Those are not the words you want to hear at 4,500 feet, right around sunset in unfamiliar territory. They came from my nine year old son, Dan, back in mid-May of 1978. We were on our way in a Cessna 172 from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Hanscom Field, just outside of Boston.
They elected to make the first pass quite dramatic by keeping their speed high as they approached from the north. Ray leveled out at exactly 8,200 feet and aimed straight at the peak; Chug’s camera was rolling. In what they both said was a very sudden, terrifying moment, the airplane kicked to the left in a yaw condition then hit some moderate turbulence, and then they were looking only yards ahead at the radio tower on the peak of Highwood Baldy, well above their altitude.
Without any electronic gear onboard to warn us of active SAM sites, there was no way for us to know that at that very moment a Soviet-built SA-2 missile was streaking its way towards our Phantom from directly behind us, “Dead 6 o’clock,” in fighter pilot lingo. Just as the original lead aircraft rolled back to a wings-level position a mile to our left and reacquired us visually, the SAM struck our F-4 too late to shout a warning.
Several contributors have reminisced about experiences in commercial or military aircraft that meant a great deal to them, but which, because of later security issues, could not happen again. One of the most common experiences described is the in-flight cockpit visit. I have had two such visits that come to mind often with pleasant nostalgia.
This is no way to begin a trip and I knew it. What if I lose an engine on takeoff tonight in this crud? Nothing like the real thing to test a pilot! Every pilot will tell you there is a big difference between engine-out flying during training or a check ride, and engine-out flying for real. But how will I do if it happens tonight?
There are a lot of benefits accrued through the building of an airplane, and one of the longer lasting is the friendships built in concert with the plane itself. In the case of any airplane in the Van’s Aircraft fleet, this is even more common due to the popularity of the designs. In my case, I was building an RV-12, which is probably the fastest selling model in the fleet.
On August 22, 2008, I finally achieved a lifelong dream: I flew a Spitfire 1X two-seater PT462. For many years, I have been trying to arrange a flight in a two-seater but, so many times, weather or aircraft serviceability caused cancelation. Finally, it was all arranged and off I went to North Wales with my friend Peter Holland driving.
Among the hundreds of flights in my logbook, there are three flights, and a memory of my first airplane ride with my dad, that define my love for aviation and are the DNA of my flying soul. As I have I have gotten older, I’ve come to understand how these four flights, spread out over 30 years have given me the love that I have for flying, and appreciation for the opportunity to have shared it with my parents.
We heard an aircraft on the frequency report the loss of an engine. It first sounded as though the flight crew was reporting the loss of an engine’s thrust… but further transmissions revealed that engine had been torn from the aircraft wing! Shortly thereafter another airliner reported a turbulence-induced injury to a flight attendant. The controller was suddenly very busy.
Sunday June 5th, tropical storm Colin suddenly popped up in the Gulf of Mexico. Hoping it would die out or veer away from Florida, I got up at 4 a.m. Monday morning to get a weather briefing for our proposed 6 a.m. departure. The briefing confirmed Colin was headed for the mid-section of Florida so I let Stan know that today was a no-go but hoped we could try again tomorrow.
You see, being a line boy teaches us how to treat people and, in turn, how we like to be treated. The fact that I can remember N222GL, N399TL, and N11LA from 43 years ago, but can’t remember what happened last week is probably more indicative of age, but also a vivid reminder of the experiences around each of these airplanes.
We know that mechanical things fail, people make mistakes and aviation, like the sea, is inherently unforgiving of failure or mistake. That thought was on my mind recently when we took off from Burlington, Vermont, aboard a classic old airplane, a twin engine DC-3 built in 1945. We were headed for Europe, but less than three hours later, in a flash event, both the failure and the mistake happened at the same time.
With nearly calm winds and clear skies, I taxied out and transmitted my departure intentions in the blind. From midfield I lined up on what was left of a 5000-foot runway. With the passengers’ weight, the tail wasn’t as quick to volunteer to fly first. It ended up being a three-point takeoff. This didn’t surprise me. Later in the flight was a time for surprises.
The lady from crew sked (as always, courteous to a fault; unlike a few of the brethren who react, when called, like bears rousted from hibernation!) proceeds to acquaint me with the latest offerings from the New York catalog of 757/767 flying. Interestingly enough, the main offering for tomorrow is a 757 ferry flight from EWR to JFK. This brings back some long forgotten memories.
I asked the young man that would be flying us up into the mountains how something as light and relatively slow as a glider, even an aerobatic one, could possibly need such a robust structure. He informed me that this particular airplane had flown in Vietnam.
The two years that I spent as the Piper district sales manager for the West Coast were some of most interesting and fun filled of my aviation career. Not only was I learning the aircraft sales business from some of the most experienced and well-respected people in the Piper distributor organization, I was also learning about grass roots flying from high-time, skilled pilots.
We had the honor and pleasure of Senator (Colonel) John Glenn’s attendance at eight Bonanza Professional Pilot Program (BPPP) clinics at Columbus, Ohio, from his age of 82 to his last clinic at age 90. Since I was his equivalent rank and a test pilot graduate, I was the lucky one to be assigned as his instructor pilot. Imagine that! I was John Glenn’s Instructor!
After having flown the Alaska bush country for more than 35 years, and racking up more than 18,000 hours of such foolishness, the mountains and almost consistently terrible weather had inured me to most flights that stateside pilots would find truly white knuckle experiences. Of my many, many bush flights over the years, this one was perhaps the most sobering.
I was doing an okay job but I was beginning to feel weak. My arms were tingling, like my nerves were on fire. The bumps in the air were exacting their toll. We finished the air work and headed for the city tour, but I decided my instructor didn’t need any airsick heroes.
Thinking about the position I’m in strikes me a little funny, and I imagine anybody who might see me would think it’s funny too: stretched out on the ramp with my head propped up on a tire of a C-47 reading a magazine. I must look like I just laid down and sprawled myself out! But actually, I planned it very carefully. I’m clear of the occasional drop of oil from the left engine but still in the shade.