Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Learning to Fly Pt. II

Rabbit #1: “So – do you like this new piece of wood sticking out of my head?”

Rabbit #2: “Uh oh. Crawford is flying again. I’ll start packing…

Ah yes – the joys of flying ultralight aircraft. Wind in your face. Bugs in your teeth. Bits of propeller flying off in all directions. Such is the life of a flying instructor in these marvelous aircraft.

Ultralights, in the early 80’s, were a big thing in aviation. They were/are tons of fun, relatively safe (this statement is usually accompanied by a large asterisk), and I used to fly them a lot.

Since you weren’t allowed to call it a “joyride”, what we did was call it an Introductory Flight Lesson. We would hop into the plane with a prospective customer, fire up the engine, and take off into the wild blue yonder.

Due to the underpowered nature of these aircraft, takeoff would occur mainly due to curvature of the earth rather than aerodynamic forces.

On one of these flights I turned over the control stick to my prospective student – a young man keen on learning to fly. We were bird-like as we happily putted along in what appeared to be a motorized lawn chair.

Upon reaching our cruising altitude and before meal or beverage service could commence, a fairly large piece of the wooden propeller rudely decided to make its own travel arrangements, and departed the aircraft without my express, written permission.

Now, when something is spinning rapidly and it suddenly becomes unbalanced, a certain violent vibration sets in, which causes the remaining components of the spinning object to flounder. Owners of ceiling fans usually become experienced with this phenomenon when a child jumps on a bed and carelessly destroys the fixture by thrusting their head or arm into it, for example.

The vibration in our case was imparted from the propeller to the engine, which was situated just over my head. Being seated beneath a large, heavy, explosive steel object violently shaking from side to side, tearing itself from its mounting bolts, can be disconcerting.

As an experienced flying instructor reacting to an in-flight emergency, I uttered an exclamation (“Goodness gracious!” were my exact words I believe) and immediately took back control of the aircraft from my ‘student’ by breaking his terror-frozen fingers one at a time in order to remove them from the stick.

Throttling back, knowing we would not be able to return to our scheduled point of departure, I began looking around for a place to execute a non-airport landing, or ‘crash’ as we pilots call it. This was not easy since I was busy going through my emergency landing checklist, which mainly consisted of shrieking like a school girl.

I quickly briefed my passenger on emergency procedures. “Did you sign the waiver back there?” I yelled. “Yes!” he replied. “Good!” I said. “Prepare for landing!”

I may also have shouted “We’re gonna crash!” “Goodbye cruel world!” “I can see my house from here!” and other words to that effect.

The landing/crashing experience taught me that travelling in the same direction as the deep, ploughed furrows in a field would make a non-scheduled landing there much more comfortable. I’ll try to remember that next time.

As we rumbled along through the tall grain and across the furrows, my student shouted with joy “We made it!” “We’re not finished crashing yet!” I cried. “Drop the anchor!” Seconds later we stopped.

The silence which follows a successful crash landing is wonderful, and a feeling of joy permeated the air. An unfortunate smell also permeated the air and it wasn’t just leaking gasoline.

Following our landing, in true ‘Right Stuff’ fashion, I just trotted back to the airfield, got a new propeller and some other parts, replaced what needed replacing, and took off back to the airport from the dirt road we had almost reached during our ‘landing.’

My student did not avail himself of this return flight, despite my entreaties about it being safe. As I departed, I recall seeing him walking funny towards a farm building.

Pity – I was going to refund his lesson money. Go figure.

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