By: Di Sylvester
It’s cosy inside a Cessna 172. Thigh hugging. But, for all that, sitting in the passenger seat feels somewhat contingent. My feet touch the floor, but the connection lacks solidity. And the back of the seat seems ambivalent. It’s there. I can feel it’s there when I push back against it. But it’s not holding me up—more like ready to catch me when I fall. The dual controls are a little off-putting. Do I have my own steering wheel in case hubby passes out? Heart attack perhaps, or the dreaded stroke that pops up, now and then, in his family?
Yes, we are past our prime. We are at that awkward time in life when we can finally afford to do what we always wanted to do, but a little past being best able to do it. I tell myself the chances of disaster must be very slim. Anyway, duty calls—stand by your man! If we go down, we’ll go down together.
After lots of checking off of check-lists, and snapping on of seat-belts, and plugging in of head-sets, we take off from Warnervale Aerodrome—heading south-west to Warragamba, then north-west to Katoomba, then north-north-west to Mudgee—for a languid lunch among the vines.
In the air, my battle is always with my stomach. It has been this way since I was four years old—defying its incessant slurpings as I suffered the gyrations of playground swings. While other kids giggled with glee, I snuffled gasps of fear. But I am determined to ignore my stomach’s howls of despair as we bump along in the cosy Cessna. I distract myself with my camera. On land I am a discerning photographer or, at least, I try to be. I take time to set up my shots—making, not taking, my photographs. But in the Cessna, I cannot even turn to my subject. I dare not loosen the seat belt an inch. Trusting to the auto-everything powers of my Canon, and the remedial magic of Photoshop, I snap—one hand only at arm’s length—at drifts of hazard reduction smoke hugging the ridges below, and the so tall wall of Warragamba. We turn towards Katoomba. I look right for the Three Sisters. Then something goes wrong.
I can’t hear hubby. And he can’t hear anything! He is turning knobs this way and that. He pushes his iPhone toward me. But I can’t hear his instructions. I remove my headset. I can just hear him shouting over the engine noise. “Text Warnervale.” Forget my stomach. My legs have gotten cold and heavy. Am I trembling? Priority one—my bladder! I scramble through the contacts on the iPhone. “Say, ‘Radio failed. Squawking 7600. Lake Lyell 6500. Estimating YMDG 30’.” I manage to text the message. I am pleased with my efforts. It’s a crisis, and I am coping!
But there’s more.
“Find the headset box.” He’s shouting again. “It’s between the seats.”
“Between the seats?” I shout back. I am trembling, but I beg to differ. There is simply no room for anything between the seats.
“On the floor, at the back, behind between the seats. Make sure the cables are plugged into the front.” His voice is stern—becoming gruff.
I grab at the floor behind between the seats. My fingers find cables. Tangles. I tug at them. I have hold of the box—2 cables and 4 sockets. I twist within the confines of my seat belt. My stomach twists the other way. I can’t tell the front of this box from the back. But it’s not working now so I guess it can’t hurt to change things around. I take the cables out of where they are and put them where they weren’t. It is still not working. I take the cables out again put them where they weren’t, or where they were, who knows? But still nothing works!
I need to know. If I am going to die I want to know. I compose myself. I take a breath. I demand to know—“Is this an emergency?”
He smiles. “No, it’s not an emergency.” He’s shouting again. “Aviate, navigate, communicate. The radio is our third priority.” So this is a nuisance, not mortal danger. I smile too. He’s always been a safe man. He’s made that way. I can trust him. I married him!
He twiddles some knobs. He’s squawking 7600. He tells the world that can’t hear him, “Cessna 172 Bravo Alpha Oscar. Transmitting blind. 10 miles north of Lake Lyell, 6500 feet. Estimating Mudgee 30”. He keeps this up at intervals. I resume snapping one handed—amazing folds of gum tree smothered earth, watery ribbons tracing grooves between interlaced hillocks, and now the vineyards—neatly squared off, almost flat. We circle round to land at Mudgee, looking out in all directions for those competing craft with whom we cannot communicate.
We land, taxi to a halt and park on the grass.
Before our feet touch the ground, we are greeted by Bob from Search and Rescue, making sure we have landed safely. Another pilot (landing just minutes behind us in a plane even smaller than ours) joins us. Brisbane Control wants to know if we are the Cessna 172 with a failed radio. Bob’s phone rings. Williamtown wants to know if the plane that disappeared from their radar is now safely on the ground. The huddle dissipates.
When quite alone, we follow Warnervale’s instructions and check the lead to the headset box. Oh dear. Someone has kicked it out.
It’s a glorious day in Mudgee. We enjoy our languid lunch among the vines. And head off home. Radio fully functioning.
Di Sylvester is an historian, amateur landscape photographer and occasional writer. She works as a lawyer and lives with her very understanding husband in Sydney.