It was a perfect day to fly, with a brilliant sky and favorable winds. The Cessna 150 flew like a magic carpet. I locked onto my navigational beacon and felt in complete control. It was only an illusion.
“What’s that noise, Grampa? Is something wrong?” Timmy’s insatiable curiosity could be annoying, but that was his nature. At least he had grown out of asking “Why?” fifty times in a row like he did when he was four. What a difference a year makes.
“I’m not sure, Timmy. The motor’s running rough. Let’s see what it is.”
The Cessna’s engine would cough, shudder, drop rpm, and then repeat. It had done this to me once before but had stopped on its own. My mechanic was due to investigate it during the plane’s annual maintenance, but that wasn’t until next month.
I didn’t think it was ice in the carburetor but tried adjusting the carb heat just the same. At this altitude and temperature I wasn’t surprised it didn’t help.
I had a fifty-fifty shot with the magnetos, so I shut off the right one and immediately the engine noise smoothed out. The two magnetos powered redundant ignition systems, so I only needed one to fly. The right one was obviously malfunctioning. If the left one failed, we’d be over 11,000 feet without the proverbial paddle.
Timmy nodded in approval. “That sounds better. What did you do?”
I felt ridiculous explaining it to a 5-year-old, but did so anyway, as much for my benefit as for his.
My daughter Sharon had asked me to transport Timmy to Moosehead Lake to visit his dad. She had divorced Rodney a year ago, and they were still working out the visitation logistics. Or at least she was. He didn’t seem to care how much he inconvenienced her.
She couldn’t take an entire day off to drive the 300 miles by car from Keene to Moosehead, so she enlisted my help. The trip would be much shorter by plane both in miles and time. I wasn’t enthused about flying over the White Mountains this time of year but was willing to do anything for her. After her mother died, I didn’t have anyone else. And it would mean priceless one-on-one time with my precocious grandson.
“Timmy, check the map. I see clouds that shouldn’t be there.”
“Looks like rain, Grampa.” I had entrusted my iPad to Timmy and appointed him our navigator for the two-and-a-half-hour flight. He was a whiz with it.
“Are you sure? There’s not supposed to be any rain on Wednesday.”
“Isn’t that what the red and yellow mean? There’s some purple, too. Besides, it’s Thursday.”
I glanced at the tablet. “Crap!”
“It’s okay, Grampa. Mom says that’s a grown-up word, and you’re a grown-up.”
The squall came from the northeast, so I turned west and notified Boston Center of my altered flight plan. I couldn’t totally avoid the storm, but I wouldn’t hit it head-on.
We were thirty minutes out on our flight. Fifteen minutes later the clouds looked all wrong.
“Show me that iPad, Timmy.”
He held it up for my inspection. The storm had moved faster than I thought—plus it had ballooned like an angry mutant amoeba.
“Shit!” I glanced at Timmy. “Sorry.”
“Grampa!” He grinned.
The cloudbank ahead was a billowing black mass. Lightning flashes burst across the sky. Before I could make a turn, a loud boom rattled the cockpit and blinding light exploded all around us.
Timmy shrieked. “Grampa!”
The pungent smell of ozone stung my nostrils and caught in my throat. The aircraft shuddered with the receding rumble of thunder.
The lingering image of a bright windscreen flickered across my retinas. I blinked furiously to get my vision back.
“Timmy! Are you okay?”
“I’m scared.” The faint voice seemed far away.
The engine was dead. I tried starting it. Nothing. The cheery lights from the instruments were gone. The panel was dark as a new moon.
Without the engine the plane quickly lost velocity and stopped flying. The high-pitched whine of the stall speed indicator screamed in protest. The plane dropped like a boulder off a cliff. The nose pitched forward and dipped to the right. We entered a spin, corkscrewing straight down into a death spiral.
“Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
I slammed my foot on the left rudder pedal to stop the spin and pushed the control yoke forward to gain airspeed.
It might have been nighttime for all the light we had.
“Timmy! In my bag! My flashlight!”
“Quickly! Shine it on the dashboard!”
“Got it, Grampa!” He flicked on the beam.
The lightning had fried the electronics—radio, navigation, the works. But the compass, altimeter, and airspeed indicator were all mechanical and still worked. I stopped the plane’s spin and brought the rudder and ailerons to neutral, but we still headed straight down. With the yoke forward, our airspeed increased, and the plane naturally pulled itself out of the dive. We leveled out at 7000 feet.
“What happened, Grampa?” Timmy’s voice quavered. “Are we gonna to die?”
“No…” I took a deep breath, my heart pounding. “We got hit by lightning. It’s not supposed to hurt the plane…” I exhaled. “…but sometimes that happens.”
But rarely. There must have been something weird like a bare wire touching the aluminum fuselage. Instead of the lightening dissipating out the tail, some of its current must have surged through the instruments. And the last magneto.
We no longer had a single-engine prop-driven aircraft. We had a chubby, overweight glider at 7,000 feet and dropping.
I turned south to run from the storm, and then northeast into the wind. That would keep our airspeed up and us aloft a while longer while we searched for a landing spot.
But there was none. No airports, airfields, or highways. No abandoned runways or cultivated fields. Lots of forests, stump fields, and treacherous high-tension lines.
We had less than ten minutes of flight time left—at most ten miles travel.
“Timmy! We need to land in the water, okay?”
The boy nodded, grasping his seat with a white-knuckle grip.
“I know you can swim, but it’ll be too far for you. I’ll have to tow you to shore. Don’t fight me, okay?”
A few minutes later I spied a long narrow lake whose shape oriented east-west. Running out of altitude, I ignored standard procedure to circle and instead made my approach head-on. As I neared the water, I raised the nose high to drag the tail, trying to stall the craft and let it drop gracefully into the water.
That was the theory. But the tail hit the water and the nose dropped. As soon as the nose gear struck the water at 60 mph, the plane abruptly stopped, dove, and flipped ass-over-teakettle onto its back.
“Grampa!” Timmy screamed as he hung upside-down from his safety harness. He thrashed in the seat as water gurgled into the cockpit.
“Hold on!” I released myself and fell headfirst into the deepening puddle in the ceiling. I unhitched Timmy and kicked out the door. By the time we made it onto the wing, the inverted plane was half submerged and sinking fast.
I swam ashore using a one-armed side stroke, my other arm wrapped under Timmy’s arms. The plane disappeared into the murky depths looking like a dead puppy. We scrambled over rocks to dry land and lay gasping on the lakeshore. The storm had passed, and the sun shone brightly.
While we wrung out our clothes, I took inventory. It was a short list. I had a penknife on my keychain, a pair of folding cheaters for reading, a soggy wallet, and a five-year-old boy. My phone and tablet had drowned with the plane.
Normal protocol says survivors should remain near a downed aircraft. But we were many miles off our planned route where a rescue crew might not search. Plus the plane was hidden under the muddy waters of a swampy lake.
Based on my last view of the map, the nearest town was about 30 miles east, maybe three day’s travel on foot. More if we encountered obstacles.
I explained this to Timmy and told him we had a long trek ahead of us. He accepted the news with surprising composure.
We arranged a series of rocks into a giant arrow pointing in our planned direction of travel. If a search crew happened to discover the plane, the arrow would tell them we were alive and which way we had headed.
It was July in Maine, so the mosquitos were one notch short of horrendous. We rubbed mud on our exposed skin to reduce the bites. It was still only midday, so we cut a couple of saplings for walking sticks and headed east toward the lake’s outlet. Travel would be easier downstream and would lead to bigger waters where there would likely be more people.
We made it to the small brook which drained the lake. Progress was slow as we picked through rocks and thick brush. We stopped for the night while the sun was still shining, maybe three miles downstream from the lake. We constructed another one of our rock directional arrows on the streambank.
I showed Timmy how to create a flame using the cheaters as a magnifying glass to concentrate sunlight and ignite dry tinder, and then how to coax a fire to life with successively larger sticks of dead wood. While he nursed the fire, I collected evergreen boughs to make a lean-to for cover and more boughs for bedding to keep us off the damp ground while we slept.
Just before he collapsed for the night, Timmy turned to me.
“Grampa? What does ‘fuck’ mean?”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“You kept shouting it when we were falling.”
“Oh. Um…it’s just something grown-ups say when things go wrong.”
“Oh. Okay,” he said with a yawn, and immediately fell asleep.
The good news was we weren’t really lost. The bad news was shit happens in the wilderness. I planned to be vigilant and protect Tim at all costs.
I stayed up all night and kept the fire burning. Coyote howls echoed in the distance, the yips and yowls reaching a crescendo before ending in sudden silence with their kill. Several pairs of eyes reflected the firelight as they surrounded our makeshift camp, but none approached.
We rose early the next morning so as not to waste the daylight.
I knew food would be scarce, so we took advantage of it when we could. I revived dormant skills from my childhood and caught two frogs barehanded from the brook. We relished eating roasted frog legs before starting our day’s journey. We would need more food later, but that was a beginning. We weren’t worried about fresh water—it was everywhere.
Around midday we entered a brushy meadow loaded with wild raspberries and high-bush blueberries. We were halfway into the field, gorging ourselves on the sweet fruit when Tim grabbed me from behind.
“Grampa!” he hissed. “Grampa!”
I turned to see an adult black bear twenty feet away, staring at us as he munched on berry bushes.
“Is this a good time to say ‘fuck?’” Tim whispered.
“No, Tim. The bear won’t bother us.” We talked loudly and waved our walking sticks, rattling them across the bushes and making as much noise as possible. The bear grunted, shook its head, and left.
We fell into a routine that night and the next day. We quit by late afternoon so there would still be enough sun to start a fire using the cheaters. Tim dragged his feet but attended to his assigned task. He lit the fire, and I prepared the bedding. I took a nap until dark, while he built another stone arrow. The next morning I captured two more frogs and speared a fish with a sharp stick. We ate those plus some leftover berries from the day before. We wouldn’t gain any weight, but we wouldn’t starve, either.
By midday we had traveled to where the brook merged with a larger stream. The two watercourses barred our way on either side, and we had to cross one to continue downriver. We chose the smaller one, the brook we had been following. My hopes rose that we would survive our ordeal and reach civilization soon.
We waded across the brook and climbed onto the rocks on the opposite shore. I stepped over a stick and bang!something hit me on the shin. I yelled in pain and glanced down to see not a stick, but a rattlesnake reared up ready to bite me again.
I whacked at it with my walking stick, cursing the air blue as it slithered off.
“Grampa! Grampa! Are you okay?”
I didn’t answer. A snake bite could be bad. Of all the things that one should do, I could do none of them. I couldn’t seek medical aid, I couldn’t lie down, and I couldn’t rest. The venom was already coursing through my bloodstream. Walking would only accelerate the process. It didn’t matter. We couldn’t stop.
I had at most 48 hours before the effects of the poison would incapacitate me. Maybe less. Maybe a lot less. After that my chances of surviving dropped dramatically. So did Tim’s, without me to look after him.
The pain wasn’t bad at first. I fashioned myself a splint from sticks and tied it up with strips of cloth from my tee-shirt. I limped along, trying to keep up our previous pace, but the pain intensified, and I slowed with each step. We stopped earlier than usual because I needed to rest. I curled up on some pine boughs with strict instructions for Tim to wake me before dark.
Instead I woke on my own, sweating and vomiting. I was short of breath, my heart raced, and everything was blurry. I had Tim cut away my jeans around the bite. The skin was red, swollen, and blistered, and blood oozed from the puncture wounds.
Tim looked away. “Fuck, Grampa. Just fuck.”
“That’s right, Tim,” I said, “you’re right,” and passed out.
I awoke in a hospital room. I didn’t lose the leg, but apparently the doctors had seriously considered it. Thank God for anti-venom.
And if Tim hadn’t built a bonfire and spelled “HELP” in large rock letters on the streambank, the helicopter following our arrows might not have seen us in time, and neither one of us would have made it home alive.
Sharon was unhappy with Tim’s expanded vocabulary of four-letter words and his apparent willingness and facility to use them in context. In his defense, he had grown a lot during our adventure, and he was almost six. On the other hand, Sharon was proud of the four-letter word “hero” being liberally applied to him by the media.
I for one thought Tim earned every one of those four letters.