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Fifty years ago, life was simple: aircraft rentals were $10 per hour and the latest technologies in trainer aircraft were nose wheels and VORs. And before there was “Aeronautical Decision Making” (which still sounds to me like a TV game show) we were taught “judgment,” an ominous term with biblical undertones. “Maintain thy flying speed, lest the earth reach up and smite thee,” said my first CFI. “Good judgment comes from experience,” said the early aviators, “and experience comes from poor judgment.”
Fifty years later, I still hear the voices of those Ancient Pelicans who had learned in taildraggers or biplanes—many of whom had flown in the big war. Though they are long retired, their hard-won wisdom still instructs us today, such as these nuggets.
Preflight. Checklists for the exterior walk-around are fine (especially in more complex airplanes), but the main thing as you walk around the plane is to look at the plane. Look for anything that’s different, anything that doesn’t look right. A wavy-potato chip appearance on the belly indicates a really hard landing. A gap between the lower engine cowling (where it connects to the fuselage skin) means a broken engine mount. Anything that “doesn’t look right” is not right, whether on the checklist or not.
During my Air Force instructor days, a student went out to his assigned T-37, walked around it, and climbed over the side. An old sergeant (you know the type: lots of stripes on the arm, cigar butt jutting out from his lips) strolled over and quietly asked, “Lieutenant, what are you doing?”
“Hi Sarge, I’m going out on my third solo flight,” he said eagerly. The sergeant asked, “Uh, did you notice that this airplane is actually on jacks?” What? “You know,” said the student later, “I did notice that this plane seemed taller than the other ones I had flown.” But there was nothing on the checklist that said, make sure the tires are actually touching the ground.
Start and taxi. An engine that doesn’t sound right is not right, no matter what the little instruments say. If the aircraft won’t move forward, don’t be a “chock-jumper,” shut it down and deal with it. A Bonanza pilot had failed to untie the tail, which was attached to a tire filled with concrete, and he taxied out dragging that anchor behind him. With full power the Bonanza went down the runway and got into the air—but at that very moment the CG went way back, and the airplane whiplashed onto the runway. Later, the pilot said to the man with the clipboard, “The old bird just didn’t feel right—taxied like a truck.” Dude, if it taxies like a truck, don’t take off—taxi back to the truck stop!
Departure. History shows that most piston engine failures occur in the first 15 minutes of flight (excepting fuel starvation and exhaustion). The Ancients had all seen engines cough and choke (as have I, in both piston and turbine engines), so they actually contemplated where they were going to land if the prop stopped shortly after takeoff. I like to turn crosswind at 400 feet and look back at the runway. From crosswind, I can bend it around and land at mid-field.
Prior to that turn, if it quits, I’m landing somewhere between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock. Go up high and practice it someday; set up a climb and chop the power as you pass a cardinal altitude. You’ll lose 400 feet before you can finish the U turn—and then you’d be offset to one side (unless there’s a parallel runway). So the Ancients said, “600 feet minimum or we’re not going back.”
Cruise: Even with all of our high-tech gizmos, nothing beats the “Mark One Version Two Eyeball” for seeing what the weather is really doing, right here, right now. No PIREP for turbulence is as good as a SEAT-REP, or the feeling you get when small objects start flying around the cockpit. The Pelicans also liked to be as high as practical. “Altitude is life insurance,” they said, so why not carry some?
The Ancient Pelicans also pushed us neophytes into IFR school. We went under the hood having never played a video game, so it was all “pitch, bank, and puke” for a few hours. The Pelicans had seen far too many pilots succumb to the “short, carefree life of the scud-runner.” I live near the mountains, and we often remind visiting scud-runners that “the mountains don’t move. They just stand there, secure in the knowledge that CFR Part 91 gives them the right of way over all aircraft.”
Crossing the mountain passes Pelican-style is simple: do not ever point the aircraft at terrain and think you will climb over it. Rather, get above the altitude of the pass, and when you can see the valley beyond the ridgeline, only then do you approach it, at a 45-degree angle. This way, you already know which way to run if the winds get ugly. Sometimes they get ugly at the last minute, as you hit the down flow coming over the pass. Remember, skipper, you are a very small trout swimming upstream in a very large river of air flowing over that pass.
How do you notice carburetor ice? Answer: a drop in RPM. But, with a constant-speed propeller, the governor will compensate and hide that drop for some time. Manifold pressure should drop, but what I discerned one night, cruising along in IMC on a cool New Mexico night, was a fine vibration of the instrument panel. The old Pelicans taught that any anomaly in sound, feel, smell, or sight (even if the gauges were all “in the green”) was worth investigating. At first I thought it was just “automatic rough,” that perception you conjure up flying on a dark night (or over water.) But a quick pull on the carb heat knob told the truth! And carb heat works a lot better… while the engine is still generating heat.
Ice. Having a little bit of ice is like being a little bit pregnant. Gordon Baxter didn’t care for ice either, and wrote, “Once your wings ice up (or frost up), you are flying a plane with a unique airfoil—and one that has never been tested.” Follow Richard Collins’s advice: “Treat ice like it was smoke in the cockpit. Do something now!”
I consider myself “ice current,” because once I have seen that scary stuff in flight, I am good for at least another ten years before I need to see it again. It was bad enough on the Cherokee’s leading edge one morning that my cruising speed went down ten knots. I remembered from aerodynamics class that when ice causes one’s cruising speed to drop, one’s stall speed is inversely creeping up—and you don’t want the two to meet in the middle. I shot down final that day at full power, fast as I could go, and during the flare it quit flying while the airspeed was still in the green. After my knees stopped shaking, I was able to drive the rental car the rest of the way home.
Thunderstorms. Want to live to a ripe old age? Follow these two simple rules:
- Do not fly into a thunderstorm.
- Do not fly near, next to, or under a thunderstorm.
One day in the flight office, a young pilot mentioned, “Man, it’s bad out there. I was bouncing around and at one point, almost flew into this greenish looking cloud.” George Dale, a true Pelican who had flown over the China-Burma hump in C-46s, stopped in his tracks and turned around. “Son, don’t ever fly into a green cloud—that’s hail you were seeing!” Author Ernest K. Gann explained the facts of life in thunderstorms this way: “A pilot may earn his full pay for that year in less than two minutes. At the time of incident he would gladly return the entire amount for the privilege of being elsewhere.”
Radios. Pay attention not only to your calls but to other chatter as well—and learn to listen between the lines, as did this DC-3 pilot did who departed Austin while leaving a trail of gray smoke. Tower had casually asked, “Douglas Eight Nine Uncle Mike, are you skywriting?” The pilot answered: “No… WHY?!!”
And what action do you take when you hear, “Traffic at 12 o’clock, one mile, opposite direction, your altitude.” Me? I am turning right, and going down (not up). Pull the nose up and you are blind; the Ancients said “go down and you can see 12 o’clock level.” Plus, I can go down quicker than up. And please, do not key the microphone and say, “uh, okay, ah, we are looking.” Twelve o’clock at a mile? That’s as scary as “bandits at six o’clock high.” Moving beats looking. By turning turn right, you keep the traffic on your left, out the pilot’s side window.
Say you are on left downwind, approaching mid-field, and some bozo announces, “Bentwing 123 entering downwind at mid-field.” That guy is belly-up to you. Same deal: go down and right. If you turn left, you’ll be belly up to him also! Regardless of your particular horoscope sign, at that moment your new sign is YIELD. Give him the whole downwind at pattern altitude. Find him before he finds you.
Navigating. “The primary means of navigating,” said the Pelicans, “are pilotage and dead reckoning.” Everything else was a refinement or a backup. This was long before the era of the magenta line, but still true: “pilotage” means looking from the map to the ground, and checking your progress. “Deduced reckoning” means calculating from true to magnetic, factoring in wind, airspeed, distance. If you are cruising along and your plan doesn’t match your avionics’ plan, something is amiss. Perhaps an unforecast wind? A NAV radio tuned incorrectly? Is the CDI icon still on GPS when you intended VOR?
I was walking across the ramp with a student in Austin, Texas, one day, and we had to pass around the left side of a huge Lockheed Lodestar that had just loaded up a bunch of people and was about to start. “Hey,” the pilot called out to us from his little storm window. Then, in a softer voice, “Which way is Lubbock? Don’t point!” Well, at least he was thinking about that before lurching off into the Texas sky.
Emergencies. Remember Apollo 13’s infamous radio call, “Houston, we have a problem…” The nerdy ground controllers flew into a panic, but NASA flight director Gene Kranz brought order to the chaos by commanding, “Work the problem, people.” That’s great advice for any pilot facing an unplanned event and a rise in blood pressure. Keep calm, and work the problem!
By the 1970s, the Air Force had distilled its checklist for handling any emergency into three steps, memorized and recited verbatim by all of us student pilots:
- Maintain aircraft control.
- Analyze the situation and take appropriate action.
- Land as soon as practical.
Today’s pilots might want to have that tattooed on their wrist, for quick reference. A C-141 pilot taught me, in any crisis, do take time to sort out all possible actions. Then do the most important one first. “If everything is priority,” he said, “then nothing is priority.”
Oh, those ancient ones were well-acquainted with Mr. Murphy and his laws: vacuum pumps and alternators only fail in IMC; sudden runway closures occur only at airports with a single runway; and if everything seems to be going along fine, you’ve obviously overlooked something.
Most odd situations are “semi-emergencies,” and require thoughtful, not frantic, action. Okay, an engine failure in a twin on takeoff leg requires a bit of hand-ballet (identify, verify, feather, gear up, flaps up) but most things (a wisp of smoke, an odd sound, a needle in the yellow) call for some careful thought before some reckless action.
Lindbergh himself was heard saying, “Danger is relative, and inexperience can be a magnifying glass.” Gray-haired Pelicans had seen co-pilots jerk the gear up too soon, or neophytes feather the good engine instead of the failed one (allowing the crew to log a few minutes of glider time while pleading with either engine to re-start).
Problems only worsen when the “brain-stick” interconnect fails, and the hand moves quicker than the mind. A good tip for preventing premature manipulation of a handle or switch, came from Thomas Block, retired airline pilot and columnist. “Mentally plant a cactus bush,” suggested Block, “on any lever, knob, or switch that must be handled with extraordinary care, since any misuse of them can easily produce extraordinary problems.” Fly the plane first. And work the problem. Odds are, you’ll end up with a good story to tell at the bar.
Ground school. Learn the systems: how the fuel flows through the plane, how engines get their spark, what actually makes the wheels come down. What happens if the audio panel fails? How long will battery power give you comm ability? How does that propeller pitch control actually do its thing? Know the plane so that as you operate it, you and the plane become ONE—as Lindbergh famously said, “we” flew the Atlantic.
Riding in the back of a crowded crew bus on a T-38 flight line, several of us overheard a “check pilot” grill his student orally as they rode out to fly the practical phase. The examiner queried him, “Trace a drop of JP-4 from the beginning until it flows through the plane and comes out the back of the tailpipe as exhaust.” His intrepid student replied, “Well, in the beginning, there were these dinosaurs…”
Seriously, on the ground with your CFI, there are no stupid questions. Once, during gunnery school transitioning into the F-4 Phantom II, we were doing weight and balance. With a bunch of bombs hanging on external stores, I just could not make the math work—nothing was adding up. So, up went my hand in class, and I innocently asked, ”How much does a 500-pound bomb weigh?” Oh yeah, they all doubled over with laughter, but I had the last laugh: it turns out a 500-pound bomb (with the casing) weighed 575 pounds—so there!
You must master this kind of detail—and especially the technical vocabulary. To fly in the soup, you must absolutely know the difference between MDA, MEA, MRA, and MXA. As Mark Twain remarked, “There is a big difference between the terms lightning and lightning bug.”
Landing. The Ancients liked to do full-stall landings, so when the tires kissed the runway, the wings had let go of their lift. Their three point landing can still be accomplished in a tricycle gear plane—if you understand that the three points refer to two main gears and the tail! Hold it off the concrete until you reach a nose-high, near-climb attitude, and the two main wheels will touch while the nose remains in the air. This is absolutely the case with Cessnas; not so much with some new birds.
Pelicans would continue to keep some back pressure on the stick—keeping weight off the nose wheel—after touchdown. If you drop the stick pressure, the nose wheel slams down, the plane jerks left and right, and in many aircraft you get the dreaded “shimmy dance.” This is because the nose wheel was not designed to support weight while going that fast.
Taxiing. General aviation planes were designed to fly upwind, not to taxi downwind. Lightweight and high-wing planes resemble sailboats when the wind comes over the tail—and more so when turning with a quartering tailwind. Ask any three-year-old about how easy it is to tump over his tricycle while turning sharply. Many a prop and wingtip strike made a grownup pilot look like a three-year-old.
One of my more embarrassing moments came after my student passed his checkride, but was reproved by the examiner for his taxi speed. “I don’t know your CFI,” said the Pelican, “but tell him he taxis too damn fast.”
But at least I wasn’t like that fellow who panicked after running his military transport into the ditch at high speed. He was immortalized by this understatement from the accident report: “The board felt that the pilot’s action in failing to order evacuation of the aircraft and in being the first to deplane was not in keeping with accepted practices for aircraft commanders.”
Few of us are master birdmen, so our best bet is to keep on learning. “Show me a pilot who has stopped learning about flying,” said one Pelican, “and I’ll show you an accident waiting to happen.” Former Braniff Pelican Len Morgan (of the DC-3 days) was right when he wrote, “An airplane might disappoint any pilot, but it’ll never surprise a good one.”
One single attribute often separates the real aviators from those who just plod through the skies machine-like. And that attribute: a love for flight. Ernie Gann again: “Flying is hypnotic and all pilots are willing victims to the spell. Their world is like a magic island in which the factors of life and death assume their proper values. Thinking becomes clear because there are no earthly foibles or embellishments to confuse it.” Gann bemoaned those pilots who operated their aircraft with no more love than they would have for a rented car. “Such people leave a stain on the sky,” he wrote.
Let us give the last word on this to Richard Bach, and land this article with his thoughts upon landing one day: “My airplane is quiet, and for a moment I am still an alien, still a stranger to the ground.” May you become that stranger: a true aviator, a lifetime learner and a lover of flight. How better could you honor those Ancient Pelicans who showed us all how to ascend into the rarified life of a pilot.