The head of my flying school once told Dad that I would mature by five years in six months when I learned to fly. I think that’s true, although any claims of maturity on my part inevitably lead to debate, roaring laughter, and the occasional wild party.
What is certain is that my flight training in was a time of firsts for me, including, in February 2007, my first ever solo out-of-town trip – airborne or otherwise.
The drone of my engine is loud and strong as my plane plunges towards the coast. An hour-long flight and a carefully timed descent at three hundred feet per minute have put me at pattern altitude above Lingayen airfield. The gulf of Lingayen, blue and majestic, sweeps out ahead of me. The airfield is unmistakable from this distance. The cemetery alongside, the shabby shack at the end of the runway, and the small, somewhat decrepit town around the airstrip all look like a charming mess from the air.
The windsock sticks out, orange and limp. Light winds coming from the west. Excellent. The plane arcs smoothly over the gulf as I perform my landing checks. In between checking flap settings, making radio calls, and scanning my instrument panel, I take a few moments to drink in the deep blue of the gulf, such a contrast to the dusty green fields I have been flying over for an hour. To the west, hidden by clouds, the Hundred Islands beckon… But I must stick to my flight plan. Another time, another time.
The engine purrs contentedly as I make the turn to final approach. This is quite possibly the riskiest part of the flight, with low airspeed and high bank angle conspiring to stall and spin an inattentive pilot’s aircraft. The sudden gusts at this field are notorious, adding an element of unpredictability to my approach. Worse, the local populace seems to think they own the place, traipsing around the runway as though it were no more than a fancy place to walk and sun oneself. That’s why I made a visual check of the field earlier as I flew over it. It looks clear – for now. The trees ahead have reportedly eaten many airplanes, but I try not to think about it.
I can handle this.
With unusually light winds, landing should be a breeze, but Lingayen has one last curve ball to throw at me. I have spent the last few weeks landing at the Omni flying school’s airfield, with its bare-minimum runway only forty-five feet wide. Small, narrow runways do force you to land very precisely, and after that, Lingayen, with its endless Hollywood freeway (double the width of Omni!), presents an optical illusion. The runway is so wide that I flare early, thinking I’m only a few inches off the ground. The plane’s undercarriage protests with a loud clank as the plane stops flying over a foot off the ground, drops, and clatters onto the concrete. Oops.
I park the airplane, steering as best as I can between the piles of carabao dung that litter the grass taxiway. I sigh as the propeller grinds to a halt. I’ve never gone on an out-of-town trip alone in my life, and here I am, a hundred miles from home, with only my airplane and the carabaos to keep me company. I fire off a text message to Dad, who is 6,000 miles away in San Francisco and is understandably anxious about this little training hop. I sign the airport logbook, the only sign of aviation activity in the abandoned shack beside the runway, and make a quick trip to the bathroom (this is essential on a long cross-country flight!). I have many miles to go.
The sun beats down on me as I trudge back to my flying machine. Like Lingayen itself, she’s in good shape, if a little decrepit from constant use. Student pilots are hard on airplanes; this one has a malfunctioning artificial horizon (thankfully unnecessary for this flight), scratched paint, a couple of minor oil stains, a scuffed windshield, utterly demolished interior carpeting, a loose instrument panel cover, a damaged primary microphone key… the list goes on and on. The instructors and I didn’t worry too much about it. The important thing is that the engine is in tip-top condition.
The trees sway gently as I climb into the airplane. Pre-flight inspection reveals no malfunctions and no carabao dung on the tires (not that I looked too closely). I line up with the runway, check everything one last time, and smoothly open the throttle. The Lycoming four-banger’s purr changes to a roar as the plane eats up the runway and steps lightly into the salty air.
I’m congratulating myself on another glorious takeoff when a routine instrument scan sends me crashing back to earth (fortunately not literally). The oil temperature gauge is red-lined! What the hell?
Visions of explosions and engine fires blast through my head as I make a quick radio call declaring my intention to land immediately. There are no fire trucks or ambulances here. Heck, there aren’t even any human beings at the airport – and the carabaos are notoriously poor at rescuing pilots from wrecked flying machines. I fly a quick pattern, keeping my speed up to cool the engine, which still sounds as irreverently noisy as ever.
At this point, landing the plane is almost automatic for me. I bump down onto the runway and breathe a sigh of relief… and then this shepherd and a bunch of sheep – sheep! – starts crossing the runway ahead of me! I stand on the brakes, and the plane slows to a halt with about ten feet between me and free wool sweaters and lamb chops for everyone. I swing the plane around and taxi back to the grass ramp. I’m driving one-handed. With my other hand, I unfasten my seat belt and keep my fingers on the door handle, ready to dive clear should the engine decide to explode. The oil temperature is still pegged at the red line.
I parked the plane beside the shack, powered it down, and all but leaped out. The grass is brilliantly green, and the sun scorches my back as I fire off two phone calls, first to Dad, then to Omni. They talk to the mechanics, who confirm that while the engine itself is rock solid, my plane’s oil temperature gauge has been malfunctioning for days. They say that I shouldn’t worry unless the oil pressuregauge starts to go nuts. Argh.
No one will ever believe that there are sheep out here.
One more call to Dad, and then I climb back into the plane. I double-check everything. Again. All clear. Hmm. On a hunch, I key the mike. Immediately, the oil temperature gauge spikes – and so do the fuel gauges. Crap, this just keeps getting better and better.
Well, the flight instructors teach us not to rely on our fuel gauges anyway. Good frigging idea, guys. I check the fuel manually as a matter of course. 18 gallons. More than enough. Assuming the fuel tanks don’t leak.
Ten minutes later, I’m flying northeast along the coast. In about an hour, I will be at San Fernando, La Union, a good five provinces away from the Ateneo, my house, and the ordinary ground-bound part of my life. All I have to do is fly this wreck a hundred miles, land, get some fuel, and fly another hundred miles back south until Mount Arayat and Clark airfield fill my windshield. Then I land, get the poor airplane into the maintenance hangar, get some real food, and do my homework.
How hard can it be?
The sky is blue, and the drone of my indomitable Lycoming engine is loud in my ears, strong and grating as ever. It’s going to be a beautiful day.
©Carlo Rivera, 2007, with images from cross-country flights to Lingayen, 2004
Special thanks to Suchen Lim, my Creative Writing professor, for her tips, encouragement, and occasional blunt critique