Airport Stories: Distractions and Dustdevils

Sunday morning found me running around the house trying to remember where I had plugged in all the electronic gizmos. Cellphone, portable radio, camera battery… and the floppy disks for the digital camera, where were those…? Seemed like every time I headed out to Morris I was taking more stuff along. This time I had my flight bag, my spare stuff bag, and now the camera bag in the trunk of the car.

Although I was going out there for flight training the weather was too nice not to bring a camera along. It was a perfect summer day, the forecast was for warm but not too hot, blue skies, gentle breezes, and sun. I was hyped, so hyped I actually was ready to go a half an hour before my planned departure time. After ten minutes of pacing and twitching around the house I thought, heck with it, just go, so I did.

One advantage to going early was that the traffic was light. Which meant I got there about 20 minutes quicker than usual, and since I had left early that meant I would be hanging around the flight school trailer/office. Oh, great, I could sit next to the runway and twitch.

As I pulled into the parking lot I noted several colorful dots overhead. I started digging through the trunk for the camera. Turn it on - wait for the boot up - check for a disk. OK - where were the airplanes? Found the handheld radio, good old trusty ICOM, and turned it on. Busy chatter, airplanes on crosswind, downwind, and base-turning-to-final. I look at the base-to-final point, spotted one of my targets, and started shooting.

It can be surprisingly hard to photograph a flying airplane. A telephoto lens might get you an image larger than a dot, but the darn things keep moving and if you lose your target you have to widen your focus to find the airplane again. Then, when they get closer to you, you have to lead the shot because not only do they keep moving, they keep moving at freeway speeds or faster. I have a lot of shots of the very front of an airplane’s nose, or the very back end of a rudder, with lots of empty runway before or behind and not much actual airplane.

I did get one good shot of the Stearman drifting down on final. Missed most of the powered parachutes coming in to land. They didn’t have radios, so I couldn’t listen in on chatter to narrow down where to look for them, and they don’t use the runways because they have to stay out of the way of the bigger airplanes. So they were landing behind the hangars from my perspective, on the ramps, next to the taxiways, and so forth. Powered parachutes are just that - parachutes, with a small engine and prop to provide enough power to go up as well as down. The two-seat versions have a wheeled framework around the pilots as their engines are a bit too big to strap on as a backpack, but the single-person versions always remind me of some sort of Saturday morning cartoon invention. The engines were hooked to small props that looked like oversized fans, and they were carried on the pilot’s back. The power chute guys were there for breakfast, mostly, their folded chutes and stowed engines lined up along the grass separating the restaurant from one of the taxiways.

After a few photos I put the camera back in the bag, went in to the office, and claimed the clipboard, paperwork, and hangar key for the Citabria. Time to get serious. Must switch from photographer to pilot mode.

Walking out to the hangar I saw a late-arriving two-seat 'chute coming in to land in front of the restaurant. Oh, darn, no time to get the camera out… nevermind. Walked up to the guys, said hi, made pleasent comments about their aircraft and asked about how they kept the lines fron tangling on the ground. The owner took in the headset I had in one hand and the clipboard in the other. “Pilot?”

“Yes. You fly things other than parachutes?”

“I’ve got time in a Citabria later.”

“Oh… neat…” which then launched into a discussion about tailwheels, Citabrias, and J, who Mr. Parachute was also going to be borrowing later in the afternoon. It wasn’t until a large blue and yellow biplane came roaring down the taxiway and towards the parking area in front of the restaurant that I realized some time had passed and maybe I should get moving a little faster towards my assigned airplane.

You don’t notice how big even a small airport is until you are walking from one end to the other. I found the proper door in the row of hangars, unlocked it, and stepped in. I hit the lights and the door switch, and then turned the lights off as sunlight flooded in.

It was an uncommonly messy pre-flight. Why, I’m not sure - I managed to spill avgas from wrist to elbow sumping the right fuel tank. Somewhere in checking the oil and the engine innards I managed to grease my arm up to the elbow - not really that difficult, given the tight spaces. Sumping under the carbeurator I spilled more gas on me, and got my legs and arms gritty crawling around under the airplane looking for the the belly sump.

I did note, however, that the tailwheel had been replaced since last time. At this point in the preflight it may have been cleaner than I was.

Got the airplane out, fueled, and got in while J was cleaning the windshield. He seems to like cleaning the windshield, and since at that point his hands were cleaner than mine it made more sense for him to do it - I’m sure I was leaving greasy handprints all over by that point. Airplane windshields are made of some sort of plastic that scratches if you so much as look at it funny, so the only thing we use on it is very, very, very clean water. Wiping my greasy, gritty hands over it would not have been a good thing to do.

Then it was time to saddle up. The camera went into its case then in the back of the airplane - I was here to fly, not photograph. We both climbed in, buckled up, taxied out to the ramp, did the run up, and all the other before-we-actually-fly stuff as usual. It was all getting quite routine by then.

J asked for two normal, plain-vanilla three-point landings “to see if you still remember how to do them”. The air was almost perfectly calm, so it should be easy enough - if I didn’t get too cocky and blow it. Which I didn’t - a very routine take off followed by a very routine traffic pattern followed by a very routine three-point landing. Rinse and repeat.

Remember, please, that two months prior I couldn’t manage even the take off without careening all over the place. Now - routine. Things are starting to come together.

Then it was back to wheel landings and getting still more finesse in that, reminders to the let the airplane land long if necessary since we had plenty of room, and all the little verbal nudges required to wrest peak performance out of my feet, fingers, and head. Traffic was lighter than it had been on the last couple days I had been at Morris, the air was calm, and for some inexplicable reason I was consistently coming in too high on final. Or maybe not so inexplicable - the day was also about 15-20 F degrees cooler than many other days this summer, and thus the airplane performed better. It climbed faster and stayed up better than on hotter, more humid days. Although I don’t have a problem with putting it into a hard slip to dive at the field - I found it fun, actually - I couldn’t help but think the average non-pilot passenger would not find it enjoyable. Must be coming right along, if I’m starting to think about carrying non-flyers along with me in this thing.

We didn’t run too long on this flight. Although much of this was getting routine J was really pushing me on the wheel landings, which were definitely some effort, and didn’t want me to get over tired. I made a very nice, controlled landing and J said to make it a full stop and pull off the runway. As a general rule, he does like to end the lesson with a good landing - it builds confidence and he had had something to say about “muscle memory”, about letting a proper and correct movement settle firmly into memory instead of immediately pushing on to another motion. So we decided to take a break and resume in a bit.

Going back to the parking area we couldn’t help but notice powered parachutes getting ready to take off. There were actually a lot of distractions around for me today, I was finding it harder than usual to stay focused, which is not good when operating heavy machinery in a busy area. I forced myself to pay attention.

Then J pointed out that one of the parachute guys - this one had a backpack motor and used his own feet for landing gear - had his canopy spread out on the grass, and he started talking about how they looked on take-off. Oh, yeah, my head swung around to look, then I forced myself to look where we were going, then back to the parachute, then – Like I said, distractions. I commented that while I’d seen the parachutes fly I’d never seen one actually take off and I’d like to. At which point J took over the airplane, parked it right there, told me to enjoy the show, and said be back at the airplane at 10:30 for more flying.

I did stop and watch the parachute guy take off. He aborted his first attempt - I’m not sure why. I didn’t want to bother him so I was watching from some distance away. All I could see was that he started his run, the 'chute rose up into the air, and he suddenly tottered to a stop. The engine and prop strapped to his back stopped and the parachute gracefully crumpled and dropped to the ground. At which point he started fussing over his equipment and straightening out ropes and so forth.

His second try was successful, and although I did have the camera out I didn’t get the picture - I decided to actually watch it. Again, he started up his small engine, ran forward, and the parachute rose up. As he continued forward and the parachute started to lift him upward his stride shortened and tuned almost into a tip toe hop before his feet left the ground a final time and he was airborne, slowly rising up into the sky.

Well, that had been interesting. I looked at my watch. Still some time to go until 10:30. Hmmm… what else to do? Too early to eat… not thirsty today, as it was much cooler so water wasn’t a priority.

Oh… look over there… pretty airplanes. One of them a biplane. Just sitting there. All alone.

Of course, I had to go over and keep them company.

The Decathalon - the aerobatic airplane they use to teach stunt flying - was somewhat interesting. I poked my head in briefly, it being conceivable that one day I’d be taking such lessons. I had been told it was, essentially, a slightly beefed up Citabria and from the standpoint of how the cockpit and instrument panel looked that was true enough. About the only new thing was the accelerometer, the “g meter” that measured acceleration forces in units of 1 Earth gravity. Not that much new here, folks, just move along.

The biplane, though - that was from another era of aviation entirely. A stock PT-17 Boeing-Stearman, primary trainer from the 1940’s. A lot of the heroic pilots of World War II had gotten their start in those airplanes, not to mention a fair number of civilians before and since.

So I found myself at the root of the left lower wing panel, regarding the multiple warning of “No Step” scattered about the surface of the wing. Half of the them had the look of being written by a very modern, 21st Century Sharpie permanent magic marker. OK, I identified the black strip of the “wing walk” that was the allowed part of the wing for feet. It seemed rather narrow. I walked around to the right side of the wings. An identical wing walk and profusion of “No Step” awaited me there. I guess it didn’t matter on which side one mounted this particular steed.

I went back to the left side. There were no steps, no stirrups, no little footrests to assist in going up. There was the wing, at about my hip height. I looked up. No handholds either.

A man came up as I was puzzling over this airplane and said that I was welcome to get up into it. The man was B, the owner’s husband, and we had met briefly once before. I said that was very kind and generous, to let me finger his wife’s airplane, but I was trying to figure out how to get into it without breaking my neck in the process, the cockpits being rather high up there above my head and me not being entirely sure how to get onto even the lower wing. B mentioned that they did use a step stool when giving rides to the general public, which took a lot of the mystery out of the process for old people, short people, children, and just folks in general. I said that was a great idea, but observed that said step stool was nowhere in sight at the moment.

It was that same old problem again - I’m shorter than the folks these airplanes were designed for.

Well, here’s how I did it, with a little verbal coaching from B: After getting my camera slung over my shoulder and settled on my back, out of the way, I reached waaaaay up with my right hand, and on tip toe I could just barely hook my hand over the rim of the rear cockpit (this really stretches out one’s muscles very nicely, from shoulder to ankle, although if you lose your grip your toes are going to get squashed under your weight and let you know they’re mad at you). After getting a grip on this beast, and with my hand helping to support some of my weight, I then raised my left foot up and put it on the airplane’s lower wing. Let me say that again - I raised up my left leg until my knee was almost under my chin and my foot was level with my hip. And this is why I was on the left side of the airplane, because my left leg is stronger and more flexible than my right, which has the bad knee. So, standing there with a folded up left leg and a very extended right, I pushed off with my right foot while hoisting with my right hand, then pushed down with my left leg. The legs and lower back muttered ominously about not being 20 years young anymore but managed it anyway without pulling, tearing, or ripping anything.

OK! Here I am, standing on the lower wing of a Stearman biplane, still with my right hand on the rim of the rear cockpit. I took a step forward on the narrow walk to the upper/front cockpit and grabbed both the rim of that and the handhold on the upper wing conveniently located nearby. The rim of the cockpit is, in this case, at slightly less than waist height for me. I hoisted my right leg over the edge and put my foot on the seat, which seems a typical entry method for miltary airplanes, at least at this airport. Pulled the other leg in and looked down. I wanted to see what I was about to step onto. I knew that some early airplanes had had cloth bottoms and while I didn’t think this one was that ancient I wanted to be sure.

It looked like an oversized rain gutter down there. Really. Just a wide pan of bent metal that started somewhere under the rudder pedals and ran under the seat. It had this interesting mixture of fluids trickling down it.

“Something wrong?” asked B.

“Is this, uh, water in the bottom of this thing, or oil, or what?”

"Well, it’s probably water. Probably some oil and grease, too. I think they hosed it out this morning.

OK… there was a place to put one’s feet to either side of the wide pan so I did that, keeping my feet out of the damp. Then I sat down on the seat.


See, the seats are black leathery stuff. And it was sitting in the hot sun. And I was wearing shorts. And the back of my thighs were reporting outbreak of fire. Which I related to a very concerned B who was wondering at all the noise.

After a few seconds the searing pain dimished and I went back to investigating. B helpfully noted that one traditionally flew the Stearman solo from the rear seat.



Just like a Piper Cub.

Well, just like a Piper Cub except for the extra wing, big radial engine, complete lack of roof or windows, and a few other little details like that…

I clambered out of the front seat and had a go at getting in the back seat. This was even more challenging. There were no overhead handholds, for one thing, the wing being quite far forward from that point. So there I am, standing on a downward-sloping surface, gripping the padded rim of a hole that’s easily six or seven feet (about two meters for you metric folks) above the ground and trying to swing a leg or two inside without doing anything embarassing or injury-inducing. But I managed to get inside, sat down a little more carefully, and settled in.

Superfically at least, there wasn’t much difference between the two seats.

As I expected, my feet did not reach the rudder pedals. Make mental note: when flying this airplane bring a seat cushion. A large one. Maybe two. The stick was pretty much standard issue. However, the inner structure of this thing was laid bare. The metal framework of the interior was exposed in all its Army green glory. The space between was the back side of the fabric that covered the airplane. What had appeared as a bright, vivid blue from outside was a very muted shade from in here, as it was the unpainted side of the fabric that was showing. And that’s all it was - a skin of painted fabric. I had known that ahead of time, this wasn’t the first “ragwing” I’d sat in, but it’s a little different actually seeing it. Off my right knee was the airplane’s data plate, which all airplanes have and which identifies that specific airplane. It was, like everything else in here, worn. Very worn, since it was a safe bet this was one of the few original parts in the airplane still. It identified it as a PT-17, primary trainer model 17. Delivered to the US Army Air Forces (the predecessor to the United States Air Force, before it was a separate entity) on April 24, 1943. My goodness - this thing was old enough to retire and collect Social Security!

As for the rest of the cockpit - it clearly predated the standard layout and complement of instruments. It had an altimeter, an airspeed indicator, a g-meter, a turn-and-back indicator, a few engine instruments… and that was it. That’s all. A “how-high”, “how-fast”, “how-heavy”, and a couple of “is my engine still running OK?” instruments. Most prominent was not the airspeed or vertical airspeed, which are frequently front and center for the modern pilot, but rather the turn and bank indicator was central. The layout was completely different than the standard “six pack” of instruments in the general aviation world. I could imagine the new Stearman pilot, depsite prior experience in flight, looking frantically around the cockpit (and I do use that term loosely) going “Where the [expletive deleted] is the thing I’m looking for?” No radio, VOR, GPS - none of that new-fangled modern stuff from the second half of the 20th Century, much less the start of the 21st. I did note, however, some velcro strips applied to a bare spot on the panel where, no doubt, various pilots affixed a handheld radio transceiver for when they wanted/needed a radio. I had heard radio calls from this airplane before, that had to be the way it was done. Suppose you could velcro one of those handheld GPS units up there, too. Wonder what Misters Stearman and Boeing would have thought of that?

I took a few pictures - partly to prove I was there, partly to study when I got home. Then I noted it was getting much closer to 10:30 and it was time to get back to flying.

I climbed out of the rear seat, still feeling a little precarious up there, and onto the right wing walk. At which point I faced a new problem. There was no immediately obvious way to get down. There were still no handholds, no grips, no handy bits to help out. That first step was half as high as I am. B, seeing my predicament, suggested I jump. Which, after a few more seconds of thought, I did. It was probably the most graceful part of getting in and out.

Sure enough, here comes J around the edge of the wing, an indulgent grin on his face for his wayward student flirting with yet another airplane before she’s even done with the Citabria. Yes, many distractions today. There was some good natured ribbing about women who fly and the liability of having a flying wife, mostly directed at B by J.

But it turns out J is really over here to talk with B, and sends me on my way to get in and get ready to go. The camera goes back in its case and goes into the back of the airplane where it will no longer be a distraction. I get in and get the seat and the booster cushion and my seat belts adjusted, by which time B and J have arrived and announced that we will be handpropping the Citabria and they’ll talk me through the procedure.

I had handpropped an airplane once before. Let me be a bit more honest about that - I had helped while a very nice person handpropped my airplane for me, having 'fessed up to the fact that, at that point, I’d only had my license two months, had a passenger to get home, an airplane that didn’t want to start, a dead alternator, a dead battery (which is why the starter wasn’t working. At all.), and only the theory of hand-propping with absolutely no practice in reality. At which point I was subjected to the “WHAT are they teaching you young whippersnappers in flight school these days?” lecture but he did agree to help me out. In this case, I didn’t mind the guys directing the show because either one of them had more experience with this than I did. I was wondering why we were doing this, but since I didn’t have any reason to object and they seemed intent on this exercise I went along with it.

Just so you know - it’s the guy with his hands actually on the prop that runs the show in these cases. J got into the airplane behind me, and I noticed that both of us had our feet hard on the brakes. Handpropping can be done safely IF you follow the rules. One of the rules is make sure the airplane isn’t going to move anywhere, espeically forward. The master and the mags are switched off. Lots and lots of priming for the engine. Adjust mix (full) and throttle (just a bit above idle). B pulls the prop through and gets it set just before a piston compression stroke - for those who know nothing about engines, you can feel it when this is happening as you pull on the prop. B calls for switch on. J reaches up and switches on the magnetos and announces the airplane is “hot”. “Contact” is yelled back and forth (yes, we really do that).

B pulls down the prop blade and steps back at the same time. There’s a sort of burp, and the prop stops. He does it again. And again.

“Did we forget somthing?” I ask.

“No,” says J, “We’re alright.”

B really has a set routine with this - clearly he’s done it before. A lot. One more pull-and-step-back and the engine catches, roaring to life as the prop spins into near-invisibility

How does that work, you might ask? Well, unlike a car (and assuming I don’t screw up this explanation), where the battery/electrical system supplies the spark for the spark plugs, in an airplane such as I fly the spark is supplied by magnetos. It is the spinning of the magneto parts that generates the electric current that supplies the spark to the spark plugs that ignites the fuel-air mixture in the cylinders that makes the engine go. The magetos get their spin from the prop. If the prop is turning, the magnetos are generating sparks. If there’s fuel in the engine and sparks in the plugs, the prop keeps turning, which keeps generating sparks, which keeps the prop turning, which generates sparks… The trick is to get this whole circus started. An electric starter uses a battery to turn a small motor to turn the prop until the magetos make sparks and the cylinders fire. Without an electric start, you have a human being do the turning. The first cylinder to “catch” pushes the prop around until the next cylinder fires and then you have a working airplane. When we shut the airplane down we flip switches that ground out any current generated by the magentos in order to make accidental starts much less likely. For similar reasons, we also cut off the fuel, so the engine burns until empty (supposedly), and pull the throttle back to idle and cut off the fuel-air mixture control. All of which reduces the chances of a Bad Accident prompted by an accidently turned prop. To hand prop, you just reverse all those safety steps - full mixture, lots of fuel in the engine, un-ground the magnetos, and swing the prop.

J and B wave to each other and B walks off, mission accomplished. J is turning on all the other electrical bits in the airplane and I ask over the intercom “OK - now why did we just do all that?”

“Did you notice the ammeter earlier? The battery was discharging a lot of amps. Wasn’t sure what was going on, how much was left in the battery, but we’ll be using this airplane a lot today and I wanted to be sure we can start it later. So we just spared the battery the work of starting the airplane.”

The ammeter was now reporting that the battery was charging - which would have been perfectly normal if we had used the electrical starter but was a little odd under the circumstances.

J continued with “So don’t be alarmed if the radio or intercom suddenly quit.”

“Yeah, I’ve had complete electrical failures before - I’ll just keep flying the airplane.”

“You do that. We’ll both keep an eye on things.”

With that, it was out to the runway and back up.

Yes, really, I wasn’t that concerned. Electricity was in no way required for the flying we were doing. It was convenient to have a radio, and the intercom made communicating with each other much easier (although J already had me nicely trained to a system of shoulder-taps and elbow-pulls that didn’t require words), but neither were essential. It being daylight and sunny, running lights were entirely optional as well. In fact, we often did not bother to turn them on. If we lost the alternator or battery the airplane would continue to fly happily along, as its magnetos were entirely independent of the alternator and battery and would continue to fire. The three instruments I was using, when bothering with instruments at all - the airspeed, altimeter, and vertical airspeed - do not use electricity anyway. Losing the electrical system would be an annoyance at most - in fact, on the prior incident I had had I hadn’t noticed the alternator had quit working and I drained the battery without realizing it.

Aside from reporting the state of the ammeter from time to time (I had a far better view of that dial than J did), I simply did not worry about it. It did swing rather markedly from discharge to charge and back again, and seemingly without rhyme or reason. Meanwhile, the radio, intercom, and everything else electric (which wasn’t much) continued working without interruption and at full volume.

So I did another bunch of take offs and landings, which J tried to make interesting (that is, more challenging) and which I tried to handle in as routine a manner as possibile. Then it was lunch time. So I parked the airplane, J ran off to his next assignment, and I went to have something to eat. More routine, in other words.

I was halfway to the restaurant when it occured to me that I had exited the airplane without thinking about it, and with far fewer bangs and bruises than previously. Wow. There was a sign I was learning! One day I might even be graceful about it.

As happened several times in my days at Morris, at noon someone flipped the weather switch. The wind has shifted around some and picked up. J observed, once again, that morning and afternoon were two entirely different environments.

No kidding. It was going to get a little interesting.

Again, lots of rountine - get in, start up, check everything out, taxi to the runway. One last look at the windsock - the breeze was out of the south, mostly. Good, since we were on 18. Full throttle, keep it on center…

Somewhere above halfway through the take-off roll, when the weight was starting to shift to the wings, the wind decided to do a 180. Although we continued to accelerate over the pavement, the weight settled back down on the wheels as the headwind became a tailwind because from the wing’s perspective we had just slowed down. It’s airspeed, not groundspeed, that makes for flying. Oh, great - a downwind take off. But we had plenty of runway left and kept on with it, although it took a noticeably greater distance to get airborne and climb up.

So J asked me to turn around off the end of 18 and reverse the traffic pattern. Which I wasn’t too thrilled about. We’d been using 18 all day, that’s what folks were used to, and reversing directon in the pattern was a really good way to wide up prop-to-prop with another airplane. I expressed my reluctance and practically twisted my head off trying to look behind us because I sure as heck was NOT going to do a 180 off the end of the active runway without being absolutely sure that there was no one to meet us, coming the other way. I was reassured to see J was looking out for other people just as much as I was, with the advantage of not having to fly an airplane while doing so. We dickered for a few more moments, until I was convinced this was a reasonably safe idea, or at least no more of a bad idea than the alternative, which would have been downwind take offs and landings.

So I was still climbing out and up when I turned us around and went straight from upwind leg to final, entirely skipping the crosswind, downwind, and base legs of the traffic pattern. It would have been fun, if it hadn’t felt quite so much like going the wrong way down a one-way street. But when the wind changes around enough you need to change the active runway. Those of use in a Citabria might have enough runway to do a downwind takeoff, but bigger and faster airplanes did not. At some point someone had to make the switch and this was just our lucky day.

Sure enough, someone announced they were entering a downwind for 18 while we were on final for 36. Me, I was ready to skeddadle off to get away from this little potential conflict. J was trying to talk the arriving traffic out of using 18 and telling them we had just reversed the pattern, please use 36, while also trying to convince the pilot doing the flying (that was me, in case you forgot) to stay on the present course, everything was fine and under control, keep my eyes on where we were going, he was watching the other traffic.

Not my most precise landing, as I was somewhat distracted, but still acceptable even if I had been eyeing the grassy spaces next to the pavement - just in case. I mean, I’d already run the airplane over grass, I had a fairly good idea of what to expect if it seemed like a good idea to strike out cross country like that again.

The rest of the airplanes in the neighborhood decided that J was right after all and let’s all use 36. Gee, I’m glad we could come to that unanimous decision.

OK, everyone is now in agreement that we are using 36 - excellent. By this time I’m lifting off again, still swinging the head for traffic watch as well as minding the airspeed, climb, and turn to downwind. A few small bumps along the way, fairly typical for a summer afternoon. As we are nearing the end of the downwind leg my my eye catches an unusual sight on a vacant field just southwest of the airport. It’s not just an “empty” plot with low plants, it’s a rectangle of dirt, pale brown against the green around it. And rising from the far corner of that field is what, at first, appears to be a long, thin rope reaching from the ground to about 800-1000 feet in the air - or about where we were hanging out. The only problem is that ropes usually aren’t visible from that far away, and in any case they don’t hang unsupported in air like that.

Behind me J says “Let me have the airplane, there’s something really unusual I want you to see --”

“It’s a dustdevil, isn’t it?” I said, pointing.


“There are two of them.” I said, watching a second “rope” twist itself from the ground up into the air. This one was in the corner of the field closest too us, just a little closer to me than I really wanted it to be, just a little past the spot I’d been planning to turn from downwind to base. I was pretty sure that it wouldn’t hurt us - just jostle us good - but my more cautious side decided that this trip around the pattern didn’t have to be a perfect rectangle and jogged the airplane over to give the dustdevils - now starting to shift back and forth, as if getting ready to do-see-do like a pair of square dancers - just a little more room to themselves.

As I turned from base to final it occured to me that those dustdevils were visible largely because there was actual dust to be sucked up and make them visible. The same twisty winds over some of the local corn and bean fields would not be so noticable to the eye. Oh, lovely. Obviously some sort of front was in the process of moving through our area at the moment, generating all sorts of interesting effects.

And now I was going to land an airplane in the middle of it.

Not that it was horrible - it wasn’t. The winds were variable, very variable, but not particularly strong. I lined us up on the pavement, let gravity do the work of bringing us down to meet it. The first landing wasn’t too bad, and we went to full power and up again.

Round the traffic pattern once more, and our two friends the dustdevils were still dancing out in their field. I had about a half a minute to spare for them, then we were landing again.

This time, as we were going down the runway, I started to get that “I’m losing it…” feeling again. This time was different than the week before. Last week, it had just been the “Uh-oh…” sense, and pretty much my only solution was to go back up and try again. This week, I had a sense of how I was losing it, when it was happening. I could feel it happening as we slowed down, the tail started to drop, and the winds started pushing on the rear of the airplane. This time I could either apply more rudder and do it sooner since I was sensing the problem sooner, or, when full right rudder wasn’t altering our hard left turn, go to more power. More power meant the airplane would speed up, which made the flight controls more effective and could take us out of the situation. Only problem was, increase power and speed enough and you won’t stay stuck to the ground. Thus, I was flirting with a problem that most non-flyers don’t ever consider, a situation where you can’t get down out of the sky.

I battled the twitchy winds a few more times - you couldn’t rely on them to remain consistent from one end of the runway to the other. Again, this wasn’t a horrific situation, just more challenging than what I had done before. But I was handling it - J wasn’t taking command. These messy back-and-forth-over-the-centerline landings were all mine. In fact, I was earning the occassional praise from the back seat for handling some of it. Come to think of it, he wasn’t verbally coaching me much anymore, either. The quieter it was getting the backseat - aside from the occassionall “Good job!” the better I was feeling about expending so much effort on each landing. And when I decide to abort and go to full power rather than keep pushing on a bad landing getting a “Good decision!” out of the back seat definitely helped my ego as well.

Fifth time on downwind, final lap of the day by prior agreement, I look up and notice that we were down to one dustdevil on the dirt field. Oh, maybe things are getting more stable. Naw… couldn’t be… I looked around for other signs of micro-twisters. Couldn’t see any.

That’s when the airplane did this weird dipping motion, with the right wing swinging down and to the side, then the nose, the left wing, the tail… It’s a little hard to describe, must easier to show with hand gestures, but basically imagine one of those plates chinese circus performers spin on the end of a stick, but winding down and starting to wobble. That’s what the airplane did, one or two of those wobbles, then we were out of it with a final gentle slap to the tail that had me working the rudders almost as hard as after a landing.

A cheerful, happy-little-boy voice from the rear seat: “Oh, cool, that dustdevil formed up right underneath us!”

(Just in case you were wondering what it was like to fly through one of those. Me, I hadn’t been wondering. J, on the other hand, happily flies upside down as well as right side up, among other orientations, so a little wobble probably just made things less than utterly boring for him.)

Anyhow, I brought it down a final time without too much embarassment. J’s verdict at the end of the day was that I had the “calm stuff” down, I knew it. What I needed next was a day with a good, solid 15-20 knot crosswind and once I had a handle on that and a few emergency procedures I’d be ready to do this on my own. The problem was (and still is, as of this writing) that you can’t simply order up precise weather conditions.

“Proper weather” for this exercise could be one week away… or a month away. Skipping a week isn’t too bad for the skills. Skipping a month… well, I’d be getting rusty by then. On the other hand, I couldn’t afford to fly multiple fair-weather lessons hauling J around (however wonderful an instructor and human being he may be) at his hourly rate if the situation was such that he didn’t really need to be there to keep me from breaking stuff. I mean, I’m not wealthy (especially not after paying for all this!) and I have to justify spending the money. Money spent on joy-riding is less money for training. Pick one, and stick with it.

So, the plan we worked out was roughly this: I try to fly at least a short time every two weeks (weather will surely screw that up at some point, but that’s life in the sky) while the weather is tame, with some emphasis on emergency procedures that don’t require crosswinds. If there’s a really nice, calm day and the Stearman is available I can fly that because I was intending to do that at some point anyway (I don’t have to wait until I’m an official taildragger - anyone can ask to fly the Stearman, they just won’t let you solo it until you’re qualified. As a taildragger pilot, though, I get to do more than a non-taildragger would, even if I’m “just” a 'dragger student and not fully qualified.) And that’s the plan until we get those crosswind days that I need at this point. Which, the husband helpfully pointed out, probably won’t arrive until Fall, anyhow. A couple weeks away.

After that it was fill out the logbook, wince at the bill, and listen to J and B debate what, if anything was wrong with the Citabria. Although the ammeter was reporting a problem the airplane didn’t act like it had one - the radios and other electrical stuff were functioning without apparent problem, our third start of the day had been normal, not the reluctant sort you get with a low battery… maybe the gauge was bad? An intermittant problem?

Anyhow, I had to hit the road for the long drive home, so I did, and left to boys to their debate.

You go girl, almost there.

Broomstick, this is unrelated to your stories.

I’ve wanted to try some flight training for quite a while now, but I haven’t because I’m a big guy, and I could never pass the FAA physical.

However, I’ve had a gastric bypass, the weight is coming off, the diabetes is under control, and the blood pressure is starting to behave. Do you know if given the Type 2 and HBP are controlled and I’m not taking prohibited meds for either, if the bypass is a disqualification on it’s own?

Back to the storytelling…

Maybe I can help, maybe not - The AOPA report on gastrointestinal issues. No clear answer there, sorry.

Broomstick, thanks for the great stories.

**Broomstick, ** , thanks for these updates! I’ve long had a passion for flying, and someday… :smiley:

I used to read a lot of the rec.pilot.student (or something close to that) posts, and these posts are a great addition to them. Keep on going, and posting!

(non pilot, but once had a table full of pilots ask “what do YOU fly?”… they were shocked when I said I didn’t, but had a passion for flight)

The wife and I just got back from taking a Citation X up to the Grand Canyon and Back… WOW! that was fun…

Carry on.


It just seems to be taking a long time…

It is possible for you to get medical clearance… but it’s not automatic in your case. You’ll need a LOT of documentation from your treating docs, and it will need to be much more specific than many docs are inclined to be without nudging.

You also have to pick your AME (aviation medical examiner) with some care - there are lazy guys out there who’ll just tell you “no” because they don’t care to do that much paperwork.

The Type 2 and the HBP are likely to give you more problems than the gastric bypass, although they’ll have concerns about that, too. Diabetes can mess with your vision and level of awareness, which doesn’t mix well with flight. Flying is also a stress on the cardiovascular system - when you’re coming in for a landing your heart rate and bp jump, even if it’s routine and uneventful. In the Naked Pilot: the Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents by David Beaty describes a study done on professional pilots which showed that even during the most uneventful, low-stress landings pilot heart rates would spike to over 160 beats per minute. That’s an uneventful, routine landing. If your system is already under stress from something like high bp that can be very bad for you.

That said, even post-heart attack people have gotten their medicals back… after they’ve demonstrated that they’ve recovered and their systems can handle a certain required level of exercise capacity. The US has also allowed even some insulin-dependent diabetics to fly again - under very strict rules. This is not an easy road to follow, but there are some highly motivated folks who do it. Like I said, there’s a lot of documentation involved. The key is that you have to demonstrate that allowing you to fly will not be hazardous to others. Note I said “others” - the FAA will happily allow you to break your own neck as long as no one else can get hurt in the process.

You have a couple other options, though. You can fly ultralights (that’s where I started) which require no medical whatsoever. That would put you under some restrictions regarding where you can fly and what sort of machine you can use, and would bar you from taking passengers, which may or may not be a problem. The powered parasails I mentioned above are ultralights, as just one example. Gliders are another option - they don’t require a formal medical, but they do require that you “self-certify” you are safe to fly. And just recently we were handed Sport Pilot, a new category of aircraft and pilots. This one is a little tricky - you need either a valid 3rd class medical or a valid driver’s license - the idea being if you’re healthy enough to drive safely you’re healthy enough to fly these things safely - BUT, if your last attempt to get a medical from the FAA was denied you can not use just your driver’s license. So, if after some research you think you’ll likely be told “no” by the FAA, but you still feel healthy enough to fly and are willing to take the risk don’t try for that 3rd class medical in the first place.

That said, be very cautious about your health and flying - there are a lot of medications, even over the counter ones, that can mess you up in the air. Sudafed, for example, while non-sedating has been involved in a significant number of crashes - it can mess up your sense of balance, with potentially dire consequences. A regular doctor is seldom reliable as to what medications will cause problems - you really need to talk to an AME about that. And, like I said, even normal flying imposes some stress. There’s not a pilot I know, regardless of medical status, who hasn’t passed on flying from time to time just because they’re having an off day and just don’t feel up to it.

Is that the flight you were planning in this thread?

Vunderbob, working in your favor re the hypertension and diabetes is that the FAA has defined standards for what is allowed, and defined procedures for determining it. If you meet the standards (which are on the AOPA site), they can’t turn you down for that condition. (I’ve just been through it with them myself, on both issues, and it it’s more aggravating than hard - but I have my medical back now and am finally now a proud soloist).

Not so for the gastric bypass surgery, though - that’s left to the judgment of the AME and is therefore a crapshoot. If the kind of flying you might want to do falls within Sport Pilot limits, then yes, don’t even bother. If you do and get turned down, that isn’t the end of the line, though (or the rule would make even less sense than it does) - they’ll give you a one-time-only special issuance with Sport Pilot privileges only as a restriction. Since the reg is new, too, it can be hard to find an instructor with a usable airplane, and harder still to find a designated examiner for your test.

Nothing you’ve said would keep you away from flying if you want to. Go to the local airfield and look around; somebody will help you.

What I really would like would be enough training time towards a private pilot that I could do all of the work of taking off, shoot a touch ‘n’ go, and come around to land for good. I don’t care who gets PIC time, nor does it have to be solo. I mostly want the bragging rights to say I could do it, plus have the ground school experience.

Then I’d like one of those parachute ultralight rigs for my self. I understand most have a weight restriction of 250 lbs or less, so it’ll take some time before I lose enough to fit in one.

If you don’t care about soloing, then you don’t need a student pilot license or a medical at all, just an FBO willing to work with you on that basis. Just tell them what your plans are.

You don’t need ground school either, there are plenty of books and even DVD’s available that will give you all the information you need, and at your own pace.

My local library has the entire King tapes through commerical pilot, and the Sporty’s as well - those are videotape ground school courses.

You might want to check your local library and see if they have anything like that.

I’m glad that everything is progressing well for you Broomstick! Hopefully the weather does what you want some time soon so you can finish everything off–though I guess you might be hoping for a nice day just to give you an excuse to jump in the Stearman for a bit :).

Although I really enjoy learning new stuff, I always look forward to that point where everything clicks into place and you don’t have to concentrate so much just to fly the aeroplane. Sounds like you are well on your way.

Actually, I’m at what I find the most frustrating part of a flight training cycle - I’m almost there, but not quite.

I keep having to suppress the urge to turn my head around 180 degrees, look J in the eye, and say [LINDA BLAIR]“GET OUT”[/LINDA BLAIR] It’s my airplane, mine! MY PRECIOUSSSSSS…

Oh, alright, I’m not that bad. But the money adds up, and I sometimes feel outrageously selfish for spending that much on my hobby (but that’s how much the hobby costs…) Fiscal prudence dictates that I now can’t fly the Citabria on those oh-so-perfect days, at least not until I no longer have to pay someone else $40/hour to keep me from breaking me and my toys. Yesterday I figured out how much I’ve spent in gas for the car during this project and it’s in the triple digits - that’s for a car that gets 40 miles to the gallon. And it’s stupid to kick myself over this because no matter even penny of what I’ve spent this summer would have been spent on flying anyway, even if I had never set foot in the Citabria. That’s why we called it the flying budget and I have a set amount taken from every paycheck and deposited in a separate account just for flying. (When the balance hits zero I have to stop until more money is earned - keeps me from hurting myself in the wallet)

I am frequently plagued by the thought that I’m taking “too long” (as my husband says, it takes as long as it takes, and it’s not like I’m a slacker pilot), that I should be learning all this quicker, better, easier… (And J, who’s been teaching aviation 20+ years, says everyone has to work hard at this, there is very little that’s truly “easy” in flight If it doesn’t *feel * like hard work, it’s because we’re having so much fun at the same time.)

Right now, the weather for this weekend looks… beautiful. >sigh< The Stearman should be available, and I won’t think about mechanical issues and car breakdowns and other stuff I can torture myself with. Or about how on another level what I really want is a brisk crosswind of the sort I’d usually not fly in because of the effort required and somewhat increased risk of things going wrong. No, it’s not a checkride but it is a test, even if no one calls it that. I want to finish this project, even though it’s been great fun. This little fledgling wants to leave the nest, even if it is a big ol’ scary world out there.

You are fortunate to have what sounds like an understanding and supportive husband. I am also lucky to have a supportive spouse. She has always been happy to put my career first, beautiful girl she is.

It is easy to be concerned about how long things are taking. From one aspect, the longer it takes, the more it’ll cost, and then there is the worry that if you take toooo long, it may be that you just aren’t up to it or something. But as you know, none of it is prohibitively difficult, it all just takes patience and practice (and a good instructor, even the best go nowhere with poor instruction.)

I guess I have several frustrations with the length of time these things take.

Firstly, there’s the money. Like you said, more time = more money. Of course, I spend money on flying anyway, it’s not like refraining from flight training will result in a huge stash piling up somewhere, but it goes out the door differently when you’re in training. Training requires schedules and budgets in a way that flying the back 40 doesn’t. Casual, strictly-fun flying is easy to trim the time on (let’s do a half hour instead of an hour) or pass by because the wallet’s light this week, at least it’s easier for me. Maybe bum a ride off someone else, split costs, whatever. In training it has to be you at the controls, you can’t split costs. It’s a different way of bleeding your wallet.

Second, I never, never, ever accomplish one of these goals in the stated “minimum” time. I take that into account (now!) when planning to get further training. I seldom even do these things in the average time. Well, as the husband says, it takes as long as it takes. I have other things, like a job and family issues to deal with that are arguably more important than flying. I keep telling myself it’s more important to learn things well than to learn them fast, and once I do learn something I seem to retain it slightly better than average. And, again, as hubby says I don’t just learn the minimum needed to pass – I get rather obessive about learning ALL the details, which of course will add a little to the time involved, and isn’t a bad thing either. All of which would be OK and bother me a lot less if it wasn’t for —

Third, there’s always some jackhole who will stand up and loudly, proudly proclaim “HA-HA! I did it in X hours!!!” Who asked YOU, toiletpaper boy? What’s the point? Do you want a kewpie doll or something? Why do people do this? Alright, I kind of know why people do this, but I don’t understand it on an emotional level. Maybe I’m too nice a person. Then again, maybe not, because next time some pulls this one me I’ll probably do a Pit rant on it. This less-than-charming trait some of my fellow pilots have is one reason I didn’t tell anyone at my home base that I am going out to Morris for tailwheel training. Although the “secret” is out now (I ran into a couple of Griffith pilots arriving for breakfast at the Morris restaurant one day when I was taking the Citabria out) no one knows when I started so I don’t have to deal with this particular type of weehocky this time. The only other people currently earning a tailwheel endorsement at Morris right now are trying to earn it in the Stearman (they have some money) which is oranges to the apples represented by the Citabria, and they’re both taking longer than I am, even if they are flying more often, so I don’t have to deal with it at Morris, either.

Fourth, I’m getting into the “almost done” period on this, and I always get a little stressed about it. The lessons are getting harder, because the instructor is keeps pushing harder (which is as it should be). I’m flying in less than perfect conditions delibrately. I’m getting stressed out because of schedules and weather requirements. I want to finish. That last lap of the race is always hardest.

I guess I’m getting better at the psychological part of this game, both doing what I need to do to get and keep myself in the right mindset as well as keep the naysayers in my life to a minimum. But I am in probably the most frustating (for me, anyway) part of this whole process.

I hear what you’re saying about the flight time jerks. I once met someone at an aeroclub* who introduced himself like this:

“Hi, I’m Andrew, I soloed in 6.0 hours, how long did it take you?”

He actually said “six point zero”, I guess it was to emphasise that there was no rounding going on.

I replied with congratulations and gracefully gave him my own solo time. We became reasonable acquaintances, though he was always a little full of himself, as our first meeting suggested. I can imagine how grating and disheartening that would be to someone who was up to hour 20 and still waiting for that first solo.

I think these people do it to make themselves feel good rather than us bad, but that doesn’t make it any less jerkish.

I’m guilty of being competitive sometimes. I don’t talk to other people about it (I don’t compare hours etc), but I do feel good if I’m doing better than others, and bad if I’m doing worse. Part of it probably stems from only ever having enough money to do things in the minimum time. The only major step that I wasn’t concerned about, was the time it took to do my PPL. I had already established funds for a CPL and there was a block of around 100 hours that had to be done and it really didn’t matter how I did it, so if it took a few extra hours to get the PPL (and it did), it was no problem.

Now that I’m about to start multi crew training I have to get used to having my own performance ride on the performance of the pilot next to me and vice versa. If they’re doing a check-ride and I’m the support pilot, my mistakes can cause the whole thing to go off the rails and they might fail. So it’s in our best interests for both of us to do equally well.

Of course, now it really is important to be able to attain the required standard in a reasonable amount of time. My training schedule is all rostered based on how long a normal person is expected to take to make the grade. If I take too long then first the roster gets screwed, second they may choose to discontinue the training!

*I use the term “aeroclub” as a generic label for any kind of flying organisation that conducts ab-initio flight training and has aircraft available for general hire.