Goodbye, old friend

October 1, 1999

Unrelenting rain from the remnants of Hurricane Dennis pummeled the top of the Skyhawk's wings. I anxiously opened the pilot's side door and then hesitantly put my hand on the seat: Dry! Whew. In its west-facing tiedown spot, N734ZS has a tendency to leak a little when heavy rains blow out of the northeast, and I wanted her to make a good impression on her new owner, a student pilot named Jon Hawkins.

It's a good high-wing day, I thought, watching the rain pour off of the wings as I explained a few personality traits of the two-tone blue-and-white Cessna 172 and offered some suggestions on how Jon ought to treat her. I felt as if this stranger had come to date my daughter. He probably felt as if he'd had that kind of talking to, as well.

Soon, I had done all of the explaining there was — it's a pretty simple airplane, after all. And so after an awkward silence, I reached into my pocket, took that one odd-shaped key off of my key ring and, after one more look inside, handed it over to him.

A bittersweet moment. The time had clearly come for me to have an airplane that better fit my needs, but it was still difficult to let go. 4ZS was my first airplane and will undoubtedly always have a special place in my memory.

I bought the 1977 Skyhawk in January 1997. My wife was learning to fly, and it would serve as an economical trainer for her — and as a family hauler, with maybe a little business travel thrown in. My wife soloed in it a few months later, but her instructor then moved on to another job; her own job changed; she felt the need to go back to school; and the tugs of motherhood all combined to cause her to put the rest of her training on hold for now.

Once in a while, a business trip within a couple of hundred miles would crop up, and I'd crawl behind the yoke with briefcase in hand. But with no weather-detection gear and few backup systems, it wasn't an airplane that I felt comfortable flying in anything except "light" IFR, if there is such a thing.

Mostly it was a fun family airplane. I've lost track of the weekend trips we've taken, going places for a day or two that simply wouldn't be possible by ground transportation and that would be prohibitively expensive on the airlines. Even though we've only had the 172 for a little more than two and a half years, I feel as if our girls, ages four and six, have grown up in it. They were just toddlers strapped in car seats when we took our first flight in 4ZS — all the way to a neighboring airport 30 miles away for lunch. They don't understand why all of the rest of the kids in the neighborhood don't just get in their airplanes and go places.

Our last flight in 4ZS was just such a fun trip. It was an overcast Sunday late this summer — bored kids moping around the house. We piled into the Skyhawk for a quick trip across a couple of ridges and down the Shenandoah Valley. I flew a VOR approach to get us down through the clouds, and we broke out in the valley some seven miles from Luray Caverns Airport in Virginia. Visibility under the clouds was excellent as we touched down on the 3,100-foot strip. Minutes later the helpful staff was driving us a mile down the road to the caverns, where we spent a cool couple of hours exploring the underground. I'm still trying to remember whether stalactites stick up or point down; or is it stalagmites?

We flew home VFR and tied down 4ZS in Spot 44 one last time.

A few days later, my father and I endured the "festival-style" seating ritual to board a Southwest Airlines flight from Baltimore to Ontario, California, with scenic side trips to Nashville and Las Vegas at no extra charge. Pilot Senior Editor Marc Cook met us in Ontario and drove us to nearby Brackett Field in La Verne, California.

There, I stepped through a hangar door to get my first look at an airplane that I'd read about in Trade-A-Plane and seen pictures of. If all went well, we would be flying it home to put in Spot 44 — once Jon came to collect the 172. I was relieved to see that the 1972 Beech A36 Bonanza didn't look its age, at least on the outside. New paint a dozen years ago had held up well. I hesitantly peeked inside — vintage 1972. The well-preserved gold, brown, and orange interior definitely shouted 1970s.

As I perused the logbooks, I noted that N290S first flew on October 22, 1971, as N9290Q; the registration was changed in 1989. I found no show-stoppers in the logs and a thorough prepurchase inspection had been done. A call to AOPA's Title and Escrow Service a week earlier had revealed that the only lien holder was the current finance company. The AOPA Insurance Agency was set to issue a policy, and the AOPA Aircraft Financing Program was primed to wire the funds to the seller's account.

The prepurchase inspection and a test flight revealed a few squawks that we negotiated, and so on a hot, windy day in California, I made a couple of telephone calls that sent electronic money flying across the continent and I was once again an aircraft owner. Actually I had only been without an airplane for a couple of hours, as the funds for the 172 had hit my account earlier that day; Jon wasn't set to pick it up for another week.

Early the next morning, my father and I climbed away from Brackett Field and turned northeastward. It was his first coast-to-coast flight in a GA airplane, so we took the scenic route across the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, and through the desert Southwest. The weather cooperated over the Canyon and Lake Powell — a stunning sight no matter how many times you see it. That afternoon, we easily maneuvered between a few scattered thunderstorms fed by monsoonal winds from the south, the last gasps of Hurricane Brett as it traversed northern Mexico. It was a memorable flight as I got comfortable with the Bonanza. I realized that I had gone up in size, but back in time. The Bonanza was built back when Watergate was just another hotel in Washington and when bell-bottoms were fashionable — the first time. And it was five years older than the Cessna I'd just sold.

The right airplane for my usual business flights, which are typically greater than 500 miles, was obvious, but I still looked around at Mooneys and other aircraft. In the end, the A36 made the most sense because of the versatility it offers.

AOPA owns an A36 because of its ability to serve as a photo platform for many of the photos that you see in the pages of this magazine each month. We remove the aft cargo doors, providing a large portal for our photographers to shoot from. Utilization of the airplane has always been heavy, but in the last couple of years AOPA has taken on more and more activities, and staff travel for the entire organization has gone up. On any one day, we have staff at meetings throughout the country and even internationally, working to make sure that the voice of general aviation is heard and preserved. With other staff members often using the Bonanza for transportation — at the rate of 400 hours per year — we in the Publications Division often find ourselves without access to a photo platform or an aircraft to move staff and equipment to shoot locations.

So, after not working very hard for its first 27 years, N290S has a new role as a business machine, photo platform, and family airplane.

Handing over the keys to the Skyhawk on that rainy Sunday was indeed bittersweet. As I looked across the ramp to 90S, I knew that I had made the right decision. The Bonanza will get far more utilization than the Skyhawk did, but letting go of that first airplane proved to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated.

4ZS left this morning with Jon, his girlfriend Annie, and an instructor named Brian. Ironically, they will be traversing much of the same route to Phoenix that I flew coming back from California in the Bonanza. They are looking forward to the cross-country adventure. Once in Phoenix, Jon plans to earn his private pilot certificate and to go for his commercial certificate and instructor ratings. His goal is to move back to his home in Washington state. There he hopes to fly floatplanes and to use 4ZS to give flight lessons. Flight instruction is a perfect role for the Skyhawk and it will do well, but somehow Spot 44 just doesn't look the same without it.

E-mail the author at [email protected].