5 events that shaped my flying life

I learned to fly in a Piper Colt at tiny Concord Airpark east of Cleveland. It was nearly 50 years ago and in the more than 10,000 hours of flying all types of general aviation airplanes since these are the events that did much to shape my life in the air.

My first really good decision

Immediately after earning my private, I bought a sparkling white Cessna 140. Its gold trim stripe and big zooty aftermarket wheel pants made the little Cessna look modern, even though it was three years older than me.

With only a handful of hours of PIC in the logbook, you know the drill. Take everybody you know flying. Especially when you have your own airplane to show off.

My Uncle Fred wanted his name near the top of the passenger list. Fred was a big guy, somewhere north of six feet and 200 pounds. I was 6-2, but at that hard-to-remember age, weighed less than 175. No matter, it was a squeeze in the barely two-seat Cessna.

Concord
Not a long runway, especially since it’s uphill. (Photo credit: Barden Aviation)

We met at Concord on a warm evening. The light breeze was from the north favoring runway 02, less than 2,200 feet long. And the narrow pavement sloped up at a 1.2 percent gradient. Not Rocky Mountain steep, but enough uphill to kill lots of the anemic acceleration generated by the mighty 85-hp Continental. And there were tall trees near the departure end of the runway.

Despite the takeoff performance challenges, I didn’t want to disappoint one of my most enthusiastic would-be passengers. So Fred and I wedged in and I began the uphill takeoff roll.

Somewhere near midpoint on the runway I made an instant decision that there simply was no margin. I don’t recall performing a complex critical analysis. The Cessna POH was a single, typed page of limitations and specs with no takeoff or other performance information at all. I didn’t time the takeoff roll, or pick a “no-go” abort point on the runway. I just made the decision and yanked the power off.

The aborted takeoff became a legend for every extended family gathering. “Remember the time Uncle Fred was too fat to get off the ground? Ha-ha.” But it was the best decision I made in my flying life and very well could have saved my life, not to mention Uncle Fred.

My worst decision

My instrument rating was brand new. Licensed to fly in the clouds. Expert at holding patterns and NDB approaches and all the stuff that seemed so critical to IFR flying safety. So what could a few clouds over western Pennsylvania in late summer do to me and the brand new Piper Turbo Arrow II I was lucky enough to have my hands on?

There was a chance of thunderstorms in the forecast, but that was a given for most days that time of the year. There were no live radar images to see in the FBO briefing room. Of course, there was no satellite weather in the cockpit nor airborne radar that would fit on a single. And Paul Ryan was just introducing his Stormscope, the first device that could give pilots of piston singles solid information that thunderstorms where around somewhere. But I didn’t have a Stormscope yet.

At the time, controllers had almost no information on precipitation because their radar was designed to see through storms to find airplanes, not to depict the location of storms. At some facilities they would see either hash marks or Xs where the radar found heavy precip; that was pretty much a guess.

Thunderstorm
Don’t go through it.

The air was clogged with the typical summer haze over the Alleghenies so my view of clouds, any clouds, was severely limited. My first hint that I had blundered into a convective cloud was when the airplane began to climb fast even though I was pushing the nose down and reducing power. That was before the rain came. Suddenly I felt like I was flying a submarine. I didn’t know it could rain that hard.

But the true life threatening moment came when I flew from the thunderstorm updraft into the equally strong downdraft. In between was turbulence I could not have imagined. The Arrow had a roll-only autopilot and I kept it engaged so it was doing it’s best to level the wings while I concentrated on managing pitch and power to keep the airspeed somewhere between stall and the top of the yellow.

I’m sure I sounded terrified calling the Center asking for vectors out of the storm. I remember an alarmed airline crew on the frequency pleading with the controllers to give me any kind of help.

The reality is everyone was helpless, including me during the periods of the most violent turbulence. Somehow I stayed sort of upright and the Piper’s wings stayed attached and I flew out the back side of the storms.

It could have easily been a fatal mistake, and many pilots of that era didn’t survive thunderstorm encounters. Nexrad and accurate weather depiction on controllers’ radar has minimized the storm threat today, but that terrible mistake that I was fortunate enough to survive made me a better pilot, and one who has lived a much longer life.

A hotshot is humbled

By the time I began helicopter training I had an ATP, several jet type ratings, and because of my job at Flying Magazine had been able to fly nearly every business and general aviation airplane in recent production. I may not have been quite the Ace of the Base, but I was for sure the King of Clubs.

Hughes helicopter
You can fly an airplane? Great. Now try a helicopter.

But that darn Hughes 300—the TH-55 in military training duty—punctured my pilot ego. I just couldn’t learn to hover. More specifically I couldn’t stop the tiny chopper from backing up. My instructors, who were active in the Army reserve and did things the Army way, were beginning to lose patience. Not to mention all admiration for my flying skills.

But after days of hovering all over the lot, mostly out of control, I realized what was wrong. To me, with lots of experience in airplanes, fear of being nose-low close to the ground was ingrained. Never ever hit nosewheel first. With those thousands of hours of airplane experience dominating my view of attitude I figured out that what to an airplane pilot looks like a level attitude when three feet above the ground is actually nose-up.

I got back in the Hughes and forced myself to shove the nose over to what looked to me like an alarming nose-down angle and that was really level. The helicopter stopped backing up in the hover.

With that “new” picture of level in mind, I managed to complete the training and earn the commercial rotorcraft rating. But not until my over-confidence in my natural flying ability had been forever dashed.

Flying 1,000 feet below sea level at 330 knots

Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) teamed with Gulfstream to manufacture the midsize G150, and now the super midsize G280. Over the years I made several trips to Israel to fly the Gulfstreams when there were in development or ready to enter service.

All the pilots I met at IAI were also in the Israeli Air Force. Many, including the chief, Geva, were aces in the strict sense of the military term. Many will and should argue that there are pilots in the world as good as the Iraelis, but I don’t think serious airman would claim to be better.

So Geva and I were feeling out the new G150 over the Mediterranean and had checked low speed handling, climb, high speed cruise and the stuff needed for a pilot report. And we had some time and fuel left. I told Geva I had always wanted to fly below sea level and the Dead Sea in Israel is the place to do it.

Dead Sea
Flying below sea level? It’s possible.

Geva changed radios to the long range HF system and began speaking only Hebrew. He was talking to the Israeli military that monitors every movement over or near the tiny country. And Hebrew was their way of encrypting conversation.

Geva told me to descend so I dropped to 3,000 feet over the water. He kept motioning me to go lower, and faster. We crossed the shoreline below 1,000 feet with the airspeed on the 330 knot Vmo redline. A few seconds after we crossed the shore Geva said “that was the Gaza Strip.” Oh. I get it.

We hugged the desert until we popped over a ridge and the other worldly green-blue-red color of the Dead Sea appeared. Holding the 330 knots I descended watching the altimeter on the Collins Pro Line altimeter display unwind to zero, and then count down to minus 1,000 feet. I gave the controls to Geva because I wanted to absorb the once in a lifetime chance to see the ancient cliffs and water. After a few minutes, we popped back up to a normal altitude, called Tel Aviv controllers on the VHF and we were back in the normal world of flying. What an experience.

Becoming a Corporate Pilot

For more than 40 years I was the principal passenger, or at least one of them, every time I flew. The airplane was going wherever it was on my schedule for my reasons, nearly all of them involving work for the magazine. That’s true for most general aviation pilots. That’s why we call it personal aviation.

Now in my semi-retirement I’ve become a corporate pilot. Most of my flying is in a Beech King Air 350, but also some in Learjets and Citations. It has been eye-opening to view flying from the perspective of people who often don’t enjoy it, many have actual fears, and all are going somewhere for work when they’d rather be home.

King Air 350
When you’re flying for someone else, the rules change.

Except for the early and vital decision not to risk the life of Uncle Fred, my flying has almost all been on my terms. Now I must consider the passengers first. Not just their safety, which is obvious, but their comfort and anxiety.

Finding smooth air is now an obsession. I devote much effort to warming the airplane before boarding in the winter, or trying to keep it cool in the summer. I fill the coffee pot, stock the drinks, and straighten the seat belts. I reassure the concerned before takeoff, and during the flight if it turns bumpy. I make sure rental cars have been reserved and coordinate with passengers on return trip times.

It’s been one great circle trip from hopping friends and family for rides right after that first license to now doing my best to stay on schedule with no compromise in safety or even comfort.

It’s certainly better to be lucky than good, and I know more than anybody that I have been lucky. Along the way through so many flying events, I hope I have also become good enough.

16 Comments

  • You have a wife. I have a wife. None like turbulence but mine hates it. Totally with you on the smooth ride obsession, and the coffee … and all of it. I am so fortunate: My lady refers to our gorgeous Cessna 180 we are privileged to fly as a Magic Carpet. Especially the other morning during breakfast at Sulphur Creek! Can’t do better than that. Thank you Mac, another absorbing missive, really appreciate it.

  • Really enjoyed this. May I add my own memory of that special airpark:

    Often when I pass the old Concord Airpark, memories roll along the runway of my mind, transporting me to what so many of us refer to as the Airpark’s “golden days.” I was but one of the lucky folks who “knew it when.”

    I learned to fly there in the 1960s, and my husband and I and our then-only-child Mark spent a lot of time there. I met Connie Luhta through that small airport, and she became one of the great friends of my lifetime.

    The airfield was alive with the activity of people, planes and families. The late and great Adolph Luhta was the operator, and every year or two there was an air show there which was as much fun as any of the big professional events; maybe better!

    I often ran the airport’s ground-to-air radio. I was also a member and treasurer of the airpark’s social club, The Skylarks, which planned the airshow, potluck socials, hangar dances and any other activity the group could think of to play host to pilots and their families.

    It seems the airport had a great flock of friends among its neighbors too. Many of them, in fact would drop in to say hello and watch the planes, particularly on the summer Sundays when the two resident Stearman biplanes were engaged in “dog-fights” high up in the morning sky.

    I have a special memory of a certain winter holiday dance at the Airpark. Though Adolph groused beforehand about having to clear the hangar for the occasion, we all knew that was mostly his usual “gruff bluff.” On arriving at the dance, no one was really surprised to see that he had thoughtfully installed an attractive tent-like walkway from the office to the hangar, to keep us out of the cold.

    The walkway and hangar were lit up like a Christmas tree, and when we walked into the dance, it was plain to us that Adolph had worked hard to make things hospitable, party-hearty and warm for his guests. He was a great host; he had even taken care to see that the big juke-box was stocked with just the right music for good dancing. And, as I recall, he also made sure he danced with every woman there! A burly man, he was nonetheless light on his feet, and an excellent dance partner.

    In summer afternoons, evenings and weekends, the airpark was a magnet for all kinds of people—not just pilots and flight students and instructors, but neighbors and other visitors who drove in or walked in to sit outside on the metal glider or a fence, watching take-offs and landings and socializing with the airpark’s staff and regulars.

    In any season, the airpark lounge was always a place where old pilots could sit and share a bit of “hangar flying”—(the aviation world’s version of “fish tales.”) There was often an assortment of non-pilots too, and they were mostly there for the fun of listening to the wonderful malarkey.

    For the past 20 years, I have lived down the road from the airport, and I pass it quite often. Its caretaker is my friend Connie Luhta, Adolph’s widow. Though the airport is mostly quiet these days, Connie occasionally holds a picnic at the old hangar or a gathering at the old lounge (which also serves as home base for an Experimental Aviation Association chapter).

    The land is still pretty, especially when draped in the colors of autumn, but the buildings—like many of us old airpark denizens—are showing the effects of the passage of time. That doesn’t keep my memories from bringing back to me a vision of the airpark’s golden days, and that makes me feel briefly young again.

    I think that’s called nostalgia.–Rose Moore, From my blog, 12/12/2013

    • I too have fond memories of Concord Airpark and Painesville Flying Service. I grew up in Concord on Mauntain Park Drive and some of my favorite memories are riding mopeds with my buddy out to the Airpark. Connie seemed to always have a sixth sense detecting people on the airport property and would come over on her gator say hi and visit with us for as long as we stayed.

      Years earlier, I got to fly in that very same Piper Colt (Connie’s baby), with my Dad. He stopped flying not to long after that but I was infected with the flying bug. Around that same time, I remember hanging out and listening to Adolph tell stories about the amazing things that had happened at that great place. I remember being amazed that the Luhta’s has a Beech Queen Air based at a 2200′ strip with a road on one end and trees off the other. I remember watching old Bill Wilder land his Champ over Route 608 and make the turn off routinely.

      A few more years and I had no money but was determined to fly. I started trading work for flying lessons from an interesting fella who owned a Cessna 150 Commuter. He was also teaching Bill’s grandson to fly in that old Champ by then.

      Not too long after that, I started flying lessons with a purpose at DeMille Aviation at Cuyahoga County Airport. I was working for real money by then (part time still in High School), making $50 per week and flying one hour each week. The Tomahawk was $40 per hour and Harry was another $20. I still don’t know how that math worked out…

      These days my family and I live an hour and a half drive south so visits to 2G1 are far less frequent. My oldest son will be married next summer. I think I’ll take up Route 608 tomorrow and try to describe what he missed out.

  • Mac,

    You failed flying 101 when you flew into a thunderstorm. There’s no reason to do that radar, SS or Xm regardless.

    Many of us have avoided them for a whole career with professional flying and a lifetime with private flying and can live to tell that we just don’t know what it would be like in a thunderstorm.

    With my 27000 house, private, airlines and corporate, I’ve never been in a thunderstorm, and only twice have I experienced severe turbulence, both in clear air and both where I could get out of it.

    No reason whatsoever to fly in that crap AND especially write about it, like it’s “feat” that you accomplished. Absolute stupidity.

  • Wow, Seevee. You have issues.

    You have 27,000 hours and you’ve never made a mistake?

    If you have, I’m guessing you would never admit it.

    • Seevee’s comment WAS a monumental mistake. The only thing he got correct in his sad little rant was that his comment was indeed “Absolute stupidity.”

  • Chuckled reading about your helo experience. After many years of f/w, I too decided to get a helo rating. After many frustrating attempts, I finally had the “aha” moment learning to hover and my instructor allowed me to move from the grass field to the taxiway. It still took me longer to unlearn applying “rudder” in a turn.

  • Seevee
    You must be something special to have “never made” a bad decision in your aviation history. Mac these are learning lessons for all of us. Don’t ever let some bone head self important “expert”
    dissuade you from passing on valuable lessons to our general aviation family – you may save someone’s life some day.

  • Great article Pilot Mac McClellan. Some of the episodes you describe are very close to what I have been through flying.
    There was one terrifying incident when I entered cloud followed by moderate rain. I was in a climbing attitude when GPWS started yelling “Terrain ! Terrain ! Pull Up ! “. Warning lasted for five minutes. I could not turn left or right because of mountains. I was climbing at the best possible speed. Could not get it lower. Stretching my neck out to see forward of the cockpit, I saw trees passing below at ten feet. I was climbing. I didn’t know what to do and whom to blame. Beside me was a just released FO but he was more of dummy pilot. And that was a fact. I had fifty three passengers on board.
    When the GPWS stopped blaring, I knew God was there looking after me.

  • It took me a year in 1966, scrapping pennies together to get my private and later my instrument rating and I kept flying till a couple yrs. ago, so it’s always great to read about others experiences from those wonderful bygone days of real freedom.

    Thanks Mac!

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