considerably.

In a few minutes I was calling Tower, on the ground, and in a hangar where I stayed for two days, while a spring blizzard raged in the Berkshires. Just like the happy heads on the weather channel said it would.