The Gentleman Adventurer Flies an Airplane

Posted on February 24, 2010 by

2


“Avionics?”

“Good.”

“GPS?”

“On.”

“Strobes?”

“On.”

“Flight controls?”

“Check.”

“Fuel mixture?”

“Is rich.”

“Flaps?”

“Down.”

These were some of the last words my Uncle Fred and I exchanged before taxiing onto runway 22 at Tyler Pounds Regional Airport. It doesn’t take much more than some basic reading skills to read off the checklist like Uncle Fred was having me do, but it sure was cool. Especially since we were both wearing nifty noise-canceling headsets that gave you dizzy images of Spitfires, Corsairs, and “ack-ack.” I found myself saying “roger” and “affirmative” – words I don’t normally use in conversations.

Uncle Fred knows something about “ack-ack.” He flew a Hercules in ‘Nam. He says you take it pretty personally. I’ve never been shot at before, but I can imagine.

Moments later we were airborne. It was a pretty smooth takeoff. We climbed to what I can only imagine was a couple of thousand feet or so. I couldn’t see the altimeter. The cockpit of the RV-8 is a two-seater, with only the pilot in the front actually able to see the controls.

We headed out fifteen, maybe twenty miles from the airport, now out over Lake Palestine.

“Okay,” says Uncle Fred. “We’re going to practice some stall recovery.”

I was familiar with the term, being something of a plane buff. Besides, I’d done it plenty of times in Microsoft Flight Simulator. For the neophytes, a stall is defined as a reduction in the lift coefficient generated by an airfoil as angle of attack increases. This occurs when the critical angle of attack of the airfoil is exceeded. In Yeoman’s terms, when the airplane is tilted too high into the air and doesn’t possess sufficient airspeed, it stalls. It’s important to know how to avoid stalls as well as how to recover from them. If you stall for too long something happens to your airplane called “autorotation” – i.e. you spin out of control.

Uncle Fred showed me how to stall the airplane on purpose. I guess this is a little like skiing – the first thing they teach you is how to fall down. Simply put, you tilt the nose up and ease back on the throttle until you hit sixty or fifty knots. The plane will start to shake and shudder like it’s got a bad cold. At that point you have stalled the aircraft.

Recovering from a stall is even easier. You simply put the nose of the plane back down and open up the throttle so that you achieve level flight. Uncle Fred did this several times by way of demonstration. He stalled on turns and banks, too.

Then those fateful words. “Now you try,” he said. “You have the airplane.” I took the stick in hand. “Give it a shake,” he said. “You always give the stick a shake to let the other guy know you’ve got it.” I did.

I stalled and recovered three or four times, all more or less successfully. I have to admit, it was a neat thing to learn how to do. Flying Uncle Fred’s plane usually makes me a little nervous – though probably not in the way you’d guess. I’m not too worried about doing anything too stupid up there. I’m not worried about crashing and dying or any of those things that’d probably bother most people. But I have just enough perfectionist tendencies to get frustrated at myself if I don’t do it right the first time. And so it makes me nervous, like competing in a sports event would make me nervous. I want everything to be smooth and professional the first time.

“Alright, not bad,” he said. “Let’s do some forty-five degree rolls.”

Forty-five degree rolls. No big deal, I thought. I’d done these the last time I was up with Uncle Fred. I didn’t do as well with these as I’d hoped, but mainly because I couldn’t see the instrument panel from where I sat in the cockpit and hadn’t yet learned to judge my angle of attack based on the horizon. As a result, I’d dip the nose of the plane sometimes.

“Pull it up,” he’d say. “Keep the nose level.”

Eventually I think I got the hang of that.

“Alright,” he said. “Now let’s try some sixty-degree rolls. We’re going to tilt the plane sixty-degrees to one side, open up the throttle to maintain airspeed, and keep the nose up. We should pull about two G’s.”

Two G’s sounds impressive, but it is not really much worse than some of the faster, newer roller-coasters at Six Flags.

“Checking right.” You always checked over your shoulder before you rolled or banked – very much like driving a car, but less nerve-racking because there is a lot less traffic. If the Air Traffic Controller is doing his job, in fact, there should never be anybody there when you turn to look. But you always turn to look anyway. Uncle Fred rolled the plane. I felt my body press into my seat. My lungs seemed to become heavier, though at two G’s breathing still isn’t difficult. A “G” is a term representing the gravitational force on an object. Under normal circumstances we should all be at one G. At two G’s the force of gravity on your body is essentially doubled.

“Let’s do one to the left now. Again, we’re keeping the nose up, so that level flight is always maintained. Checking left.” We banked left. He did it a couple of more times.

“Now you try it,” he said.

I did. “Checking left,” I said, and I rolled the plane left. I didn’t keep the nose up as much as I should have the first time – mostly because I was afraid of over-compensating.

“Do it again. And keep the nose up.”

“Checking right.” I rolled the plane to the right. This time I kept the nose up. The increased G-force slid the rather snug headset right off of my head and onto my neck and shoulders. What followed was a fairly comical maneuver as I attempted to maintain level flight and get the headset back on my head at the same time. I should have waited until the roll was over, but you don’t always think of those things at the time they happen. I guess it was okay, because when I told Uncle Fred about it later he said he hadn’t noticed anything.

I did the roll a couple of more times.

“Alright. You’ve got the plane for a little while. Just fly anywhere you want to.”

I’ve never been known for my map reading skills and, aside from the fact that we were above Lake Palestine about twenty or so miles from the airport, I couldn’t tell you where we were. So I picked out a long gap through the forest below – one of those places where they’ve cut a space fifty yards wide all the way through the forest to string power lines. You probably don’t even notice them unless you’ve seen them from the air. I pointed the plane’s nose in that direction and bumped the throttle up to about one-hundred fifty knots.

There were a couple of times the airplane seemed to hit a bump in the air. This surprised me, because there are no chuckholes at two-thousand feet. At the time I thought it was simply my unsteady hands, and I chided myself for it.

“Alright,” he said after a few minutes, most of which he’d spent digging for something at the bottom of the cockpit. There is precious little foot space inside of an RV-8 and it is easy to lose things, including your feet. Actually, getting a pair of size-14 shoes is the hardest part of getting into the back seat of the plane. Otherwise it isn’t so bad. “Let’s start heading back to the airport. I’ve got the plane.” And he gave the stick a shake. He pointed the plane in the direction of the airport. “See that open spot up at 1 o’clock?”

“Affirmative.”

“That’s the airport. We’re going to start heading for that. Take the plane again.”

I gave the stick a shake. Uncle Fred radioed the airport control tower to let them know we were incoming and request permission to land.

A couple of minutes later some chatter came in from the tower. It was hard to make out on my headset, but Uncle Fred heard it alright. Seems we had some incoming traffic somewhere on our eight o’clock. Uncle Fred looked over his shoulder. I looked, too, but didn’t see anything.

That bothered Uncle Fred. The sky was clear and visibility was basically as far as you could see. He should have been able to spot the incoming traffic.

“I’m giving them some altitude,” he said, or something similar. He was talking to the control tower again. Giving the stick a brief shake – which I only noticed a second or two later – he took it in hand and the plane dipped down suddenly. My stomach jumped up into my throat. What had I just done? What kind of amateurish mistake had I just made?

Then I realized. Uncle Fred had the stick. Everything was fine. I relaxed.

“You have the airplane.” I wiggled the stick, then pointed over Uncle Fred’s shoulder. “A Hawk!” I said. And sure enough, there was a hawk out there, about the same altitude as the plane, though moving much slower. He was at our ten o’clock when I spotted him, and gradually dropped out of sight.

“Pilots call those B-1-R-D’s.”

“A what?”

“B-1-R-D. It’s how a pilot spells ‘bird.’”

I don’t know why, but it took me a moment to realize what he was saying. “Oh. I must be thinking slow today,” I said. It occurred to me I had just made what we IT professionals call an, “I-D-10-T” error.

I thought of “Sully” Sullenberger, the Californian pilot who earlier this year got his jet engine taken out by a flock of geese. He’d landed his plane in Hudson River and saved the lives of everyone aboard. Sullenberger was a hero by all accounts. Most accounts, anyway. Uncle Fred, who has flown commercial flights since he left NASA, wants to know what Sullenberger and his crew were so engrossed with that they didn’t look out the window and notice a flock of geese. It’s an interesting point and, coming from an experienced pilot, probably a valid one.

We hit another one of those invisible chuckholes. Or so I thought. I fought with the stick for a moment, probably harder that I should’ve. I bit my lower lip in frustration. Why couldn’t I keep the plane smooth?

“Was that just me, or was it turbulence?”

“It was turbulence,” Uncle Fred said. “You’re doing fine.”

That was a little reassuring. As we got close to the airport Uncle Fred took the plane again and set her down. I thought it was a pretty decent landing, given the fairly stiff crosswind indicated by the wind sock next to the runway. But Uncle Fred wasn’t pleased with it. Landing such a small plane – a tail-dragger to boot – with an extra passenger in the back seat is a fairly challenging task. In any case, the landing wasn’t rough and didn’t jolt.

My feelings as we taxied back to the hangar were many and mixed. I felt pretty good on the whole – different from how I’d felt the first time he’d taken me up. Now I had the feeling that I’d done this before. It was silly, feeling experienced after my second time up in the plane. I chided myself for thinking it.

There was also a deep sense of exultation and accomplishment. I’d conquered the air. I’d been airborne. Countless hours of human genius and achievement together with the grace of the Almighty God had all been pooled together to develop the technology we had just used. And that is pretty cool when you think about it.

But part of me was still frustrated, because I hadn’t done things perfectly. I mostly pushed this aside for the rest of the day and focused on other things. But it still bothered me.

Thinking back, though, it was only my second time at the controls of an airplane. Why was I expecting perfection out of myself? Even if I had made some ghastly mistake, Uncle Fred would have been there to straighten things out. It would still have been okay. It would have been okay because the whole time the airplane was really still in the hands of somebody who knew a lot more than I did.

In life, a lot of times, and especially with moral struggles, we get discouraged because we mess up. Sometimes we really, really, really mess up. But it isn’t just in the failure that the Enemy gains his greatest victory. He really wins out when he gets you to believe that you can’t win anymore. That you’re a failure. That you’re beyond hope. Because then you’ll just keep wallowing in your sin because you don’t see any way out. Why fight it?

Times like that, it’s good to remember that your life is in the hands of somebody who is an awful lot bigger than yourself. There’s always hope because He’s “able to keep you from falling.” Sometimes we just need to give Him back the stick. “You’ve got the airplane, Lord,” and feel that reassuring shake in our hands.

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Posted in: storytelling