Sunday, June 3, 2012

Flying and Sailing

Flying airplanes and sailing boats are similar as both activities are ruthlessly unforgiving of mistakes and errors in judgment.  It is true that virtually anyone who wants to learn to fly or sail can take the appropriate classes, study the textbook, and learn much from a knowledgeable teacher.  If all goes well, you end up with a license which says you are “competent” and can proceed on your own.  Basically, a new license is a license to learn more, providing you do not kill yourself while trying to learn.

Aviators and skippers then set out on their own and begin to acquire experience.  No matter how good your teacher was, he can’t cover everything.  One is soon confronted with a situation that wasn’t covered in class or the textbook.  This is when your native intelligence, what you have learned, and past experience comes into play to aid you in devising a plan to deal with the new situation.  If your improvised solution works, you have acquired a new item for your bag of tricks, to be pulled out if a similar situation arises in the future.  You also get the right to regale your buddies with how badly you messed up and how brilliant you were in coming up with a successful plan to defeat death one more time.

After one has acquired much experience and seemingly filled the trick bag, one may have a tendency to get arrogant and complacent, which can be potentially disastrous.  As your skill level rises, so also might your mistaken belief that you can handle just about anything.  You might get sloppy, which is not good in an airplane or boat.  Let me give you an example, before I get to my story.
A few years ago I owned a 1949 Mooney Mite.  It was a low-wing fabric-and-wood airplane with a retractable landing gear, variable pitch prop, flaps, stick and a sliding canopy.  It had the same airfoil as a P51 Mustang.  It was a hotrod among airplanes and I loved it with a passion reserved only for my lovely wife.  It was not difficult to fly, but it had two unusual flight characteristics that had to be mastered immediately.

First, it was very slick aerodynamically.  Have you ever pedaled your bicycle as fast as you could go and then suddenly stopped pedaling?  Your speed would continue for a few seconds and then the bicycle would start to slow down.  “Coasting,” we call it.  The Mite did the same thing.  If you flew downwind to land, you would be turning 2300 rpms and doing 120 knots.  If you pulled the power off to 1000 rpms, the Mite would coast awhile before it started slowing down.  It was the only airplane I ever flew that would do that.  It is not a big deal, just unusual.  

 Second, it was extremely sensitive to control input.  If you continued your landing, you waited till the airspeed dropped below 90 knots, so you could put the landing gear and flaps down.  This created drag which reduced airspeed to 70 knots.  If you moved the stick forward a quarter inch while set up on final approach, you would find yourself doing 90 knots, instead of the proper 70 knots.  Not good. The Mite was not going to stay on the runway doing ninety knots, even if the tires did not blow.  Of course there is no excuse for letting this happen.  Just plain sloppy.

But on occasion I let it happen.  So I developed a technique to deal with the unwanted airspeed.  I flicked the stick all the way to the right and fed in full left rudder, which had the effect of skidding the airplane sideways.  It is called a “slip” in aviation circles.  Sideways creates more drag and slows the airplane, dramatically, very quickly.  As soon as the airspeed was back to 70 knots, I neutralized the controls and continued the landing.  Always successfully, I might add.  But that is not the point.  It was sloppy flying and there is no excuse for that, ever.  There is a word used to describe sloppy pilots, they are called dead.  Which gets me to my story, a confession really.

I invited a young pilot, Jeremy, to fly with me to a Saturday morning pancake Fly In at a small grass airstrip which runs parallel to State Road 26, just outside of Kokomo.  The strip was only about five minutes from Kokomo’s airport and was reputed to be short and narrow.

While we taxied to the active runway at Kokomo, I listened to the aviation weather channel  tell me that the wind at Kokomo was from 090 at seven knots. (The wind was blowing directly west.)  Since airplanes are to take off and land into the wind, I chose runway 05 to depart Kokomo.  This would put seven knots of wind forty degrees off my nose on takeoff.  No big deal.  Not much of a consideration at all.

So off we went and arrived over the proposed landing strip.  I immediately noticed that it was indeed short and tight.  I told Jeremy that I was going to make a practice approach without landing to check out the situation.  I dropped down to pattern altitude heading due west parallel with the runway.  I noticed that the entire side of the runway paralleling SR 26 was lined by trees. Tall trees.  So was the left side.  And the far western end was blocked by tall trees, a large hanger, a house and various outbuildings.  

As I passed over the eastern end of the runway, which had no obstructions, Jeremy commented, “Man, this is short…and tight.”  True enough.

  “Piece of cake for men like us,” I boasted. As I set up for the actual approach, I said, “I am going to drag it in low and slow and touch down in the first ten feet, so we will have plenty of room to stop.”
Jeremy nodded and said, “Sounds good to me.” 

 I flew the approach perfectly and plopped Tweety Bird down exactly where I wanted.  And that is when my nightmare began.  I almost killed us both.

Remember that seven knot wind?  Well, instead of blowing up my nose, it had increased to nine knots and was a tailwind, throwing me down the runway, greatly increasing my landing ground roll.  So I hit the brakes early and hard.  Tweety started skidding and was definitely not slowing down.

   Remember that it was early in the morning.  The dew was still on the grass, creating a slippery, glass-like surface.  Tweety was NOT slowing.  And I had fallen into a bad habit of retracting the flaps as soon as I had safely landed.  Retracting the flaps killed all significant lift.  To get it back, I would have to put the flaps down.  Again, no big deal, but it takes a few seconds for the electrical system to crank them down.  Of course, I was so good, I never had to go around for a second pass.  Right!  Until then!

Jeremy looked over at me and said, “You’re not going to get it stopped!”  He was absolutely right. We were going to end up literally in the hangar at the end of the strip.

“I’m going around!”  I stated.

I immediately firewalled the throttle and put the flaps down, as Tweety hurtled toward the open hangar at the end of the runway.  Tweety staggered into the air, hanging on her propeller.  She was barely climbing.  That’s when the stall warning alarm went off.  As it screamed in the cockpit, she started buffeting and rolling left and right.  The controls went mushy.  I knew I was right on the edge of a stall.  When airflow is disrupted over the wing, if left uncorrected, the airplane will roll over and start to spin.  This can be lots of fun when you are 4000 feet above the ground and there is plenty of altitude to recover from the spin, but when you are 100 feet above the ground, you are going to be a smoking hole in the ground. Definitely not good.

I was out of options.  There was nothing else I could do.  And that is when I saw the trees at the western end of the runway.  Very tall trees.  Three of them.  

About this time, Jeremy yelled, “We’re not going to get over them!”  He was right.  We weren’t going to clear them.

The tallest tree on the left was stoutly made with thick canopy.  The middle tree was a little shorter with not as thick a canopy.  The tree on the right was a little taller than the middle tree, also with a scraggly canopy.  If you have to go down in a wooded area, you are taught to pick a short, thinly canopied tree to land in, theoretically minimizing structural damage to the airplane.   Once in a while, someone gets too low and flies through the trees cutting branches with the prop and remains airborne and survives.  Rarely.  I was not feeling lucky.

With Tweety hurtling toward the trees, I had to think of something or Jeremy and I were dead.  So what I did was at the last possible second, I rolled Tweety into a right bank to put her between the middle tree and right tree.  Her right wing was almost pointed straight down at the ground.  Her nose started to drop to the right.  I slammed in full left rudder to try to keep her flying and out of the developing spin.  The stall warning continued to scream, drowning out the roaring, stressed engine.

“Hang on!”  I yelled to Jeremy.

“Not going to make it!” shouted Jeremy.

And that is when to my absolute astonishment, Tweety slipped perfectly between the trees. I had managed to essentially thread the needle with an airplane. I instantly put her level and slammed the control wheel forward to pick up airspeed.  The stall warning indicator went silent.  The shuddering stopped and she was flying again.  I pulled back on the wheel and she started climbing.  We had made it!

I looked at the left leading edge of the wing and then looked over at Jeremy and asked, “Did we hit anything?  I didn’t feel any bangs.  How’s the wing look?”

He turned and scanned the leading edge of the right wing.  “She looks good!  I don’t see any dents and I didn’t feel us hit anything.   I think she’s OK.”

“Let’s land over at Glendale.  It is only a mile away and check her out.  We may have damaged the tail or are dragging some branches,” I said.

“Good idea,” said Jeremy.  “And by the way, that is the dumbest thing I have ever seen you do.  We ought to be dead, you know.”

“Yeah, I know, but not today.  Skill and daring won out over treachery and deceit.”

We landed safely at Glendale, got out and walked around Tweety, who was undamaged.  I went into the empty pilot’s lounge and bought two Cokes for us.  Nothing like a caffeine boost to an adrenaline-loaded nervous system.  We sat down on the lawn chairs outside the lounge on the patio.  

Then, I started shaking.  My hands would not stop quivering.  Jeremy looked over at me and said, “You are as white as a ghost.  You all right?”

“I am fine.  I’m just winding down.  We got lucky today. That should have killed us.  But it didn’t.”  I started laughing and Jeremy joined in.  About that time, a truck pulled up next to the patio and a pilot-friend of mine got out and wordlessly walked around Tweety.

“I don’t see any damage. Am I missing it?”  He asked.

“Not a scratch,” I replied.

“That was a fancy bit of airmanship I saw, you slipping her between the trees like that.  Not bad at all. Very impressive. Where’d you learn that?”

“No where. Made it up,” I said.

“You both ought to be dead,” he said, very seriously and matter-of-factly. “But nicely done, none the less.”

“It was adequate…for the occasion,” I offered.

“Well, I’m out of here.  Glad you’re not hurt.  I’ll tell the boys back at the breakfast that you’re both OK.  They all say that when you come back next year for the breakfast, you should plan on staying longer.”

“I’ll do that,” I replied.

My friend drove away. Jeremy and I loaded up and flew back to Kokomo’s airport.

I have tried to make this flying tale humorous.  Maybe I have succeeded, maybe not.  I can tell you that I still have nightmares about that flight.  They always begin with the unstoppable ground roll and end with just before I slipped between the trees.  I always awaken in a cold sweat.  Maybe that is the airgods way of reminding me that carelessness can make me dead.

Finally, it is no secret that I have always tried to live up to the flying standard set by my dad, a naval aviator.  I sometimes wonder what he would have thought if he had been standing there in the open hangar, eating pancakes, and watching me screw up so badly.  I think he would have shook his head and said internally, “I taught that boy better than that,” and when I rolled it to the right and slipped away to fly another day, he would have chuckled and said,“Nicely done.  Cheated death one more time.”

Mike out.


  1. Mike - I am still savoring your every word. Your story reminded me of a tiny air strip in Southern CA, barely regulation length at 1,500' (later lengthened to 1,700'). Meadowlark airport was located in Huntington Beach, CA just a mile from my beloved Pacific Ocean. I cut my teeth at Meadowlark in a little taildragger, a 1947 Cessna 140, a rag wing. Vintage aircraft. I still have that plane but have replaced it's 65 Continental engine twice in nearly 40 years. That baby's got such a glide ration, I can put 'er down in a football field. Meadowlark was run by a guy named Art Nerio who "policed" the airport on his bicycle and would chase you down to your transient tie down spot to collect the $2.00 landing fee. I remember a husband and wife team who flew a couple of Stearman (I want to make that plural and spell it "stearmen") and it was really sumthin' to watch them take off, one right behind the other. They used to haul advertisement banners over the beach and I loved seeing them at the airport and over the beach when I was surfing or just catching some rays on the white sandy beach. Sadly, Meadowlark was closed down in the mid to late '80s, but your blog post flooded me with vivid and bittersweet memories of my early days in aviation. Man, I wish I could turn back the hands of time. Thank you for giving me these memories back. What a gift!

  2. Yikes! I've wanted to learn to fly my whole life, and now that I'm almost in a position to do so (I've told my wife I'm getting lessons when I turn 40—it gives her some time to get used to the idea!) but now you're just scaring me. Is the rest of flying worth the moments like these, or is it the other way around?

  3. WOW !! a little too much adventure too early in the morning, if you ask me. Fun read. Hope all is well.