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.
For those who have never done this, the rules are really simple but prescriptive. You are to approach Ripon and find another plane to follow, 1/2 mile in trail, at 1800 feet and 90 knots. Here is what the NOTAM does not say: NOT 78 knots, NOT 2000 feet, NOT 110 knots, and NOT direct from Ripon to Fisk.
At six AM the next morning, I was on a flight from Quebec City to Belize International Airport. The plan was to land, clear customs, and head right out to the plane on the ramp and ready for takeoff, with a 200 NM flight to Cozumel, Mexico. Seeing as how I had already done all these procedures in reverse, I was less apprehensive than I was on the initial ferry.
I recently added a multi-engine rating to my commercial certificate and it was one of the most fascinating experiences of my 30+ year flying career. Obtaining the rating was a bucket list thing. In light of the time available to me for flying, I chose to do an accelerated program held over a weekend to minimize the impact on my work schedule.
My idea of air travel was a sexy TWA Constellation or the mighty Pan Am Stratocruiser, not some clunky old DC-4. The Brits were already flying the first jet airliner, the Comet, and Boeing engineers were hard at work on the Dash-80, code name for the Comet’s competitor, the 707. But my father insisted on obscurity…
“Girls can’t fly airplanes,” was verbal garbage the guys kept tossing at me when I announced that I intended to learn to fly. It was the 1950s, and that was a common litany despite what women pilots had accomplished during World War II.
My dad inspired me to start my flight lessons, and he always told me a pilot must be alert for the signs. And as I asked him, “How do I know if something is a sign?” He answered, “Sometimes we just realize we were warned after we get into and out of trouble.”
For the first time, I was truly concerned about my safety, and that of my son, in an airplane. How had I let myself get in this situation? What are my options? Will I become a statistic? Looking down at the terrain below me, I know there are no “good” places to set an airplane down that has just run out of fuel.
It was a trip that I’ve thought about making for the past 18 years. It was a place I often dreamed of flying into as I planned my next $100 hamburger, but thought, I just don’t have the time this week, I’ll soon get out there. On January 26, 2018, that trip became a reality.
I learned to fly in a Piper Colt at tiny Concord Airpark east of Cleveland. It was nearly 50 years ago and in the more than 10,000 hours of flying all types of general aviation airplanes since these are the events that did much to shape my life in the air.