May 14, 2009
I just read the manuscript for a book to be published in the spring of 2010 by the University of Nebraska Press. Never Land: Adventures, Wonder, and One World Record in a Very Small Plane is written by Scott Olsen, whose most recent book is Hard Air: Adventures from the Edge of Flying. (Disclosure: I wrote a blurb for Never Land’s back cover, so I’m blatantly biased.) Here’s a tiny slice of the chapter titled World Record.
There ought to be music.
Big music. Fast music. Heavy on drums and bass. Lots of brass. Trumpet screamers. Trombones.
This is world record time. This is world speed record time. A world aviation speed record for “Speed Over a Recognized Course.”
And I am the pilot.
If only I could stop laughing.
Cessna 152, Two Nine Bravo, is hardly a speed machine. But looking at the National Aeronautic Association website, just curious about records in my own backyard, I discovered there was no record, no record at all, for the fastest flight across North Dakota. None. Zip. Nothing. There was a record for a round trip flight from Fargo to Bismarck and back, but otherwise the state seemed wide open. No way, I thought. Then, I thought, of course. Of course, this could be done. Of course, this had to be done. And, of course, I had to be the one to do it. A few phone calls and emails later it was clear; I could set a world speed record in an airplane often passed by cars on the highway.
Three hundred and fifty nine miles. The Space Shuttle covers this trek in one minute and twenty seconds. The X-15 in four minutes flat. A fast 747 could make the leap in thirty-eight minutes. The flight plan for Two Nine Bravo shows a little more than four hours.
The world, and then the whole universe, can be expressed in terms of speed. If one meter per second becomes a constant for measuring magnitude, then the speed of a garden snail is 0.013 m/s, or 1 x 10-2. The average speed of continental drift is 0.3 x 10-9 to 3 x 10-9. The typical speed of a Moreton wave across the surface of the sun is 1 x 106 or 1,000,000 m/s. The speed of my hair is 4.8 x 10-9.
Two Nine Bravo has only one radio, so I use my cell phone to open the flight plan.
“Welcome to Lockheed Martin Flight Service, this is Princeton Minnesota.”
“Hi,” I say. “I need to activate a flight plan, please. This is Cessna Five Three Two Nine Bravo.”
“November Five Two Three Niner Bravo, is that close, sir?”
“Five Three Two Nine Bravo,” I repeat, slowly.
“Five Three Three Nine Bravo.
“No…Five Three Two Nine.”
“Five Three Two Nine.”
“Ok, that’s off of Williston, is that correct sir?”
Lord, I think.
“Yes it is.”
“Just a second here. Ok…I’ll activate at this time sir, and monitor Automated Weather for the current altimeter. Is there anything else I can help you with sir?”
Of course, what I want to tell him is I’m setting a record, that I’m flying fast, that I need him to clear the skies for the lightning streak that is me, but I do not. There is a seagull up here, at my altitude and in front of me. I’d swear it is flying faster.
“That’ll do it,” I say.
“Ok sir, you have a good day.”
Then the radio comes back to life.
“Williston traffic, maintenance vehicle entering two nine, one one, Williston.”
A few moments later, “Maintenance vehicle clear of two nine one one, Williston.”
Yes. I am blistering across the sky.
It dawns on me that there are people watching this landing. At least two people in the control tower. At least two television crews, one of them a sister station to the one in Williston. They have already been running footage. A newspaper reporter. A newspaper photographer. My family, waiting at the Jet Center. The other pilots on the taxiways. Those guys in the Seneca, who are already parked. And I remember the controller telling me, just a few minutes ago, “Make it a good one.”
Instinctively, I pull back on the yoke to begin a flare.
I bounce the damn landing.
“What did you think of that?” I ask tower.
“That’s called putting it down with authority,” he says.
“God, I hope no one saw that.”