The Joy of Flight: A new spin on life

March 25, 2013

The Joy of Flight: A new spin on life

Passion built from fear, wonder of flight

By Phillip Graves

I wish I could pin down the day I fell in love with flying. There were three moments in my life instead of just one, but each filled the gap and set me on a course for a career in aviation.

The first was my father, who attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and told me stories of flying a Naval Aircraft Factory N3N and a Grumman Duck. Then there was my neighbor's dad, who had built a model of a Stearman Kaydet with a 3-foot wingspan and hung it in his study. One day, when I was a young man wondering what I should do with my life, he looked at me and said, "What do you want to do more than any thing in the world?" I looked at the model of that Stearman hanging from the ceiling and said, "I want to fly one of those." "Good," he said. "Now do it."

The last instance was when I was taking flying lessons in Port Angeles, Washington, in 1978. My instructor, Eric Rush, had me perform accelerated stalls in a Cessna 152 over the Puget Sound. Of course, I eventually found myself with too much rudder and not enough airspeed, resulting in an aerodynamic condition I had never experienced before: a spin — over the cold dark ocean waters, in a Cessna 152, at age 15 and a half. Needless to say, I let go of the yoke and resigned myself to certain death in Davy Jones' Locker.

All I remember was Eric saying, "Ah, this is called a spin, and to recover from a spin, we need neutral ailerons, power off, and opposite rudder to the rotation." I comprehended little of this, as I was mesmerized by the spinning sea beneath the little craft and the coming of certain doom. I wondered how long I would survive in the cold sea; I had heard of fishermen lasting several hours in waters near 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Somehow, the rotation stopped, and the ocean receded as Eric pulled the yoke back and brought the little airplane to level, normal flight. I couldn't believe my redemption. I looked over at this middle-aged instructor who had no sense of humor and saw a savior. Death had touched my young face and been cheated from its reward. We climbed back to 5,000 feet above the cold, dark sea, and I rejoiced in seeing the sun and Olympic Mountains as if for the first time. "I'm alive!" I said to myself. (I couldn't have spoken if I had wanted to.) I thought we would return to base and have a cold root beer, or what ever the World War I aces drank after cheating death over France.

Instead, Eric looked at me and said, "Now that you can get into a spin on accident, I'll show you how to do it on purpose!"

I couldn't believe my ears. It must be a mistake. No one in their right mind would return to the jaws of death on purpose. I watched him bring the little craft up to an impossibly nose-high attitude again and begin a steep turn to the left. I thought this was certain destruction — we had barely escaped doom only a moment ago, why was he bringing me back to face the grim reaper again?

All this happened in a few moments, of course, and my slack jawed expression did nothing to communicate my terror to Eric. I couldn't move. Even though he told me what he was doing, I could see only the cold, dark ocean spinning in front of the Cessna 152's windscreen.

Ailerons neutral, power off, opposite rudder. How could he be so calm? His bushy eyebrow arched upward as he looked sideways at my frozen expression. All I could think of was that I was going to die with this crazy man.

But miraculously, I didn't perish. I couldn't explain it, but he recovered from what I termed as the "death spiral," and then he proceeded to show me the intricate workings of said death spiral. It turns out that all you have to do is three simple actions: aileron, rudder, power. With that maneuver, I felt as if I could defeat Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen, shoot down Isoroku Yamamoto, and break the sound barrier all in the same afternoon!

After several attempts to match Raoul Lufbery and Eddie Rickenbacker's skills, we returned to the safety of our lines and our home field at Port Angeles. Eric made me demonstrate a landing in a crosswind, something I had never attempted before, but today could accomplish with ease. We taxied to the tiedowns — little white painted tires fastened to the ground with a rope in the middle — to anchor our ship of the air firmly to the earth. I could have done anything in the world that day.

You never forget certain moments of your flying career or particular voices. For the many experiences I have had in the last 28 years while flying all over the world, in all types of flying machines, that flight stays with me. I don't have to look at a logbook to remember it. I can close my eyes and hear the roar of the engine and see the sparkle of the sea.

If you fly for a living or for pleasure, you will always hear certain voices in your ear as you drive around the sky, the ones that matter anyway. If you listen to those voices carefully, you will have many successful flights.

If you teach, it is your voice that someone hears, the voice that brings them safely to earth once again, through the joy and the fear, and the joy and the wonder of flight. And then the cycle begins again.

Phillip Graves, AOPA 2162593, is a flight instructor and airline transport pilot with more than 12,000 hours. He also has flown relief missions in Africa for Air Serv International.

Posted Friday, October 27, 2006