Shortly after I got my license, Brandon called and said, “Hi Pre-pubic. Whatcha doin’ for the next few weeks?” When I asked why he wanted to know, Brandon told me a rather unique opportunity had presented itself. Mike had just been given a rather well-heeled new student. The man—whom we’ll call “Duke” for the purpose of this narrative—was already a Private Pilot, but didn’t feel like waiting for spring to get his advanced licenses. What he wanted was to rent a twin-engined Piper Apache, then fly down to Florida for two weeks of intense training with Brandon.
Mike had made all the necessary arrangements, then pointed out that the Apache had two empty seats in the rear. “Why don’t you invite a couple of your friends along to cover part of the cost?” Mike suggested. Duke thought about this for a moment, then answered, “That’s a good idea—but why don’t you invite two of your friends instead?”
Mike blinked for a moment, then said, “Okay. How much do you want to charge them?”
“Oh … a hundred bucks each should do it,” answered Duke.
“I’ve invited Johnny Worts,” Brandon told me. “Wortsie’s getting married this summer and wants to go off for one last ‘bachelor’ fling. But we still have to fill that other seat—so, are you interested?”
“Hmmm …” I answered. “A two week trip to Florida for $100.00 … Let me think … um … well … YES!”
Brandon chuckled and told me to be ready to leave on January 26th, 1968 (a year that was to change my life forever).
It was a bitterly cold day when we gathered at Buttonville. The low overcast made departure doubtful, but Brandon waited until the ceiling and visibility made it to bare minimums then opened an instrument flight plan and headed off towards sunnier, southern climes.
We’d barely climbed five hundred feet before we were “in the soup.” This was my first time in real instrument weather, and I can’t say I enjoyed the sensation. You couldn’t see a thing out the window. We just sat in this vibrating aluminium box while instruments on the panel assured us we were actually going somewhere.
It was a truly helpless feeling and the only comforting thought I came up with was—at least we had two engines. One of them could quit, and the other could still get us to our destination … at least, that’s what I’d been told.
Whatever fears I may have had about engine failures were soon replaced by the discovery that the cabin heat was next to useless. It was absolutely freezing in the cabin. And as Brandon had told me to pack light, the warmest clothes I’d brought were the pair of long pants and light windbreaker I was wearing. And if freezing to death wasn’t enough, “Wortsie” and I also had to deal with the tortuous vibrations caused by the two engines.
Nowadays, most twin-engine aircraft have gauges to help synch up their engines so both are turning at exactly the same rpm’s. But the old Apache we were flying had to be synched manually … and our pilot had a bad habit of letting the engines creep out of synch.
The problem wasn’t that apparent up front, but in the rear—where Wortsie and I were curled up in a desperate attempt to retain body heat—the out of synch engines were painfully apparent.
We’d be sitting there, blowing on our fingers to fend off frostbite, when we’d suddenly start to hear it …
The constant, reassuring roar of the engine would slowly change to …
Then the whole irritating cycle would start all over again.
Wortsie and I stood it for as long as we could, but eventually one of us would break and scream, “For God’s sake. Synch Up The Bloody Engines!”
Duke would mutter something unintelligible, fiddle with the throttles for a while, then return to concentrating on the instruments while we enjoyed a few peaceful minutes before the engines began to wander again.
We landed at Buffalo International to clear customs, then took off for a long, cold flight down to Raleigh Durham, North Carolina.
By the time we’d refuelled and stamped feeling back into our feet at Raleigh, the sun had gone down. But Brandon was determined to reach Florida before the end of the day, so we went back into our aerial refrigerator for one more gruelling flight.
To make the trip even more discomforting, we quickly climbed into cloud, where we didn’t even have the distraction of interesting scenery. In the end, I discovered the cold was easier to bear if I went to sleep, so after reassuring myself I would actually wake up again, I allowed myself to drift off for a little “death practice.”
When I drifted back into consciousness and looked out the window, I saw one of the most extraordinary sights of my life. This was my first real “night flight,” so it took me a moment to realize the glittering jewels lying on a blanket of pure black velvet were actually the lights of coastal cities in northern Florida. The night air was extraordinarily calm, so it felt like we were standing still and the world was rotating below us.
As I sat there, watching in awe, Brandon pointed out a particularly large pool of lights and told us we’d be landing there for the night. So, a mere 8 hours after leaving Toronto, our wheels touched down (thumped down) on the runway at Jacksonville, Florida.
The following morning, we flew from Jacksonville to Fort Lauderdale where Brandon had decided to base us while he worked on Duke’s licenses. And Brandon confided that he was going to have his work cut out, because Duke didn’t exactly impress him with his airwork. Brandon was particularly displeased with the way Duke would smash his fist on the instrument panel every time he blew a landing (in other words—on every landing).
After he’d given the panel a particularly hefty punch at Jacksonville, Brandon had read him the riot act and said it wasn’t the plane that had blown the landing, it was the idiot mishandling the controls. That calmed Duke down a bit, but after a similar performance at Fort Lauderdale, Brandon had warned us he may have to call the trip off because, quite frankly, he couldn’t understand how Duke had managed to get a Private Pilot’s License, never mind learning how to fly a twin.
We were disappointed, but understood. If Duke couldn’t learn, there was no point in continuing. He’d just be wasting his money … and that’s what Brandon told him after another disastrous day in the air.
Wortsie and I had said we wanted to spend that day on the beach—to get some of the pressure off Duke, and to give Brandon an opportunity to talk to the man alone.
When they reappeared that afternoon, Duke went straight to his room, so—fearing the worst—we asked Brandon what happened.
“Well, I told him it’s hopeless,” Brandon said.
“So we’re going home?” Wortsie said.
Brandon looked up with a curious expression and said, “No … He wants to keep going.”
We looked at each other in bewilderment, then I asked, “So what are we going to do?”
Brandon thought about this for a moment, then shrugged and said, “I guess we go on.”
“To where?” asked Wortsie.
Brandon snorted, looked out across the ocean, then said, “I don’t know … where do we want to go?”
As he looked back at us with a devilish gleam in his eye, Wortsie and I suddenly realized our southern vacation was not going to end in Florida.
Watch for Episode 8 of “Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear,” “On to the Caribbean,” on Sunday, May 16th.
About the Author
Glenn Norman is a Co-Founder and the Editor of Why Fly. Learn more.