The words are few, just a couple notes in the logbook to help describe the events of a day that started with promise and ended with a belly full of carnitas and an airplane stranded on the ground. But sometimes even a few words can describe a meaningful adventure.
I know, I know – scud running is a no-no. Still, if you fly the Alaska bush, it sometimes seems as though it has become a way of life. During my time at it, we had precious few navigational aids. Contact flying and ADF needles were our fare. So, please cut me just a little slack for admitting to the following experience.
On Sunday, August 9, 1964, four summer graduates of Texas Technological College in Lubbock, came up with an irrational notion. Why not fly to a small town east of San Angelo, Texas, and have dinner at the world famous Lowake Steakhouse? The only pilot available turned out to be me.
I presented myself in the owner’s office, hat figuratively in hand. Perhaps he saw something of himself in the plaintive teen-ager standing before him, but for whatever reason, he took me on. He explained that he was unable to pay me any wages, but in return for gassing and washing airplanes and doing general chores around the office, he would pay me in flying lessons.
My second passenger, and my first cross-country as a private pilot, was Garin, a lifelong friend with whom I grew up. He and his family came up to Clover to spend the weekend with us so I reserved my favorite 172 for Saturday morning. The weather was beautiful, if a little bit warm, with some showers moving in later in the day as normal. I decided we’d make the short, scenic hop from EQY up to HKY to get some grub at the airport café.
It was the inaugural flight of a new service and the commercial pressure to make a success of that first flight must have been on Doug’s mind. In the event, it was later found he had been scud running though the hills of the Barrington Tops range near Dungog, NSW, en route Sydney to Taree. The terrain was dangerous and covered in mist and rain.
The day I got my first charter job flying air tours in Hawaii, I remember being offered two different jobs: one flying a Cessna 402 and the other flying a Beech 18. I called Dad and told him of my choices. The voice of experience spoke. I’ll never forget his words: “Don’t miss the opportunity to fly round engines. It only comes around once in a lifetime.” I took his advice and was never sorry.
Growing up, I have many vivid memories of spending time with Dad at the airport. Whether it was changing the oil in the Pacer, helping with a compression check on the Bonanza, or just washing the bugs off the Pietenpol after a picturesque sunset flight around the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I learned a lot about flying and life in those moments.
I like to think there are a handful of driving forces in my life. Family and flying are two of those and, thanks to a supportive family, I sometimes get to combine those. My jack-of-all-trades FBO/mechanic/pilot/instructor career choice often means that flying takes me away from the family, but during a special couple of days I got to share an airplane delivery trip with my nine-year old.
We drove down the dirt access road between cornfields, and over a slight rise, a magical world appeared. There were grass runways and airplanes. An airplane took off. The scene was complete all at once and etched into my memory. The airport was a magnificent place.
FAA inspectors are some of the few that are exposed to aviation’s “dark side.” None of my former corporate aviation coworkers had ever been out on a fatal accident investigation. Trust me, there is nothing that can prepare you for being out in the middle of nowhere looking at twisted metal (that looks nothing like an airplane) and the gruesome remains where a pilot and his passengers experienced their last moment on earth.
My search for a flying wing sailplane ended with the purchase of N86TX and its relocation to Hangar 115 in New Braunfels, Texas (my brother’s three-car garage). For the next several months he, with help from my cousin Rayford and my father Tom, did the remaining 30% of the work to get the sailplane to a finished state and ready for inspection.
Life sometimes takes you to places you never expect to be, and I recently found myself in Bandera, riding a horse at the Mayan Dude Ranch as part of a family visit to San Antonio. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was only 25 miles from Kerrville, Texas, the home of Mooney, and so many stories.
N5434A accelerated in her usual manner and soon I was checking airspeed looking for my 75-knot rotation point. Then, in the landing light, my heart seemed to explode as I saw a full line of deer spread across the runway from edge to edge and beyond. The turbo governor had already stabilized at full throttle travel, so with no additional throttle left, it was ground effect or nothing.
We’ve all got our stories as to how we got into general aviation. This is mine. I just started a bit later. OK – a LOT later than most. OK – virtually later than all other folks I have since met who fly. I was 56 when I started my flying instruction and 57 when I passed my licensing check ride. The key is, it doesn’t matter when or how you started – what matters is that you stuck with it and finished.
A short message… “If this is the Jay Miller who was Ray Tenhoff’s friend, would you please call me?” A phone number followed. Thus began – unknowingly for me at that moment – a closure that I had considered unattainable for just over 40 years. Four decades of regret were about to be erased absolutely and unequivocally by the kindness of a person I had never known.
Flying between the layers, I realized I had few options if I lost an engine, or, if my “window between layers” happened to close. Thankfully, all went well, until switching frequencies for my ILS 02 into KGPI.
We were proceeding northbound at 2900 feet, and the Gulf of Mexico was off our right wing, and Highway 77 was off our left wing. Jean and I were all bundled up because N7405B didn’t have a heater. I was concentrating ahead, when my peripheral vision caught something to the left and crossing below us. I looked to the right and below. I shouted to Jean, “Look at that!” and pointed down and to the right.
A side effect of technology and automation is the demise of the Flight Engineer. The first exits from the flight decks were the Boeing B767 and B747-400 and other Airbus aircraft. While there are excellent arguments supporting such developments, there were always advantages in having a flight engineer aboard to assist us pilots in “managing” a flight, not just doing the flying.
At takeoff speed I commenced rotation, but the Cherokee just didn’t want to lift off and the controls were heavy. Being a newly-soloed student, I muscled the aircraft into the air. It was then that I glanced out at the wings and to my surprise found the flaps in the full down position. I had very obviously failed to release the flap lever in my haste to depart.