I knew it was the right hotel, because the clerk greeted me by name when I stumbled in at three-something in the morning. I had already been marked as a no-show, but I checked in and e-mailed the clients to tell them I was in the hotel, but not to be disturbed until my rest period was legally complete, turned off my phone, and slept in as late as I could, to ready myself to fly the next day. In the morning I set up my flight bag, got some exercise, and I was finishing up breakfast (or "lunch," as the people who don't sleep until the afternoon call it), when the call came. We went out to the plane.
The FBO interior was being repainted so I sat outside in the breeze to avoid getting stoned from the fumes. The temperature had been hovering just above freezing on the drive from Dallas last night, but it was about ten degrees in the daytime. My coworker taxied in from her flight and shut down, so I took over the airplane. I first went onboard to put my gear in the cockpit. Flight bag on the copilot seat, strapped in with the seatbelt. Charts, taxi diagram, OFP, set out where I can reach them. Headset out of bag and plugged in. The headset earseals fall off. The glue is not very sticky anymore, after so many cycles of hot and cold. I pick the earseals up off the floor and stick them back on the headset.
Today's mission specialist has experience working in an aviation environment. He used to be in the military and has some funny stories I might share later. For now he has spotted a problem. The nose oleo, i.e. the compression strut that offers shock protection and connects the nosewheel to the airplane, is leaking fluid onto the tire.
I got a rag out of the forward cargo compartment and wiped the fluid off. It was thin, oily and slightly pink. Hydraulic oil. That's required for shock absorption and also hydraulic centring of the nosewheel. Already the fluid is making its way down the strut again. It's almost a trickle, not just a drip. "How many drips per minute can you tolerate on that?" asks my specialist. I don't have a number, but it doesn't look good. I get the FBO to call an A&P --airframe and powerplant mechanic-- for a verdict. The specialist tells me the military had an acceptable drips per minute threshold for every conceivable leak.
The mechanic arrives. I've pretty much decided I want this fixed before I take it up, and then he points out that if I lose enough fluid that the centering mechanism doesn't work properly, then the wheel might not come back down out of the nose compartment at all. It will take a few hours to fix, but it would take a lot more time to fix the consequences of landing without the front wheel. In that case I might need a new cushion on the pilot seat, too. The catch is that the mechanic isn't sure he has a seal that will fit. If he doesn't, he'll have to order one and we won't get it until tomorrow morning. He goes to check.
That take a long time. I decide that taking a long time is a good thing. I reason that if he didn't have the part, he'd look it up in the computer, see no part, and then call back to the desk to tell the pilot he can't fix her plane. But if he does have it, then he has to go back into stores to verify that it is on the shelf, verify that he has the manpower to fix it today, and come back with a tug to take the plane. But I do one more thing to make sure that he has the part.
You see, if the part is not available, I have to take all my stuff back out of the plane, and go back to the hotel. Whereas if he does have the part, I need only take my wallet and cellphone and leave the other stuff there for a couple hours, because I'll use it when I come back. So, drawing on the principle that the universe loves to inconvenience me, I take all my stuff out of the plane. The ear seals fall off my headset again. I stick them back on again. And my plan works. As soon as I have I gathered everything up and left the aircraft, the mechanic returns to tell me he has the seal in stock. He takes it to fix.
A few hours later, the airplane is back on the line, paperwork and all, within his initial time estimate. Guy knows what he's doing. The seal looks good and everything else checks out. I put everything back in the airplane. We're ready to go.
On rotation there is a loud clattering noise, reminiscent of the sound of the gear door falling off the airplane. Further reflection on the matter makes it a sound much more like that of the clipboard with the airport information on it skittering off to parts unknown. All the lights are out on the gear indicator panel. I put the clipboard away and complete the after takeoff checks.
Landing is nearly seven hours later, well after nightfall, and after both the tower and approach controllers have gone home to bed. Or possibly gone out to prowl the red-lit streets of town and suck the blood of unsuspecting citizens, But I doubt it. I mean no one walks here in the daytime. Whom can a vampire find to prey on at night? Perhaps they fear me when I walk, because only zombies walk in this town. Anyway, where was I? Sadly, that question would be opportune in this narrative even had I not digressed into speculations about the local undead.
Ahem. So approximately where was I? Dark. No controllers. Airport. Clipboard. Airport information. The airport has three or four different names, and two to six runways, depending on which version of the airport information publication I use. That would be the one on the clipboard that fell somewhere on rotation or the one in the airport directory that I can easily reach. You can see where I'm going with this. At least someone can see where I'm going.
I know that I have a decent north wind up here. I know surface winds are light, but the wind aloft will help me set up for runway 36. I took off from runway 18, so by airport runway logic there is a runway 36. I check the publication to see if there is any reason not to land there at night. Nope. The lighting is pilot controlled after tower hours. The two other runways (two? I must have mistaken one for a taxiway) are not lit. Because of the nature of our operation, I don't get to fly a regular descent and approach, and don't fly a circuit quite by the book either. So I'm too close in and descending into a really poor excuse for a downwind, but I'll fix it on base. Except on base I can't see the runways lights. I re-key the pilot controlled lighting, and turn final, but despite frantic clicking, there's nothing there but a big black hole.
We don't go don into big black holes. Mixture, props, power, nose, gear, flaps, airplane. They all go up. And now there's the stupid runway. It's not 36. Three-six is not lighted after hours. And I'm not getting away with telling the savvy guy in the back that there was a chicken on the runway. (A boss I had once told me to always claim there was a chicken on the runway if I had to go around in VMC. Never admit to an unstabilized approach, inappropriate winds, or failure of the gear to lock down, he ordered.) Sigh. I come back around for the brilliantly illuminated runway, put the gear down and double check three green lights in the panel and one nosewheel light in the nacelle mirror. In the dark I have no way of verifying that it's straight.
I clunk onto the runway--no it wasn't a beautiful landing--and taxi in. Every bump we go over makes me glad I got the hydraulic leak fixed. Once on the ground the red fluid that is supposed to supply oxygen to my brain tissues trickles through to the appropriate brain cells and I realize that I read the wrong page in the publication and allowed myself to be tricked as if by a shell game shyster. I assumed that as the runways revealed in the book were not lighted, that the one that was not mentioned was the lighted one. But that runway wasn't on that page at all. There aren't even two other runways.
Dumb error. Good thing it didn't cost me more than pride. I was well within legal duty limits, and I really felt as though I was adequately rested, and but that's got to be a factor. Either that or I'm an idiot.
I take off my headset. The ear seals fall off. I shine my flashlight on the floor so I can find them to stick them back on.