So You Want to Fly?
As we poked along, near Moreton-in-Marsh by now, we came upon another of those huge runways – this one adapted to creative reuse as both a truck-driving training school at one end (lots of maneuvering room) and a flight school of ultralights and microlights at the other. It would never happen in the USA. We were bemused. And drawn in. As pilots, we were itching to get the overview of all the hedgerows and villages, sprawling picture-book pretty across the rolling countryside. Would the school sell us rides? Hesitating, we idled the car down the concrete till we found a shed, a few winged moth-like contraptions parked outside. Neither of us had been in one before – this could be a first. Inside, the instructors acted as if they had been waiting for us. Fiona would be mine, Hal got the very heavyset guy. And the microlight. Hal was tall and hefty… he hid his angst over the strain the two of them would be putting on the little craft – quietly sharing his worry with me. Fiona liked the enclosed ultralight, so that was that.
Fiona was a slender, lovely, fair-haired young woman, coolly assertive and authoritative. Tall. I felt like a shrimp, beside her. But we were to be cabin mates for a brief half-hour, and I could take that. My logged flight time, many more than hers, had been built in single engine aircraft and gliders – this invention I was climbing into was another class… like a glider with a motor. But smaller.
So we signed up and rolled out… belted in firmly with the advisory to stay at or below 2,500’ – Fiona stated that was the permissible layer of airspace available to us in that area. The ceiling was flat and pale gray above us, a little disappointing.
I of course acquiesced to Fiona’s know-how. The little winged thing was, well, worryingly kite-like. At least we were out of the slipstream. Took a moment or two to get used to it. Then I found a bit of lift and attempted to circle in it to gain altitude – an action that startled and sent pretty Fiona into a dither. “Fiona,” I chided, “I’m a glider pilot!” Never mind. She reminded me of the altitude restriction for us in this area, so I straightened out and flew level. And did what I was there for – enjoy the overview, while carefully managing the controls. The hedgerows did indeed mark off one field from another, with intriguing peeks at medieval villages here and there – we could even see ancient footpaths trailing town to town across lots, avoiding roads. (Author Bill Bryson has written a definitive tome on his walk-about through Britain. Amazing place.)
The half-hour whizzed by, and we aimed back towards base (always within sight) to compare notes with Hal. He was happy. The avoirdupois of the two men seemed to have no effect on the microlight’s performance; they leaped aloft quickly upon the initial acceleration, much to his relief. He had no desire to have his corpse shipped back to the States. Me neither. Fiona was relieved to offload her curious American passenger.
We paid and thanked the flight school, clambered into our car, and wound our way through the byways onto an A something or other, and got back to our digs high on our day’s discoveries. In the air or on the ground, travel is wonderful, from tight little one-track roads to soaring the overview. Life was good.
So there I was, on a hot summer day, sharing a flight with fellow student Danny. Danny was a Boston bartender with flying dreams. (We all liked to split expenses in those days, when we could.) I’m in the pilot’s seat, and Danny is directing me over a big Boston area reservoir, to see if we can spot a sunken boat. We’re circling and circling, and Danny opens the window to see better. And cool off. He forgets the force of the slipstream – it could rip his nice sunglasses off and fling them into the reservoir… oops. And sure enough, whip-snap there they go. “Oh s**t” says Danny. But what can we do? Not a thing.
On boats, especially. I mean, there you are, rocking about in the breeze… Or maybe still tied up at the dock?
The silliest, saddest I ever heard of – way above the angst of fleeing glasses – was when a friend was getting ready to sail the Atlantic, taking along a techie know-it-all sailing pal. Captain John was a Master, one who gave advanced celestial navigation classes. (Having taken his classes, I can give five stars to his expertise.) He sniffed at his pal’s marine GPS (global navigation system) but was argued into it. “Hey, captain, we’re headed to Bermuda, you know!” Seemed like a cheat, to him. So our second-in-command places his treasured GPS on the flat rail, unsecured – I mean why not, they’re still at the dock, right? Caught up in the details of helping with casting off, he forgets the GPS. A motion catches his eye… he sees with horror from across the deck its response to the physics of the rocking boat – and watches helplessly as it slides with a happy splash into the harbor. Rushing to the railing, he watches it fade into the dark waters. Try to recover it? Not an option. They had cast off, they were moving out. Search in the harbor muck below? A time-waster. The salt water would have totaled it anyway.
OH yes… S**t happens. Especially when you’re not watching.
THE INNER VOICE
Can it save your life?
We all get nudges from our Inner Voice. Some say it’s your Conscience – some insist it’s your Guardian Angel – some say instinct. Or psychic events. Whatever you call it, I pay attention whenever I get that scalp-prickling Heads Up. You know… “Don’t get into that elevator with him.” And “Your kid is straight ahead through the crowd“ – and wow, there he is.
Another thing. If you listen, people will spill their guts when it’s something you really should know. It’s weird.
We were at the annual 7-day EAA Oshkosh, Wisconsin, fly-in event, a gathering of aviators from literally everywhere. It draws the aviation field’s smartest inventors and cleverest entrepreneurs. You rub elbows with fighter pilots, old and new test pilots – and astronauts. Lord Branson of Virgin Air shows up to tout his newest. They all come to strut their stuff. There’s a magnificent line-up of antique warbirds, a splendid separate area for ultralights… It’s vast. Acres of giant hangars are committed to sales booths – av-related products: avionics, aircraft parts, theme clothing… even jewelry and gorgeous paintings. And yes, grandly tented pavilions of new aircraft for sale… yum.
Some 15,000 aircraft and a cajillion motor homes assemble to offload aviation buffs for seminars, new products, view the latest aviation improvements and static aircraft displays – and watch, of course, fabulous flying shows. Rooms are booked a year in advance or more. Many camp in wing tents in the aircraft parking area.
A couple of years back, we were humming along in a van from Oshkosh to Appleton’s airport, with the pilot of his own Meridian – a guy who was going to give us a demo ride. The oh-so-upscale Piper Meridian is the fancied up version of Piper’s Malibu Mirage. (Remember aviation’s early days and the sweet little Piper Cub? They’ve come a long way, baby.) We were browsing, admiring – not buying. It’s SOP. Everybody does it. We had assured the folks at the Meridian pavilion that we were not in the market for a plane, especially not one that cost over $1,000,000, but they insisted we experience it. Pushy salesmen, but what the heck? Maybe we’d want to trade up from our sweet Cessna 210.
Ok. A free ride in a Meridian – why refuse it? They were hopeful. They were forceful. They were salesmen. We were weak.
So along the highway we rode. It was an hour’s trip away, our pilot-to-be got chatty. Apple-cheeked and gray-haired, a comfortable, nice-looking man. He had brought in his Meridian from another state on behalf of this company, to demo. As he prattled on, turning around to talk to me from the front seat, I started paying attention.
Whoa….! What’s this?! He was telling us how for terrible years he had suffered debilitating convulsions that ruined his life, until finally a chip was implanted in his brain, a nano-width from the focus of his illness, blocking its malfunction. My scalp crawled. Overwhelmingly, I sensed the Nudge. Hm.
“So… What does the FAA say about this?” (One must advise FAA of all medical problems and surgeries.)
“FAA? Oh – they don’t know about it.”
Oops. The hair stood up on my neck, like a dog.
I desperately peered at the leaden skies stretching way beyond the horizon – no blue. Appleton would be no clearer than Oshkosh. An escape! We could tactfully duck out of this. I glanced at my husband and said in a voice that carried, “You know, I really would rather go up on a nice day. With this overcast we won’t be able to experience the Meridian the way we’d like.”
The pilot looked at us and said “Oh, we can fly right up over the deck – I’ll file IFR (instrument flight plan to be in clouds). It will be sunny on top.” I pretended to chew this over (no way was I putting my life in his hands) and said – “I’m sorry. That doesn’t do it for me.” The consensus was to turn around, return to home base – and go on a sunny day.
The Inner Voice whispered “Atta girl;” my guardian angel smiled.
Maybe it would have been absolutely ok – I never later heard of an accident happening to this nice guy. But I just knew that day I wasn’t supposed to go with him.
3 Axes (plural of axis)
Learning to fly – to maneuver an aircraft – isn’t hard, once you get it into your head that it’s nothing like a car.
A plane can be a slippery eel. It maddeningly wallows and bobs if you don’t remember it’s got three axes to slither around on. Happily, it has controls to manage all that. It’s all a battle with centrifugal force and the pull of gravity.
Axes. The three are Pitch, Yaw, and Roll.
The Pitch axis – an imaginary line that runs one side to the other through the plane, wingtip to wingtip. The nose goes down, the tail goes up, spinning around on that string. Scary ride.
The yaw axis? Picture the plane skewered on a flag pole, ground to sky, right through the middle. Where it can rotate on the horizontal, around and around, flat spinning parallel to the ground. You see how pesky that could be?
Roll… the bead on the string line going through the plane front to back. Run amuck on that axis and you’d be like a screw drilling a hole through the sky.
A car is so different. Your four-wheeled ride moves comfortably about on a flat plane. The ground. No actual roll, pitch, and yaw, the movements on the three axes of the airplane. Well, you can skid any old which-way if you get sloppy. It moves on the straight ahead one, shall we say the pitch axis. Throws you back when you accelerate. Throws you forward when you brake. The car tilts to the side when you turn it, the faster the turn the steeper the tilt. Naturally you lean sideways into that turn – countering that force, the centrifugal force.
You’re used to doing that on the ground – your body is trained. But now you’re not on the ground. In the airplane, a coordinated turn keeps you firmly erect, vertical, to your seat – no leaning. If you’re leaning, you must be slipping. Not good. You can always tell the newbie by the way they sag sideways when the plane turns – the tilted horizon they see cues them to do that. At first, from habit, you do too. But that’s silly. You do not feel any centrifugal force – that is, not if the turn is done right.
“Coordinate, coordinate, coordinate” was the muttered mantra.
Another thing. Your plane won’t back up, like a car. You have to work around that little handicap.
Alert. You’ll have to deal with a lot of “negative transfer”. It can be hilarious, it can be embarrassing. So often in the beginning days, when you’re parking your car say, at the grocery store? Or maybe at the watering hole… (At the “O” Club, Officers Club, military fighter pilots like my old friend “afterburner Art” were ever thumping backs and raising a glass to still being alive, after successfully rolling, pitching and yawing – dog-fighting – around the sky.)
So here you’re coming in for the “landing juice” (post-flight nip) to celebrate – or to settle your rattled nerves. Or scarf a burger, if food is your comfort thing. You roll into the parking place, checking outside the car, right and left, to make sure the wingtips will clear whatever is beside you – then give yourself a head-slap. No wings on the car, ninny. And when you fumble for the fuel/air mixture control to choke off your engine, you panic. Where’d it go?? That’s “negative transfer”.
Learning to fly is not easy, but it’s a fine challenge, and it’s fun. You can do it. Probably.
But before I could get into the air, I had to speak that Arabic numeral thing… the new language. He reached over, clicked on the radio, and twiddled a knob. We listened to a string of babbled numbers coming from the speaker. (The ATIS, automated terminal Information Service, telling us airport stuff.) And then he handed me the microphone. “Call Ground Control. Say who you are (aircraft ident), where you are (location on field), with the ATIS, and your intentions (what you want to do).” I took the mic numbly, looked at it, put it to my lips, and said “Hanscom Ground, November four seven 22 Foxtrot at the terminal, taxi for takeoff with the ATIS.” Oh believe me I didn’t do it like that right away – we had sat parked and practicing that, running through the script for at least 15 times before I could get it right. Stiff with fright, I wheezed and gasped out the transmission – and sank back in my seat. “Good,” he said, “Now let’s change the frequency off the ATIS to transmit, and try again.” I could have hit him. So I gasped it all out again, and listened for Ground to talk back. None of which I could unravel.
Later back at the flight school counter, the guys’ eyes turned to me as we walked back in. “Wow” they said… “You sure sound sexy on the radio.” (Tower transmissions were loud-speakered in at the school.) Startled, baggy eyes looked me, and I at him. “That was a voice gripped by terror” he said. And chortled. And I laughed. Weakly.
The moment I had fantasized, been dreaming about, anticipating with sweaty palms – had arrived. Two weeks before, my world had rocketed out of humdrum grey with a mere phone call. I was poking around for a glider ride. (Missed out on that during a ski vacation out west, and I really wanted to do it.) Midwinter, not much glider activity. “You have your power license?” the man on the other end of the phone had asked. I was stunned, speechless. Women fly! Women fly! Not to overstate and get irreligious, but like Paul on the road to Tarsus, I right there experienced an epiphany. “Why, no…” I said – and he responded with “Come on down for an introductory flight!” OH yessss…
As I entered into this new world, I looked at the airspace around me. Not empty. Miles of cubic measures of atmosphere hummed invisibly with busy electrons… electrons passing along communications in strings of Arabic numerals – av-speak. It was the language of aviation: aircraft identifications, compass headings, altitudes – rattled off by male voices (a female voice was an anomaly back then) and I had to learn to understand it, and to speak it. I was breathless. It was all bizarre gibberish, of course. In we had climbed, closed the doors and buckled our belts. The panel full of dials in front of me was puzzling, intimidating, marked with lots of numbers – not my forte. Never mind. We were going to fly! And I was at the controls. We had first done a walk-around outside with explanations of things like hinged wing ailerons, flaps and tail rudder. And I’d seen the tiny hole, static port, on the side – that senses the pressure of passing wind. It works along with air ramming into the Pitot tube to calculate airspeed (that hangs pointing forward from a wing, providing a hidey-hole for bugs… when not flying. So at rest – cover it up .) “Ok… Listen” said the middle-aged, obviously impatient, baggy-eyed instructor. You think you wanna fly? Well then pay attention,” he barked. “Learn it right.” I chose not to be insulted. He explained the enigmatic dials, especially the turn coordinator. “Coordinate, coordinate, coordinate” he said –“with the ailerons and rudder I showed ya, keep that little ball centered, make all your movements smooth and together to get a propah turn,” he rumbled. “Use a light touch. Think fragile eggs. It will take lots of practice.” He continued. “To turn right, put some pressure on the right rudder with your right foot, and, with hands on the yoke at the same time, tilt it a bit to the right. When you get the aircraft turning like you want, stabilize its position – take the pressures off foot and yoke…. Now you’re what we call ‘established in the turn.’ See that little ball there? Keep it in the middle.” He pointed to a small round window showing a needle at its bottom that swung left and right, with a ball in the center at its base. The turn coordinator. (In principal, the ball worked like a carpenter’s level.) “But also pull back a little bit on the yoke” he said.
(Yolk? Looked to me like a half steering wheel). “The turn adds weight to the plane, so it wants to sink. It’s physics. You know – centrifugal force.” I only knew centrifugal force from driving around a curve too fast. I nodded, “Right, ok.” Oh no… I’m supposed to understand and do this? I can’t fake it! Slippery little weasel, that plane… wobbling, bobbling and weaving up and down, all over the sky as I over-controlled everything. I laughed at the erratic performance.
Some would have vomited.
He peered at me and said, “It’s not a car! It operates on all the dimensional planes, like a fish – not just the flat one we walk on.” “Right,” I nodded wisely. I could look wise. I had to learn about yaw – the nose’s back and forth action on the vertical axis, that imaginary line up and down through the center of the plane, like a weather vane. Yaw, then, was a back and forth motion eliminated by rudder pressures. And I had to learn to control unwanted pitch, the upsy-downsies of the nose on the horizontal axis (line reaching across the plane, wingtip to wingtip) – often caused by panicked fingers clutching the yoke, pulling it toward you. (Well, you have to hold it up don’t you, to keep it from falling?) And the roll… the danged roll, action around the axis that goes from the nose to the tail. A bead spinning on a string, if you will. No spinning please on any of those three axes. We don’t want rolls, spins, or plunges. (Not till you take up aerobatics…) So we learned about control surfaces, and the fine points of pressures, and skids and slips. Oooofff.
You know about practice? They call it, in lesson-speak, the Law of Frequency. It does make perfect. So learn it right.
“JEEZ, DON’T GROUND-LOOP IT!”
“Jeez! – don’t let it ground-loop!!!” Shrinking from the baggy-eyed bully as he grabbed the controls, I glared at him. “Hey wait, dammit – ground loop?!” He relaxed his grip as we rolled out, giving me back the rudder to steer the wheels (and the yoke to manage the ailerons). And explained. Quietly. He got hold of himself. “A ground-loop is an un-commanded sudden spin-around on the runway, possibly yanking us off of it and wreaking havoc with dipping scraping, wingtips – caused by after you’ve got the plane aligned straight to the runway – the wheels still are not.” Cigarette Breath frowned at me. “Your car can’t crab-sidle down the street, can it? Neither can the plane. Straighten the rudder to straighten the wheels, babe, use your feet to straighten the rudder!” It had been a cross-wind landing – the wind was blowing in a bit from the side; I was learning how to handle that. We had been to another airport to do some learning… there breezes had been directly on our nose. He always liked to go where he could buy a hamburger, to indulge his pot belly. My lessons appeared to be his transportation to said burger joints. I was disgruntled. At least I liked them too – juicy ones.
Well – the wind seemed always to be drifting in from the side. Crosswind landings are a critical part of the flight lesson syllabus. Do you crab? (angle the plane to point into the wind as you descend on final approach to the touchdown point, then last second rudder the plane straight to put wheels to the concrete), or do you slip it? (cross-control the ailerons so the craft slices down through its descent to touchdown, kind of like a knife leaning on its edge) and tip-toe the touch-down with wheels straight – the wheel into the wind touching first? I chose crabbing and didn’t straighten out in time, so grumpy Bubba grabbed the controls. Good thing. In time I developed the right technique. I learned so well that for my Flight Exam I had to find a runway with a crosswind. Almost couldn’t land in a direct headwind. Those were the days. In fact, in the earliest days of aviation, planes used pastures. There were no runways per se. One could always head directly into the wind. Crosswind landing? No such thing.
But that ground-loop. A friend who was taking lessons with me did one, on solo (by herself), scared herself right witless and never went back to the airport. Ahhh, she shouldn’t have been flying anyway, if a little sudden whip-circling on the runway could scare her off. Yes, she could have been hurt. Nobody said you couldn’t get hurt, doing this. “If it cain’t kill you, it ain’t a sport.”
Oh, the ground can indeed rise up and smite you. You have to learn not to let it, to earn the glories of flight.
Something for birds and boys, right? That’s what my parents’ world had me think. (Daddy was the flyer…. We were nee the Army Air Corps, then the US Air Force.) I believed that – until one day, way into my own grown-up life, somebody said “Naw, we don’t do gliders. But – you have your power license?” (What??? Women fly?…Holy cow. Women fly!!)
I had been intently searching the yellow pages, fruitlessly phoning around for a glider ride in the middle of a deep Massachusetts winter. I’d been to Aspen to ski, and my hustling ski instructor had promoted a Sunday glider ride – he was selling them, also being a glider instructor. I had been quite fired up for that – soaring over the Rockies! Sunday brought a perfectly crystal clear day, but Saturday night at Rocky Mountain altitudes the thermometer had bottomed out at -40F below zero… And at 10 in the morning temps had only risen to -20 in dazzling crystal clear air. We were miserably frozen out of our rendezvous with soaring. Couldn’t chip or chisel out the glider, couldn’t start the tow plane. My disappointment was stupidly huge – and that surprised me.
So back at home in my warm living room, I was intently on a quest. I glanced behind me to see if this voice at the other end was actually talking to me, the question was so unexpected… What on earth? A power license? What, like an airplane? Me, fly??? What an epiphany. A revelation. The world was not at all as I had believed. As this flight school rep on the other end of the line was saying I should “Come on down, have an introductory lesson!” I knew that I was going to fly.
It was during the heyday of VA benefits, and many returning soldiers were using theirs to learn to fly… I had to wait for two long weeks for my first lesson. By the time I was actually rolling down a runway and lifting off, I was rampode to get airborne.
I hoped the wait had been worth it.
He became my all-knowing god, my flight instructor. He was a scrawny-legged, pot-bellied, baggy-eyed, beyond middle-aged smoker. But total trust is needed, you see, to teeter around the skies in a little trainer. I had to believe he would not let me plummet and die, no matter how closely I dangled the plane on the edge of what I came to know as the “stall”—dreaded state of not flying, but falling nose first to death. So I trusted… and eventually learned.
I had waited impatiently for two weeks for this intro flight. “Here, you take it,” he said, telling me to add power and climb aloft. Eagerly I grabbed the yoke and pulled… I pointed the nose up toward the sun, and pushed in the throttle as he had shown me. “No NO NO!” he yelled—”It’s not a rocket!!”
He yelled a lot. Good thing, because his cigarette voice droned at the exact same frequency as the engine, and I couldn’t tell what he was saying unless he was high-volume shouting. He made me nervous. Until one day, after many sessions, I peeked sideways at him—he wasn’t yelling. He was slumped asleep. I smiled to myself. He trusted me enough to sleep! I knew then that I had learned the game. It was a rush. Soon after came the solo, the solo cross country—and the flight test. And then the fun began . . .
But before, there was the exhilarating initiation. With the occasional “oops.”
I’ll tell you about those, if you like.