“Take the control, will ya?” Bert’s command resonated over the sound of twin engines when his Cessna 310 reached five thousand feet and leveled off over Milpitas. We were heading north on the return leg of our daily commute, having departed from San Jose’s Mineta airport, and heading toward Oakland International.
“Can’t I sit this one out?” I joked.
Outside, it was a beautiful Friday afternoon, visibility unlimited, no traffic in sight, a clear shot to Oakland’s runway 28R, ten minutes away.
“No way, Padre.” Bert let go of his control wheel and pointed at mine. “You need to feel confident flying Bertie,” he said. What if I had a heart attack?”
“That’s what autopilots are for,” I grinned back, pointing at the instrument panel.
Bert smiled and dismissed my lame humor while he kept his eyes peeled on the sky around us, looking for tiny specks that turn into airplanes in the wink of an eye. “Maybe someday,” he said.
The radio squawked intermittently, talking to bigger fish. We listened and made sure we were out of their way.
* * *
A year ago, I was burned out from my commute that inched down clogged highway 880 from Oakland to Santa Clara. In desperation, I called Rideshare, looking for relief. An ad offered quick rides to the South Bay, for little money and no driving required. The ad was short on details, but the money sounded right and it was the best pitch Rideshare offered. Was it a bus? Train? I had no idea, but the cheap fare and fast commute time captured my interest.
It was only after I got Bert Inch on the phone that I discovered he wrote the ad in vague terms in order to lure unsuspecting riders. “When I include ‘airplane’ in my ad I would never get an answer,” he said.
I wondered why, but threw caution to the wind, so to speak, and agreed to an introductory round trip, free of charge. The idea of getting an extra half-hour sleep and still getting to work on time was a compelling incentive.
I met Bert the next morning at the Oakland airport’s private aircraft hanger area, a desolate place, far from the bright lights of the terminal. It was cold and foggy, not amenable to flying, in my mind. Driving to the airport with my fog lights on, I had planned out my regrets. Too bad about the weather, I was going to say.
Bert stepped out of the gloom and grabbed my hand. Behind him, parts of an airplane appeared in between billowing gusts of fog. “Great day for flying, huh?” he said.
I shook my head in disbelief. The man was either delusional or a maniac. I let go of Bert’s hand and took a step back. “Maybe for the Red Baron.” I took another step back.
Bert smiled. “You worried about this stuff?” He sneered at the gray blanket surrounding us. “We’ll be out of it at five hundred feet. Nothing to worry about. It’s clear at San Jose.” He walked toward the aircraft. “Now, let’s do the preflight together and I’ll introduce you to Bertie.”
“Preflight? What’s that?”
“We walk around Bertie and make sure everything is attached,” Bert replied. “We don’t want stuff falling off while we’re airborne.”
I looked at my watch. “How long is that going to take?” Bert’s promise of a quick ride was changing in the wrong direction.
Bert ignored me and headed toward the end of one wing. “Follow me.”
I’ve flown enough to feel comfortable inside airplanes. I’d glance into the pilot’s cabin while boarding, but I’ve never felt compelled to know anything more about flying. All I know is the pilot and copilot control the immense power of a plane’s engines and somehow manage to guide and steer all that power into flight. The airplane’s exterior was none of my business.
Following Bert as he tinkered with pieces of his airplane, I wondered why I needed to know about stabilizers, ailerons and landing gear? I glanced at my watch again. I just wanted to get to work.
“It’s always good to have a second pair of eyes,” Bert said. “You see anything loose or missing let me know.”
“Right,” I replied. “Whatever you say.”
Inside the cockpit it was cold and dark. I sat next to Bert in a spartan, but comfortable leather seat while behind me, four additional seats looked cramped with little room for briefcases, purses or whatever. The whole space was much smaller than the business class cabin on a Boeing 737. I could see why Bert was having trouble getting passengers.
With a whine, then a throaty roar, Bertie’s two engines came to life, charging the plane with energy that pulsed through every bone in my body. The dark instrument panel turned into a Christmas tree of dancing dials and meters. Indicators bounced from left to right. Some stood straight up while others clung to opposite sides. “Sounds like we’re in business,” I said.
Bert nodded from under his headphones and gestured for me to put mine on.
Me? The headphones reduced the cockpit noise and added a new sensation, conversation with nameless authorities who gave permission and instructions to pilots on the ground and in the air.
Bert’s voice boomed over the radio’s chatter. “Oakland ground, this is Cessna 535, ready to taxi VFR, over.”
“VFR?” I thought for a minute. “Oh yeah, I get it. Very foggy runway. Makes sense.”
Bert laughed. “Good one,” he replied. “I’ll remember that. VFR also stands for visual flight rules. It means we can fly without the tower telling us where to go. In bad weather we have to fly using IFR, instrument flight rules. Not nearly as much fun and it takes longer.”
“But… what about the fog?”
Bert shook his head. “Like I said, it’s clear once we’re airborne and it’s clear in San Jose.”
Permission from the tower ended our conversation and Bert advanced a set of levers between us that increased the plane’s noise, vibration and commotion.
I waited for progress, but despite what seemed like an unstoppable fusillade of energy, Bertie stood stock still. I glanced at Bert in quiet concern while the plane strained against something even more powerful than its mighty engines.
“Something the matter?” I ventured.
“Shit,” Bert muttered. He dropped the engine noise and jumped out of the cabin.
I fiddled with my seatbelt. “This is it,” I said. “I’m leaving while I can.”
Before I could unfasten myself, Bert climbed back into his seat, a sheepish grin on his face. “Forgot the chocks,” he admitted.
“The chocks? Those wooden wedges under the wheels? You forgot ̶ ?”
“Buckle up,” Bert commanded. He revved the engines again and we moved forward into an impenetrable wall of fog. The landing lights were useless. As we advanced into the black abyss, Bert looked at me and smiled. “Never mind,” he said. “Happens all the time.”
* * *
And he was mostly right. Shit happens all the time. Why I decided to take my chances in the air with Captain Bert Inch, I don’t know. Maybe it was his swash-buckling attitude. Compared to my staid, conservative workday colleagues, Bert was an interesting contrast, an air pirate who knew serious, hands-on stuff, like flying an airplane very well and wasn’t ruffled when shit did happen.
Like the time we wound up in the backwash of a 737 that unexpectedly climbed into our flight path out of San Jose. We never found out how that happened, but I quickly learned there’s a lot of turbulence behind a 737 when it’s going full blast, clambering for altitude, and poor Bertie took a tumble while Captain Bert scrambled to keep her from rolling and pitching out of control.
Or the near miss over Fremont. During commute hours, the skies above Fremont are almost as crowded as highway 880. Between one and eight thousand feet, civil aviation is busy in two directions, east/west between Livermore and Palo Alto and north/south between San Jose and Oakland, and everyone is flying VFR. Above eight thousand feet, commercial jets coming from the east are making their final descent to San Francisco and Oakland airports.
Bert never takes his eyes off the windshield until we’re all wheels down and he expects everyone on board to do the same. One evening over Fremont a dot in the windshield went unnoticed until Bert caught sight of the dot about a second before impact. There are two unofficial rules regarding imminent collision protocol, when your nose goes down the tail goes up and everybody is right-handed. Bert chose to veer right and so did our dot, now turned into a menacing airplane. The result was no news about mid-air collisions over Fremont that day.
In between excitements I learned the fundamentals of takeoffs and landings, maneuvering in flight, and talking to the tower, but I didn’t have any ambition to pilot an airplane. Whenever Bert’s friend Roger, aka MacGyver, joined us, I was only too happy to give up my copilot seat, sit in a back seat and play lookout.
* * *
One of my turns to play copilot occurred under partly cloudy skies with a threat of rain north of us. The good news was we were cleared for VFR flight. Takeoffs are easy, and I got us airborne heading west, then veering north without incident. When we levelled off at five thousand feet, the full moon appeared majestically, climbing from behind Mount Hamilton. After we lost sight of the moon, while gradually descending toward Oakland, Bert mentioned the moon would catch up with us and we’d see a second moon rise from behind the Berkeley hills during our final approach to Oakland. I made a mental note to look for it over the East Bay hills.
MacGyver chatted away from the back seat, I concentrated on the repeated pattern of observing the compass, altimeter, and the sky around us. As we passed over Union City I also worried about landing in the dark and wondered what was for dinner.
Over Hayward airport, I noticed the airport’s runway lights were on and I waited for our instrument panel to light up. It was the pilot’s job to engage the panel lights. Annoyed with Bert’s dereliction of duty, I took a quick glance at the pilot seat to see Bert toggling the switch with a grimace on his face. All conversation stopped when the radio died, and the instruments deactivated.
MacGyver stuck his head between us, reached out and rapped on the instrument panel. “What the fuck?” he whispered when the panel remained black and unresponsive.
We were on our final approach to runway 28R when Bert took the controls. “Try the landing gear,” he told me, pointing at the gear selection handle in the dark cabin. “Go ahead,” he said, his eyes glued to the runway, throttling down Bertie’s engines. I moved the handle to the gear down position and we all held our breath.
When nothing happened, Bert, advanced the throttle, pulled up and passed over the runway. “Get the flashlight,” he told MacGyver, “I’m going to buzz the tower. Keep your eyes peeled!”
Three minutes later, after maneuvering full circle around the airport, Bert passed low, at tower height, and MacGyver flashed at the tower’s windows. “Watch the tower,” Bert said as we rolled to the right for another circle. A green flashing light coming from the tower answered Bert’s signal. Bert sighed. “We’re cleared.”
‘We’re cleared’ meant Oakland airport shut down all traffic until we either made up our minds what to do next or ran out of gas. We had lost all electrical power. No lights, no radio and no electrically powered landing gear. Fortunately, Bertie’s two engines ran on an alternate, self-contained power source, called a magneto ignition system, which I knew nothing about other than being glad it still worked.
“Get out the manual and pull up the crank,” Bert ordered. MacGyver found the manual and checklist in a rear storage compartment and with me holding the flashlight we read instructions for manually extending the landing gear. I found the gear crank nested and hidden under some insulation between the pilot and copilot seats. The instructions called for engaging the crank with a locking pin and turning the crank until the landing gear was fully extended. Easier said than done.
The Cessna model 310 is a low wing configuration, meaning the wings are below the cabin. There are advantages and disadvantages for both configurations, but right now our main disadvantage was we couldn’t see the main landing gear from the cabin. After a few anxious false starts we got the crank to turn. But after many revolutions there was no indication the crank had lowered the landing gear; no detent, no lock, it just went round and round, like it wasn’t doing anything.
Bert, now making lazy circles around the airport, looked at a small mirror near the nose of the plane. Illuminated by the city lights, he squinted at the mirror and smiled. “The nose gear is down,” he said. MacGyver and I let out a sigh of relief. “Now what?” I asked.
“We still don’t know if the nose gear is locked and we know nothing about the main gear,” he answered. “We’ll have to check it out.”
MacGyver and I exchanged a nervous look.
“Maybe all three are down and locked, maybe not. We’ll have to find out.”
In our situation another disadvantage of a low wing configuration is the clearance between the propellers and the ground. There’s not much more than one foot of clearance, depending on the gear design. That means without landing gear to hold up the plane, the prop will strike the pavement immediately upon landing, sending the plane to oblivion. There is no belly flop option.
It was now raining and, without wipers, the city lights below us streaked across the windshield in a blurry haze. Bert brought Bertie around and lined up with the runway. “This may take a couple tries,” he said.
I looked below us at the airport’s terminal lights and thought about the hundreds of passengers who had missed flights and connections and all the commercial jets scrambling above us to realign their flight plans while we did touch and goes in a crippled plane that might wind up a pile of wreckage before the night was over. Would be make the ten-o’clock news I wondered?
Up to now, none of us expressed any panic, but as runway 28R’s lights rushed up to meet us I gripped my seat handles in quiet apprehension.
Just above ground level Bert dipped Bertie’s nose and we felt contact, enough to assure us the gear was functioning before we ran out of runway. With a roar, Bert blasted up and away. “One out of three,” he said.
On the second pass Bert dropped the nose, then gently dipped the left wing. The reassuring thump of solid contact with the tarmac made us all exhale as Bert lifted us up again.
“Cross your fingers,” he said as he lined up for pass number three. As before, Bertie settled on her nose, then on the left landing gear, but when Bert dropped the right wing there was no contact. The emotional letdown and uncertainty almost caused us to run into the runway’s end lighting structure before Bert blasted us back up. He had done a fantastic bit of piloting with absolutely no room for error, three times, but after all that we were still helpless.
“Since the left is down the right is also probably down but not locked,” Bert said. He gained altitude and MacGyver and I scratched our heads. I imagined the landing gear hanging loose under us, flapping in the wind. “Flip her over?” I suggested, thinking the wind resistance and centrifugal force might force the gear into position.
Bert shook his head. “I don’t like it. Too dangerous.”
Too dangerous? I thought. There’s an understatement. Even MacGyver smirked.
“No. Really,” Bert went on. “Flipping could apply too much force on the gear. We don’t know what condition it’s in. I’d hate to have it fall off.”
MacGyver and I nodded in agreement. Another understatement.
We didn’t know our altitude, but we were high and to the east, the full moon appeared behind Mount Diablo. Just like Bert said it would. Don’t be silly, I thought, watching the moon and regarding it as an omen. The second coming. I’ll take it as a good sign.
“I’m going to drop the plane,” Bert announced. “Hang on.”
That was the first time I heard Bert refer to Bertie as a plane. It was a small issue, but I sensed his concern by saying it.
With a whoosh, Bert forced Bertie to rapidly lose altitude, hopefully spreading the two main gear apart and into their extended positions.
There was no reassuring sound of movement or sensation of the landing gear locking into position.
“Here we go!” Bert said and began another approach.
I peered into the darkness, looking for a haystack. If this didn’t work, it was clear we were running out of options. The last time I looked before the instrument panel went dead, we had gas for another half hour of flying time, but to where? Ditch in the Bay? With no radio, no instruments, and no navigation lights we were blind and invisible. We didn’t dare leave the vicinity of the airport for fear of hitting another aircraft or a mountain.
MacGyver and I waited quietly for our pirate pilot to bring us in for a safe landing.
This time Bert touched the nose gear down as close to the start of the runway as possible. We would need room to test all three gears. After the nose and left gear touched down, Bert quickly dropped the right wing.
I watched the runway lights rushing toward us in horror, thinking how easily they could rip off all three gears if we were a second too slow in our liftoff.
A quick touch, some resistance and we were back up, the lights screaming under us by inches.
“I think we got it,” Bert said.
We were too drained to cheer.
“Hi home, I’m honey!” It was a joke my wife and I enjoyed sharing whenever we came through the front door. A spoof on an old cliché, perhaps, but still a gesture of endearment and relief returning to a welcoming home. That night I opened the front door to the sounds and smells of just another weekday evening knowing I was lucky not to be on the ten o’clock news.
Captain Bert, MacGyver and I had parted company on the tarmac with little fanfare. After handshakes and goodbyes, Bert told me I was excused to go home. “We’ll handle the aftermath,” Bert said, with a sly smile. “We probably ruffled a few feathers.” MacGyver laughed. “That’s putting it mildly,” he added.
I took one last look at Bertie and saluted our captain. “Don’t forget the chocks,” I said as I turned to leave.