Tuesday, September 12, 2006

How I, a Deaf Pilot, Turned an Idea into an Adventure of Lifetime - Part II

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(Continued from Part I)

Five and a half hours later, I arrived in Kansas, tired but elated. A handful of deaf pilots were on hand at the airport to welcome me. I felt right at home.

Throughout the week, we flew to different locations, including Amelia Earhart’s birthplace. On most of those flights, one or two passengers was usually on board to share in the cost of flying the airplane. Although Kansas is well known for its thunderstorms during the summer, we were mercifully spared and got to do almost everything that was on the schedule.

Everyone had a great time and the week flew by all too quickly. Soon it was time to go separate ways and return home.

Fortunately, I would be getting a little tailwind on the day of departure and because of that, I decided I had enough time to make a stop in Illinois to visit with a fellow pilot before continuing the rest of the way.

After flying for about two hours, my friend greeted me at the Illinois airport. We spent the afternoon catching up and ate a delicious lunch at his house. At one point, I glanced at the clock and realized it was getting late. It was almost 5 pm. I still had another 3 hours of flying before arriving at my home airport and I wanted to get there before sunset. At that time, I was not yet comfortable flying at night. I was still a relatively new pilot and was not ready to stretch my comfort zone.

My friend quickly took me back to the airport and dropped me off. After refueling and getting a weather update, I was back in the air, climbing to 7,500 feet, heading east. I dodged low-level clouds here and there and motored on for two and a half hours, enjoying the scenery below me.

Based on the GPS, I could see that I was not going to make my home airport before sunset. I began making preparations to land somewhere for the night. Looking through my list of alternate airports, I picked one that was only 45 minutes away from my final destination. I keyed in the airport identification (KOEB) into the GPS and punched the "Direct To" button.

Thirty minutes later, I saw the green and white rotating beacon of that airport. The sun was just about to dip below the horizon, plunging the entire area into darkness. I knew I made a good choice to land there.

Circling above the airport to check the position of the windsock (to determine the direction of the wind), I made an uneventful landing on the appropriate runway. After landing, I taxied over to the terminal building, looking for a place to park for the night. My intention was to go into the airport lounge to sleep on the couch and then fly the rest of the way home the next morning.

But the problem was I couldn't decide whether to stay put or continue my flight. I was having an argument with myself over this. After all, I reasoned, it’s only another 45 minutes to my home airport and I have to make a night flight sometime - why not tonight? The weather was gorgeous with clear, calm skies.

It was very tempting but something told me not to push it. Reluctantly, I picked a spot by the terminal building and shut down. I would later find out it was not the best place to park.

Stepping out of the airplane, I noticed it was eerily still in the cool, damp air. Not a single soul was around. It was a weird feeling being by myself at such an unfamiliar place.

Most small airports have a combination lock on their buildings to prevent unauthorized people from entering after-hours. Only pilots had access to the combination because they knew where to look for it (the airport facility directory). That way they could stop in for a vending-machine snack or catch a quick nap before continuing on with their flights.

As I approached the building, I was shocked to see it did not have a combination lock. I could have sworn the airport facility directory mentioned this place had one. Upon closer inspection, I could see the door was bolted from inside! Perhaps I was mistaken.

A million thoughts ran through my head, "How am I going to get in?" "Where am I going to sleep tonight?"

My first reaction was to check the front entrance to see if it had a combination lock.

No such luck.

Taking a deep breath, I surveyed the area. The gravel parking lot was illuminated by the moonlight yet completely devoid. The road that ran alongside the airport was pitch black, overshadowed by towering pine trees on both sides. There was nothing for miles around. I was the only breathing soul there.

I decided to try one more time to get in the building and made my way to the back door again. Aggressively rattling the doorknob, twisting and pulling, it would not budge. Peering inside, I could see the faint outline of a couch. How I wanted to get in there!

Slowly turning around, I stared at the small airplane.

It was going to be a long night.

To be continued..........
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