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Late Night Fog

It was February 17, 2011. The day had started at 5:00 a.m. I had gotten my first weather briefing at 5:20 a.m. and was at the airport by 6:30.  We departed Savannah at 7:15 on the first flight of the day to Atlanta’s Dekalb Peachtree Airport, our second home. I would drop Steve, one of our law partners of Harris, Penn, Lowry at PDK and return to Savannah to take another of our partners, Jeff, to Augusta. I would drop Jeff at Bush Field and return to PDK and wait for Steve to finish his work at our Atlanta office.  That evening, I would fly him to Athens, Georgia, where he was giving a speech. At the conclusion of the speech I would return him to Savannah where the plane would be in maintenance for engine overhauls and autopilot work. It was a much longer than typical day but not unheard of in my life as a corporate pilot, a career I found at the age of 44 and gave up everything to pursue.

Steve’s event in Athens ran long and he didn’t get back to the Ben Epps Airport until nearly 10:45 p.m. So far, it had been an eighteen hour day but the flight down to Savannah was under an hour and I had gotten some rest in Atlanta earlier in the afternoon. The forecasts were calling for clear skies and calm winds, 50 degree F temperatures with a dew point of 50 F. As Steve pulled up, I checked the Savannah weather one last time. My gut was talking to me. Clear and ten miles visibility. The temperature and dew point being equal indicated the potential for fog but it was severe clear and time to go!

As I lifted off Runway 27, retracted the gear, and turned on course the night was stellar! Stars were everywhere on this moonless night. To the west, I could see the lights of Atlanta in the distance and as I leveled at 15,000 feet I could see the unmistakable orange lights of the Savannah seaport 140 miles ahead. It was one of those nights that makes a pilot realize his great fortune to be getting paid to do something he loves so much! Again, my day was going on 20 hours but I felt like the luckiest guy in the world. Nothing comes close to night flying, especially when I have smooth jazz playing through my headset! Pat Metheny, the Rippingtons, and Acoustic Alchemy on this night.

About twenty-five minutes from Savannah I was no longer able to see the city lights in Savannah. It looked like an orange blanket had formed over dark land. I dialed in Savannah’s ATIS to get the latest conditions and the conditions had gone from severe clear to 1 mile visiblity with a reported 100 foot ceiling in fog. I sensed this might happen. Jacksonville Center had just handed me off to Savannah Approach Control and they confirmed the conditions.

Looking at our options, I could clearly see the lights of Statesboro Airport, which was reporting clear skies. Sylvania’s Plantation Airpark was clear.  Hilton Head was in the fog and below legal minimums. I called Steve to come up to the cockpit and we discussed our options. We had both had a very long day and neither of us wanted to try to find a cab in Statesboro, Georgia at midnight on a Tuesday for an hour long cab ride to Savannah.  Naturally, for safety we would if it came to that, but that was definitely Plan B.  

Since we were on an IFR flight plan I was covered there. It was ten minutes before the control tower closed for the night but I asked the controller if any previous aircraft had made it in. I was told a Delta Airlines MD-88 had made it in five minutes earlier. Decision made! We would perform an ILS approach to try to land at Savannah. Since the reported weather was about 100 feet below minimums, we would shoot the approach with the very real possibility of getting down to decision height and having to execute a missed approach with a climb back to altitude, and go to Plan B. If, however, we got down to decision height and any part of the runway environment was visible we could legally descend to 100 feet above ground level to see if we could see the runway.

Since Steve was now sitting in the co-pilot seat I put him to work. I asked him to look for the MALSR lights, or “the running rabbit.” If he could clearly see them, I could probably make the landing. Our autopilot was not operating to full capacity so I would be flying the approach by hand. When possible, I tend to shoot all of my instrument approaches by hand. It takes a tremendous amount of work to develop and maintain these skills but I love this type of challenge and relish the opportunity to do just this!

Savannah Approach cleared us for the ILS approach to Runway 10 and I intercepted the localizer. At the outer marker beacon, I reduced power, dropped the landing gear, intercepted the glide slope and began the descent through the fog. I was tempted to turn on the landing lights, which is the normal procedure, but opted to leave the light off because the fog would reflect the light back into our eyes and make it much more difficult to see the approach lights. Seeing those lights was key.  

I flew a perfect approach and told Steve we were approaching decision height and to watch for those lights. Just as we got to 200 feet above ground level and as I was about to apply power and climb out, the lights became visible through the fog and Steve shouted, “Got ’em!  I see the lights!” I kept the needles centered on the approach and at 100 feet above the ground we spotted the runway lights. I made a smooth landing and we high-fived.  Since the control tower was in the fog, the controllers could not see the runway. They asked me to inform them when I was on the ground, clear of the runway, and again when we were off the taxiways.  

As we shut the engines down and climbed out of the plane, the sense of immense pride and satisfaction overtook me. Even with the long day, I was totally alive and profoundly grateful for the career in aviation that waited so long and worked so hard to get, and that I love so much. It was a sense of completion, of knowing that I am using my finest abilities and talents to do exactly what I was born to do! There is no faking this and no substitute for it. As Mark Twain said, the two most important days of your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why. When you are doing what you were born to do you will find fulfillment and happiness. 

I have flown nearly 5000 hours since the flight that night and I love it just as much today as I did then. I cannot wait for tomorrow because I am flying then too. 

This is what eluded me for so long as I worked the job in the Pentagon. As hard as I tried to fit the mold of a government civil servant, something in me knew that there had to be more to life than I was doing and that intuition stayed with me, calling to me, gnawing at me day and night, prompting me during the dark days when I was searching desperately for fulfillment and direction.

My story is a whole lot of things wrapped up into one. It is a lesson in work ethic, determination, endurance, and perseverance.  It is a spiritual lesson involving sensing and listening to your inner voice. It is a story about the unseen hand of Providence. It is a story about success, failure, and tragedy.  And it is about aviation, so it is a love story.  

On Character and Characters

“Surround yourself with character, not characters,”  Colin Cowherd

Sometimes you can’t separate character from the characters. I write this as a eulogy to my friend, Magruder DeJarnette. We called him Wolf.  

During the last years of my semi-pro football career, my life crossed paths with Wolf. I was in my first year with the Virginia Minutemen of the Atlantic Football League. Wolf was the Minuteman kicker the previous year and let’s just say he hadn’t had a great deal of success. I came in and was immediately named the starting kicker and had essentially taken Wolf’s job.  

Wolf was 6’4” and 165 pounds of tattooed, backwoods Virginia junk-yard dog who was dealing with all sorts of issues and dysfunction. He put the “fun” in dysfunction. Sporting a gray beard and gray ponytail he looked like a tall, skinny Willie Nelson. Missing one finger (rumor had it that it had been chewed off in a bar fight) and being one of the worst trash talkers, he wasn’t exactly the poster boy for high level football. But Wolf possessed a spirit and love of the game that was simply second to none. 

The Minutemen played in Culpeper, VA on the outskirts of the DC Metropolitan area, and many of the players had high paying jobs. I worked at the Pentagon. Wolf, however, worked on a horse farm and had to scrape together all he could to make it to practice and games, not to mention buy all his equipment like the rest of us. Wolf was a hurtin’ cowboy. 

Still, every practice he would scrape up enough to buy a packet of Gatorade powder and mix up a 5 gallon jug for the team. Although he was the least able to afford it, he loved this team and wanted to make sure everybody was well hydrated.

Since Wolf and I were the first to arrive at practice we would kick on the field before anyone else arrived. He would hold for my kicks, before and during practice, until my regular holder was available to hold during team PAT/FG practice. I had just taken his job but he loved the game just wanted to help the team.

When my regular holder went down with an injury I told the coach I wanted Wolf. The coach agreed and Wolf never missed a beat. With nine fingers, the tattoos, and the ponytail, Wolf served up the good holds and we had a hell of a season.  

As I mentioned, Wolf was a trash talker. No NFL player or professional wrestler had anything on Wolf. When God was handing out sense and heart Wolf got a double shot of heart…

Not only was Wolf my holder but he was also on the kickoff team. Each and every game he would find the biggest, baddest guy on the other team and start talking crap saying what he was going to do to the guy’s mother, and generally not making any friends. So I would kick off and Wolf would run down field under the kicks and proceed each and every time to get obliterated, stomped and mashed into the red Virginia clay by two, three, or four of the opposing team. Seeing a 6’4” 165 pound, trash-talking hippie with a gray beard and ponytail lumber down the field must have been irresistible target because each and every game Wolf was a human “He Got Jacked Up!!” video.

One time after a kickoff Wolf came to the sidelines with his arm bent at a grotesque angle. He had separated and dislocated his shoulder. He was yelling for everyone to get out of his way. He proceeded to run full speed into a light pole, popping his shoulder back into place. Less than a minute later we had recovered a fumble and ran three plays. They put us out there for a 44 yard field goal try, which we made. Wolf’s hold was perfect. He even spun the laces.     

One doesn’t have to be crazy to play like that but it helped Wolf.

Next season when I had changed teams Wolf came along as a package deal.  Our practices and games were in King George, Virginia, 75 miles from Wolf’s home. On one practice, the night before a game, Wolf had worked late and had a truck with a bad starter, which meant it ran fine as long as he never shut it off. He knew how much he loved the game and how much it meant to be the holder so he drove 75 miles after work and arrived at practice at dusk. He left the truck running. We had just enough time to get ten or fifteen snap/hold/kicks before it got dark. He then left and drove the 75 miles home, feeling like the luckiest guy on earth. I was the lucky one. 

It is no exaggeration to say that King George, Virginia on a Saturday night in September is a million miles from FedEx Field, but we won the game that week. With Wolf’s perfect holds I kicked a 47 yard field goal and several PATs. The Redskins kicker missed a 46 yarder, short, that same week. The Skins lost. We were on top of the world.

September 11, 2001, the day of the attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon. It had been two years since Wolf and I had talked. When I got home that night there was a voice mail message from a worried friend.  “Hey, Bud.  I don’t know if you’s alive or dead,” Wolf drawled, “but if you’s alive and don’t call me I’m going to be really mad at you!  Don’t make me worry!”

Wolf was a character.