Saturday, March 12, 2016

My Little Remos

I remember vividly the day I was able to take the keys to an airplane home with me for the first time. April 5, 2012 was one of the best days of my life, even though the airplane wasn't mine. Holding the keys allowed me to convincingly retreat into the illusion.

New Mexico Sport Aviation was a small, one airplane business back then, less than a year old. The owner, Michael, preferred to run things more like a flying club than a rental operation, which meant anyone checked out on his airplane received a key for it.

I received my signoff that morning after spending four years largely earthbound since earning my sport pilot ticket in April 2008. The airplane, a two-year-old Remos GX, was the only light sport aircraft available for rent in the entire state of New Mexico; fortunate, then, that it was based at the Santa Fe Municipal Airport, only an hour's drive from my home in Albuquerque.

Over the next three years, I would spend 72.7 hours at the controls of N28GX - the most time I have in any one aircraft, and fully one-third of my total flying time so far. Less than a month after my checkout, my friend and former CFI Jim Crone - the man who helped me earn my SP ticket in Florida - flew with me in N28GX to Albuquerque for my checkout flight in Class C airspace; soon after, I flew as PIC with a non-pilot passenger (my Mom, shown below) for the first time, when we took a trip out to Cabezon Peak and back.

Mom with N28GX following our first flight together. June 24, 2012
In all, I would fly with Mom and 10 other people in N28GX. It was also the airplane in which two more of my friends would fly their first solos, and ultimately earn their tickets. Most flights were short affairs around the pattern at SAF, or to the practice area near Cochiti Lake, but I also accumulated seat time traveling on short trips across northern New Mexico, out to Moriarty (0E0), Las Vegas (LVS), Double Eagle II (AEG), and Los Alamos (LAM).

My friend Char takes a short trip with me from Santa Fe to Double Eagle II in N28GX
In my enthusiasm for having a plane to fly once again, I even created a Facebook page (separate from the NMSA page) devoted solely to N28GX. I was at the controls when its Hobbs meter turned over to 1000 hours, as I flew with a student pilot up to a WINGS event in Raton. Later that day, it would miraculously allow me to make a decent landing back at Santa Fe in a crosswind gusting to 31 knots - more than twice the rated component for a Remos - after I had foolishly decided to depart RTN in marginal conditions, rather than waiting overnight for more favorable weather. Truth is, I'd just barely managed to avoid scraping a wingtip on takeoff from Raton.

Me and Jim, after my Class C airspace checkout. May 1, 2012
After that enlightening experience - and thanks to the valuable lesson it provided - over time I became a better and more capable pilot at the controls of N28GX. When Michael added a second Remos to the fleet in late 2013, it was hard for me not to view that aircraft (N78GX, later rechristened N831RC to avoid the confusion of having two, "eight-gulf-x-rays" flying in the SAF traffic pattern) as something of an interloper.

The "other" Remos, safe in the hangar at Francis Aviation in Santa Teresa, NM. April 2014
For some reason - even after I learned to appreciate 78's slight speed advantage, and its autopilot, on a three-hour trip down to Santa Teresa (5T6) - it never held the same place in my heart as its sibling, for which more than once I'd driven up to Santa Fe and wiped down its fuselage and wing for the next renter, just so I could spend some time in the hangar with the plane I had christened, "my little Remos."

After a comparative flurry of activity over those first three years, I didn't fly as much in 2015. Mostly that was due to my freelance writing career evolving into a genuine job, rather than a neat hobby that I'm able to make some money at. Family commitments also made it more difficult to find the time necessary to drive to Santa Fe and back, and spend any appreciable time in the air.

I also lost some enthusiasm for flying after the passing of my friend, Ray, in February 2015. Ray was my flying buddy, the one who could always convince me to drag myself away from the computer and take a ride around the traffic pattern. Although he'd soloed in N28GX back in November 2012 (below), Ray had always liked the other Remos a little more, which made it fitting that it would ultimately have his initials on it...  if only by coincidence, not design.

Ray, holding his post-solo "shirttail." Nov. 15, 2012

The last time I flew N28GX was back in October 2015, when I took it around the pattern at Santa Fe for what would be our last time together. Once back at the hangar after an hour of irritating ATC instructions and vectors away from the airport, I patted the IP combing of my little Remos, and thanked it for once again helping me to look like I knew what I was doing in the sky. "That was quite an adventure, wasn't it?"

My last photo of N28GX. October 24, 2015
On March 11, 2016 - at this writing, just a bit more than 24 hours ago - N28GX crashed near the runway at Ohkay Owingeh Airport (E14) in Espanola, about 25 miles north of Santa Fe. The two persons onboard - a mother of two who'd recently earned her certificate, and the former president of the local EAA chapter - perished.

Photo by Wheeler Cowperthwaite, Rio Grande Sun
Of course the worst part of this is the human loss. Of course my main concern is with the families of those victims as they grieve for their loved ones. And, of course, I also feel terribly for Michael, as he must cope with the range of emotions, the terrible conversations with the families and discussions with investigators in the days and months ahead, and whatever decisions he may have to make in the aftermath.

Mostly, though, I've spent last night and today alternating between numbness and tears, because my little Remos will never fly again. I'll never be able to use my key again.

I feel guilty for that; selfish and petty for crying over a fallen aircraft - a mere inanimate object - over mourning the lives of the souls who fell with her. And yet a single, horrible, stubbornly persistent thought echoes relentlessly in my mind.

They killed my airplane.

My keys to N28GX.

Counterclockwise from the black-fobbed ignition key is the door lock key; an Our Lady of Loretto medallion given to me by my friend, Jennifer, back in 2004 (which bears the rune "pray for us who fly" that would later becoming very important to me during my cancer fight); a schnauzer keychain that Mom gave me in 2006; and the PILOT streamer given to me by Ray one of the last times I saw him. 

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