1,000 FEET PER MINUTE

In the interest of getting to know who I am, I’m sharing stories from my life. I call them Preliminary Files and I hope you enjoy them.

OIL-GAUGEMemorial Day weekend…
The sky is ablaze with the morning sun and I’m feeling the urge to get out in it when the phone rings.

My friend Bill, who has never called before says, “How would you like a ride in my airplane in exchange for washing it?”

I always want to fly. From my first dream where I could fly with no visible means of support, I was hooked. And it just so happens, my calendar is clear today. How hard could it be to wash a private plane anyway? They’re not much larger than a car. So I agree.

The Brownsville airport is at an elevation of 1200 feet while standing on the ground. Brownsville, California is a small town in the Sierra Nevada mountains where I grew up. The runway is pure dirt and gravel. So Bill’s plane,which is normally a light shade of baby blue, has a dusting of red clay and pulverized granite along the undercarriage. I make a note of the potential labor on my way into the passenger seat.

Bill suggests we fly over the Feather River Canyon scenic wilderness area which will be a 45 minute ride. I’m so excited I can barely contain myself.

Bill asks me to open the passenger door. He says it gets real hot while you’re waiting for the engine to warm up. The prop is blowing hot wind into the cockpit and Bill finally yells, “Okay, go ahead and shut the door.”

We taxi the runway and just before the airport gives way to a steep drop off, we are airborne. We’re climbing 2,000 feet per minute Bill explains.

I’m watching the pine trees shrink below us as my solar plexus registers the sudden elevation gain. I can already picture vistas off in the canyon country just eight miles away as the crow flies. I’m happy as a clam and I turn to see how happy Bill looks, but I’m sorely disappointed.

Not only does he not look happy, he looks downright worried as he taps urgently on one of the gauges on his instrument panel.

Let’s see, I thought…
“Oil Pressure”
I wonder why he’s tapping on the oil pressure gauge?

Bill reaches behind him, grabs a headset and radios in to Sacramento (a good 80 miles to our southeast). “We’re at an elevation of 2,000 feet and falling about a thousand feet per minute. It looks like we’re going to have to do a field jump.” I hear Bill say. What the heck, I wonder, is a field jump?

Bill shares what is happening:
“We have no oil pressure according to the gauge. So I’ve shut the engine down. You can still hear it because the wind is rotating the propellers, but if the gauge is correct, the engine will soon freeze up.”

The steady hum of the engine, as though it was right on cue, goes completely silent and in it’s place, just the sound of air as our plane plummets toward the earth.

In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the oaks give way to the pines and fir trees at about the 1400 foot elevation. From Brownsville (1200 feet) down the live oaks are everywhere. As far as we can see, when we get within 30 feet of the ground, the oak forests will shred the plane and us like pencil shavings.

So now it’s time. Time for my life to play a final reel of memories before I die. The proverbial “life flashing before my eyes”. I am not afraid, which is odd in itself, but what puzzles me is my utter disappointment in the life flash. One, it is too rapid, two, it barely has any substance, and three, it feels like someone else’s life. Very anti-climactic!

Out the front window the oak trees are getting closer. At two thousand feet and falling at a thousand feet per minute, we don’t have long before impact.

At about 35 feet, just five feet above the oak canopy the strangest thing happens. Suddenly a field of grass appears. Bill screams, “I can’t get the landing gear down. There’s going to be a bump.” I would normally laugh at his understatement, but my disappointment over the diluted life-flash is making me very serious and not in the mood for laughter. Besides, it’s time to die now.

The plane hits the ground on its belly. We can feel the jolt bend the metal of the plane as it continues its fishtail plowing through 14 inches of earth for a very long time. Finally the plane comes to a rest in the middle of the field of grass. I quickly open the door, hop onto the ground and step off the skid.

“75 feet Bill!”, I shout with great pride in my measuring skills. Bill is hugging the two passengers from the back seat, and upon my arrival, thanks me vehemently for not freaking out.

Bill uses a device in the plane to radio his son Skip and after sitting on a fallen oak tree for thirty minutes in stunned silence under a blinding sun, Skip arrives in his SUV. We climb in, super happy to feel the vehicle’s wheels in touch with the earth. Every tiny bump feels like a blessing as we rumble out of the field and onto the smooth pavement.

(My Lesson: Near death experiences are not as glamorous as they make them out to be. And; especially so when you’re not going to die anyway.)

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