The glare coming off the crushed coral runway was hot and blinding. The three of us were stopped in our tracks. For a moment, we didn’t see what had happened to the plane. There was no control tower on the island, no phones, no services—nothing around us but several abandoned planes, pushed off the runway and swallowed by vegetation.
I remember waking up that morning, looking out into eastern darkness from the balcony of the comfortable Florida beachfront condo, and wondering what the day would bring with our planned adventure. Then there was Jim sticking his head out of the plane’s window and yelling “Clear!” as we rolled down the tarmac, lifting off above the Miami-bound traffic and banking into the morning sunlight over a calm, sparkling ocean. The visibility was excellent, the sky blue, and the Cessna 182 Skylane hummed melodically.
The flight was pleasant and the landing smooth enough onto the 5409-foot runway. Strangely, there was an unattended private jet parked at the far end. Jim, my late wife Ann, and I unloaded our cargo into a rusty old Volkswagen van. As we drove the bumpy road to Jim’s beachfront house, we couldn’t help but wonder about the unaccustomed visitor. The area was notorious for drug runners, and this was a perfect drop-off point for transports for the South Florida narcotic trade. After we finished dropping off stuff at Jim’s house, we came back to the airstrip and a surprise.
These events took place a number of decades ago, when drug smugglers used pagers and no one had a cell phone. There was no easy way to communicate. So you can imagine our shock at coming back and seeing the nose cone of the Cessna Skylane bent and crumpled with the propeller folded at an angle. The private jet was gone also. Was this on purpose or an accident? It didn’t matter; we were stranded and there was no parts store anywhere close to this island. Also, we had no tools.
“This plane isn’t going anywhere for a long time, nor are we!” Jim fumed. He walked, as if in a mirage, toward the rusted van and drove off.
Ann and I settled in under the wing, out of the scorching sun. As I sat there looking at a bullet-ridden drug plane in the brush, I had an idea. I climbed through the tangled vines into the drug plane and found a few things I could use to work on Jim’s plane.
Getting the badly damaged nose cone off wasn’t as hard as I’d imagined. The engine cowl was also bent up, and I pounded on that for a while. With the help of a steel bar I’d found, I was able to bend the propeller back to what looked pretty good to my eye. A few bolts and other things fell out, and I threw them, along with the nose cone, into the back of the plane.
The hours rolled by, and Jim finally got back. “No luck on repair! I was able to find a place to make some calls, and the soonest someone could come look at the plane was a week to ten days,” he dejectedly informed us. Then, looking at his plane, he exclaimed, “What the … ?”
“Look, Jim, you’ve got to admit the prop looks pretty good.”
“Peter, listen. If the propeller blade angles aren’t correct, on takeoff it could spin the plane like a gyroscope and flip it off the runway, or even worse, into the ocean. This plane has a left turn tendency by design, and you could have just made that more dangerous!”
“How do you know unless you give it a try?” I retorted.
Jim countered, “What if it pulls off the runway and flips over?’
“I guess you could say it ran off the runway and flipped over!”
Jim countered again, “What if the plane goes down halfway to Florida?”
“Jim, a fishing boat would probably pick us up. It’s a great day to be out on the water.”
“What if they don’t?”
“Jim, then we tread water!”
“What if we’re eaten by sharks?”
“Then, Jim, I’d say we probably made a mistake!”
Jim finally got to chuckling over that one. “Okay, I’m going to see how she handles, but the two of you are staying put!”
We watched as Jim checked to see that the wing ailerons, flaps, tail elevators, and stabilizers were working. He revved up the engine and taxied down the runway. Soon he was circling the island and landing again.
Jim looked at Ann and asked, “Are you certain you want to do this?”
She grabbed my arm and said, “I’m with him.”
Jim looked at me more soberly. “What if we’re wrong?”
“Then, Jim, I’d say it wasn’t the best day to go flying!”
We survived the takeoff. The rate of climb was choppy, and the rest of the flight felt more like we were driving on an old railroad track. We held our breath, hoping the plane wasn’t going to vibrate out of the sky. Every time I began to shout something, I thought I bit my tongue while feeling like my teeth were about to dance out of my head. I’d never thought traffic looked so good when we glided over that long ribbon of lights onto the tarmac at the Pompano Airport.
U.S. customs agents hurried up to the plane. The first officer exclaimed, “What the hell happened to your plane?”
While Jim filled him in, I pulled out the crumpled nose cone, and a number of odd pieces fell out onto the pavement. Jim’s face blanched and the customs agents gave us a horrified look. “It’s a miracle the three of you made it! What if you’d been wrong?”
I replied, “Then, obviously you could say we made a mistake!”
The moral of this true-life account is that your life is waiting to be lived. Don’t be shy about living it! Sure, you could make a mistake. Most of us do. Most of our mistakes we survive, although certainly there are some we don’t. But not to live because of fear is to die already unspent. Never let the fire of your dreams become cold dead ashes because you feared making a mistake. Have the courage to pick up your life and always begin again. So what if you were wrong? So what? You get to live another day, and at least you’ll be more alive than if you never even tried!
Postscript: The nose cone ended up on Jim’s rec room wall. That’s all that can be said for certain; the rest is just memories and dust in the wind.
Reflections from Turtle Lake!