Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

During a long drive to my mother’s house to pick up some furniture, Tim asked me something about how easy or hard it was to learn to fly an airplane. It’s not hard at all, I told him, speaking from only a little bit of experience. I used to fly, way back when I was a pup.

Airplanes are really very easy to fly, at least the little ones you start off learning in. I imagine that great big hulking jet airliners are much more difficult, and very fast jets are probably total chaos all the time. Obviously a pilot has to develop his skills, but flying a little training plane is a cinch. Honest.

For a start, a plane will take off when it’s going fast enough. That’s really all there is to it. All the pilot has to do is keep it pointed straight ahead and make sure the nose doesn’t point up too high. Things go very bad very fast when the nose points too high. I’ll explain why in a minute.

Once the plane is in the air it wants to keep on flying, assuming no outside forces like thunderstorms or ice forming on the wings try to bring it down. The trickiest part, really, about flying an airplane is coaxing it back to the ground. The pilot has to throttle back the engine so the plane is moving as slowly as possible, which lets him get the wheels very close to the runway, but even then the plane doesn’t want to stop flying. When it’s very close to the ground, the plane will float like a balloon on top of a phenomenon called “ground effect,” so the pilot has to point the nose higher and higher into the sky until the angle of the wings is so steep they can’t generate lift any more, and the plane literally falls out of the sky.

If you’re having a good day, you can get the plane to within a few feet of the ground before you drop out of the sky. If you’re having a bad day, you hit the ground with enough force that the plane bounces high enough to grab some lift, arc over the ground effect, nose over, and hit the ground hard enough to bounce way too high again, and again, and again. This is called porpoising and is guaranteed to happen to you the first time your family drives hours to see you fly a plane all by yourself like the big boys, no matter how many landings you greased right down the middle of the runway before that.

The teeny tiny little plane I learned to fly was a Cessna 150. It was so small that only two people could sit in it. It had a back seat, but nobody on earth is small enough to fit in the back seat of a Cessna 150. When two grown men sit in the front seats, they have to be okay with sitting so close to one another that they are practically sharing underwear.

My instructor pilot was a guy named Bill Heling. His last name was pronounced HAY ling, and when he pronounced it, he turned the volume up to eleven. All his life he’d flown tiny little airplanes like the Cessna 150, which are so small that the engine is practically in your lap. Also, it has no muffler at all. In order to have a conversation in one of these planes with the person sitting right next to you, you have to turn so your mouth is right next to his ear and YELL. Bill was so used to talking like this that he did it all the time. Seated hip-to-hip in a Cessna 150 he didn’t speak, really, he roared. After an hour of instruction in the cockpit with him my ears rang the rest of the day.

Bill started off every lesson in the hangar. It was one part book learning, one part toy story, one part campfire freakout. He would start by dropping some dry aeronautical fact on me, like how a climbing turn affected the lift of the wings. Then he’d get out the toys, usually a little model airplane on a stick that he used to demonstrate what we were talking about. Every one of these lessons started with a demonstration of how the maneuver was supposed to be executed, but ended with a demonstration of how it could go oh so terribly wrong. “If your not watching your torque and P-factor,” he would warn me, rolling the little toy airplane over on its back, “you could climb, roll over, crash and burn.” And then he would tap the nose of the plane on the desk top. Climb, roll over, crash and burn is a phrase that still surfaces from the depths of my memory at the oddest times.

Then we would step out of his office to preflight the airplane: Make sure that everything that was supposed to move could move, and everything that wasn’t supposed to move was bolted on tight. Clean all the bugs off the instrument ports and blow hard through the hole in the wing that went WHEEEEEE when the wings were angled too high to lift the plane. Squirt a little gasoline into a cup to look for boogers. Boogers in the gas meant there was water in the tanks. Very bad.

When the preflight inspection was done we climbed into the cockpit, adjusted the seats until we were almost positive we could sit that close to one another for a whole hour, and cranked up the engine. It’s not at all like starting the engine in your car, unless your muffler’s shot. You can’t imagine that kind of noise unless maybe you’ve accidentally hit the panic button on your key fob when you were standing right in front of your car and the horn started honking, and it kept honking because you couldn’t figure out how to stop it. Now imagine that the horn kept honking no matter what you did. It’s not really like that, because you almost become used to it after five or ten minutes, but at the same time you never get really used to it. For instance:

You roll out to the end of the runway and stop to check the magnetos, which are the two dynamos that make electricity for the spark plugs. You want to make sure they’re both working so that if one quits, the engine will keep on running, maybe even until you land. You run the engine up to 1,500 revs, an ear-splitting racket, then switch off one magneto. The revs drop to about 1,000 revs. When you switch it back on and switch off the other magneto, you should still have 1,000 revs, and when you do it’s a good thing, but your ears are already ringing.

Or: You’re at the end of the runway, ready to take off, so you push the throttle all the way in. Man, what a racket! The engine has only four cylinders, but it’s like they’re sitting right in your lap, banging away against every pot and pan in your kitchen. Really it’s the propeller making all the noise, but it sounds like the engine of a hot rod going whapity-whapity-whap-whap-whap. Have you ever heard bedsheets snapping in a strong wind? Have you ever heard an unbalanced wash machine walk across a concrete basement floor? How about a whole string of fire crackers going off? It’s a bit like all of that, at the same time.

But, weirdly, you don’t seem to notice the noise as much once you’re in the air. It’s pretty unnerving as you’re charging down the runway, gaining speed, struggling to hold the nose wheel down, but as soon as you can see you’re going about a hundred miles an hour and not in any real danger of the dreaded “climb, roll over, crash and burn” scenario, you can lift the nose into the air – hell, you can just let it rise all by itself into the air, and suddenly you’re airborne, flying, and the noise doesn’t seem to register on your brain any longer. You still have to shout to be heard by the guy who’s sitting so close that you’d be a lot more comfortable if you just threw your arm over his shoulder and gave him a great big smooch on the lips, but somehow it doesn’t make as overpowering an impression on your brain once you’re flying. There’s probably a very obvious explanation for that. Maybe I’ll google it later.

high | 7:46 pm CDT
Category: story time
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