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October 1, 1995
Although I always considered myself a pilot, I discovered one day not long ago that my pilothood had slipped my surly bond. It happened, strangely enough, while I was riding a motorcycle.
Actually, I was standing next to the motorcycle while a New York City cop stood next to me, writing tickets. It seems that in my selfish urge to avoid slamming into pedestrians and other busy mid-afternoon traffic, I had blatantly ignored a small sign clearly posted 20 feet high on a light pole. The sign said that I couldn't be on that block at that time unless I was a cab carrying passengers. The cop astutely noticed that I wasn't, and once she pulled me over, she asked why I hadn't seen the sign.
"I guess I'm a little dazed," I said. "I've been on the road for some time."
With her fingernail she underlined the expiration date on my driver's license; according to that date, George Bush was still president. "It must have been quite a trip," she said.
She was right about that. When the expiration notice had arrived in the mail, I was too busy climbing the corporate ladder to take the time off to visit the Department of Motor Vehicles, and eventually I forgot about it; then came the recession and layoff and unemployment, and I got too busy trying to start my own business — and too hard up for cash — to keep up my pilot certificate as well.
But things were getting better all the time, and as I rode home, clutching a fistful of tickets after my brush with the law, I vowed to bring all my licenses up to date, no matter the pain, time, or cost. It would be fun, like an updated version of one of those old-time races between the automobile and the aeroplane; the simple and mundane versus the complex and sublime. Ironically, while I didn't have a clue about how to begin renewing my driver's license, the process of getting current again seemed instinctive. First call: My FAA-certified physician, the doctor whom I would never visit if I were ever really sick — no use giving him any ammunition.
"How did you find out about us?" the aviation medical examiner asked me in his office.
"Uh, I've been coming to you for medicals since 1987," I said.
He asked me how I was feeling (super), had me urinate into a cup (a coordination test?), and weighed me. Then he checked my eyes on the vision and color deficiency charts, took my blood pressure, prowled around on my abdomen with his fingertips, peered into my ears and eyes (looking for signs of intelligent life, I presume), and tossed a baseball at me when I didn't expect it. Ten minutes and one $75 check later, he pronounced me fit to fly.
Soon afterward I called the DMV about the process of renewing my driver's license. There, speaking with the Rudest Employee of the Month, I learned that with a license as expired as mine, I would have to start from ground zero: the written test (for both car and motorcycle), then a five-hour safety class, then the road test (car, then motorcycle). No exceptions.
So early one day I showed up at the DMV in Lower Manhattan, stood in line two hours to breeze through both 20- question written tests in less than 10 minutes, then stood in line for an additional three hours for the privilege of reading one line on an eye chart and then writing two checks totaling $76 for my learner's permits. That Saturday I attended the safety course at a driving school, where, after paying 20 bucks and watching five hours of grainy videotapes, I learned these important safety tips, which I will gladly pass along to save you from ever attending such a course: Don't drink and drive — and wear a safety belt if you do.
I did learn something else: The waiting period for the road test is almost three months; but for an extra $50, the driving school could get me an appointment in just three weeks. No thanks — I'd rather spend the money flying.
Which, in fact, was my next course of action. I called "my" long-forgotten FBO, Nassau Fliers, out at Republic Airport on Long Island, and scheduled some time with an instructor. And since I had some vague recollection that they'd changed the airspace on me at a time in the distant past, I ordered the Airspace Reclassification video from Sporty's Pilot Shop.
The night before my lesson, I quickly reviewed all the things about flying that, in the dim recesses of my mind, I remembered once needing: Everything from the basics of communications to the sluggish V-speeds of a Cessna 152, with a quick review of the operator's manual thrown in for good measure. Anxiety knotted in my stomach — Who knew what else I was forgetting? — and I resigned myself to at least five to possibly 10 hours of flight time before I could get signed off again.
Thanks to my learner's permit and close to two decades of motorcycle-riding experience, I made it safely to the airport and met my new instructor at the appointed time. Stephen Difede was quiet and thin, had round hazel eyes, had logged 1,700 hours, and was nine years old when I first gripped the yoke of a 152. He saw nothing wrong with this old pro's preflighting technique, but he did seem amused when I got my legs and torso tangled in my headset's mile-long cord.
Though I hadn't flown for more than three years, the things that mattered in good flying now started rushing back to me as if I were, well, on autopilot. In a Zen-like state of mental detachment I went through ATIS, ground, taxi, runup, tower; takeoff into the gusty 10-knot crosswind went swiftly, and soon we were climbing steadily toward Long Island Sound. The sky was a beautiful bright blue, and we could see the skyline of Manhattan some 25 miles away. The caked rust seemed to rapidly flake away from my flying skills. It felt delightful to be behind the controls again.
"Have you had many students in recurrency training?" I asked Steve.
"A few," he said. "Right now one other guy besides you."
"How long does it usually take?"
"For you it's not going to take long."
"It's like riding a bicycle," I said, immensely pleased but trying to behave modestly. He explained that after a little practice I would take my flight review, for which the FBO required an hour of ground school. So we set out to get me that practice. After the requisite clearing turns, we dropped into slow-flight mode; and somehow I kept heading and altitude under control while the stall-warning horn protested in shrill grunts. Next we tried power-off stalls. I lost too much altitude in recovering the first time, though the second was passable. Then came the power-on stalls. The first one broke hard to the right, and my reflexes tried to control it with the ailerons, which made the airplane dip, bob, and fall until it stabilized. We tried it again; and this time I overrode my impulses and kept the wings level with the rudder until the stall broke, though now some other reflex fired at random and I shoved the nose so far down that Long Island Sound filled the windscreen and wind whistled past the airframe. My headphones slipped forward off my crown.
"You don't have to push the nose over so far," Steve said calmly; and after I leveled off from a 500-foot dive, he suggested we head back in for some landings. I came in high, fast, and hard on the first one — bounced, swerved, hit, and roared off again. The second seemed to have gained no benefit from the experience of the first, unless it believed its purpose was to come in higher, faster, and harder, and bounce farther than its predecessor. On the third I ordered a full stop from the tower and managed to gain some control over the mysterious combination of airspeed and altitude to land the poor machine without that sickening thud. We taxied back to Nassau Fliers.
"How many landings was that?" Steve asked, filling out the log.
"Do the bounces count?"
"No — you don't have to pay for those."
At the debriefing he gave me good marks overall, ignoring my carrier-style landing technique, while cautioning about my dive-bomberesque stall recovery. And he asked me to review the airspace reclassification tape. Still giddy from the renewed experience, I made another appointment with him for the same time the very next day. That evening I watched the tape, and I remember thinking that all the changes seemed reasonable and appropriate — and that nonetheless I would forever and always want to refer to Class B airspace as a TCA.
The next afternoon wasn't nearly as clear as the first. This time we took off and headed south, squeezing between the TCA and the ARSA — rather, the Class B airspace to the west and the Class C to the east — for the smooth air over Jones Beach and the Atlantic Ocean. While we were still climbing out, he handed me his Foggles, and I put them on. I pegged 70 knots and a 500-fpm climb rate on my heading and kept the wings level, but then he started vectoring me right and left, and I found myself wishing he'd make up his mind, while I kept telling myself to scan. Still, I held the machine steady and precise. Steve was thoroughly pleased with my instrument work; and though I tried hard not to show it, so was I.
"Keep your head down," he said. "I have the airplane." Twice I felt us going through some strange gyrations; twice I looked up to find Steve had wreaked havoc on my delicately balanced instrument panel, and twice I quickly restored order.
"How do you feel? Do you feel comfortable with flying?" he asked.
I have always felt at home in the air. All my earthbound concerns vanish for a time behind the controls of a machine that flies, lulled away by the drone of the engine, by the more pressing needs of a complex machine that requires constant and complete attention in an environment poised to turn hostile without notice. I felt so comfortable that I wanted never to leave the cockpit again.
"Yeah, fine," I answered, and suddenly the engine fell silent. I hit my best glide speed; chose a nice, fat, empty beach- side parking lot down below; and slowly descended on it while running through the emergency checklist and pretending to restart the engine. Of course, it was finally reignited before we busted any FARs, and we headed back for additional touch and goes.
This set of landings was more exotic: a soft-field landing, which ended nose-high and with a chirp of the main gear; a short-field (with 50-foot obstacle) with much the same gentle conclusion; and finally, a no-frills, no-flap landing to a full stop, which felt even smoother than the first two.
After taxiing back, Steve suggested that we take the time for the one-hour ground school refresher. Though I was reluctant to tackle the late afternoon traffic on the Long Island Expressway — after all, I had only a learner's permit for the motorcycle — I hesitantly agreed to stay. After the hour was up, I asked when I should come back for the flight review.
"That was it — the two flights and this. Congratulations!" Steve said. "Like riding a bicycle."
My license has probably expired for that, too.
So once again I'm legal — in an airplane, that is. That's the beauty of an airman's certificate; once you earn it, you have it for life — as long as you can still pass the medicals, live up to the 90-day currency standard, and keep up with the flight reviews. There's comfort in that, especially after being trapped in one of the more odious circles of Dante's Hell, the DMV. I have only six weeks left before my automobile road test, by the way. And once I pass it, I'll be able to sign up for the motorcycle road test, since I'll have to have it to rent a van to carry my bike to the DMV. Don't ask; it's one of their rules.
And I swear, I'll never let another license expire ever again.
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