Winding Down Maybe

So I had all these aspirations of posting from my long list of goals and experiences I wanted to accomplish, but as is often the case, I couldn’t quite keep to my weekly post goal, or my monthly post goal.  I do apologize to anyone who has been checking to actually see if I have updated anything.  I have been thinking of giving up on the blogging experience altogether, but I think I may have a few posts in me yet.

So flying… something I have wanted to do since watching Maverick and Goose blast through the sky looking for commies.  I had debated for a long time whether to fly for fun or try doing it as a career and decided to try the career route as I was skeptical I could ever afford to fly as a hobby.  I enrolled in the commercial pilot program at Big Bend Community College and showed up in Moses Lake a week before classes started with my new wife, $300, and nowhere to live.

We settled in and I promptly started flying.  I don’t know what I had expected, but Big Bend was a bit of a disappointment.  As I often do, I had devoured every book on flying that I could find.  I was ready to join the cadre of pilots, that community of men and women who loved to fly.  What I found were brand new flight instructors unsure of themselves, seeming to struggle through the lessons as much as their students, the faculty flight instructors had the experience and know-how, but didn’t seem to care enough to take the time to help the students succeed.  Maybe it was the structure of the program that was at fault.  Instructors had back to back lessons every hour and a half, and there just wasn’t enough time to talk with the students about their lessons.

After a year and a half of waiting for things to get better, I was done.  I was tired of feeling like no one cared if I succeeded or not.  I had finished enough of my training that I was a pilot.  I could fly for myself, though not for money.  Following is the story of the day I quit:

“The Day I Quit”

I watched the runway disappear beneath me as the man in the tower told me, “Early left turnout approved.”

“Roger, thanks, good day,” I radioed back as I banked the plane left and climbed out over the sagebrush-choked desert and patches of farmland beneath me. I pointed the nose of the plane up and over toward the practice area where I could see the faint specks of two other school airplanes practicing their maneuvers. One climbed and yanked the nose high into a stall and seemed to lose all motion before dipping and sliding down the air regaining its wings, while the other circled in ever tighter gut-wrenchingly steep turns high above a farmer’s hayfield.

I climbed and flew north to give us all some breathing room, mentally reviewing the lessons I was supposed to cover today. I drifted under the high overcast thinking back to laying in bed an hour earlier hoping the clouds would be too low for me to fly, dialing the airport weather report, then grunting and dragging myself to the coffee machine with the report of “sky overcast at 10,000 feet.” Plenty of room to fly. Damn.

Chandelles and lazy 8s again. Fancy names for climbs, turns and descents. Time to run through the cruise checklist: wings and nose level, throttle back to 2,000 RPM, lean out the engine because at 6,000 feet the air was too thin to mix well with the gas, so I pulled the red handle back decreasing the gas and evening things up. Trim to stay level, and I was cruising along at a nice clip of 120 mph or so.

There wasn’t any time for me to enjoy the view or the steady, smooth flight. I had a full lesson to run through and I had to be back in less than an hour. I set up for the chandelle, a hard climbing turn with the engine at full power. A maneuver for an imagined emergency sometime in the future I supposed—most of learning to fly was like that. It only took a couple of lessons to learn how to takeoff, climb, cruise, descend, and land, the other years of training was all in handling emergencies.

I checked my orientation with the criss-crossing roads far beneath me—thoughts of emergencies still somewhere back in bed behind me—scanned for other aircraft, pulled the yoke, and pushed the throttle forward.

* * * * *

I often thought back to the first day of flight school. We were important enough to have shown up to school a week before the rest of the college kids. For that week the campus was dedicated to us. The first morning, sweat from the triple digit desert heat dried in the blast of air-conditioned air as we sat in the classroom. No one knew anyone else. Some of us had been recruited, some were continuing a family legacy, and many of us had just ended up there because flying wasn’t an option, it was more of a need.

We were welcomed, told how lucky we were, and promptly told, “Look to the person on your left. Now look to the person on your right. After two years, only one of you will still be here.” We felt challenged and important, and from that first day, competitive as hell.

As we filed into the hangar for the first glimpse of our airplanes, we all made awkward comments and small talk with each other. Hey, I thought I would have it bad how are you supposed to fit all six and a half feet of you in one of those tiny things? We met up with our assigned instructors and learned that we’d be flying for the first time that very day.

The manila folder that would dictate my progress, my finances, and my grades in its record of every flight hour and lesson I was to accomplish was issued to me that morning. I filled in the first 0.8 hrs taking off, flying to a neighboring airport for a quick touch-and-go, and landing back at the school. My instructor rode the controls like a neurotic driver’s-ed teacher the whole time, and I felt I had done little more than wiggle the yoke, but the grin wouldn’t fade from my face for at least a few more months.

* * * * *

As the airplane’s forward momentum carried the nose up and the rest of the plane followed for a hundred feet or so, the engine sputtered and hiccupped. My hand, still on the throttle, pushed the handle against the stops just to make sure I had it wide open, while my other hand automatically leveled the climb so as to avoid a stall, for the airplane was quickly losing power.

I sat in my seat, the pilot’s seat for Christ’s sake, and shuddered along with the shakes and shimmies of the engine. I watched the altitude level out and then gradually drift lower, my vertical speed showing a 200 foot per minute drop. I couldn’t maintain my altitude. The throttle was jammed as far forward as it would go, but the engine sputtered and coughed and barely pulled me through the air.

I looked over my shoulder for the airport, trying to get some idea of distance through the misty air behind me. There was the thin leg of the lake just before the end of the runway, and yes, there were the numbers painted on the black asphalt, looking very far away. First thing to do, get turned around and keep as much altitude while I still had some power, the engine was sounding like it couldn’t breathe and I needed as much room for error as I could get before it completely gave up the ghost.

I banked as gently as possible. To turn an airplane you convert some of the lift into a sideways motion, so in any turn, without an increase in power, there will be a loss of altitude. But I needed to see that nose pointed at the airfield. What’s my glide ratio? What’s the distance to the airport? What’s my altitude? Oh god, I’ve lost six-hundred feet already, has it been three minutes? No, I’m losing 400 feet per minute now. Okay deep breath, level-out, bring the nose up, there, back to only 200. I should call the tower, no fly the plane first: aviate, navigate, communicate.

I couldn’t climb or even keep the plane level, but at least things weren’t getting any worse, and the little shuddering the engine was doing was pulling me closer and closer to the safety of the black surfaced runway. Five miles away now, could I make it? Time to call the tower at least.

“Grant County tower, this is Big Bend 6,” I keyed my microphone.

“Big Bend 6, go ahead”

“Um, yeah I am heading back in for a full-stop landing. My engine is running a bit rough, request runway 4.”

“Cleared to land any runway, do you need the emergency equipment?”

Do I need the emergency equipment? I’m just a kid, this is just college! Fire trucks and an ambulance chasing along the side of my plane? Was I declaring an emergency?

* * * * *

I remembered Mr. Lewis. I still saw him occasionally. Just the other summer he and I stood sweating and leaning over his airplane as he gave it its annual check-up. We talked about the last couple of years. His retirement. My never-ending school career. He was Joe then, when he was a mechanic and not a pilot he was Joe. But when he was a pilot, and my teacher he was Mr. Lewis.

Formerly Lt. Commander Lewis of the 118th Naval Air Squadron. Teaching kids like me how to land F-18s on the decks of aircraft carriers. His short fuse and legendary temper made up for his diminutive stature and kept hidden the easy-going carefree man beneath the wispy thin hair and eyes wrinkled from the sun blasting him at 40,000 feet. On the day I was to prove that I could be trusted on my own with an airplane, it was Mr. Lewis who would decide.

The summer after my first year, it came time to test for my private pilot’s license. I had flown the required number of hours, both with an instructor and on my own. I had flown a trip of over 300 miles with two stops, getting only briefly lost somewhere near Steptoe Butte. I had flown my few required night flights squinting through the darkness for a horizon, and floating to the surface of a runway with no lights. I had proven that I could land on grass, on a short runway, and without my engine running. It was time to prove it all to my examiner, Mr. Lewis.

He sent me out to preflight the airplane without a word. I checked the fuel, oil, and general condition of the plane. It looked good and ready. My stomach was already floating and flying, making its way to my throat. And my hands were shaking like I had been free-basing espresso, but I finished checking the plane, sat in the pilot’s seat, and sweated in the afternoon sun.

Just about the time I was thinking that I was supposed to go get Mr. Lewis when I was ready, he opened the other door and crawled in looking like he would rather be in an air-conditioned room with a cold beer. In fact he looked like he would rather be anywhere but here. He held his hand out for my paperwork—my records and a list of things I was required to show him I could do—glanced over them, then stashed them away next to the door. Crossing his arms across his chest and leaning back into his seat, he said, “Go through everything on the list.”

I looked hopefully toward the list. It was hiding beyond his leg and I couldn’t read a single item on it. “In order?” I asked.

He turned his head slightly, looked at me sidelong for just a moment, then resumed looking straight ahead, silent, unmoving.

For two hours I struggled through remembered maneuvers. Occasionally asking for some guidance and receiving only a shrug. The sun beat onto us both, reflecting off the aluminum skin of the plane and raising the temperature well above the outside high of 102°. The heat rising off the fields below tossed the plane like a raft floating river rapids. I watched the needle of the altimeter bouncing with each thermal and downdraft waiting for it to pass the 200ft threshold that would mean I had failed, but Mr. Lewis remained quiet and I kept flying on.

The silence was broken only once. I had barely managed to land on a remote and rural airstrip. The landing jarred us both, and I applied full power just in time to climb above the fence standing at the end of the runway. I swear it passed only a foot beneath us. “I want to see you do that again.” Mr. Lewis startled me from the other seat.

I circled around, made my required radio calls, and landed again. Not much better, but maybe it was good enough. As I climbed out, Mr. Lewis signaled the end of the flight, telling me to take us back to the airport. I knew the flight was over, but was it because I had failed or because I had passed?

After landing and parking the airplane, Mr. Lewis handed me my paperwork and retreated to the air-conditioned sanctuary of his office without a word. I figured if I had failed he would have said something, but I had figured that if I had passed he would have said something as well.

Later that day after school had finished, I stood with the mechanic students out in front of the maintenance hangar. Only then, when Mr. Lewis became Joe again, did he tell me “nice job.”

* * * * *

“Grant County tower, negative on the emergency equipment. I still have engine power, it is just a bit rough.” I’d make it. I hoped.

I maneuvered so that I would be heading straight for runway four, it wasn’t the prettiest approach, and maybe not the wisest move. I seemed to be wasting a lot of altitude getting lined up on the center of the runway, still at least three miles away.

“Tom, what were you doing when the engine started running rough?” someone asked me over the school radio. It sounded like Mr. Gowen, another of the flight instructors.

I started running through my before-landing checklist, flipping on landing lights and checking my altitude before I radioed back, “I was just going into a chandelle when the engine started running rough and losing power. I have some power, but not enough to maintain altitude.”

“Have you checked your mags?” this time it was Mr. Lewis who called over the radio. I thought back to the two airplanes I had seen just ten minutes earlier practicing maneuvers, now likely flying straight and level while students listened as their instructors tried to coach me through a potential emergency.

“Mags check okay,” I say back my voice cracking.

“Relax Tom, you’re doing fine, you have plenty of altitude. I can see you from here and even if your engine quits, you’ll be fine. You’ve got the airport made.”

I had been trying to do the geometry in my head: three miles away travelling at 100 mph, 5400 feet of altitude losing 200 feet per minute. I was glad someone else could do the math. And I knew that two men who had been doing this stuff their entire lives knew that I could make it. I was close to landing now, throttle to idle, fuel to full rich mixture and… what was that?

The engine roared to life, the nose lifted and I leveled out. I had power, I wasn’t losing any altitude, and I was stupid. I had been starving the engine of fuel. I was giving it too much air and not enough fuel and it was entirely my doing. Before going into my chandelle I neglected my checklist and missed the step: mixture to full rich. My abused engine roared back to life when I started treating it properly. I continued flying toward the airport checking fuel levels, oil temperature, oil pressure, voltage, and RPM. Everything checked out. “Grant County tower, Big Bend 6 returning to the practice area. I figured out the problem.”

“Big Bend 6, you sure?”

“I sure am sir, thanks for your help this afternoon.”

“Anytime, good day.”

Mr. Lewis came back on the radio, “Tom, you sure you’re alright?”

“Yeah, I had the mixture set wrong, it’s fine now.”

“Sounds good. Hey, come see me when you’re done.”

“Will do, thanks Mr. Lewis.”

* * * * *

A few months after my incident with engine trouble, I wiped my sweaty palms against my jeans, took three deep breaths, holding each for a full one-second count, and growled at the worms to quit squirming around in my stomach. I walked to the dispatch office and pulled my manila folder out from the slot marked Thomas Tylee. The last time I would do it. I held the print-out of my flight account balance in one hand, the folder in the other, and I stepped around the corner, handing them both to Eileen, the school dispatcher and surrogate mother to the throng of young men learning to fly far from home.

“Hey Eileen? I need to close my flight account. I’m withdrawing from the program,” I said without my voice cracking.

Eileen stopped her constant flurry of activity. I wasn’t sure what she had been doing, maybe talking on the radio, filing student records, and joking with the secretary. All I knew was that she was suddenly still and focused on only me, the first time I had ever seen her focus on only one thing. “Can I ask why?”

“Well, I am going to train next store at Columbia Pacific Aviation. I’m working there now, so I get quite a discount.” I did get a discount, but I doubted it would ever be used, I was done with flying for a while.

“We’ve had a lot of people withdraw this year. Do you see anything wrong with how we are doing things here?”

I hemmed and hawed a moment, the worms squirmed a bit and I said, “If I had to say it was one thing, well, there isn’t a lot of one-on-one instruction. We show up, fly, and leave without much instruction from or discussion with our flight instructors. I think there are too many students scheduled too closely together. It is a competitive and fast-paced atmosphere.” I took a breath. “Not really the best atmosphere for learning I guess.”

Eileen nodded, and the spell broke. She picked up my file, looked at my receipt and cut me a check for $4,500. “Hey Terri,” she said to the other secretary, “Tom here’s gonna take us out to lunch, he just got $4,500.” She gave me a smile with the check. “You come say hi to me from time to time okay?” I had her full attention again.

“You bet, Eileen.”

A few days later I was in front of the maintenance hangar talking with my friends. Mr. Lewis was over at the entrance and I decided I couldn’t avoid him any longer. He was slated to be my full-time instructor starting this week and I upped and quit out of the blue.

“I just needed a change,” I told him, “It’s nothing personal.” It came out sounding like the wrong thing to say. If I had to say it was nothing personal, doesn’t that mean it was a possibility we were both thinking about? Why had I quit?

Despite scaring the hell out of myself a few months earlier, I wasn’t terrified of flying. But I was tired of it. I had been spending every morning before a flight for the past few months hoping for bad weather so I could stay on the ground and do my other homework. An odd thing had happened to me. While I was pursuing my dream of flying, I was working as an English tutor showing other college kids how to develop theses, write transitions, and where to put that damn comma. I realized that every day when I was reluctant to go fly, I was excited about going to work. Something had had to change.

“Well, good luck Tom,” Mr. Lewis… Joe said.

“Thanks Joe.”


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