My Aviation History



I've been in and out of airplanes for over half a century. I've never been particularly good at it, but I've never seriously broken an airplane. However, on a few occasions I thought I heard them quietly swearing at me.

October 2019



Introduction

I am the official Threadstarter for the Davidson College basketball message board. 1 hour before each game, I start an in-game thread. I got the job by accident, mostly because I have a lot of time on my hands and I'm OCD enough to start it exactly on time. However, just for fun, I started adding stories to the starts for something to do before the game. I also decided that the stories should have almost nothing to do with basketball. After 10 years it has become hard to think of something new for each game.

However, last Thanksgiving we were discussing the holiday and I posted about a time I flew to Jekyll Island for my wife-to-be's family Thanksgiving. I had to check my facts and dug out my logbooks. It dawned on me I had a lot of material there, and I used it for the entire season. I recently went back and collected the 20+ posts and consolidated and edited them for my Ridgeland friends.

Because these were written for non airplane people, they are oversimplified on technical things. Also, there are Davidson and basketball references every now and then, and a few inside jokes for that crowd. With regard to accuracy, there is only one outright lie in here, and I think it's harmless. The rest is pretty much up to the standards of accuracy and fact found in the area of Jack's fridge. You've been warned.

First Flights

My first logbook starts with a 1 hour instructional flight on October 12, 1963, in a Cessna 150. This was at a commercial operation in Greenville SC.

It was not my first time at the controls, it was just the first legally loggable one. Seeing that entry makes me feel really old.

Earlier in my life, I had flown with an uncle in his Cessna 140 and then his 170. I got an instructional ride in a Champ for my 13th birthday. I had joined Civil Air Patrol in high school, and had flights in an L-16, and a C-119. (We had to wear chutes).

I had another flight 2 weeks later, and that was it until the summer of '64.

I had graduated High School and was heading to Davidson in the Fall. My father's employer had given me a scholarship, which included a summer job, so I had a few bucks to spend on flying.

Early training is heavy on take-offs and landings, which makes sense. For efficiency, you do "touch-and-goes", which are laps around the field, landing and then immediately adding power to take off without slowing down much. It's an efficient procedure. We usually did an half an hour of that per lesson.

On July 25th, 1964, which completely by chance happened to be my 17th birthday, the routine changed.

At the beginning of the flight I had 5 ½ hours total legal time logged. After only 15 minutes of touch and go's, my instructor said, "Make this one a full stop."

I realized what was happening, and quite naturally, for me, almost panicked.

That's why, out of habit, I hit the throttle and stated to take off again.

This generated a torrent of invective from the right seat.

"No! @#$%!, I said Full Stop!".

So I pulled off the throttle and headed back to the ramp.

My instructor calmed down a bit and got out of the plane, saying, "I'm going to solo you anyway, but don't you ever do anything so @#$% stupid again!"

I had fouled the three point shooter. Not for the last time, either.

But I went out and did two more touch and goes and a full stop without any disasters, and it was done. By the most lenient of standards, I was a pilot. I thought. Sort of.

There was no ceremony other than writing the check for the flight time. It was not in all the papers.

But it's right there in the logbook.



In the summer of '65, after my Davidson freshman year, I was back in Greenville SC. I had my summer job at the plant where my Dad worked. He was a little self-conscious about it, and pretended I didn't exist. Once in a while, if nobody was around, he would give me a surreptitious wave.

On June 20th I had 15 minutes of refresher and checkout in a 172, and then another 45 minutes of solo time. Over the rest of the summer I flew about 12 hours, mostly just sightseeing and practicing landings. I don't recall doing anything particularly stupid.

In the summer of '66, after my sophomore year, I got another 20 minute checkout and flew another 6 hours the rest of the summer, including a required dual cross-country task. I screwed up on that when I mistook Chester for York, SC. My instructor did not yell, she just waited for me to figure out my mistake. That's a good thing to learn how to do.

Eventually I corrected and made the rest of the trip to Asheville and back to Greenville OK, and she signed me off for cross country.

A month later I flew another half hour joy ride around Greenville. That was the bottom of the page in my logbook. I had a total of 30 hours and 35 minutes logged.

Little did I know how long it would take to get to the next page.



Life Gets In The Way

During my junior year my family moved to Chicago, which is not a particularly felicitous place for little airplanes. Also, I had no contacts there and did not manage to land a steady job for the summer.

During my junior year I had applied to fly for the Navy. I had grown up in a Naval Air town, and my grandfather had been a WWI Naval Aviator. I had just assumed that's what I would do, since I had to wear some kind of uniform.

I busted the medical, which was a total surprise. The docs said my eyes were fine, but would deteriorate early. They also said I had a very slightly curved spine. This has no effect on normal life, but would be very incompatible with an ejection seat.

But during the weekend at the testing site, I had a random breakfast with a Navy Supply Corps officer, who said he liked it. I remembered that my senior year, with the draft making very nasty noises in my direction.

Life moved on…

Then several things happened. (Some details omitted for brevity)

Junior year at DC. Summer in Chicago, no airplanes involved. Senior year, at the height of the draft. Application to the Navy (The part that floats, doesn't fly). College graduation ending in a thunderstorm. Navy OCS. Navy Supply Corps School. Became married. Sent to New Orleans to watch ship get built. Hurricane Camille. Son #1 born. Went to sea.

Left Navy, worked for a bank. Daughter #1 born. Became unmarried with children. Left bank to work at car dealership where I was hanging out with racing team.

Stumbled accidentally into teaching job at local college. Realized this was a great gig: no heavy lifting, flexible hours, no significant work involved, no dress code, and got paid mostly for running my mouth, which is pretty much effortless in my case.

Decided to go to grad school. My boss got me admitted to UGA with a fellowship with one brief phone call.

I arrived in Athens for the summer term in 1976. For a while, I made at least a slight effort at being a student, but after a while I began to drift into beer, women, rugby and (as has been a constant in my life) hanging out at the airport.

Over that first year, I began to see the inherent nudity of the emperor in my chosen field of advanced study. It was beginning to get hard to keep a straight face. I remember a very good teacher joyfully walking the halls announcing he had gotten a comment accepted in an academic journal.

I remember thinking, "Is this what I am supposed to look forward to for the rest of my life?"

As my scholarly ambitions diminished, I went back to first principles.

Falling Off The Wagon

The next summer, when the kids were off with their mother, I took some instructional flights. It all started to come back.

After one flight, the flying service owner said, "You should buy this airplane to finish out your training".

Sonny was an old school wheeler-dealer. He always had something going. He was known to arrange sales and manage to collect fees from both buyer and seller.

But this was his airplane, the one I had been renting.

I thought that was a silly idea, but I started running figures in my head.

I had the GI Bill, a fellowship, and my Reserve pay for both monthly drills and the summer active duty.

My expenses were trivial, as I was living in campus family housing, and both my kids were now in public school with no daycare expense due to my flexible schedule.

But I was still cautious. I told him I could not risk such a thing since I was a guy with no financial reserves. He countered, "If you buy it for $X, I'll always be ready to buy it back for $Y, as long as you can taxi it back to my hangar."

I've forgotten the actual values, but 1977 dollars would not make much sense today anyway.

Then, because I've always found it easier to get services out of people instead of dollars, I said, "Will you throw in the rest of the instruction needed for my ticket?" "Deal."

I had just bought an airplane.

I've never been known for common sense.


I own a what?!


Actually owning an airplane changed things. I never worried about schedules or availability, I just went out and flew when the weather was good and I felt like it.

The old 1967 Cessna 150 trainer had developed a statistically significant port list over the years of clumsy student landings abusing the gear, and it would leak fuel out of the overflow tube if it was full and sat for a long time. When I wanted to fly I would call the airport office and they would go top it off by the time I got there. They would run a tab, and every now and then I would go by the office and run my Gulf credit card to settle up. Those were simpler times.

I didn't pay much attention to all this, and that first Gulf bill in the mail was a bit of a shock. But I handled it.

Since my deal with Sonny meant he wasn't getting any cash for instruction, I pretty much taught myself, although with a lot of conversational guidance from him. When I needed a fresh cross country signoff, he waited until he needed to go to Tuscaloosa to pick up an airplane. I flew him there for my dual cross country, he signed me off, and I flew back for my solo cross country requirement, all in one day.

(As we passed the end of the runway outbound from Athens, Sonny reached up and turned off the VOR. He said, "Oops, it broke. You gotta do this on your own!") So I did.

12/28/77 3.0 Hours instruction, 5.0 solo Athens > Tuscaloosa> LaGrange > Eastman > Athens

To fulfill the requirements for my license, I was supposed to land at Eastman, but I was tired. I definitely went there, but I just flew over it and headed home. I hope the statute of limitations has run out on that minor omission.

Over the next month Sonny and I checked all the final boxes for my license, about 4 hours instruction and some solo practice. I was ready.

2/2/1978 1.0 Hours Dual, Private Pilot Certificate Issued.

This was with a Designated Examiner, not Sonny. But Sonny had told him to pass me, so it was easy. After we landed, the Examiner said, "You fly real good!"

I did not correct his grammar. A Davidson Man is literate, but never rude.

I was a pilot. It had only taken me 14 years from my first official lesson.

Note: I heard the FAA revoked the Examiner's ticket a few months later, but I don't think it was because of me. The rumor was he showed up drunk at an Examiners' Seminar.


My logbook shows a flight on 2/3/78, a Friday.

Athens > Greeneville TN > Savannah - 5.3 Hours

The Ink was still drying on my temporary certificate issued the day before. I can't recall exactly what the reason for the trip was, but I know I dropped my kids off at Greeneville because their mother was living there at the time. I must have something going on in Savannah, perhaps a Navy drill.

I strapped my 7 year old son in the right seat. The plane was a 2 seater, but had a kiddie seat in the baggage section, just big enough for my 5 year old daughter. It was a simple trip, from Athens up to the Asheville area then across the mountains a bit to Greeneville. I got up fairly high to avoid the rocks, and did fine until I made my turn at Asheville.

It was then that I noticed the clouds were beginning to close in below me. I had to stay in the clear, so I pulled the plug and dropped down below them. I still had plenty of clearance, but I couldn't see as far, and I had to turn a few times to make sure I was well above the mountains. I knew where I was, and I was nowhere near lost, but the circle of certainty as to "exactly" where I was had begun to widen. I was having to concentrate.

About this time I heard a complaint from the luggage section.

"Daddy, I'm cold."

She had a point. The heater was more aspirational than effectual, and it was February in the mountains.

But to my everlasting shame, I was not sympathetic.

"Shut up! I've got bigger problems than that right now."

I am sure that when I am on my deathbed, she will make a special trip down from Virginia just to remind me of that one.

And I will deserve it.

Ten minutes later, a very long ten minutes, by the way, the airport showed up, right on the nose where it was supposed to be. It was a very polite and accommodating airport that way. I always appreciated that.

After dropping off the kids, the flight to Savannah was longer, but a nice straight shot, and I was over the mountains quickly.

I flew back to Athens on Monday, and made a kid retrieval round trip to Greeneville on Tuesday. My silly little airplane was actually turning out to be useful.

The airplane did make my commutes to Savannah and Greeneville TN much more efficient, but there was also a considerable fun factor.

I did a lot of flights checking out the small airports in central Georgia. It was valuable experience, lots of takeoffs and landings and old fashioned look out the window navigation.

One logbook entry was typical.

2/19/78 Athens - Anderson SC - Athens 2.6 hours

The remarks show "Stops at Hester, Elbert County, Washington-Wilkes County".

I think my son was along on this one. I always liked it when he came along, even if he did fall asleep right after most take-offs.

It was a pretty standard routine for each airport:

Land.

Find a parking spot and get out.

Walk to the line shack, go in and read the bulletin board.

Get a drink from the vending machine.

Walk around the airport and see if there were any interesting airplanes there.

Go back to the line shack and take a leak.

Get back in the airplane, look at the chart and pick out another little airport.

Fly there.

Repeat as necessary, or until ready to go home.

I don't think it ever got much better than that.

A few years ago, I was visiting my elder son in Monroe, and we took several of his sons to the aviation museum at the Charlotte airport. They had a Cessna 150 on the display floor, opened up so people could sit in it and check it out. Naturally his teenaged sons climbed in and started cranking the yoke and pushing buttons.

I said, "You know, your Dad and I used to fly all around Georgia in one just like this."

They turned and gave me the familiar "Grandpa's making up crazy stories again!" look.

But my son came to my defense. "We sure did!"

They looked a bit surprised, and went back to turning knobs and pushing buttons.

That was a pretty good day too.



Uh,That's Not Good!


The next important flight in my logbook looks rather simple.

3/15/78 Athens - Stone Mountain - Athens 1.3 Hours. There were no remarks.

It was just a fun flight. But doing a touch and go in the shadow of the mountain, I had a very minor hardware issue. The cable for the carb heat control broke. This was no big deal, but it did mean heading back to Athens as a precaution.

In Sonny's hangar we pulled the cowling expecting to make a quick fix, replacing a short cable.

But while the engine was visible, Sonny's mechanic was looking at it and said, "Did you know you have a big crack on the #4 cylinder?"

"Uh, no."

Everybody gathered round to confirm the diagnosis. This was a major issue.

That was NOT going to get fixed with WD-40 and duct tape.

I looked at Sonny and watched him as I pointed out, "Well, at least I got it back to the hangar."

His face fell a bit, and I knew he remembered our original buy back deal from when I bought the plane.

I was pretty sure he really didn't want to write me a check. (In actuality, it wouldn't have been a check, but a trip to the bank where a safety deposit box held the "working capital" for his various deals.) But he was basically honest, certainly with people he actually knew.

And he knew a guy, who had a plane he didn't fly much, and it was in Sonny's hangar for its annual inspection and maybe a deal could be done…

And so it happened. I did have to come up with a bit more money, but I objectively think I actually came out with a fair and equitable deal.

I was proud of that. Coming out approximately even on a deal with Sonny was a rather rare accomplishment. I should have been awarded a certificate, suitable for framing.

But what I got was another airplane, a 1956 Cessna 172 (The first year). It was significantly older, but also larger and a bit faster. It was also rather ugly, with just a few spots of peeling paint left on its aluminum skin. But I didn't care about that. I felt like it was a step up.

The next day, the 16th, Sonny gave me a checkout. I just had to add 10 MPH to my landing speeds.

And the day after that, I flew it to Savannah for St. Patrick's Day, the 17th.

And after a day to sober up, on the 19th I made a side trip to Jekyll and then back to Athens.

I thought I was getting to be a big time pilot.

The "new" plane wasn't as much fun, but it was a better transportation machine.

My parents came by Athens to visit and I gave them a ride. On the way out to the plane I accidentally dropped the keys. As I picked them up, I said, "Gee, I guess I'm just not too coordinated today." I got a bit of a glare from my mother for that one. But she didn't back out.

The bigger airplane gave me a bit more flexibility and the capability to fly full size people around. I was still ferrying the kids around, and Lake Norman Airport got added to the routes, as they visited their grandparents, my former in-laws.

In June of 1978, my 2 year taxpayer supported vacation masquerading as grad school came to an end, and I returned to Savannah. I kept the plane at the main Savannah airport, and the flight service folks always parked it in the back row because it was so ugly, and they didn't want to offend their more affluent customers.

I had my old teaching job back, and the new distraction of a rundown old house. She who was to be The Boss was aghast that I bought it, but did not have adequate supervisory authority at the time to prevent the deed.

When people I knew needed to go places, I sometimes let them buy some gas and off we'd go. This was not really totally legal, but I didn't worry about such details at the time.

I was still hanging out with a racing team, and flew some crew to a race in Daytona that July. We left before dawn and flew south down the beach, watching as the sun came up under the left wing.

I liked flying at night, but that requires staying current, doing 3 night takeoffs and landings every three months. Once I was about to run short, and needed to get in a few. I took some passengers just for fun.

One of them was John. As somebody told me once, John only had two speeds, Fast and Frantic. He wasn't a pilot, but thought he knew about such things. I think he had read a lot of Steve Canyon comic strips.

Anyway, as I was making circuits of the field, he began giving me advice on my technique. In my airplane. As a guest. He was that kind of a guy.

I'm generally easy to get along with, but I am not a perfect person.

Finally I said, "I've got an idea, how about YOU shut up and I'LL fly the airplane?"

Note: Due to board standards, several adjectives and adverbs have been omitted from this account. A particularly effective traditional gerund was also probably involved. I am, after all, among other things, a sailor.

My other passenger just snickered, so I guess he was on my side. Things were quieter from then on.

6/25/78 Savannah Local 1.1 Hours Night Remarks 3 Takeoffs & Landings




There is an entry in my oldest pilot logbook dated 11/23/78. It shows a route of SAV to 09J and back to SAV, 1.4 hours day and .4 hours night.

It was Thanksgiving.

I had met The Boss during the 75-76 school year, and we were sort of together for a while. I went off to Athens for grad school at UGA for the 76-77 and 77-78 school years. I was supposed to be pursuing a doctorate, but instead spent most of my time at the airport, the rugby field and various bars around town. I had my two kids with me, but they went to stay with their mother for holidays and the summers.

Most months I came back to Savannah for my Naval Reserve drills, and usually saw The Boss then, but it was not a done deal…yet.

Back in Savannah, I reclaimed my old teaching job, and started spending more time with The Boss.

At that time, her extended family rented a house on Jekyll Island every year for Thanksgiving, and she invited me to come down for the day. My logbook also shows a 5.0 hour round trip to Lake Norman Airport on the day before Thanksgiving to drop off the kids.


The next day I headed to Jekyll. The Boss was there already. In the course of the day I gave a ride to those of her family who were interested, and flew back to Savannah as the sun set.

During the whole day of flying, I committed only two "learning experiences", which was pretty good for me. On the 29th I retrieved the kids, 4.9 hours.

On Turkey Day itself, things were interesting. I was the only nonfamily participant, and it was clearly a bit of an audition. I was not officially on the Thanksgiving Tree. The older generation viewed me with a bit of suspicion, as I did not really fit into any of their preferred categories. I was surrounded by people I barely knew. The Boss's 3 siblings were all married with children, and she was the outlier. So I was confronted by various spouses and children, and had a hard time keeping up with who was married to who, and which urchins they were associated with. But everybody was nice to me.

After dinner, I did bond a bit with a "future brother-in-law although I did not know it at the time". We were both scavenging turkey chunks off the carcass and eating them with our fingers. I thought, "Maybe I can fit in here after all."

Another entry in my logbook was a 4.6 hour round trip to Tallahassee on 4/29/79, and a 1 hour local demo flight in a nicer plane I wanted to buy, a Cessna 177 Cardinal. I even gave the man a deposit, but somebody was ahead of me and I lost the deal. I had already started trying to sell my old plane, and made a .6 hour flight to deliver it to the new owner the next month.

I started renting planes again, and used training flights to swap kids around. But my priorities gradually got a bit rearranged.

I was flying slightly faster airplanes now, but since I was paying by the hour, the cost was reduced a bit because I needed fewer hours to get places and back. Also, as a renter I was not worried about any nasty potential maintenance surprises, as long as the rubber band didn't break while I was actually flying.

Wakeup Call


There are two sequential entries in my logbook in June of 1979. There are no comments in the remarks section, but I remember them very well.

6/21/79 Savannah - Tallahassee - Alma GA 2.1 Hours Day 1.5 Night

You might ask, "Why did you want to go to Alma GA? Nobody wants to go to Alma."

Some friends needed to go to Tallahassee, and were willing to pay the rental. So we set off in the afternoon, and it was an easy flight, although the weather was getting a little less than ideal. They got out of the plane and I went over to the weather office.

This was long before today's real time weather radar on a cell phone. We had teletype summaries, and not much else. I studied all the available information, used all my accumulated experience to evaluate the situation, and carefully made the wrong decision.

I headed back to Savannah as the sun was setting.

Things were fine for a while, but as it got dark I started seeing lightning in front of me. I jogged left. More showed up. I jogged right. I was beginning to get annoyed, and navigation was getting a bit sloppy. I was concentrating.

Then the whole inside of the plane lit up. I had flown into a cloud, and the strobes on the wingtips were reflecting in. Now I was really concentrating.

It was neither legal nor wise for me to be flying in the clouds. But in the dark I hadn't see them coming.

In my defense, I had both altitude and lots of fuel, so I pulled off some power and managed to get below the cloud level, staying right side up in the process. I was not having fun.

Sonny had told me that if I ever got in a jam, I should do three things:

1. Fly the airplane.

2. Fly the airplane.

3. Fly the airplane.

So I did.

Once I was in the clear I decided to home in on the nearest VOR, so I would at least know for sure exactly where I was, and then come up with a plan.

When I got there, which only took a few minutes, I looked down and remembered that VOR was located at an airport.

With a lighted runway.

It was the most beautiful set of runway lights I had ever seen.

So I parked that sumbitch on the ground and was glad to do it.

The people at the airport were shutting down and going home, but they made a phone call to a local fleabag motel, and the proprietor came out and picked me up. I think he had done this sort of thing before.

At that point, I would have been happy to sleep on the ground under the wings.

6/22/79 Alma - Savannah .9 Hours Day

It was a routine, uneventful flight. But I was a little different.

There's an old saying in the airplane world: "Sure I messed up. But I did a good job recovering after I messed up!"

("Messed" is not actually the usual literal word, but I'll use it for the board.)

After a few weeks, my somewhat chastened self started flying with an instructor, learning to fly properly (and on purpose) in the clouds. I logged 7.5 hours instructional hours in the same 172 that had issued me my comeuppance. (And allowed me to get away with it.)

In late August, with an instructor, I flew a kid transport mission to Greeneville TN. This was an actual instrument flight, and in a faster airplane, a Piper Arrow.

8/25/79 Savh-GCY-Savh 5.1 Hours Dual Instruction 5.0 Hours Instrument 5.1 Hours Total

I had a four month gap and then another 1 hour instructional flight.

Right after that, I made another instructional, but actual instrument flight to Asheville and back. Being around Christmas, I'm pretty sure this was also a kid relocation effort. I was back in the same plane as in my Alma adventure.

12/22/79 Savh-Avl-Savh 4.5 Hours Instrument Instruction

I was, without much justification, getting full of myself again. After that flight I splurged on a new logbook, retiring the old one that dated from 1963. Its binding was falling apart anyway, and I needed a new one with more columns and room for my new and improved exploits.

The fancy new logbook shows a gradual slowdown.

2/14/1980 Savh-Waycross-Savh 1.9 Hours Instrument Instruction

I was slowly moving into the computer business as a sideline to my teaching job. This was a sales trip, and resulted in a business relationship of many years. (So it was legitimately tax deductible.)

My next 2 flights were in October. I passed my 2 year check flight, and then checked out in a nicer plane, a Cessna 172RG with bigger engine, controllable pitch prop, and retractable landing gear.

In this plane, my logbook shows one October and one December trip to Columbus Georgia, one a day trip and one with a one night stopover. These were also tax deductible trips working on a supposedly promising deal which unfortunately turned out to be a total waste of time. But those trips would have been much worse by car.

Even today, Mr. Google says a trip from Savannah to Columbus by car would be 4 hours and 8 minutes each way. In the plane it was only an hour and a half. (And much more pleasant.)

The next page of my fancy second logbook shows another flight.

12/20/81 Savh-GSP SC-Monroe NC-Savh 4.0 hours

For some reason which I cannot recall, the Christmas kid transfer rendezvous point that year was the Greenville/Spartanburg Jetport. After that, I made a stop to see a (tax deductible!) customer in Monroe, fixed their problem and then made it home. That was a good day's work.

I had invited my next door neighbor along. We were in the fancy airplane, booking along at 150 MPH. My neighbor had the job of spotting the right side landing gear when I extended it. I could see the left. Neither of us could see the nose gear, but that's what the red and green lights are for.

I was loving it. I was definitely a pilot, and finished the day with 292 hours logged.

But the rest of the logbook is empty.


Life in the Wilderness


I don't remember ever deciding not to fly, after that last flight in 1981.

It just sort of happened, along with lots of personal, family, business things, and just life happening in general. This is in no way a complaint, as lots of those things were very good.

But I never kept a Life Logbook like my Pilot Log, and so I can't go back and easily look things up. So the following list of events is somewhat random and not properly sorted.

Flying "Just a little" is not a wise thing to do. And the longer I didn't fly, the tougher it was to get back at it.

I was still hanging around airports. I went to airshows. I read the magazines.

I invested hundreds of hours and a small number of dollars becoming a Microsoft Flight Simulator ace. It was a lot more capable and sophisticated than most folks realized.

I somehow accumulated a few aviation related customers, which resulted in more hanging around airports.

I wrote some fuel tracking software for the Flight Center where I had kept my plane in the old days. When I got my first cell phone, I used to spend Friday afternoons out there watching airplanes, checking my office answering machine by phone every half hour or so. Technology was simpler back then.

I did some work for a flight school in Macon. They were a bit sketchy, sort of a cross between a for-profit Junior College and a sleazy used car dealership.

But they would send advanced students down to Savannah to pick me up and bring me back. I even got some left seat time in a light twin.

I did accounting software for a company in Brunswick that did maintenance on big stuff, mostly Boeings. I was there once when they were doing an inspection on John Travolta's 707, and gave myself a tour.

I picked up a Trade-A-Plane one day at the airport. I realized I couldn't read the ads.

I needed glasses. This was a bit traumatic to my no longer so young self.

Around 2000, I experienced a small, unusual and temporary burst of financial liquidity. I started thinking about maybe getting back into flying a bit. I even gathered up my logbooks and showed them to an instructor at my airport customer's operation.

She looked them over and said, "You'll basically have to start from scratch".

Now that was a serious kick in the behind. I considered pointing out that I was roaring around the airways at high speed before she was in elementary school, but then I realized that was sort of the problem.

I pretty much gave up on the idea of flying.




Back in the Saddle Again


For Christmas in 2007, my wonderful family surprised me with a certificate for a warbird ride. This particular one was for a ride with a group that moved around the country with a Stearman and a T-6. The T-6 is a WWII era advanced trainer with a radial engine, designed to train students moving up to the frontline fighters of the time. That was to be my ride.

A few months later I headed out to the Statesboro airport at the appointed time. These sorts of thing do not have any prerequisites, other than the check not bouncing. There was a bit of optional merchandising involved, such as buying an appropriately printed T-shirt and springing for a video of the flight.

I got a quick checkout on how to get out of the plane if necessary. We were wearing chutes because of the planned getting upside down thing.

On the way out to the operating area, the pilot offered to let me fly, which is a standard perk, no extra charge, and no experience needed either.

He didn't have to ask twice.

But after a while, he said, "Hey, you've even got the ball in the center!" (This means I was properly coordinating the stick and rudder for coordinated flight. It's easier to do than explain, but I was apparently doing it OK, 25+ year gap notwithstanding.)

I hadn't even realized I was doing it.

"Are you a pilot?"

He probably thought that was a simple question.

But to me, it was a lot more complicated than that.

I had to think about it. Finally I mumbled something like,

"Well, yeah, I guess maybe so, if you set the bar low enough."

We talked a bit more, and when we got to the "Loops and Rolls" part of the flight I got a modified version. He'd do one maneuver, then talk me through doing it myself. I'm sure his hands were close to the stick just in case I screwed up, but I managed okay.

I had spent my whole puny aviation career worrying about staying right side up, and here I was getting upside down on purpose.

I found myself enjoying looking down at the Georgia farm land through the top of the canopy. It was a hoot!

Heading back to the airport for a low pass and a landing, we talked a bit more. I confessed that I had a bad eye, and he said, "There's lots of one-eyed pilots around!"

"And you can always fly gliders. There's no medical required at all."

Driving home, I realized I had the bug.

Again.




Driving back from Statesboro, a lot was going through my head.

This was my youngest child's senior year, and I had sent off the last semester's check a few weeks earlier. It was worth every penny, but I was looking forward to not getting those tuition bills.

I thought maybe, just maybe, I could swing a bit of flying.

It took about 45 seconds of internet time to find a glider club within an hour's drive.

The next Saturday I headed out to Ridgeland, SC. You have probably never heard of that place. I hadn't either.

I wandered around the field, found a guy who claimed to be the President of the club, and got all the details.

The finances seemed to work out OK, and the folks there did not look down their noses at my meager qualifications. It just didn't seem to matter.

I thought, "Put me in, Coach, I'm ready to play!"

I actually got a short ride that day, strictly as a passenger. But that just set the hook.

The next Saturday I showed up for my first session of instruction with Jack.

Jack's instructional techniques had been honed as a Drill Instructor at the Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot at Parris Island. But he had adjusted to the new environment, and he never made me do any pushups.

But he didn't cut me any slack either.

The first day, I had brought my logbooks from my previous attempts at aeronautical proficiency.

I asked, "Do you want to look at my logbooks?"

"No! I'll know when we get in the airplane!"

And so it went.

I had some adjustments to make. Generally, I had always flown with a wheel, not a stick. And always, I had an engine up front, not a rope. I had to adapt.

And of course I had to get a new logbook. A glider logbook keeps track of different things than a power pilot logbook.

My first instruction flight went as follows:

5/24/08 Blanik L-13 N505LB AeroTow 3,000 Ft. .3 Hrs Dual Instruction

The remarks section covered the topics covered in the 20 minute sled ride.

The next ride, that same day, was just the same except for some different topics of instruction.

Over the next few months, I did a total of 13 instructional flights, all short and busy. Jack didn't like to waste time on sightseeing.

Flight number 13 was on Saturday, 8/9/08, a quick tow and landing.

As I was leaving, Jack said, "See you tomorrow. Wear an old shirt."

I knew what was coming.

On 8/10/08, my logbook first shows two instructional flights. Jack wanted to see two more simulated rope breaks before letting me go.

Flying gliders is a generally sedate business, as we fly slowly and quietly for the most part. But there is one part of a flight that has a bit of tension involved. It's not scary, but that's because we prepare for it. (Although a problem very rarely happens.)

We are pulled to altitude by a powered plane, usually a former crop duster. They have plenty of power, and can handle the slow speeds we need. At my club, a 235 HP tow plane gets you moving in a hurry, and the time span from dead stop to a safe altitude is only two or three minutes.

But we have to plan for a potential problem, the dreaded "Rope Break". This is a loose term that applies to a variety of things that go wrong. The towrope can actually break, the hitch on the glider or towplane can malfunction, someone can prematurely pull the release, or the towplane can have an engine problem.

Timing is the issue here. If something goes wrong early in the takeoff run, you release and stop on the runway, no big deal.

If the problem happens when you are already up to traffic pattern altitude, you just return for a normal landing.

It's "In The Middle" where it gets exciting.

Before each takeoff, you evaluate the runway, the wind direction and speed, and what else is going on around you. It's good practice to have a cutoff altitude in mind. If "a problem" occurs below that altitude, you land straight ahead or wherever looks good. This "wherever" can include where the softest trees are, if that's the best you can do.

Above the cutoff altitude you should be able to do a 180 degree turn and return to the runway. (This is actually fun, at least in practice, since it involves a steep bank and speedy turn followed by a quick roll to level for a landing.) It's also pretty to watch from a safe distance.

The general rule of thumb is a cutoff altitude of 200 feet, subject to special conditions. The important thing here is to have a plan before you signal for the tow to begin.

Anyway, Jack gave me two quick flights, pulling the release from the back seat at 400 feet on the first and 200 feet on the second. No sweat, I was good to go.

Jack got out, reminded me that the glider would be a lot lighter without him, and went to the side of the runway to watch.

I flew a standard tow to 3000 feet, flew the newly lightened glider around for a while, and then headed back for a landing. In the traffic pattern I made my turns nice 90 degree squares, just like Jack liked them.

I flew with my hand on the spoiler lever. Spoilers are panels that pop up on the top of the wing, adding drag and reducing lift. They work like a reverse throttle. You try to arrive at the proper spot at the proper altitude and the proper speed. I was doing fine.

In gliders, we don't have the option to give up and go around for another try.

I flared for a good landing and rolled it on the grass with plenty of room to spare.

But then…

In a glider, you can't taxi around, so after landing you try to wind up in an out of the way place for retrieval, without blocking the runway.

But as I was trying to do an elegant parking job, I noticed a bit of a problem.

The glider would not slow down. Usually, you just pull full spoiler and get a nice smooth deceleration. But that wasn't happening, and I was watching a house (which was inexplicably built off the end of the runway) get larger and larger. I did not want to park the glider in Craig's carport.

I was not cool and collected enough to find out why the spoilers were not working, so I went to Plan B, the wheel brake. This glider had a lazy and whiny wheel brake, operated by a lever on the floor. It did not get used much, and when you asked it to do its job it would whine and screech in complaint, and not accomplish a whole lot either.

I tried Plan B, and I kept at it, but I was losing confidence.

This was not a life threatening situation, but it was a potential aluminum bending and greatly embarrassing situation. I just knew I didn't want to wind up in the dirt embankment off the end of the runway, and I was DEFINITELY not going to park the glider in the middle of state highway 278 that bordered the airport.

Finally the wheel brake woke up and grudgingly went to work, and I managed a partial groundloop (Plan C) to skid sideways to a bouncing stop at the side of the runway. I was glad that worked because I hadn't really come up with a good Plan D.

When the dust settled I popped the canopy open and looked back down my trail of skid marks in the grass. Then I saw Jack. He was doubled up laughing.

He didn't say anything. He just stretched out his arm and pointed at the wings.

I turned my head and looked.

The spoilers were neatly tucked into the wings, not deployed at all.

The flaps, however were fully extended. Somehow after touchdown I had shifted my hand from the spoilers to the flaps and pulled them on, accomplishing nothing.

Those damn flaps knew they were wasting their time, and they should have said something.

I climbed out, looked at the extended flaps again, looked at Jack again, and freely exercised a bit of my nautical vocabulary from long ago.

None of this was recorded in my logbook. I was too embarrassed.

In the finest tradition of getting back on the horse after a fall, Jack tossed me back into the cockpit and I made a perfectly normal, routine, totally uneventful flight with a socially acceptable landing.

When I climbed out this time, somebody produced a pair of scissors and cut out the entire back of my shirt. It was then suitably endorsed in magic marker by all the spectators, and Jack graciously added a little cartoon of the spoiler and flap controls.

I deserved that little enhancement to the traditional solo award.

Then we went over to drink beer in Jack's hangar, another great glider tradition.

Epilogue: Several months later, another club member, an Air Force Academy man and F-16 pilot, made the exact same mistake. I happened to be there watching as he went whizzing by much too fast. After he managed to recover, I walked over to congratulate him.

"You're at the top of the list now, not me! Thanks!"

Taking the Test


After my entertaining (for everybody else) first glider solo and my (thankfully) boring second solo, I was into a new phase, working toward the check ride for my glider rating. Adding a glider rating to a power ticket has a few shortcuts. You can skip the written test and just take an oral and flight test on the gliderish things.

I needed to build up my experience, and I mostly flew on my own with Jack riding along every now and then.

My logbook shows 17 more flights of various types, including 3 flights on March 20, 2009. This was a Friday, and a final preparation for my check ride scheduled the next day. Jack and one of the club tow pilots came out on a weekday just to help me out.

However, weather got in the way that weekend. I made it up to the gliderport just south of Charlotte that weekend, but did not get to fly. This was a commercial operation run by a very experienced instructor/examiner, along with his business partner.

This business partner was also his ex-wife. They owned the airfield, and had two separate houses right on the field. I cannot imagine…

A checkride includes an oral exam, and since we were just sitting around the office unable to fly, I got a very thorough one. However, I was devious enough to get him to tell lots of stories (not that hard a task) and things worked out OK. I actually learned a lot in the process.

He looked at my logbooks, both power and glider.

"I see all your glider flights are in an L-13 Blanik. I have a problem with those. The spoiler handle and flap handle are too close together. It's too easy to grab the wrong one."

I told him I had heard of that happening.

Then, for no particularly good reason, I told him EXACTLY how I knew about the problem. I don't know if it was nervousness, or leftover Honor Code habits, or just plain old stupidity. He did look at me a bit funny, but went on with the test.

The weather never improved, and I wound up driving back to Savannah without flying.

But I was back, according to the logbook, on April 11, 2009.

I didn't really mind the extra trip, since I stayed with my elder son and his family in Monroe. That was worth a trip all by itself. I left early Saturday morning for the field and the weather was nice.

I stopped at a Hardee's for a biscuit breakfast on the way.

I read through my notes one more time while I ate.

It was game time.



As I arrived at the gliderport for my checkride, I reminded myself of the situation. I was going to be flying the examiner's glider, at the examiner's airfield, and he'd get paid whether I passed or not. Also, though he had a reputation as an excellent glider pilot, he was not known for a cute and cuddly manner.

I needed to behave myself.

The first flight was not technically part of the test, but an intro to a different type of glider. The ones he used were more basic and lower performance than what I was used to. I have been known to use words like "clunky" and "primitive" to describe that model, but I kept those words to myself.

That flight, with a full 3,000 foot tow, is logged as .3 hours of dual instruction. The remarks say "Familiarization".

The next flight was officially part of the test.

The convention in the glider biz for release from tow is that the towplane turns left and the glider turns right, to get plenty of separation. On this day, we had a crosswind from the left, so we briefed a bit differently for a potential rope break. Given that a rope break somewhere during the test is required, this was important. We decided that in the event of a rope break the towplane would go right and the glider left.

We launched for the first flight and he pulled the release on me at 600 feet. That's actually pretty high, but low enough to be a test. I dutifully dropped the nose and hauled off to the left, as briefed. Then I noticed that the towplane had also turned left. A towrope is only about 200 feet long, so we were close to start with, and I did not want to let him out of my sight until I knew we were clear.

So I reduced my turn rate so I could keep an eye on him. (I had plenty of altitude and a good position, so I was not in a panic to turn.)

In a few seconds I got a ration from the back seat about my less than enthusiastic turn rate.

I said, "The towplane turned left, and I'm watching him."

The back seat said, "He was supposed to turn right!"

I silently thought to myself, "Well, that's YOUR towplane, and YOUR towpilot, so I'm not taking the blame for that!"

My moderate turn had us pointed back at the runway soon enough, and I set up to land.

Then he said, "I've got it" and took the controls.

I thought I had busted the ride. The rules for a test say that if the examiner has to take control at any time, it's an automatic failure.

But I had been treating the exercise like a real rope break, thinking , "Get this thing on the ground now!" I had full spoiler out and was heading for Mother Earth in a hurry. He wanted to glide down to the far end of the runway to save a few steps on the next launch.

As we stopped he said, "I'll bet you weren't expecting that on the first flight!" He was correct. And I realized I was still OK.

On the second flight, we went to 3,000 feet and drove around the sky for .3 hours. He called for a lot of turns and other maneuvers and kept me busy.

Suddenly he said, "Where's the runway?"

This is a typical examiner trick, to see if I could maintain "situational awareness" while doing other things. This applies to a lot of life, actually.

"Right beneath us." I almost thought he was a bit disappointed not to catch me out.

After that flight, he got out and started walking toward the office. I was desperately curious about the results, but was NOT going to give him any satisfaction by asking. Finally, he started talking.

"Well, the law says you have to meet the minimum standard, and you DID do THAT, at least. But you're not all that smooth or precise. You're probably not going to kill anybody, but don't give anybody any rides, you'll give them a bad impression of the sport."

I thought, "I'll take it!"

And we went off to do the paperwork.



Show Time!


Most years we have a small low rent airshow at our little airport. The day is named the "Race to Ridgeland" after the main event. The race is a timed round trip around two other airports, with contestants taking off at intervals. Due to the wide speed ranges of planes, it's a handicapped event to see who gets the best performance out of their airplane.

Our airport has a lot of interesting planes to watch, lots of antiques and homebuilts, and other folks fly in for the day.

We also have a spot landing contest, a candy drop for kids and my personal favorite, the balloon bursting contest where we release helium balloons and pilots try to intercept and pop them.

It's a fun, low pressure excuse to hang out at the airport.

One year we decided to do a glider demo, although it's hard to get people's attention with something that flies without making any noise. Noise is part of the fun. (I don't think NASCAR will ever have an electric car series.)

I was selected to fly the demo. There was not a lot of competition, as I was the only one willing to hold off getting into the beer. (Out of character, I know)

Since nobody was going to pay much attention anyway, we kept it simple, just a quick tow to pattern altitude and a return for a landing. I managed not to do anything conspicuous.

The logbook entry was:

5/1/2009 1500 ft. tow .2 hours Remarks R2R Demo

It's the shortest non rope break entry in my logbook.

After we put the glider away I was walking back to the festivities and ran into Craig, the guy who built the house right at the end of the runway.

He said, "Wow, I don't see how you glider guys do it!"

I immediately said, "Well, Craig, if I can do it, it can't be all that tough! "

But of course, I didn't say it loud enough that he could hear it.

At least I can now claim I'm a "Former Air Show Pilot".

But I don't.

The Boss had come along for the day and since my demo was the last thing on the schedule, she figured we were going home.

"No!" I said. "We have to go to the hangar."

"What? Why are we going to the hangar? "

"You'll see."

Jack makes a lot of his living as an aircraft mechanic, and his hangar usually has an airplane or two inside. (He built the hangar himself, as well as a lot of the other hangars on the field.)

His house is in the woods about 100 yards behind the hangar. He built it too.

There is a small refrigerator that magically and anonymously gets restocked with beer from week to week. It is accompanied by a wall mounted can crusher with a 30 gallon trash can for holding the crushees.

There is an old wooden cable spool for a table with airplane porn magazines on it.

The walls are covered with pictures of airplanes and local airplane people.

A bow & arrow hangs next to the big door.

There is a collection of old lawn chairs around the table. You can sit in any of them except the one stenciled with "Jack's" on the back.

There are usually two or three dogs on the premises.

For today's event, Jack's wife Debbie had put up some sawhorses and boards, and she as well as some other folks had laid out food. There was a fair crowd of disreputable and socially suspect airplane people already hanging around and swapping lies when we got there.

The Boss surveyed the scene and said, "I'm beginning to understand why you come out here."



Flying gliders is a group activity. Somebody needs to get the towplane checked and test flown. Whoever is flying a glider needs to check it out and move it out to the launch position. For each flight there are the chores of hooking up the rope, checking traffic and making sure the tow pilot and glider pilot have a plan. Gliders typically just have centerline wheels, so it's nice to have someone to hold it level during ground tow and the first few feet of the launch.

We spend a lot of time waiting around. If several people are flying, we get spurts of activity with a new launch every 15 minutes or so, as fast as our single towplane can get back.

But there's a lot of time for conversation.

That's probably how I revealed my college affiliation. I think it probably happened during Hoops Season.

One day the club president came up to me and said, "I heard a rumor you're a Davidson Man". Well, it would have been ungentlemanly to deny it, so I confessed.

"OK, so you have to be the next Club President."

Author's note: The above is of course a total fabrication. I just threw it in to amuse the message board. However, it does reflect pretty much how I was drafted to be club president. No 2 year campaigns and TV debates around here.


This had the potential to be a bit awkward.

The club is filled with a variety of pilots. Some are duffers like me, but many are lifetime professional pilots, current and retired military aviators, and airline pilots. Savannah is the home of Gulfstream, and we have a lot of those folks, engineers and test pilots, flying with us.

Of those of us who do not have such high level aviation credentials, almost all are business owners or practitioners of some profession. These are not the sort of folks who can be pushed around.

The good news is, there are stories available. Lots of stories.

I like stories.

It was a challenge attempting to ride herd on such a crowd.

However, nobody made fun of me or appeared to look down on my feeble qualifications.

(Except when I really deserved it, of course.)

Then there's Wally.

I was talking to him one day, waiting for gliders to come back, and I was whining a bit about trying to manage 25 or so egotistical and pigheaded pilots.

He replied, "Try 3,000."

Wally had come up through the airline route, from DC-3's and Constellations to 747's. He rose to be the Chief Pilot and VP of safety for TWA.

I felt gently but suitably chastised.

But I stumbled along and with lots of cooperation we kept muddling on.

At one meeting, I was making a report on something or other. I looked around at this bunch of people, almost all of whom knew incredibly more about flying than I did, and realized they were actually paying attention to what I was saying.

That was kind of scary.

Epilogue


A few years back my Tar Heel elder daughter invited me up to Chapel Hill for a football game.

She and her husband had bought a spare condo there just for such occasions, so she invited more family and it was quite a party.

UNC lost the game. I was too polite to mention it.

Sunday morning it was time to head home. I still like to drive, and find the Interstates boring when time is not an issue. Also, I had checked things out and found a glider club more or less along the way home.

So I planned a visit. I wanted to see how other folks handled things.

It was a bigger airport than my usual habitat, and I actually parked outside the field and walked around to see what was going on. I found the club and introduced myself.

"I don't have my stupid floppy soaring hat with me, but I'm one of you."

They accepted that credential check, and I started poking around. Their operation was basically similar to what I was used to, with a few differences. They flew off a paved runway instead of grass, but everything else was pretty much the same.

One of them was putting his glider together. Gliders are built to come apart, with the wings and tail feathers coming off to fit into a specially designed trailer for transport or storage.

It doesn't take much imagination to realize that putting one back together may be routine, but it's a serious matter. Doing it wrong, leaving out a connection pin or something, could be…not good.

As I was watching, and helping just a bit, the pilot explained, "Here we have a rule. After we've assembled the glider, a second pilot has to check things out and initial the main wing spar locks. That's what this piece of white tape is for."

He looked up at me.

"Are you a pilot?"

"Yes."

That felt good.

So I did one more check of all the connections.

And I scrawled my initials on the tape.