Small wings, big prayers

Kevin Cowherd

April 02, 1993|By Kevin Cowherd

I woke up feeling violent, nauseous, quizzical, coquettish . . . it was a day like any other day except worse, much worse.

Larry came by the house at 9, tooting the car horn in that annoying BEEP-BEEP-BEEEEP way of his.

"Ready to do some flying?" he shouted.

Actually, I was ready to do some throwing up, but there was no sense telling him that.

As I walked out the door, a man on TV was saying: "New Tide with grease releasers!" How ironic that on the last day of my life a detergent commercial would form one of my final mental snapshots.

Soon we were on our way to the county airport where Larry, who claimed to be an experienced pilot, was to take me up in his little two-seater.

I was doing this despite a lifelong policy of never flying in anything smaller than a DC-10 because of the death factor involved.

I was doing this because . . . well, because I lost a bet. On the NCAA men's basketball tournament, where my team, Indiana, had done a major crash-and-burn. (You hate to use analogies like that in a column about airplanes, but I'm sort of pressed for time here.)

Anyway, at the airport we walked over to one of the hangars and there was Larry's plane. It was a Cessna. Or a Cherokee. Or a . . . look, I don't know what it was, OK?!

L All I know is it was real small. About the size of a coffin.

Standing there numbly while Larry checked out the plane, it struck me that my fear of flying in big planes is surpassed only by my fear of flying in small planes.

At least if you go down in a Boeing 747, it leads off the 11 o'clock news -- unless, say, Russian Communists are parading Boris Yeltsin's head around Red Square.

If you go down in a Cessna, it plays like this on the news: " . . . although fortunately the puppy was found safe and sound. In other news, a light plane with two people aboard crashed into Hogs Neck Mountain today. Now here's Earl with the weather."

(As a former sportswriter who traveled with the Yankees and Orioles, I had a similar fear of going down on the team plane.

While the next day's papers would blare the story of the terrible crash and all the famous athletes who died, the sportswriters would be mentioned at the very end of the story, in the paragraph beginning: "Also killed were . . .")

The other thing is, these small planes are always going down, or so it seems.

Every time you turn around, there's another report about one of them missing the runway at a fog-shrouded airport, or cartwheeling off some power lines into somebody's living room.

But a bet's a bet, so we taxied down the runway and took off. I become very spiritual in airplanes, and as soon as we were airborne I started reciting a little prayer.

It's a simple prayer, really. I'll share it with you, if you like. OK, it goes like this: "PLEASE DON'T LET ME DIE!"

Yep, that's all there is to it. Say that two or three hundred times and, with any luck, your plane won't throw an engine bolt and plummet out of the sky.

A moment or two after takeoff, I opened my eyes. I could see horses and cows and cars and tractors. The problem was, they were only about 20 feet below the plane, or so it seemed.

"Shouldn't we be a little higher?" I said.

"We're still climbing," said Larry evenly.

They have all the answers, these pilots. At least that's what they want you to think. It's like when these airline captains come on the intercom and say nonchalantly: "Folks, you may notice smoke pouring from the No. 2 engine. It's just a little excess oil burning off."

Yeah, right. Ten seconds later, the oxygen masks pop down and the plane plunges into a dizzying 2-mile nose dive toward the ocean.

About 20 minutes into the flight, Larry apparently suffered some sort of psychotic episode and thought he was a World War II

fighter pilot over Nuremberg.

I say that because all of a sudden the plane veered sharply to the left. Then a voice (which I soon recognized as my own) started screaming: "WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!"

"Relax," said Larry. "We're heading back to the airport."

The rest of the flight was uneventful. I suffered a few nasty bumps, but that was just from passing out and whacking my forehead against the instrument panel.

Thirty minutes later, we touched down. I stepped from the plane, vibrating like a cymbal.

Anyone with a gambling problem, Larry's the man you want to see.

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