Do you ever go to meetings where someone asks that icebreaker question “Tell us something that most people don’t know about you.” Whenever I get that question, one of my usual answers is that I carry a private pilot’s license.
Now when I say “carry”, I mean that it is in my wallet. I do not mean that it is actually current and valid. These are the kinds of distinctions they teach you to make in law school.
My father had been a pilot, and quite an accomplished one, at that. Dad took his lessons when I was a toddler and continued building additional licenses and ratings until he was (theoretically) qualified to fly almost every piston engine airplane short of a passenger airliner.
Many was the time during my youth when Dad (who owned shares in a series of airplanes) would fly the family on vacation or to visit his relatives back east. It helped that he traveled for his work and was able to put his piloting skills to work frequently. And his skills were considerable, which was a good thing that time the right main wheel brake locked up on a landing in Atlanta in 1972. His quick analysis and reflexes (using the throttle of the right engine to overpower the locked wheel of his Twin Comanche) prevented what otherwise might have become a nasty accident.
I began my own lessons at a small airport, taught by a former auto mechanic from Sweden – his name was Lars, of course. Lars was like many flight instructors, a young single guy who was using the job of flight instructor to build flying hours in his own quest to eventually land a paid pilot’s job. He was a good teacher and taught me many things. Even things not related to flying, like stick to Volvos and avoid Saabs.
For example, I learned how I could not trust my senses when my eyes were covered. One standard excercise was to wear a hood while the instructor put the plane through a series of maneuvers. Then, when the hood was removed, it was my task to quickly scan the instruments to figure out what the plane was doing and how to get back to straight and level.
“This will be a breeze” I thought. “All I have to do is pay close attention to the movements and forces on me and I will be 90% there when I look at instruments.” Nope. Not even close. The valuable lesson I learned was that without hard visual reference points (like the horizon) the mind becomes completely disoriented to the point where you are convinced of one thing while your instruments are telling you something completely different. Trusting your instruments instead of what your body is screaming at you is not an easy thing to do.
I also learned what a tough old horse the Cessna 150 is. This two seat high wing plane is probably what most pilots have learned on since the 1950s. Over several weeks I pestered Lars to put the plane into a spin so that I could have the actual experience of pulling out of one. He was not supposed to, telling me that the school owner said it was hard on the instrument gyroscope. But he relented one day and up we went. We spent what seemed like forty minutes gaining altitude (the pilot’s best friend) and then it was time.
The procedure for pulling out of a spin (in which the plane is both diving and turning at once) is to kick the opposite rudder – this turns the spin into just (just?) a dive. Which is when the really scary stuff starts. This is when you pull back on the yoke (stick to old timers) to pull out of the dive. The object here is to do so before hitting the speed at which the wings will peel from the plane, resulting in some really bad things. Even knowing that the 150 was a stout structure built for such things, the G forces experienced as that dive was arrested made for some real stomach-churning moments. Think hitting the bottom of the main hill of one of the better roller coasters.
I got my license and for about the next year or so spent nice days in the air to keep my skills up. But finding the time (and money) to do so became harder and harder. I had started with the idea that I could fly for business, but without an instrument license (which is an entirely different level of flying and one which would have required many more hours of training) I was restricted to clear-weather flying. Anyone who pays attention to weather knows that it is rarely something you can bank on much in advance, making back-up plans a necessity.
I also felt myself beginning to get a little rusty. This was something which I had promised myself I would not do. Those pilots who go up three or four times a year are the most dangerous of all and I pledged that I would never become one of “Those guys”.
It was around this time that a relative let it be known that he was interested in selling a really nice 1929 Ford Model A, something that I had always wanted. But how could I afford old cars and flying at the same time? I could not, and I knew it. I had to make my decision, and made it: The car was purchased and the pilot’s license was allowed to go dormant.
In theory, all that would be required to get back in the air would be an updated medical certification and a couple of hours of flight review with an instructor. But that would be beyond stupid for a guy who has lost almost everything learned in ground school all those years ago. Except for the pilot’s alphabet, which I can still do (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta . . . ).
There are days I miss flying a lot. I can still look at a deep blue summer sky and hear Lars’ voice pronouncing it “severe clear.” I also miss the excitement of the take-off and the adrenaline that comes up during a landing. A guy can “commune” with his car, but that interaction between man and machine is nothing like with a small airplane. And I can still remember how tired I always felt on the drive back home after that extended period of hyper-vigilance that flying requires.
But I do not regret the choice I made to ground myself. Maintaining or building my skills would have taken a lot of time (and money) out of my life that I think I have put to better uses. As big of a thrill as I used to get flying, the thrill was even greater being there as one of the kids got a base hit or blocked a shot in basketball. So in the end, what did I get out of it? Mainly the experience and a few stories. Which I have found to be enough. But I still carry that little paper pilot’s license in my wallet just the same.