Stardusted

Rear cockpit

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Late. Always perpetually late. Some people are early as if by breathing, but for all my panting it never happens. Which is sort of ironic in a life institutionalized decades ago by an endless cascade of publishing deadlines.

If it’s all been one big chase, then hey, it’s a great excuse to have big engines. And so there I sat behind the 540 doing its muscular best to drag the Starduster’s great encyclopedia of drag—induced, form, intersection, parasite, skin and possibly types yet to be cataloged—toward a speck in the Mojave desert. There are many specks in the Mojave desert, especially as seen from 8000 feet, but this was a special speck. Not that the sand or bushes or anything else native to this particular speck differed from any other place for many miles; curiously this is one reason it is special, because unless you have some rather specific knowledge, you’ll burn all your gas looking for it. And if you’re not looking, you’ll cruise right by it.

What made it special was my friends were already there, airplanes parked on the edge of a tiny dry lake just south of a couple hills like thousands of other little hills. No matter where they are, your friends define where special is, along with a portable GPS and even the wonderfully analog wanderings of the omni’s CDI needle, I decided. There are few excuses to have to remember which way the omni needle wavers these days, but this was one of them if only for the practice, and if the magic screen vibrating at the end of its cantilevered Ram mount went black, where would that leave you?

Plus, of course, I was late. Not so late as to race the sun as I did the last time I attended this private annual gathering, but later than I promised myself I would be this year. Part of my brain told the other parts it was because of unexpected work delays earlier in the day, but the better parts weren’t buying it. Inexplicable procrastination had taken top billing, and once again I wondered why it was the only thing I couldn’t seem to put off.

But if some of my constituent selves were using guilt against their greater whole, the desert wasn’t having it. The early fall day hung between the wings in perfect splendor, the craggy hills, subtle tans and browns below yielding to a dome of blue just beginning to deepen as the height of the day departed. The sun hung down in the west, out of my eyes for once and modeling the landscape below with lengthening shadows. It was, as the cliché puts it, picture perfect, and between glances at the oil pressure, CDI and the little blue plane on the moving map, I flashed on a granddad I had never met. He spent his life painting such scenes for a living, and for a moment I wondered just how much better he could have appreciated what I was looking at. Far to the east, abandoned by yesterday’s retreating cold front, three cumuli orphans punctuated the scene in their whiteness. Nowhere close or large enough to matter, it was easy to feel sorry for these lonely vapors as obviously they were doomed to dissipate in solitude. Like all of nature, the Mojave has its glories but ultimately is as indifferent to clouds as it is to anything else. Best to arrive well before the sun sets.

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Thankfully, our special bit of the Mojave is not much more than an hour as the Starduster flies and while the perfect sky still called, it was time to let down and beat up the place. In Class G airspace it’s sort of like knocking before coming in.

Landing off pavement is always interesting, if only because there are no pavement edges to gauge both height and drift in the last few moments. Plus, this lakebed is small enough that clumps of bushes and heaped sand encroach close to what passes for the runway. For those who paid extra for a view over the cowling in the three point, this is likely no big deal, but with no such hope in my blue bolide, faith has to substitute. It’s important to pick an intended landing path a quarter mile out, lock in the heading and astutely avoid any drift as the nose comes up in the round-out. I don’t know who was the first pilot to land one of these blind beauties, but my leather helmet is off to him. The rest of us have just been following.

Of course, the runway also has a bend in it. There’s no hope of locating that past short final, so I just land past the bend. There’s enough dusty lakebed left over, and it’s all straight.

Old Friends, Good Times

While the disappointment of leaving a perfect sky and returning to two dimensional plodding is always a letdown, it was quickly replaced by the welcoming cheers of old friends, and soon it was food, drink, fire and the indigo of deep dusk. Then a waxing crescent moon, then dark.

With the old stories wearing down as fast as the old men telling them and the fire low, it was off to unroll the bag and crawl in. That meant a near-blind eighth-mile walk across the lakebed to the biplane and a simple tarp, mat and sleeping bag under the stars. Roll up the Levis for a pillow, crawl in and realize I wasn’t late any more that day. That’s an interesting, pleasant realization, and lying there I could just hear music from a portable speaker. Earlier that speaker had been right next to the fire and a nuisance to conversation, but now the music was distant in an otherwise silent place. No longer loud or even demanding thanks to its remoteness, but still clear as there was no aural competition, the music became a lullaby, like a dog barking a half mile away. Familiar, happy, late-night voices by the speaker drifted in and out depending on the exuberance with which they were given, and the sleeping bag was warm against the still, dry, desert chill. Above, horizon-to-horizon jewelry as the Milky Way did its best to hide the constellations through numbers. No, not late any longer. No more motion or vibration. Phantoms of a perfect sky…racing across the desert floor and pulling up hard into the blue…

God, my nose is cold. Stars. Lots of stars. Oh yeah, we’re out at the dry lake. What time is it anyway? Cygnus and the Milky Way well down in the west, Andromeda right overhead—there’s the galaxy—it must be four in the morning. Not a sound. No speaker, no voices. I remember when the sky was like this at home. I was just a kid but it’s all a pale white soup now.

Hmm, there’s the Starduster right next to me. Now that’s cool, sleeping right next to your airplane parked here on the edge of space. There’s not a lit light bulb within 20 miles of this place, and finally you can really see. What an incredible machine. Just an hour or so and it’s taken me all the way out here, a universe away from all that madness I’ve chosen to live in. Wonder if the camera could capture any of this?

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Pumping avgas and waxing flight school airplanes got Tom into general aviation in 1973, but the lure of racing cars and motorcycles sent him down a motor journalism career heavy on engines and racing. Today he still writes for peanuts and flies for fun.

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