Filled with self-deprecating remorse, considerable fear, and self-loathing, I whimpered my misgivings.
Bob, well “finger-printed” glasses sliding toward the front end of his pudgy nose, rolls his considerable bulk backward from the desk just far enough to cross his legs. Suspenders taught across his chest and well-rounded mid-section attach to up-pulled, paint stained, “full cut” jeans and expose the high tops of his clunky, capable work boots. He leans cautiously backward in his forlorn office chair; his eyes betraying his confident air as he checks his attitude, knowing that once he passes his center of gravity there will be no recovery. Settled, he turns to look directly at me through his smudged Raybans and, words echoing dramatically among the rafters of this beautiful hangar, the center of his universe, gently imparts his soft words of knowledge.
“No regrets” He murmurs. “Stop looking back.” “Each day now that you don’t fly is lost forever.” “Start looking forward!”
Just an hour before, we stood on opposite sides of a tiny Cessna, peering into the minuscule cockpit. Two old geezers, half a century of flying experience each, contemplating an obviously aged and underpowered 1966 Cessna 150. Two gracefully graying Viet Nam survivors, too stiff and sore to enter the aircraft elegantly. “I should go first” we say in unison as we eye the tiny openings and wonder just how we shall contort our ancient parts to make it happen.
A year or so ago, without such philosophical musing as here offered in mind, I wrote a short but graphic story about the various steps required to embark the tight confines of a Piper Cub or T-Craft / Maule type taildragger. Now, as those words, so easily written, become reality, my examiner and I both face the daunting task head on. Now imagination meets reality. Right knee onto the seat cushion, check. Swing right foot into the cockpit……hrumpfh…..check. Seat full back, left knee into the chest, left foot contorted to the max, lean back, pull the knee with both hands, twist and shout…….check. Shoulder to shoulder, we are now literally close friends for the next hour as we dance our way through an FAA required Biennial Flight Review (FAR section 61.56).
What is the term? “Wax romantic?” Something like that. Here, I can hardly conjure up the words without seriously “waxing.” My daughter asked me to write down some of my favorite lifetime adventures. Now as I recall those stories written over years past, I realize that each one has at its heart at least some small pinch of hard earned aeronautical knowledge, experience or adventure.
“Got a check list?”……..Oh, he wants me to go by the rules! Well I am glad we have set that standard for this ride. Now I know how to proceed throughout the entire venture….professionally. OK, check list it is. Fuel on, controls free, we progress carefully through each numbered phrase until……………sputter, sputter, vroom….the tiny Continental fires up and I am proud, oh so proud to be here and be with this man and know once again that I can do these things.
Taxi carefully on the centerline. Stay off the brakes. Complete and thorough pre-take off check. Report “back taxi to runway 30.” Once into position, a quick take-off briefing follows. “Bob, expect a rolling start using the ENTIRE runway, five degrees flap, slight back pressure; fly off when she is ready and think where we shall end up if/when the little Continental fails us.”
I was a high time commercial pilot with thousands of hours of flight time. I was a land and sea flight instructor. I was exacting and proficient and capable and maybe even a “hot stick.” I have owned half a dozen aircraft and flown probably 30 different makes and models, but do I still have the right stuff? Now, having been apart from my passion and surviving vicariously from a distance for what seems like a lifetime, we charge at full power into the wind with sweaty palms and nose high as the magic of flight takes place.
Scan, scan, scan. Don’t let him see you tremble. Airspeed….why is that needle jumping like that? Get a picture of the nose on the horizon you old fool and forget about the numbers. Shallow turns now, still climbing…speed still good as I relax back pressure and trim a bit nose down. Watch the compass….only a student would fly through his assigned heading. “Turn left 120……..turn right to south….turn left to north……climbing turn to 2600 and 180 turn to south.” I can feel the sweat on my shirt……coordinated rudder in the turns……watch carefully for traffic, remember when you got in trouble on your instructors check ride for not clearing your turns?
No comments from my passenger. The memories flood back…..each check ride I have ever given is a reminder of what an instructor expects……”the outcome of the maneuver is never in doubt.” Previous mis-steps and valiant victories mingle in my mind as we begin the stalls. Power off approach stalls only, but just as I had taught them and exactly as I have dreamed them…quieter, quieter in the cockpit as the power comes off…nose up….nose up…rudder wagging ……almost silent, then the squawk, squawk of the stall warning….recover with power….minimum altitude loss…how afraid I was when confronted with this attitude fifty years ago, and how wonderfully delighted to have gracefully accomplish the task for my instructor this day.
I am grateful for no spins or forced landing today, but I know for sure that the dreaded vision limiting device, the IFR hood, is coming next. Off altitude a little, I am correcting as I detect a little motion on the other side of the cozy cockpit, and before I know it, I am IFR “under the hood.” Now it is really scan, scan, scan! My grip tightens on the tiny control yoke. I press menacingly on the rudders. My hand flies to the throttle. What in hell am I expecting, an engine out gliding NORAD approach to IFR minimums at O’Hare??
Come on “Grandpa,” remember. Remember all of those glorious days of IFR training and actual IFR approaches to minimums in your Baron. Fly with your fingers. Slouch down in the seat. Small corrections. Here we go!! “Left to 270,” done! “Descend to 1200,” done! “Left to 120,” Yeh, we are down wind for sure and Bob is enjoying his “vectors to final drill”….me too!! Off comes the hood……”full stall landing”…….he grins….and I do too.
A perfect day for a check ride. A few bumps, a little crosswind and a huge long runway to aim at. 4000 hours; how many landings have I walked proudly away from? Maybe 1000?? Carb heat….didn’t forget…..power back a little……… some initial flaps…establish a glide…….call base…..more flap……keep the numbers in the same place on the wind screen…….slow to final approach speed………rotate a bit….a bit more…..”hold it right there” I hear in the head phones…….I hold it…….more back pressure….squeak, squeak…..life is good!!!!
Three more, a gracious complement from my passenger and we retire to the hanger. Deprecation, fear and self-loathing have vanished and Bob’s words of encouragement echo throughout the hanger…..”No regrets!!””
Author: Jim Speerstra
J.R. Speerstra is a well-traveled 4000 hour instrument rated, multi-engine, commercial pilot, with flight instructor land and sea ratings and a deep love for all things aviation. He and his wife Candy now reside in SW Lower MI along with his best buddy, “Rocket.” Jim may be reached at email@example.com.