Things to read...

If time is short, I'd suggest reading at LEAST The Prologue and Legend of The Pinto Bean Posts!

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Solo Flight...

A few of you may already know, but for those who don’t, I’m a man of many talents. Most of them are useless, such as being able to remember completely irrelevant facts, and some are at least fun. One of those talents is my ability to fly. Not with my underwear outside my blue jeans and a cape, but in large hunks of aluminum known as aircraft. Ok the underwear thing may have been attempted after enough tasty adult beverages, but that’s not what this story is about. See not only do I fly helicopters; I also hold a fixed wing rating, which means I’m cleared to terrorize the friendly skies in Cessnas. I attained this rating while hanging out at the hospital in Texas. At the time I had the idea that I would pay to get my own airplane license to keep up my aviation skills, that way when the Army was ready to let me fly again, I’d still be sharp. Great idea, bad results… Anyhow this is my “solo story”.

Almost every pilot has a “solo story”. Generally this is a story about how they executed some amazing feat that pilots far beyond their skill level can barely manage. Ok actually it’s usually a story about how they nearly killed themselves due to incompetence. Mine is one of those. Before I get too far in, allow me to clarify a few things. Flying an airplane is everything that flying a helicopter isn’t. In a word; easy. An airplane WANTS to fly, to soar gracefully through the skies, to mingle with the great eagles which man has always desired to be. An airplane pilot is a happy guy, confident that his bird will not fail him, that she will always deliver him gently to the ground, gliding in like the raptor of which she was modeled. The helicopter, on the other hand, does not want to fly. Most airplane pilots are relatively certain that the helicopter violates one or more laws of physics merely by existing. I’ve best heard it described as “a million parts all working in opposition to each other, doing their best to fail at the most inopportune moment.” There is nothing graceful about the helicopter. Left to its’ own devices it will immediately plummet to the earth as a ball of angrily whirling wreckage. The helicopter pilot is a neurotic man, constantly wondering if the noise he just heard was a crucial part failing, ceaselessly scanning the ground for the softest place to crash when the helicopter realizes it is in fact incapable of flight. I say all this to convey the point that airplanes are easy to fly. I’m sure that the airplane pilots will attempt to disagree with all this. They’ll cite that the Chair Force likes for their pilots to have advanced mathematical degrees, yet the Army trains high school grads to fly helicopters. They’ll surely mention that senior airline pilots make six figures, whilst senior helo pilots are lucky to pay the bills on one job alone. The reason for this? Image. What looks better? The happy go lucky airline pilot, cap tilted jauntily, maybe a scarf and a big smile as he programs the auto pilot to do the entire flight, or the half crazed chain smoking manic depressive helicopter pilot who spends most of his time mumbling something about “Murphy’s Law” and continuously asking “where are we going to land when the engine fails?” Right. The airline pilot. The reality though, there’s a reason NASA used chimps in the space program…. Trust me, I’ve flown both, and crashed one. So onto the story…

My flight training was pretty easy, especially compared to rotary wing flight. My very first takeoff and landing were accomplished with the instructor pilot talking me through it, never touching the controls. In a helicopter this would have been catastrophic. Sure some of it was likely his recognizing my amazing aviator skills and trusting in me to safely take off and alight unhelped. More likely it’s because one must try hard to crash a Cessna. Not impossible to do, but hard. I waited until solo day to give it my best shot. When you solo, you have to do a certain number of hours of local and cross country flight to meet the FAA minimums. The point is to build confidence that the instructor pilot is not a necessary item for a successful flight. This is done by allowing the fledgling student to go out and attempt to fly, finally returning with much more bravado and confidence. This is initiated when the IP feels the student can fly “safely” without doing irreparable damage to the aircraft. During this process most students begin to feel confident, and then get themselves into a minor predicament which they safely overcome, and everyone drinks a beer at the end of the day, that much wiser. Usually.

On the day of my cross country solo flight, the weather was what is known in the field as “crappy.” This is a highly technical term used to describe cloudy, windy, and rainy days where one would be much better off sitting in ops and drinking coffee. Instead I was outside preflighting and watching the IFR beacon to see if it was turned off. Turning off the beacon indicates that the minimum weather to fly has been achieved. That doesn’t mean you SHOULD be flying, but I paid no heed to this, I was gonna get some air time. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d checked the enroute and forecast weather, and it was all supposed to be improving, at least according to the guy who was sitting at a radar screen and drinking coffee in BFE. Well with minimum and improving weather, I felt confident in my abilities, and fired up the little Cessna 172 and called tower. They gave me permission for a southern departure with a westward turn out to Uvalde, the airport I’d planned on going out and practicing at some seventy miles away.

Well I took off and immediately things started rolling downhill. Apparently Murphy was on this flight, too. As I was climbing to altitude I looked inside the cockpit to check my heading and instruments, and then looked back out into the great white nothing that is the inner workings of a cloud. I was at 800 feet. The clouds were supposed to be at 2000. Thanks weather guy. Well I then did what most pilots do in this situation, a maneuver commonly known as “the wrong thing to do.” I tried to get back UNDER the clouds. This can be fatal if the clouds happen to become “ground fog”. I quickly weighed trying to fly instruments (hard when planned… REAAAALY hard when unplanned) to get back to San Antonio versus diving and decided I’d be safer that way. Luckily I was able to get back under them, and leveled out at 700 feet. Legally I’m supposed to be at 500 feet below the clouds, but that would have me driving down the highway in morning traffic. I advised tower of the situation and they told me they were unable to get me back in at that time, and to continue flying south. Finally they came back and cleared me to Uvalde with assurances of better weather that direction.

Again, the weather sucked, and I flew out to Uvalde at about 1000 feet where the air was nice and bumpy. The bumpiness was due to a straight 15 knot headwind. Finally Uvalde came into sight, and I called the traffic there to let them know my intentions. Had I been wise I simply would have said “Skyhawk 27J Solo inbound from the east for attempted landing to the south, resulting in probable crash and burn, ready the fire trucks”. I finally turned base and lined up with the runway and tried to ready myself to land. This was made hard by the strong right crosswind blowing me everywhere but in line with the runway. Now here’s an excellent time to clarify a few more differences between helicopters and airplanes. At low speeds, airplanes require big inputs to get the control you want. This is because the wing relies on the wind speed across it to work. In a helicopter, it’s the opposite. The slower you go the less input you put in. This caused me the most problems in the airplane transition because as I slowed down I never wanted to make big inputs out of fear of that whole “crashing” thing. Read the hover story for more…. The other major difference is in the helicopter you “neutralize” the controls at touchdown to alleviate stress on the system. This is accomplished by centering the cyclic and listening to the accolades of the admiring public about your amazing pilot abilities. In an airplane you continue to “fly” all the way until you shut down the engines. You’ll see why soon…

Well as I was on final I was trying hard to stay in line with the runway, and the wind was trying harder to get me back to San Antonio. This is done by lowering the wing in the direction of the wind and turning the nose into it until you are flying straight. Essentially I looked a lot like a drunkard on a DUI stop. Finally I touched the wheels of the little Cessna down and waited for the nose to touch. As soon as the nose touched I did my typical helicopter move and centered the controls and silently congratulated myself on my sheer amazingness since there was no public present aside from one man mowing the lawn adjacent to the strip. What happened next was the wind got up under the right wing and blew me up onto the left wheel. I was now about .00005 seconds away from a ground loop. This is when the airplane spins on one wheel. At about 45 mph. The results are not pretty, and usually results in damage to the plane and cool points being spilled all over the runway. Well as the right wing continued upwards and I had visions of crashing yet another vehicle, I realized I needed to act. I “steered” the wing into the wind and got the wheel back down. The only big problem left was I was now pointed towards the edge of the runway and still rolling too fast to stop. At this point the man mowing the lawn had stopped to watch the winged tragedy finish out. The only option I saw now was to go full throttle and try to take back off.

Well I pushed the throttle full forward and started praying. I needed about 55 knots (60.5 mph) to be able to take off, and I wasn’t sure I was gonna make it. If you try to take off too early, you’ll break ground, stall, and crash on the nose. This is generally known as “bad.” As the ground loomed closer and the airspeed needle seemed to hang at 50, I was trying to figure out how I was going to explain crashing on the side of the runway. Finally I was up to about 53 knots or so and the wheel were about to go off the edge, I opted to pull up and take off. I managed to get about two feet off the ground and level off at about two feet high to build more speed as I dragged the wheels through the grass that hadn’t been mowed yet. The man on the mower could only sit and stare. Finally I had enough speed to take off and off I went. At this point I ignored all rules about taking off and pointed my nose straight for San Antonio. I made my final call to Uvalde and said “27J Solo is departing at this time and will not be returning.” As far as I was concerned if I was going to crash and burn, I was gonna do it at an airport that was close to a hospital! Ultimately the rest of the flight was uneventful except for a fair amount of cussing. By the time I reached San Antonio the weather was beautiful, and I executed a textbook landing. Upon touchdown I congratulated myself on my amazing abilities for being the skillful aviator I was, and called it a day. Some people never learn….

Well I hope you have enjoyed this story. Next post should cover Big Bend and Central Texas. I’m hoping that now that I’ll e out of the desert there will be more to write about! The pics I’m including here are just some random pics I like that I’ve posted for your viewing pleasure. On Wednesday I’m heading towards New Orleans, so stay posted for more updates!


Anonymous said...

So, basically what you're saying is for people like me who are afraid to fly -- you're my justification??

I read the other post with one eye closed, I was closing the other eye on this.

Please be safe!


Michelle F said...

You have a smooth and funny writing style and I truly enjoyed the story. But I will be the first to admit it takes guts and a few other body parts (look lower) to fly. I know, I've tried. So here I sit reading your postings daily and say "gee, this guy is a pilot, a med. student AND seemingly an overall great guy" I hope Oprah comes knocking on Bean's door wanting you and RTD to come on her show. I think the masses would enjoy you!! You and RTD take care.

Sheila said...

New Orleans should be fun...with good food. I went to Mardi Gras this year to celebrate my sister's 40th Birthday with my brother and other sister (4 of us total). It was my first time for Mardi Gras and I had a blast! There is a darn good shot at Pat O's called a BJ (don't know if I could spell it out here). But they make it different than anywhere else. If you like banana splits you have to try it! I actually called when I got home to get their recipe. If you're looking for somewhere to stay in Baton Rouge I have a sister there that I could contact. She and her husband are amazing people that love pets and work in entomology. He works with bees for the USDA and she does research with fire ants. Safe travels and let me know if you need a place to stay in Baton Rouge.

P.S. I wonder if Rockstar would’ve eaten those cats given the chance?
I've ever had and they taste just like a banana split. I actually called them when I got home to get their recipe. If you're looking for somewhere to stay in Baton Rouge I have a sister there that I could contact. Her and her husband are amazing people that love pets and work in entamology.

Miss Em said...

Hello Dan,

I laughed so much when you were describing the guy on the lawn mower watching you I had to make the mad dash to the necessary before I would be accussed of making puddles. I'll not lie -- the cat did it.

I loved the pic with RTD looking thru the glass door at the kittens. I could just hear their conversation....

G/W--Who's that?
G--I don't know.
G/W--What's he doing here?
G--I don't know.
G/W--Does he play well with others?
G--I don't know.
G/W--Your not a lot of help. Are
G--You finally figured that out.
Hey, Mom G/W is getting smarter.

POOR RTD. NObody to play with.

pjamas said...

Forgot about you having fixed wing license. Does it work for commercial air, lol. US Air flight frm PHX to SAT leaves 3pm, sat on the tarmac for 2 hrs last time. Had a CPT but no 1st officer, minor detail.
So, how fast can the Bean go?