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.
How could it have been seven years since my last time behind the controls of an airplane? I knew I had to get back in the cockpit but I was unsure of how to kick start my training. Just as planning for an intricate cross country flight can be broken down into small legs, I developed an easy and realistic plan to help take the pressure off of myself.
I’ve always wanted this: to command a jet, to be the captain. My copilot, who was twice my age, had flown F-4s in Vietnam and did 30 years at the airlines, looked at me and said, “So, what do you want to do?” I felt small. I had passengers in the back and a jet I barely understood, and I was trying to figure out what to tell ATC.
My wife and I were planning a long cross-country to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to attend my niece’s wedding on the 18th. Without the IFR ticket, we would have been driving, so there was some pressure to pass the checkride on the 14th. For this trip, I reserved my club’s Cessna 172RG for the long weekend and we departed on the morning of the 17th.
Delivery crews for Phantoms going to overseas locations were drawn from USAF Phantom units, and I was one of those on several deliveries, including one to the German Air Force, one to our unit in Soesterburg, Netherlands, and one to the Imperial Iranian Air Force. It was the delivery to Iran that, as Ollie North says, is “a story that deserves to be told.”
Bad weather for the weekend was expected, and the orders were: fly the Maule tomorrow to this airstrip, take a car to where the radio is, pick the radio up. By the time the chief pilot adjourned the meeting, it was pouring. I thought he was going to mention the weather, but no, he had made arrangements for the Maule to be free from work until Monday, and the plan was in motion.
It’s fair to say that many students, me included, never experience a true cross-country flight during their training. Instead, finding the balance of cost vs. flight time requirements leads to pilots selecting routes that consist of a 51nm leg that will keep the costs low but still meet the requirements.
What’s it like to be an active flight instructor? Some days are rewarding, some days are scary, but every day is different. This pilot shares the unique personalities he flew with over the years, from talented kids to eccentric entrepreneurs. Not every story had a happy ending, but a career spent in the cockpit made it worthwhile.