A Single Point of Failure

Or, how I spent my Easter weekend, 2004.

Actually, my Easter weekend was just fabulous; I had flown my wife Dawn and myself up in my flying club's Cessna 182 to Oakland on Friday, to spend the next four days with good friends of ours in San Francisco. We had a great time dyeing eggs and similar springtime festivities, and our weekend ended pleasantly with dinner at a restaurant highly recommended by our friend, where I had probably the best scallops I've ever tasted.

Finally, we had to say our goodbyes late Monday night--Dawn had to work at 8:00 the next morning, and I had a root canal surgery scheduled in the morning at 9:45. I did feel a little nauseated during the cab ride to the airport, which I attributed to motion sickness. It's an unusual feeling for me, but not completely unknown, and it passed while I was pre-flighting the plane. After a fairly normal taxi and run-up, we lifted ourselves into the night sky shortly after 11:00 pm.

The takeoff was quite lovely; flying at night is always very beautiful, especially on a clear night. I had been hoping to get a departure across the Golden Gate bridge, but they insisted on sending us out to the east instead (I don't know why they publish those westbound departures); still, quite a pleasant trip nevertheless. The air was calm and the numerous stars--both in the sky and on the ground--were brilliant. Soon we were passing beyond the lights of the Bay Area and into the quiet, welcoming darkness of the Central Valley, and only the stars in the sky remained.

After we'd been in the air about twenty minutes I knew something was wrong. At half an hour, I started vomiting violently, whimpering, and completely unable to control the plane. Fortunately, Dawn had (a) a collection of empty bags handy, and (b) the presence of mind to hold the plane level while I emptied the contents of my stomach.

After the vomiting passed, I felt considerably better, and we flew on for a little while longer--but when the feeling started to creep back up I decided it was time to announce to Air Traffic Control my intentions of diverting to the nearest airport. The nearest airport happened to be New Coalinga Muni, which is a nice, large, paved, lighted airport incongruously located smack in the middle of the otherwise almost completely rural San Joaquin Valley.

I made the landing without much trouble, and no more than five seconds after I had shut off the engine, I discovered that I hadn't, in fact, completely emptied the contents of my stomach. By a considerable margin.

After the second round of vomiting was over, Dawn called the only phone number listed in the Pilot's Guide as the taxi service for Coalinga; it turned out to be Russ, a local resident who drives out to the airport from time to time to pick up a pilot. He told us he normally unplugs his phone by that time of night, but he hadn't yet gotten around to it tonight. He took us to a hotel in downtown Coalinga, where I spent the rest of the night emptying my stomach--and my bowels--into the toilet.

I had no interest in any kind of food whatsoever over the first 48 hours, and could keep only simple foods down--saltine crackers, pretzels, plain pasta--on the third day. In the interim, Dawn had rented a car and driven us home, so she could get back to work and I could recover in the comfort of home. Today I was finally able to drive the rental car back, and return triumphantly with the plane.

So what's the moral? I dunno. Maybe that a plate of shellfish ought to be regarded with the same suspicion--and maybe considerably more--that a glass of wine or a beer would earn from a pilot planning to fly that same day.

And that even though it stinks--a lot--to have to divert to Nowhere in the middle of the night, and to have to deal with that decision the next day, it doesn't kill you to do so. Which is more than can definitively be said for the alternative. So although this is the second time I've made that kind of decision, and although it inconvenienced other people than just myself and Dawn on both occasions, I'd make the same decision again in the future.

At the end of the day, I guess it's all just part of the balance of the universe--we wouldn't know how wonderful it is to be safe at home if we didn't have the occasional adventure. On the plus side, at least I did have an excuse to postpone my root canal surgery for another couple of weeks.

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