Flying Lessons

The morning sun rising above the Tucson Mountains streamed in the windows surrounding my sister’s kitchen table. I was there visiting to celebrate Dad’s eighty-sixth birthday. My flight home was at 3:20 that afternoon and I was sitting at the table drinking coffee with my computer in my lap, hoping to fit a few flying stories in before I left. Dad was eating his breakfast and reading the newspaper and still recovering from bronchitis so I didn’t want to push it. “Well, Debbie,” he said after a bit, “do you want to spend the day writing our stories? Which of my flying stories do you have?”

I sat up straight to seize the moment. “Steven’s Point and the UFO that turned out to be the Canadian Government experimenting with night illumination. How about the New Orleans trip?” I was sorry Joanie had left for work because she was in that one and her version is funny.

“That was much later in my flying days. By then I was using IFR (Instrument Flight Rules).” Dad folded the paper so all its edges lined up and set it aside.

“That’s a good thing, right?” The only thing I knew about flying was how not to pull and push on the steering wheel (yoke) too fast. I learned that by experience.

“The weather determines if it’s VFR (visual flight rules) or IFR. You need instruments depending on the visibility and there was rain that night, along with high winds. Mom, Joanie and I were flying to New Orleans to see you and Justin in a play. I was flying a V-tail Bonanza which is not as effective for crosswinds as having a straight rudder.

Beechcraft V-tail

“The runway was built out into the bay and had water on both sides of it. It was rough weather and I had memorized the maximum crosswind that the plane could handle and we were right at it. We were crabbing before we landed and I had to straighten it out. I had the yoke all the way over, just like it said I should for that cross wind.”

“What’s crabbing?”

“If this is the runway (he held his hand pointing straight at me) and the wind is pushing you to the left of it, you have to hold the yoke, heading into the wind to keep the plane level.”

“What were Mom and Joanie doing while you were crabbing?”

“Mom was used to it. She was such a sport with me—just wonderful. Joanie was in the back seat between the two of us and neither of them said a word. The course of the plane was centered on the runway although the nose of it was maybe forty degrees off. So before you touch down, you have to straighten it out and then when properly done, the upwind wheel will touch down first, the downwind wheel second and the nose wheel third—boomp, boomp, boomp—it worked out fine. Exciting!”

Forty degrees off…?  As I listened on, I began to notice how lessons in flying can also apply to life so that’s how I’ve assembled them.

Lesson 1: Rising Above a Situation Gives You Clearer Perspective

“After you get licensed to fly, your instructor has to sign you off to do a cross country. My initial cross country was to St. Louis for Eden Seminary.

Eden Library Interior

Eden Theological Seminary Library Interior, 1969

“I was landing at a small airport as close to my job as I could find which was west of St. Louis. When I arrived, I started descending as low as would be allowed—about 2000 feet. The airport was supposed to be right in front of me and I couldn’t see it.

“I was kind of circling around, figuring out where my airport was. The wind and turbulence caused the plane to really bounce. My charts kept flying around in the plane and I had a hard time holding onto them in order to read. I called the FBO (Fixed Base Operator) and said, I’m coming into your airport and I can’t find you. Where are you, he asked me, and what do you see? I told him, smoke stacks! Then he said, you’re just east of us, hold your altitude for another few minutes and you will see us.

“You see, what had happened, I descended much too soon. The airport was just adjacent to a river and there were trees along the edge of it. I was so low the trees blocked the view of the airport. So I held the heading as the FBO told me to and pretty soon, there was the airport. From that little experience, I learned not to descend too soon. You need to stay up and circle around until you see your landing strip.”

Got it, Dad—don’t get caught up in the minutia or you’ll miss what’s important.

Lesson #2: A Non-Precision Approach is More Difficult but Possible

“I was flying some friends from Elmbrook to a small town in Indiana and we planned to return that night. The trip there was standard VFR and it went well including being vectored around Chicago. My return trip was to Waukesha airport with a heavy north wind. The weather required IFR all the way and I planned to land on the East/West runway. The instrument approach in those days to Waukesha was an ADF (Automatic Direction Finder) approach, otherwise called a Non-precision Instrument Approach.

“You have to follow your ADF needle. When you approach the airport, you watch how the needle drifts in order to hold your heading. If you’re crabbing correctly, the needle stays still and you know you’re on course to the airport. I remember I had a crosswind on this approach which makes holding the plane on course more difficult.

“I also remember how satisfied I was when I descended to minimums and soon saw the landing lights at Waukesha airport. That’s always a joy to come out of the soup and suddenly see the lights right in front of you, right on course! When I landed, the controller said, “I could tell you were enjoying that because I could count the rivets on your airplane!”

Lesson #3: Sometimes You Just Need to Get Out of the Way

“I was flying you, Joanie and her boyfriend to New York back in your acting and dancing days. The last leg of the trip into Newark was at night and I could see the blinking lights of another aircraft directly ahead. You can tell the relative height of another plane coming at you by whether the other plane’s navigation lights are descending or ascending in your view. If they don’t do either, you are at the same altitude as the plane coming towards you.

“When I first saw the lights, I realized they were on the same altitude and vector I was on, coming from the opposite direction. I called the aircraft controller and told him what I saw and asked for altimeter checks. I never got a response. I called three times, all this time the lights are staying and getting closer. After several more attempts I decided to get out of the way and made a descending turn to the left and saw the lights disappear above me.”

Lesson #4: Never Be Afraid to Ask Questions

“After that, I resumed my original heading and got into Newark. Once we were on the ground, the tower rattled off my taxiing directions quickly with all the phonetic names for the different runways. This was the first time I’d ever landed in Newark so I couldn’t follow what he was telling me. I called him back and asked for the ground clearance again, this time more slowly. That made it much easier and I taxied up to the fixed base operator.”

Lesson #5: Pit Stops Along the Way Are Good

“On the way back from New York, Joanie’s boyfriend was with me and said he had to go to the bathroom. I told him it would be an hour before we landed but he said he couldn’t wait. I called flight control and told them I needed a place to land with a minor emergency. They directed me to the nearest landing field.

“On the approach to the airport the controller asked if I needed an ambulance. I said no, just a toilet. I landed and he directed me to the closest bathroom. The young man was very happy as he hurriedly left the airplane.”

I made my flight just in time that afternoon. My computer battery had died and I was on the floor typing next to an outlet, right up to the moment I left. Dad was into a story about a trip he took to Africa with a suitcase full of Usinger’s sausage but it would have to wait.

 

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