In June of 1970, my grandparents flew into town to visit with us for several days and it just so happened that I had a flying lesson scheduled for the following Saturday afternoon. After lunch on the appointed day, my dad suggested that we all take a ride out to the municipal airport so they could watch me do touch and go landings. My instructor, Mr. Hillman, had recently informed me that I was about ready to start the cross-country portion of my training, which I was eager to do, but he wanted one more session of traffic pattern practice.
After arriving at the airport, Dad said they’d all remain in the car up on the little hill above the office where the view of the entire field would be good. I walked down the trail to the hangar; shortly thereafter Mr. Hillman and I taxied away in the 150 to begin the lesson for the day.
On the way to the runway Mr. Hillman leaned close to my ear and warned in a serious tone of voice: “Now, David, sometime in your flying career you will experience what we call ‘an upset condition’ while you’re on a final approach to a runway. Something will happen, such as a wind shear, or wake turbulence from other traffic, or a flap may fail causing the airplane to skew itself into a dangerous position. You will need to react quickly and accurately to extricate yourself from this condition before the airplane stalls. From that point you’ll have about five seconds to continue living. Remember: power and attitude, power and attitude. Power and attitude!! Also, if you initiate some action and the airplane reacts negatively to it, then quickly undo what you just did. Remember these things!”
He went on to explain just what should and should not be done, and in what order. I listened attentively to his instructions.
We took off and continued around the traffic pattern like we had done, seemingly, hundreds of times before. While on the downwind leg he said: “I’m going to take the controls when we get close to the runway, and I’ll put us into an unusual attitude. I want you to take your hands out of your lap and take the controls when I say the word ‘recover,’ and then I want you to recover to a normal approach attitude immediately by doing the things I have just talked about. Do you understand?”
I answered “yes.” However, at the same time, I began to wonder about Mom and Dad’s reactions to seeing my airplane roll itself into such a rakish position at such a vulnerable time. I briefly toyed with the idea of telling Mr. Hillman that my folks were watching us; but there again, I didn’t want to upset the timetable of my training curriculum. So not having any more time to worry about it just then, I put the thought out of my mind.
We turned onto the final approach leg in a stable, trimmed, no flap condition at seventy-five miles per hour with the throttle closed. Everything looked fine until we crossed the highway near the threshold. At that point Mr. Hillman suddenly and forcefully hauled the yoke all the way over to the right while simultaneously pulling it as far aft as it would travel. He stomped the right rudder pedal all the way to the floor. The little Cessna heaved a surrendering sigh as if air were being forced out of a Tupperware bowl. The stall-warning horn began its reedy squall as the nose went up higher and higher. The world went sideways in a multi-colored blur. Then it became deathly quiet; all sound curiously vanished. We were only seconds from meeting our maker at that point.
“RECOVER….!” He ordered, breaking the eerie calm.
I reached instinctively for the throttle and yoke, pushing the throttle lever as far forward as it would go into the panel and moving the yoke briskly back over to the left. Simultaneously, I kicked the left rudder pedal and pushed the nose over. With less than perfect coordination the Cessna responded quickly to counter the threat. I then realigned the airplane with the runway to complete the touch-and-go maneuver. With Mr. Hillman there beside me I never felt like we were in any real danger, but we really were; too much hesitation on my part would have put us in serious jeopardy. We took off again to practice the maneuver five more times that afternoon before we called it a day.
As we taxied in, my mind returned once more to the thought of my parents and grandparents sitting patiently in the car on the hill, cheerfully awaiting my arrival. It was not until Mr. Hillman had endorsed my logbook that I informed him that we had had an audience the entire time.
“Holy cow!!” he said with his eyebrows heading north as he pushed his Humphrey Bogart fedora hat to the back of his head. “You mean to tell me your family was watching that circus the whole time?”
“Yes, sir. I believe they were.”
“You should have told me that; we’d have done something different today. You’d better get up there and check on them right now.”
“Yes, sir. I will.”
I skedaddled up the hill to the car where the four of them were fidgeting with obvious apprehension. Dad lowered his head so he could bore over the top of his glasses, and then clearing his throat he asked uncertainly: “How’d it go today?”
“Fine,” I said as calmly as I could. “We practiced bad-landing recoveries.”
Before that moment I had never witnessed adults groaning in perfect unison, except perhaps at sporting events when the home team has lost the game–having just missed the last chance to pull ahead for the win. It never occurred to me that my mother, bless her heart, had spent the last thirty minutes with her fingernails buried in the headlining of the car crying and wailing. Dad had attracted somewhat of a crowd while standing outside the car shouting thunderously, “Come down here! Get down here right now!!” his arms flailing about. My grandmother had quietly bowed her head and prayed for half an hour. Granddad had taken ahold of the headrest in front of him and had begun shaking his head continuously back and forth, side-to-side while reciting the 23rd Psalm.
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want….”