I came to flying late in life. Busy with work and no one to act as a mentor, I didn’t seriously consider pursuing my dream of becoming a private pilot until retiring after 31 years in the fire service. A move from the hectic pace of South Florida to the laid back life on the Upper Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, and coming to know Bill Williams, reignited my desire to learn how to fly.
Bill was in his late 70s when I met him. He still maintains certifications as a CFII and A&P/IA, and worked for years with Eastern Airlines, retiring as one of their most senior captains. Bill would assign me work in a basic handbook on flying, and when I thought I was ready he would come over to the house and quiz me on what I had been studying. I will always remember our first session. He sat across the kitchen table from me and asked a seemingly simple question: why do airplanes fly? After an hour of discussion about Bernoulli’s principle, drawing in my notebook (upside down so that I could read it as he was drawing!) to explain yaw, pitch and roll, P factor, angle of attack, and a myriad of other what (at the time were) baffling concepts, we moved on to other lessons.
After each lesson he would leave NTSB reports on fatal accidents, and I would be quizzed on those as well. By this time I was receiving flight instruction from Joey Fowler. Bill was very good and I continued for a time with him in the airplane, but he was an old school instructor (he kept telling me I was dragging my left wing, and with all of two or three hours in the airplane I had no idea what he was talking about.) Joey was a better fit for me. After many hours of one-on-one instruction and online study, I was ready to take my written exam. I didn’t think I was prepared to take the exam but passed with a score of 89. And after 15 hours of flight training I was allowed to solo.
I’m very fortunate to have an airport 15 minutes from my house, and even more fortunate to rent a beautiful Cessna 172 straight tail for $100/hour. I was flying every chance I had, checking off all the necessary boxes for prescribed maneuvers and cross country flights getting ready for my check ride. I knew I had a lifetime of learning ahead of me in aviation and often told people that if I had learned to fly when I was in my 20s I wouldn’t be here. A fair amount of wisdom and common sense does come with age. At 63 I was old enough to know what I didn’t know and young enough to still have good eye hand coordination and the mental faculties to keep it together in the airplane.
BasicMed was not available when I took my first flight physical, so I paid the money and passed the FAA Medical. However, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to one small admonition from the doctor. He told me I didn’t need to wear my reading glasses in the plane, but I needed to carry them with me. I use glasses to read, but my eyes are good enough that I can get by without them. That little detail almost led to a fatal accident. And after reading a lot of NTSB reports on fatal accidents, I realized that many of those accidents could have been avoided if the pilot had paid attention to the little details.
Several months after my first solo, I was getting ready for a long cross-country flight. Joey checked my navigation notes and listened in as I filed my flight plan. He told me to call him when I was back on the ground at my home airport (2A1) and wished me luck. After a thorough pre-flight, I hopped in the airplane and back-taxied to take off on 36. As I reached takeoff speed and pulled back on the yoke, I immediately noticed my angle of attack was far too steep to sustain flight.
Although I only had 25 or 30 hours, I knew I was about to have a stall. I pushed forward hard on the yoke and started trimming the nose down as I listened to the stall warning horn. I didn’t have time to even think that I might die. I thought about it a lot afterward and still do!
That beautiful straight tail C-172 had been flown a lot over the years, and the paint on the trim wheel designating takeoff position was kind of hard to see. In fact, I couldn’t see it clearly even with my glasses on. I had them in the airplane, just like the doctor admonished me to, but they were in my flight bag on the back seat.
It’s forgetting the little details that get pilots in trouble. I always use a checklist, but now when I visually look at the trim wheel to make sure it’s in takeoff position I wear my glasses. It was a scary lesson. Realizing how unforgiving flying can be has made me a more careful and much better pilot.