By lex, on December 26th, 2009
Just the one flight today, a sixty-minute learn-to-fly. On the dogfights you pretty much know what you’ll be getting, an adventurer or someone buying a present for someone they believe to be an adventurer. But there’s no telling what you’ll get on one of the learn-to-fly hops.
It wasn’t until 1230, so I had the morning mostly to myself. We five are here at home, but only one of us could remotely qualify as an early riser. Toodled on down to the aerodrome at a leisurely pace, which was prolly just as well: You can tell that the state is getting serious about its budget crunch from the number of CHP hiding in any likely spot. Everywhere, pretty much.
Termites ain’t in it.
Cool, but breezeless, a scudding overcast at maybe 8000 feet. Many pilots teasing out the wool after a few days celebrating the holidays. The airport and traffic pattern boiling with activity. Parker’s family were all there to cheer him on, nervous smiles behind the Christmas present. His younger brother, mom and dad, two sets of grandparents already out by the airplane by the time I showed up asking, “Who wants to fly?”
A high school freshman, shy and tubular, wholly innocent of duties involving actual control of aircraft. An anachronistic patch of white hair at his right temple. Serious during the brief, nodding his head at intervals as I spoke of lift and gravity, thrust and drag, both parasitic and induced. Turns steep and shallow. Stalls, and their recovery. But always avoiding eye contact, seemingly inward focused. Seeing it.
I’ve got a few stock lines I trot out during a brief. I talk about how we’ll always be within gliding distance of land should the engine quit, how we’ll set her down gracefully on the beach if we have to – you’d only get rear-ended on any of the major highways at 70 mph – and how once we’re safely on deck we’ll climb out and get our stories straight for the FAA. This never fails to get a laugh, so I always use it. Always bearing in mind the truth that’s in it.
If for whatever reason we can’t make the beach, I always say that we’ll capture best glide with the flaps down, set her down parallel to the surf as slow as ever we might while maintaining flying speed, and prop the canopy open before we hit the sea. Since I’m nothing like sure that we could pry it open, if it came to ditching. Neither am I entirely clear how we would prop the canopy open, worse comes to worst. But even a bad plan beats no plan at all.
I tell the guest pilots that the airplane is very safe, and the engine very reliable. We only brief these things because there are certain forms to obey. I don’t know that they notice when I touch wood, but I always do. There are gods to be propitiated.
All strapped in and comfortable, we taxi off, the family waving bravely, taking pictures. Not knowing me from Adam and entrusting their son to me, and a fine young man he seemed to be. I think we are conditioned to expect expertise in our doctors, our lawyers, our pilots. It always seems a bit of a burden to me, having spent most of my time alone in an aircraft, beholden only to myself.
When I was flying military, I always used to imagine having to explain to the mishap board what it was that I was thinking if I gooned it up, or what my brothers in arms would say about me if I didn’t survive the ejection. These days, I try to imagine what the family would feel if we didn’t make it home. It keeps me honest.
You stick with me, my man, I tell him as we take the runway. I’m coming home, and you can follow me in.
Parker saw one of our Travelairs heading out, and wanted to know whether it was a replica or the real deal. Oh, it’s real, I told him. From 1927.
I bet they’re expensive, he said.
Might be, I allowed. For an open cockpit biplane that’ll make maybe 100 knots at a flogging pace.
What about this airplane, he asked.
I bet you could get one for $40,000 in good shape, I said.
What about those helicopters over there?
Ah, they’re a bit more expensive at every level. On account of the hideous complexity.
A cool day at sea level, and the little Varga seemed eager to go flying, leaping into the air. We leveled at 1400 feet, a good 200 feet below the Class B and – feeling generous – I gave him the machine before we even got to the ocean.
I was always a natural pilot, things came easily to me with a stick in one hand and a throttle in the other. But your man Parker was another thing entirely, and I was surprised for the first time in a long while. Smooth and coordinated, he got it right off the bat, all of it, or nearly. We did our straight and level work, our turns and stalls and then flew down the coast for to tour the Sandy Eggo Bay. He even had the presence of mind to adjust the throttle at appropriate times unprompted, and offered me back the controls un-asked for when it was time for him to take some happy snaps.
We tagged up at the Coronado Bay Bridge and headed back to the north, begging permission from Lindbergh Tower to cross their airspace on the way to Montgomery. Flew out to the initial, pitched out in the left break to Runway 28L and I demonstrated the first landing. Eighty miles per hour throughout in an arcing turn to final. I thought myself high approaching the 90 degree position, and Parker had to allow as he agreed. So we sideslipped down to burn off the extra altitude, and the airspeed that’d come with it.
That’s the sight picture, I told him, as we got on glideslope. Drive in towards it, keeping it in the same position on the canopy. When the runway expands to fill the space between the canopy bow, it’s time to break the rate of descent by flaring. From there you feel your way down to the runway, with slight adjustments on the wing and rudders to keep her tracking true. I greased the first one on.
There now, that’s not entirely disgraceful.
Not bad, he said.
We had time left, so we did a couple of touch and goes afterward. I talked him through the pattern, altitude and airspeed. Here comes the roundout. Hold her off, be patient. There. My hands around the stick at all times. Ready to intervene. It’s harder from the back seat.
On the fourth landing I took her back, lowered the flaps, put her down Navy-style – which is to say firmly – and turned off at the first intersection. Taxied in to the obvious relief of three generations. Waving and smiling and cameras rolling. Handshakes all around after we’d shut her down and climbed out. His California mom was on her way to giving your host a hug, but I’m still a bit too much of a Virginian to hug women I don’t know. There’s a handshake for you too.
He was just 15, shy and nervous, and had the makings of a damned good stick.
I knew him.