She could picture, the vast blue
panorama over the Pacific Ocean, hear the numbing roar
of the engine. Feel her right hand on the throttle, the
left on the stick, her feet touching the rudders, in her
lap a map, headphones, microphone, the radio squawk.
To her right, her passenger,
Father Daniel, the assistant pastor of Cristo Rey Church
in Oxnard, California. They are 2500 feet over
Oceanside, California, heading south.
Itís Father Danielís first time
in an airplane. As she sets their course she has an
amusing thought, "Brave man, this 52 year old man in
black suit and white collar, his first airplane ride and
itís in a twenty year old, two-place, single engine
Cessna 140." They are flying to the border town,
The Sisters at the Sacred Heart
Convent in Tijuana had made the flag, with the patron
saint of the school, Our Lady of Guadalupe, embossed on
a background depicting Mexico.
Her eighth grade students had
arranged and paid to present this special flag
containing the painting of their patron saint. The
traditional class gift. The flag was to have been ready
and shipped a week before graduation day. The Mother
Superior called to apologize. They could not complete
the flag until June 14th, the day before the
ceremony. Today was the 14th. What could be
done? Not a problem. A quick flight to the border and
back. Just a few hours. "It would be a snap!"
Carefully she explained, "Father
Joseph, I need someone to accompany me: well-known by
the Sisters, knows the location of the Convent, speaks
Spanish." Father Daniel it was. "Great!" The upside, he
fulfilled my criteria; the downside. He spoke no
English. "Well, two out of three."
The school day ended. The rush
to the airport. Off they flew, rising into the gentle
western winds and headed southward. The late afternoon
was spring lovely, a few gossamer cloudlets hovering
over the Topa-Topa range on the left.
She set the course, the
Oceanside route. Father would enjoy the spectacular
panorama: the gleaming coastal cities, the broad
glistening Pacific, beaches, mountains. "We canít
communicate with words, but no matter." At first his
body was rigid, hands firmly gripping his knees. She
would reach over and tap his shoulder, hesitant,
thinking "Is it ok to touch a priest?" Despite the
engine noise, the language barrier, they communicated.
He responded to her waving hand, pointing finger,
smiles, tipping of the wings, right and left, with
exclamations of tentative approval. She was delighted,
sharing the good fortunes and beauty in her life with a
person who had dedicated his life to poverty in the
service of those who were even poorer.
The sprawling Los Angeles
encompassed the entire horizon then vanishing into the
haze as they reached San Gorgonio Pass seventy miles
east. "San Diego ahead, Brown Field to the east, Roger
Moments after landing she called
for a taxi to make the quick trip to the border. No taxi
arrived. "Padre, mas rapido, Encontra persona, Taxi." So
much for high school Spanish. He nodded, smiled and
strolled leisurely around the tarmac.
As if by a miracle, an old
jalopy taxi rolled onto the airstrip. Fatherís mouth
came to life. Across the border, through the city, a
hair-raising ride over twisting, rutted, dusty roads to
the convent that was located on the side of a mountain.
"I had no idea it was so far, that Tijuana was such a
sprawling area." The border was miles away.
The Reverend Mother greeted
them, talked to Father Daniel at length, invited them to
enjoy a snack, insisted that she and the Father play a
game of checkers. They talked, they ate, they drank tea,
The sun was sinking, so was her
Panic inside, polite smiles
outside. Her experience at night flying and landing was
limited. She paced to the door and back, over and over,
smiling weakly, leaning on the latch. Above the door she
noticed a picture of the Madonna. She touched the
picture, pleaded silently, "Get me out of here!"
After endless farewells, the
ride back to the border, the taxi change, they were at
the airfield. Between them was the box that contained
the magnificent flag. She bounded out of the car, ran to
the plane, boxed flag under her arm, crammed it into the
back, pre-flighting, shoved Father Daniel into his seat,
politely of course, belted in, contact, taxi and
The sunlight was gone; the sky
was filled with reflected city lights. Should she or
shouldnít she? She had to. "Two hundred miles of air
space ahead Iím scared" She is determined but scared.
North of Oceanside, entering the
LAX airspace, her eyes scanned the instrument panel:
somethingís wrong. One by one she toggled the switches:
Off, on-off, on. All of the switches were on. The panel
was dark. The wingtips, rotating beacon, unlit. The
radio was silenced. Turn off the beacon, turn off the
radio, turn off the running lights, turn off the
navigation lights, check the amp meter. No charge. A
total electrical failure.
"We have a big problem, Father."
For that moment she had forgotten he couldnít understand
English. At the sound of her voice, he turned her way,
smiled, nodded, returning his attention to the
surrounding beauty above and below.
A pang of terror went through
her; she could feel the sweat roll down her back. She
fought to keep herself outwardly calm. She taps each
gauge on the instrument panel, adjusts the trim, scans
the sky, looks over at her passenger, smiles, sees his
rosary, thinks, "What a time not to know prayers." Then
from the depth of her being she mouthed these words
"Father, forgive me for I have sinned."
Then she heard a commanding
voice, "As long as I live I am with you, nothing bad can
City after city along the ribbon
of the coast highway twinkled as rank after rank of
lights came on. Far to the darkening east the Santa Rosa
Mountains extended a shadowy ten thousand feet into the
Beyond Riverside she could see
the glistening whitish dome of Mt. San Gorgonio glowing
like a heavenly throne more then twelve thousand feet
above the earth where the sunset had come and gone.
She knew: "Weíre in an
unidentified flying object, heading out of Long Beach
air space, twenty miles south of Los Angeles
International, unable to notify LAX tower. No options."
The hackles rose on the back of her neck. "Canít stop,
canít turn back. Itís fly or die." No matter where she
looked, she could see moving, flashing red and green
lights, interspersed with glaring white landing lights.
She could see them. They
couldnít see her. She was in their flight path, their
airspace. Altitude had to be her salvation. Fly low, fly
fast. Keep going ahead.
Her hands, a strangle hold on
the stick and throttle, her knuckles white. Her feet
cramped on the rudders, she looked over at the Priest;
he was still smiling, still nodding his head, waving and
clapping his hands, pointing out the window. She was
stunned; "he thinks Iím conducting a sightseeing tour."
"Father, back there Capistrano
Mission, over there the lights of Avalon on Catalina
Island, thereís Long Beach, Los Angeles Harbor,
Hollywood Park. She shouted, "And we are in one of the
busiest air corridors in the world!" Silently, she
prayed, "Dear God, let us slip through. Give us a safe
corridor. 1,500 feet, heading one-fiver, donít let any
other plane be there."
Father reached over, tapping her
shoulder, his eyes lit up with pleasure, his hand
pointing. She looked--- A Boeing 707; landing lights
filling their small cockpit with flashing red, green,
white. She pulled back on the stick, applied full
throttle. Go, go, go, her internal voice was shouting.
The commercial jet, one hundred feet below, roared by,
Father Daniel was thrilled. Clapping his hands,
exclaiming, "Grandioso, que bonitas, magnifico."
Formation flying! And they were out of the traffic. The
worst. Was it over?
She knew she could not land at
Santa Paula Airport. No lights, no tower, no emergency
crews. She had to land at Oxnard.
She could see the lights at the
Southern California Edison Plant. Her current position
was over the Navyís Pacific Missile Range. She prayed
that the plane would be too small for them to see on
radar, below their detection threshold.
She prepared for the entry into
the landing pattern. FAA Procedure required tower
authorization. The runway lights would be illuminated.
She was invisible, no lights, no radio. It was an
emergency. She buzzed the tower. The FAA controller
would hear, flash the green light. Three times she
executed a "by the book" fly-by. No green light. "Ok she
mouthed." On the fourth pass she flew low, directly over
the tower, gunned the engine:
Father was clapping his hands,
laughing; She was close to tears. Gas was getting low;
she didnít need to see the gauge. Another miracle!
Lights from a vehicle flashed onto the runway threshold.
She flew downwind, base, final: the landing pattern:
Over the cabbage fields, over the water tower, the high
school, the beans field. And another miracle! The entire
runway flashed with lights. She executed a perfect three
point landing, taxied the little plane to the parking
area. Shut down the engine and rested her head on the
They both get out: she, shaking
from head to toe, he, grinning from ear to ear. Reaching
behind the seat, she lifts out the box. She walks around
the plane. As she extends her arms to hand the precious
cargo to the Priest he grabs her shoulders and then
embraces her, exclaiming in Spanish words, three of
which she translates as, "A memorable trip!" Indeed, she
thinks, undeniably memorable!