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Unprompted: When Flying Through Life, Always Remember to Put Your Flaps Down 

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Somewhere over the Great Dismal Swamp I began to think about Jesus. I was alone in the airplane, doing what they call the “long cross-country flight” to prove my competency as a pilot.

There’s something frightening about being in total control of one’s own fate. There was no one to call on for help should I need it. It was all up to me, buddy, and I knew that my knowledge was limited. I had no business flying an airplane by myself.

Below, there was nothing I wanted. It was a place nice to view from the air, but Lord knows I didn’t want to go there. The Great Dismal Swamp is, well, it’s a great dismal swamp, filled with snakes, bears, mosquitoes and a few alligators.

If the little engine on the little airplane began to sputter, that would be the end of me. No roads or open fields to set down the Cessna 172 in an emergency. If crashing became necessary, I’d probably be killed or eaten by a bear. But I hadn’t come this far in life to be eaten by a bear. I considered praying, but decided against it. I doubted that prayer would keep a plane in the air. But it was one of those thoughts you have when you’re really alone, and in potential danger.

Then I saw the light. Not that far away, the swamp lost its chance to eat me. I saw flat land, and the airport at Elizabeth City, North Carolina. I radioed for directions, and the tower mumbled back. “But I can’t see the runway,” said I. The mumbler told me to follow that plane at 3 o’clock. I looked to the right and saw what looked like an F-16 heading for the runway. I couldn’t keep up with it, but kept it in sight long enough to land.

Refueling the plane, I went through the usual preflight check again, walking around the Cessna, drawing a vial of fuel to smell to make sure it was OK. I never could smell the fuel and know if it was OK — my sense of smell isn’t that good. The plane could have been filled with aardvark urine and I wouldn’t have known the difference. I climbed back in and headed for Danville, the second leg on my cross-country.

The return flight to Richmond was uneventful. Along the route there were plenty of roads and fields I could call on for help if help was needed. No prayers now — it was up to the laws of physics, and me. The me part being unknown.

I was thankful that it was almost over. My flight instructor didn’t know I was given to small mistakes. I never told him that I tried to take off from Farmville with the carburetor heat still on, a maneuver used in landing, not take off. I hadn’t told him that when landing in the mountaintop airport of Charlottesville I forgot to put the flaps down. That alone could have been a career-ender. The plane was coming down too fast, and I had to gun the engine and come around again or fall off the end of the runway. I thought of the time I was awaiting clearance to take off from Richmond International Airport with an airliner sitting behind me, no doubt wishing I would get out of the way. So many little moments that scared the hell out of me.

After finishing my nighttime endorsement, an evening when I flew around Norfolk distressed because I couldn’t make out the airport from a million other lights on the ground, I decided that this career wasn’t for me. Anchoring news was safer. I flew one more time before abandoning my flight career.

Some time later I learned that my flight instructor also had some issues. When landing at a major airport in New Jersey ran into trouble and crashed. He died doing what he loved so much.

I am thankful for the experience, but I think all of us have done things we’re glad we did but won’t do again. I’ll leave the flying to those who know how to do it.

Gene has put his flaps down for the last time. S

Gene Cox is an author and inventor who recently retired from a 35-year career as a television anchor in Richmond. Connect with him at letters@styleweekly.com, or on Twitter at @genecoxrva.

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