Back Into the Wilder Blue Yonder, Part 2

The airplane’s owner was named Alan, and we began conversing via e-mail and over the phone.  The logistics of putting a deal together was looking formidable, not only because the airplane was over 1300 miles away but because I was trying to work the whole deal in between shuttle flights.  My job in the Space Shuttle Safety division required me to be in the Mission Engineering Room during flights; and a shuttle mission always tended to take over your life whenever it was ongoing.  I had to sandwich all my airplane activities everything in-between missions; we had just completed STS-125 in May and I would be working STS-127 in the middle of July and STS-128 in late August. Moreover, Alan was leaving for a one week trip at the end of June. I started talking to Alan about his airplane in early June with all that in mind.

It was clear from the beginning that Alan was proud of his airplane and he would nor move any on the price.  That was okay by me since I thought we were getting a pretty good deal anyway.  The other logistics were more problematic; so I started discussion options with him for getting my required training done.  He knew an instructor there at Columbia that fit the bill and referred me to him. But when I first contacted Doug, I was trying to minimize the leave time off and to do so needed him to fly on a Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.  Doug always took Mondays off and he wasn’t willing to compromise on that.  Damn!  So I looked to a light sport school about 150 miles north after Alan said that flying the CTSW there was no problem since he could get his son to fly up and pick him up in their RV.

When I called the school to talk to them, I wound up in an immediate disagreement.  When I told the instructor I needed five hours and a BFR to satisfy my insurance, he replied he wasn’t sure I could get up to speed in the airplane that fast and that most students transitioning took eight hours or more. That really didn’t bother me much since I was willing to do what it took.  But where we hit a brick wall was when he started telling me my background in many different airplanes, including some really high performance ones, would work against me and me I had to “pass” the BFR!

“A Biennial Flight Review is not a pass/fail event,” I told him.  “It’s what the name says, i.e., a review.”

Even though I quickly pulled out a copy of the Federal Aviation Regulations and quoted to him what it said about a BFR over the phone, he continued to insist that the BFR was essentially a check ride and had to be passed.  To double check what I knew to be true, I e-mailed a buddy of mine who is an excellent CFI and an ailine pilot, asking him about the BFR.  He confirmed what I already knew.  That made what this guy was telling me was a show-stopper.  I was more than willing to do what it took to convince both me and my instructor I was safe but I wasn’t looking to be a Master of the CTSW by the time I left there nor was I willing to be held hostage to someone else’s business plan.  When I confronted the instructor with that, he backed down, finally he recognizing it was my airplane and they would not have any liability.  Still, the whole episode left me with a bad taste in my mouth.  I now didn’t want to work with those guys unless I absolutely had no other options.

I felt it was time to try for financing, so I applied to Bank of American through AOPA for the aircraft loan. The pre-approval came through fairly quickly, and though we got a good rate we also got a surprise $400 loan fee that HAD to be financed as part of the package, i.e., the bank would not let you pay that up front and insisted be financed as part of the loan.  While we didn’t like that, we decided to press ahead with them since we already had the approval.

I also engaged the services of an escrow company, and though I hadn’t done that before, I would later feel the deal would have collapsed without it.

With the money in place, I bought airline tickets for me and Connie to fly out to California to give the airplane a try. We initially had planned to fly out on July 4th and meet Alan after he returned from a cruise to Alaska, but Connie’s father fell ill and we postponed the trip.  We flew out on July 17th. Though the shuttle would be in the air, I had a few days off between shifts.  We would sandwich the airplane’s exam in between them, though leaving town during a mission was something I had never done before and made me just a little uncomfortable.

Once in the air on a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 headed for Oakland, I realized how long it had been since I had spent almost four hours sitting in an airliner.  Connie had plugged into her iPod shortly and disappeared into her music;though I had brought a copy of the CTSW’s pilot’s operating handbook to study, I found it hard, as I always did, not to spend all my time staring out at the ground and sky.   Still, by the time we were approaching the west coast, I was getting antsy and was more than ready to put my feet back on terra firma. I watched us cross the small mountains and desert spaces as we flew past the coast, angling toward Oakland’s runway that dangled out over the water.  “Water, water, water, steel, steel, steel!” I mumbled as we crossed the runway’s black asphalt threshold in homage to my “two hundred plus” landings aboard ship in the backseat of a Tomcat.

Once we deboarded and were in the Terminal, we made our way downstairs to the Baggage Claim.   A cousin of Connie’s had warned us that getting bags at Oakland would take half an hour and she didn’t miss it by much; we were lugging our bags off the conveyors and out the doors a grueling forty minutes later.  Outside the terminal, we hopped onboard a small bus that would take us to Hertz and our rental car.

After getting our car, we made our way out onto the Interstates fairly easily, hitting Friday traffic at two o’clock in their afternoon.  Down I-880 to 580 heading east we had few problems at first but didn’t get far before our movement ground to a near halt as everyone else in California also tried to escape east.  We crept through Dublin and hopped off at Livermore to visit a cousin of Connie’s who also graciously served us dinner a couple of hours later.  We hopped back on the highway to find it had cleared, and we headed toward our destination of Twain Harte with new instructions from our cousins about how to proceed.  I had rented a small cottage there for the weekend, and it was only a short distance away from the Columbia airport and the airplane we had come to see.

It had been twenty years since I had lived in California while stationed in San Diego with the US Navy.  Most of my time in the Bay Area had come a few years after that when I dated a woman living there;  it had been almost a decade since I had been in this country at all.  I felt out of place…foreign…but at the same time not so unfamiliar I couldn’t connect.  The mountains and oceans of the Bay quickly gave way to the small rolling mountains filled with wind turbines that, near Livermore,   descended into an ever-widening valley beyond.

We made our way east on I-280 to I-5 before abandoning it after only a few northern miles for the two lane California Highway 120.  We drove past farms and orchards, through the small towns of Simms and Escalon.  We stopped in Oakdale at a McDonald’s to get some diet cokes before continuing into country that was both ascending and turning green.  Soon, we were climbing into the Sierra Nevada but darkness was falling so fast we couldn’t see the peaks.  We just knew we were climbing and the air was growing cooler.

We noted the intersection of highways at Sonora; we would return there in the morning to find our way to the airport.  We drove up into the darkness checking sign after sign but still almost overshot Twain Harte Drive perched on our left at the top of a ridge.  Turning left onto it, we crept down the small, two-lane, dark mountain road until we saw the signs of Gables Cedar Creek Inn.  We turned down into a small gravel road leading to a row of cottages. I had rented the Love Nest, which was the first one we came upon.  It was a quaint, small, wood-framed cabin with a small fence on the front porch almost swallowed up by trees.  The owners of the place had told us where to find the keys and said that checking in the next day would be fine, and we were happy with that.  We had been traveling all day, and though the California clocks said it was two hours earlier, our bodies said they had had enough, and all we wanted to do was settle in for a good night’s sleep.