HOME, SWEET HEAVEN INSTALLMENT #7

Chapter Seven

Earl reached over with his left arm to clasp Joyce’s hand and pulled her up into the cabin of the tiny airplane. She shut the flimsy door and turned to Earl, who sat staring at the instrument panel. He looked perplexed. “Something wrong, flyboy?” she asked him.

He scratched his chin. “Gee, Joyce,” he replied, “I’m not sure that I even know how to start this thing.”

Sitting in the cockpit of a tiny, almost claustrophobic airplane with a pilot who wasn’t sure that he even was a pilot was disconcerting. “I thought you told me you were a flight instructor. With commercial, instrument and multi-engine ratings.”

He continued to stare intently at the instrument panel, and then took the sectional map out of the door pocket, peering at the logo of the nearby San Antonio airport and memorizing its elevation reading of 809 feet above sea level. “I think it’s starting to come back,” he said, but his voice lacked the timbre of certainty. Knowing that Helotes must be a bit higher than San Antonio, he twisted the knob on the altimeter, setting it to his estimate of a thousand feet for the elevation of the grass strip where they were situated.   Just as Joyce, with her hand on the door handle, was formulating a “thanks but no thanks” response on the order of “I think I’ll walk, if it’s all the same to you,” Earl pulled out the choke, set both magnetos to “on”, turned on the ignition and started the engine. He pushed in the choke and fiddled with the gas, which was a knob on the panel rather than a foot pedal. The affair looked like it belonged in a museum.

“Oh,” he said reflectively. “See that toggle switch on the panel and the dial nearby?”

“Um, yeah. Is it important?”

“Pretty much. It’s the control for the flaps. If the plane’s slow it keeps it in the air.”

“Oh.”

“Flip the toggle down until the indicator reads ’20 degrees’. Now,” he continued after she responded, “see that wheel between the seats? That’s the trim setting wheel. It’s important too. It keeps the plane going level when my arm gets tired pulling on the control wheel. Don’t do anything with it now. Just be ready to turn it forward or back as I ask.”

She gave him a dubious look. “Great. You have a perfectly green copilot.”

“You’ll do fine.”

Goosing the throttle until the plane started to move, he entered the small grass runway, steering with his feet on the rudder pedals and heading for the downwind end of the field. “Oh,” he said reflectively as they cruised down the taxiway, and Joyce saw the movement of his good hand on a toggle switch. “Twenty degrees flap,” he mumbled to himself. A small motor whined for a brief moment. When it stopped he returned to his focus out the window.

When they reached the end of the runway he maneuvered the plane around until it faced the opposite direction. He lined the plane up with the center and pushed the throttle forward. The engine responded and he did a quick mag check, took his feet off the brakes and the plane started forward.

“Stop!” Joyce commanded.

Earl stomped on the brakes, his heart racing. “What’s wrong?” he asked in alarm.

“You forgot something very important.”

“What?” He made a quick scan of the instruments, wondering what essential item had gone unremembered.

“Don’t you think it would be wise to pray before embarking on this journey into the unknown?”

“Oh.” He cast a quick glance back to the house, but corrected himself with the knowledge that God was in ultimate control over this adventure. “Sorry.” He reached over to clasp Joyce’s hand. “Father, we thank you in Jesus’ holy and precious name for the opportunity that you have given us to serve You. We place our welfare, particularly our souls, in Your mighty and capable Hands, knowing that it was You who had directed us to this place at this time. We ask particularly that You infuse us with the courage to serve You in this way with joyful hearts, and that we may fully accomplish the work that you have given us to perform. Amen”

“Amen,” Joyce echoed. When she turned back to Earl, she was smiling.

He pushed the throttle hard, to the firewall, and the plane moved down the runway. It swerved slightly as it gained speed, but Earl quickly mastered the corrections. At the last moment he remembered to set the gyrocompass to the magnetic compass reading for the direction of the tiny runway along which they were traveling, and when the airspeed indicator showed sixty-five, he gently pulled back on the wheel. The plane became airborne, and Joyce let out a breath in relief. She looked down at the house, noting that no new lights had come on. “Looks like the girl with the cat didn’t get alarmed at the noise of the plane,” she shouted over to Earl.

Earl asked Joyce to toggle the flaps back to zero as he checked the altitude. When the plane had reached an indicated altitude of two hundred feet over the field, he pulled back on the throttle as he leveled off. The plane wobbled a bit as it gained a minuscule amount of airspeed, but Earl managed to settle back and began to relax to the constant hum.

“Okay, Joyce, turn the trim wheel forward,” he said, feeling the resistance of the control wheel lessen as she did so. “Enough, thanks,” he said when the control wheel felt neutral in his hand.

Knowing that the plane had a range only of a few hundred miles, he juggled his desire to   cover ground fast with inevitability of having to refuel somewhere. He decided to compromise and gradually pulled back on the throttle until the airspeed indicator read ninety-five. As his tension diminished his muscle memory began to take over. It wasn’t like getting back on a bicycle, but it was passable. Seeing him losing his uptight attitude, Joyce relaxed as well.

“Maybe the girl thought her folks had decided to take the plane after all,” he finally said in response to her comment as they had taken off. “She’s probably tuned in to her iPod, so maybe she’s only taking in a fraction of what’s been happening around her. If that’s the case, our God is really handling the details in a big way. Thank you, Lord,” he said in gratitude.

After a while Earl brought the sectional back out and studied it. He reached over to the radio and set the frequency to match that of the closest VHF omnirange (VOR) printed on the chart. He struggled with his left hand to twiddle a knob and set a bearing, turning the plane to the heading he wanted. He looked over to Joyce. “It really is coming back,” he said with a smile. His increasing confidence gave her a critically-needed boost in spirits, and she looked at him with pride. She looked down out of her window to see patchworks of trees and fields illuminated by the bright moonlight. “Why so low?” she asked. “Isn’t that kind of risky? What if the engine decides to stop running?”

He looked over to her in mock sorrow. “Joyce,” he said, shaking his head. “What did we do just before taking off?”

“Oh. Oh yeah. We prayed, didn’t we? Okay, I’ll buck up.”

“Be riskier to go any higher,” he told her. “We’ll have to trust in God to handle the engine.” Just then the VOR receiver showed a no-signal fault. Realizing that he was too low for reliable operation of the VOR, he switched his attention to the gyrocompass for heading information.

The tiny airplane droned on. He checked the fuel guage, noting with relief that it showed full. Suddenly out of the corner of his eye he saw a flashing light that occupied a space into which the airplane would also occupy in the very near future. He pulled back on the wheel instinctively, shoving the throttle forward. An electrical transmission tower passed just beneath them, the warning light atop it flashing intermittently.

“Whoa!” Joyce exclaimed. “That was scary. Can’t you compromise a bit with the altitude?

“Will do,” he said grimly, going back into a brief climb. He leveled off at an additional two hundred feet.

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