Saturday, September 19, 2015

Come Fly Small With Me

When I was just a youngster growing up in Chicago, for an afternoon weekend treat, my parents would pack us kids into the car and drive down to the fence line outside the runway at the Chicago O’Hare airport. This was before TSA or for that matter kiddie car seats and even seatbelts in the backseat of cars. Anyway, we’d sit there watching airplane after airplane touch down with a puff of burnt rubber and a squeal from the wheels. And yep, in total fascination, I’d squeal too.

That early fascination with flying grew into a desire to learn to fly small planes for myself. So, see, my need to fly is really Mom’s fault!

Flying "small" down the coast
Now some folks will tell you that flying is not so hard. Push the controls forward and the trees and houses get bigger. Pull backward and the trees and houses get smaller. Although if you keep pulling backward, the houses and trees eventually get really big, but that’s another story.

Some say that learning to fly is too expensive. I disagree. There is a sign at my Flight School that proudly proclaims, “Flying lessons just $10 per hour”.  On the other hand, “Landing lessons are $200 per hour.”

I understand though that some people never catch small plane flying fascination fever the way I have and in fact, a fear of flying can settle in.  Worries about all sorts of things such as icing, getting lost, and dumb pilot moves, tend to get in the way of flying fascination.
My dear mother-in-law would never fly to San Diego to escape Ohio’s winters. Even though she hated Ohio’s snow and ice, she hated more the idea that a plane’s wings might catch all that cold and ice in the winter air and send her crashing down.  I tried once to explain the reality of icing and deicing but never got anywhere with her on the subject.

Of course, sometimes attempted aviation humor fuels such fears. I remember being in the San Diego airport before sunrise for an extra-early flight one winter morning when the gate agent announced “Ladies and Gentlemen, our departure is going to be delayed this morning while we wait for the deicing equipment to arrive.” Deicing in San Diego? That got my attention! Just as I was about to ask, the gate agent announced further “Sunrise is just a few minutes away and as soon as the sun hits the wings, deicing will be complete.” A little ‘plane’ humor, though not exactly confidence inspiring for passengers who don’t get it.

I picked up another icing story one winter day in Seattle when I was learning to fly. My instructor and I walked out to our little airplane for the morning’s lesson and I noticed a fairly heavy layer of frost on the wing surfaces. Not good.  My instructor simply pointed to the wing and asked, “Do you have a credit card?”  I pulled one from my wallet and started scraping frost off one wing at a time. Yep deicing equipment.  What’s there to worry about?
Some people fear flying because they worry about getting lost. Well, technically, they worry about the pilot getting lost.

Not long after I earned my pilot’s license, I started to fly for a volunteer program called Young Eagles, providing youth in the 10-18 year old age range an introduction to small airplanes.  It’s such a privilege to watch a youngster experience flight in a small airplane for the first time.

Know where you are by the signs. Fly Small.
One particular Young Eagles flight stands out in my memory. A very nervous Mom followed along as her 12 year old Son and I pre-flighted the airplane and talked about what all the parts of the airplane do.  The son was definitely excited. Mom was definitely not. When the pre-flight was complete, I sat us down at a nearby picnic table and pulled out an aviation map to show Mom and Son where we would be flying. I thought it would calm Mom’s nerves.  I explained that we will always know where we are because we watch for signs just as we do when we are driving.  Mom immediately asked “how do they keep the signs in place up there?”

End of briefing. I folded up the map and her Son and I climbed aboard.  We flew over his community, his school, and 30 minutes later the lake back near the airport. The Son absolutely loved it and the Mom was visibly relieved when he climbed out of the plane with an ear to ear grin.

If it’s not icing or getting lost, some fear the pilot might make a dumb move.  I always explain the hours and hours of hands-on training and book-learning that goes into becoming a pilot.  I usually leave out the part about only needing a 70% correct rating to pass the government’s written test.  Yet, still, it’s hard to deny some of the dumb things we pilots can do.

Not long after I took delivery of a little two-seat airplane, sort of a Miata with wings and a fighter-pilot control stick, I decided there must be something wrong with the plane’s controls.  This little plane had a tendency to want to roll left just moments after takeoff.  I don’t mind rolling left, though at takeoff, just feet off the runway, I only wanted to go up, not left.

Heading back inland, flying "small"
I decided to perform a series of takeoffs where I would mentally record every little element so I could call the factory and report what I was sure was a defect with my plane.

With a big runway ahead of me and no other airplanes around, I set up for takeoff and mentally noted each action and reaction in detail.  As I went to rotate and fly from the runway, I noted that I smoothly and gradually pulled the stick back just as you should. And then, as I pulled back a little further, the left rolling turn tendency showed itself.

And that’s when I realized it was not a defect in the plane.  My belly was the problem! As I pulled the stick back further, my arm was running into my belly which serving to push my arm to the left and thus my arm was pulling the stick to the left causing the rolling tendency.  Yep, dumb pilot things do happen.

With all that said, fear not the icing, the getting lost, or most of the dumb things pilots will do.  Come Fly Small.  Most of you won’t get the Young Eagles treatment anymore, though I can promise you an experience you will remember forever flying over the beautiful landscape of San Diego County.

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