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The Paper Towel Pilot

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The Paper Towel Pilot


Jimmy Reed

Jimmy Reed (jimmycecilreedjr@gmail.com) is an Oxford, Mississippi resident, Ole Miss alumnus, Army veteran, former Mississippi Delta cotton farmer, and retired college teacher. His collection of short stories is available via southernstories.com.

My Piper Cub airplane was due for an airworthiness inspection at a large airport, but since the little airplane had no radio equipment, I called the control tower and requested permission to fly in from a nearby crop duster’s strip.

The controller assigned an arrival time and said that he would blink a green light if I was clear to land. What should have been a routine procedure turned out to be one of the most bizarre incidents in my flying career.

Since the day was warm, I locked the airplane’s doors in the open position and strapped myself into the rear seat. Directly behind my head in the cargo area, I had stuffed three large bundles of paper towels, the kind that overlap so that when one is pulled from a dispenser, the next one is available.

At one thousand feet I entered the airport traffic pattern. Just as I received the controller’s signal, I became engulfed in a fluttering, flapping kaleidoscopic blur, as thousands of paper towels were sucked into a swirling vortex inside the cockpit, created by the slipstream rushing past the open doors.

They swirled around me — sticking to my face, the windshield, and the instrument panel, while others were sucked into the slipstream, leaving a trail of fluttering flotsam floating behind.

Every time I clawed towels from my face others replaced them. I was flying blind! Panicking, I leaned out into the slipstream of the wobbling, diving aircraft, hoping the wind would clear the towels from my face long enough to see something recognizable.

With half my body hanging out of the airplane, I glimpsed a familiar landmark and turned to what I hoped was ninety degrees to the runway. Still I knew that aligning with it for final approach would be a wild guess since towels covering the windshield blocked all view to the front.

As the little yellow bird descended, I searched for any indication that it was time to begin final approach. With no alternative but seat-of-the-pants guessing, I turned, cut the throttle, and glided down to what I hoped would be a concrete slab, not a muddy cotton field.

With a sigh of relief, I saw the runway numbers. Gently, the wheels touched pavement and the Cub rolled to a stop.

Just as I killed the engine, a stern-faced man stepped out of an airport security vehicle and told me to report to the control tower immediately. That’s it, I thought. My pilot’s license will be jerked.

Once in the tower, I noticed the controllers were struggling to maintain their composure. Finally, one of them asked, “What was all that debris you jettisoned from your aircraft?”

After my explanation, restrained silence gave way to guffaws.

“Son, we thought we had seen it all, but that takes the cake. We’ll let you off this time, but from now on, when you call to land at this airport, we’ll know who you are if you just identify yourself as the paper towel pilot.”

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