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Grounded

by Michael C. Keith

 


                                      Like strips of the sky fallen through me on high...
                                                                               
–– Percy Bysshe Shelley

The view of the lush forests and snaking rivers from thousands of feet up delighted Glen Furman. He had wanted to experience this his whole life and was finally able to after acquiring his pilot’s license at age fifty-seven. It had been a challenge for him to pass the more technical aspects of the exam––American history was his subject––his forte––not aeronautical navigation. But with the help and patience of his trainer, he had managed to answer enough questions correctly to solo in his slightly used Cessna Skycatcher.

“There go our insurance premiums,” his wife had half joked, an edge to her voice.

Marion Furman was happy that her husband had realized a dream, though she was no fan of small single-engine planes and had tried to discourage him from attending the local flight school. Her objections fell on deaf ears, so as he began taking the course, she ceased her harangue. Although not a particularly religious person, she prayed that his new passion would not lead to disaster.

As the months passed, Glen logged many hours in his beloved aircraft. It took much cajoling, but he eventually convinced Marion to join him on a short flight over Blue Hill. To her everlasting satisfaction, the short trek went without a hitch, and she gained an appreciation for her husband’s newly gained skills as a pilot. He genuinely appeared at one with his plane, and she took note of the pleasure it gave him to sit behind its controls and maneuver it through the air above the wooded trails they had hiked so many times. 

“How about joining me on an overnighter to Buffalo?” Glen asked Marion two days after her maiden flight.

“Why are you going there of all places?” she responded.

“It’s at the west end of the Erie Canal. I want to follow it and take photos for my class,” replied Glen, excitedly. “It’ll be a nice trip over the Berkshires to Troy, where the canal starts.”

“That’s a long way.”

“Not really. Take about three-and-a-half hours. We can stay near the airport. Maybe have time to check out Niagara Falls if we leave early enough. We’ll fuel up the next morning and be back home by early afternoon. What do you say, hon?”

“I don’t think so. I’m not ready for that kind of trip in your plane. Are you sure you are, Glen?” asked Marion, with a note of concern.

“It’s an easy flight. Really just follow the New York Thruway all the way. Good forecast for the next few days, too. No head winds to bounce us around.”

“I’ll sit this one out. You go. I’ll live the experience through your photos, okay?”

Glen looked forward to including airborne pictures of the canal in a PowerPoint presentation to his 10th graders. Each year he lectured on the great waterway and he had written a short piece on it for the Sunday travel section in the Brockton Times. It was his hope the newspaper might be interested in a pictorial essay highlighting the major locks in the canal.

“Just be careful. The grandkids don’t need to lose their only remaining grandpa,” advised Marion.

“Promise,” replied Glen, relieved.

He had thought his wife would pose much greater resistance to his proposed flight, but he was disappointed that she would not join him.

“We could go back to the same inn we stayed in on our honeymoon,” he appealed, hoping she might change her mind.

“Wonder if it’s even there after thirty years.”

“It is. I checked online. So what do you say?”

“No, I’d just be a nervous wreck and ruin the trip for you. I’ll meet you at the airport when you return home,” offered Marion.

Two days later Glen submitted his flight plan at Mansfield Muni Airport and took off on his first long distance trip in the Cessna he had dubbed Kehaar, for the seagull in his favorite novel, Watership Down. The day was bright and mild with a low wind out of the south. Perfect for flying, thought Glen, thrilled to be aloft and gaining altitude. Below were familiar landmarks: the center square in Foxboro, Gillette Stadium, Route 95 intersecting with the Boston beltway, Norfolk County Correctional Center located on the median of Route 128, broadcast antenna farm near Muzi Ford, and the Mass Turnpike, which he would shadow westward.

Within forty-five minutes Glen was over the Berkshires and its imposing ridges and rolling verdant glens filled him with awe. “God, this is so great!” Glen muttered, snapping pictures as he glided over western Massachusett.

In half-an-hour he spotted the entrance to the Erie Canal as it branched from the estimable Hudson River, and his excitement intensified.

“There she blows, Kehaar!” he whooped, triumphantly. “We’re at tide-water level at lock one, and it’s up and down hill through dozens more until the Niagara River. We got a lot of pictures to take”

Glen snapped away as he flew over the Waterford, Niskayuna, Glenville, Rotterdam, Cranesville, and Tribes Hill locks. He decided to have an early lunch before reaching the Randall lock some 16 miles ahead. For the occasion, Marion had packed him his favorite sandwich and a Skybar for dessert, which caused Glen to chuckle.

“Very clever. You’re something, babe,” he mumbled, taking a robust bite of his bagel and lox.

The brightly illuminated Garmin 300 Avionics control panel indicated he was cruising at 107 knots at an elevation of 6,000 feet. His fuel gauge showed 14 gallons remaining––more than enough to reach his destination. By the time he had finished his lunch, he was beyond Randall lock and over Canajoharie. While he knew that he could not show photos of all the locks to his students, he snapped away with abandon, figuring he’d include the most historically significant caissons in his PowerPoint lecture. Don’t want to put the little buggers to sleep, he mused, adjusting the altimeter to level the craft after his most recent round of photographing.

How many times had he traveled the Turnpike below? Must be at least a dozen, Glen concluded. Most, if not all of the trips, had involved picking up and depositing his daughter at Syracuse University, where she was an undergraduate in the Newhouse School. Both he and his wife had found the ride a pretty tedious experience, especially after bidding their daughter farewell at her dorm. They seldom spent the night in the city, finding it lacking in attractions. So it was five hours up and five hours back on a strip of road that was uninspiring at best. It looked so much better from the air, thought Glen, not that he paid much attention to it with the canal nearby

By the time he was approaching Rochester he had recorded fifteen more canal locks with his Canon Rebel T2i. His excitement was rising again as he prepared to descend for a closer look at the Erie Canal Aqueduct crossing the Genesee River. He regarded it as one of the most interesting points on the waterway because it was divided by the city’s historic Broad Street Bridge.  

While the Cessna banked left, Glen suddenly found that the airplane would not descend. There was no pitch at all. The existing elevation was maintained because the rudders would not move. 

“What the . . .?” he mumbled, attempting to adjust the elevators again and then again. “Oh, God, this can’t be good.”

He leveled the plane and quickly consulted its operation manual. For several anxious minutes, Glen fiddled with the controls but without a satisfactory result. The Cessna remained locked in at six thousand feet altitude. He then decided to contact the closest air traffic controller for advice, but there was no response to his message, although audio poured from the radio. He tried again.

“Nothing,” he groaned repeatedly, after waiting for a response to his mayday.

He checked the fuel gauge. It indicated slightly more than a quarter tank remaining.

“Shit! Shit! Shit! Now what?” he bellowed.

For the next several moments, he attempted to collect himself. A pilot never loses control of his emotions. That was an axiom drummed into his head at flight school. So get it together, Glen, he ordered himself. The plane would eventually and inevitably go down. Where and how though? He turned the Garmin multi-function display to its mapping feature calculating that his remaining gasoline would carry him another one hundred or so miles.

“Ontario. I’ll go down in Ontario.”

He throttled down to the lowest acceptable cruising speed to conserve fuel and continued to study the map on the screen. Lots of farm country around Stratford. Good place to crash and not kill anybody.

He was over Buffalo when it dawned on him that he had his cellphone.

“You dummy,” he muttered, digging it out of his jacket pocket. “Now lets see if it works.”

He hit speed dial and after two rings his wife answered.

“Honey, it’s me. I got a problem.”

“What’s the matter?” asked Marion, with trepidation.

“Well, I can’t land Kehaar.”

“Who?”

“My plane. The rudder control isn’t working. I’m trapped about a mile up and my fuel is getting low . . . real low.”

“Oh God. Isn’t there anything you can do?”

“I tried everything, sweetie, and it seems pretty certain I’m going to crash.”

“No . . . no, don’t say that,” said Marion, her voice cracking.

“I’m sorry. Tell the kids I love them. And . . .” Glen hesitated. “I want to clear my conscious of a few things, honey. You know I’ve always loved you, but there’s a couple things I need to get off my chest before I go down. I need to clear my conscience.”

“What, Glen?” asked Marion, between sobs.

 

“I won five-thousand dollars with a scratch ticket and didn’t tell you.”

 

“And . . .?”

 

Glen swallowed hard then he let it all out. “I had a thing with a coworker. Went to her house once, and we . . . well, you know. Only one time though. I quickly came to my senses. Stupid . . .really stupid thing to do. I’m sorry.”

“You did what?”

“She meant nothing to me, I swear. There’s something else, too.”

“Huh?”

“I lied about the cost of the plane. It was seventy-five thousand, not fifty, and I cashed in one of our IRAs to pay the difference.”

“Is that it, Glen? Are there more things you’ve been keeping from me? I don’t know what to say, but it’s too late to be mad now.”

As Glen began to speak, he lost the signal. Despite his repeated tries, he could not regain contact with his wife.

Not long after the gas gauge hit empty, the engine began to sputter. He was where he calculated he would be when his plane went down. The Cessna finally began to lose altitude and he clutched the stick tightly as it went into its descent. Soon he was gliding over treetops and passing an occasional farm. At one point the plane’s wing came within inches of clipping a silo. A wall of pines lay directly before him and it was there he figured he would crash. Glen braced himself for impact and heard the scraping of limbs against the plane’s underside. 

“Oh God,” he whimpered, closing his eyes.

When nothing happened he dared to look and discovered he had miraculously made it over the trees. Before him stretched a vast pasture that his landing gear was about to touch.

“Thank you,” he cried gratefully, as the Cessna rolled to a bumpy stop. “It’s a miracle. I made it...I made it! I love you, Kehaar! You saved me.”

Glen climbed from the cockpit and inspected his craft. There was no apparent damage other than a few marks where branches had made contact with the Cessna’s belly. It suddenly occurred to him to call Marion, but then he remembered his deathbed confessions and his heart dropped.

“Oh no,” he groaned, and then his cellphone rang.

“Glen, is that you?” asked Marion, anxiously.

“Hello, sweetheart. I’m okay . . . I’m okay,” answered Glen.

After an awkward pause, his wife spoke.

“Oh no you’re not..."


Michael C. Keith is the author of an acclaimed memoir, three story collections, and two-dozen non-fiction books. www.michaelckeith.com

 


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