Hard Times and Not-So-Great Expectations in a Very Dickensian Aircraft Incident
It was the best of nights, it was the worst of nights. It was the season of glowing dusk, it was the season of city lights, webbed over black earth. It was the spring of hope—that our wounded airplane would carry us safely home. It was the winter of Oh Shit. It is on.
We had everything before us: the center runway at Nashville, cleared of traffic, emergency vehicles pulsing in the darkness. We had nothing before us: a nosewheel—broken somehow after takeoff, doomed to collapse once we touched down. Which would shear off the airplane’s nose-cone, and slice the propellers into the ground like guillotines.
We were going direct to heaven, or maybe direct the other way.
A wonderful fact to reflect on, that every human is a profound secret and mystery to every other. Together in the cockpit, my flight instructor “V” and I were calm and deliberate. We reviewed the gear-failure checklist and troubleshot the problem. But as two minds apart, we worried our private worries: Was shit about to get real? Or was a broken nosewheel a non-emergency, not to worry? I wondered. Next to me, V was all business and offered no clues.
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. V’s next act fell into at least one of those two categories: On short final, he shut down both engines. A prop strike would mean the death of his two very expensive engines. But what would a power-off glide to a gear-up landing mean for two very fragile humans? I did not know.
It was the epoch of incredulity, it was the epoch of belief. Were we really killing all of the engines on final—on purpose? Were we sacrificing ourselves to save metal? I searched V’s face for signs of fear and found nothing but confidence. And in the end, because he wasn’t afraid, neither was I.
A solemn consideration, as we flew over a great city by night, over darkly clustered houses enclosing their own secrets.
Along the runway, the fire trucks flashed, hollow and harsh. With the engines stilled, our twin Apache glided like a cobblestone, a weirdly silent tumbril carrying us toward the light. All the devouring monsters were fused in one realization: Holy shit, here comes the ground.
It was time for the rubber to meet the runway. V set the two main wheels down gently and hauled back on the yoke hard, holding off the nose for an eternity. And then, a shower of sparks. A big scraping noise. Blazing lights. After that, just lights and silence.
We slid down the wing, recalled to life! V’s landing was masterful. We had not died, even slightly. We joked with the relieved firemen and admired the tidy chalk-line V had drawn down the centerline with his Apache’s ground-down nose-cone.
I was more in awe of my instructor than ever. I wanted to be him: fearless, decisive, and steady as a blade. But in every beating heart, there is a secret to the heart sitting next to it in the cockpit. Later that night, V confessed his secret to his best friend Hal. Which Hal, very wisely, did not tell me until another season entirely.
V’s latent uneasiness was that he had maybe shut down the engines a bit too soon. Not long after the propellers went quiet, he regretted his choice. “The thing was dropping like the space shuttle,” he told Hal that night. And on short final, he could not fail to know that we were possibly not going to make the runway.
But he worked in silence, and spoke not a word of this. The usual order of things was reversed: I was confident. Happy in my ignorance. And he was afraid, tortured by the dark knowledge of his fatal mistake.
Except for one detail: Fatality did not ensue. We crossed the runway threshold, touched down on tarmac, and emerged intact.
In a pilot’s logbook, there is a column for “dual” experience: Hours logged in common by two pilots on a single flight. In this duality, the outcome was the same for us both: We had contended with the fire and stayed bloodshed. But V had suffered his own private plane crash: unruffled at first, then churning with anxiety. While my crash had unfolded in the opposite direction—from concern to calm—because V had mercifully protected me from the whole truth.
Thus did the year one thousand nine hundred and ninety six conduct its greatnesses. And no matter what secrets V’s heart enclosed, it was still a far, far better thing he did than he had ever done, as far as I was concerned. And it was a far, far better wine I drank that night than I had ever known.