The security guard looked at our driver’s licenses, and then at our faces, and back at our licenses. “Are you…brothers?”
We looked at each other a moment, the idea having never registered that we had the same last name. With a slimmer build, wavy hair and looking for all the world as if he’d just claimed the prize in a surfing contest, he was just mismatched enough with me that it was worth a chuckle. We’d known each other as usernames on an internet forum of Mooney pilots, progressing to first names on a series of texts as I accepted his open offer in the Mooney community: “If you’re ever down here, look me up, and we’ll go fly.”
I spend a lot of my overnights in the Caribbean, and the idea of going flying for fun in the Caribbean ratcheted my favorite Puerto Rican overnight up several notches. When I saw Aguadilla on my schedule twice, I couldn’t resist.
I was about to go fly with one of my “Imaginary Friends.”
I kid with my wife, Amy, about her imaginary friends—she has met a number of her Twitter followers as we’ve roamed the planet. And while I joke about her situation, mine goes back further. In the 1990s, the internet reached its tentacles out to my hometown, and we joined the information superhighway, as it was advertised, with an America Online account. There were a couple of aviation chat rooms, and I quickly found myself spending time talking aviation with strangers from all over. We shared flying tales, and many offered encouragement as I struggled for my first real toe-hold as an airport kid with big dreams and tiny finances.
A few years later, my friend Donn Jacobs bought a Beech Musketeer in New Jersey, and he asked me to look it over. I could fly it home once it was squared away. After a test flight that revealed a long list of things to be addressed, I handed the plane back to the mechanic on the field to get squared away and found myself with a day or two to kill. One of the flying chat room regulars was John, a mechanic and CFI at the now-extinct Trinca, New Jersey, airport, and I wound up over there for a day or two, swinging wrenches and doing a little flying as we waited on the Musketeer’s return to airworthiness.
Another mechanic and pilot I met was Darwin, who lived out in Lincoln, Nebraska, and worked at Duncan Aviation. The regional carrier I flew for added Lincoln as a destination, and as I stared at the fuel truck with the Duncan logo, I wondered what’d become of my old pen pal. I did a quick Google search and fired off an email as we rode to the hotel for the layover. We met for coffee the next morning and told stories for the better part of two hours, and I wound up getting invited back to Nebraska to speak twice at the 2017 Nebraska Aviation Symposium. Once I talked to students and instructors who were entering the career, and then I was the keynote for the maintenance symposium, as I urged mechanics and shops to embrace nontraditional routes for luring younger folks into aviation maintenance—as the pilot shortage may well be eclipsed by a shortage of qualified technicians in coming years.
It’s funny how these relationships formed and lasted, considering the “don’t talk to strangers” indoctrination of our childhood, but the passion for flight basically developed a family connection with these strangers and many more. I refer to Sun ‘N Fun and AirVenture as family reunions with tens of thousands of cousins I just haven’t met.
“It’s funny how these relationships formed and lasted, considering the ‘don’t talk to strangers’ indoctrination of our childhood, but the passion for flight basically developed a family connection with these strangers and many more.”
But as I stood at the Aguadilla airport vehicle gate, with the guard studying my driver’s license, the gravity sort of sank in. Here I was, with someone I’d never seen in person before 15 minutes ago, who was vouching for me as the guard handed me a visitor badge and began to search the vehicle from bumper to bumper.
The massive amount of security might seem overkill, but when the guard unlatched the padlock and had us drive through the fence, we were idling on the ramp 50 yards from where we’d just parked an Airbus full of people three hours before. To our left were hangars filled with Customs and Border Protection aircraft, used in fighting the influx of narcotics from Central and South America, which often move through the Caribbean and up to the mainland from Puerto Rico. Word had it the CPB pilots had just interdicted a fast boat with 1,300 pounds of cocaine the day before by shooting out the boat’s engine from a Blackhawk helicopter. The guys and gals there had a spring in their steps as we passed.
Beyond the government hangars, we came to the community hangar full of general aviation birds, and as my friend slid the door back, I smiled at the variety of airplanes before me. A Lancair IV was someone’s go-places-fast bird, and tucked into the back with folded wings was an Icon A5, the first I’d seen at rest in the wild. A couple of Cessnas, a Baron and a Cherokee rounded out the population. Well, those, and the Mooney we were there to fly.
Since they’re not the most popular planes in general aviation, my C model Mooney was the only one I’d flown before I bought it. I rode shotgun in a 252 as safety pilot for a few approaches last year, and earlier this year, I flew an F model to Atlanta from Phoenix. The basic M20 type has been around for almost 70 years, and the basic wing design has seen engines from 180-310 horsepower. The older ones have seen their share of neglect, pampering, and modifications, to the point that no two are alike. So, when we get two or more together, the conversation immediately becomes one of comparisons—speed modifications, propellers and panels being the common topics. It was no different as I strapped into the right seat and watched the other Mr. King go about his routine.
We decided to just blaze a few laps around the pattern; he was on call for his job and might need to be on the ground with little notice. As we rolled out on final the first time around, he asked, “What flap setting do you use for landing?”
“All of the flaps,” I fairly laughed. “I’m on a short grass runway.”
In comparison, we were on his home field with an 11,000-foot x 200-foot expanse of concrete. Left to my own devices in a world with no rules or interference, I could create all sorts of mischief with a runway like that. As we circled the field, we compared techniques, power settings and speeds.
I was also playing tourist, snapping photos left and right. Aguadilla is a beautiful corner of Puerto Rico, and I don’t get a lot of time for airborne sightseeing when scooting along at Airbus speeds. My friend invited me to take the controls for a circuit, but after half the lap around the pattern, I shook my head and handed the airplane back to him.
I’d been awake a very long time, had little sleep before that, and it was pretty gusty down there. It would be about right if I was a little slow to react to a gust and ended up scraping up his airplane a very long way from any Mooney service center that could handle the repairs. I’d have loved to roll on a landing or two down there, but I was happy to have a new friend and a great vantage point to enjoy the island.
That evening, we met again for a bite of dinner and a cold beverage as we shared stories well into the evening. As overnights go, it was certainly one of the better ones. Not a bad outcome, all things considered, for striking up a conversation with a stranger on the internet.