Herein you will find, eventually, a series of tales about people with whom I’ve flown: Logbook Highlights from 44 years and 11,500 hours of flying. The reason you’re reading just these few words is that, if you read the post about “deadlines”, you’ll understand that I’ve run outta time on my deadline of about 6pm Pacific time for publishing an article in October. Patience, Gentle Reader, patience … is the key to a happy life.
5/21 – 6/20/1975
My first flight instructor was building time for an airline gig and didn’t have the desire, or the skill, to teach flying as passionately as I wanted to learn. From time to time at the flight school I trained at on 3-M Airport, northeast of Philly, I’d see this instructor strutting about – a short guy with a cocky walk, wore his hat low on the forehead, hiding the eyes. I thought, ‘Jaysus. I hope I never fly with that asshole.’ Shortly thereafter my first instructor leaves and I’m introduced to my new instructor, Bill Spych, the short, cocky, strutting asshole.
So the first time I fly with Spych, he’s sitting in the right seat of the AA-1A, slouching as we’re taxiing out to take off. He says something that I couldn’t hear. I ask him to repeat. “Let’s do the runup,” he says, seeming annoyed, and I’m thinking, “Jaysus. What a pain in the ass this is gonna be.” We do the runup and he says something that was muffled by the engine noise – this was in 1975, and real men didn’t wear headsets, or hear very well. I asked him to repeat and he says, louder, “Take off.” He lowered his slouch a touch more.
We take off, make a downwind departure. I look over at him, unsure if he’s awake, aware, or just bored outta his mind. He says something else that I don’t catch. “Say again,” I say. He lifts his cap, looks around and says “Climb to 3500 feet and head to the practice area,” then he lowers the cap, sinks lower into the slouch.
We get to the practice area and I say, “Okay, what now.” He mumbles something. I say, “What?” He sits up straight, leans over to me, puts his mouth right next to my ear and says, “I bet if I stuck my tongue in your ear you’d hear a whole lot better.”
I nearly jumped, leaned away, looking at him as if he were actually about to french kiss my ear. He leans back into his seat, then still looking at me, starts to laugh. “You should see the look on your face,” he says. “Let’s have some fun and we’ll begin with slow flight.”
I really didn’t know what to do at first, but the laughter calmed me, and I realized that I had lucked into flying with a guy who loved the sky probably more than I did. We only flew together for a month, but it was Bill Spych who helped me realize that flying should always be fun.
I’m going to fly with Bob Turner, the best pilot on the field. He asked if I had any J-3 time when I was preparing to fly the Cub that he sometimes uses for training. “Nah,” I said. I learned in a Citabria and I think it’s the best tailwheel trainer.” That was speaking heresy to Bob, but, being the truly considerate human being he is, he didn’t comment much. “Oh,” he said, “I think you might find that the Cub is better – but maybe you won’t feel that way.”
Well I didn’t feel that way and told him so. It took 20 or 25 hours with Bob before I came to appreciate the Cub’s finer points (I’ve written before in these pages what a dope, and what a slow learner, I can be. Bear witness.) I think the best thing about a J-3 is it’s longer wing, providing more lift and lotsa induced drag, which helps it land so slowly. The Cub is like a security blanket, all warm and welcoming, reassuring you that “everything’s all right – don’t worry about the nasty crosswind – I’ll keep you safe”.
But, way back on our first or second flight, Bob asked a question. “What’s all that stuff you’re doing with your hands and feet?” I had, over the decade or so that I’d been flying tailwheel, developed a habit of “churning butter” with the stick in an attempt to “feel what the wind is doing to the airplane” and “tap dancing” on the rudders to ensure that my feet were ready for the ensuing battle with the devil crosswind.
I was bizzy with the landing and said something like, “I’m preparing myself for the crosswind.” He said, “Okay, but why the heck are your hands and feet so busy? Wouldn’t you be better able to let the airplane tell you what the crosswind is trying to do to it?”
“No,” I replied. “I’m anticipating what to do with my hand and my feet.”
“How can you anticipate anything,” he replied, “When your churning butter with your hand and doing a cha-cha with your feet? Why not relax your hand and your feet and let the airplane let you know what you’ve got to do.”
Well, ferchrissake, that was bloody heresy to me. I’d been doing it this way for nearly a decade, after I got the endorsement when I didn’t have any adult supervision as I was gaining experience on how to fly a taildragger. “Shut up,” I said to him. “I’m trying to land the frking airplane. You’re distracting me.”
But he was right. I remember, in fact, flying with an early tailwheel student a year or so after she had gotten her private certificate in a Citabria. Here she was on short final and her right hand was very, very bizzy churning butter, and her feet were definitely doing the cha-cha. “Hmmm,” I thought to myself, “I wonder where she picked that up.” Well … duh.
How many other students had learned my butter churning, cha-cha final approach contortions? I’d been instructing in tailwheels for nearly a decade. Had they all picked up my technique?
Damn. Of course, Turner was right, and I was damn wrong. How can you know what the airplane is trying to do, if you’re too bizzy telling it what you think it’s trying to do? How much better would it be if you just calmed the frk down and had a quiet right hand, and calm feet while you wait for the airplane to tell you what to do on short final? It was genius.
Of course I didn’t tell Turner that for quite a while – ego goeth before a fall. But he knew. The next time we flew the Cub, maybe a month or so later, he saw my quiet right hand and calm feet and, being the gentleman that he is, never said a word.
Who’s the most famous person I’ve flown with? If you’ve read these pages, you know that I had lunch with General Chuck Yeager once, at Oshkosh, but we never flew together. The most famous person I flew with … .
I’d been instructing about 2 years. I’ve got 1300 hours and about 200 tailwheel. I was just about to leave the mainland for a flight instructor/air tour pilot job in Kona, Hawai’I, when John King called me. It wasn’t out of the blue – until very recently I had worked for John, helping edit the textbook that accompanied Cessna’s Computer Based Private Pilot Course.
John needed a checkout in a Citabria that was in the club. We did the basic airwork (and, yes, he was very, very good) then, on the way down to Brown Field for landing work, I asked, “So, John, when was the last time you flew a taildragger?”
“Last year,” he said. “Martha and I were up in the Orcas Islands. Richard Bach let me fly his Cub.”
I mean, whattaya say to that? “Oh, right. Well last year, Yeager and I went out for a beer after a ride in his Mustang.” Sure. The difference was that John’s experience was real, and mine was imaginary.
As a tangible reminder of the flight, John left a lovely inscription in my logbook. I am only left to imagine what flying Richard Bach’s Cub was like.
There are lots of other cool and interesting people with whom I’ve had the pleasure to fly. Down the road, when I’m losing another deadline battle, I’ll mention more of them.