My Solo Flight to Jal
t was a beautiful fall day in El Paso – perfect for my first cross-country solo flight. I had been taking flying lessons for quite a while, working up to this solo flight. The plane was a little 152 Cessna.
The first cautionary moment occurred when the plane’s engine wouldn’t turn over and they had to drive over and hook up a car battery to start it. I was so excited about getting started that I only worried for a moment about what would happen if it wouldn’t turn over after I had landed and was heading back to El Paso. But only for a moment and then I was off!
I had been out to Jal quite a few times to visit. This was the tiny town where El Paso Natural Gas Company started in 1929. Obviously, quite a few years before I first visited Jal.
Jal was a little bigger now, but not much. I studied the map and it looked like a straight shot from El Paso due east and then turn left at Wink. Jal was supposed to be easy to spot because there is a lake spelled out with the letters JAL.
The problem was that I missed Wink. Realizing my error, I turned north and ended up flying out over Hobbs. I was just glad nobody painted their street number on their driveway or I might have tried to land there.
Luckily, getting from Hobbs to Jal was a straight shot and I found the Jal airport and safely landed. There used to be someone assigned to the airport for incoming flights, but either because they didn’t know I was coming or they had been victim to one of the budget cuts, no one was there. So, I dutifully tied down the plane and took off down the road to Jal.
I must have looked a little strange trudging down the road, but typical of kind Texas people, a man stopped and was on his way to Monahans but offered to drop me off at Jal.
So there I was, walking into the office at Jal – much to everyone’s surprise. They immediately asked me how I had gotten there. At least I wasn’t wearing high heels like at my first job showing when I was assigned to the Midland office.
I actually did have some business to take care of, since we (Systems Engineering, Main Office) were working on computer simulations of the Permian Basin gathering systems. I did get some great maps of the gathering systems to take back with me.
They had told me that the man who had the key to the gas pump out at the airport was out in the field and was expected back soon. I was worried about being a little low on gas after taking the wandering, scenic route to get to Jal. This was before cell phones, so he had no way of knowing I was waiting. Soon enough, I realized that I had waited long enough and had better get going before it got dark. I had never flown at night before. So a couple of the men (I think they were curious about the whole odd situation) gave me a ride out to the airport. Hallelujah, the plane did start on its own (lower altitude probably helped).
But I realized that I didn’t have enough gas to get back to El Paso and the closest airport was at Monahans. “The Oasis of the West Texas Desert.” It lived up to its reputation that evening. The air flight school provided me with a credit card, I guess just in case. But after sitting on it in my back pocket all that time, the card had cracked in half. So there I was in Monahans with half a credit card. West Texas is a wonderful place and somehow I paid and filled up with gas and was ready to head home.
Luckily, I knew it was a straight shot west to get to El Paso, as long as I stayed higher than the mountains. As I got closer to El Paso, for the first time, I availed myself of admitting on the radio that I was a student pilot and had never flown in the dark before. Sure enough, the airstrip in El Paso was lit up like Christmas and I made it!
But I really got a scolding and was cautioned that if I ever did anything like that again, I would never get my pilot’s license. I found out later, that a lot of the consternation was due to the fact that the exterior lights were not working properly and the plane was never supposed to be flown at night.
Believe it or not, I did get my pilot’s license. But flying is a very expensive hobby and one I couldn’t afford. Much to the relief of all those people on the ground.
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