Ask the pilot

Ah, the days of seducing pretty girls with the aphrodisiac of aviation. Not to mention near death by midair collision.

Published July 1, 2005 7:59PM (EDT)

Some months ago I alluded to the time, back in my private pilot days, when I was nearly killed in a midair collision off the coast of Nantucket, Mass. I never got around to sharing the full account, but now is the time, I think, for a couple of reasons. First, it's a holiday weekend and the mood feels right for something breezy and sentimental -- even if breezy and sentimental includes a brush with death. And also because today is July 1, which happens to be the 19th anniversary of the incident.

Coincidentally, it was three years ago today that one of aviation's worst-ever midair crashes took place -- a collision over the Swiss-German border between a Russian passenger jet and a DHL cargo plane. (If I were the superstitious sort, which I'm not, I might advise fliers to rearrange their Friday travel plans.) Having acknowledged that, let's hold off on any hot and heavy talk on the foibles of air traffic control. If you're looking for a technical discussion about TCAS and transponders, you'll have to wait for another time.

In the summer of 1986 I was 20 years old and had a crush on Dorothy Meyer. Dorothy was the girlfriend of a kid named Logan, an art student and acquaintance of mine, who years later became the first person I ever knew to lose his hair (I was the second).

Life was unfettered in those days. A month earlier I'd made a solo trip to Hong Kong, and for work I held a part-time stint on the docks down at Castle Island, helping longshoremen drive Subarus off the delivery ships. In my wallet was a freshly minted FAA license (Private Pilot, ASEL, with instrument privileges), and I was slowly building logbook time to qualify for the next series of ratings and certificates on the long, potholed route that would someday make me an airline pilot. When the checks from Mom and Dad came through, I'd rent a four-seater up at Beverly and putter off to the Vineyard or up to Laconia, N.H., or maybe the coast of Maine. It was my practice, when I could, to recruit an attractive girl to accompany me.

Late one night I was visiting a friend's place, hanging out after a concert in a room full of skate punks. Logan and his newest consort, a tall, stunningly pretty girl named Dorothy Meyer, were among them. I'd seen her before -- at shows, at a party or two -- and couldn't take my eyes off her.

I positioned myself strategically and was able to get her attention. Shortly thereafter we began talking and paired off toward the back of the room. While Logan entertained his skater pals with a pointed dissertation on rails, wheels and bearings, I proceeded to enthrall his girlfriend with an expert's knowledge of altimeters, holding patterns and foggy-weather landings. With some embellishment I could make the cockpit of a Piper Cherokee sound like the Space Shuttle. She was charmed and I could tell.

It's hard to recall the full intent of my scheming, but by the end of the conversation I'd managed to invite Dorothy on an airplane ride. I could rent that little Piper, I explained -- at that point I was calling the plane a "Cessna," because the name wasn't as goofy -- and we could fly anywhere in New England.

Nantucket was her choice. Sixteen miles to the south of Cape Cod, the crescent-shaped island was a popular day trip for private fliers. I'd landed there many times, but to Dorothy it sounded adventurous. "Patrick says he'll take me in his airplane!" she boasted to Logan, who pretended not to care. Presumably he was jealous and annoyed, or so I wanted to think, but he made a good show of it, excusing himself from a heated conversation about grip tape just long enough to roll his eyes, crane his scrawny neck around and respond with all the affected nonchalance of the bored and spoiled teenager that he was. "Hey, cool," he said.

Effectively we were all bored and spoiled teenagers, and Dorothy herself was no exception. Though in her case, privilege and prerogative took on a distinctly physical form. At 17, Dorothy Meyer was, well, a spectacle. Trying to describe exactly what she looked like is somewhat akin to describing the Eiffel Tower, or maybe the Chrysler Building; as the saying goes, you really had to be there. Dorothy was 6 feet tall and weighed approximately 115 pounds, a caricature of all things slender. She had saucer-size blue eyes and cheekbones that looked as if Michelangelo had cut them from the rarest white marble. She worked from time to time as a model, jetting off to Milan to make a thousand dollars for a day's work in some Italian photographer's studio.

But to give proper meaning to "spectacle," you must add to Dorothy's spindly physique an endless assortment of camp, for she rarely left the house before endowing herself with any and every accessory of adolescent outrage -- from a clattering excess of costume jewelry to knee-high combat boots with red laces. She was part scarecrow, part origami crane, done up in Halloween gothic like an unpaid extra from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." On the evening of my invitation, her basic costume consisted of a jet-black crew cut, leather boots, plaid skirt, studded belt and an uncountable gauntlet of bracelets around both forearms. Detailed curlicues, like the wrought-iron railings of a haunted house, trailed from the corner of each eye. It was all too much, and so appallingly lovely.

Dorothy, I should note, wasn't the first or last girl I'd made efforts to seduce using the aphrodisiac of aviation, only the prettiest and most outlandish. Prior results had been, let's just say, mixed, and this one seemed a long shot. But I'd try.

And so there we were, on the first day of July, 1986, taking off for Nantucket in a $75 an hour Piper-Cessna. The plane, I've never forgotten, was red, white and blue, and wore the registered N81707. For her part, Dorothy's ensemble that sunny afternoon was a miniskirt, ripped-up fishnet stockings, Day-Glo orange Converse sneakers and a black T-shirt. The boys in the rental office were still staring as we lifted from runway 27 of the Beverly Municipal Airport, then commenced a long shallow bank toward Cape Cod.

Stuck in my head since 8 a.m., entirely by accident but destined for infamy, was a song. It was "The Love Cats," by the Cure. Doubtless many of you know it -- an odd little number delivered in the unmistakable, effeminate whine of vocalist Robert Smith. As I'd stepped from the shower after breakfast, they were playing it on WFNX.

"The Love Cats" contains a line, an infectious, joyous refrain, that goes like this: "Into the sea, you and me..." And over and over and over I was humming those words, with all possible ironic happiness, as Dorothy and I zipped across Cape Cod Bay at 5,000 feet. Into the sea, you and me. If ever I'm to be dealt some tragic, premature demise, by all means let it be now! Just imagine us, spinning to the ocean below. Dorothy Meyer the death-rock debutante, sharing this most sublime of fates with Patrick Smith, aspiring aviator and delusional romantic, suffering for his art the whole way down.

"Hand-in-hand is the only way to land..."

On Nantucket we avoided the crowds of the cobblestoned harbor front, stopping instead at a grocery store near the airport. Then with no particular destination in mind, we took a long walk. We headed south on the road toward Surfside for at least a mile, then turned west up a long, unpaved trail snaking between clusters of scrub pine. Off to one side we discovered a clearing -- an isolated patch where the brush gave way to dunes, with the beach just beyond -- and decided to stop there. I could locate that very spot today if I needed to -- the small sandy field where almost 20 years ago the two of us spent the next three hours talking and sharing a packed lunch.

We stretched out on the ground. From over the dunes came the sound of breakers and the murmur of the outgoing tide. Dorothy, in full regalia, looked heavenly and preposterous amid all that nature and sunshine. Her pale gangly legs, glowing white through the torn fabric of her fishnets, appeared to be hewn from Ivory soap.

Spectacle or no spectacle, and for what it's worth, Dorothy was a bright and world-wise girl. She lived with her parents -- a teacher and an architect -- in a converted loft on the edge of South Boston, just around the corner from where the Channel, a longtime punk rock hangout, used to be. A student at one of Boston's prestigious "alternative" schools, she knew her authors and artists, physics and algebra. She was only 17, but erudite enough to intimidate the hell out of yours truly, a kid from working-class Revere who'd never set foot in the big city before his senior year in high school. There in the middle of our seaside picnic, Dorothy's precocious intellect and strange beauty were an agonizing mix, simmered by the July heat into one big exotic hard-on.

What did we talk about? In light of the often unbearable pretensions known to spew from the lips of a dreamy 17-year-old, it's probably a good thing that our precise topics of conversation have been lost to time. I vaguely remember Dorothy saying something about her "Calvinist disposition."

At the time, of course, I was smitten. And to my quiet amazement, so was she. Her coquettish smiles grew more earnest, her gaze more softly fixed. She briefly put her head on my shoulder. And as it happened, not once did the name Logan come up. Once a guy, always a guy, I had seen these looks and signals before and I understood exactly what she was thinking, even if I have a hard time believing it. The dialogue is mostly forgotten, but what I remember vividly is the crescendo of that day-long bonding -- the moment when Dorothy paused in a moment of sweet philosophical flirtation and said to me, "You know what? You and I have a lot in common."

In truth I had no idea what she was talking about, since really we had almost nothing in common. But who was I to argue, and if only life were made up entirely of moments like that. "I know," I said. And she fluttered her big blue eyes at me.

Then it was time to go. What I presumed to be a powerful, beckoning force of mutual attraction would need to wait for any official consecration. Tonight, tomorrow, in the days ahead? Who knew, but I welcomed the task ahead. As we walked toward the airport, I was wired with adrenaline.

It was on the return flight that we were almost killed.

Unlike airliners, private planes routinely operate under so-called VFR, or visual flight rules, and without the watchful guidance of air traffic control. There are safeguards in place -- radio and traffic pattern protocols, staggered cruising altitudes, and so on -- but avoiding airborne collisions is primarily a matter of old-fashioned see-and-avoid. I'll leave it at that, and it's best not to dwell on the fact that my distracted, love-addled state of mind may have contributed, but we came extraordinarily close to hitting another airplane, head-on, over the ocean about halfway between Nantucket and Hyannis.

We are cruising in silence. Glancing to the right, I see the smooth calm azure of the Atlantic. I bank sharply to give Dorothy a thrill. Glancing to the left there's smooth lemon, a gauzy curtain of cirrus deep in the distance. I bank again, showing off. Then I roll the wings level, casually adjusting my eyes straight ahead. And there, in front of me, as if somebody has splashed it onto the windshield, is another aircraft. It is so close that I can clearly see the pilot sitting in the left seat. It's a twin-engine propeller plane, a private plane not much bigger than ours, with a pointed black nose bearing down on us like a visible bullet.

I do not react. There isn't enough time to process any left, right, up or down resolution. Only luck -- the slightest difference in our respective altitudes and trajectories -- prevents the two machines from colliding. Before I can move the plane is gone, disappearing above and to the left by about 15 feet. I can clearly hear him over the noise of my own propeller -- the buzz of the engines as they pass.

"Into the sea, you and me..."

Head-on, our closure rate was about 250 miles per hour. The whole event, from when I saw the airplane until it was safely behind us, lasted probably two seconds.

And for both of those incomparable, heart-stopping, life-altering seconds, Dorothy Meyer was staring down at the water and saw absolutely nothing.

Picture me now, if you can, as I attempt to explain to a smiling, oblivious Dorothy, my hands quivering and my pulse pounding, that the two of us came within a finger snap of obliteration.

"Wow!" is her response.

And onward we fly. Dorothy reclines contentedly, her eyes peeled for ships and whales while I fix my gaze on the sky like a crazy person, wondering if in fact I'm still alive. It feels as though a firecracker has gone off in my brain.

Finally at about 5 o'clock we touch down and taxi in. My stomach is sour, my nerves firing in weird jangly salvos. There will be a phone call to make, a report to file, and a six-pack to purchase. I shut down the engine, unbuckle my shoulder harness, and begin to gather my things.

As I do this, Dorothy Meyer sighs and looks at me coyly. It's a kittenish, theatrical expression, similar to the ones she'd been giving me on the island. This time, though, it's more serious. And here is what Dorothy now says to me: "I keep wanting to kiss you."

My head swims. "Um," I say. "But. Kiss me? Who? Why?" How in the world can she not be, as I am, stuck in the throes of a raging and delirious preoccupation with mortality? I am not thinking about kissing; I am thinking about seawater and crushed aluminum.

"I'm sorry," she says. What? Who is she apologizing to? Me? Herself? Logan? For the love of god don't send me careening on a guilt trip, or some hideous game of hard-to-get, while I'm still bug-eyed from a near-death experience. I don't know whether to be aroused or horrified. In fact I am both, and once again I'm helpless, frozen by a vision -- unexpected, unstoppable and dangerous -- coming straight at me. Over now leans Dorothy, across the space between the seats, across the wing flap lever and an empty can of Coca-Cola. And she kisses me.

"Hand in hand is the only way to land..."

Everything goes quiet, and in Dorothy's oversize eyes are only the most serene, unthreatening pools of blue. How can it be? It's as though she's peering at me from some other time, some other age. Wherever it is, I like it there and so I kiss her back. There's little point, believe me, in further attempts to describe the resultant sensations when a brush with the Grim Reaper is followed by an impromptu make-out session with a young, gothed-out fashion model you've had the hots for. If nothing else, it's exhausting.

Dorothy sits sideways on the drive home, her alabaster spindle-legs on my lap. Robert Smith is singing again, the irony of that damn annoying song so rich and irresistible. I gloat silently, triumphantly, about our dalliance with catastrophe -- coming out the other end not just alive but with a sexy girl on my arm. Fuck you, Logan.

Then, just like that, it was over. Back in South Boston we parted, Dorothy providing an affectionate goodbye and a promise to call. Which she did, the next evening around suppertime. She got right to the point, and I wasn't the least bit surprised. By then my faculties had recovered; what 24 hours earlier was a bewildering rush of excitement had become a lethargic adrenaline hangover. Everything felt wrong, ominous and foregone, and my suspicions were quickly confirmed. All of it, Dorothy explained, had been a mistake. She was sorry. Would I please not tell anyone. And so on.

Dorothy and I would continue to cross paths, and she remained an on-again, off-again infatuation of mine before at last we fell out of touch. Now and then I'd bring up our trip to Nantucket, always reminding her how close we came to crashing. Having shared such an immeasurable experience, I thought, might spark some unbreakable bond. Perhaps it would make us lovers, soul mates, friends for life. But it didn't and couldn't, because nothing had been shared. I'm the only one who saw the plane. And the way I described it, always so gravely and intensely, it began to sound like a myth, like a ghost story. And the look on Dorothy's face, every time, leaves me forever convinced that she believes I made it up.

Which I did not.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

It's tough to glance at the calendar every July and not think of that day, now almost two decades past, with a peculiar nostalgia. Because it's no longer the near-miss itself that colors my recollection, but rather its place in time.

No worthy lessons were learned that day. Indeed none presented themselves, beyond a young pilot's self-reminder to watch where the hell he's going. And the story, as I see it today, has nothing to do with danger, fright or having almost been smashed to bits. It has to do with growing old, with the lost spontaneity of youth -- the notion, now so crazy, of stepping into a rented plane with a gorgeous teenager. The almost being killed part? It's funny, even perverse, how in 1986 the close call felt so meaningful, so invigorating, while today it feels like nothing. Memories are a funny thing. The pictures never change, solidifying over time like the scars and knots of a tree, but their messages and poignancy do.

The last time I saw Dorothy was in 1994, on the subway. I was coming from the airport, walking up the stairs to the Church Street exit at Harvard Square. And she was coming down. Still cadaverous, absurd and beautiful, she wore a black leather motorcycle jacket shredded at the elbows, except her hair was now shoulder-length and flaxen. The meeting was, as it could only be, awkward, stupid and cliché. I'm fine and how are you? I thought about the plane, the kiss, the sandy seaside clearing. But I let it go. The important parts, anyway.

"Do you remember," is all I said, "the time you wore fishnet stockings to the beach?"

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

MORE FROM Patrick Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Air Travel Ask The Pilot Business