Things are quiet, the engine runs smoothly, it has for a several hundred hours. Suddenly, there comes a CLUNK, you feel it through your feet, up your legs and butt, it seems to lodge in your throat. Just once.
The engine page is up, there is nothing wrong, oil pressure and temps are typical, fuel flows appropriate. EGT and CHT don’t budge.
It’s at the outset of a long flight,…what to do, what to do.
In medicine there is an honorable tradition of ignoring things- not every doctor can stand it but it’s right down my alley- “Don’t just do something, stand there.”
Machines aren’t as self correcting as humans, but what the hell- wait and see.
Four hours later it happens once more in the descent. Then from Tamiami home it happens again once or twice. Take the cowl off, and change the oil, but who knows what to look for- mischance favors the unprepared mind. Cut the oil filter, no metal, the Blackstone oil analysis is benign.
It’s a very busy couple flying weeks- first up past the Smokies, the Shenandoah, past the Blue Ridge- sweet mountains, I’m sure they couldn’t hurt you, ground down and greened over the eons…
past a land lush with water, and beautiful Algonquian names,
after the James, the Rappahannock, Potomac, Chesapeake’s massive estuary, DelMarVa’s sculpted farms, on to New Jersey,
Back to Birmingham,
then Haiti, the soft sandstone scraped bare since French times.
Later, backtrack some North but mostly West, through Texas at sunset,
To the Rio Grande near Santa Fe, the Aspen and Cottonwood yellowing:
And a sign of the times.
To Sedona, Virginia’s fecund bottom land now just a memory. The notion of water here is chiefly prehistoric, a lost wax sculpture…the long slow ebb dating from the Paleozoic. There must have been a lot of it.
Moving on, past the Salton Sea, with its unexpected subterranean seaplane base.
On to San Diego, where everything looks new, clean,
and more family.
The Queen Mary is a waypoint coming and going…going, I knew it.
It’s arid in the far West, too, the reservoirs jump out at you, fragile Colorado is all.
There is a Charger waypoint, too, hard to miss.
Back through the Southwest’s painted sands:
Home to Birmingham, change the oil again, again it’s OK. But the clunks increase, maybe 3-4 per flight now- these are long legs- 4 hours on average. LOP mag checks at altitude are very smooth indeed.
Running South again, through the length and breadth of Florida- when isn’t there weather there? More water than anybody needs.
I meet up with Dan Pace and Craig Glasser at FXE, here with Abner’s wife and son Jeffrey- the only sensible guy in the lot- “You like Haiti, Jeff? Hell no, I like Miami, I’m staying here.”
Dan and Craig are old Haiti deliverymen, now in orphanage supply mode- back and forth all week.
I shook hands with them once in Cap Haitien, during the cholera outbreak. Later that week, the voodoo guys threw stones- it was biblical, chased them out of a village whose water they wanted to chlorinate. I’m pleasantly surprised they re-upped.
It’s a day/night flight into Ft Lauderdale Executive airport, the staff meet us like old friends. But with a dozen clunks in the trek across FL, and then reading on COPA of a Cirrus crash off Freeport, engine problems on takeoff, four dead, it’s time to act.
Among several instructions for things to look for, he gives me the showstopper-
“Do not fly over the water until you talk to me about the results of these tasks.”
He knows me, you see. I can’t go until Dad lets me.
Now I’m stuck. Moral ambiguity, far and away my longest suit, is trumped. The convenience of relativism…off the table. Well, play out the hand.
We plan to leave at 7:30, but I go to the airport at 6:30, to begin. The oil and gas overflow tracks look OK,
(thank goodness I cleaned the belly yesterday AM, Mom’s very particular about fresh unnerwears when hospitalized), send the photo to Jim, decowl, tighten the gascolator nuts with the 7/8th wrench that Jim (smart alec) instructs me to look for under the right cowling, by the number 1 battery, where, you guessed it, I’d left one (OK, OK, 3) just before having Jim inspect the plane the first time… well, OK, 20 hours before. This is how he knows me.
He leads me through the hoops- things that’ll kill you first, then less worrisome stuff that could cause a CLUNK.
The gascolator O ring is intact,
There are no leaks, expert sumping already ruled out water in the fuel. Boost pump and prime do not cause the terrific leak we all saw in Jim and Roger’s scary movie. The ignition leads were just right tight. On to a full rich mag check at 1500 rpm, L=R at 1460, which is good…
Next check the farings, and a creeping L main injury actually looks a little worse since the last time I paid attention. I feel a little guilty- Bryan Heitman recently said you can tell how much somebody loves his plane by looking at the farings…ouch.
Dan Pace is on the field by now, and has “speed tape” (that’s Northernspeak for white duct tape). We apply a couple rounds to the faring,
get Jim’s blessing, amidst a scolding for not having engine data already downloaded on a thumb drive to email him at 6 in the morning- a stern Dad, our Jim…and take off.
Not a peep in the four hour flight to Port au Prince. No CLUNK!
The stuff COPA gives you.
There ought to be a charge for that kind of service, it’s worth a lot. Every time I hold wrenches for Jim, or retrieve them from my good hiding places under the cowling, he takes phone calls from FL, AZ, Germany, Australia- all guys like me, needing help, and generally getting it, or closing in on it. Very impressive.
Dan and Craig came by, and met Rick, looked over the new houses at site solay, the UN finally ponied up for 42, the village grows.
They got a look at the GI lab, where Dr Colas is now ready to go it alone.
It was a nice little visit- short, the way we pilots like it. We are topographic at our core- our elevated view promotes it, or perhaps the other way round. We want to GO…but not necessarily to BE somewhere, with all the stickiness of problems intractable, irreducible. Life…there’s too much traction, too much drag.
But now I’m down here again, in it, every mass a funeral again. This morning, on the stretcher built for 5 babies, wrapped in hospital swaddling, there lies Michelle Marie, 5 years old, conspicuously longer than her infant company.
It’s a white coffin day, many Haitians at the mass hollering for an older man in a fancy rented coffin, presumably a benefactor of some sort. I use a metal tool whose name I do not know, the shape of it like a croupier’s cane at craps- ah, snake eyes for you…to push him by his feet into the crematorium, no problem, he’s still a little frozen, and that helps. Kaddish complete, coupla songs, mark the moment with a little dignity. But really, it’s just lights out, light ‘er up…he lived, then he died, my turn soon enough. It’s hard to get too worked up about it either way.
Of course, the infants always take a toll on me, but there are so many of them. Hold those little footballs like a halfback, end around the other packers as we lay them up in the cooler, the container morgue.
But Michelle Marie, nobody was there to mourn her. Five years old, her painful teething a remote nightmare, long ago toilet trained, way past toddler, probably had some letters, maybe numbers…cricket quick, vocal, with a distinct personality, dreams, plans. I’m sure she had a little girl best friend, probably some little boy she hated, loved playing jacks, loved a new dress. No neonatal half-formed sadness here, gone before the real work begins. A fully formed little person, suddenly scooped up and gone so early in the morning of her life. Somebody really knew who she was, unique among us all, irreplaceable.
Something went CLUNK in her night, I don’t even know what, just got here myself.
But there was no Barker for her, no averting that fate.
Nothing for it now but to lift her too heavy too long self back into the freezer, wait three days for someone to claim her, or into the crematorium she goes… and press on, press on.