I am sitting in this brightly colored red, two seat, Pitts Special S2B stunt plane alone over the Atlantic Ocean at 9,500 feet. I have been flying out of sight from land for quite some time and occasionally the magnitude of the adventure I am undertaking sinks in and I have to mentally remind myself to take this trip one small step at a time.
We all have occasion to read accident reports, now and then, and hope to learn something for our effort. When we step into the cockpit, these thoughts are set aside in order to focus on the tasks of flying. It is only in the rarest circumstances when mortality infiltrates the cockpit and stubbornly takes hold.
In 1990, I was privileged to take a team of U. S. Air Force jets and airmen to The International Space Fair, aka, FIDAE, the largest air show and exhibition held in Latin America. It was also the first time an official contingent of American military visited Chile since the Pinochet affair of the 1970s. We had three F-15s, a KC-10 and a B-52 for display and flight demonstrations.
My Dad turned 65 recently, and as with so many of his peers, this year means mandatory retirement from 26-year airline career. While for him it’s a singularly pivotal and more-bitter-than-sweet event, his retirement also represents a journey that began with a Cessna and ended with an Airbus, in what has become a massive wave of his peers with remarkably similar stories.
At one point, I was so tensed up, worn out from fighting the wind and trying to get needles centered, that I thought, “I just can’t do this. I should just give up and let Jack fly it in. This is so hard. Maybe I should just give up flying altogether.” Those thoughts lasted for just a brief moment when I heard Jack’s encouragement again, and I said to myself, “I can do this. I want to do this. Just do it.”
Oh how I concentrated as the flight progressed, identifying those check points, talking to flight following, receiving timely handoffs from one sector to the next and being the best student pilot I could be. Then at the appropriate time, I dialed in, as instructed by approach control, the correct four digits in the correct sequence, hit ident in the transponder and eventually found myself in the traffic pattern with regional jets!
Fifteen hundred feet isn’t much altitude, but it momentarily seemed Olympian as our formation turned onto the downwind leg of our traffic pattern, with the airfield looking like a precisely detailed model on our right. Another banked turn onto base leg, then onto final approach for a low-altitude flyby. We came level at about 30 feet, roaring past the showline – I was momentarily sorry I couldn’t be down there and up here simultaneously!
My relationship to aircraft and flying is somewhat of a paradox. On the one hand, I’ve been fascinated by planes, airports and flying since childhood. I’ve been using flight simulators for nearly 25 years, and today I’m even earning part of my money with that. On the other hand, my first real flight happened only ten years ago, and, honestly, it was a bit terrifying back then.
Impressive mountains were quite near on both sides, and I noticed that there were at least two separate layers of stratus above me. I could see that the lower level shrouded the glacier ahead, obscuring most of it. I could also see that, if I continued beneath the lowest level, I would soon fly into the face of that glacier right at its moraine. Did I mention that I had only 30 hours under a seat belt at that time?
After the winds have been tamed, after the distance traveled; after you have set aside the weather maps and navigational charts and flying’s fears. After you have arrived… it’s a moment so sublime, there is no other feeling like it. Joy and pride and relief and excitement drenched in the smell of hot oil and the sound of happy strangers and friends who know exactly how you feel – because they have felt it, too.
I rolled the airplane out onto the runway after checking that the final approach course was clear and began slowing to a stop. I was praying that the controller would catch his mistake himself and issue us a cancellation of our takeoff clearance. But he did not do so. Knowing that I would probably create some very big waves, I transmitted over the tower frequency a quite simple sentence.
I remembered we had boarded 40 pre-adolescents in Dallas, bound for a summer camp near Denver. While several adults had seen to their boarding, and more were to meet them in Denver, there was no adult accompanying them. Apparently my company felt that four flight attendants were more than enough to handle 40 rowdy kids and the 30 or so other paying passengers on our B-727.
Suddenly the King Air started to move. But it wasn’t turning left, it was slewing to the right. I mashed both brake pedals as hard as I could, but the airplane kept sliding toward the Falcon and the FBO office building. The lineman started running backward as fast as he could on the icy surface.
I could feel the Pawnee yaw slightly left as the glider got airborne, off to the right side as briefed. But as the Pawnee’s tail came up, suddenly, the Cessna began to climb out of the ditch and out onto the runway! I thought, “Certainly he’s going to stop!” But in fact, I saw his prop spin up faster.
“What kind of a fuel system needs 13 sumps?” I asked myself. Years ago, the Cessna 172 I flew had one in each wing and a t-handle under the belly that shot a stream of fuel onto the pavement when I pulled it. It turns out that this was just the one of many changes that had slipped by me since I last preflighted an airplane.
Today, in formation, we climb out of Annecy and make for the Alps through the Col des Aravis. This kind of flying is like a jam session, a music of angles and relative positions. You know your buddy knows… It’s a kind of magic made possible by experience and trust. The rocks below glide by as though in deep slow motion.
I think part of the reason we hadn’t shared a flight before is is simply a lack of communication and misunderstandings. I won’t nag him, or anyone, to come flying and he won’t pester me to take him flying. So, outwardly it looks like I’m not too keen and that he’s not too interested; neither of which are true.
Occasionally there are some events earning support of multiple formations for the flyover. Election years are one of those times. My own experience was in 1993 when multi-service participation was in order for the military salute to President George Herbert Walker Bush and the pre-inauguration celebration for the incoming Clinton administration.
Falcon Heavy was advertised as the most powerful liquid fuel rocket since the Saturn V. I bought close-in viewing tickets as soon as they went on sale. Public interest was high: all 3,000 tickets sold out in 24 hours. This was going to be big.
By the time I received my official Drone Ground School accreditation I was well and truly hooked on aviation again. I figured that I already had half the work done so I immediately signed up to do my full private pilot ground school and I booked my first training flights in a real airplane with an instructor. Little did I realize at that time how much more work was involved in becoming a real pilot…