Storyworth: What Was Your Most Dangerous Adventure?

| January 17, 2022 | 0 Comments

In December, 1980, about two weeks before Christmas, Barney Frank, newly elected congressman from the 4th District of Massachusetts, offered me a job in his Washington office, starting in 3 weeks on January 3rd, 1981.  I was 27 years old and had never lived outside of Roslindale (aka Rozzie) my Boston neighborhood.  This was a big deal.  But I was utterly unprepared.  

My first problem was that I had no place to live – or even stay – in DC. A good Rozzie friend connected me with the brother of his then girlfriend, a guy named Ralph, who lived in Falls Church, VA, a suburb of DC.  He offered to put me up for a few weeks upon my arrival as I searched for an apartment.  But Ralph had something else that appealed to me strongly.  He had his own 2-seater plane.

Having never lived outside of Rozzie, I was very concerned about cutting off contact with all my friends and family while starting a new life in DC.  Having a friend with his own plane meant I could easily come back to Boston on a fairly regular basis, or so I thought.  

Of course, one problem with that scenario was the fact that I had a pretty deep-seated fear of flying.  To address this, I made up a story to myself that small planes were safer than commercial aircraft.  I told myself that, when the engine stops on a big commercial jet, it drops like a rock, killing everybody on board.  Contrarily, small planes simply glide gently down to the ground and land on empty fields and everyone walks away safely.  Piece o’ cake.

So, in March of 1981, Ralph and I set out on what I imagined would be the first of many trips to Boston, taking off from a small airfield in Manassas, Virginia where Ralph kept his plane.

First, a bit about Ralph.  He worked in the headquarters of the Veterans Administration.  He received disability benefits from the VA based on being 100% disabled from a head wound in Vietnam.  Outside his maniacally conservative political views, there was nothing about him that suggested he was in any way diminished physically.  I was always puzzled by the 100% disability.  He told me that all head wounds were 100% irrespective of any reduced function.  Sounded good to me.

We had become great friends during my early days in Washington.  We had lively political debates, but we usually kept it light.  Like many of my conservative friends over the years, he knew how to push my buttons.  I’ve got a lot of buttons.   But I really don’t think he felt strongly about his misguided political views.  Suffice to say, we had a lot of fun together.

The sky was crystal clear when we took off that March morning, not a cloud to be seen.  As we reached cruising altitude at about 8 to 10,000 feet, Ralph explained my job as “copilot.”  He pointed to another small plane, which was a speck way off in the distance.  He said, “You need to scan the sky and point out other aircraft in the sky, like that one, so I can be sure to steer clear of them.”

I was also expected to scan the ground looking for airfields.  There were two reasons for this.  One was to help with navigation.  The flight map we used to guide our route had these airfields on it, so you could tell where you were by matching up the actual airfields with the one indicated on the map.  Also, at some point, we’d need to refuel and might need to land at one.  It was good for me to have something to do to keep my mind off the fact that we were at 10,000 with visible means of staying up.  Notwithstanding my self delusional story, I was pretty nervous.

After a couple of hours flying, we did need to refuel, so it came time to try find an airfield.  We found one and Ralph began his descent.  I was anxious, but was still holding it together.  Ralph tried to contact the airfield with his radio, but nobody answered.  Apparently, this is not atypical at small airfields.  They don’t have anyone on the radio at all times.  So, Ralph just decided he’d land there cold.

As we approached the runway, Ralph noticed a big hill that was sort of in the way of his landing.  It stopped him from getting the plane low enough to hit the runway.  So, he had to pull away, circle the runway and try again.  Same problem.

On the third try, he said to me, “Hang on and don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.”  

“Uh oh,” I thought.

He did a maneuver that involved turning the plane sideways, which allowed him to drop the plane more quickly after clearing the hill.  Of course, the physics of this move was to eliminate the “lift” that kept the plane in the air.  Despite Ralph’s admonition, I did, in fact, worry….a lot.  Frankly, I was terrified.  I dug my fingers into the crevice in the door, which was the only thing I could hold on to.

And, in end, it didn’t work.  We had to abort the landing for the third time and go around yet again.  

Finally, the radio crackled to life.  Presumably, somebody at the air field, saw this little plane making repeated attempts to land and decided to try to help.  Ralph explained that he couldn’t get past the hill at the end of the runway.  The voice said, “Why don’t you try coming in from the other side of the runway?”  D’oh!

So, we came in from the other side and landed safely.  I was happy to be on the ground but already dreading having to take off again.  Which we did pretty quickly, since the airstrip where we landed didn’t have the kind of fuel that Ralph needed.  Who knew there were different kinds of fuel.  So, off we went to find another airport.  The next one was uneventful.  We got the gas and went on.

As we made our way up the east coast, the weather took a turn.  We began to see some clouds that got thicker and thicker.  As a result, Ralph had to descend lower and lower to stay beneath the cloud cover.  Then, we began to see some precipitation.  Needless to say, I was a bit concerned.  But Ralph had a solution.  He decided we needed to get above the clouds.  He acknowledged not knowing how thick the clouds cover was, but thought it was worth a shot.

Thus began the most hair-raising part of the journey.  Ralph began the ascent into the clouds. Within seconds, we were completely covered in white.  All I could think about was the assignment Ralph gave me at the beginning of the trip to keep an eye out for other planes in the sky, pointing out another plane about 10 miles away.  At this moment, I couldn’t even see the wing tips of the plane I was in.  The engine was whining as he continued to climb and we weren’t getting above the clouds.  This went on for a while.  Who knows how long.  Then there was a loud buzzing in the cockpit which scared the shit out of me.  In order to allay my concerns, Ralph uttered the words that were the most memorable of the trip and were etched in my brain for ever.  He said, “Oh, don’t worry about that.  It’s only the stall warning.”  Yes, this is the warning that tells you the plane is losing lift.  The thing that keeps the plane in the air.  I thought it was over.

Finally, Ralph gave up trying to get above the clouds and began descending again.  Blessedly, the stall warning stopped and eventually we were beneath the clouds again.  By then, it was actually snowing.  So, it was time to find some place to land.

We came down in Norwich, Connecticut at a deserted airstrip.  Probably deserted because only a fool would be flying a small plan in a snowstorm.  

Somehow, we got a taxi to bring us to a nearby restaurant and bar.  We had lunch at the bar and drank beer while watching the snow come down.  Ralph had every intention of going back up for the last leg of the trip to Massachusetts.  We really didn’t have many other options.  There were no hotels in Norwich.  To my profound relief, however, the bartender offered to let us stay at his house for the night.

We left early the next morning and landed in Marshfield, MA.  As we disembarked from the plane, I congratulated Ralph on the flight.  You know the old adage, “Any flight you walk away from is a good flight.”  I asked him how long he‘d had his flying license.  He said, “Oh, I haven’t gotten yet.  I’ve taken all the classes.  I just can’t be bothered to take the test flight.”

Ralph went his way and I went mine, reconnecting with my friends and family in Boston for the weekend.  I was in a constant state of anxiety about the trip back, flying down to Washington with an unlicensed pilot.  I felt badly about making Ralph do the trip alone, but I just couldn’t see myself getting back into that plane.

Finally, I called him and told him I just couldn’t do it.  That I would be taking Delta back.   He took it well.  

I will always remember the exact date of this trip because, in the shuttle at Dulles Airport, there seemed to be a bit of buzz in the air, as though something big had happened.  I asked my seatmate what was going on.  He said President Reagan had been shot.  It was Monday, March 30, 1981.


Ralph, of course, made it back fine.  I called him and he said it was a good flight.  Clear skies the whole way.  He said he stopped in New Jersey and got a pizza and a six pack of beer.  Took it into the plane and returned to the air.  He said he pushed the empty beer cans out the window of the plane as he flew.


Category: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply