Chapter 1, Preflight
“Take the control, will ya?” Bert’s command resonated over the sound of twin engines when his Cessna B210 reached five thousand feet and leveled off over Milpitas. We were heading north on the return leg of our daily commute, leaving San Jose’s Mineta airport, for Oakland International.
I whimpered a complaint. “Can’t I sit this one out?”
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, pointing at the control 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.
We were flying VFR, visual flight rules; off the radar, so to speak. 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 with my commute inching down clogged highway 880 from Oakland to Santa Clara and 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 on the phone that I discovered he wrote the ad in vague terms in order to lure skeptical riders. “Every time I include airplane in my ad I 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 replied and took another step.
Bert smiled. “You worried about this stuff?” He sneered at the gray blanket surrounding us. “We’ll be out of it at a thousand feet. Nothing to worry about. It’s clear at San Jose.” He pointed at the aircraft. “Now, let me introduce you to Bertie.”
Why do I need to know about stabilizers, ailerons and landing gear? I wondered, glancing at my watch. I just want to get to work.
Inside the cockpit it was cold and dark. I sat next to Bert in a spartan, but comfortable leather seat while behind me, six additional seats looked cramped and uncomfortable with no room for briefcases, purses or whatever. The whole space was 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 roared to life, charging the plane with energy that pulsed through every bone in my body. The dark control 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. The radio blared unintelligible chatter. “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.”
Permission was granted and Bert advanced a set of levers between us that increased the plant’s noise, vibration and commotion.
I waited for progress, but despite what seemed like an unstoppable fusillade of energy, Bertie stood stock still. I looked 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 uttered. 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 muttered.
“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.”