Stooping in the shade beneath the wing, looking like a dog about to pee on the tire, he hoists his tightly doubled left leg. His tetchy knee joint speaks with a resounding pop. The crotch of his already tight jeans is now becoming quite uncomfortable as he gingerly aims his raised knee toward the cockpit opening. Alert to the damage the protruding quick drain can do to the scalp of his bald spot, he warily balances on his right foot. Determined to avoid leaving evidence of his struggle on the newly painted fabric, he makes a little one footed hop toward the opening, then one more. Recalling the correct procedure, he leans in a bit and reaches through the opening with his left hand. Accompanied by the gentle clink of his wedding band on steel he deftly grabs the tubing brace conveniently crossing the windshield.
His isn’t the first attempt at this advanced aerobatic maneuver. As he adjusts his hand firmly to the brace he can feel a certain rusty roughness at the very spot where other hands have left their salty corroding juices on previous summer flights. Since he has forgotten to bring the rag to wipe either the rust from his hand or the sweat from his face, just as before, the rust from the brace, now on his hand, will end up a smudge on a convenient pants leg
Bending forward nearly double now to avoid whacking his head on the top door jamb he pushes off with his right foot, pulls with his left hand and quickly plants his knee on the thin velour covered seat. He wiggles the knee around and out from under him until he is sitting one leg in and one leg out. Now comes the right foot. He blows out his breath, sucks in his belly and draws his right knee toward his chest to complete the final act with a flourish. Failing in his attempt to miss the lower door sill with his foot there is a familiar sound of abused fabric as sandy thin airport soil and shiny sprigs of dried rye grass drift gently from his boot onto the freshly vacuumed gray carpet.
Having forgotten to push it clear before he made his move, the steel seat belt buckle is now leaving a strong impression on his butt cheek. As he skids himself fore and aft, wobbling left and right in near panic, he rushes to relieve the pressure. Accumulating sweat slowly trickles from his hair line and he recalls the rag foolishly left on the kitchen counter. As he wrestles with the belt it is time to decide whether the buckle or the sweat in his right eye first deserve attention.
He chooses to continue the battle with the intrusive buckle. Pulling again on the windshield brace, right eye squinted and stinging from salty sweat, he whacks his knee into the sharp bottom of the aluminum instrument panel as he manages to hoist his ass a quarter inch. Pulling even harder on the belt webbing with his free hand now, a small vein pops out on his temple and a little grunt slips from his nose. Ummphhh. In a blur the offending device pulls free and flies forward across the cockpit clacking sharply against the shiny control stick on its way to his lap. “Nice job Grace” he mutters to himself, thankful no one was watching the show.
He sits there then, his breath coming in short pants, and tries to regain control of the body which seemingly betrayed him when he wasn’t looking. It seems like only weeks since he sat in this familiar sling seat gazing at the smiling faces of gages and sniffing the stale air of the cockpit. Sweat and dope and avgas taint the air and tease his nostrils. What seems like mere weeks of absence from his favorite front row seat has been, in reality, much longer. Time is funny stuff; if you fail to use it, you simply lose it. It drifts by and is gone forever.
The veins in his forehead have begun to disappear now and the last of the sweat from his Herculean effort is sneaking down the small of his back. His shirt will no doubt be stuck firmly to his love handles by the time of the great dismount.
He works his toes down to the pedals and feels the familiar but nearly worthless heel brakes hanging onto his pants cuffs. Perhaps the most underappreciated cause of the majority of ground loops he’s done or seen done in his life, few can say they have ever used them and no one can ever say they used them successfully.
The steady ticking of the little Continental brings him back to reality and he runs through a cockpit check in his head. Not too much to remember here; fuel on, brakes off, mixture full rich, set the altimeter and check the oil pressure. “Kind of like driving a tractor”, he mused.
A jab of the well worn throttle knob and the old girl shudders and takes her first halting steps over the lumpy sod. He can feel the bungees flex on the gear and marvels at the simplicity of everything in his world right at this moment. Peering through the corners of the windscreen he deftly leads his turns with the rudder as he has done since that first taxi practice lesson so many years ago. “No faster than a man can walk” he can still here his instructor telling him.
The grass is firm but not smooth and the tail wheel telegraphs the high spots and low spots forward to the balls of his feet. At the end of the strip he pauses and tries to hold the frail craft with those damned heel brakes while he pushes the throttle up to 1700 RPM. The old red mag switch is so well worn that the position markers are barely visible but he dutifully touches each position in order none the less; left, both, right, both. There is barely a perceptible drop in performance. Carburetor heat shows the proper performance lag and as he completes his turn and lines up into the wind he pauses at idle to collect himself for one small moment prior to his takeoff.
The breeze is light as it sometimes is on the odd afternoon when the sun hangs low and the fog first begins to gather in the edges of the tall grass. Barely enough air moving to flutter the windsock at mid- field. He sits looking then and as he gazes down the field something catches his eye. Fluttering to his left through the sliding, age crazed plexi is a thin ribbon of red dangling from a purpose build section of aluminum tubing which provides airspeed information to the cockpit. “Oh hell,” he mumbles.
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.