Although the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) is not well known for making childhood dreams come true, it recently fulfilled one of mine by transferring me to Japan. The only drawback was that I could not bring along my Cessna Cardinal. Storing it was not an option. I refused to abandon my Cardinal in a forgotten hangar.
I was in high school when my friend Jared Guillory gifted me with Microsoft’s Flight Simulator ’99 computer game. Together we explored flying and eventually enrolled in ground school at Belle Chase Naval Air Station in New Orleans. Thyroid cancer prevented Jared from starting the course, but I proceeded and earned my pilot certificate on July 4, 2001. Jared’s cancer was removed after several surgeries, and he was excited to finally begin flight lessons. Sadly a heart attack in 2013 ended his life at only 31, but we had shared many flying adventures.
Jared’s father, Joe, an aviation enthusiast who believed an old dog can learn new tricks, picked up where Jared had left off. At age 63, Joe began flight lessons at Acadiana Regional Airport in South Louisiana. He offered to lease my Cardinal while I served overseas, and he volunteered to ferry the airplane with me from Seattle.
The sleek Cardinal looked ready to fly when Joe and I loaded it on the morning of August 5. Even at the height of summer in Washington, the temperature was 58 degrees—starkly different from the bayou weather that awaited us.
Departing Bremerton, we climbed to 7,500 feet navigating south toward Oregon. The Puget Sound’s clouds disappeared, revealing the Pacific Northwest landscape of farms, lakes, and forests. Joe mentioned scouting for the elusive Bigfoot wandering through the dense wilderness, before we descended to Medford to refuel and check the weather.
Medford’s ramp radiated a balmy 91 degrees and we quickly stowed our hoodies in preparation for takeoff. We climbed to 11,500 feet, hugged California’s Mount Shasta, and stayed east of the Cascades toward Las Vegas. Several wildfires were raging through the area and the mountains trapped our radio signal from ATC. For an hour we were flying blind—figuratively and literally.
The horizon cleared as we approached Nevada. Darkness gradually crept in and our focus shifted from monitoring the GPS to chasing the glittering lights of Vegas. With the Luxor Hotel and Casino’s sky beam guiding us from 75 miles away, I understood why it was rumored to cost a million dollars a year to power.
After landing, Joe and I headed to the strip for people-watching and dinner before retiring for the night. The following morning, I experienced the scary effects of density altitude. As we departed the runway, the Cardinal struggled to climb—barely ascending at 150 fpm versus its standard 840. With the mountains close by, I performed circle climbs until we eventually cleared the peaks.
We resumed our course to the Grand Canyon, where we opened the windows and allowed the rush of cold air in the cockpit as we took turns snapping pictures. We struggled for words to describe the indescribable. Soaring over this natural wonder of the world will be a highlight in our lives.
As we approached Roswell, New Mexico, our headsets crackled with the requisite odd noises. Besides the strange radio interference, the eeriest moment was landing at an airport graveyard, a desert runway lined with dead aircraft from around the world. After refueling and checking the weather, we proceeded through the darkness for the two-hour flight to Abilene.
During our climbout, the oil temperature and cylinder head temperature needles teased the redline. I advised ATC I would discontinue my ascent and level off in hopes that cruise flight would cool the engine. The gauges continued to relay a dangerously high rise in temperature, destined to cause engine failure at any moment.
Since I was not eager for an off-airport landing under the cover of darkness, I immediately banked left and started the 10-minute flight back to Roswell—each second silently praying the scorching Lycoming O-360 engine would continue humming. We landed without incident. For this night, the Cardinal would rest with the ghosts of airplanes past.
I investigated the problem and realized that the desert temperatures, combined with the prolonged laboring climbs, caused the overheating. The Cardinal hadn’t had enough time to cool down between refuels.
The next morning we started our journey early to exploit the cooler temperature. We stopped in East Texas to have lunch with my dad and 100-year-old great-grandmother. After the short visit, I hugged my family goodbye—not knowing when I would see them again.
Joe and I shared the piloting for the final two hours to New Iberia. I broadcast our position over the airwaves and battled a crosswind all the way to touchdown—even the final landing of this three-day journey was not going to be a freebie.
Mission accomplished. Logging 23 hours in a single-engine airplane, while crossing eight states spanning 2,075 miles, was an exhilarating and rewarding trip. We gained invaluable experience and enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of this great country.
I handed Joe the keys, and realized that my life as a pilot had come full circle. It was only appropriate that Joe should care for my Cardinal, considering it was his son Jared who first instilled my love of flying.
Tucker E. Axum III, a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, lives in Japan. He is the author of The Reawakening of Mage Axum, a novel inspired by his investigation into the mysterious death of his great-grand-uncle in World War II.
There is a common theme in the lives of noted pilots Sean D. Tucker, Julie Clark, and Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. Each encountered fear, adversities, and challenges—and persisted.
Tucker developed a fear of flying years ago when he watched a friend die in a skydiving accident, said author Thomas P. Curran. Tucker had a decision to make: He could walk away from his passion or confront his anxiety. “For the first time, I acknowledged a huge fear and fell so in love with what I was afraid of. I am going to acknowledge every fear. I am going to live my dream, because I found out what really made me empowered was my passion,” the accomplished airshow pilot told Curran.
Despite losing both of her parents, Clark worked toward her goal of becoming an airline pilot. She would start her day with flying lessons at San Carlos Airport in California, head to work at Marine World, and then go to her waitress job in the evenings. Later she established a clock business to finance additional flight training. She persisted and became the first—and only—female pilot for Golden West Airlines. Clark went on to become an aerobatic pilot and a Northwest Airlines captain.
Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger was responsible for successfully ditching US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River after both engines were lost following bird strikes. Sullenberger’s many years of flight experience helped him to deal with the crisis. He was able to leverage his aeronautical knowledge because he did not allow himself to become paralyzed by fear, Curran said.
Tucker, Clark, and Sullenberger—along with eight other respected leaders—are profiled in Curran’s book, Millionaire Legacy. Published March 16 by Morgan James Publishing, the paperback lists for $18.95 and is available at bookstores and online.