A Flight Lesson
Among the top notch collection of obscure aviation facts that I’ve curated over the past few years, I have one particular favorite. I read it in a book.
When looking at an airplane from the side, the centerline (front to back) of the wings is not totally parallel to the centerline of the cabin. The wings are tilted slightly “up” compared to the fuselage on this lateral axis. Without getting into the nitty gritty, the wings’ slight relative “upness” counteracts a “downness” by Earth’s gravity and allows the cabin to sit properly level in cruise flight. First class comfort.
But it also means something else.
Suppose we have a pilotless airplane. No hostages either. Just completely empty. And suppose we dragged this plane up into the sky on a comically tall crane and aimed our lonely plane nose down. And suppose we drew a really big, red bullseye directly below the unloved, suspended airplane. And suppose we then let the plane go. Pointed straight down.
Our outcast plane would not meet the ground on our big red bullseye, but rather a notable distance “north” of it. With gravity now powerlessly parallel to the plane’s path, the wing’s slight upness in relation to the cabin’s now straight downness isn’t counteracted. The wings then “fly” the plane out, away from the plum line of dead center. Encapsulated, in the three dimensional world, an airplane never travels exactly to the spot its nose points to – for comfort!
But, outside of this hypothetical, we usually do put pilots inside of planes. And in those cases, one of the most important aspects of aviation for blossoming pilots to get the hang of is termed "stick and rudder skill" by the Ray Ban shaded, leather jacket wearing, men and women of the sky. It's a nebulous artistry and contains a million sub-skills just like anything else, but it's best summed up as a smoothness. For example:
The slick haired kid who soloed a Piper Cub above the infinite planes of the American heartland at age sixteen after seven consecutive Halloweens of treating the neighborhood cow pastures to full view of his PAN AM captain's attire, and who then spent the next three summers playing airborne Ring Around The Rosie with said Cub and the local grass runway, and who then became known in local hangar circles, amongst mechanics and retirees alike, as The Greaser due to his effortless ability to dissipate those last few units of vertical speed and lift at precisely the moment his wheels should grace the ground – that slick haired kid could be said to have great stick and rudder skill. Great smoothness.
Flying is an accommodating activity and just like anything else it bestows improved skills upon its novices in exchange for simple, repetitive practice – and lots of money. One pretty much just has to do a bunch of landings and a bunch of turns. But there is one special crusade that serious pilots have to take to fully master the stick and rudder skills...to cross over into the sphere of the aeronautically-initiated. It is a crusade I embarked on one year ago.
*The following is a composite of like 10 different lessons, compiled and dramatized into a single day.*
At this time, Smokey the Bear’s pointer had migrated to the vitamin-C hues, and there were still apparently some holdouts to the e-cigarette game, so the sky was an opaque milky white, and my black car was wearing its best salt and pepper nightgown, and it wouldn’t have been too difficult to convince me that this was all the inside of a pretty large snowglobe. It did smell nice though.
My commute was scored by Arcade Fire’s greatest hits, and there was fortunately no traffic because people weren’t going back to work yet, this being early August in the year of perfectly average vision. I kept hoping that the sky would clear with each successive highway mile, and it didn’t, and then it did maybe 3 miles before the airport. I stopped by a Starbucks to get a bagel. The parking lot had at least two Maserati, and the outside tables were high quality and adorned with several men with very manicured haircuts and blue suits and pink shirts and naturally no socks. This made me feel dirty and clean, in different ways.
Saturn Aviation, my religious site for this pilgrimage, had a very squirrelly parking lot. It was a decent size but just kind of hidden. I eventually found it, grabbed my baggage, and walked into the front desk area.
The Front Desk Lady was large and loud and had the patronizing tone of someone who was born for this. Said tone asked me to come a little bit closer and when I sang back you’re my kind of man, so big and so strong, Front Desk Lady spared me no smirk and instead stood up, aimed her red dot sight at the middle of my forehead and pulled the trigger.
“Ahh, 98.6. Welcome in, honey.”
The walls of Saturn Aviation were furnished with photographs of airplanes in all sorts of funny orientations, which makes one assume that the picture frames were rotated or at least askew, but they weren’t. There were also dozens of plaques and awards on the walls, acknowledgements of bygone achievements, and each of those was indeed crooked. I sat on a couch and sifted through a large encyclopedia of old airplanes. It was at least three inches thick and the perfect size to boost a growing child’s view from the dullness of the dashboard to the wonder out the windshield. I didn’t have the slightest interest in airplanes until I was able to conjure something that, in the right lighting, could be labeled a mustache. My childhood dreams were all rooted in terra firma.
There was a sorry looking simulator stuck in the corner of Saturn Aviation, and a wall of 4x6s of students who had conquered something really big and reaped the rewards in the form of shiny new FAA cards with their names on them. After the appropriate amount of time to allow me to thoroughly study this decor, my instructor showed up.
He was the formidable Tom Strom, whom you know simply as The Greaser. During the four hours we spent together today, I learned a lot of things about Tom Strom.
He flies his Cessna 172 across the country each year, to Minnesota, where he puts it on floats and lake hops throughout the summer. He used to watch aerobatics competitions with his father. He’s at least 87 years old. He pours coffee into dainty little styrofoam cups several times each hour. He slurps. He used to fly in aerobatics competitions. His computer password is password. He does everything at a pace which could only be described as his own. He drives a green Mini Cooper with 132,467 miles. He packs a turkey sandwich every day for lunch, cut on the diagonal and saran-wrapped well. He used to be a judge in aerobatics competitions. His saturnaviation.com password is not password. He wouldn’t agree to be an instructor here at Saturn Aviation unless The Head Boss let him buy one of the planes so that he could make sure that the maintenance was kept up on it.
This, amongst other stories and sideways glances, does not paint The Head Boss in a good light.
[During my commercial flight test six weeks later, my examiner saw that I had completed this aerobatics/TW course at Saturn Aviation and first remarked at how incredibly impressive I was – in all respects – and then proceeded to ask what I thought about The Head Boss. Examiner had never been to Saturn Aviation, nor met the infamous Head Boss, but he had apparently heard some vicious stories, because before he could finish the final syllable of asking me about what I thought about The Head Boss, he doubled over, Examiner did, and burst into teary-eyed laughter. I, not really knowing what this meant, and now noticing for the first time the great valley carved into the middle of Examiner’s pompadour from the headset he must have worn on an earlier flight, just kind of giggled and enjoyed this humanizing exam reprieve].
Now armed with a new repertoire of knowledge both aeronautical and interpersonal, I was ready to jump to the airplane. Tom and I grabbed a binder with our airplane’s identifier, 77Kilo, on it and walked into a hallway plastered with a wall-sized map, which we pointed at while briefing our mission and its particular geography. Aviation maps look like regular maps that especially robotic toddlers have drawn all over. Among haphazard purple and blue shapes, Tom pointed out the water tower and highway and little ridge that would manifest the boundary lines for the “Blockhouse”, our aerial sporting court.
Next to the wallpaper was a shelf with two rows of parachutes, and Tom and I each picked out the ones we found most flattering. The FAA requires that aerobatics students (and instructors) wear a parachute during their flights as a final test to make sure that they really want to do this. Simply walking back through the front office with the blue apparatus on our backs was a marker of intent – one which I wore with a proud chin and taut shoulders, strolling past the school’s proletariat. We walked to that green, well worn Mini Cooper.
I’ve gone through many instructors in my flight training. A few of them have been really terrible. One of them – actually probably most of them but I’ve only spoken about it with one of them – hadn’t studied the holy book of aviation, the book where I first read that opening lonely-airplane-on-a-crane story, the book titled Stick and Rudder. Tom had a copy between the folded-over rear seats in his Cooper, with autographs tattooed on its inside cover demarking which of Strom’s students really knew their stuff. I took it as a bit of an insult to my flying talent when he asked if I wanted to check the book out from his library, cement my own fine name in history. I’ve read it twice, Tom.
We drove out of the squirrelly parking lot and around the corner to the John Wayne security gate, where the security officer checked my driver’s license and how white my teeth were before escorting us into the other world. As Tom chauffeured me around, I noticed more things about him. There was a lag to all of his movements, like I could see the instant when his brain initiated a command and then a brief gap of elderly purgatory before his body made it happen. His fingers and hands didn’t jitter. He wore a gold wedding band next to what looked to be his high school class ring. They rubbed. The backs of his hands were spotted like those of a man who had lived and known the sun.
We arrived at a corridor outside of some smaller hangars where a few bright yellow airplanes from the 1970s were parked. I saw the bird up close for the first time. Normally when I walk out to the planes at Torrance Airport, I wave to the tinted, opaque windows of the control tower a few hundred feet away as an offering of true friendship to my protectors. The John Wayne tower is like half a mile from 77Kilo and blocked by a few garages and a fire station, so my ritual was disrupted.
Furthermore, climbing into any airplane at all, even a big airliner, requires some forced disregard of human intuition – a trust in a type of magic. It makes no sense that these tubes with dainty triangles at their sides can do the flying thing, and the smaller the airplane gets the less convincing the act is. But appraising this yellow airplane and its prospects for safe flight required an even more finely honed suspension of disbelief.
When preflighting an airplane, which I was enlisted to do here, there is a whole manufacturer-sanctioned checklist of things that you don’t want to see: leaks, flat tires, loose bolts, etc. But really quite near the top of my own personal checklist is duct tape. And I was seeing a lot of duct tape.
I was assured that this was a different, aviation specific (upcharged) type of tape, and that it’s really quite a common joiner of the fuselage fabric, and oh-don’t-look-so-white-[checks binder]-Craig-we’re-just-gonna-go-flying-alright? Despite these nicks in the plane’s cosmetic armor, it was also quite obvious why this model qualified as aerobatic. Its wing and rudder were huge for an aircraft this small, and the steel frame was stout and burly compared to the aluminum skeleton of normal trainers. The rest of the preflight was sweaty and hot and included a couple more strange findings, but nothing that actually disqualified the plane. Frankly, if any of the Cessnas that I usually fly performed like this on an inspection – legal but eerie and poorly dressed – I would have cancelled the flight. I’ve done that several times. I’d never let anyone that I cared about sit in an airplane that I was this uncomfortable with.
But I was never going to be very comfortable with most aspects of these hallowed flight lessons. I was wearing a parachute. And sometimes, when only your own flesh hangs in the balance, you have to make a choice between well researched leaps of faith and having to spend the rest of your life wondering why you never did anything. So I climbed into the plane.
Most small airplanes are appointed with the vinyl upholstery of vintage cars, which I was both accustomed to and a nemesis of. On afternoons they burn the arm-pit of your knees and usually also your back, but in this instance my back was well padded and professionally rigged. This airplane had a center stick, perhaps the default control layout you may envision for an airplane, but these days a control yoke that looks vaguely like a steering wheel is more common. I churned the butter with said center stick, studied the dance that these inputs sprung the control surfaces into. It’s always kind of beautiful, that melding of man and machine, the rhythmic command of a foreign body. I started up the engine to imbue the plane with some agency. As soon as the propeller starts spinning, the thing doesn’t particularly want to stand still. I held the brakes and began working on the radios.
Radio comms at small airports are pretty simple, but we were at a medium sized airport. And radio comms with modern systems are easy to hear, but now we were back in time. And radio comms with knee-pad notebooks make recall elementary, but my knees were bare. The cockpit contained two pilots, two headsets, and that binder tucked away in a velcroed pocket – anything else would become a projectile once we started messing with the upside down. So I made 74 different radio mistakes while getting clearance and the weather and the taxi instructions, and all this while I was also learning the happy feet foxtrot of taxiing a tailwheel (you steer an airplane on the ground with your feet), and I couldn’t hear a damn thing that Tom was saying but he would just jump on the radio himself whenever I said anything too stupid, and I wanted to quit and assume the safe, defeated position of a failed crusader twenty different times but luckily it was already too late.
We began taxiing out of the sheltered confines of the yellow plane corridor and into open waters filled with really kind of terrifyingly huge airplanes.
“Southwest Seven Six Charlie, taxi to terminal behind yellow Decathlon.”
“United Niner Fox, yellow taildragger will make way for you at midfield runup.”
I felt both of import and like a child at the big kids table – but like if the child was a (yellow) goldfish and the big kids were (off-white) blue whales with 100 customers riding on their backs in varying levels of irritation.
Amongst the giants, the final checks and engine warmup went A-ok, so the controller let us taxi to the runway, told us to monitor tower frequency. I dialed in the proper code.
“Yellow Decathlon 77Kilo, you ready?”
And by his assured, cool tone I could tell that this controller had just absolute confidence in me. He undoubtedly knew that I was well read in aviation literature. My lifetime of pledging unrequited compassion to aloof control tower windows was not in vain.
“We’re ready - 77Kilo”
“Yellow Decathlon 77Kilo cross runway 20Left at Lima, fly El Toro departure Blockhouse, cleared for takeoff runway 20Right at Lima.”
We lined up and powered up, exhaled, checked the gauges, lifted the tail, and then were introduced to the Earth’s Z-axis once again. I banked left to fulfill my El Toro orders, seemingly kind of low over some towers, sky still pretty milky. There wasn’t great visibility. In a way it looked like we were flying towards the haze, but it was haze so we couldn't actually reach it. There was nothing to reach.
A ten or fifteen minute commute over expensive real estate brought us to the aforementioned Blockhouse, the practice area marked by the arbitrary and barely recognizable landmarks from last hour’s mission-planning map: a school, a water tower, a highway. Inside these confines we vacillated between pointing towards Saddleback Peak to our east and that big blue ocean to the west. I started off just doing some turns and other rudder coordination drills, familiarizing myself with the airplane. Tom was not impressed.
“You’re flying like a sissy.”
Pretty much my only goal when working with the Cessnas of my past was to fly them quite gingerly, how one might envision their grandmother’s Buick performing in the sky. And that’s the proper attitude to have when dealing with those types of planes on those types of missions. But the goal now was to push the envelope with an aircraft that could handle it, so I cleared my throat and started the tepid, apprehensive process of controlling an airplane with reckless abandon.
The first exercises we worked on were tailspins, those airborne maneuvers that have become a colloquialism for things going really, really poorly. Spins occur from overtaxing the wing, asking for more lift than it can give – which is a surprisingly low threshold in certain situations. The plane then stops flying and operates under gravity accordingly.
I slowed the plane down to a mushy 50mph and then kept pulling up to get even mushier. The flight controls were much less effective at these speeds with so much less air rushing past them. I kicked full side rudder, aviation’s capital offense, and pulled the stick straight back into my stomach as time slowed down in the anxious moments before chaos. I was afraid.
Then the wing fell gently over and the sky pivoted out of view as our rotation picked up speed and the entire windshield became just browny green ground and we were in the blender.
I really hate rollercoasters, that whole thing. The sinking feeling you get. Being tickled. I get the heebie-jeebies thinking about it. And that’s really the worst thing about the spins, for me. It feels like you’re falling the whole time, because you are. We’re skydiving, parachute and all, just with the plane still attached to us.
The turning was kind of violent, especially considering the fact that we were pointed straight down, and rotating about that vertical axis, so it was like being strapped onto the hands of a winding clock. A falling, winding clock. Humans aren’t meant for these kinds of moments. My hair was flopping around everywhere.
Tom called out our revolutions.
Chopped the power, centered the stick, kicked opposite rudder, and the world came back into alignment. The wing flew again. In well behaved airplanes, spins at high altitude are easily recoverable. 77Kilo was on its best behavior.
Rolls are relatively simple.
Dove to gain some speed, throttled back to save the prop, pulled up to burn off some of that speed, then slammed the stick left with some coordinated rudder to roll around and pretend that we were the propeller. Timing the recovery to deliver the airplane back true and level and on speed was tricky but satisfying when it worked out well. It was still unnatural to me, at this time, to just heave and haul on the controls so aggressively. Speaking of –
Dove again to gain some speed. More. 140mph in the dive. Throttled back again, but didn’t pull up to burn off any energy this time. We needed it. Leveled out for a moment. Squeezed the core muscles. Yanked back on the stick.
The G meter spiked, displaying a force 4 times the strength of gravity. My microphone arm flew off away from my face in the path of its old momentum. My seat got like extra clingy with me, or perhaps I with it, as I now was able to appreciate what it feels like to weigh over 600 pounds. It’s not a feeling to seek out. The windshield traded the blue of the ocean for that of the sky.
The loop is extremely complicated. One would think that we can just pull back on the stick and hold it there, painting pretty circles in the sky. It’s not so simple. The loop would tighten as gravity stole our airspeed, as else held equal. Our aerial donut would turn into a maple bar on its side, and nobody wants that.
For the loop, the proper loop, I yanked back hard and redirected our speedy plane’s vector to the perpendicular, and as we approached upright I eased back on the stick so that we flew vertical for just a brief moment. The Gs were relaxed at this point, and I couldn't see anything except atmosphere. I was supposed to look left off the wing to maintain a reference point but it took a while to overcome just being a passenger. Hold the vertical for too long here and we pinch the loop, turning it into a safety pin looking silhouette, and we then run out of speed before we get pointed back in the proper direction. This leads to a chilling instant of being completely stationary before the terrible sensation of falling back towards the planet while staring out to space. It’s awful. I did that a few times, and Tom was a true instructor and sat there idly behind me, making me fix it.
The best part of the well-executed loop was coming over the top. At that point, I was able to spot something that I could deduce was the Earth. The ground, and its inhabitants, was barely recognizable upside down, 5,000 feet up. It looked more like a dizzyingly intricate tapestry. A complicated facade. We started hurtling toward it, quicker and quicker. I pulled back to rejoin the right-side-up horizontal, gained more weight, and leveled off.
“It takes practice,” Tom reassured.
We headed back towards the airport to complete the tailwheel portion of this aerobatics course. Tailwheel airplanes have an antiquated landing gear setup that is much harder to control and land than modern tricycle-configuration planes, as I was introduced to earlier while taxiing the plane and making my radio blunders.
After 50 or so practice rounds I finally stuck the most difficult landing variation unassisted, the “wheel” landing, where I smoothly settled on the two big, front tires while keeping the tail flying above the runway. The breeze from the vent window slowed down as we slowed down, making the sweat that I was dressed in much more recognizable. I obeyed the controller’s orders, taxied back to my safe corridor, and powered off the plane. Tom took off his headset and grasped my shoulder.
“You’re a tailwheel pilot.”
We reversed the preflight prep process, drove back to the school in the little green car. Really insufferable pilots and instructors will warn their passengers “now here comes the dangerous part!” when transitioning from winged to wheeled modes of transportation. It’s a great way to out oneself as an idiot. Tom spared me the quip.
We performed the parachute-adorned walk of fame back into the office where a French couple, both embarking on some instrument training, were wondering what the hell I was wearing. Once I removed the chute to reveal a back drenched in salty-wetness, they understood the parachute’s true, conciliatory purpose. Front Desk Lady then swiped my credit card for 27 million dollars, asked for my autograph on Saturn’s own copy of the ledger.
The time in the air was eye opening and vaguely enjoyable in spurts – but I was happy now to leave. Flying conscientiously is work, with the majority of it occurring on the ground. 3 or 4 hours of pre and post flight preparations and chores go into each hour in the air, and you can tack on a couple of extra 405-flavored hours for these aerobatic flights in question. The payoff from these careful time commitments is a view of the world most people never get to see. The consequences of dodging them are well documented.
Once my odyssey was over, I didn’t feel especially proud or accomplished or anything like that. I had built up the enormity of this journey far too much to ever be satisfied by it. I fantasize about progress being an understandably long but intermittently exponential growth curve – that certain things I do will be so technically complex and transformative as to, upon completion, independently deliver me to a place of higher skill or talent. That’s just not the case. Flying tailwheels and aerobatics introduced me to new situations that I had never been in before, but they only leveraged and enhanced the basic abilities and reflexes that I was already using daily. They couldn’t baptize me in some holy, hidden waters of aviation. They simply made me a sharper, more experienced version of the pilot I already was.
So now when I look back at my crusade, the pinnacle of what my aviation goal used to be, I’m most fulfilled by the simple fact that I actually showed up and participated, against my better judgement – that I won’t have to spend eternity wondering if I should have done it. Because I did.