Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

My adventures in general aviation, Part One

As a kid growing up in New York City, I was entranced by airplanes.

Living on 80th Street in Queens, I thought it was so awesome that when the wind was right, we were in the approach path for LaGuardia Airport. Planes would fly over regularly on those days, and I’d watched, amazed, until they were out of sight.

I had gotten a small telescope, I think for my sixth-grade Confirmation. I watched the stars and planets at night, and during the day tracked airplanes across the sky, even keeping a log. I’d be rewarded at times with the sight of the landing gear coming down as a plane passed over. So, so cool. Of course, today, someone would report me to the FBI and I’d get to meet some guys in dark suits and explain what I was doing, but in the 1970s it was a more innocent time.

Amid this flying bug was the fact that my horizons were limited. I lived in New York City, general aviation in the city limits was mostly nonexistent and my parents weren’t inclined to indulge my aviation fantasies. I built model airplanes, bought aviation magazines and in high school dreamed of joining the Navy or Air Force to fly or even – more realistically – work on airplanes.

I knew that plane crashes happened, and can remember a terrible summer day when a tremendous thunderstorm hit the city, and news soon come over the radio that a plane had crashed on approach to landing at JFK airport. The papers always had small items, called briefs, about small aircraft that had mishaps in which people were injured or killed.

But the thing was, there were car crashes everywhere, and every day, even in front of our houses, and while people questioned the safety of airplanes, it seemed like cars got a pass. Back then, seat belts in cars were considered more a government-required nuisance than a safety device, and I can remember how offended my father was when I got into the car with him one time and buckled up. He felt that I was saying he was a bad driver.

Despite the news stories and the horrible accidents, aviation still entranced me. One time, my parents took me and my brothers to an amusement park, and right next door was Flushing Airport. I was amazed at the small airplanes on the field, and wished beyond measure that I could fly in one of them. Another time, I prevailed upon my father to take me to an airshow at Mitchel Field on Long Island, and I was amazed at being able to get close to airplanes.

My parents rarely talked about a relative of ours who was also into airplanes (not my cousin Angelo, who I’ve mentioned before) and got a lot of flak for taking his kids up in the plane. We were getting ready for a driving vacation one year when we got the tragic news that he and the wife and kids had been killed – in a car accident. We delayed our vacation that year.

I knew I had this really cool relative (Angelo) who was seriously into planes, but I didn’t meet him until my late 20s in Florida.

As I turned 17, I decided that I wanted to be in aviation so I leaned toward the Navy but ended up joining the Marines. After boot camp and electronics training, I finally was at a Marine squadron of AV-8A Harriers and began learning how to be an aircraft fixer.

If I were running for public office, I’d bore you with tales of how brilliant I was, but the truth is I was mediocre at best. The training did very little to prepare me for aircraft maintenance, and I lacked some social skills. Still, I did what I was told well enough to mostly avoid trouble, though whenever a body was needed for mess duty, somehow I ended up scraping pots in the chow hall.

I was stationed at MCAS Yuma in Arizona, and on my trips into town from the base I noticed that there was a civilian side of the base, and there was a flight school-FBO (Fixed-base operator) there with several planes. I’d walk past and watch the little Cessnas and Pipers come in to land on the civilian runways, and wonder about it all.

The place was owned by a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, a really good fellow, and he liked having Marines come over and learn to fly.

Finally, one day I worked up the courage to walk in there, and I told the woman behind the counter: “I want to learn to fly.”

Airborne at last
I was introduced to my instructor, a young fellow who today probably is flying for the airlines. He and I did a lot flying together, but today we were just meeting.

We were going up on an introductory flight, he said, and he talked to me about a few basic things, then we walked out to the airplane.

It was a nearly new Cessna 152, and I remember the N-number: 69196. After he demonstrated a preflight inspection to me, including the very important job of untying the plane and pulling the chocks, he told me to take the left seat, the instructor took the right seat, and he ran through the checklists to power up and start the engine.

Soon we were taxiing out to the active runway, and after getting clearance from the tower we were airborne!

The instructor put the airplane into a stable climb and I was just sitting there chilling and enjoying the view out the windows when he announced, “Hey, you’re paying for this flight. You fly the airplane.”

“Me?” I asked, though that was the whole purpose.

“You,” he said. “Adjust your seat so your feet are on the rudder pedals, and put your left hand on the wheel.”

I did as he instructed and soon I was flying the plane. It was even easier than I had thought it would be. The Cessna 152 is a very docile airplane and even in the ham-hands of a student is hard to make do anything too bad. The instructor talked me through leveling out at 1,000 feet of altitude, showed me how to trim the airplane for straight and level flight and then began to talk me through turns.

I had read about the need to coordinate the rudder with the ailerons, and at one point he asked, “Are you sure you’ve never flown a plane before?”

“Only in my mind,” I said.

He had me position the airplane for final approach and then took over for landing. We taxied back to the parking space, shut down the plane, tied it down and went back into the office. I was on Cloud Nine, still.

In the office, the instructor described the course, which included ground school and preparation for the FAA written exam for private pilot, airplane single-engine land. I was hooked and decided to do it on a pay-as-you-go basis.

I’d have to take at least 20 hours of dual instruction and 20 hours of supervised solo flying, though that was the minimum and it could take more time. I was eager to get started and someday maybe even get my “ticket.”

Hitting the books
I enrolled in the next ground school at the FBO and soon was in a class being taught by another flight instructor. Eventually I took the written test and passed it.

Flying continued, and I made progress but sometimes hit plateaus. I soloed and soon was flying on my own and training myself, but one day I had a bad scare in the air. I was practicing stalls and almost triggered a spin. The plane rotated a quarter-turn and I quickly recovered it, but I was scared. A difficult crosswind landing at the end caused me to quit flying and I called my instructor and told him I had to drop out.

I must emphasize here that at all times, safety was the main watchword. If it was too windy or too cloudy to fly, I didn’t fly. Being aware of emergency landing fields was vitally important, and the instructor developed a knack for pulling the throttle while we were flying along and saying, “The engine quit. Where will you land?” And I’d better come up with an answer quick.

I had stopped my flight training, but as we’ll see in the second part, I resume it about a year later. There are great things ahead in general aviation for me. Stay tuned.

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February 2, 2012 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , ,

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