I was sitting in the coffee shop at Nassau International. I had just come from Dr. Paine’s office. The news wasn’t great. Blood pressure, blood sugar and triglycerides were all elevated. I’m sure EVA had nothing to do with it, but he had put me on the “anything you really want to eat, don’t eat it” diet. So, I was staring at a bowl of cottage cheese trying to use The Force to turn it into a plate of French fries. It wasn’t working. My iPhone started playing “The Flight of the Valkyries” and I had only assigned that ring tone to one number, Esmeralda, our dispatcher at King.
“Talk to me, darling”
“I have a flight for you, Senor.”
“Sorry, luv, we’re socked in here.”
“It is VIP Priority One, Senor,” she replied.
“Who is it? Trump?”
“It is Mrs. Cleenton.”
“Aw, come on. Tell me you’re just really bored and playing with the radio.”
“I sheet you not.”
“Do you really mean Hillary freakin’ Clinton, Secretary of State of the United States?”
“Tell them I was kidnapped by Al Qaeda.”
“Pappy won’t buy that.” The weather was absolutely terrible. Lighting flashed in the windows and thunder shook the building.
“What did I ever do to you?”
“Usted tiene mi condolencia, Senor.”
“Tell them to meet me at the hangar in 15 minutes.” There was only one plane that would do this job, the Beechcraft Duke with the turbine engine modification. I needed something with the muscle to get above the clouds quickly, and fight the wind shear if necessary. I called our crew chief, Oliver, and told him to ready the plane. He answered with something cute like, “It’s a nice plane to die in,” but I ignored him.
The secretary of state arrived promptly with her entourage of sycophants and security. One young security dude strode up to me and said, “I need to see your credentials and log books.”
I told him, “If you don’t want to be walking perimeter patrol at the embassy in Zimbabwe, you will get out of my face.” He stared at me for a minute, but I guess he decided I wasn’t bluffing and got lost. There had to be thirty people in the hangar. The Secretary walked up to me and extended her hand.
“I’m Hillary Clinton.”
“Syd Weedon. Pleased to meet you. This really isn’t a good night for flying, Ma’am.”
“I know that. Bill is in Key West, and we have a date.”
“I can only take you and four others.” She conferred with her chief of staff and selected her, the press secretary, a reporter from the Washington Post, and the young security dude who had demanded my credentials. I got them all loaded into the plane. Hillary insisted on sitting up front in the copilot seat because she "wanted to see.” I lit up the Duke. “Clearance, N85EG to Key West.”
“N85EG, cleared to Key West, contact ground when ready to taxi. We have severe weather to the northeast.” I made the necessary magical passes and in a few minutes we were sitting on Runway 14 ready to take off. “Ma’am, do you see those clouds up there with all of the lightning and stuff? They’re full of hail and wind shear. Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I read your CV,” the Secretary said. “Is there anywhere you haven’t flown?”
“Brooklyn, Ma’am. I’ve never flown in Brooklyn. All the rest of that stuff was just beginner’s luck.”
“Khe Sahn?” she asked.
“Especially, Khe Sahn.”
Tower broke in, “N85EG, cleared for takeoff.”
“Last chance, Ma’am – do you really want to do this?”
“Fly your plane, pilot.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” I went to 95% throttle and the Duke roared down the runway. The lightning looked like artillery in the clouds. The Duke surged into the air aggressively. I set the climb for 1600 fpm, conservative, but I couldn’t be sure of what was waiting for me in the clouds. Up through the crap we climbed. Suddenly hail was pelting the wings and windshield. I turned on the deicer equipment. A bolt of lightning flashed across the windscreen and I thought for sure we were hit, but none of the warnings lit up. We were at 12,000 in eight minutes and I set the autopilot and eased back in my seat. My shirt was wet under my jacket. The air was still rough as hell even though we were above the clouds. The Duke bounced around like a cork.
“You don’t like me very well, do you Captain,” the Secretary said.
“I like you just fine, Ma’am.”
“No really, I can tell. You didn’t salute when I walked up to the plane.”
“I’m Navy, Ma’am. I don’t know what the Air Force does.”
“The Marines on the helicopter salute.”
“Yes, Ma’am. They are guards. The pilots are too busy for formalities. Is there a point to this?”
“I want to know what you’re thinking.”
“I flew contract cargo into Mogadishu in ’92 for the Marines. I’m not your husband’s greatest fan.”
“Oh, I see. But what does that have to do with me? I wasn’t president.”
“You were there. You were part of it. You guys wouldn’t send in adequate firepower because you didn’t want to ‘militarize the situation.’ Good men died for nothing.”
“We were new. We didn’t know…”
“Ma’am, for the sake of yourself and everyone else on this plane, just let me get us through this storm. What’s done is done. You can’t bring them back.”
“Does this plane always bounce around like this?”
“Only when the weather is really dangerous. I tried to warn you.”
“You guys don’t forget, do you,” she said.
“That’s not in the manual, Ma’am.” The weather was bad. It was like bouncing down a dirt road in a ’48 Chevy pickup. The secretary was pale, if not a little bit green. Miami Center began talking us down. I really didn’t like the idea of descending back into those clouds, but the Earth was down there someplace, and we had to find it. We broke below the ceiling at 2,500 feet and I could see Key West on the horizon. Center handed us off to Key West. “N85EG, cleared to land.”
“N85EG cleared to land.” I put down the gear and went to 10 degrees of flaps. RPM’s up, throttle down. The Duke was wonderfully solid, even in the lousy conditions.
“You guys have to learn to forgive us someday,” the Secretary said.
“I’ll work on that, Ma’am. Are you buckled up?” I lined up the Duke on the runway and reduced throttle even more. Twenty degrees of flaps. At ninety knots the plane settled onto the runway with an authoritative “clank.” It wasn’t necessary to use the thrust reversers. The plane coasted to a stop and I turned onto the taxiway. I drove to Gate 5. I shut down the engines, went back, opened the door, and stepped out to help people out of the plane. There was a long, black limo sitting on the tarmac. A rear window rolled down and I could see Bill Clinton’s face in the window. I didn’t salute him either.