Learning to Fly
My wife Lynn and I had a commuter marriage some years ago. She lived in Zephyrhills, Florida and worked at Saint Leo College while I lived in Auburn Alabama, and worked at Auburn University—432 miles away—one way. The drive was long and boring and I considered the 3 to 4 hours it took to drive a waste of time. We owned a duplex in Zephyrhills about 2 blocks from the airport, which gave me a brilliant idea—I’ll learn to fly.
I went to the local airport, which was actually owned by Auburn University, to take flying lessons in a Cessna 172, which was also owned by the university. Fred, my flight instructor, was the same age as my grandchildren. Despite his youth, his complexion was already starting to clear up and he assured me that he could not only fly an airplane but he could teach me to do so as well. I didn’t tell Lynn about this. I wanted it to be a surprise.
The first lesson went well. Fred let me take off. Taking off consists of applying full power and pulling back on the yoke when the plane reaches a certain speed. Usually no big deal. We flew around a bit and returned to airport. Fred didn’t let me land, which led me to believe he was smarter than he looked.
Our next lesson involved, among other things, stalls. There are two major kinds of stalls—power-on (departure stalls) and power-off (landing or arrival stalls). Learning to stall an airplane serves not just to provide the same gut-wrenching thrill as a mind-bending roller coaster, it’s also to teach you to recognize the onset of a stall and avoid it when landing or taking off. Stalling an aircraft when landing or taking off is generally considered to be a bad thing.
Fred demonstrated a power-off stall. What you do is cut the power and pull back on the yoke until the airplane is going so slow that it quits flying. When the plane quits flying the nose of the plane (which is heavy) is suddenly very attracted to the earth and heads in that direction with the rest of the plane rapidly following. Now you practice stall recovery—apply full power and ease back on the yoke. You may remember pulling back on the yoke is what got us in trouble in the first place. You must learn when yoke pulling is good or bad.
The power-on stall is a bit different. You do this one with full power, just like you would use if you were taking off. Here we go—apply full power and aim the nose of the airplane toward heaven. Before you actually reach heaven the plane will again quit flying—the nose points down, and when the plane regains enough speed, it starts flying again. However, if you keep the nose pointed down and maintain full power it is still possible to reach heaven in fairly short order.
Fred warns me that mishandling the controls in a power-on stall could result in a spin. He proceeds to demonstrate. Full power—yoke all the way back—hard right rudder—wheeeeee! The wing drops violently, and if I had not been restrained by seat belt and shoulder harness I would have been in Fred’s lap, and I’m not that kind of person and even if I were, Fred’s complexion isn’t that clear. Spinning an aircraft is a good learning experience but not recommended for day to day flying unless you are Patty Wagstaff.
The next interesting part of pilot training is unusual attitude recovery. The usual attitude for an aircraft is nose pointed generally toward the horizon, wings relatively level. An unusual attitude is nose pointed toward heaven or earth and the wings anywhere but level. The kind of position your plane might end up in if you were caught in a thunderstorm. The training method for unusual attitude recovery is for Fred to say, “close your eyes and don’t peek.” He then makes the plane do things that make retaining your last meal a real challenge. Fred then says, “OK, fix it.” You must then decide what position your plane is in and fix it or as the best pilots say, “it might rurn yer day.”
Eventually you solo. This means you fly the plane by yourself—Fred stays on the ground. With a bit more training and a lot more practice you get your private license--more training and practice—an instrument rating. Now flying is fun. So much fun, in fact that Lynn decides she wants to learn to fly. No objection on my part. We own our own plane, a Piper Archer, which is beautiful and easy to fly.
By now we live in Huntsville, Texas, so Lynn goes to Huntsville Municipal Airport to inquire about flying lessons. The flight instructor, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, snuff- dipping true Texan named Willy said he would take her on. He liked challenging projects. Willy put Lynn through the same stall training, unusual attitude recovery, etc. that all pilots-in-training go through. He then spent a lot of time on her landings. Landings are tricky. You are flying the airplane at the slowest speed it will go and still fly and you are so close to the ground that if you screw up there is little hope for a second chance. Willy didn’t like Lynn’s landings. He made her do them over and over and over. Finally he said, “You’ve got to be more aggressive. Think like a man. Land like a man.” Whereupon Lynn grabbed her crotch, adjusted it vigorously, hacked up a goober and proceeded to land the airplane.
Willy was never quite the same after that. He developed a slight tic in his right eye and always tried to look out the window when Lynn was landing the airplane. In fact he never looked at her directly again. As soon as he could he moved to Dallas.
Lynn soloed on Friday the 13th and her cut off shirttail, a symbol of the occasion, is still hanging in the training room of the Huntsville Municipal Airport.