The end of the runway looked only a few hundred yards away. But it was at least a mile.
Danny pulled the lever down to full flaps, checked his airspeed and pointed the nose down to the edge of the ancient asphalt. This airstrip had been here in the middle of the Everglades for decades, at least since the end of the war.
Danny chose this strip in the middle of nowhere to practice touch and go’s since he had been a student pilot. Not just because it was free of traffic, ATC and weekend warriors but because of the waving guy.
Danny first saw the waving guy the day he did his cross-country. This strip had been the final leg of his required flight to get his license. He was nervous enough without any extra distractions. Getting properly into the pattern. Checking for cross winds with the help of the faded orange windsock on the side of the runway. Looking every which way for traffic. And then, after setting his airspeed, flaps and angle, he was ready to touch his wheels to the ground. And then the waving guy appeared.
It was weird. A lone man out in the middle of this ocean of saw grass, no plane, not even a car, just standing alone and waving with that big, goofy smile on his face.
The waving guy at first startled him, distracted him and then inexplicably steadied him. The guy in some way increased his concentration. You’d think, on your first day of landing at a strange and unfamiliar airport, an anonymous figure frantically waving his arms back and forth like a mentally unstable homeless person in the middle of a busy freeway would completely throw you off; at first Danny thought of gunning his throttle and heading to some other airport. Like X-Ray Tango Five. That was a good airport with no distractions. No crazy people waving their arms.
But suddenly, instead of panicking on that stressful flight, a day full of navigation, flight control and radio chatter, the waving guy suddenly made Danny serene, attentive and calmed him down.
Now, every time he came out here to practice touch and go’s, he’d look for the waving guy. The next several times he flew out here, he wasn’t there.
But now, as Danny descended out of the sky, he was there, at the edge of the runway. It was sort of a relief to see the guy again. It was kind of confirmation that Danny hadn’t imagined the whole damn thing months ago. No one would think he was the nutty one.
Not that Danny had ever had the balls to tell his fellow pilots about the waving guy. It sounded too crazy.
He had asked Tom, his instructor over at Lantana if he had ever seen any cars or spectators out here, maybe watching planes come and go like those pathetic pilot wannabes Danny saw at the edge of every runway.
But Tom had ignored him, as if it was a half-joking question that didn’t even merit an answer. And Tom had just looked up at the sky, changed the subject to the weather and then walked back into the hangar.
Danny was less than a thousand feet on his approach now. The waving guy stood at the end of the runway, arms above his head, his legs spread into a V in the middle of the threshold chevrons, right where Danny was aiming his wheels. Danny gunned his engine just a little so he would float over this obstacle that had appeared out of nowhere. As he crossed the canal at the edge of the strip, the waving guy waved his arms over his head slowly but deliberately; back and forth, back and forth. It reminded Danny of one of those sailors with the paddles standing at the edge of an aircraft carrier, waving his arms up and down, signaling a pilot when one wing was higher than the other, making sure he was level with the flight deck.
“Okay, whoever you are, thanks for the guidance but I don’t need your help.”
As Danny got closer he saw the man’s face, the face of a young man in his twenties but weathered like someone a couple decades older. His hair was brown but balding, clean shaven, intense but friendly eyes. He looked like one of those guys from the forties whose pictures you saw in an old magazine, one of those guys who were fresh out of high school but looked like they were twice their age.
Young guys in those days always looked older than they were, Danny thought. And as Danny got closer he could see the man was not only waving, waving. He was smiling – a big goddamn, goofy grin across his face like he was directing traffic into a baseball parking lot.
This way, this way...
Danny floated over him, his wheels squealed a little past where he had wanted to touch down and immediately killed the throttle and braked. The plane slowed to a stop just before the edge of the runway. Danny and his Cessna stared across the vast ocean of green sawgrass stretching to the horizon.
Danny pulled the throttle to idle and as the prop fluttered and he kept his feet on the bottom of the rudder pedals to hold the brakes, he opened his door and leaned out to look behind him.
He stared down the airstrip to the other end. Nothing. No one.
What the fuck? Did the guy disappear into the tall grass surrounding the runway?
Did he jump into the canal of murky water bordering the end of the strip? No. Even a crazy person wasn’t crazy enough to walk into the weeds or the water in the Everglades. Just the thought of snakes and gators make Danny shudder.
The guy, wherever he was, whoever he was was screwing with him.
He slammed his door shut, gunned the engine a little enough to twist around and face the way he had just come. The little Cessna pointed in the opposite direction.
Danny pressed the button on his control wheel and talked into the mic attached to his headphones.
“Sawgrass traffic, Sawgrass traffic, Cessna Niner Juliet Tango. Westbound from Sawgrass airstrip, headed to the beach.” It didn’t hurt to warn anyone within five miles of here he was about to join them in the air.
Danny pushed the throttle in all the way and the Cessna responded. As the engine roared and the prop disappeared into a whir, the plane slowly rolled across the hot asphalt.
Danny glanced at his airspeed, watched the needle slowly crawl toward fifty five knots, rotated his wheel back and the little Cessna started to float off the ground.
The waving guy suddenly stood in front of Danny and the Cessna a hundred feet down the runway.
The waving guy smiled like he was Danny’s best friend.
Danny impulsively pulled the nose back as far as it would go. He knew pulling up so steeply was suicidal.
But Danny wasn’t thinking like a pilot. He was reacting like a startled deer crossing a highway with a freight truck bearing down on him.
The waving guy disappeared underneath the nose of the plane. Danny saw nothing but a beautiful blue sky in his windscreen. And then the nose of the Cessna plummeted and the blue changed to ancient grey asphalt.
The plane exploded. A huge, greasy ball of flame and black smoke mushroomed in the center of the runway and lifted a thousand feet into the air, the empty Florida sky smudged with oil and death.
It was a half hour before the first emergency copter made it to the lonely strip. The fire was smoldering, a tattoo of black where the remnants of the Cessna lay.
And as the emergency crew looked for survivors, looked for a spot to land safely enough away from the flame and heat, someone who hadn’t been there a second before was there to help them.
Danny stood at the edge of the runway, his arms like signal paddles above his head, waving, waving, smiling at the copter pilot, helping him to a safe landing.