Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

An Old Murder

31 years ago, before I had acquired a mortgage to suck up all my discretionary income, I decided to take pilot training. Even tho I’m scared stiff of heights, for some odd reason (no doubt dealing with the way the brain perceives danger) being up in a plane has never triggered my acrophobia. And I thot it would be a way cool thing to do.

So I signed up for the ground-school course thru Madison Area Technical College, where you get all the book larnin’ about weather and radar and FAA regs and so on. And, after a couple of weeks of that, I nipped out to the Madison airport to sign up for flight training.

Madison had 2 FBOs (fixed-based operators) at the time, and I ended up — for no particular reason that I can recall — at Frickelton Aero, crusty, gimpy old Claude Frickelton, original barnstormer, proprietor. They were the Cessna (top-wing) FBO; the other place had bottom-wing Piper Cubs.

I planked my money on the line, and they assigned me to CFI (certified flight instructor) Jean Zapata.

I spent many hours in the cockpit of a C100 (2-seater) with Jean providing me with instruction and no little reassurance. I was a nervous student, always afraid that I was gonna do something wrong and get us both killed. Not particularly helping the situation was the phrase she kept repeating: “Fly the plane into the ground.“ The idea she was trying to convey is that you don’t just drop out of the sky; you’re still actively engaged in flying even as the wheels touch down. This conjured up the wrong image for me, tho, and I finally suggested that maybe a slightly less intimidating version of it would be “Fly the plane onto the ground.“

One day, after about the dozenth time when I chickened out as I was on final approach and asked her to take the instructor’s stick for the touch-and-go, she said “Watch this” and proceeded to bounce the plane (fairly hard) about 5 or 6 times off the runway before getting us airborne again. More than anything else, that reassured me that the plane was pretty hardy, and that nothing I was likely to do would abuse it as much as she just had.

With that experience under my belt, I proceeded to land the plane with assurance thereafter. (Turned out to be somewhat easier than parallel parking, actually.)

Later in my training, I decided it would be a good idea to get in a little practice with a slightly bigger plane, a C150 4-seater. Now, it turns out that there’s nothing particularly different about flying the larger plane compared to the C100 (except that you’re burning more fuel) unless you’ve got some passengers in the back seat to give you a different sense of the load-and-balance requirements.

So I invited a couple of my science-fiction friends to go along for the ride, thinking they’d have fun and I’d get the feel of the bigger, heavier plane. (Turns out that, even tho the 150 had a more powerful engine, the added weight meant that it didn’t go any faster or climb any more quickly.)

We headed out from Truax Field (now the Dane County Regional Airport) and headed for the student-practice area over Lake Wisconsin, which is right in the V formed by the 2 major flyways coming in to Madison from the north. I was focussed on the plane and what I was supposed to be learning, so it didn’t dawn on me to explain to my passengers what was going on when Jean said “OK, now let’s practice some stalls.”

This is an absolutely routine thing that student pilots do all the time to prepare for engine flame-outs or other Bad Things. You learn that you still have a lot of flyability even in a disabled aircraft. To practice for these things, you throttle back and gradually bring the nose of the plane up until you lose lift (because the undersides, more than the leading edges, of the wings are pushing into the air ahead of you). Shortly before that point, the stall-warning horn goes off. But you keep nosing up a little more until you do in fact stall (which, translated, means “come to a dead halt in the air”). At that point, the nose gives a little shimmy and heads back down. The student’s job is to control the descent, provide a gradual increase in power, and level out without losing more than 200 feet in altitude. I’d done this scores of times in the little plane.

Of course, my passengers weren’t aware of this, since I hadn’t thot to explain it in advance. While they avoided shrieking in dismay (or involuntarily excreting bodily wastes) at the time, they assured me afterwards that they were convinced that it was all over and they should have put their affairs in order before ever agreeing to go up with me.

Jean got a good chuckle out of that. Apparently she’d seen it happen before but figured it would just ruin a good story if she warned us ahead of time.

As you get more practice at flying with an instructor, they eventually let you solo. At first, you just stick around near the airport and the practice area, doing touch-and-goes and practicing navigation with familiar landmarks and VOR and radar sites. But, after that starts getting boring (and/or you start getting good at it), they send you on cross-country trips to other airports.

The instructor usually goes along on the 1st one of these to introduce you to the idea of what it looks like to come into a different field with different configurations, different voices on the radio, different ground-taxi instructions, etc., but these are largely just variations on a theme the student’s already familiar with, so after that 1st trip you get to plan and execute your own cross-countries.

As I finished up one of these one week, Jean said “OK, next week come in and file a flight plan for a cross-country to Oshkosh.” (That’s an airport about 60 miles northeast of Madison, an easy flight over and back.)

The following week, I was doing exactly that (checking the weather and laying out the route) when one of the other CFIs came in, glanced over my shoulder at what I was doing, and casually remarked, “Ah, going up to the fly-in, I see.”

”What!?” I practically shrieked. “You mean that’s this weekend?”

Every year, for about a week, Wittman Field in Oshkosh is the busiest airport in the world, as all manner of aircraft fly in from literally all over the globe for the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual fly-in. It’s the Super Bowl for the FAA’s air-traffic controllers, and only the very best get assigned to it. There are often 50 airplanes being handled by approach control at one time, and a standard instruction to someone calling ahead for permission to land is the telegraphic (but usually sufficient) “Head for Omro and get in line.”. It’s not unusual to have a tiny little garage-built kit plane in line ahead of a high-powered commercial plane whose stall speed is higher than the home-built’s top airspeed. In situations like this, the following plane has to do 360s to hold its place in line.

This is, needless to say, the last place in the world where you’d send a student pilot.

When Jean came in, somewhat excited, in time for our pre-flight briefing and asked “Did I tell you to file for Oshkosh this week?”, I assured her that I was already on top of it and showed her my flight plan for LaCrosse, all the way on the other side of the state. She allowed as how there might be hope for me after all.

About the only personal conversation I had with her was about her last name, Zapata. I inquired if she was any relation to the famous Mexican bandito. She said that they preferred to think of Emiliano as a patriotic freedom fighter, and I said I’d go brush up a little bit on my history.

One day I showed up for my regular lesson, and they assigned me to a different instructor. “Where’s Jean?”, I asked. “Jean left.”, was all they said. Nobody really knew why. They knew she’d been having domestic problems, and the leading school of thot at Frickelton was that she was just taking some time away from it all, tho they thot it was odd that she hadn’t let them know in advance that she’d be doing it, since she was usually diligent about keeping her scheduled appointments. But they all knew she’d been stressed out, and they figured maybe this was just her way of handling it.

She wasn’t there the next week, either, nor the week after, and the conclusion everyone came to was that she had just decided to make a clean break and cut out without telling anyone where she was going, so her husband couldn’t track her down.

I got my ticket under the watchful eye of Claude Frickelton himself and enjoyed a short career as a private pilot before the aforementioned mortgage came along and I had to give up flying.

In the years since then, I occasionally wondered what ever became of Jean.

This last week I finally found out. The Dane County DA re-opened the case of her disappearance and summoned her ex-husband Eugene back from California to stand trial for her 1st-degree murder. The 1st trial ended in a hung jury, due largely to the fact that all the prosecution had was circumstantial evidence, but the DA was headed back for a 2nd trial when a plea agreement was reached. Eugene would plead no contest to a charge of unintentional homicide in return for describing what had actually happened.

As the story came out, he and Jean had been going thru an acrimonious divorce, and he stopped by her place after she’d shipped the kids off to school. They got into a ferocious argument and he lost his temper, picked up a paperweight, and brained her with it. Then, while she was down, he strangled her — first with his hands, then for good measure with an electrical cord — until he was sure she was dead.

The macabre part was that he kept moving her body around from place to place until he finally moved to California about a decade ago. At that point, he dug it up again, dismembered it, put the parts into separate bags, and dropped it into a landfill (whence authorities were unable to recover it, tho I can’t imagine that they had much incentive to try very hard).

He’s going to get a maximum of 5 years for this, except that, under terms of Wisconsin law that was in place at the time of the murder, he only has to serve 2/3 of the sentence, so he’ll be out in under 4 (actually less than 3, given that he’s been credited for time already spent in the county jail).

I guess I’m glad to know, finally, what really happened. But how sad. I’d been hoping all these years that Jean had in fact managed to find a new, nicer life somewhere. She was a good person and deserved so much better than this.

And Eugene deserves so much worse.

The price we pay for closure.


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