The Sense of Mastery

By lex, on September 18th, 2011

In the late 80s, when I was a fleet lieutenant with one deployment behind me, we were invited to a presentation by Alexander Zuyev, a Soviet era MiG-29 pilot who defected with his airplane to Trabzon, Turkey. The aircraft was re-patriated, but Zuyev was allowed asylum in the US. He gave a pretty good pitch about the differing mindsets between the air forces of the Cold War adversaries. Centralized control we knew about, but they counted sorties rather than flight hours since – as Alex phrased it – fighter combat was more like a boxing match than an endurance contest. He also offered us two of his regiment’s rules of engagement: They would never fire on a man in a parachute, which was we all agreed was gratifyingly humane, but neither would they fire on an aircraft with its landing gear down. A couple of those in my cohort exchanged meaningful glances, acutely aware that insofar as his second rule went, his regiment would not have received the same consideration from us.

But one thing he said really stuck with me: Mastery is not a destination, but a pathway. Like Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, you never quite get there. But you can draw nigh.

Aerial mastery is the common goal of nearly every self-respecting aviator. Where perfection is the standard, standard deviations remain within acceptable tolerances. One knot fast is fast, one knot slow is slow, ten feet above an assigned altitude is less than the vertical height of many aircraft tails, but is nevertheless a deviation that needs remedying. It’s perhaps again paradoxical that there is a severe kind of pleasure in this, these little things. Because above all, the approach to mastery is an approach to control.

And there’s all kinds of mastery. We have a tower controller at Montgomery Field who is, from my limited interactions with her, something of a master. She speaks precisely, never loses her cool – no trivial feat at a general aviation airport that experiences 555 cycles per day on average – and I’ve yet to hear her make a bad call. Because of our location and weather, we’ve got a lot of foreign students with significant communication challenges, but she remains patient even as she provides professional direction. She does this while also retaining a bit of humanity: When we move our Vargas from the transient line to parking on the airport’s western ramp, she routinely concludes her taxi directions with a “have a good night, guys,” and says it like she means it. I’ve never met her, wouldn’t know her if I was sitting across the table from her (unless she told me I was cleared to land on Runway 28 left) but I respect her.

The Varga is a very simple aircraft, and after three hops yesterday, I have 241.6 flight hours in either 75J or 50W. Sufficient that I feel comfortable in all of the common regimes and maneuvers we employ her for. I ended up leading all three flights back to the break above the airfield yesterday, and took deep satisfaction that in each of my three approaches, there was never a need to touch the throttle once I had placed it to idle power after the break. I sideslipped down when high, wing down, top rudder, the wind rattling at the canopy, took her low and flat when I had excess airspeed, and somehow – almost magically – had exactly the requisite 80 MPH on the machine as I crossed the landing threshold. The touchdowns were almost without sensation, nothing but the wheels spinning up beneath me. As I said, it’s the little things. The kinesthetics.

(There is a kind of joy in this too: Yesterday I flew my second hop with a delightful and charming young woman who had purchased the ride as a birthday gift for her husband. Climbing in the machine on a bright September day, I regretted my sunglasses, which I had left in the car. In the spirit of the moment, I broke out in the lead verse of Manfred Mann’s “Blinded by the Light,” which song was in my head (and occasionally on the intercom) for the rest of the flight. After mopped the floor with him – some gift! – we returned, shut down, and she started to climb out. And at that moment we both broke out in song together, “revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night.”)

There’s another guy at the airport whose approach to mastery I respect. He flies an aged, but obviously cherished, J-3 Cub like they were in complete union. I don’t know that he does much besides taking off and landing – I’ve never seen him leave the airport boundary – but nearly every weekend he’s out there for an hour or so beating up the pattern in the most remarkable way. After one or two more or less standard approaches to final he begins to challenge himself, along with my own perception of what is possible, despite the weekly, repeated evidence of my own two eyes.

He’ll do a more or less flat turn from downwind to final, whereas most of us will execute a descending turn designed to drop us off on the perfect three-degree glideslope at perhaps two to three hundred feet above the touchdown elevation. There, from a thousand feet above the runway, more in the position to begin a strafing run than a tailwheel landing, he will sideslip in the most exaggerated fashion, coming downhill at a remarkable rate. Just above the landing zone, perfectly in control, he will kick out the crab and gracefully touch down in a perfect wheel landing.

On his final approach, the pilot will ask for the Runway 23 option. Another plummeting descent, another perfectly timed de-crabbing across the threshold but now the piece de resistance: He will essentially “hover taxi” his way down Runway 28, hanging there on the prop just a few feet above the pavement, and – having reached the intersection of runway 23 – pedal turn to that runway (still airborne!) before finally, almost reluctantly, letting the wheels touch down in front of his hangar. Where he rubs her down, puts her to bed and promises to see her again next Saturday.

You’ll have to accept my word for this, because my words themselves do not do it justice, but it is perhaps one of the most remarkable feats of airmanship I have ever observed, this in a 60 year old aircraft with a 65 HP engine, soloed from the back seat. We’ve never met, and I do not know his name, but he has my respect. (And to answer the unasked question, no, I do not plan to meet him and will never fly with him if we are introduced. The refusal to fly with someone braver than yourself being one of the keys to aviation longevity.)

I’m of course nowhere near the in any case theoretical destination of mastery in the Kfir, and airplane in which I have a mere 1.6 flight hours so far. But I’m very much looking forward to the journey. As I am reminded of Alexander Zuyev, who taught me his approach to mastery back in 1989 or 1990.

Zuyev died in a Yak-52 mishap in 2001.

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Uncategorized

5 responses to “The Sense of Mastery

  1. Old AF Sarge

    The last line of this post is haunting. Almost a premonition.

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