Food on a Ferry Flight
The make-do meals eaten on a tight flying schedule
Headset, logbook, flashlight, a few pairs of fresh socks, an extra shirt, underwear, and a toothbrush. All of the essentials for a cross-country flight in a small two seater airplane. If I overpacked, the weight of the baggage would careen the gross weight of the plane off the edge of the safety regulations set up by the Flight Aviation Administration. Pack too little and I could end up in a seriously uncomfortable situation without a good pair of fresh underwear, or die due to a lack of proper lighting.
Ferrying is a term used for pilots who are hired to fly a plane from it’s previous owner to it’s new buyer. Typically these situations involve a newly born pilot with an irresistible itch to purchase a plane of their own. Their fingers still wet from the printed ink of their temporary pilot’s licenses, these fresh pilots glide over to the nearest computer to scan through what airplanes are available. Dreams of wild adventures and wooing the ladies dance across their vision as they scroll through page after page of possibilities. Sensitive of their recent achievements, and naive to the world of aviation, the new pilots search for a plane that is both simple, yet extraordinary. Something that will turn the heads of their neighbors, but won’t prove so difficult that they can’t fly it. Finally, after much deliberation and many sleepless nights, they’ll make their choice and settle the deal. Once the settlement is agreed upon and paid for, the buyer must simply obtain the aircraft. However, fear and the flurry of preparation tend to stymie the buyer’s ability to go get the plane himself, and previous owners seldom have time. Any true pilot who owns an airplane understands the deep connection embedded between the flyer and the craft. To simply “sell it” is not something easily understood. Selling ones airplane is like giving a child up for adoption, or putting down a beloved pet after many years of faithful companionship. Owners only sell due to financial difficulties, moves, or the desire to upgrade to a more advanced level of piloting. Thus, the thought of flying their cherished plane to the home of a complete stranger is out of the question. Such an act would surely crush whatever resolve they had left, and render them a lifeless sobbing mess in the middle of an intersection.
This is where my Dad and I come in. Unattached to the plane in question, as the owners are, and yet experienced enough to hop behind the wheel of any craft, it is the perfect solution to everyone’s problems. Simply tell us where you need the plane delivered, pay us for our time, and we’ll be on our way.
The flights themselves vary to an astounding degree. Depending on the weather, plane, and location of the buyer, these ferried flights could take from 7 hours to a week. We came to expect the unexpected, relying solely on our past experiences and our basic instincts to struggle through the wild terrane of whatever came our way. One thing we could always anticipate, however, was the food. First we would begin with snacks gathered from our fridge, then live off whatever vending machines we could find along the way, and then end with a meal provided by the hotel we stayed at.
“Keep it light,” my Dad would say as he plucked the car keys from it’s hook on the wall. “We don’t want to overbear the airplane.”
I nodded in response, quickly glancing at the open fridge for any snacks we could hurry and take. My eye settled on a drawer of loose carrots and a few left over string cheeses from a picnic we’d had a few days previously. Hastily shoving the food in a plastic grocery bag, I snatched some sunglasses from the counter and hopped into the passenger side of the vehicle. My heavy coat rustled as I slammed the door, limiting my mobility.
It was dead winter. Snow piled high against the side of the house, and seemed a clear warning to any sensible being that traveling was out of the question. However, excitement rarely gives any heed to wisdom, thus leading us directly into the storm of our next adventure.
The plane: a Lancair 320. Two seat, single-engine light aircraft with side-by-side seating in a closed cockpit. A sleek fuselage, low winged monoplane, the plane rested easily on a retractable tricycle undercarriage, giving it the appearance of an oversized model plane. The cockpit barely allowed enough room for the two passengers, let alone supplies. A small compartment behind the two seats proved just large enough for our meager belongings and the books required by law to be with the plane at all times.
Due to a quickly approaching storm, we would have to take off immediately and fly as fast as the small craft would allow to beat the weather. Our goal was to avoid wasting time with petty landings for sightseeing, and instead fly directly to our destination. We would have to land at least once to refuel, or more depending on the endurence of our bladders. This provided yet another spin to the task, as such sparse landings cut into our food rations.
Flightcheck. Testing. Runup. Takeoff. Frigid air plastered the side of my head as we leveled off, headed northeast from Kearns, Utah towards our first mapped point. It was by these points on both our paper and electronic maps that we gauged our progress. If we reached a certain point behind schedule we would know to be more weary of refueling, or weather implications. If we were ahead of schedule, however, it allowed for more a more leisurely passage.
We passed the first two hours without any severe discomfort other than the fact that the canopy didn’t seal entirely against the back of the cockpit. A large gap arched over our heads, letting the crisp winter air blow angrily against the back of our necks. A harsh whistle emanated from the crack, a consistent reminder of how cold we were. We eventually learned that if we pressed my scarf into the seam it impeded much of the air from entering our confined space, and quieted the whistle to a dull hum.
It’s an odd thing, flying. The work itself is not exerting, but the mental concentration is exhausting. The pilot in command must constantly check the instruments for fault, scan the surroundings, check the maps, alter the speed, mixture, altitude, angle of attack, adjust for wind, avoid outside dangers, communicate with other aircrafts, avoid prohibited airspace, calculate for the next leg, fuel, distance, time, etc. It is no wonder the pilot needs a copilot before engaging on extended flights. I too glanced about the cockpit, checking and calculating, but soon grew lazy when nothing seemed to change.
Peering out the window I saw nothing but white ground pressed against a dark sky. We flew low beneath the storm, the tip of the tail kissing the clouds above us. If we flew too low we would enter into prohibited airspace designed to protect people on the ground, and if we flew much higher we would dip into the thick of the clouds and be at the mercy of the instruments, which could falter at any moment due to the stammering alternator. So there we flew. Silent and breathless, the prop ripping through the frigid air with fearsome hostility.
Hunger gnawed at my belly. We had long since devoured the few carrots that I had tucked away between my logbook and woolen socks. With still another hour to go before our first landing, we decided it would be best to save the string cheese until later. My fingers felt numb and foreign to my arm as they clutched the yolk in front of me. I had lost all feeling in them several hours before when the wind from the crack stole any heat by blood had tried to supply them. A bitter, dry flavor clung to my tongue as I glanced out the window at the surrounding grey clouds. This plane could fly on instruments, a helpful feature when slinking through fog or heavy clouds. However, that did leave a lot to be desired in terms of visual feasting. My eyes longed for something to look at almost as much as my teeth ached for something to chew.
A violent shiver shook the plane, immediately snatching my mind from the thought of mashed potatoes. The fuselage squealed in protest as the shaking rippled down it’s body, rattling the frame against the firewall and lurching the plane side to side in the air. Dad and I both scanned the instruments, searching for some clue as to what happened. All seemed to be in order, but a warning bell sounded in our ears, and a small red light on the dashboard blinked for our attention. The alternator had broken from the sudden shaking. An alternator is a generator that produces an alternating current. A battery runs out of juice after a certain amount of time if it is not charged. The alternator soaks up energy from the grinding spin of the motor, and channels it to the parts of the plane that require battery use, such as some of the instruments and radio. Without the alternator we had about a half an hour of normal functioning before the plane would begin to shut off piece by piece, leaving us blind in the middle of a storm.
We would have to land and repair the damage.
A few minutes later after recalculating our route, we found a small airport nearby where we could assess the situation. After a rocky landing, proved difficult by the furious winds that gushed against the airplane’s wings, we taxied the plane to a temporary parking T and bustled into the office. I gratefully pulled the lip of my coat down away from my neck and let the warm rush of conditioned air sweep over my face. No one was there but an elderly gentlemen behind the receptionists desk. We explained where we were from and gestured to the Lacaire outside the window. The man glanced at us and cocked one eyebrow.
“Bad weather for flying,” he croaked. “Where you headed?”
“Chicago.” I answered, eyeing a bowl of Tootsie Rolls on the counter.
The man twitched his overly large mustache. “There’s a storm blowing our way, you might want to consider spending the night.”
Dad scoffed, explaining our time restraints. We had only a few days to make this delivery before he needed to be back to work and I needed to get back to school. I was only 15 at the time and was still tightly tethered to the education system.
“We need to leave again as soon as I can figure out what happened to the alternator,” he said.
The man nodded, although still skeptical. “I’ll have Jared come out and take a look at it for you.”
Jared, the old man and Dad bundled up to headed out and look at the little plane, leaving me to wander around the office. Before leaving Dad leaned in close and muttered, “See if you can scavenge for any treats.”
I nodded, and turned to peer around the room. The only edible things I could see was a vending machine and that bowl of Tootsie Rolls. I loaded my pockets with the candy then turned my attention to the machine. I knew full well that on these ferrying trips we wouldn’t eat much else besides the candy bars held captive in various vending machines across the country, and so I carefully shoved several one dollar bills in my bag for this purpose. I selected two Almond Joys, a bag of pretzels, some Ranch Dorritos and an unpopped bag of popcorn. They were more expensive than I anticipated. I had only a few dimes left, which wasn’t enough for any more purchases, so pocketed the change and scanned the room for a microwave. Spotting one, I quickly tore the plastic wrap off the popcorn, and shoved it inside. My belly growled impatiently as the tantalizing aroma of buttery popcorn filled the room. I knew I would eat it all if I opened it immediately, so I contented myself with Tootsie Rolls until the men came stomping back into the room.
“It was a wiring problem,” Dad explained when he saw my inquisitive look. “The connection between a few wires iced over, so we’ll have to stop every once and awhile to thaw it out.” He lifted his nose in the air and gave it a few sniffs. “Mmmm…smells like popcorn.”
I patted the bag lovingly, tapping my fingers against the full warm paper that enclosed our lunch. “And a few other things!”
We were in the air again, colder this time because we had gotten used to the heat of the airport. Plunging my hand into my bag I extracted our treats, showing them proudly to Dad who looked at them eagerly. The popcorn was just as delicious as it smelled. Each bite was crunchy with just the right amount of butter. It warmed the encompassing space with the soothing smell of a movie theater and the promise of a good show. Nothing could have been more perfect after all that salt than the creamy flakes of the Almond Joy. Each individual flavor of the candy bar seemed more enhanced as we flew across the blank planes of Nebraska. The roasted crunch of the almonds were bathed in a syrupy pool of chunky coconut, and wrapped in a smooth layer of chocolate. The flavors waltzed around my mouth, cooing soothing thoughts into my mind. Dad looked just as pleased as I did, nodding his head with eat bite and grunting in satisfaction when his teeth came in contact with a nut. Soon, too soon, all the treats were gone, including the string cheese brought from the house.
Our stop to fix the plane put us behind schedule, and forced us to land again for the night. The airport we chose was so small it had only a disheveled runway, and an airport office with a rotating beacon blaring through the night, flashing one white and one green light to signify a civilian land runway. All was silent when we pushed the plane to cover. Not a soul was present. The stillness itself seemed aggravated, pressing against my back as if looking for something to cling to.
Thankfully the office door was left unlocked. We slipped inside and glanced around to see a few hard chairs facing each other, a receptionists desk, and a vending machine with a microwave next to it. Dad and I shared a knowing nod. He fished a five dollar bill from his pocket and handed it to me, then he headed over to the receptionists computer to check the forecast for tomorrow.
Soon the enticing smell of popcorn settled around the room, transforming it from cold and unfamiliar, to warm and inviting. We munched happily on the fluffy kernels until the entire bag was gone. I popped another, and another, and another until our bellies moaned for us to stop.
The night was a cold one. We slept on the floor below the rotating beacon, trying our hardest to ignore the rhythmic green and white flashes that blazed across our clenched eyes. Time passed, however, and we soon found ourselves yet again streaking across the sky in the Lancair. It was more difficult this time, because the weather had gotten worse, the plane more chilled, and the time more constrained. We had to dodge clouds, peer through ice flurries, and ignore the ever increasing moans from our hungry bellies. By the time we finally reached our destination we couldn’t have been more grateful to get out of that little plane. It was a brilliant little creature, but the harsh weather and bitter cold made it hard to appreciate the plane it all it’s glory.
The owner was just as expected: jittery, timid, almost fearful of the plane he just bought, and delighted with the new prospects. Dad gave him a detailed explanation how to fly the plane, and told him about the faltering alternator. The man took careful note of his every word, then offered to find us a hotel for the night until our airliner flight home the next morning.
Exhaustion buckled our knees the moment we shuffled into the motel and thrust us into a work out sleep. We left the next morning in hurry to get to the airport on time. Before leaving, however, we snatched a few english muffins, apples, and cream cheese from the free breakfast area. That was our only meal until much later that afternoon when we finally pulled into our driveway, disheveled, hungry, but a with a sparkle of an adventure in our eyes.