Most everyone who knows me thinks that I have a fear of heights. The truth is that I’m not afraid of heights at all. I’m afraid of falling at high speed from those heights and even more terrified of hitting the ground. I once had a good friend who had a morbid fear of overhead bridges collapsing and falling on him. My dread was of being the guy driving over that bridge as it crumbled and dropped. Earthquake-prone Los Angeles was not a good place for either of us.
People ask, “Are you afraid of flying?” Well, yes and no. Put me in an aisle seat of a big ol’ Boeing or Airbus and I’m fine. Smooth and steady all the way. But the mere thought of riding in the back seat of a little Piper Cub bouncing across the sky will make beads of sweat stand out on my forehead.
So you can well imagine how thrilled I was when the boss back in Casper called the Foreman of our surveying team in Utah to say he’d worked out a deal with a friend who owned Casper Flying Service. No longer would we drive our trucks the 60 miles out to the field every morning, and then back again in the evening. Instead, we would leave the trucks parked near a dirt road close to the job area and a pilot would fly us out there. He’d land the plane on the road, and we’d jump in the trucks and start surveying our mining claims. The theory was that the time saved would more than pay for the plane rental and the pilot’s salary.
My options, at first look, were bleak. I could quit, I supposed. But then how would I get back to Wyoming? Would I want to get back to Wyoming in the middle of the Winter? Utah can be cold in the Winter, but compared to Wyoming it’s Miami Beach.
I had a few gloomy moments before my natural-born optimism began to kick in. “Try thinking of it as a nice little twenty-minute flight twice a day.,” I told myself. “More than likely, it will be something quite peaceful – a relaxing ride with a great view. Yeah, that’s it. everything will be fine.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could take such an obviously-flawed pipedream and sell it to other people as thoroughly as I sold it to myself? If so, I’d be on a yacht right now, polishing my Ferragamo slippers with hundred dollar bills as I cruise down to Barbados.
A week later, as we were sitting down to dinner at the Green River Cafe, a thin young man with dark hair walked in the door and up to our table.
“You guys are the survey crew, right?” he said. “I’m your pilot. My name’s Bill.”
All five of us introduced ourselves and he sat down. While we were waiting for our food he told us about himself. Before Bill appeared, I had been picturing a calm, mature, laid-back professional pilot who delivered his passengers quickly and safely to their destinations. Sort of a limo-driver of the skies. But Bill announced that he was an off-season Crop Duster. He had taken this gig to get him through the Winter until he could get back to his real love – flying under power lines and over fences to deliver clouds of poison gas to defenseless insects.
The next day, three of us were in the little Cessna 210 6-seater when Bill climbed into the pilot’s seat.
“See that white Chevy going out of town over there?” Bill asked us as he pointed out the car. “I saw four real pretty girls getting into it. This’ll be cool!”
Ten minutes later, we were airborne and instead of heading South toward Hanksville, we were following Highway 6 North toward Provo. Soon Bill spotted the white car all by itself on the road and dropped the plane’s nose. The plane was flying at an altitude of about twenty feet when it roared over the car from behind. Then he landed the plane on the highway, jumped out and danced a few steps across the blacktop, danced back to the plane, and took off. He made one big, looping, 180 degree turn, came straight down the highway at the car head-on and buzzed them again. Finally, he turned the plane toward the work area.
When Bill decided to get cute and tricksy with the aircraft, it didn’t help that everyone on the crew loved it and egged him on. Everyone but me.
“How’d you guys like to do a few power-stalls?”
Four voices shouting, “Yay!” drowned out one little voice from the back saying, “No, really, I’d rather not.”
Bill opened the throttle and pulled the plane up into a steep climb. At a point, the climb was too steep, the plane was deprived of lift, and it dropped like a stone. All the hats, gloves, pencils, and cigarette butts from the ashtray floated up in the plane’s cabin and stuck to the ceiling, right next to my stomach. When the wings suddenly regained lift, all that stuff, including my stomach, dropped back into our laps. My moan of terror and dismay was drowned out by the roar of the engine as he pulled back on the yoke to do it again.
After he had dropped us off, and he was by himself in the plane, Crazy Bill, as we were all calling him by then, usually didn’t just fly back to Green River. He’d scout the countryside, mainly looking for somebody to buzz whether it was one of our four-wheel drive trucks bouncing across the desert, or a total stranger.
One afternoon several of us had brought one of the trucks into the little gas station in Hanksville for service. Lonnie and I were drinking cokes in the office when two local ranchers came storming in to talk to the station owner.
“You got any idea who that bastard is with the silver and red plane?”
Lonnie and I put our best “clueless and befuddled” looks on our faces.
“We were out looking for strays and the son-of-a-bitch comes over our heads at a hundred and fifty miles an hour and so close you could almost read the writing on the tires,” fumed one.
“It was damned lucky for him,” said the other, “that my horse was crow-hoppin’ through the brush so bad I couldn’t get my rifle out of the scabbard.”
The story made Bill laugh when we told him that evening, but I didn’t hear of him again trying to buzz any armed cowboys.
Then came one day when I was headed back to the field after spending a couple of days in bed with stomach flu. My gut was still a little queasy, so I found an extra roll of toilet paper and brought it along with me. We were about ten minutes out of Green River when Bill says, “Hey, I found the coolest little canyon the other day, want to take a look?” My “no” vote was again drowned out by four shouts of “yes”. And Bill turned the plane further Southwest.
Eastern Utah was, for millions of years, at the bottom of a huge inland ocean. Volcanic eruptions filled the skies with clouds of iron ash which settled to the bottom of this sea and accumulated over time in layers thousands of feet thick. When the ocean receded and the sea bottom became open-air desert, every little creek and stream and then river started washing away at these layers and cutting deep canyons through the rock. The iron in the rock oxidized and the canyons turned brilliant shades of red.
“Look at that,” Bill cried. “Flats all around and this deep little canyon out in the middle of it winding its way South.” He was right, it was an interesting Geological sight.
The plane was descending toward the rim of the small canyon. “The stream at the bottom is called Wild Horse Creek,” he said. “Let’s get a better look.”
I thought that meant he would fly at that low altitude just above the gash in the earth and every time the direction of it turned we’d be able to see down inside. Wrong again. Bill nudged the yoke forward and the plane dropped down inside the canyon.
I can’t tell you how long we were down in that narrow gorge with solid rock walls rushing by both wingtips and my heart dropping into my gut only to come leaping up into my mouth. All the time Bill was keeping up a tour-guide commentary while he banked the aircraft quickly left and right to follow the twists and turns of the canyon.
Finally he said, “Well, we could go further but I’d better get you guys to work.” And we were out into clear air once again.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it Pelton?” he said as he looked around and grinned at me. Then his gaze dropped from my pallid face to what I was holding in my lap.
“Toilet paper?” he cried. “Gimme that!”
Bill stretched over the corner of the pilot’s seat, reached back, and plucked the roll out of my hands. Then he pulled the yoke back and climbed the plane to the highest altitude he could. He slid back a little glass door in the window next to him and threw the entire toilet paper roll out into the wind where it quickly unrolled into a long paper streamer.
“Hang on!” he whooped and put the plane into a tight, spiral dive. He was banked over so far that the aluminum strip down the middle of the windshield was parallel to the horizon. A Hippopotamus was sitting in my lap and I couldn’t move. Then suddenly he snapped the plane back into level flight and cut the streamer of toilet paper in two. Before any of his fan club could cheer, we were back in that tight spiral dive, racing the paper to the ground. Then again another snap to level and we cut through it again.
Six times we did this maneuver, one dive after the next, until Bill left off and headed for the work site. “I could’ve maybe fit in one more, but we were getting a little close to the ground.” he said. During the last go-around I was able to read the signs next to the highway below.
The sound of dirt grinding under my boot soles has never sounded as good as it did that day as I climbed my shaky self out of that airplane.
Two days later a check from the Uranium Speculators to our Boss had bounced and we were in the trucks driving back to Casper. A week later and I was standing out in the middle of a windswept sagebrush flat near Douglas, Wyoming. It was forty degrees below zero, not even figuring wind chill, and the ground was so frozen I couldn’t push in a pin flag. I was feeling like the luckiest man on the prairie.