Two of my favorite sports are flying small airplanes and siring small sons, and a father with growing boys and time-consuming hobbies sooner or later finds himself beginning to neglect one for the other, with appropriate pangs of guilt—or martyrdom.
One day not long ago, as I was spreading the living-room floor with charts, plotters and dividers for a long-planned solo flight around the Caribbean Sea, starting clockwise with the Bahamas, Antilles and West Indies, going across upper South America, through the Canal Zone and Central America, and back across the Yucatán Channel and Cuba, I became aware of several wistful little faces peering over my shoulder. Two of them, Andrew, aged 8, and David, 6, seemed unusually pale for the season, having missed out on camp this year.
I pointed out the course to them, explaining how the time comes to every amateur pilot when, like the Sunday sailor yearning to bust out of Long Island Sound, he feels the call of open seas and faraway lands—and how Nature has thoughtfully provided the Caribbean route, with islands nicely spaced a hundred miles or so apart, so that us lower-case Lindberghs can get all this out of our systems without being utter damn fools.
"Gee, Daddy, be careful and have a good time," Andy said, wide-eyed and sincere.
"Send us some pictures, huh?" said David. "We'll look at 'em and pretend we're there, too."
They made me miserable. This thing had to be resolved once and for all. I went out and got hold of two more passports and a family-size airplane, revised the emergency-ration list to include Tootsie Rolls and condensed milk, and started packing a small medicine kit with such juvenile necessities as star spangled Band-aids and Kaopectate. The boys' mother lent me a hand and the kit grew to 23 pounds.
I also took on a co-pilot, a friend named George Moffett, who had recently taken up flying and was a student pilot with 20 hours in his logbook. I learned some time ago never to choose a co-pilot on the basis of professional ability. Students are anxious to add time to their books and are grateful for the opportunity to hang on the controls for hours at a time while you twiddle knobs, tune radios, read charts, nap and save your strength for landings and take-offs. I was sure that Moffett would not question any of my decisions and would regard my every mistake as a mysterious, deliberate, crafty bit of airmanship. (I might add, in retrospect, he seldom let me down.)
The airplane was a Piper Apache, one of the new "light twin" types, with two 150-hp engines, the cabin dimensions of a station wagon, the short-field virtues of a small plane and the performance and fittings of a big one. Its number was N-2299P; in the lingo of the airways, therefore, it was casually known as "99 Pete." I was not used to such luxuries as hydraulic flaps, controllable-pitch propellers or even retractable landing gear—to say nothing of two whole engines. I spent a week at the factory getting checked out in the thing, and they finally pronounced me competent, or at least capable. But at the time of our departure it still seemed like a lot of airplane to me.
George did not "ride shotgun," as Andy and David called co-piloting, on the first leg of our voyage. For some reason or other which escapes me now, I must have promised this honor to Andy as he was helping me check over our survival gear at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. When I had finished signing oaths at customs that I wouldn't sell the plane abroad for hostile military purposes, had made a final gas check and had climbed aboard, the child was perched beside me with the take-off check list in his hand. I describe the following performance because it pretty well sets the tone of the whole trip.
"Don't miss a single item," I told him. "Not even the most experienced crew depends on their memories."