The next morning was the day we were all dreading. After almost two weeks in the blissfully warm arms of the Caribbean, it was hard to believe we were still in the middle of winter. But when we landed for fuel at Montgomery, Alabama – a mere six hours later – we had no problem believing, because it was freezing!
Given the non-existent status of the Apache’s cabin heater, Brandon wanted to get us home as fast as possible. So we took off and headed north … but that proved to be less than a great decision.
Three hours later, somewhere over Tennessee, Brandon said, “Okay guys – this is not looking good.” That got my attention. For Brandon to admit anything was wrong, we had to be in serious trouble.
I looked out at the snow streaming over the right wing and was horrified to see a nasty build up of ice forming on the Apache’s leading edge.
“Um, Mike. We got ice out there,” I said.
Brandon actually took the time to turn, glare at me and say, “Yes Pre-Pubic. That’s what I’m talking about.”
Things got decidedly quiet in the cabin after that. We let Mike concentrate on the instruments while Duke located the nearest airport and punched the frequency into the radio.
Brandon didn’t waste any time. As soon as he contacted Nashville Tower, he let them know we would really appreciate a radar vector to the field. The Controller must have realized we were in trouble, but you couldn’t tell it as he calmly asked Brandon to key the microphone long enough to get a fix.
Within seconds, the Controller knew where we were (which was not where we thought we were) and gave us a new heading for the airport. As we got closer, the Controller counted down the distance remaining and asked Mike to tell him as soon as we had the airport in sight.
As if we needed to be told.
All four of us were straining to catch the slightest glimpse of the airport’s lights. But even when we were directly overhead, all we could see was the streaming white snow.
“Okay Lima Lima Victor – you’ve gone by us,” the Controller intoned. There was a pause, then he added, “Would you like to declare an emergency?”
“Christ, no,” said Brandon – though fortunately not over the radio. “We’ll be filling out forms for a month,”
“At least we’ll be alive,” I added.
Brandon muttered something unintelligible then requested one last try before we took that step.
“That’s affirmative, Lima Lima Victor,” came back the controller as he turned us around. Then, as we lined up on the airport for a second time, he asked, “Would you like us to turn on the high-intensity lights?”
“Hell, yes,” said Brandon.
The words were hardly out of his mouth before one of the most wonderful sights I have ever seen exploded into view – a brilliant line of strobe lights blinking their way, like a giant arrow, to Nashville’s main runway.
Two minutes later, the Apache’s wheels kissed the ground (Brandon was flying).
Five minutes after that, we had gone from impending death to the bizarre sight of a red carpet being rolled up to the door of our Apache by a welcoming Fixed Base Operator.
The nice man poured hot coffee into us while the Apache was re-fuelled, and when the blizzard gave no sign of abating, offered a hangar for the plane and a pilot’s lounge where we could “crash” until we felt it was safe to go on.
I could have kissed the man … well, maybe not “kissed,” but I definitely could have summoned up a hug.
Around 4 a.m., Brandon shook me awake, said the storm had died down and it was safe to go on. I woke up long enough to stagger out to the plane, but was asleep on the back seat before the Apache’s wheels left the ground.
Six and a half hours later – plus one last re-fuelling stop at Cincinnati – I woke up on final for the two-mile long runway at Toronto International (now “Toronto Pearson International Airport). It was only after we’d touched down – right on the numbers – that the tower told Mike we’d have to clear customs at the far end of the field.
“No problem,” said Brandon as he put the power back in and flew down the length of the runway before landing again near the Custom’s Shack.
After the hours of paperwork we’d endured down south, it was a shock to be cleared into Canada with nothing more than a few questions. But that’s what happened.
A half hour later, we were back home in Buttonville, and our great Caribbean Adventure was over.
It was a shock being back home and I had that “nothing will ever be the same” feeling I’d had when I watched England recede into the distance on our way to Canada.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, I couldn’t shake the image of The British Virgin Islands from my mind. They were all I could think about. That, and the fact they had a desperate need for a regularly scheduled airline.
When my Father asked what I was brooding over, I told him the situation and – for the one and only time in my life – my Dad agreed this idea might be worth looking into.
I was stunned when Dad hopped on a jet less than a month later. And completely blown away when he came back from his trip with the news that he’d spoken to various BVI officials, had an Island partner, and was already arranging start-up funding for our airline – which he’d decided to call “Bee Vee Air” (Dad worked in Advertising and had a way with names.)
Then, in an off-handed way, he turned back to me and said, “Oh. Almost forgot. My boss, Des Chorley, heard you wanted to fly taildraggers.”
I nodded my head, not seeing the connection.
“Well apparently, Des owns one, and he invited you to go flying with him. Interested?”
“AM I EVER,” I blurted out.
“Thought so,” said Dad. “So, you’re to meet Des at Buttonville Airport tomorrow morning.”
“Tomorrow,” I answered in stunned reply. “What time?”
Dad pulled a scrap of paper out of his pocket, read it, then said, “Six.”
I was confused and replied, “I thought you said ‘in the morning’.”
“I did,” said Dad.
I believe my mouth was still hanging open long after my father had left the room.
Watch for Episode 12 – a very special story from Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear “And So It Begins…”
on Sunday, June 13th, 2010
Abridged excerpt from Glenn Norman’s book, “Living On Stolen Time”
Due for release in the fall of 2010