Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

My adventures in general aviation, Part Two

My pilot's license

I've been carrying this license in every wallet I've ever owned since I got it more than 30 years ago.

I was aboard the USS Tarawa and standing aircraft integrity watch at around 2 in the morning when I decided that I was going to complete my pilot’s license.

It was sometime in early 1981, I think, and I was sitting in an office with one of the combined squadron’s helicopter pilots, a first lieutenant. We began to chat about flying, and he said if I had gone so far in my aviation efforts, I may as well finish.

Afterward, I thought about our talk and my past endeavors. I had a bad habit of giving up when things got too hard, and thought to myself that I needed to break that pattern. So it was that in the middle of the Indian Ocean, I decided to resume flying lessons when I got back to Yuma.

It was probably around early June 1981 when I got started again. Our deployment group had come back in April of that year, and I had taken a month’s leave. I got back to work in the squadron and had a year and three months to go on my enlistment. I was still an E-3, though I would eventually make E-4 late in 1981, but I was not considering re-enlistment all that seriously.

Still, I wanted that pilot’s license.

Back into the air
My previous instructor wasn’t available when I went to the FBO, so another man, Ted, took over my training. He made a strong case for a new airplane that had just arrived, a Piper Tomahawk trainer. It was much different from the Cessna 152, and had some pretty interesting characteristics. It was a low-wing airplane with a T-tail, a big design feature back then for small planes, and had systems that were similar to the two Piper Warriors and Piper Archer I could get checked out in after I got my license.

Also, he said, he was a big man, and had a hard time getting into a 152.

I took my first flight in the Tomahawk and was entranced. It was a very, very nice airplane with good flight characteristics and amazing visibility. Being a low-wing airplane, with the fuel tanks below the engine, you had to pay attention to the auxiliary fuel pump, and had to be careful because the fuel selector had three positions – “left,” “right” or “off.” In the Cessna, the fuel selector was always on and was always set to “both,” meaning it would pull evenly from both tanks at the same time.

You had to switch tanks every 15 minutes or so, my instructor said, and needed to be careful not to accidentally turn the switch to off. The engine wouldn’t quit right away, he explained, but it would die in a few minutes as the last fuel was sucked into the carburetor, often at a very inopportune time, like just after takeoff.

So you had to pay a bit more attention to fuel and other matters than if you were flying a Cessna, with its gravity fed fuel system due to the high wing.

Even more important, for my future flying, was that the Tomahawk prepared me to fly the four-seat Piper Archer and two Piper Warriors the FBO owned.

So I began again to take flying lessons, determined that I’d get my license.

Ted and I got into the Tomahawk, and he was right; it was a better airplane for learning. It was quieter, had nice visibility and while the T-tail meant the elevator wasn’t as responsive at low airspeeds, it was a joy to fly and land.

Solo cross-country flights
I began to make progress again and went on a couple of solo flights to locations 50 miles away, like Blythe, Calif., and Imperial, Calif., and then took a longer flight solo to Parker, Ariz. The big one was the three-legged cross-country, and I took that little Tomahawk to Phoenix, where I landed at the famous Sky Harbor International Airport.

My next leg was to Lake Havasu City, Ariz., and on the way there I had a little scare.

A big worry flying over Arizona was that the scenery was pretty bare. You saw mountains, hills and lots and lots of desert, and “situational awareness” was an integral part of the training. Always know where you are and where you are going, the instructors emphasized. The VOR navigation system helped, but on this leg to Lake Havasu City, I had worked to get the Piper to 10,500 feet – no mean feat, by the way – and was cruising along when I realized that I felt a little disoriented. Where was I?

I was seized by self-doubt, and called ahead to the airport in Lake Havasu City to let them know that I was coming, and that I was uncertain of my position.

To my relief, I saw an airfield up ahead and thought it might be the one I was looking for. As I flew over, I looked down and read the letters on the main runway. “PARKER,” it read.

Whew! I knew where I was. I was over Parker, Ariz., and quickly set a course for Lake Havasu City. I wasn’t off course, I realized. I landed in Lake Havasu City, visited the john, had a soda and then set off for my final flight of the day, from Lake Havasu City back to Yuma.

It was an uneventful flight and soon I was on final approach to the civilian field, then landed and taxied the plane back into the parking spot.

Final license prep
With the completion of my cross-country flight, I was pretty much ready for my flight test. This was the big barrier, and knowing that the ground school instructor, who had never flown with me, was the FAA examiner was a worry. I mean, if I was going to flunk, I’d rather be flunked by a stranger.

Suddenly, I lost the ability to land the airplane, and I began bouncing that poor Tomahawk. Its landing gear could take it, but still, I was hell on that plane. Ted and I spent hours at an old World War II practice field 10 miles south of Yuma, Auxiliary Airfield No. 4 – called Aux 4 on the radio – and he talked me through a refresher on landings. Soon I was touching down without bending the spring steel landing gear, and felt ready for my test.

The big test
That day was a nervous one for me, and I prepared as instructed for my oral and written tests. I passed the oral, and then we went into the plane to fly. I nearly blew it all when the examiner pulled the engine on the downwind leg for a landing, but after a crosswind landing that was perfect, he told me to taxi back to the parking area.

As instructed, I shut the engine down as he made notes, then he looked at me, smiled (finally!) and said, “Congratulations, Vinny. You now have a license to learn.”

I wanted to cry, I was so happy. Of course, Marines should never cry, but still I thought the rule could be broken for once.

He talked to me about emergency procedures, told me to always be very careful, and shook my hand. A few weeks later the license came in the mail. It has followed me in every wallet I’ve ever owned, and while it’s just a piece of paper, it says that I did the work and made the effort.

I was so proud when I graduated from Parris Island on Oct. 31, 1978, and rode the bus off the island as a Marine private, but that license, dated July 26, 1981, also represents a day of pride for me.

Next time, I’ll describe some of the flying I did after I got my license.


February 10, 2012 - Posted by | Life lessons | , , , , , , , , ,

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