Saturday, October 14, 2006

Flying Low

By Alan Burkhart

Being a long-haul trucker, I have worlds of time during the week to ponder upon the subject of my next column while riding along the highway. Sometimes the inspiration comes from talk radio. Others times it’ll be a local newspaper in a town a thousand miles from my home. And every once in a while, my ramblings spring from something that happens to me on the road. Today is one of those days.

I’m well-acquainted with the fact that trucking is a risky way to make a living. America’s highways offer a multitude of ways to die. Combine that fact with the utter craziness that permeates our culture these days and it’s no wonder that truck driving made’s list of “Deadliest Jobs.”

Thursday, October 12th…

I was westbound on US 6 in Southern Nevada (near Tonopah) - a desolate region that would make Mars look populous by comparison. Mind-numbing stretches of flat, empty highway occasionally interrupted by a climb over a modest mountain. Hundreds of miles of nothing but barren desert. You can go an hour at a time without meeting another vehicle.

So I'm cruising along, and I'm approaching a short but very steep (I'd guess an 8 or 10 percent grade) hill. Being this steep, it is of course a blind hill. I had no clue what was on the other side. I was approaching it at a pretty good clip, looking forward to the brief rush of falling off the other side. Sort of like an 18-wheel roller coaster. I had the stereo blasting the Blues, my shoes kicked off, and my aviator sunshades on. Smiling.

All was right in my world... until I topped the hill and found myself nose-to-propeller with a small airplane. A Cessna if I’m not mistaken.

Everything happened in a flash. The pilot veered up and starboard, while I, being the cool and collected professional, screamed the “S-word” several times in rapid succession while jamming on the brakes (well, what would you have done?).

There was a sickening nanosecond in which I was absolutely certain the wing tip would clip the top of my cab. The plane cleared my truck and trailer by no more than a few feet, and went over the hill and out of sight. It appeared to be maintaining a low altitude.

I was too dumbfounded to do anything but just plod ahead with a death grip on the steering wheel for several miles. When coherence returned, I speculated that perhaps the pilot had been attempting an emergency landing. I doubt he’d have been making a normal landing on approach to a blind hill. I've seen private pilots use deserted highways near their homes for runways, and it's legal to do so in some areas. But under normal conditions, would one not circle first and look for traffic?

While chatting with my brother that night on the phone, he suggested that maybe the guy had spotted me from above and was simply buzzing me out of malicious mischief. I suppose that's also a possibility. Either way, I am grateful to be alive. That was definitely not something I’d care to experience again.

Okay, so I had a bad incident that lasted all of two or three seconds. What’s my point?

First, had either I or the pilot of that plane been in the middle of a sneeze, both of us would likely be dead right now. His quick reaction and my jamming upon the brake pedal gave us just enough room to miss each other. We’ve been blessed with the chance to learn from our mistakes.

My mistake? First, I was flying low (excuse the pun) while climbing a blind hill. While it’s reasonable to assume that one will not meet an airplane on a two-lane highway, it was grossly irresponsible on my part to have been rolling that fast when I couldn’t see what lay ahead, even if only for a couple of seconds. I was bored, just knew I had the road all to myself, and had a lapse of judgment. What if there had been a stalled vehicle in the road just over the hill? What if that airplane had been just a few feet closer?

Life is precious. Perhaps we all need an occasional reminder of just how fragile and easily lost our lives truly are. I could have been decapitated by the wing, or ground into sausage by the propeller. As it turned out, both the pilot and I ended up with a story to tell, and I’ve been reminded that even after 29 years of trucking, any day could be “my day.”

So the next time you think about doing something marginally foolish for entertainment’s sake, please do ask yourself if the rush is worth risking your life for. I’m betting the answer will be a resounding “No.”

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