The day promised to be eventful–the fog at Hayward airport had finally retreated from the late morning sun over the San Francisco Bay. The increased visibility licensed my friend Al, whom had recently obtained his license, to pilot our aircraft, a 1984 Cherokee Warrior.

Two of us easily pulled the 4-seater, single-prop plane from its parking place and into taxi position. The 160-hp engine barely out-muscled my 4-cylinder car. Before we could take off, Al needed to calculate our weight. The four of us, including Larry and Gregory, exceeded the plane's weight capacity by 15 pounds. We shed our jackets, cameras, car keys, and water bottles–not exactly 15 pounds, but it would suffice.

As we taxied to the runway, the four of us communicated to each other through our headsets to verify we were all ready. The yellow sticky note stuck to the steering column in front of me in the co-pilot seat did not exactly instill confidence–some cryptic message stating not to worry about the choke lever not entirely working. Of course, the smell of airplane fuel leaking from the primer pump handle did not exactly pacify me either. Nevertheless, the control tower had granted us clearance and we raced down the runway as the little engine loudly lifted us skyward.

We climbed to 6,500 feet and started heading north towards our destination, the Lost Coast, only to find most of the landscape beneath us obscured by clouds. Just was Al prepared to turn the plane around, we spied clear skies ahead and pushed on with renewed spirit towards our destination. A jumble of navigation instruments on the busy control panel apparently charted our course as Al constantly checked and rechecked the readings in conjunction with maps, rulers, and a pen. While performing these duties, about an hour and a half into the flight, Al pulled some lever and seemed to say to me, "the trim isn't working." However, when he handed me the pen I realized with much relief that he must have said, "The pen isn't working." He then instructed me to check the fuses; the electronic trim was not working. I had no idea where to look for fuses amidst the many buttons, knobs, switches, and levers on the control panel. Apparently, Al was not entirely certain either, as he directed me to start pushing the buttons (apparently fuses) grouped together in one area. None seem to do anything, but an Al did not appear too concerned. Apparently, electronic trim was a luxury we could live without.

Approaching the tiny town of Mendicino on the coast at 8,500 feet in clear skies, Al let me take the steering control in front of me and directed me to descend to 4,500 feet at a rate of 300 feet per minute. My slightest movements translated into erratic and dramatic changes in our flight and I earnestly focused on keeping our course in the slight wind. Other than the distant water, only a single scar of paved runway violated the expansive evergreen forest beneath us. Suddenly, a piercing beeping noise repeatedly sounded from the overhead speaker, which we could hear even through our enclosed headphones. After Larry failed to curtail the obnoxious speaker's outbursts by repeatedly banging on it, Al interjected, "My plane," and commandeered the controls. After another minute, the beeping mercifully stopped; when I looked at the control panel I realized why–the amperage read zero. The battery and all of the electronics (the navigating equipment and radio) had died. Al and I removed our non-functioning headsets and he yelled at me over the din of the engine to check the fuses–no luck. Al decided to make an emergency landing on the tiny strip of runway surrounded by the sea of tall pine trees. Approaching the runway from a steep descent, the plane pitched wildly. The stripes on the pavement raced by 20 feet below us… 10 feet… 15 feet… 8 feet… 12 feet… 6 feet–we were more than halfway down the runway and still pitching. It seemed to me that if we touched down, we would have rolled. However, if we were to wait any longer, we would have hit the trees at the end of the pavement. It was too late to abort the landing and resume flight. 4 feet… 2 feet… the right wheel bounced, the left wheel bounced. We bounced several more times before skidding to control just shy of the end of the runway.

Gregory summed up the experience with one gesture; he kissed the ground.


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