There are no happy endings. Endings are the saddest part.
So just give me a happy middle, And a very happy start.
– Shel Silverstein
On March 6, a storm system ripped through the Midwest, forming a line of thunderstorms from Oklahoma to Canada. By the time the line reached Kansas City, tornado warnings were plentiful, and the local weathermen were interrupting regular programming with live reports. Having lived in the Midwest all my life, this kind of thing is normal. As long as I am on the ground and my airplane is safely tucked away in its hangar, the weather geek in me takes secret glee when I see the anvil shelf to the west. There’s nothing more fascinating than to see the curtain of rain approaching, hear the chest-rattling thump of thunder, and smell the ozone in the air.
Or at least I felt that way until the evening of March 6.
After the line raced through around 8:30 p.m., we were surprised to get a call from a friend: “You better get to the airport now.” Straight line winds clocked at 87 mph had pummeled the Johnson County Executive Airport (KOJC).
By the time we pulled up, there were a small crowd of aircraft owners and pilots huddled together on the ramp, squinting into the darkness to see the damage. A few ventured close, but backed away at the strong smell of avgas and the knowledge that multiple Cirrus aircraft (with their parachute rocket) were in the mess.
In the harsh morning daylight, the devastation was stunning and heartbreaking. One entire hangar row was destroyed with three others severely damaged, with unrecognizable metal and steel intertwined with dozens of aircraft. Some barely resembled airplanes, with the empennages ripped from the cabin, wings snapped off at the root, and others laying belly up and fileted on the ramp. Some owners wept, others stared glassy-eyed and resigned, while others could only stare and shake their heads in disbelief at the obscene spectacle.
My husband and I were hopeful our two aircraft would be unscathed, but by the time we were permitted to get close, we knew it wasn’t the case. The winds had jettisoned a hangar door from two rows over, and it landed squarely in the middle of our hangar door. The power that managed to twist steel beams around each other like twist-ties was dizzying, especially because we knew our beloved bird was buried in there. There was nothing really to see: The plane was completely shrouded in remains of the two hangar doors.
However, it was more important that I see the condition of our second aircraft: a tropical orange and brown-accented Cessna 172M that my mother bought new in 1975. This is the plane I learned to fly in, as well as my oldest daughter now at the U.S. Naval Academy pursuing a Naval aviation career. If you are a long-time Twin & Turbine reader, you may recall in February 2011 I wrote about the emotional moment when my mother passed on the keys to her cherished aircraft after she lost her FAA medical.
The deputy director of the county airport commission, knowing how important this little bird is to me, provided a personal escort to the hangar, which sustained damage but was still standing. A peek inside revealed she had weathered the storm unscathed, although now covered with a thick coating of insulation and dirt. The little inexpensive bird that is worth a million to me was okay; I hugged my friends while I cried tears of relief.
As thoughts turn to the clean-up process and insurance settlements, I couldn’t help but ponder: What is it about airplanes that gets us in the “feels?” Sure, they are nothing more than complicated machines made of aluminum, carbon fiber and Plexiglas. However, just about every pilot I know is guilty of anthropomorphism, having developed a love affair with one or more aircraft they’ve owned. These aircraft do more than get us from point A to point B. They are our magic carpets, our time machines and life-partners who take us on adventures to new places and experiences. They give us the ability to take in tapestries of water-colored skies, stunning cloudscapes, and exquisite sunrises and sunsets unseen but for the few who happen to be airborne at that moment. They bring us together with loved ones and dear friends.
And when they hurt, we hurt, too.
No two flights are rarely the same. Sometimes the flight is challenging and tests our skills, and we are relieved when we reach for the fuel cutoff lever for shutdown. Other times, it’s a picture-perfect journey and the taxi in is a bittersweet moment as we relish the memory of a perfect flight and wish it wasn’t over so quickly. We are a lucky bunch, us pilots.
Shel Silverstein is right: endings aren’t the point. I’d much rather to stay in the “happy middle” of as long as possible.