Apple Valley and Gary Busey
Part I: Apple Valley. Hour 116.
Flying is one of my passions, but it’s not my day job. In June of 2003, as I was finishing my primary flight training, I was also finishing my Ph.D. in computer science. This wasn’t a coincidence: I started learning to fly partly because I was going stir-crazy writing my dissertation. What better antidote than spending a few hours a week in the beautiful blue sky, a mile above the nearest computer screen?
My family was planning on flying out to LA from the East Coast for my graduation ceremony. I hadn’t told them that I was learning to fly yet; my mom’s a nervous flyer, and I didn’t think she’d approve. But I couldn’t keep the secret forever. Their visit seemed like the right opportunity to reveal it -- two graduations in one! I also knew my dad would be excited and want to fly with me. This gave me a hard deadline: I really wanted to get my private pilot ticket before their visit.
The weather gods would not make it easy for me. 2003 was one of the worst years for June Gloom in memory, and marine layers don’t mix well with primary training. Normally, the marine layer on the Southern California coastline extends inland just a few miles. By the second week of that June, the unprecedented Gloom was filling the entire LA basin. Every airport for miles was clouded over one day after the next. My Night Cross-Country had been cancelled so many times that I went so far as to do it in Las Vegas (described in Death Vortex), leaving just one final hurdle: the checkride. But the unrelenting clouds caused my first three checkride appointments to be cancelled, too. With just a week left until graduation and my parents’ visit, I decided I had to take drastic action: return to the desert.
Apple Valley Airport is a sleepy little untowered field in a small town on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Apple Valley is best known to LA residents, if they know it at all, as a wrong turn on the way to Vegas. I studied weather data and concluded it was the nearest airport that hadn’t had a single overcast day in the past month. I arranged for a pilot examiner to meet me there one afternoon. He told me I'd have to show up early to get a renter’s flight test with an instructor at the FBO -- in the twisted rulebook of the FAA, you retroactively become the pilot-in-command on your own checkride if you pass it!
One gloomy Monday morning I set out for Apple Valley. It was a two hour drive. The clouds didn’t break until I’d driven into the rugged San Bernardino mountains and saw the desert on the other side. I found the airport and quickly learned my first lesson of the day: small-town FBOs are nothing like their big-city counterparts. In Santa Monica, my flight school looked like a dentist’s office. The one in Apple Valley was more like your crazy aunt's basement. A dozen metal shelves were filled with molding aviation magazines, filthy alternators and exhaust manifolds, military flight helmets, and boxes of oil; I couldn’t tell if it was a pilot shop or a badly curated museum. A cat was sleeping on the couch. The woman there was a grizzled lady full of war stories told in between drags on her chain-smoked cigarettes.
The plane matched the school. The old Cessna 172’s center panel had nothing in it but a single comm radio and a transponder without an altitude encoder. I asked to see the maintenance logs and flipped through them, pretending I understood what I was reading and hoping to see something that would give me confidence.
“She ain’t that pretty, but she runs good,” the owner told me with a smile from under a purple haze. I was glad I'd only be flying the thing in the desert with plenty of options for an emergency landing.
An instructor took me up for two hours, putting me through a practice checkride: stalls, steep turns, slow flight, emergency procedures, and five takeoffs and landings. By then the afternoon sun was heating the desert floor; the cockpit was stifling and the sharp turbulence was exhausting.
Back on the ground, the pilot examiner had arrived. He grilled me on airspace, regulations, weight and balance computations, and emergency procedures. He wanted to see my cross-country flight plan and describe navigation procedures. It seemed to go on forever--
“What would you do if you lost your alternator?”
“What does this color line on the chart mean?”
"When do you lean the fuel mixture? What happens if you lean it too much?"
“Describe how you’d look at a weather briefing and decide if it’s safe to fly.”
“How much does a gallon of avgas weigh?”
“Do I have to wear a seatbelt while we’re taxiing?”
I longed to be back at my dissertation defense from the week before. At least there I was an expert!
Next he inspected my logbook. All seemed in order at first, but then --
“Why does his CFI number here not match the other CFI number in this entry?”
“One of the forms is missing.”
“This entry isn’t signed.”
Finally he brought the hammer down:
“Sorry, we can't fly today. Why don’t you fix these problems and come back Wednesday at 8am."
I tried to hide my disappointment. Wednesday was the last day before graduation. That was cutting it close. I tried not to brood on the two hour drive home.
Tuesday I filed my dissertation, officially becoming Dr. MyFirst1000, and fixed my FAA paperwork. Wednesday I woke up at 5am and started the trek back to Apple Valley. We were in the air by 8. The morning air was still crisp and smooth.
The checkride itself was surprisingly anti-climactic. We did all the same procedures I’d practiced many times over. My only moment of panic was when the instructor wanted to test my unusual attitude recovery under the hood -- and I realized my hood was in my apartment, a hundred miles away. I kicked myself for letting such a minor detail ruin such a meticulously constructed plan.
“It’s okay, we can improvise,” the examiner said. He reached into the back, pulled out the bulky sun shield, and used it to cover just my half of the windscreen.
As we entered the pattern for my last landing, I looked out at the landscape, trying to capture the moment. I noticed a dust devil far away, tearing its way across the empty desert floor. I smiled: I sure knew what that was after my encounter with one the week before!
“There’s a dust devil out there," I idly observed. "I saw one of those last week.”
“So … you’re feeling pretty relaxed about the exam, huh?”
I made my last landing and parked. The examiner pulled a portable printer out of his bag which clicked and whirred. Then he handed me a white piece of paper. It was a Temporary Airman Certificate with my name on it!
I couldn’t believe it -- I’d done it! I was a pilot!
Part II: Gary Busey
I said goodbye to the examiner, the FBO owner, and her cat, and started my journey home. The drive went quickly as I turned the recent events over in my head: I was now a PhD. I was now a pilot. What a week!
I tried to call my girlfriend; got her voicemail. Called another buddy of mine; he wasn’t in the office. I couldn’t tell my family; tomorrow was the big reveal. I had my most exciting news in a year and no one was around to hear. How frustrating!
Back in Santa Monica, just a few miles from home, I got caught in horrible afternoon traffic -- and that’s when the exhaustion hit me. I’d been driving and flying since 5am. Traffic inched forward one car-length at a time and I struggled to keep my eyes open. I also gradually became aware of a really foul odor of tobacco. I’d been in the smoky flight school for 3 hours, I mused; some had stuck to my clothing.
“Don’t you just want to grab a shotgun and clear all these fuckers out?”
I turned. In the lane to my left was a long, shiny, brand new Cadillac. A man’s arm was sitting on the passenger-side window sill. He was holding a giant cigar. The smoke was wafting into my car. I turned, and there, sitting in the passenger seat, teeth gleaming, was Gary Fucking Busey. I felt delirious with exhaustion and wasn’t sure this was actually happening.
We started to chat. He told me I should watch his new show, I’m With Busey. I told him I would.
“So, how are you doing today, man?”
I blurted out first thing that came to mind: “I just got my private pilot license 3 hours ago!”
Great. I had dozens of friends and family who might like to hear this news, and the first person on earth to hear it is Gary Fucking Busey.
“Congrats, man! That’s fuckin’ great! I’ve got 8 hours in a 172. And my son Jake, he’s got a license too. Did you learn around here?”
“Yeah, right down at Santa Monica Airport,” I said.
“Justice Aviation!” he said excitedly.
“That’s my flight school too!”
The light turned green and his car started to move. In parting, he stuck his arm out the window, pumping his fist with a giant thumbs up -- “Hey man, don’t fly your car! WHOOOOOOO HOOOOOOOOoooooo!”
That evening, I stopped by my flight school. The whiteboard said “CONGRATULATIONS MyFirst1000 -- Private Pilot!”
“You know, I had the strangest conversation on the way over here,” I told a group of instructors who were standing around. “I ran into Gary Busey.”
“Oh, hey, his son trained here!” one said.
“Yeah, I know,” I said, laughing. “He told me.”