It’s a chilly morning when a pilot and passenger park the car at the GA terminal before commencing a 250-nautical-mile holiday trip in the local flying service’s rental airplane, a middle-aged Cessna 172.
Weather is gorgeous, and family will be awaiting a heads-up call from the destination FBO—where the pilot trained years ago—with the flight’s ETA, and where there’s a nice restaurant to have lunch.
There’s the airplane—down at the end of the tiedown row.
Hard to tell from here whether it is as frost-covered as the company pickup trucks are, here in the parking lot. Pity no one thought to tuck the Cessna into the big hangar overnight. Back home, that item would have been attended to automatically.
The pilot’s fuel needs also would have been addressed the previous day. But now, as the pilot obtains the aircraft keys from a bleary-eyed line attendant, who looks surprised to see anyone so early in the day, the customer is less than optimistic.
Sure enough, on opening up the aircraft and hitting the master switch, it appears from the gauges that there’s about an eighth of a tank of avgas remaining on each side in the airplane, which, according to a clipboard tucked behind the left front seat, hasn’t flown in a few days.
The aircraft’s interior is not a pretty sight. Seatbelts and shoulder harnesses dangle in random fashion. The control-wheel lock has not been replaced in the column—there it is, wedged into a side pocket. A grease-stained donut bag sits on the rear seat, and a paper coffee cup lies on the floor beneath.
Ducking past the (slack) tiedown ropes, the pilot checks the (unlocked) baggage compartment for a tow bar, finding nothing except a pair of (unused) wheel chocks.
He heads to the office to see about fuel. Neither the lone employee nor a tow bar is to be found. Reluctantly the pilot presses the passenger, clad in holiday finery, into service to help walk the aircraft to the fuel pumps.
The pilot attaches the ground line to the airplane’s exhaust stack and grabs the fuel hose, to discover that the gas pumps are not yet switched on.
With his sense of the absurd rapidly sharpening, the pilot decides to check the engine oil dipstick before heading to the office. Sure enough, down a quart.
Better pick up a sectional chart. The destination airport is near the edge of the chart; it would be prudent to have the next chart, just in case.
Re-entering the FBO lobby, the pilot heads for the (locked) display case with charts inside. In an almost comic addendum to the succession of the morning’s aggravations, the pilot notes the valid dates on the chart he wants to obtain. It has expired.
By now someone has turned on the fluorescent lights that (harshly) illuminate the FBO’s lobby, and outside, the pilot hears the big hangar doors rumbling open. Maybe help has arrived at last and we can get this show on the road!
The employee who opened the place an hour ago reappears, turns on the gas pumps, and is about to head to the hangar to find the pilot a quart of oil when the phone rings. The employee answers, tells someone, “Let me go check,” puts the receiver down on the desk, and vanishes.
The passenger, blotting a newly acquired oil stain on her nice coat, looks unhappy with the whole project. It is only a matter of time before the suggestion, “Maybe we should just drive,” will be offered. (Indeed, if the flight had launched on schedule, they would be two handoffs and three VORs down the course by now.)
A twin Piper is taxiing toward the gas pumps, and someone has pushed the Cessna 172 back to make room. More aircraft are firing up and moving about. Now, more phones are ringing.
The first employee reappears. Seeing the pilot, he says, “You’re still here?”
The pilot makes himself a promise: If he does ever get to the destination today, he will belatedly express his heartfelt appreciation to the folks at his former FBO for their superb service. And he will offer them his deepest apologies for taking them for granted for all those years, in the innocent days before he moved away.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.