Pilotage

Salsa picante

July 1, 2010

The airplane has been parked on the sweltering ramp since 10:45 this morning. The shades I tucked between the front windshield and dash are blocking the worst of the sun’s blistering rays, but even so that cabin will be turkey-roasting hot when I pop the door open in about an hour. Welcome to salsa picante—summer, South Florida style.

Summers here take on a familiar daily cadence: The sun rises, the ground warms, thermals thermal, clouds coalesce, some build into thunderstorms, and, after the scattered cells bluster and boom, they and the day subside in concert. The near inevitability of daily thunderstorms argues for flying early in the morning or late in the day, but that’s not always possible. Business schedules don’t usually take into consideration weather patterns. So, with some weather-detection equipment in the cockpit, good advice from ATC, and eyes outside, we go. Fly low, beneath the bases, and steer clear of the darkest smudges and the dense pillars of rain that appear to support the storms like massive, weathered pilings.

If storms pepper the land, making it difficult to fly the usual direct route home, Plan B is to sweep south out over the water where it is almost always clear, and fly around the tip of the southern peninsula remaining just offshore. With options available for avoiding summer storms, we’ve never had to delay or cancel a trip in two years of frequent flying.

Not so the dream trip my brother and I undertook some years ago. We were in a pair of Piper Cubs, each of the front seats occupied by a then-small child and the tiny cargo sling in back stuffed with camping gear. We were on a pilgrimage to Oshkosh to bivouac under yellow wings among other vintage Cubs.

The first part of the trip was idyllic. We flew in loose, low formation over ripe farmland carpeting western New York and Pennsylvania. And then there were storms. Massive thunderheads—to a pair of Cub pilots, at least—blocked further progress. We waited, we overnighted, we waited some more, finally concluding that with more weather ahead we’d have at best one day at the fly-in before having to head back home to meet commitments. We turned around.

Save for the thunder, lightning, convection, and downpours, summers and airplanes go together like ice cream and cones. I, for one, would rather sweat than shiver while readying the airplane. High-wing airplanes are especially suited to summer because they offer maximum air-to-ground sightseeing potential, not to mention the benefits of having a couple of long, straight umbrellas to take refuge under when the rains come.

Sightseeing was the plan when my youngest son and I drove to Kansas City’s Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport to take a jaunt in the family Skyhawk. Far-western Missouri isn’t quite up to, say, the mountainous west or the California coastline when it comes to stunning vistas best seen from a light airplane, but the principal objective of our mission was simply to enjoy a lazy summer evening.

We took off to the north and banked back south. Kansas City’s downtown airport is truly downtown, perched on the north shore of a bend in the Missouri River with the city shooting skyward on the south shore. Landing there is fun, especially at night, because you have a windshield-filling view of the city no matter which runway is in use.

We turned east toward what many in Kansas City consider to be sacred ground—the Royals baseball and Chiefs football stadiums, which sit adjacent to each other. We had moved to Kansas City from Maryland, and when we arrived I was taken aback at the intensity of Kansas City’s sports fans, especially for the hometown Chiefs. I thought the Redskins had a rabid following, but it was soon apparent that K.C. and D.C. were at least equals in terms of loyal fans.

But this was summer and the Royals were in town, and the glow from the ballpark lights attracted our Skyhawk like a moth to flame. (This, before the current stadium overflight restrictions.) We overflew the stadium and peered down into the bowl. The stands were mostly full, and a few specks—the players—dotted the grassy floor and infield dirt. We circled, trying to read the scoreboard while I fiddled with the ADF frequency tuner to pick up an AM broadcast of the game. No luck, but no matter. We didn’t really care who was winning or losing. We were at a ballgame, enjoying our very special box seats.

Suddenly the stadium went dark. I mean pitch black. Wondering what had happened, I said, “Must be a big-time power outage.” We made one more orbit over the black hole, and then all hell broke loose. A thin white light arced up from the stadium, and suddenly the sky burst into a rainbow of colors that mushroomed like a bomb blast. It was followed by a mushroom blast of mostly blue sparkling light. Fireworks! They were shooting off fireworks from the stadium, and we were in the middle of it. Well, not quite the middle. We were too high to feel the effects of the flak, but it was completely unexpected and the suddenness of it startled both me and my son.

I beat a hasty retreat from the area, but instead of heading back to the airport I took up a position a safe distance from the ballpark and began orbiting once again. It was summer, after all, and what better way to enjoy a summer fireworks display than from the cabin of a high-wing Cessna Skyhawk with your young son at your side?

Mark R. Twombly lives in and flies out of Southwest Florida. E-mail the author at mrtwombly@gmail.com.