As the COVID-19 pandemic intensified in March, Paul Taylor launched a collaborative writing project that was inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Boccaccio wrote his collection of one hundred stories in response to the devastation caused by the Black Death sweeping across Europe during the fourteenth century. The following story was written by UBC member Bob Bass as part of the Decameron 2020 project.
Light and Sight
Robert T. “Bob” Bass
I am a private pilot, and on many occasions, I have seen and experienced things in the air that are truly beautiful and inspiring, but for this assignment of the Decameron 2020, I would like to tell you a particular story of light and sight that has lingered with me for many years.
I was scheduled to be in West Texas for a 9:00 a.m. meeting of a Commissioners Court in Pecos, Reeves County, Texas. The night before had been wet with a nice slow rain, and the morning was heavy and very humid and damp as I drove to the airport, with a low layer of broken clouds above. The sun was coming up, but it was still that early rose-colored dawn light as I pulled the plane from the hangar, did my pre-flight checks, and finally parked the car in the empty hangar and closed and locked the doors, and mounted up. I was saddened that morning by news the previous day that an old friend had passed away after a protracted decline. He had been a great guy, always with a funny story or a clever joke, and we had enjoyed many conversations on all things good friends talk about, some philosophical, some silly, some about sports, our work, our political differences and agreements. But mostly we talked about his experiences during WWII, flying a P-38 in Europe. He told me of the sheer joy and beauty of flying over the Italian alps, and the terror of low-level strafing missions. He choked up telling of the terrible day he saw his best friend explode in front of him as they were strafing German positions, and his friend’s plane suffered a direct hit from anti-aircraft guns that exploded the plane, forcing him to fly through a cloud of burning fuel, debris, and very likely pieces of his friend.
I was pondering how much I was going to miss him and how much his passing reminded me of our own mortality on the drive to the airport, and how I had promised to taking him flying sometime, and never managed to do that.
After getting the weather and taxi approval from ground control, I taxied to the runway. The sun was now fully up, but still hidden by the low cloud layer. Puddles of rainwater were scattered haphazardly about the ramp and taxiways, and I was trying to avoid them best I could, so that water would not dampen the brake pads, just in case I needed to hit the brakes unexpectedly, weaving between the puddles, till I reached the run-up area short of the active run-way.
I had already received the local weather information and noted the wind direction, speed, altimeter setting, so on reaching the run-up area, I went through the rest of the checklist.
- Run up your engine to about 1700 RPM and switch between the magnetos, left/right/both, to note the RPM differences and make sure they are within acceptable limits.
- Cycle the constant speed propeller between takeoff and cruise settings to make sure that you have oil pressure to operate the propeller.
- Pull out the carb heat to get a drop in rpm as cold air is replaced by hot air to make sure the carb heat is working (where there is moisture in the air, the carburetor can ice up in certain conditions).
- Make sure your radios are set to the proper frequencies.
- Make sure your directional gyro and compass are in agreement, and that the GPS is properly set.
- Cycle the autopilot to makes sure it is on but in standby, and responds correctly to directional input.
Finally, 7, announce intentions to the control tower.
“San Marcos Tower, Skylane 42625, holding short 17, ready for takeoff, departing to the west, heading 286 degrees.”
“Roger, Skylane 625, you are cleared for takeoff, right-hand departure, contact departure 119.0, maintain VFR till clear of Class D airspace.”
“Affirmative, San Marcos Tower, cleared for takeoff, right-hand departure, departure 119.0 and maintain VFR till clear of Delta.”
With the formalities taken care of, I made one last check for approaching traffic, applied power and moved from the hold line onto the active runway. Centering my nose-wheel on the centerline, I started the clock, and applied power from idle to 2400 rpm, full power, climb prop setting, and the airplane began to accelerate.
At the moment the RPM went above about 1800 RPM or so, I noticed very distinct contrails of vapor coming off the tips of the propeller, making a corkscrew of white lines that the airplane was being pulled through. This is not an uncommon event, but on this particular day, it was really noticeable and I was enjoying the sensation of rushing through the visual vortex as the tips of the propellers were moving fast enough to disturb the moist air into contrails.
Just as I approach the point of lift-off, always my favorite part of a flight, the clouds above me broke open just enough to allow a narrow, visible shaft of light to illuminate me and the airplane, like a spotlight on a darkened stage as the performer enters our sight and exciting our minds for the coming entertainment, illuminated by the fellow up in the light booth. At that moment, the sheer magic of man-made flight nearly floored me, and I thought, “Thank You God, for such a moment…!”
In that instant, I thought,” I can’t wait to tell” my friend about this visual show, but with a heart stopping realization, it hit me with the ultimate finality that we would never have those conversations again.
But just as quickly as I had that very sad realization, almost as if by a miracle, I seemed to hear my friend’s voice… “You dummy, who do you think set this beautiful demonstration of God’s power over light and sight up for you? Don’t worry about me, I’m fine. I’m better than fine, I’m wonderful! Enjoy your life for as long as you have it, but don’t worry about anything…It’s beautiful here, and I’m at peace. You should be too.” And I was… and remain to this day thankful for this instance of light and sight.