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By RICHARD BACH
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Richard Bach
All rights reserved.
Jamie Forbes flew airplanes. That's all he'd done that mattered since he dropped out of college, back when, and got his pilot's license. If it had wings, he loved it.
He flew fighters in the Air Force, didn't much care for the politics and the additional duties and the odd lack of flying time. He chose to leave early, when the service offered it.
The airlines wouldn't have him. He applied one time and the questions on the pilot exam weeded him out.
"1. If you had to choose, would you be a tree or a stone?
"2. Which color is better, red or blue?" He didn't answer these, as they had nothing to do with flying.
"3. Are details important?"
"Of course they're not important," he said. "What's important is arriving safely on the ground, every time. Who cares if you shine your shoes?"
Wrong answer, he found, when the examiner looked him in the eye and said, "We do."
But there's plenty to be done in aviation besides flying fighter planes and jet transports. There's charter and corporate flying and the scenic-ride business; there's crop dusting and air show aerobatics and pipeline patrol and aerial photography; there's aircraft ferrying to be done; there's banner towing, glider towing, carting skydivers up and turning them loose in the sky; there's air racing, television news flying, traffic reporting, police flying, flight testing, freight dogging and barnstorming old biplanes out of hayfields. And teaching, of course, always new folks coming along with the same destiny to fly as his own ... there's always flight instructing.
He'd done it all as his life went by. These last years he had become a flight instructor and a good one, according to the adage that you tell the best instructors by the color of their hair.
Not that he was some old-timer, mind you, or that he had nothing left to learn. He'd just packed his share of flying into those decades since solo, coming up on twelve thousand flying hours. Not a whole lot of time, not a little. Enough that Jamie Forbes had learned humility.
Inside, though, he was still the kid wild to fly anything he could get his little paws on.
That's all as it should be, and nobody's interest, save for what happened last September. What happened then won't matter to some; to others it'll change their lives the way it did mine.CHAPTER 2
At the time, he thought it was coincidence. Jamie Forbes was flying his Beech T-34 from Washington State to Florida, turning winter to summer in his flighttraining business by pointing the nose southeast for sixteen flying hours, four hours at a time.
The '34, if you're not familiar with it, is the first airplane the Air Force trusted to an aviation cadet, years ago: a single engine, low wing, two-place tandem propeller-driven machine, 225 horsepower. Cockpit like a fighter plane's, so the transition from trainer to fighter would be easy for new pilots.
He never imagined then, marching and studying, memorizing checklists and Morse code and the rules of aerodynamics, that years later he'd own the same airplane himself, considerably spiffed up the way civilians do when they get their hands on a surplus military machine.
His T-34 today had the 300-horsepower Continental engine, for instance, a three-blade propeller, an instrument panel with navigation equipment that hadn't been invented when the airplane was new, skyblue military camouflage, restored Air Force markings. It's a well-designed aircraft and a dear little machine to fly.
He flew alone, from Seattle in the morning to Twin Falls, Idaho. Takeoff at noon from Twin Falls over Ogden and Rock Springs, toward North Platte, Nebraska.
It happened an hour out of North Platte, twenty minutes north of Cheyenne.
"I think he's dead!"
A woman's voice on the radio. "Can anybody hear me? I think my husband died!"
She was transmitting on 122.8 megacycles, the small-airport unicom frequency, her voice loud and clear—she couldn't have been too far away.
"You can do this, Mister Forbes." Calm and patient, touch of the South in that unforgettable voice.
"Mister Dexter?" he said it aloud, thunderstruck. His flying instructor from forty years past, a voice he'd never forget. He shot a glance to the mirror, checking the rear cockpit. It was empty, of course.
Not another sound but the engine rumbling loud and smooth ahead.
"Somebody God help me he's died!"
He pressed the microphone button.
"Maybe so, ma'am," said Jamie Forbes, "but maybe not. You can fly the airplane without him."
"No I never learned! Juan's over against the door, he's not moving!"
"We'd better get him on the ground," he said, choosing "we" because of what he figured she'd say next.
"I can't fly an airplane!"
"OK," he said, "then you and I'll get him down together."
It happens once in practically never, a passenger at the controls when a pilot's incapacitated. Lucky for them all, it was a pretty day for flying.
"You know how the controls work, ma'am?" he asked. "You move the steering wheel, keep the wings level?"
"Yes." That made it easy.
"Just keep the wings level, for now." He asked her when and where they had taken off and where they were headed, he turned due east and sure enough, a minute later he could see a Cessna 182 at ten o'clock low, just forward of the T-34's left wing.
"Give us just a bit of a right turn," he said. "We've got you in sight."
If the airplane didn't turn, he didn't have her in sight at all, but he gambled and won. The wings tilted.
He dropped down inside her turn and came alongside, sliding into formation fifty feet away.
"If you look over to your right ..." he said.
She looked and he waved to her.
"Everything's going to be OK now," he said. "Let's get you over to the airport and land."
"I don't know how to fly!" She said that and the wings banked more steeply, toward him.
He banked with her, two airplanes turning together. "That'll be no problem, ma'am," he said, "I'm an instructor."
"Thank God," she said, her airplane falling into a steeper bank.
"You might turn that wheel to the left," he said. "Not a whole lot, just firm and gentle to the left. That'll bring you back to level flight."
She looked ahead, turned the wheel, and the Cessna's wings rolled level.
"You've got it," he said. "You sure you've never flown before?"
Her voice came a little calmer. "I've watched Juan fly."
"Well, you watched real good." He found she knew where the throttle was, the rudder pedals, got her to turn her airplane to the left till she was headed back toward the airport at Cheyenne.
"What's your name, ma'am?"
"I'm scared," she said. "I can't do this!"
"Don't you be kidding me. You've been flying this airplane five minutes already and you're doing a great job. Just relax, take it easy, pretend you're an airline captain."
"Pretend I'm what?" She heard, couldn't believe what this person was saying.
"Forget everything but you're the airline captain, you're the first woman captain the company's ever hired and you've been flying for years and years. You're completely comfortable in the airplane, happy as can be. Landing a little Cessna on a beautiful day like this? Piece of cake!"
This man is out of his mind, she thought, but he's an instructor. "Piece of cake," she said.
"Right you are. What's your favorite cake?"
She looked at him out the right window of the Cessna, a stricken uncomprehending smile, some of her fear melting in I'm-going-to-die and he's asking me about cake? Of all rescuers I get a crazy-man?
"Carrot?" she said.
He smiled back. Good. She knows I'm nuts, now she's got to be the sane one and that means staying calm. "Piece of carrot cake."
"My name's Maria." As though knowing that might put him in his right mind.
Cheyenne airport appeared, a streak on the horizon. Fifteen miles out, seven minutes flying. He chose Cheyenne for its long runways and ambulance, instead of landing at the small airports closer.
"Why don't you try pushing that throttle in, Maria? You'll hear the engine; it'll get louder, as you know, and the airplane will start to climb, just gently. Push it all the way in, now, and we'll practice a little climb, here."
He wanted to remind her of the climb, of course, in case she got too low on her landing approach. He wanted her to know she was safe in the sky and pushing the throttle is the way to get back up when she wants to.
"You're doin' fine, Captain," he said. "You're a natural pilot."
Then he had her pull the throttle back, ease the nose just below the horizon, and they descended together down to traffic pattern altitude.
The lady alongside looked back at him from her airplane.
Two machines nearly touching in the air, yet nothing he could do would fly her airplane for her. All he had was words.
"Almost home," he told her. "Maria, you're doing a mighty fine piece of flying. Just turn toward me a bit, for about ten seconds or so, then roll back level."
She pressed the microphone button but didn't say anything. The airplane banked to the right.
"You're doin' fine. I'm going to talk to the control tower on another radio. Don't worry, I'll be listening on this radio, too. You can talk to me any time you want, OK?"
He switched the number two com radio to Cheyenne's frequency, called the control tower.
"Hi Cheyenne, this is Cessna 2461 Echo." The aircraft number was painted on the side of her airplane. No need to give them his own.
"Six One Echo, go ahead."
"Six One Echo's a flight of two, eight miles north for landing."
"Roger Six One Echo. Call entering the left downwind for Runway Niner."
"Wilco," he said. Funny word: it means I will comply. "And Six One Echo's a Cessna 182, pilot's incapacitated. The passenger's flying the airplane, I'm flying alongside, helping her out."
There was a silence. "Say again, Six One Echo? The pilot's what?"
"Pilot's unconscious. Passenger's flying the airplane."
"Roger. You're cleared to land any runway. Are you declaring an emergency?"
"Negative. We'll take Runway Niner. She's doing fine, but it wouldn't hurt to roll an ambulance for the pilot, and a fire truck. Keep the vehicles behind the landing aircraft, will you? We don't want to distract her, equipment driving alongside when she's touching down."
"Roger, we'll roll the equipment and keep it behind the aircraft. Break: All aircraft in the Cheyenne area depart the airport traffic pattern please, we have an emergency in progress."
"She's on unicom, Tower, two-two-eight. I'll be talking to her that frequency but listening yours."
"Roger, Six One Echo. Good luck."
"Not required. She's doing fine."
He switched the transmitter back to unicom.
"There's the airport way out to your left, Maria," he said. "We're going to do a big gentle turn to line up with the runway. Real smooth, no hurry. This is easy for you."
They flew a huge landing pattern, mild slow turns, the instructor talking her through.
"Right about here, you can ease the throttle back, let the nose come down just below the horizon like we did before, a nice easy descent. The airplane loves this."
She nodded. If this man is chattering away about airplanes loving things, then it probably isn't all that dangerous, what we're doing.
"If we don't like this approach," he said, "we can climb up and do approaches all day long, if we want. This one's lookin' just fine, though. You're doin' great." He didn't ask how much fuel she had remaining.
The two aircraft gentled left onto final approach, the runway lining up ahead, wide concrete two miles long.
"What we're gonna do is touch down real smooth, we're gonna put one wheel on each side of that big white line down the center of the runway. Lookin' good, Captain. Add just a little power, throttle forward about half an inch ..."
She was responding well, now, and calm.
"Bring that throttle back just a bit. You are a fantastic pilot, by the way. You're smooth on the controls ..."
He moved a few feet farther from her wing as the airplanes sank earthward.
"Just hold what you have, fly it straight down that centerline ... there you go, very nice. Relax, relax ... wiggle your toes. You're flyin' like an old-timer. Ease the throttle back now an inch ... Ease the control wheel back 'bout three inches, now. It'll feel a little heavy and that's just how it should feel. Lookin' beautiful, you are gonna make a fantastic landing."
The wheels were four feet above the runway ... three feet.
"Hold that nose up just where you have it, now just ease the throttle all the way back, all the way."
The wheels touched the runway, puffs of blue rubber-smoke from the tires.
"Perfect touchdown," he said, "perfect landing. You can let go of the control wheel now, you don't need it on the ground. Steer the airplane straight with the foot pedals and let it roll to a stop, right there on the runway. Ambulance'll be alongside right quick."
He pushed his own throttle and the T-34 swept past her airplane, climbing.
"Nice landing," he said. "You're an awfully good pilot."
She didn't reply.
He watched down over his shoulder as the ambulance sped onto the runway behind her. It slowed as her airplane slowed, then stopped, doors flying open. The fire truck, red and square, trundled along behind, unneeded.
As the control tower had enough to keep it busy, he said nothing more. In less than a minute his airplane was out of sight toward North Platte.CHAPTER 3
The story from the newspaper was pinned on the bulletin board at North Platte Lee Bird airport next morning: Pilot Stricken, Wife Lands Plane.
Jamie Forbes frowned at that. "Wife" equals "nonpilot." It's going to take a while, he thought, for folks to understand there's lots of women out there licensed pilots, and more every day.
After the headline, though, the reporter told the story fairly straight. When her husband collapsed in the air, Maria Ochoa, 63, thought he had died; she was frightened, called for help, et cetera.
Then he read this: "I never could've landed by myself, but the man in the other plane said I could. I swear to God he hypnotized me, right in the air. 'Pretend you're an airline pilot.' I pretended because I don't know how to fly. But when I woke up, the airplane had landed safe!"
The story said her husband had suffered a stroke and would recover.
Airline-captain role play works well for students, he thought, it always has.
He stumbled, though, on what she had said.
Hypnotized her? He walked to the airport café for breakfast, wondering hypnotism, remembering thirty years gone as though it had been yesterday.CHAPTER 4
He had taken a seat in an aisle up front, row A, expecting when Blacksmyth the Great called for volunteers from the audience, he might be asked.
Near the end of the show, it felt like fun to step up to the stage, though he doubted he could be hypnotized and wouldn't be chosen. Two others, man and woman, joined him there.
Blacksmyth the hypnotist, distinguished in white tie and tuxedo but friendly of voice and manner, asked the three to stand in a row and they did, facing the audience. Jamie Forbes was on the end closest to stage center.
The showman stepped behind the volunteers, touched the woman on the shoulder, pulling her gently off balance. She took a step back to regain it.
He did the same to the next in line, and the man stepped back, as well.
Forbes resolved to be different. When the hypnotist's hand touched his shoulder, he tilted with the pressure, trusting that the man wouldn't have much of a show if he let his subject fall over on stage.
Blacksmyth caught him at once, thanked the other volunteers and dismissed them to a round of applause.
Things had gone too far. "I'm sorry," Jamie whispered while the sounds died away, "but I can't be hypnotized."
"Oh," replied the performer, softly. "Then what are you doing on this planet?"
The hypnotist paused, saying nothing, and began to smile at Jamie Forbes. A murmur of laughter from audience—what was going to happen to this poor subject?
Just now the subject felt sorry for the entertainer, thought better of walking off-stage, and decided that he might as well play along. He had warned the man, but there was no cause to embarrass him in front of a thousand paying customers.
"What is your name, sir?" the hypnotist asked, loud enough for all to hear.
"Jamie, have we met?" he asked. "Have we ever seen each other before this evening?"
"No sir, we have not."
"That is correct. Now Jamie," he said, "let's you and me take a little walk in our minds. You see these seven steps ahead of us, we'll go down the steps together. Together we'll go down the steps; down, down, deeper, deeper ..."
Jamie Forbes didn't notice the steps at first. They must have been plastic or balsa wood, painted to look like stone, and he walked them down with the hypnotist, step by step. He wondered how the audience could see the show when the volunteer was going to wind up practically underneath the stage, but concluded that was Blacksmyth's problem. He must have some scheme with mirrors.
At the bottom of the steps was a heavy wooden door. Blacksmyth asked him to step through, and when he did, closed the door behind him. His voice came clearly through the walls, describing for the audience what Jamie saw before him: an empty stone room, no doors, no windows, yet plenty of light.
Excerpted from HYPNOTIZING MARIA by RICHARD BACH. Copyright © 2009 Richard Bach. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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