Flying With Charlie

“Meacham ground, November one-two-zero-two Juliet ready to taxi. We have information Papa, I repeat, we have information Papa,” Charlie said.

“Zero-two Juliet, taxi to runway one-seven and hold short. Contact Meacham tower one-one-eight point three.”

“Zero-two Juliet, runway one-seven hold short, one-one-eight point three.”

Charlie was the pilot. I was sitting in the right seat of the single engine Rockwell Commander. Rain pounded the airplane as fog closed in.

“Charlie, you’re in charge. You decide whether we go or not,” said the boss from the back seat.

“We’ll be fine,” Charlie answered.

I had tremendous confidence in Charlie, as did our boss. But I was also too stupid to be scared. Today, there’s no way I would take off in a single engine airplane on a cross-country trip in weather like we had that day.

We taxied to runway one-seven at Meacham Airport in Fort Worth, Texas.

“Zero-two Juliet, you are clear for take-off, climb to one-five thousand turn left to nine-zero degrees, contact Dallas Center, good day,” said the air traffic controller.

“Zero-two Juliet, climb to one-five thousand, left turn nine-zero degrees, thank you, good day,” Charlie answered.

He increased the throttle slightly and moved the airplane onto the runway. We turned, Charlie pushed the throttle forward and within moments we lifted off. Immediately, we were engulfed and at times it was difficult to see the propeller five feet in front of the windscreen.

“Flip that switch up,” Charlie said, pointing to the landing gear control. I did and watched the three green indicator lights go dark.

Throughout the flight, Charlie allowed me to take the yoke and “fly the needles.” Since the weather was terrible, we were flying IFR, or instrument flight rules. We were staying on our assigned flight path by using navigation instruments in the airplane responding to electronic signals from the air traffic control system on the ground.

When it was time to refuel, Charlie took the controls and began our descent, carefully following the instrument landing system. The fog was so bad we literally couldn’t see the ground until we were just above the runway.

When we arrived in Savannah, the boss said, “I have the best pilot and co-pilot in the country.” Our return flight was crystal clear.

I took some actual flying lessons from Charlie, who was a certified instructor. We rented a Cessna 150 and took off from a grass strip. I flew through several flight exercises including stalls. There’s nothing like pulling the nose of an airplane up until it quits flying and falls. My mind screamed, “Pull up! Pull up!! Pull up!!!” but the only way to get out of a stall is to push the yoke forward until the plane starts flying again (although we were still heading straight down) and then pull up and out of the dive. That, my friends, will make your day.

When my mother was dying with cancer, the boss let us take the airplane and Charlie flew us from Fort Worth to Peoria, Illinois to visit her. The flight north was beautiful. The flight home was scary as we tried to outrun a line of thunderstorms coming out of the west. Charlie got us home safely.

He wasn’t just a good pilot, he was funny. We often roomed together on ministry trips and he always complained about the pillows. As soon as the lights were off I could hear him grumbling.

“These stupid pillas! They’re too flat! Someone needs to make a pilla pump! Maybe I could at least pump it up until it holds my head up. Stupid pillas!”

I went out to Meacham Airport with Charlie one time when he had to get an updated instrument check-ride. He was in the left seat, the instructor in the right. I was sitting in the back. Charlie piloted the plane wearing a hood so he could only see the instruments. When we took off, the cowling on the engine opened and started flapping in the wind. Charlie immediately tore off the hood and made a quick one-eighty back to the runway and landed safely.

On the next lift-off, another small airplane took off on an intersecting runway and was heading straight toward us. Once again, Charlie averted a potentially serious problem and we continued flying safely.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to finish flight training. We left Fort Worth in 1981, and I never saw Charlie again.

A few years ago, I read that Charles Wesley Burns passed away at the age of 78. He took his final flight and once again, made it home safely.