By Greg Brown
“Thanks for rescuing me!” said Dan, when Jean and I picked him up Saturday morning.
A young bachelor on a tight budget, Dan had recently earned his pilot certificate. I often invited him along when flying somewhere interesting.
“Rescuing you? What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, I met this girl,” he said. “We were inseparable last weekend, but since Sunday she hasn’t returned my calls. This whole week I’ve been totally stressed out. I just need to get into the air and forget everything for a while. So you see, by inviting me flying, you’ve rescued me.”
En route to the airport, Dan recounted details of his teetering romance: how he really liked this woman, how he’d goofed with a previous girlfriend by sending red roses before she was ready, and how he didn’t want to mess up again. Crowning each burst of emotion were the words, “I’m so glad you invited me. I know I’ll forget all this once we’re in the air.”
That day, we were bound for the Navajo Nation Fair, in Window Rock, Ariz. Imagine your local county fair, but in the capitol of Navajo country, with announcements broadcast in the Navajo language, handcrafts dominated by Native jewelry and weaving and the big-draw events being a rodeo and powwow dancing. The fair is a particular treasure for pilots; although many hours by car from Phoenix, Window Rock is only 90 minutes by Flying Carpet. Jean and I had hatched the plan only the night before, during our customary “What should we do this weekend?” discussion. Here we were, taking flight just after sunrise.
“Been flying much?” I asked Dan, upon reaching cruising altitude.
“Every week or so, but only locally,” he replied. “Did I tell you about my takeoff incident? I was practicing touch and goes in a rented 172, when, on my second takeoff, I noticed the plane wasn’t climbing. Performance was so poor that I considered landing on a city street.”
“Wow!” Jean exclaimed. “What did you do?”
“I double-checked the panel. The carburetor heat was off, the mixture was properly set and the flap lever was up. But when I glanced back toward the airport, I discovered the flaps still fully extended. Fortunately, when I recycled the handle, they came up. I was just beginning to climb when the control tower radioed that I was way below pattern altitude and asked if I wanted to declare an emergency. I said, ‘No, I have it under control,’ so I was cleared to land. Touchdown was fine, but being flustered, I accidentally lined up on the wrong runway—and sidetracked another plane.”
“Did you get in trouble?” Jean asked.
“No,” said Dan. “The tower controller was very understanding. But along with the flaps lesson, I learned that nerves can be reason enough to declare an emergency, rather than risk causing a collision.”
We approached the densely forested Mogollon Rim, the 7,000-foot shoulder of the Colorado Plateau. An avid photographer, Dan retrieved his camera and began shooting. Next came treeless high desert near Holbrook, sweeping unbroken to buttes and mountains on the distant horizon. Then Gallup materialized under our wing and Window Rock, with its fantastic stone formations.
We overflew the fair on downwind and shut down the engine within earshot of the opening parade, which had already begun.
“Darn, I forgot to bring tiedown ropes,” I said, scanning the empty ramp. “Thunderstorms are possible this afternoon.”
“Can’t worry about it now,” replied Jean.
We soon nestled into the Native American crowd lining the parade route. As on past visits, we delighted to princesses and politicians, floats and marching bands from exotic-sounding places like Tuba City, Shiprock and Chilchinbeto. World War II Navajo code talkers proudly escorted a bronze monument destined to commemorate their exploits. Other tribes participated, too: the Fort McDowell Yavapai, the White Mountain Apache and the Tohono O’odham. This year, however, turquoise-bedecked princesses rode more often on cars than on horseback. One wowed the crowd from a motorcycle.
After two hours, oncoming floats still stretched to the horizon.
“This parade seems endless,” said Jean as she scavenged her purse for a snack.
“Gets longer every year,” joked the young Navajo woman next to us.
We bought roast corn to stave off hunger until the closing fire trucks finally appeared, and then we flowed slowly with the crowd to the fair. Dan, Jean and I had just begun munching Navajo tacos of frybread, tomatoes and beans when dust assaulted our eyes and thunder rumbled from the horizon.
“Is it my imagination, or does this happen at lunchtime every year? Jean asked.
“It’s not your imagination,” I replied, remembering that the airplane wasn’t tied down. We crunched our lunch with its new seasoning of grit, then perused Native silver and blankets before dodging raindrops back to the airport. Pressed by dark clouds from the north, we taxied for takeoff, only to shut down and wait while a Citation jet with failed brakes was towed off the runway.
“Flying never becomes routine,” said Dan when we finally took off. “No wonder it’s so absorbing. Say, isn’t Meteor Crater up this way?”
“Sure is,” I replied. “Just beyond Winslow.”
As therapy for the lovelorn, we detoured over the Painted Desert and Meteor Crater for photos. Then, near Payson, Dan noted a road leading to a cleft in the earth.
“That goes to Tonto Bridge, the largest travertine arch in the world,” he said.
We’d all visited it on the ground, and it now seemed appropriate that we view it from the air.
Fulfilled and exhausted, we wanderers soon descended our Flying Carpet into warm desert Phoenix.
“I’m so glad you invited me!” beamed Dan after landing.
No more had been said about Dan’s abortive girlfriend, from takeoff that morning through the final drive home. I guess flying really does make you forget your problems. Then again, maybe it was all those lovely princesses.
Author of numerous books and articles, Greg Brown is a columnist for AOPA Flight Training magazine. Read more of his tales in “Flying Carpet: The Soul of an Airplane,” available through your favorite bookstore, pilot shop or online catalog, or visit [http://www.gregbrownflyingcarpet.com].