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Early Years

I'm switching the rest of the story to the Flexible Flyer banner.  I have always thought that would be a good title for my memoirs.  My ...

Friday, December 18, 2015

Is There Gas In The Car?



Five years, 5000 hours.  That's how long I worked for Graham Aviation and flew that many hours.  That's a lot.

The first couple years were mostly flight instruction.  That means about one hour per flight.  Lots of flights.

The third year was a kind of transition from instruction to flying trips, either charter or pilot service for people who owned their own planes.

The final two years were mostly flying trips with some instruction thrown in for fun.  I mostly worked with some of the folks who were my students in the early years on advanced ratings, etc.

I'm going to tell you some of the stories of those students and pilots that might be interesting, whether funny, whacky or tragic.

Let me preface this by saying that I was learning that not everyone is cut out to fly.  It does not necessarily have anything to do with intelligence, although the complete lack of intelligence would definitely rule someone out.  Some really smart people have major issues.

Let me give you some examples.  I had a student fairly early on in my time at Butler who was a doctor.  Let's say his name was Julio November.  Those are the phonetic words for the letters J N, with the first one being switched a little for gender purposes.

This doctor owned a plane and had been flying with other instructors for a long time.  He would get up to the point where he was supposed to start flying cross country flights and then disappear for such a long time, that he needed to be brought back up to speed when he returned.  I worked with him on his cross country flying and when I thought he was ready, boom, he did not show up for months.  I finally got him to complete some of the shorter cross country flights, but he was required to fly one with longer minimum length legs.  He disappeared.  

I concluded that he was afraid of getting lost.  Another instructor told me about a time he was flying from the Glade Mill Airport to Butler, a distance of 4 or 5 miles, and had gotten lost.  He was calling on Butler's unicom frequency and somehow someone helped him get unlost.  It was a pretty easy flight, because it was not far away and all you had to do was follow Route 8. 



Remember this?


The next time I saw him, he had completed his long cross country in Florida and passed his private pilot check ride.  He wanted to start working on his instrument rating.

I looked in his log book to see where he had done the long cross country.  He flew north along the coast, from the Ft. Lauderdale area of Florida.  He landed at an airport, then flew farther up the coast to another, then back to where he had started.  You just keep the blue stuff to the right and green stuff on the left to the first airport, then do that again to the second airport.  Land there, get your logbook signed by someone then head back home, this time keeping the blue to the left and green to the right.  There is a nice, white, sandy line to follow also.

Later, he bought a really nice new Seneca II, but would not fly it out of the Butler Graham traffic pattern without one of the pros who worked for Graham Aviation.  I shouldn't complain.  I made lots of money flying for guys like that.  He was just an extreme.

During the later years there, I had the mental image of all of us being like the gunslingers you see in western movies.  They just kind of hang around town until the guy who hired them gets in a fight, then he sends the gunslinger in to fight it for him.  We would hang around the airport when the weather was good, watching these guys coming and going in their planes.  Then when it was bad, they were calling us to fly with them on their trips.  Smart.

We flew a Seneca for one such gentleman, who owned a company that required moving people and things around the country.  He would fly the plane, while one of us would sit in the right seat, dealing with all the IFR stuff, like filing flight plans and talking to ATC.  Let's call him Bravo Hotel.

One of the funny things about Bravo was that he would fall asleep while flying.  He turned on the autopilot and got comfortable, then kind of passed out.  One day I was flying with him and it was a pretty nice day, except there was the one lone thunderstorm way out in front of us.  As we were flying toward that storm, Bravo would wake up and make a big turn with the heading selector because of where that storm was, then pass out again.  I would reach over and get us back on course.  A few minutes later, he would wake up again and make another big heading swing.  I finally pulled the circuit breaker on the autopilot and hand flew it until we passed the storm.

On one trip, we were moving several of Bravo's employees around the country.  We flew some down to Louisville, dropped them off,  picked up some others, then flew to Atlanta.  On the way down there, we would be flying over some of the highest mountains east of the Mississippi.  It was not summer, could have been winter, but I was not worried about big buildup thunderstorms.

This was one of those, "I learned about flying from that" trips.  We flew into some heavy rain and very bad turbulence over the mountains.  I remember looking back at Bravo's employees and their eyes were big as saucers.  We were unable to maintain our assigned altitude.  We had to be careful we did not stall the plane or exceed maximum speeds.  Fortunately I had selected an altitude that gave us plenty of separation above the mountains.

I called the controller and told him we were not able to maintain our altitude and were going 2 or 3 thousand feet above and below.  He said, "Don't worry, I don't have anyone else out there.  Just let me know where you end up."  Not very encouraging.

On another trip, Bravo wanted me to fly to a very small airport near his home, about a 15 minute flight north, to pick him up and fly him to Maine.  I was not crazy about this field, because it had a very short runway with an actual fence at the very end.  I thought, what the heck, it will just be Bravo and me.

When I got there, he told me his neighbor and the neighbor's daughter would be joining us for the trip.  #$%&*^%$#@ would be about what I was thinking.  I said, "OK, but I am making the takeoff and landing here."  I taxied as close to the opposite end of the runway as I could get, held the brakes and ran the engines up almost all the way, before releasing the brakes.  We made it, but the decision to bring the extra folks would jump up to bite him again.

The winds were behind us and we had a very high ground speed.  We made it all the way to Maine without stopping to refuel.  The Seneca II only carried about 4 hours of fuel.  (We always thought about fuel in terms of how long you could fly before silence.)

We would always ask our people when they were returning to the airport, so that we would know how to flight plan for the trip back home.  They always lied and came back later.  This would be a factor.

The return flight was now going against a big head wind, with a very low ground speed.  We did not have enough fuel to make it to the place where I picked them up and then to Butler, even though I had topped off in Maine.  Fuel was not available at the little airport.

On top of that, I was checking weather reports and forecasts on the radio and there were supposed to be severe thunderstorms near the destination at about our ETA.  We would be flying all the way across the northern half of Pennsylvania and I knew that the radar coverage of ATC at the altitudes we would be flying was not the best to help us with thunderstorms.  The plane was not equipped with weather radar.

I decided to land at Wilkes Barre PA for fuel and a better weather briefing.  There was a Flight Service Station there and I would be able to get a better picture of what to expect back home.  It was not pretty.

I told Bravo I was not going to fly, because the weather was going to be very bad at our arrival time.  He tried to talk me into going.  He said, "Why don't we go and take a look at it?"  This was a comment you would here from some of these kind of guys frequently.  I said, "We don't have anything to look at it with."  They were calling for a squall line of thunderstorms and we would be in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) about half way across the state.  The controllers would be up to their eyeballs trying to keep airliners separated and would not be able to tell us where the storms were with their less than ideal radar in that area.  We did not have radar on our plane.  Once we got in the clouds, we were blind.  Furthermore, we could not wait the weather out, because it was moving toward us.  There were not many airports that I thought would be suitable to duck into along that route of flight.

I told him that he had all the ratings and licenses to fly the plane if he wanted to and I would spend the night in Wilkes Barre and pay for my own ticket on Allegheny in the morning.  I reminded him I had flown in some pretty crappy weather for him in the past, but I was not going to do it this time.

Reluctantly, he decided to stay.  That is where the extra passengers bit him again.  It cost him another hotel room.  I was hoping he learned a lesson from this.  Some people think if you have an empty seat, you can put someone in it, without consideration for weight and balance or take off and landing distances.

When we met for breakfast, Bravo told me he had called home and that "we" had made a good decision.  The weather had been "pretty bad" and there had been a tornado reported in the area.

The next story has a different ending.  A guy we will call Jake scheduled a flight in a Piper Warrior one day.  When he showed up, he said he wanted to fly over the upper Allegheny River Valley and the Clarion River Valley.  He had a woman with him, who he introduced as his student.  He was the head of the Physical Geography Department at the University of Pittsburgh and later told me he was from the "land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers".  He spoke English very well.




We flew to the area and began circling at about 1000 feet above the ground as Jake and his student discussed the way the boulders on the river banks were arranged by a glacier during the last ice age.  On the way back, Jake told me he was taking flight lessons at a school at Allegheny County Airport.  It was not the one where I had flown and it was one that we all considered to be a pilot factory.  In other words, they pushed people out the door for their check rides and hoped they passed.  It was kind of like throwing mud or something that looks like mud against a wall to see how much sticks.

Anyway, I told Jake that we had a Piper J-3 Cub that would be better at doing what we had just done, because it flew very slowly, had a high wing and you could open up a big door on the side when flying to get a better view of the boulders next to the rivers.  Always the promoter.




He said he would come back when he got his license, because he wanted to get checked out in the Warrior we had just flown, to rent it.  When he did, I could see that he was not as well prepared as we usually prepared our students at Butler.  I checked him out on the Warrior, then the Arrow, a plane with constant speed prop and retractable gear, then the big ol' Cherokee 6.  Jake and I were becoming pals.

Then we started on the Cub.  This was going to be a far greater challenge.  As you can see in the picture above, the Cub has conventional landing gear, a tailwheel.  All the other planes Jake had flown had nose wheels, tricycle gear.



On a tricycle gear, the center of gravity is in front of the main landing gear.  On a taildragger, the CG is aft of the main landing gear.  This means that when you land and slow down, the taildragger wants to swap ends, ground loop.  It requires more attention as you get slower in a taildragger, while you can relax a little as you slow down in a tricycle plane.  The weight actually pulls the plane forward.

As the plane gets slower, the flight controls become less effective.  There is less airflow over them.  If the taildragger starts trying to swap ends and you don't detect that fast enough and make a correction, it really whips around very fast, out of control.  You have to be aware of what you are doing until you tie it down or put it in the hangar.

This was part of the problem we had with the particular school Jake had graduated from.  We believed they did not teach students how to land, but just to get close to the ground and let things develop.  You can't do that in a taildragger.

From the check outs we had done, I suspected the Cub would be a plane too far for Jake.  We flew and flew.  Most people check out in the Cub in about 10 hours or less.  We were at 20 and I began to think I might be a little too nervous with Jake.  Maybe I was talking too much, too soon.  Taking the plane from him instead of letting him go and waiting to see what he would do.

I decided to sit on my hands and bite my tongue for the next landing.  He got the mains on the runway, the tail started swinging a little to the right, I watched, it swung more, I watched a little more, then it went way out to the right and we were heading for the rhubarb.  We took out one of the runway lights and ended up on the grass on the side of the paved runway.

I remained calm, said everything was OK, taxied back for another take off and trip around the pattern.  I was determined to see if I was interfering too soon.  I was not.

This time, the plane started swinging the tail so quickly, it kind of tipped up on the right main wheel, we stopped moving down the runway and spun 270 degrees before we stopped.  At least we never left the center line on that one.

I had been in some serious car crashes in my younger days and usually did not get too scared while things were still moving.  That held true this time, but when we stopped and I took control of the plane to taxi back in, I was pretty mad.  Mostly at myself, but I might have taken it out on Jake a little.  I told him I could not teach him how to fly the Cub.  We had more experienced instructors he could try if he wanted.  He did not. 

The next time I saw him, he had just landed a Cessna Skyhawk on our runway and collapsed the nose gear structure.  When I asked him what happened, he said it was about to collapse anyway.  That is highly unlikely.

He told me he had bought an old Cessna 320, a light twin that looks like a 310, but is a little longer.  I asked where it was and he told me he had been flying in the Bahamas with some students.  After taking off from one island, an engine failed.  He said he thought the runway on another island would be better for landing with an engine shutdown and flew there.  His approach was a little high and a little fast.  This is a common mistake in this situation.




He landed long on the runway and did not get stopped on the pavement.  He went across the beach and the plane stopped at the edge of the water, tipped up on its nose.  He broke his nose and that was the only injury. 

I never saw Jake after that.  Some time later, I heard he had bought another 320 and was landing it at Allegheny County Airport on a gusty day.  He was flying straight in to runway 27 on the ILS and there was a corporate jet overtaking him.  The tower asked him if he could land on runway 30 and he said he could.  This required making a left turn to a right base then a right turn to final.  On that turn, Jake allowed the airspeed to get too slow and the plane stalled and spun into the ground.  Jake had his wife with him and both did not survive the crash.     

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