I was loaded with my precious passengers, sitting at the end of the grass, holding the brakes as I brought the power up, airplane shaking and rattling in the classic way of the short field takeoff procedure. The Cessna 206 lurched ahead on brake release and we bounced our way forward. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the fence post marker pass.
This sunny morning, I could convince my wife to fly with me to the UNESCO heritage site of Paraty, Rio de Janeiro, a 50-minute flight that would take us along gorgeous tropical coastal scenery. With the help of my friend Siri, a true Caiçara – as the natives of the coast are called – I rolled the Super Petrel in front of the waterline for the pre-flight inspection, which I did by heart.
The other day I was cleaning out the drawers in an old dresser and unfolded a green button-down shirt, ruined by having been defaced with a marker and having one tail cut off. Why did I save this thing? I made out some words on the garment that jogged my memory and started my mind to wandering…
I decided to look down and see where I was geographically. When I looked down, I saw a red flare coming up at me. Well that’s a first. I looked again and a second red flare was shot upwards. I began a circling descent and noticed on this logging road, four individuals with their arms outstretched basically making a “T” sign.
A few summers ago, I was climbing out of a little grass airstrip in my Zenith 701 about a mile east of Smithfield, North Carolina, just starting to take in a pretty view of the Neuse River basin below, mostly thick forest with a dark river winding slowly through it, when the engine sputtered a few times (something like sputter, sputter, sput, sput, sput) and then stopped. Just plain quit.
It has been said that the last fighter pilot has been born. While time will answer that projection, this story is about the human element in dogfighting: the desire that pilots with skill and confidence have to test themselves against others with the same. In this epic experience, two of the latest fighters of the day meet relics of a bygone era.
I just lost an old aviation friend. The news came in unusual fashion, as an email with graphic photographs of the body, but no note about what happened. The damaged nose, the broken limbs— one separated from the body— it was hard to take. She had been pretty, perky, always ready for a good time. But now it was over.
The weather couldn’t have been better, though it would be a bit breezy in the mountains. I’d be supplying our proposed sheep camp with an air drop from a float-equipped, 65-hp Aeronca Champ. My flight log at the time showed that I had less than a meager 82 hours as a pilot. Confident I was; experienced I certainly was not.
I was out at my local airport one recent afternoon, watching planes beat up (or should I say pulverize), the traffic pattern, and I saw something that really made me wonder what folks were thinking. I observed one locally-based Cessna 172 try to execute a simulated engine-out emergency landing on our 5,000 ft-long runway.
This is a story about two words – “unfortunately” and “fortunately” – and has been de-identified in order to protect the embarrassed. However much can be learnt from the following incident. The pilot knew the aircraft well, having operated in and out of some quite restricted spaces over quite a long period. No need to taxi back right to the end of the strip – half way up will do! Unfortunately, a bad decision in retrospect.
Flying is fun, right? Yes, under the right circumstances. It can also be a challenge, as this story illustrates. Long cross-country trips in a small airplane can be a breeze, but only if that breeze is a healthy tailwind and the sky is clear. We had about twenty knots of headwind both going out and coming back.
About a year after my girlfriend first bought me an introductory lesson, I recall hoping that such passion for flight would never subside. Still the novice, I had enough journeys in mind to fill at least my first logbook’s worth of entries. On a spring day in Morristown, New Jersey, I endeavored to strike one off the list with a flight down the coast.
Feeling good about our decision, we continued with the number three engine just above idle keeping all the a/c systems running normally. We had no trouble maintaining FL330 with only a slight reduction of airspeed. For weeks, I wore a smug smile on my face as I told my colleagues what a wonderful job I had done. Then one day I opened my company mailbox to find an envelope containing a curt note from the manager of the company Pratt & Whitney overhaul department.
The Blackbird moved on to the active, lined up, stroked the burners on those two Pratt & Whitney J-58s and started a slow, but steady acceleration down runway center. But, now the “Aw, Sh*t!” The Blackbird veered sharply and quickly to the right side of the runway. Everyone in the tower sat up straight, and then the bird departed the runway and came to an abrupt, ugly stop.
When I began my flight training several years ago, my first instructor told me something that I thought was common sense and that he didn’t need to tell me: Keep your eyes outside. I remember asking myself where else I would keep my eyes if not outside and wondering why he thought it necessary to give me that little piece of advice.
“Hey jerk face!” my conscience screamed. “What about PILOT IN COMMAND don’t you understand? Who makes the decisions around here? The line boy? Is this a good idea or not? If it’s not, grow a pair and do what you know to do!”
A friend and I discussed flying to Alaska as he knew a fellow who had expressed a desire to see the northern state. I called a pilot friend who became the other front seat. He was not yet multiengine-rated although he was a competent instrument-rated pilot. I reserved the Twin Comanche for mid-July 1982 for our flight.
My phone dinged as the text message came through. “Can you spend the day in Griffin tomorrow?” I had a lesson first thing in the morning, but was otherwise free. I asked Dan what was going on. “DC-3 flying. Emerg.” I didn’t need any other details and I made arrangements to change what would have been a lazy Saturday into one that would doubtlessly not be boring.
While I have written about the adventures or misadventures of flying during my career, I don’t wish to leave the impression that I was in constant danger or that my career could be characterized as hazardous; it wasn’t. There were times when I witnessed unbelievable beauty—sights that I wished my loved ones could have shared.
“Don’t you have to get permission from ATC or someone?” That’s the most common question I get when people discover I launch myself into the sky from a field. Confusion then turns to disbelief when I tell them “nope.” I usually let that little pot of incredulity simmer for a while; sometimes I’ll stir things with a “why would I need permission?”