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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

***

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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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An intro flight takes an unexpected turn

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There I was, bouncing around in the backseat of a Cessna 172 as my friend tried to stabilize the aircraft while our pilot was simultaneously shutting the door. Yet no amount of slamming seemed to lock the door in place. It would merely rebel by jerking open yet again. We were in quite the dilemma at several hundred feet. This experience was certainly not what I would have excepted from an introductory flight!

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Ready to fly.

If you were to rewind to the beginning of our turbulent flight you would view my friend and me eagerly waiting at the terminal. This introductory flight we were going to take would be my third in a small aircraft and my friend’s first. With eternal grins and giggles, we overlooked the aircraft and performed a preflight check with the pilot. After briefly discussing the flight, we were off. Our plan was for me to fly in the front seat from our departure airport in South Carolina, at the Spartanburg Downtown Memorial Airport (SPA), to a local airport near our capital of Columbia. Then, on the return the flight I would hop in the back seat and trade places with my friend. The trip was estimated to take about an hour.

Upon departure, we cleared the local facilities and gained altitude for our trek towards Columbia. It was a beautiful day with a piercing blue sky. Though we did have some clouds jockeying next to our Cesena 172, we still had some clear patches where we could view the ground. My friend and I pondered how indescribable and almost cartoon-like the rich whiteness of the clouds was. We continued our delicate dance between earth and atmosphere until we reached our stopping point. Luckily, when we reached the airport there was a break in the clouds and we started on final. As we approached the airport, I started to get a queasy feeling but quickly dismissed it as we landed.

When we arrived at the uncontrolled airport, I made sure to stretched my legs before switching places with my friend. The pilot quickly asked if we were good to go, then we were off once again. But this time with much more excitement then our first tranquil flight.

We had gone a little way when suddenly a curious thought entered my mind as I sat in the back. I pondered, “I wonder how many flights you have to take before something goes wrong?” Literally no sooner had the question vanished from my mind than the side door start to make some strange noises. Shocked, I watched as all of our attention flung to my friend’s side door. Unbeknownst to us all, she did not slam the door hard enough when we were preparing to take off. Amazingly, the door had remained closed as we climbed but it now decided to unlatch.

The pilot anxiously reached across my friend and tried opening and closing the door. Yet, instead of staying locked with the force he exerted it merely mocked him by bouncing back. The result was an extremely noisy cacophony of groans, smashing metal, and air. Suddenly, I felt the familiar but most unwelcome feeling of nausea overwhelm me. Our straight and level aircraft quickly turned into a wooden rocking horse with all the up and down movement the plane was creating. My head craned down only to stare dangerously at the naked ground which lay before me, because of the open door. I rapidly reached for a bag and was quite thankful for seatbelts.

While the pilot was busy wrestling the door, our lives were in the hands of my friend. Though 14 at the time and with no previous flight experience, she had to temporarily fly the plane. We must have been quite the sight to behold—with the pilot battling the door, my friend now in command of the aircraft, and me hiding my head in a shopping bag.

172 in flight 300x218 - An intro flight takes an unexpected turn

Is the door closed? How do you know?

Finally, he successfully closed the door and regained control of the Cessna from my grateful friend. However, we still had 20 minutes to go before we reached our destination. I was completely sick at this point and our pilot easily spotted the tell-tale signs of motion sickness. He decided to help by opening his push-to-open window. But to his chagrin, as he started to crack the window our rebellious plane decided it had not finished tormenting us. Once the window was open it quickly slammed shut on his fingers. Immediately, he tried freeing his captive fingers but the window was reluctant to release them. At last, after a loud “OW!” battle cry, the window gave him back his hostage hand.

Still the motion sickness would not leave me and even after several attempts to cure the illness it merely grew worse. Finally, we were closing in on our local airport, which I could have never been more grateful to gaze upon. We briskly taxied off of the runway and came to a stop. Then, I shot out of the back seat like an injured bear out of a pen. I panted heavily as I crawled away from the plane on all fours. My mother and brother waved with large grins as they waited to hear how our flight went. Later on, I gratefully kissed the ground and thanked God motion sickness does not last forever.

Though not the most pleasant experience, this episode has certainly not changed my excitement or passion for pursing aviation. But this memorable introductory flight has taught me an important life lesson, which I will use as I continue to fly. I now understand how imperative it is to always be on guard and to expect the unexpected. Anything truly can happen and it is critical not to take anything for granted, whether it be an engine or even a side-door. As one of my mentors in the aviation world wisely stated, “Aviation is nothing but hours and hours of endless boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror.”

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The wrong stuff

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Editor’s note: This article was the winning entry in the third annual Richard Collins Writing Prize for . After reading dozens of entries, our distinguished panel of judges (including Richard’s son) selected Michael Brown as the winner of the $2,500 award. We hope you’ll agree that this article is a fine tribute to a great writer and pilot.

There are an infinite number of reasons why one becomes a pilot: freedom, family upbringing, love of travel, career prospects, etc. However, for a teenage boy like myself, I wanted to become a pilot to be one thing… “cool.”

Growing up I had watched Top Gun, been to airshows, read The Right Stuff, and all I ever wanted was to become one of those men full of bravado and confidence. As a scrawny high school kid, who even got cut from his high school’s bowling team, I saw flying as a way to be something. To have an identity.

It certainly helped that my father and grandfather were involved in aviation. My dad has been a pilot for almost thirty years, ten of which he has spent flying our yellow Legend Cub on twin amphibious floats. It’s a dream, exactly how you want a Cub to look: butterfly cowling, black lightning bolt, and my father and I maintain it to a Smithsonian level of quality. I once met a Blue Angel at an airshow and as he signed my logbook he saw I flew a Cub on floats and pointed to his F-18 and asked “wanna trade?”

Pilots are cool, but does that mean you have to show off?

When I got my license at 18 it was a forgone conclusion I would go down to Florida and get my seaplane rating. When I returned, after taking family on their obligatory rides, my mind turned to who I could take up to really impress. Immediately I thought of my neighbor. She was a witty, tall, intelligent girl with a smile to light up half of Times Square. She had just returned from her first semester in college, where she had made the cheerleading team. I was very smitten.

I decided the Independence Day holiday weekend would be the perfect time to impress my first non-familial passenger in the seaplane. Not only was the weather clear VFR, but the lake would be full of interesting boats and characters who love to see a little yellow seaplane fly by. When I mustered enough courage to ask the question, “have you ever been up in a small plane?” and the all-important follow up, “would you like to?” she gladly accepted.

As we pulled the airplane out, I began explaining what I was doing in my preflight. Some things stuck, but other descriptions, of what the pitot tube does or fuel straining, washed over her. When we took off, I could hear the muffled “wow” which comes from people who have never been in a small plane before, feeling the earth give way below them. The feeling is only enhanced by the fact the airplane can be flown doors and windows open. It is flight in its truest form.

Three miles later we were at the Chickamauga Lake and my initial assessment of the day was correct: it was perfect. The water was packed with boaters. We flew by her house and did a “wing wave” to her friends on their boat enjoying a holiday outing. Then came the enviable question when flying a seaplane near water:

“Can we land?”

“Uh, one second.” Immediately I went through my mental “go/no-go” checklist. The water depth is deep enough throughout the lake. The wave height is high today, but manageable. The real problem would be the boaters. However, I began to hedge with myself. I knew if I went upstream a mile or so, I could probably find a lane with fewer boaters, but I didn’t know for sure. Any other person in the backseat I would have politely shot the request down, but this was my version of “the little red-haired girl” and I didn’t want her to think I didn’t have the confidence or “the right stuff” to do what the plane was designed to do: land on the water.

“Sure!” I replied.

I then went a mile upstream to a place that was more suitable for a landing. After a proper GUMPS and WLNOT checklist, the yellow banana Baumann floats glided onto the water. A perfect water landing. Then our troubles really began.

My dad used to tell me, “everyone loves a little yellow seaplane. That’s great if you’re in the hangar, bad if you’re in the water.” As soon as we had landed and powered down, fishing boats, jet skis, and huge yachts began to approach the plane.

That lake won’t be empty for long—yellow airplanes attract attention on the water.

At first, I made the mistake of chatting with the boaters:“Hi, how y’all doing?!”

I began proudly talking about the airplane in my aviators and Hawaiian shirt. The people were fascinated. Some, probably inspired by Sully, asked if I was in an emergency. As more and more boats came closer and closer, I realized things were beginning to get unsafe. I knew if one of those boats made contact with a float and pinned it the wrong way, we could have a serious sinking problem on our hands. I turned to look at my neighbor and realized at least twelve watercraft had surrounded the seaplane.

To make matters worse, we were drifting closer to the rocky shore. I knew we had to start up and leave, and do it now, but there were too many boaters. If I fired the 100 hp Continental engine I would surely decapitate a jet skier. The shoreline was coming up quicker and my gentle requests to move were not shying away the boaters—in fact more were coming. Between people blasting music, the distance, and the sound of the mighty water, nobody could hear me or they just plain weren’t listening. The calm, collected young aviator soon turned into a screaming little man filled with panic.

“WE ARE STARTING! CLEAR PROP! GET BACK! GET BACK!”

I commanded my passenger to get back in the plane and buckle up. This was certainly not the relaxing fishing date I had imagined.

Finally, they cleared the front enough to start the engine. We had maybe 15 feet to spare before we drifted into the shore. When the prop started, it acted like a dog whistle. All boat traffic in front of me cleared to my sides. I had a good lane for takeoff and was mentally exhausted. I asked my passenger, who at this point was dazed and confused by all the commotion, “are you ready to roll?” I didn’t even wait for her to finish the word. As soon as I heard the beginning of the word yes, I was stick back and full throttle. Things finally started to seem normal. As we transitioned onto the step, I actually exhaled, relieved.

Just then a blur of purple and red blitzed past us, going at least 50 mph compared to our 30 mph. I knew what it was not from the sight of it, but the sound of its roaring engine sucking air. It was a speed boat, who thought it would be fun to race our Cub. He meant no malice, but his wake crossed our floats parallel before we had reached enough speed to become airborne. At that point we began what every seaplane pilot fears: porpoising. The seaplane began to oscillate back and forth. Slowly at first, but soon violently. My neighbor gasped from behind me. Thankfully, training took over: abort takeoff, stick back, power back. We came to a merciful stop, nothing damaged.

I looked back and my poor passenger, who was shaking. The worst sight a pilot can see. I tried to put some of the fault on the daredevil boater, but I knew the truth full well. We should have never been in that water in the first place.

That’s when I learned some things are much more important than looking cool, namely safety. We eventually got a clear and smooth enough lane to take off. We landed back at the airport without incident, and I dropped her off at home in one of the quietest car rides of my life. As I debriefed later that afternoon, I could almost hear Richard Collins sitting in that Cessna 210 on one of the Air Fact segments in my Learn To Fly DVDs saying, “superior pilots use superior judgment to avoid having to use their superior skills.” I knew full well from experiences growing up as a seaplane pilot’s son that a crowded lake presents more challenges than just steeper waves. My ego had bested my judgment and that was never going to happen again.

Going forward, I leave the bravado at the FBO. I’m not afraid to say no to passengers’ requests, no matter the level of our relationship. I now assess the purpose behind each decision I make in the cockpit, knowing that a small decision could lead to big problems if made for the wrong reason. A bad experience has made a better pilot.

And for those wondering, I did ask my neighbor on a second date. She agreed, on one condition: we go to the movies.

Announcing the third annual Richard L. Collins Writing Prize for Young Pilots

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Today, Sporty’s issued the following news release to the aviation media. The official rules for entering an article follows the news release.

Call for Entries: The Third Annual Richard Collins Writing Prize for

$2,500 award for a pilot up to age 24

The Richard Collins family has once again partnered with Sporty’s to offer The Richard Collins Writing Prize for Young Pilots. To qualify, the writer must be a pilot (including student pilot) who is 24 years of age or younger. The article must be original, not previously published, and no longer than 1,500 words. The topic should be “my most memorable or important flying lesson (with or without a flight instructor).”

Entries are now being accepted for the third annual Richard L. Collins Writing Prize for Young Pilots.

The winning article will be published in Air Facts, the publication Richard’s father, Leighton, founded in 1938 and which was relaunched nine years ago by Sporty’s as an online magazine. The articles will be judged by a panel of three: Richard Collins, Jr., J. Mac McClellan, and Amy Laboda.

“Richard Collins left a rich legacy in aviation, including the many young writers he encouraged or hired,” says Sporty’s Vice President and Air Facts Editor John Zimmerman. “This prize is a great way to continue that important work and honor a great writer, and we’re thrilled that this has become an annual event.”

The winning article will be published in Air Facts, while its writer will receive a check for $2,500. The prize will be announced in April.

Articles may be submitted now through March 4, 2021, and sent in as a Word document to editor@airfactsjournal.com. In addition, young pilots are required to submit a 100-word bio to accompany their articles.

Read the 2020 winning article here.

Official Rules for the Richard Collins Writing Prize for Young Pilots

  1. To submit an article, the author must be no older than 24 years of age as of March 4, 2021. The author must be a student pilot or higher.
  2. The article should highlight the author’s most memorable or important flying lesson (with or without a flight instructor) and be no longer than 1500 words.
  3. The article must be original and have not been previously published.
  4. The submission must include a 100-word biography of the author written in the first person (I, me vs. He, her).
  5. The article must be submitted on a Word document and emailed no later than March 4, 2021 to editor@airfactsjournal.com. Only emailed submissions are accepted. Please put “Young Pilot” in the subject line of your email.
  6. Once a submission is received, no corrections or editing are allowed.
  7. Photographs to illustrate the article are accepted but not required.
  8. The one winner will be notified by email no later than April 15, 2021 and awarded the $2500 check.
  9. The winning article will be published in Air Facts. Although there is only one prize, Air Facts reserves the right to publish any article submitted.

Checklist for Young Pilot Authors

  • Does my article have a title?
  • Have I included my byline (by John Smith) below the title?
  • Is my article 1500 words or less?
  • Is my article about general aviation flying, specifically an event that changed or shaped my flying?
  • Have I carefully proofread my article and/or asked a pilot-friend to proofread it as well? (Remember that once your article is submitted, no changes will be accepted.)
  • Have I included a 100-word bio of myself at the conclusion of my article and labeled it as such?
  • Have I typed “Young Pilot” in the subject line of my email?
  • Am I ready to email this article to editor@airfactsjournal.com?

If you answered yes to all these questions, you are ready to press SEND! Good luck to all young pilots.

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