Fly­ing — not like rid­ing a bi­cy­cle


Flying - - CONTENTS - By Ben Younger

In my first col­umn I promised un­mit­i­gated hon­esty, so let’s be­gin there. Since last writ­ing, a buried de­tail from the ac­ci­dent has un­earthed it­self from my mem­ory. The way I told it last month, once I re­cov­ered from the near stall-spin there was so lit­tle run­way left, I sim­ply had to put the air­plane down even though the gear wasn’t ex­tended. There might be a bit more to it than that.

The mem­ory re­cov­ered is that I stood on the brakes as the air­plane slid along the run­way. This means I might not have made an ac­tive de­ci­sion to land with the gear up. Yes, it’s pos­si­ble the brak­ing was just re­flex­ive — or did I think the gear was down and I was try­ing to slow the air­plane? I am still not sure. It’s in­ter­est­ing what the brain de­cides to re­tain when you’re slid­ing on your belly to­ward the end of a run­way at break­neck speeds with smoke pour­ing through the vents and an­other per­son’s life is in your hands. It’s more in­ter­est­ing still to re­al­ize that what we be­lieve to be the truth is to some ex­tent col­ored, a cop­ing strat­egy to lessen our anx­i­ety or shame mov­ing for­ward. Ei­ther way, there’s no room for it in avi­a­tion. Shine the light.

The truth stripped bare looks like this: I should have ac­cel­er­ated in ground ef­fect as I had the last time I de­parted Tel­luride, back in April. Then, I screamed off the end of the run­way at 125 kias only 20 feet off the deck. When I pulled back on the yoke I had real au­thor­ity over the lift­ing sur­faces. Had I done the same here, I would have been com­fort­ably faster than any gust try­ing to ruin my day. In­stead, I was thrown by the slug­gish take­off roll and ro­tated at nor­mal Vr, leav­ing my­self sus­cep­ti­ble to the wild winds. Had I re­ally thought through how the air­plane was go­ing to be­have, I would have ex­pected the loss of per­for­mance. And it is all about ex­pec­ta­tions. If you know it’s go­ing to hap­pen, you can deal. The sur­prises are what re­lease the hor­monal cascade in our brains dur­ing an acute stress re­sponse — some­thing that might have once been help­ful in, say, a saber-toothed tiger at­tack. None of it help­ful in an air­plane.

Af­ter re­turn­ing to New York, I ru­mi­nated on what my fu­ture in avi­a­tion, if any, looked like. A sin­gle solo flight in the Piper Chero­kee I trained in got the stink off and brought ev­ery­thing into sharp re­lief for me: I missed fly­ing. I missed it badly. I have a new sense of em­pa­thy for pi­lots who must stop fly­ing be­cause of their age or a failed med­i­cal, or any other rea­son left out of their con­trol. It is a real loss. Hu­man flight is a mir­a­cle and not some­thing eas­ily given up. I was not go­ing to do so by choice.

Ten weeks to the day af­ter the ac­ci­dent, I flew an­other air­plane from Ge­or­gia back to New York and placed it very care­fully into my han­gar at KMSV. N1750W is my new V-tail Bo­nanza. While the air­plane seems to be per­fectly happy with its new life and home, it has not been an easy tran­si­tion for me, the pi­lot. Mul­ti­ple times I have ended a trans­mis­sion with “eight four mike,” my old tail num­ber. I have de­layed in an­swer­ing an ATC call be­cause I did not rec­og­nize the new call­sign. More­over, I don’t rec­og­nize the air­plane it­self. It might be an iden­ti­cal V35B, but these ma­chines


have in­cred­i­bly unique per­son­al­i­ties, even among type. It flies, sounds and even smells dif­fer­ent. I’ll spare you the “new-woman-in-my-bed” anal­ogy. Let’s just say I’m hav­ing some trou­ble get­ting up to speed with the new bird.

The more se­ri­ous rea­son the tran­si­tion has been dif­fi­cult is that I am ret­i­cent to fly. This is a much larger is­sue than ac­cli­mat­ing to a new call­sign. I now know when ATC is talk­ing to me, but I am still work­ing on that other thing: you know, fear.

Once the de­ci­sion was made, I knew I needed a new air­plane as soon as pos­si­ble. The in­sur­ance com­pany sent me a check for the hull value of 84M (less the cost of the sal­vage, which I pur­chased back). The money was just sit­ting in my bank ac­count. I knew I had to put it into an­other air­plane quickly or I would squan­der it on friv­o­lous things. Like food. And my mort­gage.

There are quite a few ways to buy an air­plane, from an old-school hand­shake for a Su­per Cub on a lo­cal air­field to a week­s­long pre-buy on a Das­sault tri­jet in an­other coun­try. The through­line is that pi­lots are gen­er­ally an hon­est bunch. Yes, I know there are ex­cep­tions, so don’t as­sault the ed­i­tor with hor­ror sto­ries. But com­pared to, say, the used-car mar­ket, there is a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity when you sell some­one an air­plane. As pi­lots, our lives de­pend on that hon­esty.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ex­er­cise due dili­gence. I hired Neal Schwartz, from Lat­i­tude Avi­a­tion, a Beechcraft spe­cial­ist. If you don’t have the time to go hunt­ing your­self or are new to the world of used air­craft, an air­craft bro­ker can be a real help. They help find you the right air­plane, go over the log­books in great de­tail and han­dle all of the sales doc­u­ments and es­crow pay­ments. They walk you through the en­tire trans­ac­tion from be­gin­ning to end. When you hire some­one like Neal, who fo­cuses on a sin­gle mar­que, you get the ad­di­tional ex­per­tise that comes with that spe­cial­iza­tion. N1750W is a 1972 V-tail that lived a quiet life in Michi­gan with a man named John for the past 18 years. This ex­plains why even though it was built six years be­fore 84M, it has half the num­ber of to­tal hours on the air­frame. When I said it flew dif­fer­ently, I ac­tu­ally mean bet­ter. There is a tight­ness in the con­trols that I don’t rec­og­nize. Zero slop or play. On land­ing, the glareshield in 84M used to shake like a dog try­ing to pass a peach pit. Not 50W. Rock solid.

The in­te­rior, though, leaves quite a bit to be de­sired. But that was in­ten­tional. I told Neal I wanted a V-tail with a Con­ti­nen­tal 550 con­ver­sion (big­ger mo­tor), no ac­ci­dent his­tory, ex­cel­lent paint and an in­te­rior that looked like it was taken from a 1970s bud­get mo­tel. Five zero whiskey has all of that, and ad­di­tion­ally came with the dis­tinct scent of mouse pee (it re­cently sat for a bit). The rea­son for this odd re­quest was that just be­fore the ac­ci­dent

I in­stalled a brand-new in­te­rior in 84M. For months, I de­signed and fret­ted over ev­ery de­tail, from colors to ma­te­ri­als. All cowhide. No syn­thet­ics. Suede and leather. The cock­pit smelled like John Wayne’s liv­ing room. I want it to come with me into the new air­plane. It feels a lit­tle strange, like when Bar­bra Streisand cloned her dog, but I am not ready to give up all that work I did, and I want to be re­minded about what hap­pened that morn­ing in Tel­luride. Hope­fully a touch of the scent of that acrid smoke re­mains in the leather. It’s cau­tion­ary as much as nos­tal­gic.

For ad­di­tional peace of mind, I got the plane flown to Bob Ri­p­ley’s shop in Ge­or­gia to have him do the pre-buy in­spec­tion. To say that Bob knows Bo­nan­zas is like say­ing Willie Nel­son knows a lit­tle some­thing about weed. We found a few mi­nor things, but John, the for­mer owner, cared greatly for the air­plane, and it eas­ily passed in­spec­tion. Hav­ing Bob sign off in­stilled a real sense of con­fi­dence in the me­chan­i­cal state of the air­craft. Not so much in the pi­lot.

De­part­ing Bob’s shop in Cedar Ridge for my first solo flight in the air­plane, I fought a strong urge to abort the take­off. It’s a nar­row 3,000-foot run­way with a stand of trees at the end. Half­way down the run­way, I was sure I was not go­ing to make it, even though ev­ery last in­stru­ment said fly. For­tu­nately, I did not have to de­cide be­cause Bo­nan­zas will fly them­selves right off the ground if trimmed prop­erly. I cleared the trees by a mile and soared into the clear air. A minute later I was fine, the flight home un­event­ful.

Mov­ing for­ward, I shouldn’t be afraid. I know what hap­pened in Tel­luride and I know what not to do again. I have hun­dreds of hours of seat time, many in hard IMC. And yet still I con­tinue to down­play what hap­pened in the telling and retelling of the story. The re­al­ity is that I am lucky, by all ac­counts, to be alive. Since the ac­ci­dent, I’ve buried the mem­ory of the mis­take I made, be­cause fac­ing it — even writ­ing it now — is hor­ri­fy­ing. But I’m here to be hon­est. And not make the same mis­take twice. That be­ing said, let­ting the air­plane sit in the han­gar isn’t help­ing any­one. It needs be flown, and I need to fly.

The plan is to head out to Bee­gles Sal­vage in Gree­ley, Colorado, next month and watch them dis­as­sem­ble 84M. Say good­bye. Try to ap­pre­ci­ate how many other Bo­nan­zas these parts will help keep fly­ing.

A fel­low named Ge­orge Aikens has an avion­ics/main­te­nance shop on the field. He will do the work of trans­fer­ring ev­ery­thing from one air­plane to the other. Maybe he’ll let me turn some wrenches.

Ben Younger ea­gerly takes de­liv­ery of his new wings in Grif­fin, Ge­or­gia.

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