Category: Get Your Pilots License

Mustang musings: what it’s like to fly the legendary P-51

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Several years ago my close friend Lewis Shaw and I took a trip south from Dallas to Encinal, TX, in his North American P-51D Mustang. We were flying to the remote and little-known town to visit with an associate who was a serious collector of warbirds. He was looking to buy a second Mustang to add to his collection and Lewis was looking to sell his—a polished aluminum beauty that was an exquisite example of the legendary WWII fighter in every way.

Neither Lewis nor the interested buyer were new to the Mustang world. Lewis had owned two beautiful Mustangs prior to this one and the interested buyer had one already in his stable and a number of other perfectly restored and flightworthy warbirds to boot. I had arranged the meeting between the two and was invited along for the ride to handle introductions.

Mustang 1 1 300x155 - Mustang musings: what it’s like to fly the legendary P-51

Acceleration in a North American P-51D is rapid and seriously forceful.

Acceleration in a North American P-51D is rapid and seriously forceful. If you’ve ever put the pedal to the metal in a high-dollar sports car, no further explanation is required. During the first few seconds following brake release, the pilot has no direct forward view. Because the tailwheel is still on the runway, all Mustang (and taildragger) pilots must momentarily compensate by developing a peripheral sense of where the airplane is heading. Once a little forward stick is applied (which, incidentally, also unlocks the tailwheel from the rudder) and the tail lifts, the view forward is excellent. At that point, the mission objective becomes simply keeping the airplane on the centerline while it accelerates to takeoff speed.

During acceleration, engine power is metered out in measured quantities. Too much torque can be a dangerous thing when airspeed and lift are marginal, so max power (approximately 40 inches of mercury at 3,000 rpm) isn’t applied at the very beginning of the takeoff roll. It is, in fact, eased into at a somewhat conservative pace using a good mix of experience, book learning, and common sense.

Staying centered is no overly simple task; the P-51D’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and Hamilton Standard four-blade propeller develop a lot of torque. Right rudder in serious quantities is required to offset the pull to the left (five degrees of right rudder are, in fact, pre-set by the pilot prior to takeoff to ease rudder pedal forces), but once the airplane’s airspeed gets to the point where the rudder and vertical tail have acquired some authority, the pilot can reduce the right rudder input and start concentrating on other things.

Once airborne at just over 100 miles per hour, the landing gear are retracted and, if flaps were used (20 degrees–optional), they are retracted also. The oil and coolant shutters are usually operating in automatic mode, so they are not an issue–particularly on a cool day.

Immediately after takeoff, the pilot has to be conscious not only of too much engine power being applied too quickly, but also P-factor. Sometimes referred to as asymmetric blade effect, it is a condition that occurs usually at low airspeeds and relatively high angles of attack. Without getting into the modestly complicated aerodynamics of it all, suffice it to say that P-factor forces a propeller driven airplane to yaw, usually to the left, in concert with the added force of torque. At low airspeeds and low altitudes, P-factor and torque can create a deadly duo that P-51 pilots do their best to avoid at all costs, particularly during takeoff and landing.

My friend, pilot, and Mustang owner, Lewis Shaw and I were, of course, communicating throughout the takeoff roll and departure from Addison Airport. I was having a seriously enjoyable time in the back seat documenting everything with my Nikons and trying to keep up with all the activity in the front seat. After some radio chatter with the tower, ATC got us heading in the right direction and out of the way of Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport traffic. Basic route for us was due south/southwest to Waco, Austin, and San Antonio, and then a slight veer to the west after we passed over the Alamo.

Encinal—population 629—our destination, is just over 100 miles south of San Antonio, so air time from Addison (just north of Dallas) to Encinal was just about an hour and fifteen minutes cruising at around 300 mph. Cruising altitude was around 6,500 feet. All in all, a comfortable setup for the airplane and Lewis and me.

Mustang 1 300x171 - Mustang musings: what it’s like to fly the legendary P-51

Cruising along in the P-51D is an unforgettable experience.

The Merlin, at cruise, is a relatively smooth and responsive engine. With a helmet and headset on, the cockpit noise level is easily bearable but far from quiet.

Finding that I had overdressed a bit and had put on a sweatshirt that proved redundant, I decided to remove it in the tight constraints of the back seat. This required some serious twisting and turning, a complicated unbuckling of belt and chute harness, and of course the removal of my helmet. The latter quickly gave me a much better sense of actual ambient cockpit noise without any ear protection. Suffice it to say it was a relief putting the helmet back on after I got the sweatshirt off!

Midway through the flight Lewis turned the stick over to me. This was not a simple matter of communication, but also involved my pulling the back seat stick from its storage clamps on the right side of the cockpit and installing the stick in the base stub on the floor just in front of my seat. No major effort involved, but it was easy to understand why the stick was removable. Getting in and out of the rear seat area would have been all but impossible without this feature.

Rudder pedals are permanently installed, so there was no issue there and nothing to do but place my feet on them. After that, it was grip the throttle and have a good time!

With Lewis’s blessing I did a few gentle maneuvers, input some partial rolls to the left and right, watched my horizon flip flop around without a lot of effort, and overall thoroughly enjoyed the rare treat of flying a real-deal Mustang. Though this was not my first Mustang ride, it was most certainly the first time I had been given full control of the airplane. It was a most memorable experience.

The Mustang’s stick and rudder coordination are excellent and very smooth. Response is near instantaneous to inputs from either, and the throttle response is equally fast. One has to be conscious of the engine/propeller torque (and airspeed) at all times, as too much power input too quickly, even at cruising airspeeds, can quickly affect the airplane’s direction and stability. Everything on the other end of the throttle handle needs to be handled with finesse and forethought until flying the Mustang becomes second nature. Even then, it’s nothing to be taken for granted. Mustangs do not bear fools lightly…

As noted previously, the Mustang’s back seat is not the most comfortable perch on the planet. After an hour of flying, keeping an eye on the GPS and compass, and cooking under the clear bubble canopy, I was ready to land and stretch my legs and rub my back. When Encinal finally appeared on the horizon, I was not unhappy about it. After locating our destination runway, we made the customary high-speed pass down the centerline, pitched up, rolled, and turned onto base leg and final.

The wheel landing, with Lewis back in control, was uneventful. Approach, with a modest amount of flap, was around 110 mph with touchdown taking place at about 95 mph. Once the tailwheel was on the ground, things slowed in a hurry. Five minutes after the main gear kissed the asphalt, we were pulling up in front the main hangar and shutting down.

Our visit lasted for about two hours. The airport proprietor was a kind and absolutely first-class host. After Lewis and our host finished their business, we were fed and the Mustang was fully fueled for the trek back north. The Mustang holds around 180 gallons of hi-octane avgas internally and has a range of about 1,100 miles in standard fighter configuration. Add two 75-gallon external wing tanks (which Lewis has on his Mustang), and the range jumps to just short of 2,400 miles. Either way, those are long non-stop hauls. If you’re in the back seat, you better take some pain pills with you and possess a very large bladder.

Mustang Cockpit 300x204 - Mustang musings: what it’s like to fly the legendary P-51

Made for performance, not comfort.

Departure from Encinal was uneventful except for the obligatory high-speed pass and roll. Aiming north and getting back up to cruising altitude and airspeed, Lewis again turned over the stick. For the next hour and several minutes, I cruised along fat, dumb, and very happy while my pilot dozed for a few minutes in the front seat.

All too soon it was over. After turning control back to Lewis, I pulled the stick from its stub connector, inserted it into its storage clasps to my right, took my feet off the rudder pedals, and relaxed back into passenger mode. Before I knew it, we were on final to Addison. A minute or two later, the mains kissed the runway and the Mustang began to decelerate. A few seconds after that, the tail wheel was back on the ground with a light bump and the snake dance back to Lewis’s well-known “Toy Barn” hangar got underway.

One thing that sticks with me is how many people came out of their hangars and buildings lining the Addison Airport runway and taxiway to watch our cackling and popping passage. Though Lewis flew his Mustang regularly from Addison, it’s obvious the locals never got tired of seeing or hearing it. Polished aluminum, a Rolls-Royce Merlin, and the name Mustang are eye candy that no red-blooded aviator can ignore.

Once the big Hamilton Standard prop came to a halt and Lewis extricated himself from the front seat, I was able to follow suit. I must say that that moment arrived none too soon, as by then my back and butt were absolutely killing me!

Would I do it again?

In a heartbeat…

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Friday Photo: pyramids of Giza from a 787

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Pyramids HUD - Friday Photo: pyramids of Giza from a 787

The view: The Great Pyramid of Giza, seen through a heads-up display

The pilot: Richard Pittet

The photographer: Luc Martineau

The airplane: Boeing 787

The mission: Airline flight across Egypt at FL360

The memory: Ancient technology and modern technology meet: what would the builders of those pyramids think about a Boeing?

Want to share your “?” Send your photo and description (using the format above) to: [email protected]

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Podcast: GA trends and urban air mobility hype, with Mac McClellan

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Mac in airplane square 300x300 - Podcast: GA trends and urban air mobility hype, with Mac McClellan

Mac McClellan logged thousands of hours in his Beech Baron.

Mac McClellan is a frequent contributor to Air Facts, but as Editor-in-Chief at Flying magazine for 20 years he flew just about every new airplane delivered since 1976. In this podcast episode, Mac shares his favorite ones and some that he wished he’d never flown.

As a keen observer of general aviation trends, Mac also explains why pilots are flying fewer cross countries, why personal flying inevitably means tradeoffs between safety and efficiency, and what the future holds for urban air mobility/eVTOL proposals.

In the “ready to copy” segment, Mac shares why he thinks personal minimums are a bad idea, the best places to fly in Michigan, and what sailing and flying have in common.

Listen online:

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Harmony and distractions

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Music occupies space as poetry. The notes merge into a symphony, calibrating the brain with that ethereal sense of wonder. Bach’s music by some is considered the emotional calibrator. Each melodic note rides the wave on the preceding note; much like the start of an IO-550 engine, you can hear the guttural sound on ignition. After the fuel pump has loaded up the distributor block and the mixture of air and fuel is introduced into the cylinder, the magnetos induce the electrical spark from the spark plugs as a gentle cascading flame spreads across the piston head, combusting the air/fuel mixture and pressing the pistons in their cylinders into a perpetual linear motion of up and down.

You can hear this if you concentrate and slow your brain down—keep the door and window open when starting the engine. Keep the headset on your lap for a moment and listen. Just like the members of a symphony or at a Broadway play, the musicians calibrate their wind and string instruments before the maestro raises his arms. And suddenly there is harmony. All the cylinders fire in harmony if there is no early morning sickness of stuck valves. The CHTs on the display come alive like the musical score communicating the information visually. All is well with the machine, pilot, and the world.

IO 550 B RA 300x199 - Harmony and distractions

Do you hear the symphony?

I put my headsets on when the symphony is well on its way and then listen through the noise cancelling waves for any errant cellist in the mix. Taxiing to the approach end of the runway is much the same: no distractions, just concentration on the task at hand, safely negotiating the taxiway to the runway and using the checklist.

Taking off is magic, every time. Ask any pilot and within a fraction of a percentage you will hear these words, “Its magic!” As the weight is lifted off the gear and borne entirely by the wings, we are airborne. The sound of the engine changes as it harmonizes with the ocean of air.

After an hour and a half of flying, I was returning to my home airport the other evening. It was a dusky evening with the haze clamped down firmly beneath by the overhead gray clouds. It was that time of the day where the forces of night are hammering at the door to let it in, and that little bit of twilight won’t give up.

Three miles from the airport, I was already at traffic pattern altitude, slowing down from my standard 20 inches of manifold pressure (MP) to 18 inches. The winds were calm on surface based on the AWOS but at 1000 feet they were 5 knots from the west. I was planning the 45-degree entry for a downwind pattern to runway 24, when I heard the call that a Cherokee was on a practice ILS approach to runway 06. He announced that he was three miles out. Midstream in my thought process, I changed my plans to accommodate the pilot and land on runway 06 as well, to avoid any conflict.

I was doing 110 knots, slowing to 105 knots as I flew crosswind-midfield overhead the runway. Turning onto left downwind, I reduced power to 15 inches of MP to slow down. Suddenly that blessed-neural-harmony of thought had an errant cellist in the midst. The Cherokee pilot announced he was one mile from the runway threshold; I looked for the aircraft below and to my left and could not see the aircraft. Nope, nothing there! I strained at 2-3 miles beyond the runway threshold and nothing still.

I heard the seven clicks, and the runway lights came on at full bright. I strained to look for the Cherokee to decide when to make the base turn. And lo and behold, his localizer must have been pegged to the right because he blew right past me, 500 feet below and closer to my flight path. The Garmin lady blurted “Traffic! Traffic!” as the yellow ball danced just below me on the MFD.

I turned base as the pilot announced a missed approach and the yellow ball disappeared on the MFD. I noted that my airspeed was still 95 knots and put the approach flaps in and simultaneously reduced the MP further. The dissonant cacophony of the gear-warning alarm disturbed the harmony! One and a half miles from the threshold. I looked for the three green—and there weren’t any! My hand grabbed the gear handle and pushed it down and four seconds later the three green lights lit up. The base leg gave me ample time to stabilize for the final approach at 700 feet.

The “500 feet” warning came on a few seconds later and I deployed full flaps. The aircraft slowed down to my desired approach speed of 80 knots, and I reconfirmed the GUMPS with the “three green” visually once again. I looked for the Cherokee pilot and saw him well left of the runway executing a missed approach, turning southbound right over the midfield at 200-300 feet above my altitude. Fortunately, there weren’t any others around to partake in this spaghetti-like confluence of distractions and maneuvers.

Bonanza gear up 300x174 - Harmony and distractions

Not the result any pilot wants.

What went wrong with my symphonic harmony? It is obvious there was a minor distraction that prevented me from reviewing and executing my checklist. In retrospect, I realize that if the harmony of thought is broken at any point during a flight, one must force oneself into the basics. Perhaps, I should have extended downwind and pulled out the checklist and reconfigured for the approach (a wiser and more careful methodology), but not turned back to an upwind for another pattern since the Cherokee pilot was cutting his missed approach quicker and at a lower altitude (although I did not have a clue then). He would have been a conflict!

These are questions worth pondering in the aftermath exercise. An old saying, “there are those pilots who have had a gear up landing and those who will,” scares the daylights out of me!

What went wrong (Excuses n’ all):

  1. Visibility
  2. Deviation of planned maneuver
  3. Sudden change of runway
  4. Unable to visualize where the other aircraft was
  5. Forgetting to lower the gear on turning downwind (checklist)
  6. Verbalizing, “three green” while simultaneously looking for the indication on downwind
  7. Verbalizing, “three green” on base leg before the gear warning horn sounded
  8. Reducing power below 15 inches MP to reduce speed, which if properly configured in the aircraft I fly, should happen only at short final when the runway is made.
  9. OK, I did not mention the chatty passenger “he, who shall not be named,” in the back seat, whom I had to electronically isolate while overhead the field… should have done that five miles out!

DECIDE:

D- Detect that the action is necessary: checklist review
E- Estimate the significance of the action: gear up landing
C- Choose a desirable outcome: landing safely
I- Identify actions needed to achieve the chosen option: power/speed/gear/flaps
D- Do the necessary action to achieve change: extend gear/flaps
E- Evaluate the effects of the action: power and desired speed

What saved the day:

  1. The below 15 inches MP gear warning horn
  2. Alertness to the warning
  3. Immediate execution of gear extension
  4. Confirming the “three green” on base
  5. Confirming the “three green” on final
  6. Reconfirming with the “check landing gear” warning at 200 feet from the Landing Heights System (LIDAR) that I recently installed.
  7. Stabilizing the approach at 700 feet, otherwise unstable at 500 feet equals a missed approach.
  8. Landing without incident.
  9. LESSON LEARNED!!!

The musical interlude exists to enjoy for another day, for breaking the surly bonds and witnessing the spectacle of flight—but now with renewed concepts and understanding.

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Confessions of a seaplane charter pilot

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Following my retirement from dentistry, I became very bored very quickly and realized the necessity of having something to occupy my spare time. I immediately turned to the field of flight.

I had already owned and leased out aircraft, including a new Piper PA-16 that I traveled to Florida to purchase new for $10,750 (in 1963) to replace my worn out, leased Piper Tri-Pacer. (The salesman suggested that I sell the valuable radios and “throw in” the airplane). I then flew the new airplane back to Boeing Field without a radio; yes, they still painted the name of the airport on the roof of the hangar to aid navigation. Later, I bought and leased to my glider club a Piper Super Cub for towing gliders. But the maintenance, fuel, and insurance ($4,500/year on a $20,000 aircraft) made the business model impractical; I returned to my first love, seaplanes.

LakeUnion2 0W0 10 300x200 - Confessions of a seaplane charter pilot

Lake Union is one of the busiest seaplane bases in the world.

My mentor, Lana Kurtzer, had already died and his estate had sold the land and the company to his former competitor. But one of his long-time employees had established a small company across Lake Union; I decided to introduce myself.

The timing was perfect; the seaplane charter business is seasonal and (most of) the small companies fly seven days a week for three months in the hope of earning enough to carry them over the winter months. This was the beginning of the season and the boss needed a pilot. I checked out in one of his two Cessna 206s on floats (N8397Q) and immediately began flying, at first occasionally and then nearly every day. The Cessna 206 with a Continental IO-520 engine had right-side double doors aft but lacked a front seat right-side door (no exit from the right front during docking) and was mounted on Deep V 3400 floats that were valuable when landing in rough weather.

Aircraft maintenance was the responsibility of the boss (an A&P) and always a consideration. One of my first charters was ferrying a passenger to Lake Chaunigan on Vancouver Island to attend a rowing crew race. Before departing, the boss muttered something about the alternator on N8397Q that I did not clearly hear and we headed out of Lake Union, crossed the straits, and soon found lake Chaunigan near Victoria. It was surrounded by crowds of people; I landed and taxied up and down the shoreline searching in vain for a docking area to unload my passenger and finally shut down the engine in the hope someone would run out to us and take my passenger. Nobody volunteered; I decided to restart and taxi clear of the lake for the coming race. The battery was dead!

The crew race began, and I was stranded in the middle of the course. People were shouting and waving at me from the shore to clear the course and finally one kind boater recognized my problem and towed me off the course to shore. The emergency paddle fit into a sleeve on the inside of the left float; I used it to paddle into a float where my passenger quickly jumped ashore and disappeared. The race finished and I sat there deciding where I could find another battery and thinking unkind thoughts about my boss and what he had muttered about the alternator. I suddenly remembered that sometimes if you leave a dead battery sit a few minutes it sometimes generates a small revival charge. I tied a slipknot to the cleat on the float and ran the end into the cockpit, hit the starter and it kicked over once and started! But my problems were not over…

I took off, climbed out to 2,000 ft., leveled off for cruise and noticed that it was cruising 10 mph slow. I checked the power settings, flaps, and water rudders but suddenly remembered… the paddle! Looking out the window I could see that it was firmly plastered vertically to the leading edge of the float struts by the airflow, blade down and with the handle just out of reach. I knew that I could not fly across the city with this situation—it would surely depart at a most inopportune time—and tried everything to dislodge it: slow flight, stalls, skids, slips. All were unsuccessful, and finally I let down and touched down on the step and dislodged it.

I returned to Lake Union with a more realistic understanding of maintenance problems in small (and large?) aircraft companies that I found valuable in future years on several occasions.

97Q on water 300x227 - Confessions of a seaplane charter pilot

A seaplane can get the pilot into unique forms of trouble.

My seaplane charters continued nearly every day in the summers and there were always challenging problems that kept it interesting.

For instance, Tuesday was sailboat race day on Lake Union, and it was sometimes challenging to find an area large enough to land without violating safety rules. I returned one late Tuesday to find dozens of race competitors covering almost the entire lake. I noted one potential area on the east side of the lake that would could qualify by stretching the rules slightly, and entered a downwind left-hand pattern over Westlake Avenue with final approach to touchdown into the strong breeze just offshore from the houseboats lining the lake. I touched down easily and settled down off the step to begin my 180-degree turn around on the water to taxi back to the dock at the southeast corner of the lake.

Floatplanes weathercock into the wind and are difficult to turn away from the wind in a strong breeze. The torque from the propeller rotation will turn them naturally to the left and the greater the RPM, the greater the left turn force. The water rudders help when properly rigged to allow them to deploy full length into the water; 8379Q had received a recent 100-hour inspection and the rudders were not properly rigged.

After touchdown, I applied (a lot of) power, stood on the left rudder with the yoke back, began the 180-degree left turn, and slowly came around 90 degrees to find myself with my madly thrashing propeller looking dead ahead at the Seattle police harbor patrol boat. This was not a good way to make friends! I completed my turn and taxied back to the dock with the police boat following. I climbed out, tied up and, expecting the worst, met the officer coming down the dock.

He had a quizzical look on his face as I calmly greeted him, and unapologetically explained the difficulty turning the seaplane away from the strong wind. I offered to taxi him out on the lake to demonstrate the problem.

He just smiled and said, “I thought you were just being obnoxious.”

We departed good friends.

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Get-home-itis: be on the lookout

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If you watch any of the TV crime shows (my wife’s favorite is NCIS, in case you were wondering), they talk about BOLOs. It took me a while, but I finally got that this means “Be on the lookout.” This is a government agency’s terminology to alert their community to be alert to a person or situation that is important to monitor or address.

For us pilots, we can use this same intentional alertness to observe and influence our flying and specifically our choices. During a recent long day of flying I had a chance to experience aviation’s version of completion bias—the drive to complete a flight—also known as get-home-itis. I learned a great deal from it and want to share the experience. First the set up and then we’ll unpack what I did right and wrong.

Sack cockpit view 300x225 - Get-home-itis: be on the lookout

Even with ADS-B weather and on an IFR flight plan, staying visual is often the best idea.

That day’s mission was to retrieve an airplane three states away. It was a four hour flight just to get to the pick-up point. We made an early start to the day because the weather was forecast to steadily degrade in the area we were flying toward as a front approached. Traditional summer convection was possible in the afternoon for the return trip but no fronts or lines of storms between us and home. The flight out was smooth with great ceilings and visibilities until we were within about 20 miles of the destination. By the time we got to the end of our first leg, steady rain had started and convective activity was about 100 miles further west. Needless to say, it was in our best interest not waste time on the ground getting turned around.

I was out of the airplane as the prop stopped turning. I realized quickly that Murphy was firmly in charge when I couldn’t find the airplane keys and that the airplane needed gas as the rain got steadily heavier. The line crew was fueling the plane by the time I found the keys and began the pre-flight. My rain coat saved me from a real soaking. Thank you North Face!

I picked up my clearance and departed into solid IMC for the first 30 miles and then spent the rest of the trip deviating around build-ups. It was getting pretty hot out there and the cumulus clouds were steadily building. By the time I was an hour from my landing in the DC area, I was hot and tired after seven hours in the cockpit.

As I got closer to my destination, Martin State Airport in Baltimore (MTN), I started seeing areas of precipitation from the ADS-B Nexrad display. Two primary areas, one very close to Joint Base Andrews (formerly known as Andrews Air Force Base) and one near Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall airport (BWI). The cell over BWI was headed northeast toward my destination but MTN was solid VFR and I thought I could get in before the weather, based on judging the updates of the Nexrad images and the general look at build-ups through the windshield.

The MTN ATIS was telling arrivals to expect a visual approach to runway 15. Potomac Approach cleared me to arrive from the northwest, as I would have expected. Then Potomac told me to plan the LOC 15 at MTN and began to vector me toward the final approach course.

I could see build-ups off to the southeast of my position and started to watch the conditions, carefully comparing the ADS-B with the conditions out the window. Everything still looked good, though the BWI cell was now closer to MTN and another had now developed northeast of the airport. There was lots of VFR in between these.

Just as I was about to intercept the localizer, it started to get pretty bumpy and I was seeing more cloud—although I was still in visual conditions. I did not have a visual on the airport and I was starting to get rain on the windshield. As quickly as the rain started it intensified a great deal, started to darken and I immediately broke off the approach and told Potomac I wanted to divert back in the direction I came (toward good VFR) and land at Carrol County Airport (DMW) about 32 NM northwest, to allow the weather to clear. See the flight track below:

CloudAhoy - Get-home-itis: be on the lookout

In retrospect I made good choices and bad choices. Let’s look at a few of each.

Good choices:

  • I topped off my fuel before my takeoff so I had plenty of gas and had monitored/managed my fuel burn effectively.
  • I asked ATC for altitudes to largely remain in visual conditions as I got closer to weather at the end of the trip to allow continuous visual assessment and reduce my single pilot IFR workload.
  • I was well equipped to be able to monitor weather with ADS-B tools and used the gear to maintain my situational awareness throughout the flight.
  • I broke off the approach and diverted when the weather started to get worse while still in visual conditions and didn’t resume until the weather was well clear.

Bad choices:

  • I allowed myself to get too close to a cell. Recommendations are at least 20 miles. I was much closer as the cell little grew across the final approach course.
  • Weather is dynamic and was changing right in front of me and I was not reacting fast enough. I should have been reminding myself that what I’m seeing is changing in ways I might not necessarily totally observe.
  • I was fatigued. I should have eaten on the ground between the flights as opposed to just snacking on the way home. I was likely dehydrated as well. Your brain and body need nutrients to serve you well—especially making good decisions.
  • I allowed completion bias to cloud my judgement. When I finally diverted I was less than 9 miles from the runway threshold. I allowed the “I am almost home” to really distract me and I procrastinated.

As I have learned from mentors and tell my students, we want to be “lifelong learners” when it comes to flying and everything we want to be good at! So what did I learn for my next long trip?

  • During the trip I should ask myself, “how am I feeling and how is my flying?”
  • Watch the weather carefully and more holistically. Imagine what I while do if it’s worse than forecast so I’m already planning my next move. It’s less about reacting and more about planning if completion is doubtful.
  • Be “spring loaded” to divert quickly.
  • Remember the impact of bad choices in the cockpit on the ones who care about me (and you). Think carefully about the risks I am taking on in every phase and condition of flight. Most of us have friends and family who also are hurt if something happens to us.

I am thankful to learn from this experience and share it with the Air Facts family. Be on the lookout in your own flying for areas where you could have made better decisions and think through how you would choose in the future should something similar occur.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected].

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Friday Photo: fog rolls in

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Shelf cloud - Friday Photo: fog rolls in

The view: Sea fog at Panama City, Florida (ECP)

The pilot: Bruddy Cravens

The mission: Local flight

The memory: Here in Florida we experience the beauty of some of the best weather views quite often, especially as winter turns to fall (which is rather quick as our winter lasts about an hour… sure seems that way!). The phenomenon of sea fog can turn a bright, sunny, warmer day into a blanket of fog in minutes. The airport is roughly 16 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico. I followed the fog as it moved inland and as I was on short final I saw it start to roll back into the sky as it met the warmer air. This is one of the results.

Want to share your “?” Send your photo and description (using the format above) to: [email protected]

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What’s in a (fighter pilot’s) name?

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Fighter aircraft have names such as Mustang, Lightning, Thunderbolt, Spitfire, Warthog (the unofficial name of the A-10 Thunderbolt II), Viper (the unofficial name of the F-16 Fighting Falcon), Tomcat, Phantom, Wildcat, Eagle, Cougar, Hellcat, and Typhoon.

Fighter pilots have names, or “callsigns,” as well. You are probably familiar with some of the callsigns of characters in Top Gun. There was Maverick, Goose, Iceman, Hollywood, Viper, Jester, Cougar, etc.

Top Gun helmet top 300x169 - What’s in a (fighter pilot’s) name?

Where do those catchy names come from?

You may wonder where a callsign comes from, or what one does to earn a callsign that sticks forever. Callsigns can be associated with your name, your profession (some people around fighter pilots get a callsign, as seen below), a noteworthy accomplishment, or something you would rather forget—and wish that everyone else would as well. What follows are some callsigns I knew during my career and how they came to be.

To begin, I’ll own up to my own callsign—Boots—to which I still answer. It starts with my last name, Hill, and then think about the gunfighters in the Wild West who were buried at Boot Hill after dying with their boots on. Fighter pilots believe they are immortal but, if they are killed, they want to die with their boots on while “in the fight” and not doing the dishes. Finally, I always wore Corcoran combat boots, the same ones worn by Army paratroopers, which hold a shine like nobody’s business, and meant the lieutenants hated seeing my boots next to theirs. The moniker stuck and I proudly wear it.

There are easily explained callsigns.

If your last name was Rhodes or something similar, you inevitably were Dusty.

My brother was a Marine F-4 pilot and he was called Mustang for much the same reason Tom Cruise was Maverick in Top Gun.

One of the pilots in my squadron had the last name of Porter, so he became Bagman.

A fellow A-10 driver had the last name of Davidson; naturally he was called Harley.

A good friend with the last name of Bruner picked up Burners, which is very fitting for one who flew an aircraft with afterburners.

When computers were becoming widespread, our squadron had a guy called Spam, not because he had a computer, but because he actually liked to eat Spam.

A fellow A-10 pilot at Myrtle Beach once made a gear-up landing in an O-2 (a militarized Cessna Skymaster); he subsequently, and permanently, got stuck with the callsign of Skids.

Another A-10 pilot with the last name of Dill became Pickle. Note, when you drop a bomb or fire ordnance in fighters, you press the pickle button, so this name was fitting for a fighter pilot.

A fellow classmate in my F-16 training course took off one day and was trying to catch up with his instructor pilot (IP) in the lead aircraft. But he was having trouble getting sufficient airspeed, even with the throttle pushed well forward. He finally did join up with the flight leader and that’s when the IP saw the problem: my classmate had never raised his gear after takeoff. He forever became Wheels.

As a commander, one of my guys had the callsign of Pid. His first name was Stuart, and his nametag was embroidered with “Stu” followed by a dash and then “Pid.” Of course, he was anything bit stupid!

We had two pilots who arrived at the 80th Fighter Squadron (the Juvats) in Korea at about the same time. One was a large, affable character, the other was a smaller version of the first. They instantly became Yogi and Boo-Boo–remember that cartoon? As you can see, timing plays a part in assigning callsigns.

Callsigns can also be based on a physical attributes. As a commander, I once took five of my F-16s and eight of my IPs to Miramar Naval Air Station outside of San Diego, California. We spent a week role-playing Soviet fighters for their students learning to fly the F-14. When I spoke with our host officer on the phone prior to our arrival, he told me his callsign was Tiny. Upon landing at Miramar, I climbed down the ladder of my F-16 and Tiny was there to greet me. He was anything but tiny! I wondered how he ever fit into the cockpit of an F-14.

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Not all callsigns are compliments.

One of my IPs who made that trip to Miramar was a guy we called Little Joe (like Michael Landon on “Bonanza”). His name was Lloyd Joseph, but, like our host at Miramar, his callsign was based on his size. I wondered how Little Joe, or L-J as we sometimes called him, fit into an F-16 cockpit. I knew when he was the last one who flew an F-16 that I climbed into because I couldn’t see over the glare shield until the generator came on line and I could raise the seat. To give you an idea of his size, L-J was a lineman on the Brigham Young football team.

I have a longtime friend who graduated college with me and we flew A-10s together at Myrtle Beach. Like me he is now retired and is also a member of the same Daedalian Flight in Atlanta. He is known as Senator, but it’s not because he’s a politician; he has a southern accent and can press the flesh with the best of them.

When I was commanding the 61st Fighter Squadron one student pilot we trained, named Roger, got a unique callsign. Roger was an F-4 pilot when the Air Force started looking for flight surgeons who would also be fully qualified fighter pilots, not just occupy the back seat on the occasional mission. As a qualified fighter pilot, he would normally go through a three-month transition course to get checked out in the F-16. However, Roger was accepted for this new program as he had the grades, passed the MCat, and had been accepted to medical school. So, he stopped flying the F-4 for four years of medical school followed by his residency to become a flight surgeon.

When he returned to flying, he had been out of the cockpit for over five years. On top of that, he was upgrading to fly the F-16. The higher-ups decided that, because Roger had been out of flying for so long and he was also upgrading to a new fighter, he would go through a six-month basic course. The other students in Roger’s class were primarily those who had just been awarded their wings. Roger was a Major and, because of his rank, he was the class commander while his classmates were a bunch of fresh-faced, young (very young!), 2nd lieutenants.

We thought long and hard about what Roger’s callsign should be. We thought of Bones (what Captain Kirk often called Doctor McCoy on Star Trek) as well as Doc (like one of the seven dwarfs in Sleeping Beauty), but those were both too easy. After much deliberation and because of the age difference between Roger and his fellow classmates, we settled on what you call an old bone: Fossil!

As for non-fighter pilots who were given a callsign, the first to come to mind were two 2nd lieutenants in Korea who were in the 8th Fighter Wing (the Wolfpack) weather shop. We liked these guys, had fun with them, and they became known as the Phoon brothers, Ty and Buff.

The Juvats also had a flight surgeon who was in the first class of women to graduate from the Air Force Academy. Her last name was O’Hare, so she was tagged with Scarlet (think Gone With the Wind). When she returned to the States, Scarlet was the flight surgeon for the 61st Fighter Squadron at MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida, while I was the commander. She later married one of my pilots whose last name was Fox. As a result, we changed her callsign to Fox II, which is the radio call made when firing the heat-seeking, AIM-9 air-to-air missile. See how easy this is?

In my past I knew a Mallard, a Latka (from TV’s “Taxi”), a Juice, an Enos (from TV’s “Dukes of Hazzard”), a Bulb (like a lightbulb), and a Torch (who nearly burned down the squadron).

I’ll close with two of my favorite callsigns and why they were assigned.

  • One should never try to badger those who are assigning callsigns; but you can try and bribe them! I knew a 2nd lieutenant who wanted to be a Rock, or Flame, or Spidey, or some other super-hero, and he let everyone know it. But, because of his baby face and for making such a nuisance of himself, he got tagged with Fluffy!
  • Finally, remember the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter that was shot down by Yugoslavian forces in 1999? The mission callsign of that F-117 was “Vega 31.” When a B-2 pilot I know proposed to and subsequently married a Canadian-American lady of Yugoslavian descent, he picked up the callsign of Vega because he too was a stealth pilot “shot down” by a Yugoslavian.

There are many callsigns out there like Conan, Rocket, Fazer, Hose, Ajax, Slam, Two-G, Dizzy, and others. When you encounter someone sporting a callsign on their jacket or flight gear, ask them how they got that name. You might be in for a good laugh along with a good story!

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Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

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After a beautiful early fall in Ohio, a cut-off low has installed itself over the southeastern United States and brought with it rain, storms, and IFR conditions. Flying conditions have been marginal all week, but you need to get to Nashville from your home outside Cincinnati, so you’ve been trying to pick the right time. It’s a two hour trip in your Cessna 182—is this the right time? Read the weather briefing below, then add a comment and tell us if it’s a go or a no-go for you. You are instrument rated and your proposed departure time is 1330Z.

Overview

The Map page in ForeFlight shows scattered rain and IFR conditions across your route of flight, but at least there’s not a solid wall of thunderstorms like there was yesterday.

GNG I69 JWN route - Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

The driving force behind all this weather is that cut-off low aloft. It’s been spinning over Missouri for days now.

GNG 500mb - Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

The result is an ugly surface analysis, with a warm front and a stationary front draped across the Midwest and Southeast.

GNG surf ana - Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

The prog charts suggest the weather might finally start to move east today, but only very slowly.

GNG 18Z chart - Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

Even tonight, there is plenty of rain forecast along that front.

GNG 00Z chart scaled - Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

Radar and satellite

Step one today is to get a handle on that rain: is there any convection to watch out for? The Convective SIGMET map certainly thinks it’s possible, although there is only an outlook box along your route.

CSIGMET - Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

The regional radar shows fairly scattered rain around Cincinnati.

GNG radar north - Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

Closer to Nashville, it looks like the rain breaks up.

GNG radar south - Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

The infrared satellite image shows fairly thick clouds in Ohio, but nothing major in the western half of Kentucky or Tennessee.

GNG satellite IR - Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

Icing

It is early October, so it’s definitely icing season. There are some AIRMETs for in-flight icing, but they are at higher altitudes.

GNG ice AIRMET - Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

A look at the freezing levels shows a flight at your typical 8-10,000 ft. altitude should be above freezing.

GNG freezing level - Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

The forecast icing product shows no threat at 11,000 feet (although it does start at 13,000).

GNG ice 11k - Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

Finally, the cloud forecast map offers some good news. Tops seem to be fairly low along your route, so it looks like you might get on top—especially closer to your destination.

GNG cloud - Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

Text weather

Your departure airport is showing pretty solid IFR conditions, but is forecast to improve.

GNG I69 weather - Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

En route, conditions appear to be pretty good VFR, with broken layers and no rain.

GNG en route KY - Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

In Nashville, it’s marginal VFR and forecast to stay pretty much the same, although it should clear up later in the day.

GNG JWN weather - Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

Some pilot reports are also worth noting. They suggest the tops are right around your cruising altitude near Cincinnati.

GNG PIREPs - Go or No Go: cut-off low conundrum

Decision time

It’s time to make the call. Your goal was to get airborne during the morning, before any of the day’s heat can make those rain showers thunderstorms. Right now that looks to be the case, with mostly rain and layered clouds along your route. But will it stay that way? Does that front have any other surprises?

Add your comment below.

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Proficiency test—a father-daughter cross-country to remember

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“Is the transponder supposed to say that?”

My eyes shot across the cockpit. Whap whap whap whap whap whap. The propeller bit the air. My dad was crunched into the right seat of the Cessna 172, knees bent into his chest, head cocked toward me. Stashed in the right corner of the instrument panel was our transponder—the 8” x 10” x 2” black box that transmitted our position to Air Traffic Control. It ran on the plane’s electrical system, the same power source as the radios and the flaps. We needed the transponder to fly into Class Charlie airspace, the wedding-cake-shaped extension of FAA-regulated atmosphere around our destination: El Paso International Airport (ELP). We needed the radios to make sure no Black Hawk helicopters or Boeing 737s turned our 1972 Skyhawk into an electric blue smudge in the sky. We needed the flaps to land the plane.

We were 40 miles west, 8,500 feet above the airfield. 21 minutes away if the winds held.

I saw my reflection whip across my dad’s aviators. Split-second crosscheck. His face was ice-cold. No expression. Whap whap whap whap whap whap. A message blinked on the black box:

Transponder failed.

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There’s nothing like a cross-country in a Cessna 172 to connect with someone.

72 hours earlier, my dad and I departed Coulter Field in Bryan, Texas, for a 1,348-mile round-trip trek to El Paso. I had been an FAA-approved Private Pilot for 41 hours. We took off at 8am in a plane that had spent most of its useful life tied down at an un-towered airstrip baking in the Texas sun-ray oven. We were 50 pounds shy of the maximum gross weight—stuffed full of fuel, hiking boots, granola bars, and golf clubs. Wheels up, course set, elevator trimmed for straight and level flight. Whap whap whap whap whap whap. Checklist complete.

It’s still something of a miracle that I ended up in the left seat. In mid-March 2020, as the world spiraled into coronavirus chaos, I was banished from Harvard College to finish my senior spring Zooming into poetry seminars from my childhood bedroom. The view from the ground was bleak. I did yard work between YouTube graduation speeches. I walked my dog around the same block at 9am every morning. On the really wild nights, I’d eat breakfast tacos for dinner and wax philosophical about the Lost iGeneration at the kitchen table while my dad checked email. Then I’d go to bed at 9.

Quarantine stretched out in front of me like the West Texas desert: endless, changeless, and empty except for the occasional Tex-Mex stop. It felt like a bad breakup with the best years of my life.

Then, out of the wild blue yonder, I caught the flying bug. I was moping around the house one day, recently returned from walking the dog, when my dad suggested I take a drive to the small airfield up the road.

“The airport?”

“Yeah, go take a discovery flight.”

“Discovery flight?”

“Yeah, go fly with a flight instructor.”

“Like, in a plane?”

“Yeah, here, take the keys.”

When I was a kid, I was all about aviation. My dad graduated from the US Air Force Academy and wore a flight suit to work for 20 years. I spent the better part of my childhood base-jumping across the United States—Tennessee, Colorado, Mississippi, Texas. T-38s streaked across the kitchen window every morning, and F-15s roared above the soccer fields every afternoon. I dreamt of trading places with those pilots. I built planes out of cardboard moving boxes and wrote poems about flying to the moon. I knew I would see the world above the clouds one day. I couldn’t imagine life any other way.

Then my dad switched careers from flight surgeon to civilian ER doctor. Nothing roared overhead anymore except the loudspeaker in my public high school. The sky faded into a mute blue backdrop for schoolwork and soccer practice. I gave up my last shot to be a pilot age 18, when I accepted early admission to Harvard and forgot about the Air Force Academy. The only glimpse I’d get of the left seat of a cockpit was on my way back to the coach cabin on the commercial flight to Boston. I let the door shut on any other possibility.

It hurt—letting my dad’s USAF contrails dissipate into thin air. But I wanted a liberal arts education. I studied English literature and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford my senior fall of college. Four months after graduation, I was set to hop across the pond and start a master’s degree in history, basic training for a life digging through the archives instead of flying to the moon. No one in my family was an academic. My last year at college, my mom, dad, and I had gradually run out of things to talk about on the calls back home. I turned in my thesis mid-March and looked ahead to a pre-grad-school summer of reading for fun. Then, the day after the thesis deadline, COVID-19 hit Harvard.

And suddenly, I was back in Texas, stuck in coronavirus-limbo, pushed out the door by the USAF veteran who wore his flight suit to fight weeds in the backyard. Conscripted, I took the seven-minute drive to the airfield and the twenty-minute flight above the clouds. And I fell headset over heels.

Wing view Cessna 225x300 - Proficiency test—a father-daughter cross-country to remember

“I never wanted to come back down again.”

I was in the left seat, the instructor in the right, both squeezed into a Cessna 162. We slipped above the sticky morning at a thousand feet per minute. The airfield, the Brazos River, my house, my high school, the highway traffic—all of it slid beneath us, riding on the planetary conveyor belt buckled to the ground below. We rose above that toy factory, pistons pushing and pulling, a formula floating on composite wings. We leveled off at 6,500 feet, seven football fields above the scattered layer of clouds. The instructor trimmed the elevator and let me take the yoke. Left 30 degrees, right 30 degrees. Pitch up, push forward, one hand, light touch. It felt like engineered poetry. Fluent in three dimensions, held aloft by the fluid freedom of nitrogen molecules, tethered to human life by naught except the invisible radio-strands of other aeronauts sailing the unbound ocean of blue!

On the drive home I saw highways in the clouds. That night I stared at the moon for twenty minutes. It felt like seeing an old friend. After that, my poetry seminar, virtual commencement, daily dog walks, weekly Netflix parties, monthly book clubs—anything that kept two feet on the ground—felt boring. Real life was somewhere 6,000 feet above my head. I had touched it. I never wanted to come back down again.

My dad and I found a cheap airplane for rent and a retired-Marine-friend-of-a-friend to teach me how to fly it. Every day I’d wake up, down a cup of coffee, fly with my instructor, down another cup of coffee, read Federal Aviation Administration textbooks, and effuse about aviation with the mechanics at the airfield, my digital friends, my Australian shepherd, the grocery store clerks, the mailman, the cows grazing under the telephone wires across the street—anyone who would listen. My stack of fun-reading collected dust. When I wasn’t flying, or reading about flying, or talking about flying, I was listening to audiobooks about flying. David McCullough’s biography of the Wright Brothers. Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars. Jocko naval aviator podcasts, the Airline Pilot Guy Show, the Weather Channel. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.

My dad and I had something to talk about again. On the best nights, I’d walk through the door, throw off my flight gear, and knock back a few drinks with him at the kitchen table, talking about his Air Force days. The idiot in survival training who outed their group to the upperclassmen Soviet officers. The SR-71 Blackbird in the induction parade that punched a hole in the sky with its Pratt and Whitney engine. The F-16 dogfight that sent earth and sky tumbling like clothes in a washing machine. The night after I flew my first steep turn, I asked him what a made a good fighter pilot. He shook his head over the lip of his beer, “The right stuff, man. The right stuff.”

The Right Stuff is a 1979 non-fiction novel about the rise of NASA’s Mercury Space Program in the 1960s. It’s the best book by America’s best 20th century satirist, Tom Wolfe. In his signature psychedelic style, Wolfe nails the fighter jock specimen: those righteous single-combat warriors who clawed their way to the top of the Maverick ziggurat to do battle with the Soviet Integral. Yeager, Shepard, Armstrong. These heroes orbited high above the bipedal billions snagged by the surly bonds of earth, shot beyond the thermosphere by that unnamable combination of edge, ego, guts, grit, and gumption—that righteous stuff.

I soaked it all in through my headphones, burning up the asphalt between my house and Coulter Field. The altimeter keeps winding down… He’s only 21,000 feet above the high desert… Bango!—the chute catches with a jolt… He pitches down… He jettisons the chute… and the beast heaves up again! Wolfe wrote like he was in the cockpit with Chuck Yeager. He had the style of an English major and the swagger of a fighter jock, those knights-in-shining-metal who spent their days flying and drinking, drinking and driving, whipping and wheeling their convertibles across the California desert floor. They called every exploit—racing cars, taking shots, breaking the sound barrier—by the same name: proficiency test.

I flew head-first into the frenzy. Every training day was another step up the ziggurat of airborne elites. I called anything difficult or dumb or reckless—everything from a 100-degree cross-country flight to a 100-degree day in the yard—another proficiency test. My dad started calling his 24-hour shifts by the same name.

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For those with the right stuff, everything was a proficiency test.

SpaceX launched the Crew Dragon the day I soloed at an airfield built to train Cold War pilots. It was the first American orbital spaceflight in nine years, the first ever launched by a private company. I had graduated three days before. My dad asked me if I had ever thought about the Air National Guard. I talked to his old C-17 pilot buddy on the phone and started running the numbers in my head. How old would I be after I graduated from Oxford? How many years of training until I’d get a shot at the F-35? What are the terms of the Rhodes Scholarship, again?

A second Space Age had arrived—and with it, a second shot at the aviation family business.

***

By mid-summer I was flying solo every day. I flew at sunrise when I couldn’t sleep, flew at night when I didn’t want to sleep, flew in the afternoon when the ceiling finally burned above FAA minimums. Stalls, steep turns, S-turns across the road, turns-around-a-point. Each item off the training checklist was a step closer to the FAA check ride—and a step closer to getting my license, my official christening as a jock-of-the-skies private pilot.

But my days drinking and driving, driving and flying, flying and drinking, were numbered. Oxford would start mid-September. By mid-July logistical weeds were choking my time above the clouds. College accommodations forms, Confirmation of Acceptance Studies forms, National Health Service forms—the leagues of red tape between Houston and Heathrow was the stuff ATC dreams are made of. Throw in a pandemic and a 12th century bureaucracy, and you have a fail-proof recipe for a world-class headache. It didn’t help that I was having second thoughts.

Then there was the visa. Thanks to the logic of British bureaucrats, I had to have my fingerprints scanned and shipped to New York for processing before I could get my visa delivered through the mail. And the only UK office open more than two weeks before my departure date, across all 167 million acres of Texas, was El Paso, a city so far west it ran on Mountain Time. I could drive the 681 miles… But the thought of trekking ten hours there and back, on the ground, while the time I had left in American aviation ticked to zero, was unbearable. I had to fly.

The plan fell into place. The El Paso trek would be my first real test as a pilot. My dad would be my right-seat passenger. We’d make the trip a proper West Texas send-off: visit Carlsbad Caverns, hike Guadalupe Peak, play a few rounds of golf, knock out the visa appointment, get one last swig of Americana before jetting abroad. My dad would fly in a non-commercial aircraft for the first time since his Air Force days. We’d be two righteous single-combat warriors racing into the wild blue yonder to do battle with the British bureaucrats. All I needed was the license.

That was the first proficiency test.

The FAA examiner showed up an hour late. By the time we finished the two-hour oral test, angry thunderstorms had chewed up the afternoon. I called a discontinuance. We met at the airfield at 11:30 the next morning. The temperature throttled toward three digits, and gusty crosswinds whipped the windsock at speeds only a few knots below my personal maximums. I knocked out the stalls, ground reference maneuvers, and simulated emergencies, but by the time we turned back to Coulter Field for the landing, the crosswinds had picked up. I had never flown in winds this gusty before.

I turned left base to final, came in over the runway too high, and slipped to land the first touch-and-go. As I climbed out for the second circuit, the examiner lit up the radio waves. Wrong crab angle! Nose down! Right rudder! I had landed the plane within the FAA specifications, hadn’t I?

The examiner cut through my pre-landing checklist while we were on downwind:

“Land this one without flaps. You might have an electrical failure and lose power to the flap control. Happens all the time!”

No flaps? Nowhere did the Airman Certification Standards specify that a private pilot had to land a plane without flaps. It never came up in training. It never came up in The Right Stuff. Ten minutes from the finish, I became a test pilot. Turning left base to final, I didn’t trim the elevator up enough and came in too high, too fast. I had to go around. The examiner lit up the radios again. No way was I going to meet FAA standards in these conditions. I put the flaps in, put the plane on the ground, and called another discontinuance.

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The smile of someone who has passed their check ride.

We agreed to reconvene the next day to finish the last two touch-and-goes. Twenty days later, I still didn’t have my license. First the examiner was stuck in Denver, then he was stuck in Dallas, then he had his license suspended for a “routine complaint.” The clock ticked. If I didn’t finish the exam in the next ten days, I would bust the FAA’s 30-day deadline and have to restart the test from scratch.

My hands were tied with red tape. The license, the El Paso cross-country flight, the fighter jock dreams—all up in smoke. I’d have to drive to the visa appointment. The only plane I’d ever take my dad flying in would be the ones I made of cardboard in third grade. I blamed it all on the flaps.

Then I got a text from my instructor. A friend of a friend of a friend knew an FAA examiner from out-of-state who had a thirty-minute opening Wednesday, August 19, two days before my dad and I were scheduled to leave for Carlsbad. “Dear Lord,” I prayed, “don’t let me f*** up.”

The full-flap touch-and-goes took ten minutes. I drove home a private pilot. Forty-one hours after that, my dad and I were cruising toward Carlsbad.

***

The going was slow. Between the wind, the heat, and the ancient airplane, we chugged above the farm-quilted terrain at a blistering 110 miles per hour. This was the longest I had ever flown. The caffeine buzz wore off at mile 262. My back ached from slouching against the Styrofoam blocks I had set against the back of the seat, so I could reach the rudder pedals. My dad monitored our progress on an iPad. He passed the time telling military stories. The time a fighter jock inverted on final approach. The time he and two buddies outran a thunderstorm between Columbus and Birmingham. He shook his head with a smile. The right stuff, man, the right stuff.

My dad had never been a pilot. A refractive error in his left eye disqualified him from flight training in his third year at the Academy. Finance officer in the First Gulf War, logistics man at unspecified air bases in the Middle East, then medical student and flight surgeon. As a doc, he did all he could to keep the fighter jocks flying. They loved him for it. Took him on practice dogfights in F-16s, 400-mile burrito runs in Learjets. And here he was, 12 years later, clunking toward El Paso at a quarter of a respectable cruising speed, squished in a Cessna one missed inspection away from the scrapheap, daughter in the left seat, dad in the right. He shook his head the one time I asked if he wanted to manipulate the controls. “You’re the pilot in command,” he said. Yes sir.

By the time we crossed over from hot, dry, oil-rigged West Texas into hot, dry, oil-rigged South New Mexico, we were landing in air seven times thinner than what we had departed in. The eight runways at the Carlsbad Cavern City Airport dissected each other like two off-set Zs. A crusty FBO manager with a white handlebar mustache wrangled the golf bags out of the back seat. Ten minutes later, we drove a tin-can SUV due north up the Carlsbad main drag, dad in the left seat, daughter in the right.

We woke up at 5:45 the next morning and drove an hour south to Carlsbad Caverns. It was 12:30 by the time we emerged, blinking, from the sleeping city of stalactites, stalagmites, and bat guano. Next up: Guadalupe Peak: 8,750 feet in the sky. We pulled into Guadalupe Mountain State Park and took stock of the situation. 1:30, winds below five knots, temperature 98 degrees and climbing. 3,000 feet of elevation gain across 8.4 miles—an estimated eight hours of strenuous hiking. We had two granola bars and two water bottles between the two of us. The closest gas station was thirty minutes out of the way. I looked across the dashboard at my dad. He flicked on his aviators and grinned, “Proficiency test.”

We averaged twenty-five minutes per mile for the first mile and a half. I zig-zagged around the roots, rocks, and switchbacks like a jackrabbit. Every few minutes I’d wait for my dad under the shade of some arthritic desert foliage. He followed behind at a steady pace, chugging up the elevation like our Skyhawk’s Lycoming engine. We passed other hikers and made bets on who’d make it to the summit. The temperature jumped above 100 degrees. Our water fell below half capacity.

At the summit 225x300 - Proficiency test—a father-daughter cross-country to remember

Another proficiency test passed.

I passed the time asking my dad questions about his Academy days. I had to strain to catch his few-word answers across the stretching space between us. Was the Academy stressful? Yeah. Where did you go after graduation? The Middle East. Do you miss the Air Force? Not really. What was it like when you found out you weren’t pilot qualified? His steady pace rocked a bit. The flight surgeon gave him the eye exam junior year, he said. Walked into the room and broke the news, matter-of-fact. My dad, maybe ten months younger than I was at the time, felt his eyes well up in front of the refractive error. The flight surgeon glanced up from his clipboard. “You’re not going to cry about it, are you?” My dad didn’t. He spent the rest of his Air Force career slashing red-tape medical technicalities, so fighter jocks could stay airborne. We kept climbing.

“How are you holding up?” I called over my shoulder. No answer. Fifteen minutes later I called again, “How are you holding up?” A gruff reply came somewhere several feet behind me, “Don’t ask again. It makes me feel weak.” Water at a quarter capacity. 101 degrees.

I got to the top just before the five-hour mark, twenty minutes before my dad. When he surfaced over the edge of the summit, his shoes were splitting apart near the soles. Waterless, snackless, and burned to an offensive shade of pink, we sat down next to the vaguely phallic marble stone that marked Guadalupe Peak—the triumph of our righteous stuff. 2,667 feet above the surface. The desert stretched out in front of us, a sun-stained sectional chart of dried salt lakes, dust farms, and oil rigs. I patted my dad on the back. “You know,” I said, “this looks exactly like the view we have in the Cessna.” He blinked heavily behind his aviators, “Time to go down.”

Twelve hours later, we saw the same desert landscape from 6,000 feet higher in the atmosphere, fuzzed over by the plexiglass windshield of our battle-worn Skyhawk. 7:48. 89 miles into the 129-mile stretch between Carlsbad and El Paso International Airport, four hours and twelve minutes from the visa appointment that had sent us packing West. Time passed. My dad snapped pictures of the rippling terrain below while he monitored the iPad. I sipped hotel coffee and thought about how long it was going to be before I saw a world as barren, dusty, and free as this one again. The UK was getting closer every mile west we tracked—more real, it seemed, than that small marble plaque we humped 8.1 miles to see yesterday afternoon and now sailed a mile above this morning—

“Is your transponder supposed to say that?”

The black box screamed its death-threat in silence: Transponder failed.

Transponder failed. Right. Checklist, checklist. I fumbled around the left door pouch for my emergency procedures. The propeller bit the air. My dad watched in silence. Whap whap whap whap whap whap. I slapped the checklist onto my lap and keyed in a radio call to Air Traffic Control. “Carlsbad Center, Skyhawk seven-two-nine-nine-papa has a failed pfffffffft.” The radio frayed. “Uh, Skyhawk can you please repfffffft.” Keyed the radio, nothing, nothing. My dad held up the iPad. We were two minutes away from crossing into the Class Charlie airspace. We’d break the law to fly in NORDO, without radios or a transponder.

Checklist, checklist. I scoured the moving map for airfields outside El Paso. Nothing, nothing—there! Un-towered airstrip thirty miles south of the city. No avgas available. Maybe a mechanic. Almost certainly no rental car. I looked at my watch. 7:51. If we diverted, it was anyone’s guess if we could make the visa appointment in time. We want to make the visa appointment, right? Right. Sure. Thirty seconds until we crossed over into the Class Charlie. I prayed the Boeing 737s flying into ELP were watching their windows for traffic. We wouldn’t show up on their instrument panels sans-transponder. I handed my dad the iPad. “We’re going to divert,” I said, “but one last thing.” I ran my finger over the circuit breakers—bump. The alternator field breaker. I punched.

“Skyhawk seven-two-nine-nine-papa confirm landing on runway two-six left. Repeat two-six-left.” There! The voice of the controller rang over the radio waves like the trumpet call of God. I keyed in the response, “Skyhawk nine-nine-papa two-six ppfffffft.” The radios died. We were on our own. But we had our orders.

ELP overhead 300x300 - Proficiency test—a father-daughter cross-country to remember

Is that the right airport?

“We’re going to land at ELP,” I told my dad. Four minutes later we started the descent. We had our runway. Bleeding altitude, picking up airspeed, all we needed was to find it.

My dad looked on in silence as I scoured the windshield, trying to make visual contact with two-six left. We had a two-in-three chance of screwing the pooch on this landing. El Paso International was sandwiched between Fort Biggs Army airbase to the north and Juarez International to the west. Misread the runway, and we’d either land in the wrong airspace or the wrong country. All I could see was dust. Where the hell was ELP?

I grabbed the iPad from my dad and drew a straight line from the end of two-six left across the map. I lined up with the painted white numerals. We were forty seconds from touchdown, 1,000 feet above the ground. We’d have one shot to nail the landing. If we tried a go-around without radios at an international airport, we’d be asking for a collision with a commercial jet forty times our maximum gross weight. I reached down the instrument panel to put in the first ten degrees of flaps.

Click.

Nothing happened. The switch moved, but the flaps didn’t budge. A cold shiver snaked through my gut and curled around my spine. The flaps were dead. They ran on power from the electrical system, and the electrical system had failed. The voice of my first FAA examiner rang through the headsets like a ghost over the non-transmitting radio waves, “You might have an electrical failure and lose power to the flap control. Happens all the time!”

I handed the iPad back to my dad and keyed in two words over the dead radios: “Proficiency test.”

***

Thirty minutes later, my dad and I were sitting at a corner table at Cuauhtémoc Café, two miles from the airport, eating breakfast tacos. Customers in cloth masks shuffled in and out the door. My dad pulled out his laptop and checked his email. I finished eating and stared blankly at the orange wall. I had never tasted better Tex-Mex in my life.

I had put the plane on the ground. By a stroke of favor from the aviation gods, the FBO was immediately south of runway two-six left. No need to navigate across a mile of spaghetti-noodle taxiways without ATC instructions. We called the mechanic. He’d check the alternator first thing in the morning. The FBO manager, a short woman in a sharp business suit, sorted out the rental car, and we drove two miles straight west to Cuauhtémoc. We had time to kill before the visa appointment.

There was a strange silence hovering over the tortillas and the plastic straws. My blood shot through my cardiovascular system faster than the Skyhawk on initial descent. I had never felt this buzzed, this invincible, this much like a hyperbole ripped from a piece of literary non-fiction. Was this the world outside the envelope? How could I ever go back to “real life” again? Was the person sitting across from my dad the same person who sat to his left 8,500 feet above mean sea level this morning? The same person who struck out West to go back East, who four months before this took a discovery flight above the clouds, who four years before that boarded a commercial flight to Boston? Was this the next step up the mighty ziggurat of that righteous stuff—or was it the highest I’d ever reach?

My dad closed his laptop and looked at me from across the table. He shook his head and smiled. “The right stuff, man,” he said, “the right stuff.”

We drove to the visa office, dad in the left seat, daughter in the right. He stayed in the car while I went in alone. I paused in front of the entrance, blood still rippling through the arteries. It would be too literary to say two worlds opened in front of me at that moment—an old world in the East and a young world in the West. Whose dream was it to go to Oxford, and whose dream was it to fly to the moon? Mine, mine twelve years ago, my dad’s, my dad’s when he was my age? Was this aviation thing destiny, or just some freak side-effect from a freak pandemic?

Two roads diverged from the highway above the clouds. One paved with undergraduate ambitions, the other with childhood dreams. Would the real Lauren please take the first step?

Those thoughts belong to the world of Tom Wolfe novels. There was never a doubt that I’d go to the appointment. The only question was who I’d be when I walked out the door.

***

Golf course 225x300 - Proficiency test—a father-daughter cross-country to remember

Not a bad way to kill time while the airplane gets fixed.

We spent an extra day in El Paso, finally putting the golf clubs to use while the mechanic trouble-shot the Skyhawk’s electrical system. Bad alternator, dead battery, loose safety wire. The money we saved renting a crappy airplane from a friend of a friend we promptly spent making the airplane significantly less crappy.

I called my instructor and recounted the triumph of the no-flaps landing. There was an awkward pause after I finished the story. He was waiting for the punchline. “Oh, you had plenty of runway to land that thing without flaps!” he said, “But glad you’re both okay.” I nodded, sobered. The adrenaline-shot shimmer life had acquired post-electrical-failure had already started to fade. “You may want to file a report with the FAA,” my instructor added, “just in case.”

After six hours battling headwinds in a worn-out plane with a brand-new battery, my dad and I touched down at Coulter Field. We crabbed into gusty crosswinds to make the full-flap landing. We were one day behind schedule. We yanked the golf clubs from the back seat and headed home in our black Tundra. My dad’s ER shift started in two hours. After he took off, I carried the one souvenir from the trip back to my bedroom: a poster of the Lockheed Martin SR-71 Blackbird. We had picked it up at the return fuel stop in San Angelo. It was a memento for the Oxford dorm room.

Thirteen days later, my dad drove me to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport. 5:30. Winds below five knots. It was the first time all summer that I was traveling to Houston on the ground, and I wasn’t the one in the left seat. We rode mostly in silence. The radio was dead quiet.

“You know,” my dad said, breaking the silence, “when we were up there, over the mountains, and the transponder failed,” he paused. I waited. “I felt a peace.” The engine hummed. “All the flights I’ve been on—the F-16s, the T-38s—and I would go down in a Cessna 172 somewhere in the middle of the West Texas desert.” He paused, smiled, and shook his head. “But I was okay with that. Because I was with you…” He trailed off and looked out the window for a moment. “And I was in a plane being flown by my daughter.”

My dad dropped me off at the gate. I grabbed my black suitcase and my backpack, with the luggage tags my instructor had given me. Lauren Spohn: Pilot in Command. The automatic doors slid open. I took the first step through when I heard my dad yell something behind me. “Hey!” I whipped around. He grinned, winked, and shouted two words through the open right window: “Proficiency test!”

I gave him a salute, walked through the sliding doors, and boarded the commercial flight to London.

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