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Touch and Go

It was a cool morning. Chris, Justin, and Carey had gotten to sleep early as usual, and up at four AM to quietly creep down out of the loft and get into the van. Chris carried a soundly sleeping Carey out and lay him on a cushion in the back.

They stopped first at Tony's shop. He was already up and ready to go. He had a couple of survival manuals. Chris had calculated the weight of what they were bringing and allowed each person to bring one large bag and one small one. Justin had found a little backpack that fit Carey perfectly; all of his things were in it.

The crew got to their aircraft as the sky was beginning to lighten. Everything there was just as they had left it. Chris was glad not to have to find and prepare another plane, as that would have delayed their departure another day, for sure. Tony had come out to help refuel it using the special equipment that he and Justin had put together.

They had rigged a pump setup that connected with clamps to the battery terminals. There were inlet and outlet hoses which Tony said were the kind that won't melt when used with gasoline. All they had to do was find a tank of the right fuel, drop the suction hose into the tank, and apply power by connecting the battery cables.

Tony had given a demonstration of its use at the shop; it all seemed okay except for one thing: connecting and disconnecting the cables made a lot of sparks. Chris worried that this might not be the safest arrangement when working with highly volatile fuel. They hadn't yet been able to find any kind of switch that would be large enough and sealed against vapors, so Tony made up some extension cables that at least gave a little more distance from where the fuel was being pumped.

Chris gave the plane only the briefest of checkouts since he had checked it all out yesterday afternoon when they refueled it. Carey was still asleep. Justin had a child's car seat that he used with him in the van; not only was it safer for him, but it raised him up high enough that he could see out easily. Justin wanted to try it in the back seat of the Cessna. Chris managed to secure it with the seat belt and it fit just fine.

As Justin put the sleeping little boy in his familiar car seat he just opened his eyes briefly, looked around and closed them again. Chris hoped again that the decision to take him along really would be okay, and reminded himself not to take unnecessary chances.

Justin hated to see Tony get the copilot's seat, but he wanted to be by Carey when he woke up. Carey had not been in the plane before and Justin wanted to be right beside him, ready with reassurance and goodies to eat and drink.

So Tony sat up front and read the checklist, and this time Chris didn't bother to try the radio or look for traffic as they crossed a runway. But something in the back of his mind insisted he was building bad habits; that it just wasn't the right way to do things, even though it was now safe.

Chris opened the throttle and the motor responded with smooth, reliable power. Though the plane was full, it still took almost no time get aloft. Even with the four of them, their luggage, and full fuel tanks, they were not overloaded.

Tony's father had been a weekend pilot, so Tony was accustomed to flying. Chris glanced behind and saw that Carey had not even opened his eyes in response to the noise and motion.

It was a clear morning, and the sun was behind them and seemed to rise as the plane did; the sunlight hitting the plane soon after they were aloft. Even as they climbed Chris trimmed up the controls and gave Tony the yoke. Then, without forgetting to keep a piece of his attention on the plane's attitude, Chris got out the sectional chart and reviewed the sequence of landmarks along the route he had marked. It was mostly a straight line to San Antonio, their refueling point. After that the route zigzagged more, in order to make the best possible use of the most visible landmarks. Chris was concerned about the prospect of getting lost over unfamiliar terrain with no working radio beacons.

As for weather, they'd just have to watch what was coming and avoid any chance of flying into trouble. The much more serious danger was that of landing into trouble. If they were attacked at some landing point they might be unable to do anything, except run. Chris hoped it would help that they didn't really have anything worth attacking for.

Carey had begun to stir, and now he cast a sleepy eye around and looked out the window. "We're in the airplane, Carey!" said Justin. "See, look how little everything looks." The sleepy lad seemed not particularly upset or even interested.

"I'm hungry," he said.

"Here, I've got a hard-boiled egg from our chickens," offered Justin. He held it up for Carey to see. "Do you want it?"

Carey gave a sleepy nod. It was still just a little early in the morning for him. "If you'll open it for me."

Some of the kids at the house had been keeping chickens, but as yet they had collected so few eggs that most of the kids hadn't gotten one.

"I need to go pee."

Justin was all ready for that one too. He rummaged in his bag and brought out an empty jar with a screw-on lid. He had to get Carey unstrapped and out of the childseat before it would work, but luckily peeing was all he needed for now. They all hoped he could wait for the other necessity until they landed for fuel. Otherwise they were faced with the choice of having to either have him do it in the plane or land for a few minutes.

He sat in Justin's lap and ate his egg. By the time he was through with it, he was awake enough to take a little more interest in what was going on.

"Why is it so loud?" he asked.

Chris wasn't sure of the answer at first. He pointed at the front of the plane. "The motor is right there," he answered, realizing at the same time that a car motor is just as close, but not as loud. Why is a small plane so loud? he thought. Kids always ask those simple questions that have such difficult answers. "And I guess most of the noise is from the propeller, " he added.

Justin could always put himself in Carey's position, and he knew right away that Carey wouldn't understand "propeller". "The propeller is a big fan on the front of the plane that makes us go by blowing air," he explained.

Chris was often impressed by Justin's parenting skills. Maybe Carey wouldn't fully understand Justin's answer right now (though Chris wasn't sure), but it was put in terms that the little boy was likely to remember and recall when the question occurred to him again.

Tony had been watching their progress along the landmarks, and it was clear that he had some previous experience recognizing objects from the air. He could take a look at the map and point out their position from objects below, sometimes noticing an important landmark before Chris did.

San Antonio, home of the Alamo. Chris wondered if anything would be different here than in Houston. He really didn't want to hang around long enough to find out.

Just land, refuel, fertilize the grass at the side of the runway, and back into the air. Any delay whatsoever would mean they couldn't reach the Marfa airfield before dusk, and Chris wanted to avoid putting down on an unlighted and unfamiliar runway in the dark.

He decided to impress on the boys the importance of not hanging around long on the ground. "We're bound to attract some attention coming into town this way.

"I could glide in quietly with the motor off, but with things like they are you can't tell what we might find on the runway. I want to be ready to put on the power at the last second and take us back up. And in any case, we have to make a pass over the airfield to have a look first."

"This will be the first airplane they've heard in weeks, and someone is bound to come check us out. If they should decide to try to interfere with us in some way, we could have real problems."

"Wouldn't it be quicker to just hop in another plane that has fuel in it?" asked Tony.

"Maybe. We'll have to leave that decision till we get on the ground and see what our choices are. I would rather refuel this one, because we know it doesn't have any problems. If we change to another plane, there's the risk of getting one that wasn't really ready for a long trip. Then there's the matter of the key. We either have to find that or else rip the wiring out to break the magneto grounds. And we'd still have to move all of our stuff over into the other plane."

"There's our airport," said Tony. Justin strapped Carey back into his childseat.

Chris pulled the throttle back, put on the carb heat, and let the nose drop. He wanted to make the approach as quiet as possible, so he tried to pick a low throttle setting that would carry them through a slow flyover and into the final approach without having to put any power back on.

There was still a sock flying, but there was almost no wind filling it, so it made no difference which runway they used. As they passed over the center of the field, they saw a couple of kids beside a group of small planes tied down near a flying- school office. As near as he could tell there wasn't anything obstructing the runway.

Chris decided to take a chance on the two kids playing around the planes. They were probably just exploring, and with any luck they wouldn't be armed or looking for trouble.

The runway was far longer than they needed, so he decided on a steep descent right to the center of the runway's length. He put on full flaps, pulled the throttle all the way back, and circled back to set down not far from another group of small planes as far as possible from the ones with the kids.

With a bit of stiff braking they came to a halt right by the planes. It looked like a flying club, with a Taylorcraft and a few old Cessna 150's. They were all two-seaters, so it was either get the fuel out of them or go look for other planes. Chris had decided they were better off keeping their own plane.

"I need to go poop," said Carey, just as the plane stopped.

Everyone burst out laughing. Carey smiled as if he sensed that he had said something pleasing.

Justin explained. "Everybody thinks that it's a good time, because the plane just stopped!"

He was busy getting Carey unstrapped. Tony was out with his electric pump as soon as the plane rolled to a halt. Chris waited with the motor running while Tony pulled a fuel cap off of the nearest Cessna.

"Full!" he shouted, poking a thumb in the air.

Chris shut off the motor and got a fuel cap off while Tony shoved in the hoses. Chris watched for the exploring kids as he connected the battery clamps from the pump.

The hoses were large and the pump strong enough that the first wing tank of the other plane was soon empty. Justin and Carey returned as they changed the hoses over to the other side of the planes.

Justin had caught sight of the local kids. "They just hopped into a car and took off fast," he reported.

Chris frowned. "They'll be back. With others, I expect. Better go ahead and strap Carey back in."

They were relieved when the second tank was done, but then there was an unexpected problem getting all of the fuel out of the hoses once they were done. Chris didn't want a lot of gasoline spilling out in the plane, but the pump hoses just wouldn't stop trickling. There seemed to be a lot of liquid trapped inside the pump.

Finally Tony had an idea. He reached in his shirt pocket and pulled out a large rubber band. "Wait a sec," he said, and reached inside the plane to the box their lunch sandwiches were in. He took the plastic wrap off of a sandwich and wrapped it around the end of one of the hoses.

"Perfect!" Chris said, "But do you have any more rubber bands in your pocket?"

"Yep," he replied with a big grin, and pulled another one out of his pocket. Another sandwich got unwrapped and soon both hoses were capped.

It looked perfect to Chris, but Tony scrutinized the plastic carefully with a frown. "Gasoline dissolves some plastics," he said.

"It looks okay to me. Let's get out of here before those kids are back with all their friends."

They had to push the plane backwards and rotate it to get headed away from the Cessna that had had the full tanks.

Then they threw the pump and hoses back in the plane and started the motor. As they came onto the runway and turned upwind, Tony pointed to their left and said, "There they are!"

A speeding dark blue and white police car with the lights flashing had just come through the airport gate from the main road, and was headed towards the runway. Rifles could be seen waving in the air from the rear windows of both sides of the car. Unfortunately for these young policemen however, they were headed towards the wrong end of the runway, and by the time the fast- moving car's occupants saw the plane, it was obvious that they could not get turned around in time to head off the plane.

Then a second police car, moving even faster that the first, burst through the gates, nicking a corner of the gatepost as it came. It too appeared to be filled with kids brandishing rifles. By now the airplane had gotten up some speed, and Chris had to decide whether they would be airborne by the time the reached the point where the car would come onto the runway in front of them. From the beginning, it looked close, at best. The runway was bordered on either side with smooth, green grass, and that meant they had room to maneuver on either side of any obstacles. Chris kept the throttle open.

Then he pulled it back. A flash of light had caught his eye. There, on the center stripe of the runway lay a boy with a rifle pointed slightly above them. The flash of light had been emitted from the barrel as their warning shot was fired, and now the barrel dropped to draw a bead on the plane.

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Copyright ©1995 R. Verner

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