[January 20, 1964]
[Airborne, heading 210 degrees magnetic, 800 feet AGL]
By the time the plane was around seven or eight hundred feet up, Molly was craning her neck trying to look all around. Since they were still on the runway heading – 210 – Bill banked to the right and held it until they were steady on 270; due West. Still climbing, their path led them directly over town. Bill stopped his climb at two thousand and leveled off briefly. Not wanting to get tangled up in traffic patterns at Great Falls International he angled further to the north and aimed for the river and the Fifteenth Street Bridge.
“There’s the bridge we went over right after you got here, Molly. And to the left is the mountains.” The snow-capped peaks were magnificent in the bright sunlight. Almost enough to hurt their eyes. They hit a pocket of air and bounced a little. Molly yipped but then looked over at Bill and grinned. She was really enjoying this. ‘Damn,’ he thought. ‘I really do love this woman’.
* * *
Entranced by both the view, which was spectacular, and the uniqueness of her situation, Molly did her best to see everything at once.
‘He is right! Those mountains look so close, but he told me they were almost a hundred miles away. And there is the river and bridge! We’re flying right over it. Whoops! Heh. We bounced a little. This is so much different that being in a huge airliner. I can see why Bill likes to fly, now. I wonder how hard it really is. He makes it look so easy.’
* * *
“November Three Five One Mike Delta, Malmstrom Tower. You are leaving my area. Frequency change approved.”
“Thank you Malmstrom; good day. One Mike Delta.”
Molly pressed her button. “What did that mean?”
He held up a finger and bent to the radio to transfer to the common frequency for VFR flights in this area. “It meant that I was leaving the radar coverage of the base and that I could now change to a frequency that everyone up here monitors. It’s so we can hear where other planes are and what they are doing.”
“Sort of like a party line?” She asked. A very quick student.
“Exactly like it. Listen.” He punched the mic switch and announced: “Cessna November Three Five One Mike Delta on UNICOM heading two seven zero at two thousand five hundred.” He said in measured tones, and then added: “With my new wife on her first flight.”
He took a quick look at Molly, who had colored nicely. She looked back a little startled when a voice replied. “Congratulations One Mike Delta. Beech Two Seven Bravo.” This was followed by two more of the same.
"It’s just like a bunch of friends up here, Molly. This particular channel is in use all the time, but chatter is kept to a minimum.” He pulled a sectional chart out of the pocket next to him in the door and passed it to her. He pointed to where they were right now with a finger. “We’re headed this way,” he said, sliding the finger west towards the mountains. “When we get about here…” he indicated the foothills “… then I’ll turn south and we’ll fly down them for a while.”
“How long will we be out here? Won’t anyone be worried we don’t come back?”
“Nope. Everyone but you were in on it. Phillip and Paula paid for the gas and my mom and dad paid for the rental of the plane. Happy birthday, Honey!”
She reached for his hand and kissed the back of it since she couldn’t lean over with the seat belt tight around her waist. “Thank you, my love. It’s the best one I’ve ever had. It’s just wonderful to be up here.” She looked out the window and scanned the ground they were now over.
“I am so happy you’re pleased. We have to go up a bit more now.” He pointed to the altimeter. “We’re going to go up until we get to about nine thousand feet. To do this, I’ll circle once and you can look right out the door and down. If it frightens you let me know and I’ll stop.” She nodded once, decisively.
Bill picked out Willow Creek Reservoir and started a climbing right turn. This let Molly look down off the right wing. She never flinched, as one of his passengers had done once before, but, instead, stared directly down and around. “All that grass. It seems to go on forever from up here. How high are we now?”
He pointed to the altimeter again. “We are at seven thousand four hundred and climbing at a rate of two hundred feet a minute. To reach nine thousand, we need to circle for another five or six minutes. Simple math.”
“So if you went up faster, you’d get to nine thousand faster?”
“Right. I bet you would make a natural pilot. Want to try?”
* * *
‘ME!? Mon dieu! I cannot fly this airplace! Why would he ever suggest this?’
* * *
She stared at him. “ME! I wouldn’t know what to do. No.”
“Just put your feet lightly on the pedals down there and feel them move when I move them. They help control my turn. To go right, press the right one; to go left, press the left one. To go either direction, turn the wheel that way at the same time you press the pedals. See how I have the yoke, or wheel, now to the right? Feel the right pedal is down just a little. That’s what is making us go in a circle. On that instrument," he pointed to the turn coordinator, "you can see the little white wing is tilted to the right and resting on the little white line. Then look at the little black ball in it at the bottom. When that's centered, we're turning properly.”
She nodded. “And, what’s making us go up is me pulling back on the wheel.” He demonstrated by pulling and pushing it a little. The plane jumped up and down – as did Molly. Her eyes got wide and then she giggled.
At that moment Bill knew he’d have to see if she wanted to start with flying lessons. She was hooked that same way he was the first time he went up.
“Hey! Want me to show you the area where we go camping? There’s a little airfield right by the campground. It’s called Benchmark and its riiiiiight here.” He scanned the chart and then tapped the spot in the mountains. “About fifteen minutes away.”
“Will they expect us?”
“I don’t know. But I can check and see if anyone is there. Wait a second.” He pulled the Airport/Facility Directory and checked on the field frequency for Benchmark. It was the normal UNICOM frequency. He told Molly to listen in.”
“Traffic – Three Uniform Seven. This is Cessna One Mike Delta approaching from the east at eight thousand. Is the field open today?’
A pause, then a click. “One Mike Delta – Benchmark. The field is open. Winds from the northwest at fifteen. Altimeter two niner seven three. No other traffic at this time.”
“Thank you. One Mike Delta.”
Bill turned to Molly and she nodded; a huge grin on her face. “Great! Let’s go!” He pushed the control column in a bit, backed off the throttle and added carburetor heat; all in rapid succession.
“What did you just do?” She asked.
“Well, first we needed to go down, so I pushed the yoke in. Then, to keep the engine from going too fast and to actually let us descend, I slowed us down a little – like letting up on the gas in a car. The last thing I did was let some of the exhaust pass over and around the engine and carburetor so that ice wouldn’t form and stop the engine. Not a good thing. The field elevation is five four three four feet so we have to circle it once at twelve hundred AGL. That means Above Ground Level; which means we stop descending and circle the field at…?” He looked at her with his eyebrows lifted.
She did the math and came up with sixty-six hundred and thirty-four. He told her that pilot’s always rounded up to the nearest hundred so their pattern altitude, their circling, would be at sixty-seven hundred.
Down they went. When they entered a narrow valley they could see a broad face of white rocks to the right and tree-laden slopes to the left. They had sunk below the tops of the surrounding hills. Bill could see Molly was getting a little nervous with all the bouncing around they were doing in the gusts created by the hills.
“No problem, Honey. Wind gusts are always present in the mountains. When we come around a big curve to the right we’ll be able to see the runway. You can help me look for it.”
* * *
‘He doesn’t know where this place is? How will he ever find it? Oh, wait a minute. He showed me on this map he keeps looking at. I wonder if this brown bump here is the curve he’s talking about. It must be. If that is right, then when we turn here, we should see something at least. I don’t like all the bouncing we are doing though. The wings are bending! Can’t he see them?’
* * *
Bill slowed to just below a hundred knots and grabbed the mic again. “Traffic. Three Uniform Seven. Cessna One Mike Delta is now at seven thousand at seven miles for approach and landing runway three zero – left pattern.”
“Cessna One Mike Delta – Benchmark. At pilot’s discretion you are cleared for straight-in approach and landing, runway three zero.”
“Thank you Benchmark. We will approach on long final. Passing three miles now.”
Bill told Molly what he was doing as he did it. Reaching the panel, he popped on the landing lights, set ten degrees of flaps, adjusted rate of descent a little, and then added a little more throttle.
“Why more gas?” She asked. Bill looked at her slightly started that she knew what the control was.
“It’s because when I added flaps – see those things hanging down off the back of the wing?” She craned around and nodded. “Well, those slow us down even more, but they also add lift – what holds us up here. So, I have to ‘step on the gas’ to compensate and keep the same speed. See this dial?” He pointed to the airspeed gauge. “I am keeping it right at ninety; which is in knots, by the way. I’ll explain those later. Now, look over to the right. Can you see the runway?”
She scanned in the direction indicated and, after a moment, pointed excitedly, bouncing in her seat, “Yes! I think I can see it. That long finger of brown?”
“Yup. Just when it’s in line with us, I’ll turn a little bit more and we’ll head right for it. Hang on!”
Bill waited a moment and then made a crisp turn towards the runway. He slid from side to side a bit, settling into the right path, and adjusted their rate of descent a little more. A light headwind coming down the canyon was making them float somewhat. “Now, all we do is wait for the ground to come up to meet us.”
At about a mile or a little less, Bill increased flaps and slowed down to just over seventy knots. They drifted right a little so he compensated for that. Down they went. Bill thought to himself that this was as smooth an approach he’d ever made. He picked up the mic again.
“Benchmark – One Mike Delta. On final for runway three zero.”
“One Mike Delta – Benchmark. Cleared to land.”
They flashed over the threshold and touched down just past the numbers. Steady light pressure on the brakes and a slowing prop let them turn safely at the first taxiway. Bill raised the flaps and flipped toggle switches to kill the landing lights and turned on the taxi lights. “Benchmark – One Mike Delta – clear of the runway.” He announced.
“Benchmark. Roger. You may taxi up to the tower building and shut down, Sir. They are waiting for you.”
Molly twisted to look at Bill; a slow smile crossing her lips and crinkles appearing at the edges of her eyes. “‘Waiting for us?’ Who’s waiting for us?”
He tried a lame explanation. “Not sure, Molly. Maybe they’re just friendly.” But it fell on deaf ears. The cat was out of the bag now. The best he could do now was to get her unstrapped and inside. “Let me shut everything down and get inside to see what’s up.”
Bill flipped switches, and then killed the engine. Once all was secured he took a moment to fill out his rough log and then got out. Molly was struggling with her belt clasp – no easy feat for someone who hasn’t seen this type of buckle before – so he reached in and lifted the central release lever. It fell open. She turned to him and let her legs fall to the step on the wing strut. He put his arms around her and lifted her to the ground. On the way down, they kissed a couple of times.
“That was SO exciting!” She gushed. “Can we get something to eat here? Do they have a restaurant or something?”
“We might be able to scare up something at the lodge across the way through the trees. Wait a second while I go in and sign paperwork for the landing. Be right back.”
“No. We go together. I want to say hello to ‘Benchmark’.” She giggled again. “He sounded really cute.”
“He’s probably married with five kids.” Bill smiled at her. “But come on.”
Inside, he found the usual stuff for a Fixed Base Operation (FBO). There was a long counter with clipboards on it, a woman sitting behind it in a chair at a desk, and a small table against the back wall with communications equipment on it. It was manned by a youngish guy of about twenty-five. When they entered, he turned and waved. “There you go, Molly," said Bill. "Mister Benchmark. Go say hello while I do the paperwork.”
“Okay.” She released Bill’s hand and went over to the guy. Bill filled out their paperwork, declined to have the plane gassed up, but asked if they would check tire pressure for him. When he landed it felt like the left tire was a bit spongy. The woman said she’d get the line boy on it right away. She wiggled her fingers at him and he bent forward to her.
The woman leaned over the counter and whispered. “Everyone is over at the lodge, Mister Stiles. They’ve been partying for an hour. Too bad you can’t join them.” She smiled at him. No booze at all for a pilot before, or during, flight was a hard and fast rule.
“Thanks.” He said. “Molly!" He called. “Ready to go?”
She turned back to him, waved over her shoulder at the radio guy, and walked over. She punched his arm playfully. “His name is Ken and he doesn’t either have five kids. He’s not even married. So there!”
“I heard that!” Said Ken. “Have a great day.”
They left the FBO office and walked to the edge of the runway. There were two dotted white lines running across it, a small post with red and green lights, and a pushbutton. Bill pushed the button. The green light came on and they walked across the runway.
“Like a traffic light telling us it was okay to cross the street?”
“Exactly. If a plane was landing they would have given us a red light. Not everyone here is a pilot and even with landing lights a plane in the sky can be missed.”
“You are so full of information, aren’t you?” He just grinned back at her enigmatically. She wrinkled her nose – a sign of endearment he loved in her.