Sunday, August 12, 2012

Flying Lessons

Sitting in the left seat the cockpit of the Cessna 150, engine running brakes on, going through the instrument check, carefully, thoroughly, anticipating what was about to happen, the tiniest bit of apprehension crawling up my neck was the only sign of concern, and I hoped it wasn’t obvious.

Engine check complete, carburetor heat set, wheel chocks pulled, I slowly taxied toward the end of the runway.

What was I thinking when I came here today? Why am I nervous?  I had planned this for a long time. Ever since my days as an air traffic controller in the United States Air Force I had dreamed of being in the left seat, the pilots seat, the Aircraft Commander’s seat… confidently piloting an aircraft on some type of mission. I had just wanted that feeling of power and of freedom and boundless vistas as the U. S. Air Force song boldly states “Off we go into the wild blue yonder, flying high into the sky.”

But now, approaching the end of the runway in an airframe substantially less structurally sound, I feared, than a USAF F102 Delta Dagger, which had been the object of my dreams,  I'm sitting in a Cessna 150, an old two-seater that looks like it may have been through the war itself. This is to be my first flight and the na├»ve flight instructor put me in the left seat, the pilot seat, while he took a position in the passenger seat. Something is all wrong with this picture.

I taxied into position and lined up with the runway. The instructor, Gary, said after the very briefest instructions on takeoff procedure said,  “Okay Chief, it's all yours, let’s take off.” ‘Good Grief', I'm thinking, 'he knows this is my first flight, how can I operate this thing?’ But in the spirit of blind resolve and of fearless airmen everywhere I pushed the throttle forward and went careening down the runway.

I actually made it through that first day. Gary was a terrific flight instructor and was patient with my learning abilities. Over the next few weeks we practiced many maneuvers including putting the airplane into a stall until it started falling out of the sky, which I thought was rather a foolish requirement. But we survived all this until… the lesson to beat all lessons.

On this day we were flying over the southern Ohio countryside when Gary pulled back the throttle to idle and told me we had just lost power and I had best find a place to land.

Now as even beginning pilots are taught to do, I had been looking around for potential landing spots. It’s just something you do in the event that you suddenly need to set down in a hurry.  I picked out a farmer's field and started heading in that direction, with no power of course, gently gliding down, playing Gary’s silly game and confident that he would say, “Okay, good job!!’ before we got much lower.   As the plane lost altitude I was lining up with the field but as we got closer I could see that it had been roughly plowed. I didn't like the thought of the wheels hitting the rough dirt so I made a slight turn towards the farmers yard.

As we continued to descend  I kept saying "Okay now?"... "Okay now?"... "Okay now?" hoping he would throw in the towel.   He was unyielding and continued to hold the throttle back at idle.   As we approached the farmer's house and the sweeping lawn in the front of the house I noticed there were power lines in our approach path so I told Gary, with one last hope of getting out of this predicament, “If I'm really going to land in this yard I would have to put on flaps at this point to clear those wires and proceed in at low-speed.

He said “Well you lost power so do whatever you need to do.”  I put the landing flaps down when I could see that he wasn't going to give up and we were actually going to land.  I steeled myself as we went over the wires and plopped down on the farmer's grassy lawn. A really great landing on grass which was a first for me!!  I was really excited. 

We had almost reached the farmer's house by the time I could get the plane stopped. I thought maybe the house belonged to one of Gary’s friends and that he might want to jump out and say hello.  I turned to Gary,  "Okay what do we do now?" He said, "Well I suggest we get the heck out of here as fast as we can before the farmer comes out of the house!!"    I turned the plane around,  set flaps for short field takeoff so we could get back over the wires, jammed the throttle to the firewall  and took off in a cloud of grass and clover.

Somehow I survived  this and other exciting incidents and learned more valuable lessons on subsequent outings as I flew along without an instructor, having been checked out to fly alone.   A good example of a bad example is about not flying too close to an Air Force Base.  Fighter pilots seem to  love to scare inexperienced light plane pilots by flying so close in front of you that your windshield is filled with fighter plane and you can read the pilot's name on the flight helmet.  At least the pilots of this flight of  two F100s out of Wright Patterson Air Force Base seemed to enjoy it.   It was frightening, although this incident did result in aviation records being set as I managed to climb, descend, turn left and turn right all at the same time.

Still shaking after my close encounter, it's a quick flight back to the airport with tail between my legs to make a proper landing on a real runway, to relax and update my Pilot’s Log.  

 Another great day of flying. 


kevin said...

Dad, Loved this story, for obvious reasons! One of the main reasons I wanted to get my pilots license was so that we could fly together. I hope one day you will brave the skies with me.
The main reason I became interested in airplanes and aviation is because of your cool stories of your air traffic control days in Miss. and Tulee Greenland. And also because every time a plane flew overhead you would identify it and tell me something cool about it.
You are my Hero!!!! Keep em coming

Patrick Collins said...

Keep 'em flying Chief!!! Proud of you and your success at becoming a great pilot!!!