Back to Dash 7 Homepage

This story has been donated by aviation author Sky Masterson. More Dash 7 stories can be found in his book Pilots of the Line which is available via Watch Sky Masterson's website for his new "all Dash 7" book.

Our Love of Flying is but a Thorny Rose

by Sky Masterson

A wicked specter floats among us as we drone through the night sky. There is a choppiness that inhabits the mountain air, lunging for us as we carry our load of wintertime skiers. It has been a year since moving up to the DHC-7, a larger turbo-prop airplane, one designed specifically for flying into the mountains, and I think of the number of times I have already flown this route already this year: Boulder; Granby; the Gore Range; over a thousand alluring crevasses for mountain loving beings. The Continental Divide lies forty minutes behind, below the thick stratus layer that tickles the earth and extends to someplace we'll not see, but the beauty of the Rockies is not my fascination tonight.

  Something lurks beyond our realm. I clear my throat and the interruption makes Don, my sturdy copilot, jump like a cat under a rocker. I am not alone in my assessment. I click between eight DC and AC generators-volts, amps--all normal. Engine gauges steady. He looks in the blackness for only a second then focuses abnormally long on his flight gauges. Everything is normal, yet nothing is, and I can't quite place my finger on it.

  Don tunes in the ADF receivers and for the duration of our approach, I will listen to the constant scratchy identifying tone beeping annoyingly in my ears. In the event we should lose the signal for the microwave due to snow piling up on the antennae, we will have our ancient ADF as our only back up to fly the approach through the mountains around Steamboat Springs. The needles creep back and forth in the marginal radio reception in the Rockies, never resting on a particular bearing to the station, and we can really only guess our position by them, which is a hell of a way around granite.

  Don flicks the synchrophaser off, the propellers begin their audible waddle, and he gradually pushes the condition levers forward. Our four rumbling propellers whine, like weary Clydesdales, huffing along the wing, protesting the inconsiderate spurring of their ribcages. With each inch of forward movement of the levers, I can feel the increasing drag from the propellers digging in like pie plates and airspeed lags. I tweak the throttles and the airplane devours into the blackness. And we begin the microwave approach just abeam Rabbit Ears Pass.

  "Have them run out and brush off the TALAR antennae," I say, "Don't want them to do it too soon or the snow will pile up again; too late's no good, either."

  "Right on it," Don replies.

  "Gear down."

  Don reaches for the wheel-shaped handle and throws it down while talking on the radio to Steamboat operations. The nose wheel pops out and makes the sound of a baseball bat hitting the hood of a car, as it naturally does, and the wind hisses more loudly at our feet. She sways barely detectably as first the left main gear locks, and in an instant, the right. Three green lights-good.

  "Landing checklist."

  He obediently takes the card from the holder and mumbles robotically through it. My replies are well rehearsed.

  "Flaps forty-five."

  "Flaps forty-five."

  Her nose pitches down as I roll the trim wheel by my right leg a quarter turn. All we have to do now is land.

  Below us, snow drifts along the icy Yampa River that wanders through the valley like a discarded Christmas ribbon. Great ranches with rotting barbed wire fences frame the rolling hills in a white patchwork quilt. To the right, the last of the evening skiers have long shushed their last mogul on Steamboat Mountain, and I imagine them sitting lazily on fat chairs in the lodge, barely noticing our four Pratt engines plying what they hope is tomorrow's heavenly powder.

  Don is wet behind the ears, but boasts a seasoned assuredness in his twenty-four-year-old brain. Had I not known he was a year on the line, I would have guessed him to be an old salt, never needing prodding to stay ahead of the airplane, setting my side up as well as his own, keeping me out of the dirt. Anymore, a year is an eternity in the commuter airline business, yet only time can teach the foibles and idiosyncrasies of flying through mountain air masses and over jagged rocks. One's hair grays soon, or falls out doing this and his is full and black.but maybe in another year.

  I follow the blue and brown attitude indicator, my only reference to the horizon, as we drift down the glideslope. The microwave needles move in micrometers, displaying the steep approach, moving toward a perfect "+." The instruments jitter with increased sensitivity the nearer we get to Steamboat, and I tap the pedals by my feet ever so gently to keep them centered. I scan the left; I scan the right. Don's eyes shoot laser beams into his side of the panel.

  "Two thousand feet," he says.

  "Set in the missed approach altitude."

  "It's there."

  "Thank you."

  I rub my wet palm on my leg, and then switch hands.

  "See anything?"


  The farther down we go I quash more fear. The snow is deep, the runway is short, the night is dark, and that phantom drifts among us. Blackness is all around. The airspeed quivers, but resumes its grudging slowness. She's like a truck, so heavy and slow. The wheel is rubber and my seat is full of eggshells. Bank a little left.

  "Winds?" I ask.

  "Down the runway. A thousand feet to go."

  Speed good; vertical good, too. If we miss the approach, it will be straight ahead and then left off the ADF, back toward Hayden and then Buffalo Pass toward home. No need to push the weather.

  "Coming up on minimums."

  Engines sound funny.

  Attitude perfect. It doesn't feel right, g-forces, s-strange.

  Needles crisscross, and then diverge as if pulled by magnets.

  "Where are you g-?" he says.


  In an uncontrolled response, his diaphragm pulls cold air through his partly opened mouth and into his lungs, as if filling them would turn his body into a bouncing beach ball. His gasp never ends, it just starts, and in the course of two seconds, I stop hearing anything.

  Most of my instruments-airspeed, altitude, course arrows-suddenly spin fatally, betraying my wholesome attitude indicator. Though it lasted a second, my perplexity is the culmination of a thousand nightmares. It bore into me forever. Why are they doing that?

  In that second of deception, our airplane rolls over on her back, and we hit the mountain with a deadly blast.

  The party was over. We now received the life of a statistic.

  Am I angry? No, there is an eternity for anger. Fear is saved for the living; I am not afraid. I have opened the crypt door and walked through, seen what many great aviators have seen, but few related. I have been discombobulated in a way that no training has ever prepared me for, just like the saying goes: "It's what's not trained for that kills you," and I have never seen this before. The world goes black. The machine ceases to run. There is no sound.

  "Do you know what happened?"

  The voice broke the silence as if God pierced the heavens, questioning my greatest sin. I look at Don. He is still in one piece, but just as silent as the simulator. I am overwhelmed with bewilderment, for I have never died and had to critique my performance before.

  I sit, silent.

  "I failed your attitude gyro," says the simulator training instructor sitting behind us.

  Ah, yes, the attitude gyro. That explains why our world looked so perfect right down to the crash. As the gyro imperceptibly spun down, I made unnoticeable corrections believing I was maintaining wings level when it cheated me and rolled us dismally. The attitude gyro, a pilot's favorite instrument, because it makes us think we can see through clouds, was the only one not working properly, which is why all the others seemed to react strangely in the last moment. I thought it was they who betrayed me, not my favored attitude indicator.

  "But there was no red flag, no caution light," I protest.

  "You only have a flag with a power source failure. I just failed the gyro itself. You always had power to it," says the instructor.

  As I look across the instrument panel, I am painfully aware that our particular plane has no standby attitude indicator. A cross check of one would perhaps have saved us on this occasion. Don's indicator worked fine, though. But with only two attitude indicators, and no system to compare them telling you when one has failed, in a split second decision, whose do you believe? Don was my only source for discrepancy information, other than my own cross panel check. He looked as perplexed and deflated as I.

  "Something was wrong in those few seconds. I wasn't sure whose attitude indicator was wrong, just that something was wrong. It was only a few seconds!" Don sprang up.

  "That's all you had," the instructor replies.

  "Well, that's bullshit!" I said, "You don't fail a guy's attitude indicator so close to the ground like that. The human brain can react only so fast."

  "True," he says, "life can be unfair."

  I can feel my body temperature begin to rise as a bead of sweat trickles down the back side of my neck and disappears in the mush of my wet back. The simulator seems extremely warm. I am angry. I am angry at myself for my inadequacies as a pilot.

  "I wanted to prove a point," he says. "Every once in a while we come across a scenario that uncovers a fault in our accepted beliefs in operating our airplanes. No airplane is perfect so we must adapt our thinking for every possible known situation that can occur. You must be diligent in recognizing a failure of any instrument at any moment," he says.

  My death is still my main concern.

  "So be it," I say.

  "The rest of your ride went just fine. I just wanted to show you this scenario with the extra time we had."

  Thank you, I think, for showing me life's fragility, for opening my naive eyes to the ugliness of reality. I am still dead and will forever miss the blissful innocence of those who know only what it is to live.

  Nightmares are not cruel things, I think. They allow us to experience our greatest fears while we subconsciously control the outcome. Then we wake, our minds being cleansed of evil thoughts as in a confessional, as we clear space for the trickling in of more evilness to inhabit.

  The simulator is not a nightmare. It is very real. If I pinch myself in it, it hurts. Thousands of people have gone through great strides to create realism so believable that the men who fly them sweat real perspiration, and hearts beat, at times, exceedingly fast. And the simulator's worth as a tool is immeasurable in training pilots to react successfully to scenarios that otherwise only dead men know. But with each maneuver, a tiny piece of simulation becomes reality for the pilot. Maybe no real engine has failed under his command, but he has heroically saved the plane from hundreds of catastrophes in his mind via the virtual reality of the simulator. The pilot's boosted ego is real; his confidence is real. Should he experience a simulated death, it also takes on a magnified eternal life in the deep recesses of his brain.

  An airplane is not forgiving. It is not perfect, nor is it ever perfectly operated. It is a big, beautiful animal, one that bites as well as licks and purrs. It is a thing to respect, because mere novices become only statistical fodder, mangled in a joke of pathetic incompetence. A pilot learns through the simulator that an airplane deserves nothing less than supreme respect by never leaving one's guard down, never trusting that all is well, never trusting that all its needs are met, because they never will be. And, like a phantom in the dark it will take all that he holds dear, not because it is programmed to, but because it is only human to become complacent when all is perceived to be well.

  So when I see my beautiful DHC-7, her wings still firmly attached by their roots to her unblemished body; her engines still strong, unstrewn about Steamboat Springs, I don't see a mere machine. I don't see a vehicle devised for the sole purpose of transporting masses to locations over the horizon. I see my teacher when I carelessly forgot to flip a switch, my lover who strokes my fragile ego by allowing me to ease her onto the earth in a driving rain, and sometimes the vehicle of my most prodigious nightmares.

Back to Dash 7 Homepage