By Greg Brown
“You’ve got to help!” implored Ms. Patterson over the telephone, her voice cracking with emotion.
“Me?” I replied, “But how can I help with the high school band?”
“You must persuade your son to be in the marching band invitational next Saturday.”
“But Austin loves band,” I said. “Why would he not participate?”
“There’s some sort of track meet that day, but you must convince him band is more important. We have only 38 members, and several already can’t come. Without Austin we’d have only two trumpets.”
I knew better than to second-guess my son on what was apparently a volatile topic, but promised the band director I’d check into it.
“Austin,” I said, when he arrived home from school, “what’s the deal with Ms. Patterson and the marching band competition?”
“She just doesn’t understand!” he said, with irritation only a teen can muster. “No way am I skipping the State Cross-Country meet.”
“The state meet?”
“That’s right,” he said, “the band competition is important, but so are cross-country finals. I just can’t believe they’re on the same day.” Worse yet, there’d been words between the band director and the cross-country coach, and Austin found himself in the middle. “Someone will be angry no matter what I do,” he lamented.
It turned out that the marching band was to compete at 2:45pm, at Eastern Arizona College near Safford, on the New Mexico border. By bus from Phoenix that’s a three-hour journey over two-lane roads, so the band was to depart at 10am.
But our school’s slot at the cross-country finals was scheduled for 11:30am on that same day, in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler. It wouldn’t be over until 12:30pm, at the earliest.
Now anyone who can’t guess what I did next should be reading a boating magazine, not one about flying. I pulled out my sectional chart and hatched a plan. Flight time from Phoenix to Safford should be about an hour in the ol’ Flying Carpet. The question was, could we make the logistics work?
A total of as little as 45 minutes would be available to accommodate ground transportation at both ends of our mission. That ruled out flying from Scottsdale Airport, an hour’s drive from the meet. Hmmm. maybe if Austin and my wife Jean could hitch a ride after the meet to the closer Williams Gateway Airport, I could reposition the plane from Scottsdale and be there waiting to pick them up.
I also learned that Eastern Arizona College is only seven miles from Safford Airport, and that the nice folks there would loan us their airport courtesy car. Austin would be beat after this rush trip, but was game to try. And of course, once Ms. Patterson got over the novelty of our plan, she was all for it.
As the big day approached a new crisis arose. On Thursday, the band director called once again, more distraught than ever. She had just learned that two other musicians could not compete due to a family wedding in Scottsdale at 6pm Saturday — with the band competition not expected to end until 4pm, there was no way they could make it home. “Is there any possibility,” she pleaded, “that you could fly them home in the airplane?”
I wasn’t sure Mrs. Markey would like the idea of her two sons flying halfway across Arizona in a light airplane, but as it turned out, she was thrilled that they might both march in the band and make the family wedding. The only downside was that with the airplane full for the return trip, Austin would have to ride the bus home instead of flying. But with his political and logistical problems solved, he was happy to help out.
All of us waited with bated breath to see if this complex plan would work; I became particularly concerned when Friday forecasts called for a cold front to cross the state over the weekend.
Fortunately, Saturday dawned hazy but flyable. After an initial panic when Jean’s ride to the cross-country meet failed to materialize, I repositioned the airplane from Scottsdale to Williams Gateway.
Jean and Austin showed up there at 12:45, just enough time for a quick sandwich before launching for Safford. Austin flew — it was the least I could offer since he’d be riding the bus home — and after skirting 10,700 ft. Mt. Graham we spotted Safford in the fertile Gila River Valley, touching down around 2pm. Austin quickly changed from running shorts to band uniform, and following a mad dash from the airport we intercepted the band at Eastern Arizona College just in time for warm-up at 2:45.
Our band played well, and while scores were tallied Jean and I got a few moments to relax and groove to a demonstration performance by the Eastern Arizona College “Marching Gila Monsters.” (Find that mascot anywhere else!)
As soon as band photos were shot and awards dispensed, we collected Andrew and Spencer Markey and rushed back to the airport, leaving Austin with the band bus. We took flight moments after sunset, reclaiming sunshine just in time for the boys to see the sun set twice on their first-ever airplane flight.
As Jean flew us home, sunset-reddened skies deepened to silhouette purple mountains, then turned jet black as we approached Scottsdale for landing. I radioed ahead to phone the boys’ father, which led to the only glitch of our trip — Jim went to the wrong location on the airport. Fortunately we connected just before six, and off he rushed with his boys to the wedding.
Ah, the glory of being a pilot. for a few days I even got to be a high school hero. Hey, better late than never!
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, and visit [http://www.gregbrownflyingcarpet.com].