January 1, 2009
Steve J. Vana
“When you get home,” my wife told me over the phone, “you’re going to have to get rid of this dog.”
I had been attending an airshow in Ohio, and was about to fly home to Maryland as a passenger in a friend’s Beechcraft Baron. I mulled over my wife’s words all the way.
“This dog” was Liberty, my 10-year-old black Labrador retriever, and the first dog I had ever owned—and I spoiled her. She had been born on the Fourth of July, and her name was meant to commemorate the special date. She was a great retriever and sharp as a tack. You couldn’t say words such as lake, pond, creek, river, or anything associated with water around her. If she heard any of those words, she’d run to the drawer where I kept her training dummy—a rubber cylinder that resembled a boat bumper—and she’d sit there and cry and whine until I took her out.
Weather didn’t matter. Winter or summer, she wanted to be in the water.
Liberty was my constant companion for a time. But over the years came my wife, three children, a promotion, and a move from Virginia to Maryland. During that time I had begun to neglect Liberty, and it showed in her behavior: Digging holes in the yard, standing out in the rain during thunderstorms, and running off were becoming increasingly common. Liberty wasn’t getting enough attention from me, and her behavior was becoming increasingly erratic, unpredictable, and difficult to manage. The capper came while I was away when she jumped up on our raised-bed garden and dug up all my wife’s plants.
Hal, a coworker in Richmond, Virginia, had told me that if my dog did not take to Maryland, I could bring her to his farm to live. I really never considered this until my wife’s phone call. I got in touch with Hal, and he told me his offer stood, so I made arrangements to fly Liberty down to Richmond, even though I really didn’t want to give her up.
I arranged to meet Hal at Hanover County Municipal Airport, packed up all of Liberty’s belongings, and headed off to Martin State Airport for the morning flight. I filed IFR and loaded Liberty into a rented Piper Lance. I started up and taxied out, and Liberty was soon sound asleep in back as I climbed out heading south.
The forecast called for scattered rain in the Richmond area with layered clouds and a 1,000-foot ceiling. Nearing Richmond I requested the SDF approach to Runway 16 at Hanover, but found myself behind the airplane. I salvaged a decent landing and taxied to the ramp, Liberty now sitting up and looking out the window. Hal was waiting for us on the ramp. It was then that my emotions overtook me. I couldn’t even talk to Hal. I took all of Liberty’s things and put them in Hal’s truck, handed him her papers, and mumbled, “I’ll call you,” as I turned and walked toward the terminal to get one of the courtesy cars. I was really choked up.
I had always heard that it was not smart to fly when you couldn’t devote full concentration to the task. One reason I had always enjoyed flying was because a flight cleared other thoughts from my head, and this helped me focus on whatever I had to do afterward. The thought of a potential conflict did not enter my mind on this day. I was too wrapped up handling the task I had dreaded. I took care of the business, and I was soon back at the airport filing for the return trip to Baltimore.
Conditions had improved quite a bit since I had landed, and I was soon in clear skies. After being handed off from Potomac Approach I decided to cancel IFR, descended, and worked my way up the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay toward Martin State in good visual conditions. The workload was light, and I lined up for a straight-in approach over the bay to Runway 33. I cleaned up the cockpit in preparation for landing and noticed that I had failed to give Liberty’s blanket to Hal. It was on the middle seats. This started the emotional roller coaster all over again.
I tuned in ATIS, listened for traffic, contacted the tower, and called my position seven miles out. The tower advised me that two A-10s were taxiing for takeoff, and that I would be cleared to land after they departed. I adjusted my speed and rate of descent. I received clearance to land, pulled the power back, lowered the flaps, trimmed, set the prop, and acknowledged the landing clearance. You should note that this list didn’t include lowering the landing gear. I was probably a half-mile out when the controller called.
“Lance Tree-Six-Zero-Eight-Six, Martin Tower. Do you have your gear down?”
I sheepishly responded, “Gear coming down.”
I landed without further incident and taxied to the hangar. I probably should have gone up to the tower and thanked the controller after I put the airplane away, but I was still riding that roller coaster. Now, years later, I can admit to being a sentimental kind of guy who was saddened at giving up a loyal friend. But I should have realized my emotional state probably left me unfit to fly that day.
By the way, Liberty adjusted extremely well to farm life. Hal and his wife doted on her, and they had lots of other animals. Liberty enjoyed the social interaction for the rest of her life. I stopped by to visit her once when business took me to the area—and it was good to see her so happy again.
Steve J. Vana of Westminster, Maryland, is an instrument-rated private pilot with more than 500 flight hours.
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Read this latest installment and other original “Never Again” stories published each month on AOPA Online.
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