Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Adventures in Flying Pt 3 - Beginnings

I don’t remember exactly when my interest in aviation started. It’s always just sort of been there. My earliest memory of being on an airplane, was young me tinkering with the emergency exit on a DC-9 on a KLM flight from Oslo to Amsterdam. At home, I regularly leafed through an English book titled ‘The Airline Pilot’, from the Macdonald First Library. It was published in 1970 and had pretty pictures of BOAC VC-10s, and of happy passengers being served lobster.

Growing up in early 80s Eindhoven, in the Netherlands was a mixed experience. There were plenty of books on airplanes at the library, and my family bought me plenty of my own. There was a military air base just a few kilometres away, and our house sat right in the approach path. In my mind I can still hear the sound of the Rolls-Royce Dart engines that powered the Fokker F-27 aircraft coming in to land. Pairs of F-104 Starfighters from Gilze-Rijen Air Base, and NF-5s from the local 314 Squadron screamed overhead almost daily. We would sometimes drive past the airport, where I was mesmerized by the preserved Supermarine Spifire that sat on a pedestal in front of the officer’s mess. 

The first airplane that really made a huge impression on me was a Singapore Airlines Boeing 707 at Amsterdam Schiphol airport. With its golden yellow and almost purple-blue cheat line on a crisp white background, it was a beautiful bird indeed. Like many boys before me, I decided that when I grew up I wanted to be a pilot. For years it was one of the few things I talked about. I desperately wanted to learn to fly, but the expense in Europe at the time (and still…) meant that this was not going to be a realistic possibility. I got pangs of jealousy whenever I saw a blip on the TV about some kid flying in a Piper or a Cessna in America. Over there this sort of thing looked like it was a lot more accessible.

When I was 10, I developed an interest in radio controlled planes. During my sister’s horse riding lessons in nearby Son, I usually wandered down to the RC club on the other side of the field. I learned quite a lot about those things there. Including that it was also not the cheapest of hobbies. I built a wooden glider model that I bought with saved up pocket money. It flew reasonably well in a straight line but that was about as exciting as it would get. It was designed for a winch launch to altitude, after which a timer (which I couldn’t afford) flipped up the horizontal stabilizer. The thing would then soar down and make a controlled landing. The second plane I built was a ‘Taxi 2’. It was a German Graupner kit that was loosely based on American Cessna aircraft. It was a motorized airplane, requiring a real engine and a very expensive radio control unit. This was completely beyond the limits of my pocket allowance. When we left the Netherlands to go to Singapore, I donated the airplane to my school where as far as I know, it hung from the ceiling for several years.

In the summer of 1987 I got my first taste of what it was like to fly a real airplane. I was staying with my aunt and uncle in the Belgian town of Grimbergen, while my parents were away on an English language course. This was about four months before we moved to Singapore. My uncle and I took a bike ride out to the local airport on a sunny afternoon where we spoke to a local pilot. My uncle talked him into taking us up in his Piper Cherokee in exchange for a modest sum of money, and a few beers (this was Belgium after all). We flew around the Brussels area for about half an hour, and he let me take the controls. I can assure you that for those few minutes 12 year old me was king of the world. That flight was quite possibly the best early birthday present ever.

In Singapore my interest continued. We knew several Dutch and Belgian expatriate pilots and engineers who worked for KLM and Singapore Airlines. I remember many talks about what it was like to fly 747s and the prototype Airbus A300. My school's library had several magazine subscriptions. One of these was for the magazine ‘Flight International’. I spent a lot of my lunch breaks reading back issues. Every month the latest issue would glow from its shelf like the holy grail. Competition for it was fierce. I once almost got into a physical altercation with another student over who got to read the ‘Farnborough Special’ first. I wanted to fly more than ever. Singapore had a local flying club, but just as in Europe it was a very expensive activity.

In the summer of 1994 I was in Ohio in the USA, studying music at Denison University. I had a part-time summer job taking care of the rats in the psychology building. It was my first ever paid job and it provided a small income. I was scheduled to attend a jazz course in early August at Manhattan School of Music in New York. I looked forward to meeting Gerry Mulligan, the legendary baritone sax player who I had listened to so much back in high school. But then something happened one afternoon at the University library. I was reading an issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology and was overcome by a sense of finality. I was having visions of flying and all my senses told me, that if was ever going to do this for real, now was the time to either shit or get off the pot. I called New York, cancelled the course, and got a refund. 

Two weeks later when the money was in the bank, I asked a fellow student to drive me to the local flying school in Newark. I purchased my flight theory books, and got an idea of what this project was going to cost. Even in 1994 dollars it was surprisingly affordable. The school’s primary trainer was a Cessna 152 which rented out at $37/hour including fuel. Dual instruction was an extra $20 on top of that, but it was still doable. Our music department secretary was kind enough to loan me her son’s old bicycle so I had some form of getting to and from the airport seven miles away. I had neither a car nor a driver’s license at the time.

My first ever flying lesson was  a totally different experience from what I had anticipated. I had seen many cockpit videos of airliners taking off, and I was assuming it would all be somewhat similar... My instructor did not want to use headphones, and we were basically shouting at each other over the deafening engine noise. The rudder pedals felt very loose, and I was winding all over the place while taxiing. My instructor was also a bit of a grump and I often wondered if he actually enjoyed flying. Take off felt completely out of control. There was no highly coordinated calling out of ‘100 knots’, ‘cross check’, ‘V1’, ‘rotate’, as I had observed in those videos. The machine shuddered as I advanced the throttle, and at around 60 knots it kind of merrily jumped into the air on its own.  It was a short flight, and a very sweaty one. Landing was a definite ‘arrival’, and marked my first experience of hearing the Cessna’s stall horn go off. The next few lessons were not much better and I started to wonder whether this had been such a good decision after all.

Some weeks later Oscar the Grouch got sick and I ended up flying with Steve, the head instructor and airport manager. This was a turning point. The other instructor was doing his job primarily to build flight time toward his Airline Transport license. Steve was a little older and had no ambition of ever flying jets. He was a flight instructor because he wanted to teach. During our first lesson together he taught me the technique for controlling those finicky rudder pedals. My taxiing at long last stopped resembling the sinuous crawl of a python. In the air, he showed me how to trim the airplane for level flight. It felt much more controlled all of a sudden, and I was gaining some semblance of confidence. At the end of the lesson, he insisted I fly with him from then on.  

I got very comfortable with that little Cessna and on one beautiful late afternoon in the fall of 1994, a little bit of magic happened. At the end of our lesson I taxied the Cessna up onto the ramp. To my surprise, Steve told me to keep the engine running and hand him my log book. He endorsed it for solo flight. It was getting late, but he told me if I hurried up, I’d have time for one lap around the circuit.

As he walked back into the small brick building that served as the flight school my heart rate went through the roof. I released the brakes and taxied back out. I did my engine run-up and methodically went through the departure checks. No approaching aircraft on base or final. On board alone for the very first time, I made the radio call:

                “Newark traffic, Cessna 53398 departing runway 27 staying in the pattern.”

I taxied onto the ‘piano keys’ and had a huge rush of excitement running through my veins. I put down 10 degrees of flaps, released the brakes, and gave it the beans. This was the single most exciting moment of my life up till then. The images of those cockpit videos came flooding back and that little Cessna might as well have been a commercial jet. Just for fun (it was my moment so I figured what the hell) at 55 knots I called out ‘V1, rotate’, and pulled back on the control column.
As the ground slowly dropped away, the blanket of pastel greens, yellows, and pinkish reds, so typical of a Midwestern autumn revealed itself below me. As I climbed out into the diminishing sunlight,  the prominent spire of Swasey chapel stood in the distance off to my right. There was my University campus. I retracted the flaps.

                “Newark traffic, Cessna 53398 turning crosswind 27.”

I banked the plane to the left and continued to climb to the traffic pattern altitude of 2000ft. My arms, hands and face were numb from the rush of adrenalin. The reality of what I was doing was very clear. I pulled back the black throttle knob and let the engine settle into cruise RPM. As I levelled off, I caught the grayish blue light shimmering off Buckeye lake, just a few miles in front. Several thousand feet above me a jet descended to the International airport at Columbus.

                “Newark traffic, Cessna 53398 turning downwind for 27.”

I made another 90 degree turn to the left and started thinking about my first solo landing. There was no wind that afternoon. The pleasant numbness and tingling in my arms and face continued. As I passed the end of the runway I pulled out the carburettor heat and reduced the throttle for approach. The airspeed bled off, and as the needle entered the ‘white arc’ I lowered the flaps back down to 10 degrees.

                “Newark traffic, Cessna 53398 turning base, runway 27.”

Continuing the gradual descent, I lowered the flaps to 20 degrees and looked to my right for any eight -engined monsters that might be trying to get to the airport before me.  Indian Mound Mall, the shopping center where I usually hung out on Friday nights came into view.

                “Newark traffic, Cessna 53398 turning final for runway 27.”

I banked to the left at thirty degrees, applying light left rudder to keep the turn coordinator ball in the center. It was drilled into my head that stalling on the turn to final approach was one of the most common fatal accidents for student pilots. In front of me was the 4000ft length of Runway 27. To my delight the PAPI lights showed two reds and two whites. I was on the correct glide slope for landing, and would theoretically miss the tall trees that were in the middle of the approach path. I lowered the flaps to 30 degrees and reduced my airspeed to 55 knots. When I crossed the runway threshold I pulled the throttle to idle and slowly lifted the nosewheel up by pulling back on the controls. 

The main gear touched down with a gentle screech. I lowered the nose and applied the toe brakes. I turned off onto the taxi way and grinned like a Cheshire Cat.

                “Newark traffic, Cessna 53398 clear of the active runway.”

I taxied onto the ramp and shut the aircraft down. As the whirring of the gyroscopic instruments died away, I opened the door and stepped out. The crisp evening air smelled alive, electrified almost. It was slightly chilly in my t shirt. As I placed the yellow wooden chocks around the wheels, and retrieved my flight bag from the cockpit I inhaled slow and deep. Completely in the moment with just one single thought: Holy crap I just soloed…


  1. Good to see you are writing again fellow blogger and TCK! Hope there's more to come. Congrats on flying solo!
    Flying back and forth between Africa and Holland I have good memories of all the flights years ago. The planes were never as full as they are these days and it was so special to hear the stewardesses speaking Dutch (KLM), I loved that as a child. cheers Janneke