I was looking forward to a much needed weekend on Martha’s Vineyard, away from the city and the noise and smells of summer in the Meatpacking District. And though brunch at The Black Dog and grilled lobster at the Oyster Bar and Grill beckoned, the last thing I wanted to do was spend my Friday afternoon sitting on I-95 for five hours, inching my way to the Vineyard Haven–bound ferry. At times like this, nothing could be more perfect than hopping into a small plane with my girlfriend and a couple friends, although, in this case, they were all a bit more rambunctious than I would have liked.
No matter. I booked the 1978 Cessna 182 I often used to buzz around the New York area, fought tunnel traffic and wove my way to Caldwell airport just west of the city. My friends Warren and Drew were hootin’ and hollerin’ as I preflighted the trusty 182 for the hour-and-change flight along the coasts of Connecticut, Rhode Island and the Cape. Meanwhile, my girlfriend, Karen, who I used to call Chicken Little (long story) and who loved flying with me in the 182, seemed thoroughly amused by the guys’ antics. It was all I could do to calm them down and load them up to get on our way.
“Simmer down guys,” I pleaded. My mom used to say that, “Simmer down.” I used to think it was funny. Apparently, my friends did too, and it had the opposite effect, riling them up even more. Here I am, a rather new pilot feeling like the big man on campus flying a throaty 182, and I’m trying to calm my infantile friends.
“Sit still, damnit.” It was like I was dealing with 12-year-old kids. I could barely concentrate as I ran through my prestart checks.
“Okay, put your headsets on,” I said, “so we can hear each other once the engine’s running.” Deaf ears. Karen was turned around in her seat facing the guys, and the jokes and quips were flying.
I looked at Karen, and with the veins in my neck popping, said, “Karen, put your headset on now!” I’d had it and was ready to get out. Okay, deep breath. While my friends knew they were going for a ride in a little plane to the Vineyard, they had no clue what it took for me, especially as a newly minted pilot, to control this contraption and speed us through complicated airspace across half of New England.
I had to collect my thoughts, quiet my mind and cool my jets, and then pick my way, VFR, through New York City’s Class B airspace and fly us all the way to the islands by hand—no autopilot. Oh, the humanity of it all! Nevertheless, for the rest of the flight out to MVY, everyone behaved well, enjoying our uneventful and picturesque jaunt along the coast—uneventful, that is, until short final.
There I was, set up perfectly to alight in time for cocktails at a friend’s waterfront house, when on short final, Karen, or rather, Chicken Little, starts to literally scream, “You’re too steep! You’re too steep!” It was all I could do to tune her out and not lose it right then and there. And even though 182s of this vintage had flaps that dropped to 40 degrees, I always landed with 30 or less, never extending them fully. There’s nothing like a nonpilot criticizing your landing technique on short final by screaming in your ear. I don’t think, to this day, I’ve had more distraction before and during a flight, and I’ve had doors pop at 8,500 feet while changing a cruise altitude, bees and bugs and creepy crawly things slithering around while trying to keep the oily side down and friends deciding it was a good time to talk as I’m final approach fix inbound.
Distraction—it’s all part of the game and something we learn how to deal with from our days as student pilots. And while the pilots of an Eastern Airlines jet flying to Miami didn’t have their screaming, infantile friends whooping it up in the cockpit, it seems a single illuminated bulb was also quite a distraction, as Peter Katz recounts on page 60.
I don’t really remember what year that flight to the Vineyard was, but it was more than 10 years ago, and it’s one that Karen and I still laugh about. At least we can.