It was a Saturday morning. Three days before, I had been under the illusion that the weather on the Gulf of Mexico in November could be expected to behave agreeably. The previous night should have clued me in as tornadoes hopped and skipped across Louisiana and Mississippi into southwest Alabama. I pushed aside the motel curtains and peeked through the opening at a dreary gray sky. Dialing up the pilot's Direct User Access Terminal on my laptop computer, brought endless bytes of data about the dreadful conditions. I regretted that I had asked Wesley to interrupt his morning sleep this early to retrieve me from the hotel. Sorting through pages of weather reports gave hope that the weather may possibly clear by noon. I met Wesley in the lobby and we went back to the room for one last update.
Instead of skipping breakfast as planned, we cruised over to the Cracker Barrel for a leisurely morning meal. We were lead to a table at the front window, where we ordered. We had known each other only a few months and took this time to get to know each other a bit better. As the 18 wheelers passed by our vantage point in the drizzle, my companion began to reminisce about his days driving trucks. Tales of truck stops, big rigs and the CB handle Boll Weevil brought visions to my mind, much like tales of pilots hopping from airport to airport. Soon I'd be on another one of those unfolding cross-country adventures.
We imagined the sky getting lighter along the horizon, but the grayness was playing a deceptive game in our minds. A trip up Airport Boulevard took us gently into the fog, revealing the cruel trick. Wesley graciously volunteered to entertain me as I waited to escape this cloud enclosed prison. We first stopped by the local Winn Dixie for groceries - it was his day to assemble his famous red beans and rice for the family's evening meal, but surely I would be on my way before it was time to partake of the masterpiece. We arrived at the family home to find mom and the boys on the way out for a movie. The girls would be spending the day with dad.
I quickly plugged in my trusty computer to secure the latest weather information. I couldn't believe the ceiling was still only 100 feet - but the forecast still called for improvement by 1 pm. We relaxed and watched the Weather Channel's depictions of a mass of clouds stalled perfectly over Mobile. The smallest southerly movement would allow me to escape for home. As we talked of trucks and planes and family, the clock crept slowly towards the magic 1 o'clock hour. Looking out the front window gave no clue as to whether the transition between sky and gray cloud was lifting. With anticipation, I called for the 1 o'clock report, to find the ceiling had risen to a height of only 300 feet - but the new forecast offered hope for 3 pm.
It was time for the chef to begin his meal preparation. As he combined his special ingredients - the red beans, the rice, the sausage, the onions, and the spices - I sat at the kitchen table, listening to incredible accounts of a father and his 14 year old daughter who had gone through the unimaginable ordeal of her having cancer in her right arm. I thought back to a night in a hospital with my daughter and a broken arm. I could not imagine that experience being repeated over and over for months and years. I could not imagine such a young family member having their heart and kidneys ravaged by chemotherapy drugs. I could not imagine having the bone cut out of one's arm and replaced with a poor fit from a bone bank, but the x-rays and scars were shocking proof. Yet there was no self-pity coming from this lovely lady. She was a sparkling survivor planning to go into medicine to help others. Once again the weather had forced me to stop long enough to see one of God's miracles.
I made my 3 pm weather call. Ceilings had lifted to only 500 feet, but worst of all, visibility was still 1/2 mile. I was beginning to get fidgety. I began making regular calls to the weather service, as if that would move the clouds. Suddenly at 3:20 visibility shot up to 5 miles and a few minutes later ceilings cleared up to 700 feet. We were making progress now, but the sun I was depending on to burn the mist away was sinking fast. As expected, the 4 pm conditions were back to 500 foot ceilings.
I made the decision to spend another night on the coast and sat down to enjoy my host's Cajun feast. It was worth the wait. After finishing the last bite, I made just one more call to FSS to "confirm" that I had made the right decision. To my surprise weather was now VFR with 500 scattered, 1900 overcast and 5 miles. The system had finally inched it's way south and the trailing edge was passing over us. Jackson Mississippi was clear. If only I could get away from the coast, I'd have a much better chance getting started tomorrow. I reversed my decision to stay. I hurriedly threw my things together and we were off to the airport, my host, his daughters and I. I only wished the weather was better so I could share an airplane ride with them before I left.
I could tell Wesley was apprehensive about my going. I felt confident about the trip, but understood his concern as he looked at the gray darkness. He asked me to call when I landed, which I gladly agreed to do. I had, after all just spent a day as a part of his family. The ATIS now had the ceiling back down to 900 feet broken, but I was sure the layers were breaking up only a few miles along my route. I asked for and got the Special VFR Clearance that I had usually avoided over most of my flying years. Was this get-home-itis?
It was a routine taxi and a northwest takeoff toward the disappearing sun. I leveled just under the overcast at 800 feet and got oriented, with the evening lights coming on below and my GPS for guidance. Departure vectored me to the west for incoming traffic. Barely 5 miles from the airport, the sky opened up and I quickly climbed into the upper room. 10 miles more and the layers below me completely vaporized. Minutes later I had a starry canopy and zoomed to 6500 feet in the night sky.
It turned out to be a smooth and beautiful night to fly. Stars above and lights below. A layer of haze drifted across the Mississippi landscape. Directly below me, yardlights and streetlights were clearly visible, but miles in every direction, over each southern city was a dome of luminescent vapor. It gave the appearance of futuristic domed cities on a strange planet. I had done the right thing. Jackson came into view but I wasn't ready to stop. Flight Watch said Greenville was clear and I had plenty of fuel so I drifted over Jackson, watching lower traffic criss-crossing the city.
Approaching Greenville, the low level haze became more dense. Still lights were clearly visible below me and the blobs of light covered each gathering of humanity. Greenville's tower had closed an hour ago and I had no idea if there would be anyone at the isolated airport. I had never slept under my airplane wing other than at Oshkosh. Perhaps this would be the first such experience. The thought took me away to the stories I had read of the old-time barnstormers as I began my decent.
I was brought back to reality 10 miles out when I heard the voice of a female pilot landing at Greenville. Would she still be there when I arrived, or would she tie down her plane and be half way home by then? I began dropping into the top of the haze, knowing that for a time visibility in a horizontal direction would be very fuzzy. Then as quickly as the stars faded, the city blossomed into full view below. The dark airport several miles northeast did not reveal itself as quickly. My trusty GPS was called into service to pinpoint the landing field. Turning off the active runway we took the blue lighted taxi-way to the ramp among eerie patches of floating fog.
Upon arriving at the darkened FBO office, I saw the silhouettes of two people in the dark shadows. At least I was not alone. Walking across the cold ramp, I called Wesley on the cell phone and reported my successful landing. As I approached the pair of figures, the lady spoke first, in a decidedly British accent. She pointed at the sign on the door. There was a phone number for after hours service and a $25 fee. She wondered if we could split the service charge. The cold was beginning to soak into my bones and sleeping under the wing wasn't as appealing as it was a few minutes ago. I needed to buy fuel or get to a hotel, so I agreed and dialed the number. The man who answered said he'd see if anyone was available and call back.
I asked the lady where she was from and she confirmed my guess about England. I asked what it was like to fly in a different country, but found she was a student and had never flown in England. She and her companion were on a flight from Houston to Memphis and were unsure about having enough fuel to complete the trip. I took a closer look at the companion. He had a James Dean look about him with a leather jacket and a cigarette in his hand. He spoke only to her in hushed tones. I began to feel he was a foreigner as well, possibly French. The pair headed to their Cessna as I waited for the call. A frisky half-grown kitten, obviously the airport mascot, rubbed against the inside of the glass FBO door, seeking attention.
Soon the phone rang and I was informed Don would be on his way out. I walked to the TriPacer and began sorting out the items I would take to the hotel. Don arrived and unlocked the office he had left a only a short time before. As he did, the airport cat bolted from the door. I caught up with Don and suggested he fuel the Cessna first as they were going to be continuing their flight tonight. Then he may as well fuel mine too, as I would need fuel before I left tomorrow. The cat came back to the door and I let him in. My fellow travelers of the night headed for the back room where the vending machines and restrooms were located. The cat was in a playful mood and jumping at moths. A moth lit on the ceiling and he stared at it longingly. I held him up to the ceiling as he vigorously swatted at his intended victim, eventually snagging it with a claw. He looked at me as if to say, "Thanks for the flight."
Don came in and began fumbling with the credit card machine. He pointed out that he was the mechanic, but doing this because the "regular guy" was out on a flight. I asked about a hotel and he indicated there might be one on the way home. I started to think about the beautiful flight I had just had and about how this airport was near the Mississippi River, with the possibility of morning fog. After calling Flight Service and finding Little Rock to be perfectly clear, I asked Don if it would be easier to find a hotel at Little Rock. He thought so, but the "regular guy" was just landing and would know more. The "regular guy" was sure Little Rock would be much more convenient, so I was on my way.
I put my bags back in the plane and followed the Cessna to runway 36. I watched its flashing red beacon slowly disappear to the northeast as I banked northwest. This was literally the classic "two ships passing in the night". I climbed for altitude and watched the domed cities begin popping up on the horizon. Soon Pine Bluff was visible and I located the airport where my family and I had once witnessed a great airshow. As Little Rock came into view, the haze was thinning and the city lights twinkled in the cool night air. I noticed an array of towers and wondered if they belonged to fifty thousand watt KAAY radio, the mighty 1090 that many of us in the Midwest grew up with. I thought how Little Rock didn't look different from any other city with or without a president.
Little Rock airport had the full compliment of air traffic control facilities, with multiple approach frequencies and parallel runways. I wondered how busy it would be, but soon discovered that one controller and I seemed to be the only ones awake at this hour. After picking the appropriate rows of white lights, I plopped down between them, taxied to the ramp, grabbed my bags and met the FBO lineman coming towards me. He whisked me to a local hotel where I crawled into a warm bed and reflected on this Saturday in November.
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