Sur­viv­ing in­ex­pe­ri­ence while gain­ing ex­pe­ri­ence


Flying - - CONTENTS - By Sam Weigel

I grew up and learned to fly on the snow-swept plains of Min­nesota, but I really grew up in the crowded, smoggy skies over South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. It’s where I spent a cou­ple of lean years flight in­struct­ing and freight dog­ging, mak­ing life­long friends while scram­bling to make ends meet on some van­ish­ingly small pay­checks.

I left SoCal when I started work­ing for the air­lines 14 years ago, but fly­ing back here still feels like a home­com­ing. The de­scent into LAX takes me right over all the air­ports and land­marks I knew then, and a flood of mem­o­ries ac­com­pa­nies each one. Back then, fly­ing a Boe­ing 767 from New York to Los An­ge­les seemed like a pleas­ant but im­pos­si­bly dis­tant dream; now it’s a per­fectly rou­tine work­day, and I don’t feel too many years re­moved from that young flight in­struc­tor dream­ing of fly­ing the big jets.

Ah, but a look in the mir­ror tells the truth. I’m not truly young any­more; I am in fact rapidly slid­ing into the dreaded “mid­dle age.” I have aches and scars and a waist­line that lately re­fuses to keep the se­cret of my fond­ness for craft beer and lack of en­thu­si­asm for gyms. With ap­proach­ing de­crepi­tude comes the temp­ta­tion to cast a ret­ro­spec­tively rosy hue upon the mis­ad­ven­tures of my youth, re­mem­ber­ing the “good old days” to the ex­clu­sion of the not so good. Gaz­ing over the vast ex­panse of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, it is all too easy to de­clare my years here some of the best of my life. But then I look at spe­cific places, and re­call cer­tain events, and I re­mem­ber things that weren’t at all pleas­ant. I re­mem­ber be­ing tired and frus­trated and scared in air­planes. I re­mem­ber do­ing bone­headed, un­pro­fes­sional things. I re­mem­ber be­ing ashamed of the in­ex­pe­ri­ence and stu­pid­ity that led me to make those choices.

We’re pass­ing over the San Bernardino Moun­tains that form the eastern rim of the LA basin, and look­ing down I can see the crenu­lated shore of Big Bear Lake tucked into a high val­ley at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level, flanked by peaks nearly 11,000 feet high. In the sum­mer of 2001, I taught at a flight school whose air­craft check-out process in­cluded three land­ings at Big Bear City (L35). Mind you, be­fore this, I had never landed at any air­port over 1,500 feet elevation, but af­ter a cur­sory check­out of my own I was un­leashed upon

un­sus­pect­ing renters with an ad­mo­ni­tion to take only 180 hp Piper Archers to Big Bear, not 160 hp War­riors. Fast-for­ward to two weeks later: I was sched­uled to do a PA-28 check­out, but the as­signed Archer had been swapped to an­other stu­dent and my only re­course was to take a War­rior. Not want­ing to in­con­ve­nience my stu­dent, I cal­cu­lated the take­off per­for­mance for Big Bear City. It wasn’t that warm of a day, and by in­ter­po­lat­ing off the edge of the per­for­mance charts I con­cluded we would use no more than 3,000 feet of run­way and have a solid 300 fpm climb rate. No prob­lem, right?

You can guess what hap­pened next. The land­ing at Big Bear was fine, but the take­off was in­ter­minably long and then the air­craft re­fused to climb out of ground ef­fect. By the time I re­al­ized it, there wasn’t enough run­way left to set back down. So we flew off the end of the run­way at 10 feet, across a marshy slough and to­ward a cause­way flanked by power lines. I briefly con­sid­ered fly­ing un­der them, but we built up just enough air­speed to mush over the lines be­fore set­tling back down over the wa­ter. We flew like that for the full 8-mile length of Big Bear Lake be­fore clear­ing the dam at the western end and div­ing into the canyon back down to San Bernardino.

Those per­for­mance charts didn’t ac­count for the fact that this War­rior sported one of the world’s most tired O-320s, with thou­sands of hours since its last over­haul. My mis­take was cut­ting it too finely, where a more ex­pe­ri­enced pi­lot would have left him­self more mar­gin for er­ror. What made this par­tic­u­larly in­ex­cus­able is that it

wasn’t my first close call with mar­ginal take­off per­for­mance. Three years ear­lier, as a new 17-year-old pri­vate pi­lot, I had loaded three of my high-school bud­dies into a Cessna 172 and at­tempted to fly off a rain-soft­ened 2,600-foot grass strip bor­dered by tall pines. I got it off the ground, but then mushed along and un­con­sciously drifted to­ward the tree-fringed edge of the run­way, hav­ing failed to ac­count for the ex­tra P-fac­tor. The eerie wail of the reed vane stall warn­ing snapped me out of my stu­por, and I cor­rected to­ward cen­ter­line, ever so gin­gerly, as trees whipped past my left wingtip. Twenty years later, it still gives me cold sweats and puts a gnaw­ing dead feel­ing in the pit of my

slap stom­ach to re­call wait­ing for the - slap slap

- of branches that never came. I’ve only felt that mor­tal in an air­plane one other time, and just ahead and to our left is where it hap­pened. Lake Matthews was and is one of the In­land Em­pire’s more pop­u­lar prac­tice ar­eas, and in the sum­mer of 2001, there was still quite a lot of train­ing ac­tiv­ity in the LA basin. On the day in ques­tion, a com­mer­cial stu­dent and I were over the lake in a Piper Ar­row, prac­tic­ing steep turns at 2,500 feet. We were about halfway through a left turn when a Chero­kee flashed across the wind­screen, wing-up in its own steep turn, no more than 50 feet ahead. There was a heavy jolt as we flew through his wake. For a mo­ment I thought our wingtip had caught his tail. My stu­dent slowly lev­eled out; nei­ther one of us said a word. My hands started shak­ing, and I no­ticed that his were too. “Wanna head back?” I fi­nally ven­tured. He nod­ded and turned for home. I tried to fig­ure out where the phantom air­plane had come from. We had done clear­ing turns, but I ob­vi­ously hadn’t been dili­gent enough in look­ing for traf­fic. I’d al­ways had a fair amount of faith in the big-sky the­ory, but from that mo­ment, I re­al­ized it really didn’t ap­ply in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. A few months later, two train­ing air­craft col­lided over the Long Beach Har­bor prac­tice area, with four lives lost.

De­scend­ing in the big iron through 6,000 feet on the ILS to 24R, I see Long Beach to our south, and be­yond it Catalina Is­land. I think of all the times I flew out there across 26 miles of per­pet­u­ally cold (and sharky!) wa­ter in ratty train­ing air­craft of vari­able air­wor­thi­ness with­out so much as a life raft, EPIRB or sur­vival kit. Hell, in those years I didn’t think twice about fly­ing sin­gle-en­gine air­planes over rugged moun­tains at night, or in hard IFR with­out an au­topi­lot or a sec­ondary vac­uum source. I look to the north, and in the dis­tance I can make out the es­carp­ment of the High Sierra. Five days a week for one mem­o­rable win­ter, I flew freight up there via the Owens Val­ley, slog­ging through se­vere tur­bu­lence on a fairly reg­u­lar ba­sis (“Life and Death in the Owens Val­ley,” Septem­ber 2013). Much closer, I spy Bur­bank Air­port in the San Fer­nando Val­ley. That’s where I mo­men­tar­ily fell asleep one night at 3 a.m., dead tired af­ter a long day of freight dog­ging — and when I woke with a start, on short fi­nal for Run­way 8, I had no rec­ol­lec­tion of the pre­vi­ous half-hour.

Like most 20-year-olds, I didn’t dwell too much on risk in those days. When I did think about it, I ac­cepted in­creased risk as part of be­ing young, broke and build­ing a new ca­reer. If age and ex­pe­ri­ence have made me more risk-averse, im­proved cir­cum­stances have also made it more con­ve­nient for me to avoid it. Most of us were lucky enough to emerge from our young and dumb years with life, limb and li­cense in­tact — but not all. Mike Ahn, my co-worker at three jobs, died cov­er­ing my route in the Owens Val­ley — not in a snow­storm or hellish tur­bu­lence, but lulled to sleep on a sunny day. My first flight in­struc­tor, Slade Ship­shock, fa­tally crashed in Water­town, South Dakota, on a frigid De­cem­ber night when he failed to de­ice on a quick cargo stop. An­other for­mer in­struc­tor lost his job and cer­tifi­cates ( but thank­fully not his life) when he aileron-rolled a non­aer­o­batic train­ing air­craft in an ap­par­ent fit of bore­dom. Over the years, as my net­work has grown, I’ve heard of too many sim­i­lar tragedies from in­dus­try friends, sev­eral of whom lost young pi­lots they were men­tor­ing.

With the ar­rival of the pi­lot short­age, there’s a ma­jor in­flux of young peo­ple get­ting into avi­a­tion, and a sud­den tor­rent of ca­reer guid­ance. Much of it is good ad­vice, but here’s the stark truth: None of it mat­ters un­less you re­main alive and ac­ci­dent- and vi­o­la­tion-free. Ac­ci­dents hap­pen to pi­lots of ev­ery age and ex­pe­ri­ence level, but the triple-whammy of be­ing young, in­ex­pe­ri­enced and a lit­tle des­per­ate makes you more vul­ner­a­ble than you think. If you un­der­stand that, take your mor­tal­ity to heart, and get used to think­ing about risk and ways to mit­i­gate it early on, you stand a much bet­ter chance of mak­ing it through your “young and dumb” years. Be­fore you know it, you’ll be en­joy­ing a long and suc­cess­ful ca­reer, look­ing back on this time with a lot of good mem­o­ries, and hope­fully not too many re­grets.

Twenty years later, it still gives me cold sweats and puts a gnaw­ing dead feel­ing in the pit of my stom­ach to re­call wait­ing for the slap-slap-slap of branches that never came.

No good ca­reer ad­vice mat­ters un­less you re­main alive and ac­ci­dent- and vi­o­la­tion- free.

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