April 1, 2001
By Dan Namowitz
I have an admission to make concerning my flying, or in the recent context, my lack of flying. The fact is that an unsightly layer of dust lies upon my aeronautical skills. Excessive contact with the ground has left me oxidized as an aviator, rustier than an old piece of scrap iron. Stating the case in local New England parlance, I am "wicked out of practice."
There is no acceptable explanation. Ground-bound distractions have run amok. Meanwhile, pilot friends and clients have been calling, seeking to sip at the fount of my supposed aeronautical wisdom. Guilt has set in.
Recently I drove out to the airport for a visit and could put up no defense when acquaintances speculated that I was just there to make sure I could still differentiate between the airplanes and the gas trucks.
Things sure have changed around here. A new building has gone up in my absence, and there are several new faces in the office. It's strange to walk into my old haunts and be greeted politely — in other words, like a stranger — by the hired help.
Fortunately some things never change. Henry, one of our airport bums, still stands by the door to the apron, looking as if he's trying to decide whether to go flying. His greeting — sort of a one-man chorus of boos, hisses, and other derision — puts off strangers, but I find it soothing. Joan, Weekend Voice of Unicom, sits behind the counter. She's a student pilot who flies at dawn and is a bigwig in our flying club. It's good to have someone like Joan in your club because after years of clunking people's heads together in local politics, she knows how to get things done. Like Henry, she's a true airport bum, but one who now gets paid to be there. The transients who come up to the counter and order fuel and lobster rolls don't know that the person taking their order is a Ph.D. and a well-traveled expert in the design of water-purification systems using a substance called peat. Peat, as I understand it, is what organic matter becomes when it is about halfway between simply piling up on the ground and turning into coal. Take my word for it — in Maine there's a lot of peat.
I am not so easily absolved of my aeronautical delinquency as can be achieved by simply dropping in at the field. There is a higher price to pay. The gods are angry and demand tribute — a sacrifice. The victims are to be my pride and dignity, a comeuppance many of my aeronautical acquaintances would probably be willing to pay to witness. I admit that the best thing that could happen would be having to take a checkride from Hell, administered by an appropriately diabolical being — a checkride that would tax my sweat glands to the point of exhaustion, sharpen me up on all fronts, and bring me into compliance with pilot-in-command recency-of-flight requirements for day flight, night flight, instrument flight, and tailwheel flight, all in one workover.
This is no idle fantasy. I have a particular high priest in mind for presiding over my aeronautical redemption. To many of the locals, he is even more of an acquired taste than I am — a nice way of saying that they would rather spend a summer night in a Maine mosquito bog than endure one of his training sessions. He is Wyatt Earp, Capt. Ahab, and Dr. Frankenstein all rolled together into a lobster-gobbling pilot from Maine. When Jib and I head out onto the ramp together, the old airport hands nod knowingly and say, "We know who the student is today!" Hence he is an essential component of my strategy for reclaiming my aeronautical good standing, and he has consented to the task.
We will need an appropriately temperamental aircraft for our day's work. We might even line up two machines: a complex instrument aircraft for the IFR and systems tasks, and a sufficiently headstrong taildragger for stick-and-rudder flying and for revisiting the joys of landing in blustery winds. Gust-blasted landings, stalls with yaw, airwork to practical test standards, and a session of instrument approaches with busted instruments — lots of busted instruments — all will help make the occasion memorable. We'll do systems reviews and emergencies galore. I'll fly from the left seat and the right seat. He'll demand that I slow-fly up and down the five-mile-long lake that defines our local practice area, climbing, descending, turning, and changing configurations — all to the demented wail of the stall horn. I won't see the lake because I will be flying while wearing true aviator glasses — the fogged kind you cannot see through.
We will "explore the stall characteristics of the airplane," as he dryly describes the exercise in a serious understatement of his true intentions. This includes a series of stall entries from power-on climbing right turns, where the typical single-engine airplane's true vindictiveness, if it possesses any, can be coaxed into the open. The airplane will probably disappoint him in this regard. As I rudder-stomp my way out of each incipient spin that he manages to devise through devilish combinations of power, torque, and configuration, he will furrow his brow, shake his head in disgust, and exclaim, "What a wimp this airplane is!"
In the traffic pattern at a local field, every landing will be a short-field, soft-field, no-flap, "you only have a thousand feet to work with" approach. My tormentor will call for lots of go-arounds, mostly from deep in the flare. We'll fly the few miles westward to our local towered airport, where I'll be required to use the Air Force-size runway to demonstrate crosswind technique by slow-flying a few feet above the centerline, now in a crab, now in a slip, to show him how it's done, and more important, to show him whether I remember how he once taught me to teach these all-important skills to others.
Tired? Of course. So he will suggest that we head down to the coast, which is in the soup, and shoot some instrument approaches in the ocean air. I flash back to a day years ago when the wind was so lively that an overly optimistic backseat passenger became airsick before we got beyond the boundary fence. We dropped him off but returned to the sky because the boss could not contain his enthusiasm about the educational benefits of shooting NDB approaches and flying holding patterns in a 30-knot crosswind.
I do not confide this to him, but it would be beneficial to repeat the hard labors of another long-ago flight larded with learning and surprises. Orbiting between layers in the holding pattern of an ILS approach, there was a solid deck a few dozen feet below us and another a thousand feet above. The ace in the hole was that the newly installed AWOS at the field was proclaiming a reassuring "no clouds below one-zero thousand" at the destination. I flew the approach with confidence bred of knowing that the conditions we faced at the moment were temporary. It was hard to believe that a mere five miles away conditions were so wonderful, but why complain? We were inside the outer marker, still solid, suffering a mild but spiteful choppiness. At times like that, I would remind myself that this was a rental airplane with an old engine, modest equipment, and little redundancy, despite the fancy rental rate. Approaching minimums, no evidence of a clear-air Utopia appeared. This was perplexing but demanded concentration and a quick review of the missed approach procedure. At minimums I transitioned into the missed approach procedure without even a glimpse of the field. On a second try the results were the same. Jib was delighted. Our friends on the ground informed us that on both attempts we were heard but never seen. The new AWOS deadpanned, "No clouds below one-zero thousand?."
Back at the home field we were delivered beneath the lowering ceiling by an airport surveillance radar (ASR) approach with the willing assistance of our local air traffic control facility, whose staffers needed practice guiding ASRs to stay proficient. Every pilot, instrument-rated or not, should make use of ASR approaches during training if they are available locally — it could make all the difference someday. Maintain control on instruments, fly the heading and altitude ATC assigns you, and you will get down.
Yes, I confess to the boss, who has stopped by the house today to try to get me "off dead center" on getting back in the air, this is the kind of workout I need. We reminisce about shared days aloft, and in my best imitation of an AWOS machine I bring a laugh by proclaiming, "No clouds below one-zero thousand?."
When we do go, the weather and the weather-reporting equipment probably will not be as capricious as they were that day. But it would be an error to assume that this will lead to an easier ride. If we are mocking the truth by flying in clear air, he will set standards for my performance that will make the practical test seem casual. Assigned altitudes will be set at such levels as 2,275 feet. ILS approaches will be flown first one dot below and then one dot above the glideslope to hone the skill that such precision maneuvering requires.
Recalling past workovers taken in our then-employer's charter aircraft, I know that while doing all of this I will discover that a circuit breaker has been pulled and the landing gear does not want to come down. When I extend it manually, I will look up to confront a failed (that is, covered) number-one nav. Good thing I am conditioned to start timing the approach from the outer marker and have noted minimums for the localizer-only arrival I now must fly on the number-two nav, which has no glideslope indicator. If, on having dealt successfully with these trials, he senses me relaxing, he will howl for one last go-around. Then he will pull back the throttle and say, "Never mind. Engine failure. Land. Keep it rolling only on the left main until Kilo Intersection. Then put the other wheels on the ground and clear at Lima." When I land, taxi clear, and sag exhausted in the seat, he will ask, "What do you want to do now?" But the question is confirmation that it is over.
It will be dark as we tie down and conduct the logbook-signing ceremony. The subject of an evening meal may now arise. If any of the airport stragglers are still around, by now they will have found their way over and inquired into the nature of our day's mission. Not wishing to appear boastful or tedious, we will confine ourselves to the traditional answer: "Just floppin' around."
Dan Namowitz is a writer and lapsed flight instructor living in Maine.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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