My pre-flight check in North Carolina in pursuit of my IFR
Back in 1978, I was with my family on a flight in a DC-10, an aircraft my dad had worked on, flying from California to Denver when the aircraft was ordered to circle around the city because of inclement weather.
For what seemed like an eternity the plane circled around Denver as it was bounced around in the thunderstorm.
To say I was scared would be an understatement.
And finally it ended.
While I would still go up in planes, I had been afraid of flying for most of my life, so in an effort to overcome that fear, I started bungee jumping and skydiving in 1992.
Despite having bungee jumped 11 times and having gone sky diving twice – once tandem out of a King Air aircraft with a little guy strapped to my back, and another time a static line out of a small Cessna plane, I was still a wrack of nerves on jet aircraft and plane flight altogether.
In 1995 I was offered a job contracting on behalf of Microsoft for Mirage Hotels in Las Vegas to the tune of $65 an hour + per diem + a high end rental car + hotel + free hotel food + flight.
It was an amazing opportunity, and one in which I was expected to fly from Phoenix to Las Vegas on a weekly basis.
Up until this point I was white knuckled on flights. While I would occasionally fly – I would have to have a few drinks before any flight, and even then I’d have to brace myself for the flight and landings – terrified me.
So when an amazing job offer came which provided me awesome pay, an opportunity to work with people I loved working with in an environment which I loved, I decided to nip the fear in the butt.
Two months before the contract was to commence I started taking flying lessons.
There’s something all flight schools offer – which is the intro flight.
I took advantage of this.
For half an hour a Certified Flight Instructor took me up and around Chandler Airport in the south Phoenix metro area where I was given controls almost from the start.
The butterflies inside me were doing butterflies as I push the throttle in and the plane went down the runway. 10. 20. 30. 40. 50 miles per hour when the instructor said “Now I’m going to have you start to rotate out at about 65 knots, so when I tell you pull back on the yoke”
I saw the plane hit 65 knots and felt the front end of the plane come up just a bit when the instructor said firmly.
“Ok, rotate now”
I did, and as I was n early shitting bricks withe nervousness – I looked over and saw his hands gently on the controls making sure that if I did screw something up catastrophically, that he would save me from myself.
When I saw the plane separate from the ground for the first time at my command as the nose to the plane lifted up, as I looked to the right and saw the hangars were now angled at 30 degrees from where they had been previously.
I was euphoric.
Besides myself euphoric.
I can’t explain what it feels like to command a plane off the ground for the first time.
There’s nothing else that describes that feeling in the world.
Photos. Imagery. Movies. Simulations. Nothing does it justice other than experiencing the real thing yourself.
It took me a full year to obtain the license, and as I did, I found myself enjoying the professional flights I was taking more and more. One time on a particularly windy and stormy ride in on one of these flights which I took with two other men who were contracting with me in Las Vegas from Phoenix – Ron Ostreim and Rich (I cant remember his last name) – Ron and I were throwing our hands in the air like we were on a roller coaster.
I had gone from scared to enjoying the bumpy rides in less than a year.
Now to say that obtaining the license was without incident would be a lie.
It wasn’t easy.
Phoenix is known for something called Monsoons – giant thunderstorms which come in quickly with extremely high winds and blanket the entire city in a thick wall of dust. These storms are infamous for coming in with virtually no warning notice.
After about 10 hours of flight instruction the flight instructor gave me permission to take the plane without him in an aviation training standard procedure for Private Pilots called a “solo flight”.
On my second solo flight, with about 12 hours of flight time, I had been practicing aerial maneuvers in the Maricopa practice area which is due south of Phoenix and Chandler by about half an hour, when I saw a massive storm building up all around me and especially to the north of me back where I had flown in from.
I immediately high tailed it back to the airport, but it was too late. Crosswinds were 15 to 20 knots gusting to 35 knots and increasing in velocity quickly. Knots are a rough equivalent to miles per hour.
As I flew the plane down to try to land, the plane kept being blown off course, and for the life of me I couldn’t keep it aligned to the runway with the gusting winds. Unable to land, I requested something called a ‘go around’, which is exactly as it sounds, a request for an authorization to abort the landing and do a go around.
For training pilots and for tourist pilots, they are not uncommon, but they are frowned on – especially for maintaining passenger confidence as pilots carrying passengers will ONLY use them VERY sparingly and almost ONLY to indicate an emergency condition.
I was authorized the go around. But the winds combined with my nervousness prompted a call to my instructor in the school by the air traffic control people who immediately came to the tower.
I circled around, and as I did the storm was blowing in – the weather intensifying and the cross winds increasing to 35 knots gusting to 60. It was a truly harsh storm that was blowing in.
The instructor came on as I approached “Remember the crab and the slip”
They were two maneuvers I’d been taught, the crab – which had me shift the rudders and aileron in such a way to put the plane at a 45 degree angle to the runway which both slowed it down and made it more manageable with the crosswinds.
And the slip – was a way to maintain high altitude until the last minute to avoid crashing the plane into the ground with a low and slow approach and unpredictable high shearing winds downward. This was something they’d learned how to mitigate the risk of in Dallas, Texas when a plane crash landed in 1985 due to high shear winds.
I did both. Which was working extremely well.
At the last second – a wind buffeted me unexpectedly upwards.
I called in, almost crying “I’d like another go around”.
My instructor came on. “You can’t do that, the storm’s too bad – You have to get that plane down NOW. Breathe. Take it easy. You know how to do this.”
I was hesitant and questioning myself and he knew it.
“You’re almost there. Now just plant it,” he commanded.
I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice.
About 10 seconds later, I edged the small Cessna 152 plane towards the runway, as the left wheel chirped off the pavement. Trying to maintain control and balancing it out, the right wheel chirped a few moments later.
“You’re almost there, straighten it out now” The instructor said.
And from there, both wheels touched – and instantly the plane veered hard to the right.
I’d not straightened the plane out enough from the crab, so as the wheels locked on the surface of the runway and with low velocity, the plane immediately veered towards the side of the runway.
I struggled to maintain control and keep the plane on the ground. The wings were still wobbling and wanting to take the plane upwards, especially with the 40 mile per hour constant crosswind.
The plane tipped sideways a little bit as I turned, hard, trying to get the plane to stay on the runway.
The propeller tip hit a runway light as went from asphalt to dirt, and as I’d overcompensated, the left wing nicked the dirt but bounced back up as I skidded back to the asphalt and came to a dead stop in the middle of the runway.
I heard someone talk over the air traffic communication lines.
“Should I go around,” he said.
Someone had been following me in.
My instructor came over the intercom “Now put that throttle in and bring her home. Good job.”
The ATC came in after I pushed the throttle in and cleared the runway quickly.
“Trailing aircraft, you’re cleared to land.”
I had felt like it had been anything but a good job. And as I got out, the instructor and the owner came out, and did a quick look over the plane as I sat inside feeling like a child.
My instructor came in.
“Propeller’s nicked, gonna need buffed out and checked by the AMP, paint’s scratched on the wing tip, and the runway light’s broken. Altogether it could have been much worse considering.”
Besides the damage to my ego, all I saw was dollars drifting out of my pocketbook.
“Jesus, how much is this gonna cost?,” I said.
“Nothing. Your contract covers our insurance. It’s insured,” he said.
I almost didn’t return to flying after that day, that had scared me so much.
The next week, I avoid the instructor’s calls. I had even opted to stay in Las Vegas that weekend in part to use work as an excuse not to have to give him a reason.
I mean. How do you tell someone you were afraid for your own life and you don’t want to go through that again?
Two weeks later. I reconvened with my training, and within seven months after that had obtained my pilot’s license.
During that time and training, I learned a lot about the world and this thing called Physics.
How winds aloft work. How fast pressure high pressure systems can deviate flight paths in unimaginable ways. Weather reporting and flaws with it. Why pilots see UFOs and what a lot of them are.
My first flight with passengers I learned not to take friends up to 10,000 feet and to point the plane straight down. While I may love roller coasters, they may not or simply may not be ready for them like I was.
My third flight with passengers I lost communication and despite that – I safely traversed Class B Las Vegas airspace to land at North Las Vegas airport with extremely helpful Air Traffic Control and other pilots who knew what they were doing and demonstrated how people who are involved with aviation don’t just stick together, but also watch out for each other. It’s what you’re trained for and you respect that training.
I could go on with my experiences as a pilot.
And how I place my personal bar of success in people like Richard Branson and John Travolta – who as pilots themselves leverage their skills for fun and for the support of the world around them.
I’ve heard stories how both in ‘keeping current’ with FAA requirements on flying can be overheard on intercoms in both Quantas Airlines and Virgin Airlines saying “I’ll be your pilot in command for today”.
Not a flight I myself have ever taken.
But when I see events like Oshkosh.
And hear stories like this.
Even thought I’m homeless and without a penny to my name.
While I have some flight experience.
And have the since goal of obtaining a Commercial license to fly jets and the like.
One day I believe the things the entitled men such as these have may actually be available to a dreamer like me.
And one day I’ll have me a custom 737 like John Travolta.
Only mine will have a stripper’s pole in it.
It’s then that I will hire the next generation of pilots who are jonesing for flight hours they can’t afford and aren’t willing to become indebted to obtain them.
Put specifically – I’ll pay for them to fly my plane.
Here’s photos of the last flight I took in Charlotte, North Carolina.