The best $24 I ever spent

In early September of 1998 the pilots at Northwest Airlines went on strike. At the time I was flying Falcon Jets and so matters involving airlines had about zero impact on me. The one thing that I did take notice of was the fact that the strike caused the airspace above the northcentral states to be really, really quiet. That fact led to my investing the best $24 I ever spent in the aviation business.

Shortly after the strike began, I was called to do a trip from Washington DC to Winnipeg, Manitoba. On the way up there we soon discovered the amazing quiet on the center frequencies. In fact, about as soon as we cleared the DC airspace we got "Direct Winnipeg." All along the way we noticed that it seemed as if we had our own personal controller working only us on every frequency. I even joked to one controller how quite the skies were when those Northwest guys were walkin' around with picket signs. He came back with "Tell me about it- makes the day long."

On the ground at Winnipeg I managed to visit a really terrific hockey shop and generally observe the locals who were enjoying the last remnants of summer. They all had the look of people who knew that the Canadian winter would soon drop on them like an anvil. The weather was currently warm and beyond clear.

As we showed for departure I looked at the weather and we had clear skies all the way to DC. Since the strike was still going on, we would also have clear frequencies with ATC once more. Our clearance was essentially Winnipeg direct IAD, thence. Looking at the route of flight I saw that it took us down Lake Huron, and that gave me an idea. Considering that the MBS VOR, actually located in Freeland, MI- my home town- was just slightly off our route- I came up with a plan. My parents lived less than two miles from the VOR itself, I figured it may be really cool to alter our course and fly right over mom and dad. In doing so I could pick up the flight-phone, call them up and tell them to go outside and look up. I bounced that off of the guy I was flying with and he just lit-up. "Oh, we gotta' do that!" he giggled.

When I picked up our clearance I told ATC that we wanted to alter our route to Direct MBS, Direct IAD. There was a pause on the radio and the confused controller came back asking "Why do ya' wanna do THAT?" I came back and replied "My retired parents live right near the MBS VOR and I wanna fly over, call 'em on the flight phone and tell 'em to go outside and look up." There was another pause then the controller came back snickering and said, "That's too good, okay you're now cleared direct MBS, direct IAD." I read it back and he replied, "Read back correct, have fun!"

One of the most important rules that any pilot should have burned into their soul is that Air Traffic Controllers are people too. Although there are many times when it is absolutely required that you be brief and concise with them, there are times when if you need something, you can just talk to them like people. As long as it is within the reg.s and not out of line with traffic flow and needs, or safety, they're always willing to help you. The best thing to teach a student pilot is if you need help, call ATC and simply ask for it. There is a real person on the other end of your mic and you'll find out they are pretty damned cool... especially when you want to do something neat-O. Another thing that many pilots often forget is that controllers talk to each other- so it was that our departure controller called up the line and told the next person what we were doing and so on.

As we got within about 20 miles of the MBS VOR I picked up the flight-phone and called my folks. Such calls cost, at that time, about $12 per minute- so I had to be brief. Being retired, my mom and dad were almost always home. Mom answered and I asked if she was on the portable phone- she said that she was. I told her to go out side, she did. "Look up." I said, do ya' see a contrail?" "No." she replied puzzled. "Look north, toward the airport- and when you see a contrail, that'll be me. I'll call you back when we're directly overhead- this is costing me a ton." I hung up and then began to wonder if this was a no-contrail day! Since no one else was up near us, it was hard to tell.

As the DME ticked off and our course on the screen came directly over the MBS station I called mom and dad back. Mom sounded like she was jumping up and down with excitement. "Oh my God! Oh my God!" she was shouting, "We see you, we can see you! You're right straight up!" I replied with our altitude and told her we were turning and heading for DC. "We see you! she shouted and laughed, "There ya' go!" I gave a pilot's goodbye and told her I'd call her tonight when I got home.

We were all grins in cockpit knowing that down below us were two thrilled parents. After all of the years of working my way through school, after all of the flight training, check rides, flight instruction, airline flying and career pitfalls that they had watched their kid go through, they finally got to see a contrail and know that I was on the point of it. What I didn't know was that my dad ran and got his camcorder, which, of course, had a dead battery. They also tried to get neighbors to "come and see" but on this rare occasion- no one was home! Dad grabbed his perpetually out of focus binoculars and tried to see what he could see- but I'm sure it was a fuzz. In the end it was just the two of them who stood there together in the back yard where I used to stand and watch the contrails go over the MBS VOR and they watched my contrail until it was out of sight... then my dad stood there alone and watched for what my mom said was "Quite a bit longer."

Shortly after we made the turn toward IAD, center came on the radio and asked "How'd it go? Did they see ya?" I replied back "A-firm. Two very excited old folks down there right now." ATC replied with a very cheerful "Great!" I'm sure there were some grins in the TRACON too at that moment.

After we hangared that evening I left a note in the office telling them that I'd used the flight-phone and to bill me for it. The total for the phone call came to $24. It was indeed one of those rare opportunities when circumstances way beyond your control allows you to do something out of the ordinary that is really cool. My dad passed away six years later and I have often thought of him standing out there all by himself looking up into the sky where I had been and the feelings and thoughts he probably had. From an aviator's point of view, all things considered, that was the best $24 I ever spent in aviation.