My friend was landing a high-wing Cessna at McCook, Nebraska, more than 30 years ago. As he began to flare, another low-wing airplane landed on top of him. Somehow both kept their cool and both landed safely. You may be able to say his story saved my life – at least it gave my story a much better ending.
Fighter aircraft are designed and built to be fighting machines. The pilots who fly them are highly skilled in delivering many different weapons: bombs, rockets, missiles, 30 mm cannon… but killing was not the aim when we bombed a Northern territory airport in the early 1960s. As the wingman in a fighter pair for this mission, it was an experience I have held in my memory for decades.
At 30 miles east of LWT, as I pressed the push-to-talk button to report our position, all the lights on the panel went dark. I reached for the avionics toggle switch. It was very hot and the switch showed no resistance when I moved it up or down. My brother was busy enjoying the scenery, including the mountains in the distance which towered above us.
After eight days on the ground working on behalf of a national non-profit emergency services group running one of their Points of Distribution sites in Wilmington, North Carolina, I was ready for some air time. Lucky for me, one of the final air missions of Hurricane Florence was on the books for the following day and they were in need of a mission pilot.
My first Counter Drug (aka CD) operation involved deploying F-15s to Howard AFB in Panama. Under the auspices of the USAF’s 12th Air Force, we took four F-15Bs down south to provide augmented air surveillance in the Caribbean as part of the grand plan to interdict drug running out of Colombia up in to Mexico and points north.
My student Max, like many before and after him, could just not bring himself to believe that he could not fly the airplane by the seat of his pants without visual references outside the cockpit in spite of instruction and all the materials he had read about spatial disorientation and vertigo.
As he taxied to “line up and wait,” something was amiss. Yet he and I both persevered in our thoughts of better flight to come. Shattered easily by the slipping nose wheel as the throttle was advanced, I pushed the right rudder a bit and felt the resistance from his feet, locked in a state of motionless silence. He must have felt it, for he looked over at me with a quizzical look.
I ran through the before landing checks from the laminated checklist card and right about then Laura announced she had the field in sight. Then a bump. Not a vertical bump one would expect on a warm summer day, but a fairly stiff bump with a bit of roll. “No big deal,” I thought.
There appeared to be five days on the itinerary for our four-day cruise. Counting the days… recounting them… uh oh. Too many days. We are now in the middle of the ocean, with no communication capability whatsoever, and had no way of telling our new company that we simply could not make it back for work the next week.
Before I started working at this central Texas plant as an electrician, the people I would soon be working with already knew I was a private pilot with my own airplane. I had many people approach me with questions about being a pilot and flying. The most fascinating aspect of these discussions involved my dispelling the view that becoming a pilot was just for the super-rich.
Everything was perfectly normal as I allowed the plane to accelerate to rotation speed, and gently lifted off the runway. But as soon as I began the climb out, I began to suspect that I had made a major mistake. The little Cherokee, normally as docile as an old mare, was suddenly bucking and swaying like a wild bronco trying to throw me off!
If you asked me how many hours of PIC I have, I would tell you about 2,600 hours. But if you asked the FAA how much total time I have, it would be a mere 300 plus hours, because they specifically exclude any remote pilot time. So to sell myself as an experienced aviator is big task; working as a part-time CFI is a slow go.
This flight was a primary for multiple events, including my first flight as pilot-in-command (PIC) without an instructor since I received my private pilot license, first passenger flight, and the first time I truly had to exercise my aeronautical decision making skills. Admittedly, I came out of the aircraft somewhat shaky, but safe.
Growth over comfort. I’m not sure when I learned that phrase or where I heard it, but it completely sums up my experiences of becoming a pilot. I certainly was not comfortable the first time that small plane rose off the runway. I was not comfortable the first time I heard that stall horn blare, and I certainly was not comfortable the first time I turned final and my instructor said, “Your airplane.”
I thought for a spell, (it’s always bad when a pilot starts thinking) and decided even though I had been taught never to leave a running airplane unmanned, it would be alright this time because, heck, I was an expert! Besides, I was in a hurry, and the parking brake would hold it.
The day was June 8, 2018. After a long and laborious process to get my FAA Part 135 Air Taxi Certificate, I had finally scheduled my first revenue-generating charter flight in my 1959 de Havilland Beaver on amphibious floats. This 200-mile round trip flight was planned from Gig Harbor’s Tacoma Narrows Airport to Roche Harbor Airport in the San Juan Islands.
Don’t look now, but there might be a pilot inside you trying to get out. Just ignore the voice in your head telling you not to chase your dream. That’s what I did.
I got the news the hard, modern way: skimming local news on my smartphone, I cried out to my wife, “Don and Nancy [names changed for privacy] were killed in an airplane crash!” I could think of little else for hours afterward. Why? Did they run out of fuel? Throw a prop blade? Hit geese?
The sun was low on the horizon as we got to the plane, and the idea of a takeoff over the water after sundown was low on my list of fun things to do with a tired/hungry kid in the right seat. Everything was normal until I got to the oil.
I needed to get to work soon. I glanced at my phone to check the time, just as I saw Tex put the gear handle down. I heard the familiar whir of the hydraulic gear pump, but I felt an abnormal shimmy in the airframe. I knew then that we had a problem, and I dropped my phone back into my shirt pocket.