Budd Davisson, November, 1994

Monogamy, Murder and Long Good-byes

Saturday morning had started in the usual manner, with my left arm straight out and the runway blasting past. A cold front had scrubbed the skies until the basic blue shown through so brilliantly it looked fake. Short wings and Lycomings. Fat air and autumn. The classic combinations.

I didn't realize I was unknowingly angeringThe Lady. She sensed things were changing and she wasn't happy about it. She was about to act like a petulant child, testing me in as many benign ways as possible, disguising each as an emergency just to get my attention. And maybe change my mind.

Her first act was one of her best. She, Pitts 16 Papa Sugar, knew she had never let me down. In 23 years of serious aviating, she had never given me a moments concern. Not once had she missed a beat or done anything I hadn't ask of her.

Like a fine instrument of any kind, she was an absolute mirror of who and what I was at the moment I strapped in. She didn't reflect on where I had been or what I had done. The only thing that counted was me as I sat in that cockpit and twisted the key. She would judge me only on that instant in time.

If I was suffering from lack of focus, she told me by flying in a manner that left no doubt I wasn't doing my best. She was a scalpel that could cut as precisely or as ragged as I asked. If I wasn't focused, she wasn't focused.

That was what had made her such a marvelous partner. She was the perfect balance of good and evil, of back-slapping, emotional support floating on a deep sea of constant challenge.

But this day it made no difference whether I was focusing or not. She had heard talk. She knew I was about to turn an unexpected page. Start a new chapter. And she wasn't going to let it happen unnoticed.

Her first comment to me was out over the practice area with a student in the front seat. She had been loving the cold air and cleaved hard edged, aerobatic chunks out of it. Then she remembered the talk. She remembered and tossed her head in defiance, determined to get my attention. And she did, at least for the moment.

The student's urgent voice stabbed me in the ears, "What's that??"

We were upside down and he moved his head sideways just far enough for me to watch as the engine puked all its bodily fluids over the windscreen. By the time we were right side up, everything was dripping in oil, inside and out.

Eight miles from the field, oil pressure good, prop behaving. Nothing looked wrong, but obviously it was. She was purring in the husky, raucous voice that was her's and we held altitude while eating up the distance to the field.

Power back, nose down, we burned off 3,000 feet in seconds and did a practice dead-stick from three miles out. She whispered into the grass, rolling her little wheels on as if apologizing. She hadn't meant to get so carried away.

We found a loose breather hose. That was all. But she wanted to see if I still loved her enough to coax her on gently, rather than making a panicked stab at the ground and certain safety.

She didn't understand that I hadn't meant for this to happen. I couldn't have foreseen it and, in fact, absolutely never expected it to happen. But my life had been taking some twists and turns and some of them took me away from her. But I wasn't abandoning her. I wasn't casting her out. It couldn't. It's not in me to hurt her.

But, I'm not there and others are. This new guy she heard me talking to, Harley, has the understanding. The emotion. If he didn't I wouldn't have let him have her. It's not a question of going to a good. home. There are lots of those. It was a matter of finding the right lover. The right physiological mate for the lady.

But, she wasn't convinced. She could feel these strange hands on her controls and, although she heard my voice, it was a voice teaching another to love her. It was my voice helping another learn all of her intimate secrets.

Later that day, she became convinced.

The kind of wonderfully clear autumn evening New Jersey natives talk about because ones of this quality were so rare. Harley had already made friends of The Lady and was painting her onto the grass in a manner that made her happy. At the same time it made me a little jealous. She was, after all, my lady.

Tail-up, throttle to the stop, we were rocketing down the runway just about to lift off when, suddenly, my vision was blocked by a dark form flying up in front of us. A menacing gloved hand with many fingers flung itself over our nose as if to catch The Lady in its palm. Then there was a violent, instantaneous thrashing, as though chopping through the top of a tree.

Just as suddenly, it was over and the realization we had just fought our way through a large number of Canadian geese hit us both. We had less than 600 feet of runway left and an unknown amount of damage to Papa Sugar. I didn't know if she would fly or not and elected to abort. Even as I called for brakes, I felt Harley pounding his toes into the grass, grabbing for traction while nailing the tailwheel down.

The lady stopped with a hundred feet to spare. And she was convinced. Harley had done her right and she had treated us the same. She knew he would work out.

Six geese! We may have set a record for shredding over 100 pounds of birds with minimal damage to the airplane. As we turned and looked back down the runway at the carnage, the lady and I felt bad. We hoped they had all been pairs. We knew geese were monogamous and mated for life. Splitting a pair would have left its mark on both of us.

The fog ruined my planned good bye that last morning. I had envisioned lifting the lady up through the dense air, her characteristic ballistic rush to freedom setting fire to my soul for the last time. That was her way. A way I'd come to love. Come to depend upon.

But the fog had foiled me again. As it often had.

So, I stood in the hangar, my head resting softly on the lower surface of the top wing tip. The diffused light of the early morning stole into the still dark hangar and played with the lady's curves. I wasn't prepared for the lump in the throat, the stinking of the eyes or the tightness in the pit of my stomach.

She knows about eight Papa Bravo out in Arizona. And she approves. She wouldn't want me to live my life out there without a Pitts. That wouldn't be a complete life. Not for me.

But she knows she was my first. And my best. And she knows how bitterly I'm going to miss her. She now trusts Harley. Eventually, I'll feel the same. Maybe. But I ask one last favor.

Love her Harley. That's all I ask.