GEAR UP

HOW A PIECE OF CLOTH­ING BE­CAME PART OF AN AIR­PLANE

Flying - - Contents - By Dick Karl

The story of an old coat

This old coat has been hang­ing in the back of our air­plane for more years than I can re­li­ably es­ti­mate. It has greeted me on count­less oc­ca­sions as I as­cended the airstair of the Cheyenne on the way to the cock­pit. It hangs just to the right, in the aft cargo area, wait­ing. Wait­ing for what, ex­actly, I can’t quite re­mem­ber.

I do re­mem­ber how I bought the coat. My wife, Cathy, and I had ar­rived in Nashville, Ten­nessee, for a con­fer­ence. She was the con­fer­ence-goer and I was the “arm candy,” if one can use that term sar­cas­ti­cally. As we got out of the air­plane, I re­moved our suit­case from the for­ward bag­gage com­part­ment. I ex­pected Cathy to bring the gar­ment bag as she ex­ited the air­plane, but all she had was a hefty “por­ta­ble” lap­top. “Where is my suit, and where are your dresses?” I asked. “Prob­a­bly in the back of the car in Tampa,” she replied, dead­pan. We both un­der­stood at that mo­ment that our jeans and T-shirts weren’t go­ing to get it done at the ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee din­ner that night.

Once in the rental car and checked into the Opry­land Ho­tel, we jour­neyed not far to a cut-rate mall. None of the other hastily bought clothes survives, but that sport coat has hung in our air­plane for 15 years or more. I should in­clude it in the ba­sic empty weight.

The coat is made of ma­te­rial of un­known prove­nance. That’s a good thing, too, as I have abused this in­door coat many times with out­door ac­tiv­i­ties fea­tur­ing rain and snow. It never seemed to mind. The shape of the lapels may give away its ap­prox­i­mate birth date but does not be­tray the weather abuse.

I re­mem­ber, vividly, re­fu­el­ing in Madi­son, In­di­ana. Af­ter ar­riv­ing in sketchy weather with mar­ginal ceil­ings, I elected to de­fer get­ting gas un­til the next day. Re­lieved to be safely on the ground, I ne­glected to no­tice two things: Heavy rain was fore­cast, and jet-a was self-serve. The next day I wore that coat to stay warm as I pumped fuel into all four tanks in a pelt­ing cold rain. It kept its shape, more or less.

Pas­sen­gers of­ten laugh at the sport jacket hang­ing in the back of the air­plane. They kid that I must be so im­por­tant that I have to be ready to be on tele­vi­sion at a mo­ment’s no­tice. They wouldn’t say that if they looked closely at the coat, or me, for that mat­ter. It has a small checked pat­tern that would look bad on TV, and so far no­body has asked me to ap­pear.

I have used that mod­est coat to stand in for other, more formal clothes when I have for­got­ten such things on other

trips. Once, while giv­ing a lec­ture to a sur­gi­cal group in St. Louis on the use of check­lists in op­er­at­ing rooms to pre­vent er­rors of omis­sion, I had to ad­mit that I’d left home with­out a check­list and there­fore had no suit jacket. When I de­scribed press­ing the sport coat from the air­plane into ser­vice, no­body seemed to mind, though their laugh­ter went on just a lit­tle bit longer than I had hoped.

Over time, the coat has taken on the in­tox­i­cat­ing aroma of the air­plane it­self. It smells of jet fuel and Jan­i­trol heat, cof­fee and leather. I love that smell. Some­times, af­ter land­ing, I will take the coat with me just to keep the plea­sure of the flight close at hand, or should I say nos­tril. When land­based ac­tiv­i­ties aren’t as much fun as fly­ing, I’ve got the coat to keep me sus­tained.

Re­cently, an­other weather ex­am­ple of the standby use­ful­ness of this out-of-date gar­ment was made clear. As I pre­flighted the air­plane in Ge­orge­town, Delaware, I was sur­prised to feel a tem­per­a­ture 20 de­grees cooler than an­tic­i­pated. I donned the coat. Our flight there two days be­fore had been made to at­tend a fu­neral, al­ways a time for tak­ing stock. This morn­ing, we were com­ing back home, re­minded of life’s fragility and the warmth of fam­ily. The air­plane was cold, and I kept the coat on as I set­tled into the left seat, turned on the master and counted with sat­is­fac­tion the seven warn­ing lights that should be il­lu­mi­nated be­fore start-up. The heat would come up soon.

It’s no se­cret that I have in mind sell­ing this faith­ful air­plane. It has been an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, nay, priv­i­lege, to own and op­er­ate her. As the three hours ticked away on a smooth day, fly­ing from Delaware to Florida, I sat in heated splen­dor. We were at Flight Level 200 for winds, but when Jack­sonville Cen­ter gave us a head­ing off course I in­quired if a higher al­ti­tude would al­low us to carry on to­ward home. Could we climb to FL 230 to top a mil­i­tary warn­ing area? Of course we could. The Avi­dyne EX500 said that what we lost in ground­speed we made up for with the di­rect rout­ing. How can I part with such a mag­nif­i­cent air­plane?

What will hap­pen to the coat? I mused. We hope to get

OVER TIME, THE COAT HAS TAKEN ON THE IN­TOX­I­CAT­ING AROMA OF THE AIR­PLANE IT­SELF. IT SMELLS OF JET FUEL AND COF­FEE AND LEATHER.

an­other air­plane — more about that soon — but there is al­ways un­cer­tainty when trad­ing in a trusted steed, es­pe­cially an air­plane. Will an up­grade be bet­ter? Or will it cost more and yet not do what the Cheyenne can? Will the coat come to hang in the new air­plane like a tal­is­man? Some­how, I doubt it will.

The fu­neral re­minded me that I have en­tered my 70s. What­ever fly­ing lies ahead of me, it will be shorter than what lies be­hind me. I can read the ac­tu­ar­ial ta­bles, and I have a fa­mil­iar­ity with the obit­u­ary pages. That coat may out­last me.

What­ever its fu­ture, this old coat has had an ex­cit­ing travel past. Like a sen­try, it has stood guard over an empty air­plane on ramps from Mon­terey, Cal­i­for­nia, to Bar Har­bor, Maine, not to men­tion Cana­dian ca­pers to Vic­to­ria, Bri­tish Columbia, and Hal­i­fax, Nova Sco­tia. It has ac­cu­mu­lated hair from three dogs and su­per­vised the first flights of five grand­chil­dren. It has witnessed more hap­pi­ness than most coats could ever hope to see. Re­gard­less of what hap­pens next about air­plane own­er­ship, I will keep the coat.

I bought this coat out of ne­ces­sity on a trip long ago. Now, it’s one with the plane.

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