The keys

“You need to practice your landings,” said Lisa dangling her airplane’s keys in front of my nose, “Here. Go fly.”

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Mind you, she wasn’t being snippy. She was being kind. And of course, she was right. For someone whose logbook nearly caught fire from the friction of logging so many flights a few years ago, my airtime has become worse that spartan. Oh, sure, I get up in the air about once a week on average—better than most GA Pilots—but that’s a mere shadow of better times for me.

And most of that’s not real flying, either.

Yeah, most of my airtime nowadays is more that of a glorified passenger, than pilot—often serving as safety for either Rio or Lisa while they hone their already considerable skills. Sure, at some point, either one of them will say, “Do you want to fly for a bit?” and I’ll take the controls and execute some half-hearted ground reference maneuver, or maybe a pair of back-to-back steep turns, cartwheeling through 120 degrees for a sip of g-force-induced adrenaline.

Don’t get me wrong, just being in a airplane, even one whose controls you don’t touch, still beats the heck out of sitting on the ground. Being airborne is always good for the soul. But Lisa was right: I was in danger of being rusty, and I hadn’t been alone in an airplane for a long, long time.

As I settled into Lisa’s pride and joy, I found it strange being in Warbler’s left seat. I’ve only flown him from that side a time or two. Usually I’m the legally required, but entirely unnecessary, safety pilot—half asleep, on the right hand side. And when I do “take the plane” for a while, again, it’s from the right. Stranger still was being in Warbie alone. Well, sort of alone. Lisa had strapped Beryl the Bear into the copilot seat. Beryl, named after the author-aviatrix Beryl Markham, is a well-traveled medium sized Teddy Bear that has accompanied many a member of the Rio Grande Del Norte Ninety-Nines on their flights over the years. Beryl may well have more flight time than I do, not bad for a bear too short to see over the instrument panel.

Lift off! Warbler’s spritelier with only me and the bear—who doesn’t even weigh half a pound—aboard. I’m up into the pattern. I choose Runway 26, the best spectator sport runway from our hangars, so that Lisa can watch my landing practice. Warbler is a heck of a good-looking airplane, but Lisa’s rarely had the pleasure of watching him fly from the ground.

She’s always in the cockpit.

Downwind. Midfield, pull the carb heat. Abeam the numbers, reduce the throttle to 1650 rpm. Trim for 80 mph. Roll base. Warbie and I drop from the heavens. Final. If I were in Tess, I’d be adding power. We look low. Beryl reminds me that Warbler glides shallower and longer than Tess. Still, as we cross the threshold I’m coming down out of the sky at a breath-taking 800 foot per minute. Right before the flare I goose the throttle to break the descent, ease back on the yoke, then settle feather-light onto the runway.

The tires don’t even chirp.

Sweet! Still, one landing is hardly practice. I push the carb heat in, throttle up, and lift off to go around and do it again.

And again. And again. And again. And again. And again.

Normal Landing. Maximum angle climb out. Short field landing. Low-level air race takeoff. Refreshing my skills. Relishing the feel of the plane in my hands, I realize that the key to good takeoffs and landings is more than just practice. It’s the summoning the sight, sound, and feel of all your previous takeoffs and landings. For me, thousands over the decades.

Well, that, and having someone lend you the keys to their airplane.

 

Airplane voyeurs

Overhead, the distinctive oscillating whine of an airplane engine. I close my book, drop it into my lap, and cast my vision to the heavens—searching. My eyes sweep back and forth, up and down, pausing briefly to take in each segment of the sky in the direction of the engine’s throbbing drone. There! A flash of white. High, high, high up in the azure sky, far above the earth. My soul shoots out of body and rockets into the atmosphere above to join the pilots in the cockpit. My eyes, left behind, remain locked onto the plane.

And I’m not alone. We pilots can’t help ourselves. An airplane flying overhead, like a powerful magnet, never fails to draw our eyes upward. We stop what we’re doing to watch it pass. At home. At work. Out at the lake, on a hike, or even at the Walmart parking lot.

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Image: Amazon

Out at the airport it’s worse, of course. All activity and all conversation stop as we watch planes land. When Lisa and Rio hear a radio call on our scanner, they spring out of the hangar like a twin-headed jack-in-the-box to watch the show. Luckily, that’s a somewhat rare occurrence at our sleepy little airport, but at busy airports, two pilots can spend the whole day together, get nothing done, and never say more than seventeen words to each other between sunrise and sunset.

We pilots also watch planes takeoff, of course. And we watch them taxi. Heck, we even stare at them refueling, or just parked on the ramp. It’s more than professional interest. It’s vaguely voyeuristic. Watching planes makes us happy. Some pilots, ones who don’t fly much themselves and have gotten dangerously rusty, even seem to like watching planes more than actually flying them.

I’ll bet that’s why some smart entrepreneur—whose name is lost to the mists of time—opened the first airport restaurant. It wasn’t to feed the traveling public waiting on their flights. It was to take advantage of a group of people who loved airplanes too much to go home for lunch. No advertising required. Just set up some chairs at a window facing the runway and light up the grill. Build it and they will come.

Back on my porch, the high-flying airplane is disappearing over the far side of the dome of the sky, the heartbeat drone of the engine fading away into the distance. My spirit flutters back down from the sky like an autumn leaf, and returns to my body.  I sigh, and pick up my book again.

Yeah. Watching airplanes. We pilots can’t help ourselves.

 

Lisa’s first emergency (and my first heart attack)

OK, it wasn’t really an emergency. And I didn’t really have a heart attack. But we both had a heart-stopping moment, that’s for sure. Here’s the Tale…

As regular readers know, the official Plane Tales airplane has been down for maintenance for a loooooong time. For so long, in fact, that new readers can’t be blamed for wondering if I fly at all. They probably think that I’m just one of those pretenders who puts on an aviator shirt each morning before he hits the tequila. That’s actually true, but I’m also keeping my skills from atrophying, thanks to the kindness of my plane pal Lisa, who lets me fly her Warbler once a week after her solo practice session. Lately, I’ve been working on improving my Lazy-8s.

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This week, to save MoGas, we drove to the airport together before dawn. I helped her preflight her plane as the sun rose, then off she went. While Lisa taxied out, I busybodied around the hangar. I changed a light bulb, restocked the fridge with water and the humidor with fresh cigars, and I killed four scorpions. Like hangars everywhere, we have spiders, but being a desert ecosystem, we also have their more primitive cousins. Personally, I have nothing against scorpions, but I’m unwilling to share my sacred aviation space with them.

Warbler’s engine warmed up and the runup done, Lisa made her radio call and pulled out onto the runway. I stepped out of the hangar to watch her takeoff. I heard Warbler’s engine smoothly increase in volume and watched him steadily accelerate down Runway 19. Lisa rotated, leveled off into ground effect for a short time, and then started to climb. About mid-field, his engine suddenly went silent.

So too, did the rest of the world.

No dogs barked. No cars honked. No crickets chirped. Time stood still.

But gravity didn’t.

In dead silence Warbler drifted back down out of the sky and disappeared behind the trees.

Still, silence reigned.

That’s when I had the heart attack. Then, that out of the way, I dashed for the handheld. Did Lisa have enough runway? Or was she down in the Juniper trees off the end of the threshold? Or worse yet, in broken, scattered pieces in the canyon just beyond? Trying not to sound panicky, I made a radio call. “Niner-four-one-one-six, Santa Rosa Unicom.”

Silence.

“Niner-four-one-one-six, Santa Rosa Unicom, do you read?”

More silence. Whereupon, the handheld, which hadn’t been in its charger, let out a burst of static and died.

Seriously? I bolted for my car, tore out of the hangar side of the airport, shot up Airport Road, blew through the stop sign at U.S. 84, barreled down the highway to the official entrance to SXU, and set a new land speed record getting to the gate at the Terminal. As I frantically punched my ATM code into the gate control, I saw Warbler taxi leisurely by.

Relief flooded over me. Relief, followed by a brief flare of anger. Obviously, his engine was fine. What the hell? If she was going to practice an aborted takeoff—and who does that?—she should have announced it on the radio!

Rules be dammed, once through the gate, I turned on my emergency blinkers and pursued her up the taxiway. She didn’t return to the runup area. Instead, she crossed 19 on Charlie and headed back for the hangars.

OK. So something was wrong. But what could it be? I hung on her six and we crossed the airport as if she were towing me with an invisible rope. Back at the hangar she shut down and I jumped out of the car.

“What happened??” I demanded, climbing up on the wing.

“Didn’t you hear my call?” she asked, perplexed. She had heard the call I made right before my handheld died, and responded. Who knows why I didn’t hear it. She was on the far side of the airport, that’s nearly two miles away, and there’s no straight line of site. Maybe it’s too much to ask of a handheld.

“I lost my airspeed indictor,” she said, pointing at the instrument panel. Apparently, the takeoff had started normally, but as she made her post-lift off scan she was shocked to see her airspeed indicator giving her the middle finger. It read zero. She had no clue how fast or slow she was flying.

Lisa said she remembered the time it happened to me, and decided in a flash that her best option was to get down fast. She chopped the power and put Warbie back on the runway. “It wasn’t the best landing I ever made,” she said, sheepishly.

I disagree.

I think it was the best landing ever.