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.

 

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.

 

Supergirl and the aviation hex

From his hospital bed, Lisa’s latest instructor assured her that she wasn’t hexed. Although, given her turbulent ride toward a pilot’s license, no one could blame her for beginning to wonder…

Yes, Lisa’s new instructor, who had proclaimed that she could “probably pass” her checkride, but wanted to strengthen her skill in a few key areas before he signed her off, had what we were told was a minor motorcycle accident. A minor motorcycle accident that shattered his collar bone, punctured his lung, and left him grounded until sometime in October.

That’s a long time, but it’s probably moot anyway, given that it’s now high summer, and the density altitude in Santa Fe often approaches Warbler’s service ceiling. But seriously, getting a pilot’s license shouldn’t be this hard. Not that Lisa’s hexed, or anything.

Still, Lisa soldiers on, spending her weekends sleeping in her hangar at SXU and flying in the cool early morning hours, practicing for her checkride. At least that’s what she’s doing until her solo endorsement runs out at the end of this month. Then she’ll be required to fly with yet another flight instructor—who will have to get familiar her plane before he or she learns that Lisa can fly just fine, thank you—to get an extension on her student solo privileges. That’s a frickin’ hassle, but hardly a hex. It’s just the FAA.

Last weekend, I was in the neighborhood of the airport in the early morning, so I decided to drop in for a cup of coffee with my plane friend. It took me a while to get into the airport. The security gate which has been broken and left wide open for three quarters of a year, is now fixed and I couldn’t remember the stupid gate code. I kept punching in the code from my ATM card and wondering why I was getting neither money nor access. I don’t actually believe in hexes, but this long-plagued gate could well be the exception to the rule.

Car window open, and cursing myself for having such a poor memory for numbers, I heard a familiar aircraft engine: A soft baritone with distinctive high notes. Warbler!I looked to the runway just in time to see Lisa’s Armycoupe lifting off and climbing high into the sky, chrome propeller flashing in the early morning sun. I stuck my head out of the window for a better view as the little plane flew by: Brown-green body, bright yellow wings, dark grey glass over the cockpit, the large red Fifanella midway down the fuselage, and another flash of yellow on his tail feathers. I smiled. Lisa’s Warbie is a hell of a nice-looking bird.

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After looking up the gate code to my own airport on the internet using my phone, which is apparently smarter than I am, I get through the high security chain-link fence and park in front of my hangar. As I pull the massive doors open, they let out a heaving groan, like a sleepy giant reluctant to get out of bed. A breath of trapped of warm air escapes and I step inside to survey my domain: Part art gallery, part museum. Framed art and memorabilia cover nearly every inch of the walls. My air race trophies are on one side, a post-flight bar on the other. Flags hang from the towering ceiling, gently swaying to and fro. I walk across the mirror-like concreate pad, then my feet crunch across the gravel as I make my way to the back of the hangar to take a seat at the workbench. There’s no airplane in my airplane hangar, and as I look around I find the empty space a huge, lonely void. Usually, I love being here, but today a melancholy mood settles over me. In the last year, I can count on my fingers the number of days that Tess has been in her nest. Not that she’s hexed, or anything. Well… maybe…

I look at my watch. Damn. It’s too early to break out the Aviation Gin for a gin and tonic.

Lisa’s voice crackles on the radio, “Santa Rosa route sixty-six traffic, Erco niner four one-one six, left downwind, runway eight, touch and go, Santa Rosa.” I get a cigar from the humidor, tuck a folding camp chair under my arm, and trudge around the hangar to Lisa’s runway-view side of the building to watch the show. I set up in a narrow ribbon of shade outside her doors and settle in. Here comes Warbler. Down, down, down. Nearly silent, his engine close to idle for the descent. Then, as his wheels reach out for the runway, his engine comes to life, and he skims along above the pavement. Lisa is getting the feel of ground effect. Lisa and Warbler flash by and I light my cigar. Atta-girl, Lisa!

After she lifts off and turns left into the traffic pattern, I lose sight of her. She’s eclipsed by the hangar, but I can still hear Warbler’s soft growl above and behind me. I can picture where Lisa is in the pattern. She’s midfield. Now turning base. Now final. Here comes Warbler again. Down, down, down once more. Nearly silent again, his engine close to idle for the descent. This time his wheels chip as Lisa touches down. Then up comes the throttle as she starts her touch-and-go. His nose comes up, then he climbs slowly, at a crazy-steep angle. Ah. She’s practicing the technique for a short-field takeoff with an obstacle near the end of the runway.

I take another puff on my cigar, and as Lisa and Warbler fly past, a feeling of pride washes over me. Watching her alone in the air, in perfect command of her airplane, I’m like a proud papa of a newborn baby—although one with nobody to pass cigars out to. Not that I can really take credit for teaching Lisa to fly. Sure, I introduced her to flying. Showed her the basics. Perhaps served as a mentor, or at least a sounding board throughout her long journey. But it was others who honed her skills. Rick and Steve, who taught her to read and ride the winds in a sailplane. Greg, who while he basically robbed her, and didn’t teach her much, at least exposed her to grass and tailwheels. Larry, who patiently guided her out of despair to the brink of her license, but then Flew West right before the job was done. And finally, the wonderful motorcycle maniac, a perfectionist with much to teach.

As the pale blue cigar smoke wafts around my head, and the dull drone of Warbler’s engine fades into the distance, I consider Lisa’s long path to her license. She’s sure has had more than her share of bad luck and expense on this project. On top of multiple instructors, she’s had an unusual number of bad weather days in a state known for its good weather; her Ninety-Nine’s scholarship papers mysteriously disappeared; Warbler had a number of truly bizarre breakdowns; and now—with all these delays—her written exam is about to expire.

OK, so maybe there is a hex. A small one, at any rate.

But through it all, Lisa soldiers on. As she always has. She’s the first in her family to go to college, and she took it all the way to a master’s degree. She’s a cancer survivor. A black belt. Warbler makes another pass. I can almost feel the mix of joy and concentration emanating from the cockpit as Lisa and Warbler rise back up off the asphalt.

Really and truly, I realize, it’s not me nor anyone else who’s taught Lisa to fly. She’s taught herself how to fly, the same way she’s done everything in her life. By hard work. By study. By practice. By perseverance. And, to be frank, also with a good dose of mule-headed stubbornness. Yeah, it’s been a long journey, but Lisa is made of steel.

Yeah, she’ll get that license.

Up against this girl, that poor hex doesn’t stand a chance.