A Perfect Day to Fly, Part 2

We had done our maneuvers in the practice area north of Greenwood Lake and our simulated engine-out landings at Orange County. Then we headed back to Caldwell. Tom had allowed me to drift off course as I tried to find my way back, and by the time we called the tower, we were coming in from the northeast. I wasn’t accustomed to coming in from that direction and didn’t recognize the airport as we approached. All of a sudden we were on our downwind. I thought: How did we get on our downwind already? I’d slowed and descended and knew it must be close, but man, I just didn’t recognize the airport until it was directly off to my right.

Tom later explained that coming in from a remote location does a number on most pilots. I think it must be one of the hardest things to master. You have to cover a lot of space, and finding the runway from so far out, inside such a little plane, feels like trying to hit a hole in one. You have to have a keen sense of navigation. And you have to stay focused on flying right and what’s going on in the world outside.

As we came in from the northeast and I discovered myself on the downwind, Tom told me to inch over, to make more room between us and the runway. Which I did, but not nearly enough. When I made my base turn, and started flying perpendicular to the runway, I was out of room. I had to turn immediately into final if I didn’t want to dramatically overshoot the runway. My base leg lasted about two seconds. I had no time to slow down, to descend, to pitch for speed. I was coming in too fast, and I was way too high.

To get down, I pointed the nose at the runway.

I’ve done that before. It was a mistake then, too.

I should have gone around. If Tom hadn’t been with me, I would have. But with him in the plane, it’s easy to think you can get out of anything. So we continued to try to land.

The sight picture before my eyes failed to trigger an intuitive and appropriate response. I think this is a common reaction among beginner pilots who nevertheless have some hours in the plane: you don’t recognize something, but thinking you probably should, you rack your brain trying to formulate a response, and in the meantime, the plane keeps trending in the wrong direction. It becomes too late to correct, and all the while you’re making things worse with inaction, or the wrong action.

Tom said to me, “Don’t nose down.” He said, “Bring the nose up.” He said, “Bring the nose up” a second time. I ignored him.

I don’t know why. I sort of heard him, but I also sort of didn’t. And I just didn’t react.

And we kept getting closer. And closer. All the while pointed at the runway. We were pointed at the runway even as we came into ground effect.

With no time to spare, Tom took over. He nosed up. We bounced. We came floating back up. He was wrangling the plane into control. We came down again, teetered a bit, and then the wheels came down a final time and stuck.

It wasn’t a pretty landing, but it did the trick. Taxiing down the runway, I felt stupid, inept, and embarrassed. And I felt disappointed. A beautiful day flying, a day of confident flying, a day in which I felt in perfect control, marred at the end by bad judgment and poor piloting.

All because I had pointed the nose down. Which I did because I was too high. And I was too high because I had no base leg. I had no base leg because I had crowded the runway during the downwind. And I had crowded the runway because I had come in from a remote location and didn’t recognize where I was.

This is what Tom means when he talks of a chain of error. It never begins with the final mistake. The final mistake is authored four or five or twenty mistakes earlier. The fatal mistake is written in the DNA of the first mistake. You just don’t know that when making it.

“It worries me that I was that nose-down,” I said to Tom during our little debrief back at Fischer Aviation. “I’m not happy about it.”

“What bothered me most about it is that you weren’t responding to the prompts I was giving you,” he said. “I said them several times before I did anything about it myself.”

I agreed. It bothered me, too. He told me to raise the nose, and what did I do? Nothing. And even now I can’t say why.

“Well,” I said. “Let’s hope I’ve learned a lesson.”

Tom laughed . “Yes,” he said. “Let’s hope that.”

A Perfect Day to Fly, Part 1

It was a perfect day to fly.

On our way out to the Piper Cherokee, Tom talked about what the airport had to do to tend to the winter snow, as the air around us was starting to disintegrate in that direction. But boy this particular day couldn’t have been any finer: cool and crisp, almost windless, not a single cloud below four thousand feet. It refreshed the skin and the spirit as a bonfire on a beach will, or as a walk through newly fallen leaves in a familiar wood.

But it wasn’t until we got up in the air that the full effect hit me. It was late October and the trees were turning, and as we climbed they diminished and flattened out until they seemed small as individual feathers of some fantastically colored thing. They were cut away here and there by the still eye of a lake or an empty baseball diamond. I was immediately aware of how much attention I was capable of giving these earthly delights; I had full possession of myself in flight, and my observations had expanded beyond my sight picture and my instruments to include the world again. I had the plane under my control, and remembered the anxiety of earlier flights, when no matter the view it was better not to look down. I also noticed how true the plane was flying; after leveling off, I had only to give the yoke a little nudge now and again to keep us straight and level.

A few days prior, Tom and I had talked about the my first solo. “Don’t dawdle on the medical,” he told me, meaning, from his point of view, I was nearly ready to go. All I needed was my aeronautical physical in hand and he might, any day now, invite me to take the Cherokee up on my own.

The prospect no longer terrorized me. It no longer seemed insane. And in fact in the Cherokee that day, I discerned in Tom’s lack of liveliness a pedagogical trick: from the moment we stepped inside the plane, he had placed most of his attention vaguely outside the window, simulating for me the same conditions I’d face when flying alone. No one there to correct, advise, or rescue me, no one beside me to take the controls in a moment of uncertainty, no one to turn to with questions. And the fact is, I had no questions. I’d run through the preflight checklist, I’d radioed ground control and the tower, I’d sailed smoothly down the runway and lifted off into the air, I’d climbed steadily before leveling us out at 2500 feet and keeping us there, I’d directed us to Greenwood Lake and the practice area using a north heading and my charts, and then, to my amazed satisfaction, I ran through our protocol of maneuvers — slow flight, power-on stall, power-off stall, and steep turns — with hardly a hitch. I knew how to fly this plane.

We did a number of simulated engine-out landings at Orange County airport, coming in close and low, using the flaps to stretch out our descent when needed and putting the plane down without adding any additional power. I had some decent landings, making small corrections as we approached the runway, letting the plane ride along in ground effect without rushing the flair, and keeping the final nose-up on the yoke nice and smooth as I set the rear tires on the pavement before powering up and away again. I didn’t have any greasers but I didn’t have any stinkers, either. It almost felt like just another day at the office with old Tom.

Then we came in for our final landing, and everything went south.

An Unexpected Development

After flying pretty consistently for two and a half months, I had to take a few weeks off to tend to some unexpected travel. On one of my first days back, Tom and I were talking casually in the office, readying to leave, and the topic of age came up. I asked him how old he was, and he said forty-seven. I’m just about to turn forty, which makes us more or less the same age.

But I don’t think of Tom as my age. I think of him as older. Not because he is old, I hasten to add, before he tears my head off. But because my relationship with Tom is one in which he is wise and I am foolish. He is the elder and I am the child. He is the instructor and I am the student.

Whenever a dynamic such as this establishes itself — especially among men — it mimics and mirrors that between father and son. When I was growing up, my father held the key to all things. He knew how to dress, how to shake hands, how to talk to other men, how to guide me out of trouble and toward greater wisdom.

To Tom, I’m probably not much more than just another student. Which is to be expected. He teaches countless people how to fly everyday, and we must run together after awhile. We all grip the yoke too hard, we all forget to apply right rudder, etc. And we’re all miserable at landing for the first hundred tries. But, despite the similarity of our ages, Tom has taken on, over these two and half months or so, the role of a father figure. I provide Tom a job, a task to acquit as best he can. In return, he gives me knowledge and know-how, and wisdom, and confidence, and insight, and self-sufficency. All the things that my father once gave me. That necessarily makes for a lopsided and unexpected relationship.

But no matter how the friendship develops and deepens, I don’t think I’ll ever greet Tom by saying, “What’s up, Old Man?”

The End of Anxiety

I had to put off flying lessons for a few weeks to tend to some unexpected travel. When I came back, I was surprised to discover how much I missed it. I was excited to see Tom and eager to get up in the air.

I’ve been taking lessons steadily since the latter part of August. (August 18th was my first lesson, and we’re now rounding into November.) That’s about two and a half months of consistent flying, and in that time I’ve discovered a real appetite for it. I’ve written in earlier posts about my reluctance to leave the house, and it’s true that I prefer nothing more than getting out of bed and heading to my desk and spending the day writing. And so it must be something very attractive that would prompt me to put my shoes on, walk to the garage, drive out to New Jersey, and drop out for the afternoon, and to do that three times a week.

What is it? It’s the basic thrill. It’s also the improved proficiency. The more time I spend flying, the better I get. The better I get, the more I grow in confidence. The more I grow in confidence, the more fun I have.

And the more I look forward to the challenges. Not too long ago, I was full of anxiety about the solo flight. I knew it was out there, lurking, a thing on the horizon. A date with destiny. Anxiety made me turn away from it, anxiety and a healthy understanding of my skill level. I wasn’t ready.

I’m still not ready, exactly, but by a far smaller margin. If I were flying along with Tom only to look over and suddenly find him gone, as if after some genie’s nod, I could get the plane down. Perhaps not prettily. It might involved more than a few dozen go-arounds and a bounce or two, but I could do it.

What’s just as thrilling, the prospect doesn’t balloon me with fear. Tom’s been a good teacher, and I’ve been a willing and diligent student. We’ve spent many hours together in the air. We’ve covered the basics and the contingencies. The result is a healthy psychology: I feel not anxious but prepared and capable. That’s as much an achievement as pitching for speed or a perfect greaser landing.

How Landing is Like Puppeteering

Landing is like being a puppeteer in charge of the most complex emotions. It’s like trying to orchestrate a person’s smile.

Applying your hands to the correct instrument, curl up the edges of the lips. Voila! A smile.

But remember, the eyes move during the smile, too. To work the eyes, you have to use your feet. Apply your feet to the instrument that controls the eyes.

Now the eyes are smiling alongside the lips —- but be careful! Not too much smile or it becomes obscene. Refine your control of the instruments or you’ll turn that smile into a leer. And be careful you don’t let the edges of the lips fall!

Now keeping the lips up and the eyes smiling, make the nose crinkle a little. But how? Your hands and feet are already fully occupied. That’s ok —– just reach out with your right hand and touch that instrument over there, being sure to maintain your attention on the lips and the eyes. Is that a lot to do at one time? Yes, but that’s how it’s done. Now work the nose into a crinkle, but not too much or it will become a squint. The last thing you want is a squinting leer. And watch out! One side of the lips has fallen.

Now make the ears wiggle a little. But don’t let the lips fall! Wrinkle the forehead a bit. But keep the eyes smiling! Plump up the cheeks. But hold the nose in a crinkle! Flatten out the chin.

What do you mean, your attention is divided? What do you mean, you don’t have enough hands and feet? What do you mean, it’s impossible to tend to every instrument at all times with the perfect degree of finesse?

That’s landing an airplane.

Lesson 10

Today Tom and I worked on the simulator. It was a beautiful day and I would have preferred to be in the air, as I think Tom would have. But I was grateful for the indoor lesson. It helped clarify some things for me and gave me greater confidence.

The advantage of the simulator is the ability to stop and concentrate on only a few things at a time without fear of letting go of something essential while inside a real airplane. For instance, I was able to closely consider the relationship between pitch and power, and if, in the meantime, I was drifting off course, I wasn’t so worried. It’s a little like a video game, after all. All you have to do to get an extra life is start over.

Another (dubious) advantage to simulated flight is seeing how poorly you land without the instructor’s assistance. Tom wasn’t in the cockpit with me; I was all alone, and boy, was I off. I mistimed my landings, I fell short, I ran long, I bounced, I skidded, I plowed through the grass. I was grievously injured over and over again.

At one point, I was coming in very low. Now, in my defense, I was taking advantage of the simulator’s lack of real-life consequences to figure a few things out without being super-vigilant about other things–in this instance, where the airplane was pointed. When I realized I was coming in low, I said, “Tom, I’m coming in way short of the runway.”

But I made no move to correct. I didn’t raise the nose, I didn’t increase the power.

I crash-landed. I turned to Tom.

“What interests me,” he said, “is why you would say you were coming in low, and then not do anything about it.”

That’s the mystery!

Lesson 8

“Turning, climbs and descents, configuration changes, airspeed changes, and then a touch and go … and the majority of time you’re doing everything else, the other four or five things you need to do to pilot an airplane, all in about a five-minute span … there’s a reason we don’t do touch and goes on the first lesson.”

This was Tom’s consolation for how poorly I handled landings this time around. I was down on myself when we returned to Fischer Aviation after the lesson.

“I’ll be honest with you, I think we were making more progress with the approaches last time. We weren’t too far off–we weren’t diving or anything–but you were tight. 45-degree turns are kind of fun. Just not in the pattern.”

He was right. I couldn’t even turn right during this lesson.

However, I did have a spectacular takeoff. Mr. Elegante! I gave whoops into the headset.

And then I promptly forgot that we were doing touch-and-goes. Everything went downhill.

At one point, Tom said, “Let me have the airplane.” He demonstrated. Boy, did he land it fine! No problems! A real greaser! His command at the controls instantly medicates the A.D.D. right out of the airplane.

I have no natural feel for it. But I will say this: I’ll be chasing that awesome takeoff for a long time.

Today’s lesson: relearning that I learn at my own pace.

Lesson 7

Once again the wind was up and Tom decided to forgo landings another day. We worked on stalls.

Here’s a power-on stall: slow the plane way down. Then add power and point the nose directly at heaven. (Not literally, but it does feel like it.) Add sufficient right rudder to offset the left-turn tendencies. Not long after, the plane starts to grind out. You can almost hear it sputtering. A final yank on the yoke and then you dive for recovery. You go from looking at sky to looking at treetops. You gain speed during the dive and use that speed to climb. Climb, baby, climb.

It’s like a roller-coaster without the roller.

What’s difficult about stalls, aside from mastering them, is how you willfully ask the airplane to stop performing as you would always like it to perform. You demand it act badly. It’s not very intuitive.

A lot of flying is counterintuitive. Being in the air itself is counterintuitive. It’s a natural state of affairs for birds, not for human beings. Learning how to keep your composure in the air, and to keep it when the plane is acting unlike it ever does, say, during a commercial flight, is a big part of learning how to fly.

I’m always a little reluctant to stall. How the plane is acting (which is to say, “badly,” to put us in a stall) is not how I want it to act (which is to say, “normally,” in order to get me home safe). I do what Tom tells me, trusting in him entirely, but I still find working the controls to put us into a stall hard to do because it’s so counterintuitive. I grip the yoke as if to strangle it, which makes it hard to be limber and “inside” the plane.

From day one, you’re taught that you should spend about 90% of your attention “outside the plane.” That means that you’re looking outside the windows, obeying the visual picture before you to maintain straight and level flying, using landmarks to chart and keep your course, and sweeping the area for other planes.

But I’ve acquired another sense of what it means to be “outside the plane.” To me it sometimes means that moment when, instead of paying attention to the controls, I start paying attention to the weirdness of the world that can only be glimpsed from inside an airplane. Pointing a plane at the sky, watching the horizon disappear, seeing the clouds overtake the windscreen, all in order to stall–that’s a highly unusual sight, and for a split-second I’m “out there,” so to speak, and have forgotten that all of my attention needs to be “in here,” with the controls, in order to execute as perfectly as possible.

Here’s another example. Landing that day, as I turned into our final approach I saw, outside my window, the trees as they seemed to rear up at me. We were close enough to the ground that they were no longer a unified quilt of treetops, but individual trees, and all shockingly close. Out of instinct, out of some subtle primal instinct for self-survival, I raised the yoke up as I turned, nosing us up, in the hopes of putting some distance between us and those trees. But we were landing. The whole point to landing is to come closer to those trees. Not only was I making us climb just as we should have been descending, I was also botching the turn, so that we failed to square up neatly to the runway. All because I left, in a manner of speaking, the airplane. I mean to say, inside the airplane were my instruments, and my knowledge of how to use them—still very imperfect, but not helpless. Outside were those trees. Outside was fear and weirdness and death. To focus on my fear was to leave the airplane, and once I left the airplane, I was no longer inside controlling it.

Lesson 6

With gusts reaching a possible 10 knots, it was too windy to do more landings, which was disappointing. But no one’s in control of the wind.

As we waited for the FAA to finish a routine inspection of the Piper Cherokee, Tom and I talked weather. He showed me what’s important to look for on the computer: the visibility, cloud coverage, and wind speed, along with general weather trends for our area. Whenever Tom talks about the weather, I’m reminded all over again—-the weather! Of course! It’s all about the weather: how we fly, ifwe fly. Yet it’s almost always an afterthought with me. I never ask: how strong is the wind? What’s its direction? How thick are the clouds and how low do they hang? What do I need to do, given these current conditions, to compensate when I’m in the plane? Etc. etc. No–I’m too preoccupied with the plane, how to lift off, how to land, how to keep us flying straight and level. Because I know Tom won’t let us fly in anything dangerous, I don’t concern myself with it. But if I didn’t have Tom, the weather would need to be topmost on my mind, right up there with the proper functioning of the aircraft.

Which brings me to something interesting that happened during Lesson 6. Tom & I had been up for about a half-hour when he pointed out that I was letting the right wing roll a bit. Nothing severe, but nevertheless a problem in need of correcting.

Now, an aside: over half a dozen lessons or so, I’ve diagnosed the plane with Attention Deficit Disorder. It will stray if I let it. Sometimes these changes are caused by the air; sometimes they’re caused by a maneuver I’ve set in motion. Either way it’s my job to correct them before they turn extreme. The longer I ignore the change, the more trouble I’m in. Tom calls this trending. You always want to be trending in the right direction; if you’re not, you correct. I’ve encountered few mistakes so far that can’t be corrected in a timely manner, as long as I’m attentive and know what I’m doing, which by this point, I sort of do.

So I’m trying to understand, then, why I did what I did when Tom informed me that the wing was rolling a bit. Maybe it was the unexpected way Tom said it, which seemed a bit more urgent than usual. Tom’s a calm presence up there, not easily fazed, but I thought I detected an immediacy on this occasion. And in response, I simply let go of the yoke. I didn’t think: correct! No. I thought: let Tom do it!

Tom saw me let go of the yoke and said, “Don’t let go!”

He could have added, “You idiot!” and I wouldn’t have taken offense.

He was being urgent, but in order to convey that I should have a sense of urgency about correcting an off wing. And what’d I do? Let go of the yoke.

There comes a time when, despite being a student, and despite having relied on Tom from day one to get us out of a jam, and despite Tom’s continued presence in the seat beside me, I can no longer depend on him. I should pretend he’s not even there. “Your passenger days are over,” he said when I asked him about it later. It’s not easy, because it requires a psychological adjustment, a weaning, that essentially demands that the student act as if the teacher is still on the ground, he can’t help you, you’re alone in the plane, you’re alone in the world, and everything–safety, control, getting back alive–is entirely up to you.

Lesson 5

At night, trying to sleep and failing, I’ll play back in my head something Tom and I did in the air, and instead of a fluid playback, I will remember only a single frame, a vivid still-life, as if the plane has frozen in the air for a startling moment and I’m made to wonder with all my lingering ignorance how exactly we got there. Everything that came before—the thrusts and turns and configurations and maneuvers—have been lost to the past, and how and why the plane is going along at that particular speed at that particular altitude strikes me as an unreconstructable mystery. All that’s left for me to figure out is what to do next.

For instance, during lesson 4, Tom gave me a little more responsibility for our landing. We swung over the mall and the highway and turned in for our final approach. The runway was before us, more or less, but because I’d overshot it, we had to correct. We did so as we descended. We were flying lower and slower and lower and slower until we reached that point when we went over the little security fence that seems to divide every airport from its surroundings, and then we landed. But all I really remember of this fluid, ever-changing picture is the still-frame of the plane pointed at the runway as if frozen at an awkward angle. How did we arrive here? I wondered. What in the hell do I do next?

This feeling of uncertainty grew more complex with the next lesson.

Tom doesn’t usually feel the need to talk before we head out to the airfield. Today was different. We sat down at one of the desks and he explained that today, I was going to be a lot of landings. Here’s a taste of what he said:

“So, landing an airplane … we’re going to be using runway 22 … when we pull out, we’re going to do take-offs like we’ve been doing them … when we get up to roughly 800 feet, we’re going to be looking for our target … we’re making right traffic for runway 22 … at 900 feet, we’re going to turn toward our aiming point … we’ll bank approximately 30 degrees when we make our turn upwind from downwind … spot it, turn, and roll out on it–”

So much to process!

“–when we get up pattern altitude, which is about 1200 feet, we’ll get up on the downwind … we’re going to run through our pre-landing check—I’m going to take care of the radio, you don’t have to worry about that …”

Wait! Of course you’ll be taking care of the radio! I’ve never done the radio! But does this mean … does this mean … I’m responsible for everything else?

“On our downwind, we’ll qualify our lights, gas, and undercarriage … fuel pump’s on, pressure is good, primer is in and locked … when we get abeam the numbers–”

Abeam the numbers?

“–we’re going to bring the power back to about 18 … we’re going to hold the nose up briefly and wait for the airspeed to come into the white arc … we’re going to go flaps ten … we’re going to trim the nose up, it’s probably going to be a good crank or two … we’re going to pitch for 80–”

Pitch for 80?

“–as we come up to about 200 feet below pattern, which will be about 1000 feet indicated, we’re going to turn, roll out, flaps up to 25 … we’re going to use the numbers as our aiming point … when we get down close, we’re going to walk the power back, the nose is going to try to drop … we’re just going to hold the picture steady … we’re going to level off … at nose down, there’s a pause–”

What the hell does that mean, “a pause”?

“–and as we start to feel it sinking, we’re going to start to squeeze back … the yoke should be moving as the mains come down and we touch the runway …

Oh, boy. This was a lot to take in.

Tom had never used terminology like this before. And he’d never laid it out, point by point, like he was now. It was hard to take it all in, and hard to keep straight. I had so many questions, but if I’d stopped the poor man to explain them all—-whether to clarify something I thought I understood, or to explain something I only half-understood, or to begin all over again with something I didn’t understand at all–we never would have made our way out to the airfield.

Lesson 5 was landings. We made one after another. We did just what Tom outlined: we went up to 800 feet, turned to the right, continued climbing to 1200, banked a second time to fly parallel with the runway (i.e., the downwind), walked the power back to 1800 with the throttle, lost altitude, engaged the flaps to induce drag, which pointed the nose down, turned a third time and then a final time for our approach, added another degree of flap, powered down some more, slowed, descended, paused, squeezed back, landed.

A landing should be graceful. It should be poised and measured and allowed to take its time. It should be a long flirtation with the runway followed by a sweet little kiss.

My first landings are in every possible way the opposite of this. It’s like I’m not even landing an airplane. Its like I’m landing a drunken giraffe. She has four super-long limbs and they’re all splayed out and flailing, and she expects me to tell her which one to set down on the earth first. Having only recently started flying giraffes, I’m still not all that confident on top of one, I’m uncertain about how she moves and how she reacts, sometimes I can’t even get her to fly straight—but now I’m supposed to do the most complex, the most dangerous thing there is in the exotic world of giraffe flying. Ok—we all have to advance, right?

I do my best. We come in too fast, we come in too slow. We come in too high, we come in too low. Somehow I sense how these things, altitude and speed, are interrelated, and how, if I could just master the play between them, I could be a pilot. It’s a purely academic insight. During our descent we lose our “picture,” or that visual of the runway through the cockpit window that should remain as steady as possible. I fail to pitch for speed. I fail to pull back on the yoke. I forget to keep my hand on the throttle. Everything that goes wrong seems correctable by nosing down, which is the last thing you want to do while landing. We wobble. We skitter. We land far to the left of the center line, my drunken giraffe and me, and only by Tom’s sure hand do we her back on track and take off again, into the air for another fly by.

But folks, it’s like nothing else. It’s like a dream.