A Tribute

 To Paul Cass - CFII
 Certified Flight Instructor +Instrument
 1961.08.23 - 2022.12.09
in memoriam

One random Tuesday last June, I opened an email and fell back in my chair. A helicopter company needed a pilot to deliver an aircraft from Knoxville, Tennessee to Los Angeles clear across the USA. "Are you interested?"

"Are you kidding?"

Almost exactly the same distance from Chicago to LA, I needed to bring a safety pilot. So I presented the proposal to my flight instructor, and Paul was all over it. We both committed on the spot, but I was inclined to inject a tiny condition.

Always wanted to visit Monument Valley, Arizona. Having only seen it in films and old Road Runner cartoons, I asked if there was any chance they might permit us to go off course, and somehow bake it into the flight plan.

"WHAT?! WHY???"

"For no particular reason, I want to set the helicopter down in the spot where Forrest Gump stopped running."

[ He couldn't contain his laughter. ]

"That's a real place? It's the desert, man. The middle of nowhere.
In some places, it even looks like Mars. How will you ever find it?"

"It's not Mars, and it's not nowhere.
It's right here on Earth: 37°06'09.5″N 109°59'21.1″W"

And then I showed him the scene . . .

"You're serious. Okay then, your job is to navigate from Tennessee - on Earth - to Forrest Gump spot. And my job is to make sure you do your job. No GPS for you. No smartphone. No iPad. No internet. Just pencil, paper, your plotter, a compass and an E6-B analog flight calculator. I want you to plan and fly it like it's the 1930s."

Old school! I like it.
"Roger, wilco."

And then reality hit.
I'm going to fly a helicopter across the United States.


Early July, Tennessee was an inhumane 41°C with humidex. A full frontal face slap of jungle heat. We met on the field at 7AM. So muggy, I was sweating through my flight suit like a pudding at a picnic.

"You preflight the helicopter, and I'll watch you." Paul ordered.
"...then we'll make a couple of patterns before we go".

Once the aircraft was prepped, I stepped into character.
"Welcome aboard KissTheWind semi-trans-continental flight number . . . one. This is your captain speaking. We are pleased to offer a non-smoking environment. Your in-flight movie will be nature's beautiful work. We will be cruising at an altitude of"

Rolling his eyes, he folded his arms.
"Are you done?"

"Just getting started. We are pleased to offer non-non-stop service to Knoxville - The Mississippi River - Tulsa, Oklahoma - Canadian, Texas - Colorado - Santa Fe, New Mexico - Durango - Monument Valley - Forrest Gump spot - John Ford Point - Page, Arizona - A fly-by of Horseshoe Bend in The Grand Canyon - Las Vegas North - and finally, Los Angeles California. Distance today is 601 nautical miles heading 282 en route to Tulsa, and we are expected to touch down in Los Angeles in 4 days for a total distance of 1886 nautical miles, or 2,170 statute miles as the crow flies - excluding scenic deviations. Flight time today is an expected 6 hours maintaining 100 knots."

"And what kind of airspace are we in?"

"Untowered Golf. Sky clear. Lightly scattered at two-eight. Visibility 10. Winds calm. Altimeter 3001."

"Did your homework. I'm impressed."

"Well, looks aren't everything, you know."

"HA! You never said you were funny.
Okay, that's enough. Take me to Forrest Gump spot. If it even exists."

And so, we set out on an adventure. The soundtrack playing in my head was the theme to Indiana Jones. After two quick fuel stops, when we finally landed in Tulsa for an overnight, my flight suit was a wet potato sack, and I was the wet potato.

So hot and thirsty, would have given my right arm for an ice water - right now. Jet Center reception smiled and gave me three of THE best ice waters I ever had in my life.

"Don't move. You should have a picture of this.

"It's pretty dark. Can you even see anything?"

"I can even see your wings."


Our next leg would be 498 miles to Santa Fe, New Mexico. A refuelling in Texas was in order, and it really was "the middle of nowhere". Nobody on the field. Not a soul in sight, the place didn't even have a pulse. A dormant Vanti Piaggio rested on the taxiway, with two unfriendly rain clouds in the distance.

A little shack marked "pilot lounge" was shelter from the sun, so I headed inside while Paul refuelled. They had a small fridge, a rotary phone, a map tacked to the plywood walls, not much else, and it smelled frozen in time since 1945. To my surprise, I woke a pilot from his power nap. Equally stunned to see another human being, he sat up suddenly uncertain if minutes or years had passed.

"I am from Earth in the year 2022. When are you from?"
We had a good laugh and chatted about his plane.

With a Hammerhead Concorde nose, aft-facing propellers and military spec landing gear, I simply had to get a photo with this banana looking thing. So Paul snapped a poster shot a minute before we bolted.

We had better get going before those clouds get in our way. Otherwise, weather was no factor, and just when I had commented on being fortunate that way, things were about to get interesting.

90 Minutes later, we set down for a break to top off the tanks. This time, we were greeted by a full-service station. How nice. People waved us in. Coffee waiting and everything. The attendant was, like, 300 years old, and the atmosphere appeared family-owned for generations. A pilot at one time, his collection of aviation doo-dads in the hanger was staggering. I looked him up and down like he was some kind of Yoda.

And then he spoke.
"Lost a fuel cap, you did."


"Actually, it looks like y'all lost both of 'em."

Paul was gutted. Entirely speechless. He looked up at the sky as if he prayed for the ground to open up and swallow him whole.

Although I was the pilot in command, by official regulations, he was ultimately responsible for the aircraft - and me. The man was so embarrassed and furious with himself, I thought he was going to break.

[ How the hell do two pilots not notice both fuel caps are missing? ]

Except, they weren't missing. He left them at the last filling station - laying on the pump 100 miles ago. And after flying 1000 miles already, "100 miles ago" felt more like "last week". Everyone has put a coffee / groceries on the roof of their car and driven off like a bonehead at least once in their lives, but Paul wasn't about to forgive himself today.

"OK, stop. I can't let you shoulder this yourself. I shouldn't have turned the key until I physically touched the fuel caps myself. I'm gonna fix this right now."

"You can't. This is all on me." he mumbled, all deflated.

So I whipped out my phone like it was Captain Kirk's communicator. Spoke to Robinson like they were Scottie in the engine room and I need warp drive in 30 seconds or we're all dead.

"Hello Robinson Helicopters? Yes, we're ferrying an R44 across the country right now, and we need two fuel caps in a right quick hurry. Painted canary yellow. Tail number 488 Juliet Bravo. Currently in Texas, we expect to arrive in LA in three days or less. No shipping. I'll personally drive down to pick them up from your factory. Can you make it happen? It's a matter of urgency."

Kirk always attacked a problem like he was going to kill it and eat it, so why wouldn't I do the same?

"Impossible, captain!
It's going to take at least 12-15 days!!
But we'll try to do it for you in 3."

[To under-promise and over-deliver, Mr. Scott often multiplied his estimates by a factor of five.]

"Kiss, out."

We shook hands, and Paul called the client with a full confession and a prepared solution. They weren't even angry. Everything in persective, this is a 2200-mile trek across some serious terrain. If leaving a couple of fuel caps behind is the worst of it, we're doing rather well.

Yoda tossed us a roll of heavy-duty duct tape which functioned just fine as fuel caps, so we sealed them tightly, and were off to Santa Fe.


After a terrfic hotel breakfast with waffles and extra bacon, today I was going to finally see Monument Valley. We met in the lobby and discussed the plan over coffee. Skids up by 8AM, Paul intended to spring a surprise lesson on me.

Once we were airborne, it wasn't long before he took the controls and asked me to show him where we are on the chart.

"Where's the nearest airport?"

"LAM at nine o-clock. Elevation, 7,171 feet."

"What's it called?"

"Los Alamos. Wait, is that the very same Los Alamos where they built the first atomic bomb?
Oh man, we gotta go there."

"Alright. You have the controls."

"I have the controls!"

"Today, you're going to do some high density altitude flying, and you're going to notice a difference. You will have a harder time hovering, so don't fly in too confidently. The air is thinner up here, and the bird will behave like it would at 11,000 feet. We're going to practice running take-offs."

"You mean running landings."

"No, I mean running take-offs."

"Really? I've never performed one."

"I know. That's why you're going to learn it today. I have the radio. Just make your approach nice and shallow."

Like a bumble bee on an elephant's back, we perched for a couple of minutes smack in the middle of the runway. Paul pointed out a discrete road on a ledge which is how the military got up here, spoke about the history of Los Alamos, and it occured to me that he planned this whole detour without my knowledge. What a sport. Without him, I would have flown past it and not realized until much later what I had missed.

"OK, I want you to get light on the skids, and lean the helicopter forward. Like leaning forward on your toes. Keep the curve of the skids in contact with the ground. And don't pick her up. Just easy foward cyclic. The helicopter is going to inch forward, and you maintain that posture. When she starts to pull you forward, hold it. Let the skids scrape the runway. When you reach ETL, don't think of lifting it up. Think of letting the ground fall away from you. Understand?"

And just like that, I performed a running take-off at Los Alamos, New Mexico, which would forever be etched in my flight log. Today was already legendary as far as I was concerned, and it wasn't even 9AM.

"Show me that wasn't lucky and let's do it again."

- -

After a fuel stop in Durango, the landscape noticably changed. Canyons and cracks with dramatic elevation shifts, it was like the planet surface was scarred across a vast area. Not your basic mountains and hills. Bizzarre colors, odd formations, enormous broken pieces of crust and massive rocks laying around - like Earth was punched in the face a million years ago.

.... and then the altimeter read just over 10,000 FT MSL. With a density factor of 3,800 today, it's like flying at 14,000 DA - the helicopter's official and documented allowable limit.

"Congratulations." Paul blurted out.
"You're now flying an R44 higher than most ever will."

"So, if I were to climb another 200 FT, what happens? Do we fall out of the sky??"

"Eventually, the air becomes too thin to give this helicopter any more lift. Pulling more power will be useless. It may even be able to climb up to 15,000 DA or even higher, but once you exceed 14,000, you become a test pilot. Do you feel like being a test pilot today?"

"Not especially."

"Then keep it where it is. We're only going to be up here a couple of minutes, but you should definitely take a picture of the altimeter, or nobody will believe you."

Suddenly, everything around us started to look a little like Mars. Alien, but strangely familiar, we were getting close to Monument Valley. General direction on the compass, we roamed a little and allowed ourselves to discover it as if by accident.

"Paul, do you want to fly? Your controls?"

The question spun his head around. "Are you SURE??"

"Just taking it all in. This is wild. Have some fun. SELL it to me."

"Thanks! I have the controls!"

I could tell he really wanted to, but he was too polite to ask. After all, it was my crazy idea to come here, and I knew he would give me the tour of a lifetime. So he dipped, orbitted, made a 360, and flew like a mosquito navigating a set of bowling pins. For the next little while, he was perfectly content to be Chewbacca.

With no city blocks to judge distance and scale, I estimated John Ford Point to be 3-5 miles West-Southwest from Forrest Gump spot, and we found it easily. About ten tiny tourists waved from the ledge.

We orbitted a wide open space nearby where Back To The Future - Part III was filmed. I felt like an excited 14 year-old spotting the drive-in movie theatre location, and I described Marty McFly getting chased by Indians in the DeLorean Time Machine after traveling back to the Old West in 1885.

Amused by my enthusiasm, Paul couldn't resist making a joke.
"I think the altitude might be getting to you. Are your fingers turning blue?"

"You never said you were funny."

"Well . . . looks aren't everything, you know."

Could have explored this area all day - and the next day - but we had fuel to consider, and we needed to get to Page before sunset. VFR all the way, we definitely wouldn't want to get stuck in the desert at night. Not even an illuminated freeway to follow.

Paul didn't really understand my fascination with it. Not sure I did, either. When he asked, I couldn't even articulate why I tend to gravitate to the desert. A car is the only indicator of what century you're in. There's just something peaceful and timeless about it. And that was a good enough answer for him.

As we cleared out to the West, I verbally committed to returning some day.

Touched down in Page well before sunset, we met later for Mexican dinner. Talapia filet and a bottomless gallon of fresh watermelon juice. Tomorrow was going to be our last day. My job was to get us from Page, Arizona, to Las Vegas, Nevada - where Paul told me I could now relax.

Relax? Los Angeles [KLAX] is Bravo airspace. The fourth busiest in the world. Clear one airspace, and you're immediately switching frequencies to get cleared through another. If anything, I figured the last 3 days was the relaxing part.

"But what about... didn't you say... how will we... what are you talking about?"

He already had a diversion planned out on his phone. "I thought you might like to explore Lake Powell and get a look at the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Salt Lake Saline / Valley sits way above, with these mysterious Sailing Stones."

"I've heard of that! Rocks that leave trails in the sand like snails. Until very recently, nobody knew how they move. Are we really going there? It would be impolite to tease."

"You just Kiss The Wind, and I'll direct you. We'll take off and fly by horsehoe bend in the Grand Canyon, pass over the top of it, and go straight to Las Vegas North - remaining out of Las Vegas Bravo. No time for a Cirque De Soliel show, either. We'll refuel, lunch, and be gone. Pass over Death Valley, tour Lake Powell, see the Sailing Stones, and then it's a 6,000 ft drop to Lone Pine. We refuel, take a break ... and make a straight line south to LA. Sound good?"


I could tell he was familiar with the area from a while back. Checked his phone and references only to verify. He pointed out markings and spoke about them like someone who shows you around their neighborhood.

Literally "out of the blue" and without warning, he ambushed me with another lesson. Basic math is much harder at 10,000 feet, and while I could quote parts of the aircraft handbook verbatim, he forced me think about what the numbers actually mean. Intimidating, to say the least:

"Now you'll need to make a 6,000 foot descent to Lone Pine. Do you want to do an auto-rotation here?"

"NO. WAY."

"An engine failure doesn't ask for permission. I was being nice. But if you had an engine failure here, what's the minimum rate of descent for this helicopter?"

"Glide ratio is about 4-to-1, or one nautical mile per 1500 feet AGL. Minimum rate of descent is about 1350 feet per minute."

"Very good! So how long will it take to land if you auto-rotate 6,000 feet?"

"Just over 4 minutes."

"And how far can you glide from up here?"

"Maximum glide is... I think, 1 nautical mile per 1,300 feet... so.... gosh.... um... 4.6 nautical miles. Or almost exactly 5 statute miles."

"You're smarter than you look."

Before I could laugh, we had a stubborn crosswind from the south at 22 knots. Definitely stronger than I'd prefer.

"The wind is your friend. Make it work for you. Let it carry you North a bit, and then head straignt into it as you approach runway 16. You don't want to be fighting this crosswind all the way down."

Goood tip! But once we were down, I needed to hover Westward some 400 feet from the runway to get fuel.
"This wind is nasty. Do you want to help me here Paul?"

"It would help you to pretend I'm not here. You need fuel. Deal with it." - turned his head away and gazed out his window, more entertained by a dancing blade of grass than my silly struggle.

So I used "The Force" and remained facing the wind - slowly crabbing sideways all the way to the pump. There were obstructions, trailers, a service hangar and a couple of small houses around. I needed to get closer, but the wind was really pissing me off now. Like Taming of the Shrew, I must have burned 2 gallons just trying to settle her down.

"You don't have to like it. You just have to do it.
. . . aaaaaaaand there you go. Good job."

After shutdown, a pair of rabbits hopped out to greet us.

Directly magnetic south into the night, we arrived in Los Angeles just after civil twilight. Completely surreal, the heavy marine layer curtained the shore, while the inland grid was wildly illuminated and crystal clear forever. Too intently focussed on air traffic and communications to even think about taking a photo in this airspace, the memory and description will have to do.

As we made the final approach at HHR, I got a lump in my throat.
"How am I ever gonna beat this?"

The dream was now real.

Next morning, I picked up two custom-painted, canary yellow fuel caps from the Robinson helicopter factory. Didn't even care what they cost. Bashfully presented them in a box virtually on my knees, and the story generated some hearty har-hars.

Paul continued with my instruction for another month, but he had to leave on a mission and an exciting new opportunity that came along.

Fast forward a few months, and it's almost Christmas, 2022. The phone rang, and it was my first heli instructor - who was away on a mission inspecting power lines in New York state, Kansas and elsewhere. Was thrilled to hear from him in a while.

"I don't quite know how to tell you this.
Paul unexpectedly passed away."

Head scrambled trying to process the news, I hadn't known him longer than roughly 70 hours of ground and flight instruction. It occurred to me I was one of his last students, and I couldn't help but think of what Forrest Gump would say:

"And just like that.
Paul's flyin' days was over."

The next time I find myself arguing with the wind,
I won't pretend he's not here.
I'll pretend that he is.

"The wind is your friend.", he often said.
"Face it whenever you can."

That also translates to life, by the way.
However tempestuous and turbulent,
You need face fear and adversity head on,
Because that's what gives you lift.

- Kiss The Wind

Presented with enormous gratitude
to all involved.

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