The first big airplane I ever flew was the Lockheed Constellation, affectionately known as the Connie. The Connie simulator was just a procedures trainer (no motion, no visual) so most of the flight training was done in the airplane. I confess I was scared to death! The biggest thing I had ever checked out in was the Piper PA-23 Apache.
I was a 4000-hour Mooney pilot (all in the same Mooney) several years ago when a friend, a well-known sculptor who was having three pieces fabricated in Princeton, New Jersey (39N), asked if I would fly him from our home base in East Hampton, New York (HTO), to check on how they were progressing. My friend was eager to fly, so we looked forward to our adventure on a chilly, blustery spring day.
“Pucker Factor,” for those unfamiliar with the term, is loosely defined as how tight a grip your butt gets on the seat in times of stress. Every pilot has a few Pucker Factor stories. My CFI probably has a couple dozen with my name on them. This is my story as to how, in a single flight, I emptied half of a 30-pound bag of luck and stuffed 50 pounds of experience into the empty space.
On April 21, 2015, I accomplished something that I could have never imagined doing at the age of 63. I got a Sport Pilot certificate, and then with just 113 hours and three months as a pilot, I took off for the trip of a lifetime. I departed from Kingsbury, Texas (85TE) for Sheboygan, Wisconsin (KSBM) to attend the 2015 National Ercoupe Convention (75th Anniversary) before continuing on to Oshkosh, Wisconsin (KOSH) for AirVenture 2015.
Spring, 2016. On the last week of my vacation, I did my favorite activity for any vacation: I traveled to the United States to fly. Since my last FAA checkride (Commercial Multiengine) had been over two years before, I was required to do this in order to act as pilot in command of an American registered aircraft again. But there was another guy to do an arrangement with: Colin.
The first solo is an event remembered clearly by most of us. This summer marks the 40th anniversary of that seminal event for me. As the years have blurred many of the details, two aspects remain crystal clear.
“And this time, go to at least one airport you’ve never been to before. Make it a towered field.” What’s the word for being excited and scared at the same time? Anxious? Yeah. That’s what I was. Six days later, I was off again.
In early 2016, my family was ready to see something new and beautiful. The past year had been tough — we nearly lost Dad to a stroke – then, during his recovery from the stroke, we determined that he needed a heart valve replacement, his second such surgery. By February, with a fresh reminder of life’s fragility and brevity, we began laying the groundwork for an August adventure to Iceland and Norway.
Cecil was checking with the pilots to see if they needed anything. As he did several times a summer, he stuck his head in my Cub and asked, “Do you have a bottle to pee in?” Everyone but me carried a bottle. I guess it was a young guy thing. He liked to kid me about it. “Nah, I can hold it.”
Within a few seconds of my announcement, a scenario that my former instructor and I had talked through several times became real right before my eyes – a pilot on the ground announced that he was departing runway 20. I saw him move from the hold short line onto the runway, and I announced that I was about to execute a go-around. He immediately responded, “Don’t go around! You’ve got plenty of room to land!”
My plan for the day was to spend two hours practicing three point and wheel landings at several area grass strips. Well, that was the plan until I heard the distinctive whine of jet engines and noticed a large shadow envelop my car as I made my way to the Cub’s home. There she was… VC-25A… almost low enough that it seemed I could reach out and touch her. It was that moment that my flight plan changed.
I suited up, gave the A4B a pre-flight check, fired up the turbine, received Air Traffic Control clearance for my first leg, and departed Los Alamitos in a dense brown smog blanketing LA. I broke through the haze at 5,000 feet and was vectored to a northwesterly course, skirting the California coast.
I woke up not feeling any older, followed by rolling over and quickly checking the METAR on ForeFlight. Good to go – awesome. After a homemade waffle breakfast I shot my instructor a text just to confirm he was still good flying with a quartering crosswind of nine knots.
Every pilot has what I call “memory” flights; flights which were remarkable, special. The thing about these “memory” flights is that often we don’t know we’re experiencing them, that they’re shaping us, until we reminisce some time later. You don’t always have to look back, though. Sometimes you just know that you are flying one of those “memory” flights.
“N12345, traffic, uhhmmm. 345, there is traffic pouring off of KLAL, I can’t advise you. Keep your head on a swivel. Good luck and squawk VFR.” Gulp. I’ve never heard anything like that before from ATC. He sounded like he was wishing me luck on my climb up the stairs to the gallows.
Suddenly I was aware that my pontoons were only hitting tops of waves now and then. I looked back and down and saw water and spray dripping out from the pontoons. I eased off my back pressure to accelerate in ground (water?) effect, our parallel “V” wakes, then spreading apart behind. We were flying!
I picked up a great (non-paying, volunteer) gig as a pilot flying an old Cessna 182 looking for sharks along the beaches between Wollongong and Ulladulla, New South Wales, Australia. Wollongong is about an hour and a half south of Sydney and a beautiful part of the world, especially in summer. Unfortunately that beauty can be spoilt somewhat by sharks swimming around in their natural environment.
As we approached the Twin Cities area, I was in control of the aircraft and maintaining a heading towards my house as I enjoyed the view of that peaceful summer evening. Suddenly, I felt a slight vibration in the stick and told Scott that something didn’t feel quite right. He immediately took control of the N3N as the engine RPM dropped dramatically.
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.