Barnstormin’ Billy


July 2012. The preflight check on my B-1RD (read “bird,” what we aviators call our airplanes) was dragging on. I was more than ready to “kick the tires, light the fires” and get airborne. Rocket One (a term of respect for my instructor), directed me to take a small sample of the go juice from both wing tanks on our four-seat Piper Warrior airplane. Blue and clean. The right stuff. He was handing out warm fuzzies about my performance so far but I was still shivering with excitement.

cockpitNot even considered a nugget, I was about to actually take control of an aircraft for the first time in my life. My fangs were out, eager to do a bravo zulu with a little sierra hotel sprinkled in. My fun meter was pegged for real. Preflight done. Good to go. My two crazy-brave passengers, wife Amelia and son Jonathan, climbed into the tiny rear seats and donned their headsets. Rocket One took his seat. I tried to muster up some fighter-jock cockiness as I settled into the pilot seat and imagined how my heroes test pilot Chuck Yeager and Marine Colonel John Glenn would put on their headsets. No one was buying my act. Only bogies and bandits today might be Southwest Airlines planes from Chicago’s Midway Airport.

My brain housing group was frantically trying to catch up with all the instructions while eyeing three times as many gauges, controls, and doohickeys than my scooter, car, Nintendo Wii, satellite remote, and Macbook Air have all put together.

Rocket One handled all the “Roger, roger” stuff with the control tower. We were cleared for takeoff.

cockpit3Both my hands seemed to be super-glued to the yoke. Had to pry one loose to get the plane running. Contact! (I always wanted to say that.) As the engine fired up and the prop began to whirl, so did every nerve ending in my body. I was now wishing I had stopped at Walgreens Medical for a Daytime Depend or at least skipped that large Coke Zero on the way to the airport. No time for incontinence, though. I had to get this bird off the ground. Rocket One directed me to taxi to the runway. Not bad. I was a plane driver. I reached the end of the runway and got the plane turned around without causing any passenger power pukes. No cussing from my Baptist flight instructor, either. Thumbs up.

I grabbed the throttle levers and shoved them forward with over-the-top determination, the kind when you manage to rev up enough guts to run instead of freeze when you sense bear breath on your butt. Happens to me about three times a quarter.

“Full throttle!” came the command. I responded and we began to move down the runway. My eyes were darting everywhere…first, I inventoried my hand and foot locations. Had lost track of them for a second. One, two, three, four. They all checked in. None had bailed. Eyes to the gauges, then to the windshield and spinning propeller. Then outside…we were romping down the runway now.  “Pull up, pull up, pull up!” urged Rocket One. I was tentative. “PULL UP! PULL UP! PULL UP!”  Rocket One was using his outside voice now. It was not the time for my lifelong struggle with male authority figures. I pulled up. And up.

The nose of the plane seemed to be pointing straight up. And I was sure we were going way too slowly. I just knew any second we were going to fall right out of the sky. I could see the plaque they would put near the smoking hole that had been my crew and me…“Billy the Aero-Nut Gooned Up.”

At this point I lost the bubble and behaved like the cone I was. The next sound was my voice, surely an octave or two higher than normal.

You got this?” I tremble-squeaked in Rocket One’s general direction.

“NO. YOU DO!” came his clear reply. A quick side glance confirmed he had his hands calmly folded in his lap. I did indeed have it. Not comforting.

My eyes got so wide they covered up my eyebrows. By the way, I’ve noticed my eyebrows are the only hairs on my head that retain any of my boyhood blond/light brown color. Interesting but sad. There is more to life than my hairlessness, I know. I just don’t think it’s fair to be bald, gray, and have pimples, too. Complaint filed. Back to the cockpit. Wandered away because this is painful.Amelia1

My mouth opened and out came the words, “I’M SCARED!”

Here’s a tip. When one is flying a small plane and one has two already somewhat unsure passengers, one should not utter any word that might be mistaken for “scared.” Not “bared,” “cared,” “sweared,” (what little kids do when they over-apply the past-tense grammar rules), “paired,” “haired,” and especially not “scared.” Amelia and Jon started looking for parachutes.

Thinking “I’m scared” is fine as the skipper. Not a good idea to say it, though. Take it from me.Jon1

I stayed with the controls, and kept pointing the Piper’s nose a little above the horizon. We began a steady climb and I relaxed.

To fly a plane was a lifelong dream of mine. This year for Father’s Day, Amelia gave me a very special present. She arranged a full hour of in-flight instruction at the Griffith, Indiana airport, making sure I would have the aircraft controls for most of that time. She was not, however, planning on riding along at the time. When I found out the instructor would allow two passengers with us, I asked sons Ben and Jon. Ben had a previous commitment. I told Jon I had an opportunity for him.

He responded, “Dad, let me see if I understand. This opportunity you have for me is to ride in a plane that you are driving?”

Yep. Amelia climbed aboard, too. Raw courage in those two. I was impressed, since I wasn’t sure I wanted to get in that airplane with me.

There was a time I was too afraid to get on a plane let alone fly the rascal. I have been flat-out, knee-knocking, bone-cracking terrified a few times in my life. Though I have always been fascinated with flying and space travel, one of those times came in the air over the Pacific Ocean. I was on my way from Oahu, Hawaii to San Diego, California aboard a Pacific Southwest airliner, headed to Camp Pendleton to receive my discharge from the Marine Corps. As we got near the California coast, it was clear there was a problem. Flight attendants were rushing around the plane, the co-pilot whisked up and down the aisle a couple of times, and finally, the captain announced that part of the plane’s hydraulic system was not functioning…they could not get the landing gear down.

Terror swept through us passengers. We were told how to prepare for a crash “belly” landing. Didn’t sound promising. The San Diego International Airport went into emergency mode and ceased normal operation to prepare for us. Fire trucks and ambulances lined both sides of the runway and foam trucks were standing by.

Scary. I was preparing to die. The co-pilot came back through the cabin and opened a floor panel. He disappeared for a few minutes, and then re-surfaced with a tentative smile. He said he was fairly sure he had cranked the gear down far enough manually. We touched down without problem, though we could see all the emergency vehicles and they stopped the plane as soon as was possible without moving to the gate.

I didn’t get on an airplane again for 20 years.

Finally, after more than a few Greyhound buses, trains, and missed opportunities because of my fear of flying, I got tired of being afraid to leave the ground. I got some anti-anxiety Xanax medicine and boarded a plane to Houston on a work trip. With the Xanax, I didn’t really need the plane to fly. Only had to take it once. Before long, Amelia and I took a plane to the Dominican Republic and later to Hawaii. After that, I took lots of trips all over the place for work. No more fear of flying. And here I was now with the controls.

A few weeks ago, I posted one of my favorite quotes. It’s attributed to that bastion of bravery, John Wayne. He said, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” I thought of that quote and my former fear as I got the little Piper Warrior leveled off at 4,000 feet above northwest Indiana. I thought about the fine line between crippling fear and action-urging exhilaration as I followed directions on how to bank the plane left and right. Absolutely thrilling. We flew over my son Ben’s house, then out over Lake Michigan and up to the Indiana/Michigan border. It was a beautiful day.

The landing process was the only time during the flight I didn’t have full control. I got us descending at the proper rate and attitude. And I was really aiming toward the runway, but had Rocket One let me do it all, we would have slammed down in the grass somewhere near the right spot. We would have not, however, bought the farm. Rocket One straightened us up and I got us on the ground. I was grinning ear to ear as I taxied my little crew off the runway. Rocket One was a great instructor. He told me I was a “natural.” I told him I bet he said that to all the guys who came back with dry pants and no involuntary personal protein spills. He invited me back for the complete private pilot training course. It sounded expensive but I was tempted. I sort of reserved a little spot in my brain to work on that possibility.

Dreams realized are so very sweet. I really still can’t believe I flew that little plane. It served to encourage me to dream even more. Bucket list cross-off? Nope. Ain’t got no bucket list. Just a love for adventure and a stubborn unwillingness to let fear win.

Next year, I’m running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain (not really….but do look for “Return of the Polar Bear Swim in Tawas City, Michigan February 2013).

Note: This story includes cool pilot talk. Here’s a glossary if you want to hip up like us flyboys: Pilot Slang.

3 thoughts on “Barnstormin’ Billy

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