Sunday, July 6, 2014

Family Trip Malfunction

We had one of those 'it could have been a lot worse' moments recently.

A couple of weeks ago, we took a family trip to Arkansas to surprise Jake’s grandmother for her 90th birthday. We took the trip in Jake’s little Grumman Tiger, as we have so many times before, but this was special because it was the first trip that we’d taken together in the plane since Jake got home from Afghanistan. To say Howie was thrilled might be the biggest understatement on the planet. It’s all he talked about for over a week before it was time to go.

Jake flew from Kansas to Houston (or rather Cleveland, Texas) to pick us up, and the three of us flew together to the small airport in Saline County, Arkansas, not far from Little Rock. We usually land at Saline County Airport because it is a small airport (hence, typically no traffic jams), and it is near where Jake’s dad and stepmom live (Papa and KayKay to Howie).

On this particular trip, we were coming in to land just before sunset. It was an absolutely perfect landing, but when we turned left onto the taxi-way, the airplane started veering right for some reason. We didn’t know what was going on at first, so Jake had me hold the brakes while he jumped out to see what was going on. 

Flat tire. That’s what was going on.  In the middle of nowhere, at 8:45pm on a Friday night. Ugh. And we could see Papa parked near the entrance, about 1.5 miles away, but he didn’t have the code to get into the airport after hours.  Double ugh.  We called to let him know what was going on, but he could be of no help to us at the time.

After a few minutes, we saw a red truck driving our direction. It was a local pilot, just finished flying for the evening, coming to check on us. “The same thing happened to me two weeks ago, and someone came to help me” he said. “Lucky for you, I think I have the tools you need, and I’m looking to pay it forward.”

The man (who’s name I never caught, although I’m sure Jake did; I’ll just call him the Good Samaritan) went back to his hangar to get tools and returned a few minutes later to let us know that he needed to run and refill his air tank. He wanted it ready just in case the tire would hold air long enough to make it to the parking area. About that time, Jake suggested that Howie and I start walking to the airport so that we could let Papa into the gate to come help.

We walked along in the now-pitch dark with only my flashlight app to guide us the 1.5 miles down the taxi-way to the airport. I held my baby’s hand as he jumped at every nighttime sound he heard. I reassured him with “It’s just cicadas, sweet boy,” and “It’s only an owl” and “It’s just the frogs,” while praying that he couldn’t hear the coyotes in the distance.

When we got close to the airport I noticed what will likely forever be one of the most annoying sights I ever beheld: Papa, parked inside the security gate. He let himself in when the Good Samaritan left to go get air, but hadn’t driven down the taxi-way to find us. We hopped in the car and drove down to the plane. By that time, the Good Samaritan had returned and they were working on the plane.

Knowing he was staring down the barrel of hours of work, Jake told Papa to take us home so we could get Howie into bed, and so he could get more tools to help. We unloaded our bags from the plane into the car, and Papa took us to his house, where KayKay had some dinner waiting for Howie before bedtime.

Two hours later, Jake and Papa made it back to the house. They basically had to jack up the plane and then drag it down the runway to the parking area where it would sit for the night. The Good Samaritain told Jake and Papa if they came back to the airport in the morning, they’d find help fixing the plane.

The next morning, we had to divide and conquer. I had an interview with Fox at 7am in Downtown Little Rock, and Jake had to be back at the airport to deal with the plane. So Papa took Jake back to Saline County, while KayKay took me to my interview. She dropped me off and took Howie to the park while I tried to sound less nervous than I was. We all made it back home by lunchtime, and fortunately the rest of the weekend was much smoother sailing.

When Jake and Papa arrived back at the airport, what they found was the local pilots’ weekly breakfast club meeting. The pilots invited them to the table like they were old friends, fed them, and then fixed the tire for them in about twenty minutes flat. One of the pilots even gave Jake the tube to put in the tire free of charge! They saved us hundreds of dollars in repair charges, and hours of wasted time waiting for a mechanic to come from Little Rock and fix it. We really couldn’t be more thankful, or ask for more kind, generous people than the perfect strangers who saved our family weekend from ruin!

So this was quite the ordeal, but it is yet another instance in which, to us, providence in the situation is clear. See, apparently airplane tires are like bike tires—they have tubes. And whoever installed Jake’s tire tube did it incorrectly. The tube had been pinched. A blowout was going to happen, and it was only a matter of time.

In the time since Jake had the last set of tires installed on the plane, he has taken it on more flights than I can remember. Some of those flights were with us, but most of them were across country to see us, and they mostly involved stopping in remote places to refuel and keep flying. Just like with large aircraft, take-offs and landings in small planes happen at high speeds, and malfunctions during take-offs and landings can be extremely serious.

But Jake’s tire didn’t blow on a take-off or a landing; it blew when we were going about ten miles an hour and could easily stop the plane. And it didn’t blow at 9pm when he was refueling in [I can’t remember] Oklahoma, or 7am in [I’m not sure it’s on the map] Texas—it blew at a place with which we were familiar, with family nearby, and with me there to help.  In other words, the inevitable blowout, albeit terribly annoying at the time, could not have happened at a better place, or under better circumstances.

It’s too bad all of life’s little catastrophes can't be minimum-inconvenience ordeals. 

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