Angels on the Ground

It was clear and still, a beautiful day to fly. After three weeks, we were pointed toward home, and I couldn’t have been more ready. The Black Hills looked green and peaceful, and we decided that Newcastle, Wyoming, on the west side, where dense forests are replaced by high desert, was a good choice for a fuel stop.

The winds were calm five minutes out, but when my husband Tom checked the AWOS on downwind, the winds were out of the northwest at 8-flukey, just like home. Moments before touchdown, the Cessna 170 ballooned and then came down tailwheel first. It bounced. As Tom applied full throttle, the airplane pointed skyward then fell back on the tailwheel. The tailwheel broke, leaving us skidding diagonally across the runway on the mangled wheel.

We turned off the runway. Two men, who had landed before us in a Bonanza, came over to help. ‘It could have been worse,’ said the older one, just as I was about to say something about bad luck. The airport manager’s wife, who introduced herself as Sherry, came out, too. She seemed very willing to help, and didn’t say anything like, ‘Was that supposed to be a landing?’

Sherry found a big tow bar, and she and the two kind men helped us move the airplane to a parking spot. Meanwhile, a Piper Meridian landed, and the couple came over to see the damage. They knew of a mechanic who lived in Spearfish, South Dakota, 50 miles away. Unfortunately, it was Saturday; his shop was closed, and his home phone number was unlisted.

While trying to reconcile our options, I bought a chocolate bar and ate the whole thing in a few seconds, without offering any to Tom. When we finally accepted the fact that we had to spend the weekend in Newcastle, we put our bags into the airport courtesy car, a 1961 Mercury. It was a big yellow boat with an adjustable steering wheel that didn’t lock and moved up and down as if on a rubber rod. Only the driver’s window was operable, and the left backseat door didn’t open from the outside. In other words, a classic airport car. Downtown Newcastle was only six miles from the airport, and we were happy to have a vehicle.

The Pines Motel was in the trees, just like Sherry said. For a moment, after spotting the motorcycles in the parking area, and hearing that it was the last weekend of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, I worried that we might not find a room. Iva, the motel owner, said she didn’t have any rooms, but she did have a house we could rent that was once her home, with three bedrooms and two baths. ‘We don’t need that much room,’ said Tom reluctantly. ‘How much is it anyway?’ I asked. When Iva said $75, we chimed, ‘We’ll take it!’

We called Tom’s 90-year-old mother to report in, as we often do on our cross-country flights. She told us that she and Tom’s dad were stuck in a snowdrift outside of Newcastle one winter. Luckily, a state trooper spotted them and came to their rescue. ‘We thought we were dead,’ she said. By this time, we were very hungry, and Iva had suggested the Flying V for supper, six miles north of town. We made two turns on our way out of town and followed a winding road. The lowering sun cast a golden hue on everything, which I thought was lovely until we got farther and farther from our motel. The odometer didn’t work, so we weren’t sure how far we’d gone. I imagined Tom’s parents driving on the same road, also wondering if they were going in the right direction.

Just as I was about to insist that we turn around, we spotted the Flying V. It looked pretty tired, and, when I saw some large motorcycles in the parking lot, I was leery. I couldn’t help but think that mixing Wyoming wrangler rowdiness with Sturgis motorcycle machismo might be dangerous. Inside, however, the place was lively, and people looked normal. We ordered steaks with grilled mushrooms and onions and glasses of red wine. The meal was delicious, and there was even a hint of light on the drive home.

The next morning we drove to the airport to examine the damage to the airplane. Sherry appeared, and we asked if we could walk the length of the runway to look for the tension spring. She said it would be fine, there was very little traffic there, but watch out for the rattlesnakes in the grass. She hadn’t seen any while mowing lately, but they could still be around. I was wearing sandals and shorts, so I would be staying on the pavement. Tom was wearing athletic shoes and long pants, and it was his landing; he was the obvious choice for the grass.

It is dry, flat and barren country, but a gentle breeze was keeping things cool. We walked slowly and methodically, looking for something glistening. When we were about halfway down the runway, we heard an airplane approaching. I walked toward a taxiway, then into the lowest grass I could find, and watched it touch down. It was a tailwheel plane that looked a little like a Cessna, but wasn’t. Tom said he’d walk over to see if maybe the pilot would know a mechanic in the area, or anyone that might be of help. I said I’d continue looking for the missing part.

After awhile, I could see that Tom and the pilot were talking. I soon spotted the spring on the edge of the runway in the grass. Just then, Tom whistled and waved his arms. I walked over, and he introduced me to Paul, a nice young man with red hair and a friendly, boyish face. He had flown in from Gillette, Wyoming, 80 miles north, and, amazingly, he thought he might be able to locate a tailwheel back home. As Paul began to taxi out in his Yugoslavian Utva, Tom asked him how much horsepower it has. ‘345 horses,’ he answered. ‘It goes a lot faster than the C170,’ said Tom. ‘Yeah,’ Paul replied, ‘and it burns three times as much fuel.’

About an hour later, the airport phone rang, and it was Paul. ‘Guess what I have in my hands?’ he asked. Tom said that we would drive to Gilette to get it, but Paul insisted that he fly it back. Meanwhile, we emptied the airplane, removing the tent, cots, sleeping bags, and camping supplies. Before long, we heard an airplane engine. It was a Cessna 170, like ours. Paul had decided to bring his dad’s plane and an entire tailwheel assembly that he’d gotten from a hangar neighbor who, as it happens, was on his way that day to Alaska for six months. That’s why Paul said it was ‘meant to be’ when he returned to Newcastle. A few minutes later, and we’d have been out of luck.

While Tom and Paul were figuring out what needed to be done to make the repair, we learned that Paul was an engineer for an oil company and a mechanic. He was 29, married with two little girls. Both his parents are pilots. Paul said he got his ‘good Samaritan’ quality from his grandfather. He should have been working that Sunday, but he called a co-worker and found someone else to do his job. Sherry said, ‘It’s too bad you have to work on Sundays.’ ‘I git to work on Sundays,’ Paul responded. ‘Twenty percent of people are unemployed and I get to go to work.’

After a couple of hours, Tom and Paul crawled out from under the airplane, surveyed their good job, grinned and shook hands. Sherry said she couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘We were visited by an angel.’ We tried to give Paul some money for gas, but he wouldn’t take it. I asked for his address to send his girls something. He was reluctant to accept even the promise of something.

We would be on our way home tomorrow because this young man helped us instead of spending Sunday afternoon at work or with his family or flying around having fun. He told us that he had put Spearfish, South Dakota in his GPS that morning, but for some unknown reason decided to land at Newcastle, an airport with no restaurant and no services- just two needy people. We reluctantly watched Paul taxi his C170 to the runway, smiling and waving good-bye. He showed off its 220hp Franklin engine by lifting off in about 500 feet and climbing as much in another 500 feet.

We know there are angels in the air; they frequently help us get safely to our destination. Now we are certain there are also angels on the ground who help us get back in the air.