License to Learn
Modern flight training follows a well planned curriculum. Ground school is a must. Safety in the sky mandates against short cuts. There can be no doubt that the tutorial skill of your flight instructor holds primacy. In reality, it is your instructor who gives you the license to fly, not a governmental agency. The 'check-ride' at the conclusion of your flight training merely ratifies the decision of your instructor. The flight examination, by the way, is normally conducted by a 'designee,' a private citizen specially licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"Your check-ride," said John, my instructor one Saturday morning, "has been set for April fifth."

"Easy to remember, John," mused I. "Four-five, sixty-seven -- that will be the date on my license, right?"

"We have work to do this next week," he said sternly. I followed him out the door to the flight line. John's demeanor puzzled me.

Early in my training, John had assured me that the designee would simply ask me to file a flight plan, preflight the plane, and take off. The check-ride typically lasts about thirty minutes. When I get the plane established on course, I can expect the designee to say, "OK, cancel your flight plan." After some maneuvers and a couple of touch-and-goes, it will all be over.

"Hell, except for steep-turns-to-the-left, I'm ready right now," I said. "The designee can ask me anything in the regs he wants to. I know 'em cold."

John shook his head. "There won't be a designee."

"You are trying to tell me something."

"You will get your check-ride at the GADO," John said.

"General Aviation District Office -- you probably didn't think I knew that."

"Look at it this way," said John. "You will be saving the fee."

John handed me the key to Three-One Bravo. My plane, the magnificent Two-Four Fox, was still in the shop getting its nose-gear re-built. I had resumed my flight training in a rented Cessna 172, which is slower and a whole lot simpler than the Skylane. I began to think that my little accident with Two-Four Fox had something to do with the change in plans.

I grabbed John's shoulder. "The FAA wants to see for themselves what kind of klutz would shut down a perfectly good engine immediately after lift-off. Isn't that it?"

"Not exactly," said John.

I performed my walk-around for Three-One Bravo and climbed into the left seat beside John. He held the book of checklists open for me to read.

"Something new?"

"Begin here -- 'Before Starting Engine,'" said John.

That day and the next, John put me through a soaking on the ground and a wringer in the sky. He insisted I leave work every afternoon and drive to the Burbank Airport for a comprehensive review of my flight training. Each session lasted into the night. We nearly flew the wings off Three-One Bravo and wore out the runways at a dozen airports. John scheduled no other students during this period, spending his mornings preparing lesson plans for our afternoons. The pace was exhausting for both of us.

On the evening of April fourth, John walked with me to my car. I expressed my appreciation for all his extra effort on my behalf.

"No matter how I do tomorrow, I want you to know that -- "

"You must get your license tomorrow!" John interrupted.

"Flying is just a hobby for me, John. I can take the check-ride again later --"

"Sure, and by that time, the FAA will have closed down our whole damn flight training department. How many Cessnas can we sell then? I'll lose my job, and the company will go broke!"

"Just because I pranged my nose gear?"

"Don't you read the papers!" John exclaimed.

I thought for a moment. "You mean the crash last month in Cajon Pass -- "

"And the one in the Simi Valley," John said. "Both took out student pilots."

"What does that have to do with me?" I asked.

John sighed. "The FAA has formally requested that our school send over a student for his check-ride."


"You're our best."

The few hours available for slumber were filled instead with anxious scenarios. Parading before my mind's eye were all the people in my world -- all of them soon to be disappointed. In a matter of hours I would surely become responsible for the demise of an enterprise and the economic dislocation of a whole community.

Getting a pilot's license wasn't fun anymore.

I tiptoed out of the house at dawn, intending to get breakfast at the Burbank Airport. Traffic delays put me behind schedule. I had to scare up the line boy to top off the tanks on Three-One Bravo while I choked down inedibles from a vending machine. I landed at the Van Nuys Airport after a ten-minute flight and taxied to the GADO building.

"How do you do, Mr. Muskat. Sorry I'm late."

A tall and weathered civil servant shook my hand. Mr. Muskat wore clear-rimmed spectacles and a cardigan sweater. He handed me forms to complete. That done, I sat across his desk in an open office while Mr. Muskat examined my paperwork. That gave me plenty of time to study the pattern in the asphalt tile.

My tolerance for silence was breached. "They had not filled the tanks on Three-One Bravo," I said.

Mr. Muskat glanced up and offered me a blank expression. I must not have been clear.

"Three-One Bravo -- that's the plane I have been taking my lessons in while Two-Four Fox is in the shop."

Mr. Muskat raised his eyebrows.

"For repairs," said I. "I thought you knew. Fox Field -- I had a little accident -- "

"Tell me about your accident," said Mr. Muskat. He flipped through my log book and frowned.

"I did a touch-and-go at Fox Field in my Skylane. The engine failed on take-off, and --"

Mr. Muskat held up his hand. "Do you have to be somewhere?" he asked.

"Not right away. No sir."

"Then, let's take it nice and slow. What do you mean by 'the engine failed'?"

I took a deep breath. "It didn't fail exactly. The engine started to slow down." I imitated the sound. "Woo-AH-oo-oh -- I thought it was going to stop, so I -- "

"Did the engine stop?" Mr. Muskat asked. He sat back in his chair, hands folded behind his head.

"The engine did not stop, no."

"But you closed the throttle, just in case."

"Something like that -- you see, I thought there was enough runway -- "

"But there wasn't."

I shook my head.

"What did they find wrong with your engine?"


"I see," said Mr. Muskat. He made a note on his clip board then fixed me in the glare of the fluorescent lights reflecting in his glasses. "Would you do the same again?"

I thought for more time than I did at Fox Field. "Yes, I would, sir."

Mr. Muskat studied my face for what seemed like a month. At last he pulled from his desk a copy of the Federal Aviation Regulations and a Sectional Chart. He unfolded the chart. "What is this?" he asked, pointing with the top of a ball-point pen at the dashed circle around an airport symbol.

"Airport Traffic Control Area," I answered confidently.

Mr. Muskat handed me a pad of yellow paper and a freshly sharpened pencil.

"Every time you cannot answer my question, I want you to write it down. You may start with that one."

Dumbfounded, I scribbled a note on the pad. Mr. Muskat pointed to a blue-tinted area on the chart. "What are these areas for?"

"Mr. Muskat, I know that in those blue areas, the floor of controlled airspace is 1,200 feet above ground level, but -- "

"What is their purpose?"

"I guess I don't know," I confessed.

"Write it down."

And so it went for the rest of the morning. My inquisitor would ask a question. Like as not, I would get it wrong. Even his easy questions confounded me. Mr. Muskat waited for me to make notes, then proceeded to the next query. I filled pages.

There was no doubt, Pacific Airmotive would have its license lifted, people would lose their jobs, and the whole economy of Burbank would suffer -- all because I didn't know some chart symbol. For such a time the word 'shit' is not strong enough.

"You may work at that table over there," said Mr. Muskat. "I want you to plan a flight to Fullerton." He looked at his watch. "I brought a sandwich. If you want to go out -- "

"I'm fine, Mr. Muskat." I really wasn't fine, but I wasn't hungry either.

"You can file your flight plan with Flight Service on my phone. We will leave when you're ready."

I had expected to be a licensed pilot by noon. Judging by my performance in answering Mr. Muskat's questions, I should take up chess. Flight planning is where I would have to shine. I took 45 minutes to plan a half-hour flight.

While I began dialing the number for Flight Service, Mr. Muskat looked over my course layout. "Why did you take up flying?" he asked suddenly. Here we go, I thought. I put down the phone.

"Since childhood, it was something I had always -- "

"No," he interrupted. "You fly so that you can go directly from A to B. What have you got here?"

"After take-off, I plan to intercept Victor 186 on the 096 radial out of Van Nuys, then intercept the 320 radial of the Santa Ana VOR which will take us right over Fullerton."

"Re-do your plan. This time make it 'direct,'" Mr. Muskat ordered. "Take out that dog-leg and quit depending on radio navigation."

With a sigh, I started collecting my materials. Mr. Muskat told me to sit down and work out the revised plan right there on his desk. "I want to watch how you do it." For the better part of an hour, he pummeled me with another page of questions. Finally, I got the flight plan filed, and we headed out the door to the flight line.

My confidence was in tatters.

April 5, 1967 was a perfect day for flying in Southern California. Scattered clouds at 5,000 feet, fifteen mile visibiliy. A perfect day to destroy a community.

During my preflight inspection of Three-One Bravo, I opened the engine compartment. Mr. Muskat asked me to name the various components. He pointed to a black box. I did not immediately recognize it.

"That's the battery," he said with disdain.

The battery in my own airplane is hidden behind a panel, so I had never seen it. Sure, and Mr. Muskat would really be interested to know that.

He then pointed at a metal fitting and posed a hypothetical question. "If you found that disconnected, would you take off under visual flight conditions?"

I pondered for a moment. Better to be conservative. I told Mr. Muskat I would not take off without that hose being fixed.

Wrong! "You ought to be able to fly without your direction gyro -- which is all that hose does." I wrote it down.

The next question I knew cold. "What documents are required to be in the plane?" The acronym is ARROW. "Airworthiness Certificate, Registration, Radio Station License, Owner's Manual, and Weight-and-Balance."

"May I see them please?"

The surest way to be disqualified is not to have those documents in good order. Sleepy as I was, I had checked them at Burbank that morning. Mr. Muskat looked at each one. He spotted something which would bring the whole show to a stop.

"What does this say here?" he asked, indicating an item on the Weight-and-Balance tabulation. It was the radio that came as original equipment from the Cessna factory. I did not have to look at the instrument panel. I remembered that Three-One Bravo had a different radio installed.

Mr. Muskat shook his head. "As an employee of the Federal Aviation Administration, charged with enforcing its regulations, I cannot fly in an un-airworthy airplane." He handed me the aircraft documents, picked up his clipboard, and walked across the tarmac toward the GADO building.

Technically, my trip that morning and all lessons in Three-One Bravo were illegal.  Legally, as pilot in command, I was responsible for all aspects of flight.

With Mr. Muskat's untimely discovery of the error, my state of mind reached a low point. I locked up the plane and found a phone booth. The dispatcher at Pacific Airmotive summoned the chief mechanic, a fellow named Larson, to the phone. We had a chat. My part of the conversation would not be characterized as cordial. I returned to find Mr. Muskat sitting at his desk.

"May I have my log book, Mr. Muskat?" I asked.

"Are you going to fly back to Burbank?"

"Only after the chief mechanic shows up to straighten out the paperwork," I said.

Mr. Muskat sat back in his chair and showed me the fluorescent lights in his glasses. He handed me a copy of the regulations. "You may use that table again," he said.

"You mean -- "

"We will continue," said Mr. Muskat without smiling, "when you are ready."

For the next hour, I looked up answers to the Muskat questions. The chief mechanic in his coveralls arrived to stand head bowed in front of Mr. Muskat's desk. Mr. Larson apologized to both of us for the lapse in documentation. The three of us marched back out to the plane. I began my preflight inspection while Larson revised the entries in the Weight-and-Balance document.

"Show them to the pilot in command," said Mr. Muskat as he climbed into the right seat.

My mind was already occupied with the coming torment in the sky as I buckled in. Mr. Larson slinked away toward his car.

"Clear!" I hollered before starting the engine. I was working my way meticulously through the checklists. The key for the ignition was still in my pocket. Today, what else?

During our climbout, Mr. Muskat sat quietly making notes on his clipboard. I prepared to call Flight Service to activate my flight plan.

"Never mind that," said Mr. Muskat. "Take us over to Chatsworth and let's do some high work."

For the next hour, I was required to perform the complete syllabus of maneuvers -- both left and right -- some twice. Forward slips, stalls, slow-flight. Then came the dreaded steep-turns -- amazement! I hit my wake, four out of four. Mr. Muskat made no comment. Even a blind pig gets an acorn once in awhile. He asked me to show him an acceleration stall to the right. I had never heard of it.

"I haven't done acceleration stalls in the 172," I said.

Mr. Muskat called my bluff. "Same as in the Skylane," he hollered over the drone of the engine.

The flying books talk about how stall speed increases in a turn. At 60 degrees angle-of-bank, you pull 2 g's -- the plane doubles its weight. Maybe you just set up a steep turn at a low speed and haul back on the yoke. Worth a try. It didn't work.

I leveled the wings. Mr. Muskat made a note. "Try one to the left." I did and it didn't. The plane wrapped up tight with the left wing pointing at the whirling ground. But no stall.

"Maybe a steeper bank angle," I wondered aloud.

"Mind if I try?" asked Mr. Muskat. He put the clipboard in his lap and took the control wheel. Same result. "Damn Cessna wing," he muttered after his second try. "Really likes to fly!"

For the moment, so did I. Although my stomach began protesting the turns. Probably a good thing I had not eaten any lunch.

Mr. Muskat shook his head. "Take me to Santa Paula."

The ground below had a freeway, a shopping center, rolling hills, and some houses. Typical fare for the San Fernando Valley. I examined the chart and realized I did not know exactly where we were. Mr. Muskat watched me roam around the chart with my finger. If he were not here, I thought to myself, I would be using radio navigation right now. Then I figured, what the hell.

"Give me a moment," I said, dialing up the Van Nuys omni station. I centered the needle and estimated our location. A quick measurement with the scale and I had our course.

While I was steering the plane around to the desired heading, Mr. Muskat asked, "Where are we going?"

Something about his questions demolished my confidence. I rechecked the chart. "You did say Santa Susana, didn't you?"

"Santa Paula," he corrected. Before I could register my chagrin, Mr. Muskat sighed. "But if you want Santa Susanna, so be it. Give me an ETA."

Since I had not noted our time previously, I needed a new fix. Then I could measure the distance to Santa Susanna. I set to work on these matters. First I took a cross-bearing from the Fillmore omni station. Drat! If that's correct, we have just passed Santa Susanna.

It was and we had. I started a turn to the left and scanned the countryside below. No sign of an airport. Meanwhile, Mr. Muskat began looking intently at a spot on the ground to the right of the plane. I took the bait and turned right.

"Got an estimate for me yet?" he asked.

"We should be about over the airport," I said without much enthusiasm. "Just haven't spotted it yet." I pulled back on the power and started to descend, circling to the right. We came around to the direction in which I originally was searching. "The runway is next to a hill," I mused. "Like that one -- Oh, you gotta be kidding!"

"Something the matter?" asked Mr. Muskat. For the first time all day, I detected a hint of mirth in his demeanor. Santa Susanna was a dirt strip with a hill at one end and power lines at the other. From a couple thousand feet above, I could see a huge mud puddle across the touch-down zone.

"Mr. Muskat, I don't like what I see."

Angling into a right hand pattern, I completed my Before-Landing checklist. I flew parallel to the strip and pulled the throttle. We glided past the hill and turned base behind the hill. I could not even see the beginning of the runway. The crest of the hill passed immediately below our main-gear fairing, and I went to full flaps. Not good enough. We would touch down about midfield. I applied full power and eased up the flaps. Mr. Muskat wrote a note and folded his arms as the engine labored to establish a climb.

"I'll try again, this time slower," I said.

Putting down full flaps on base leg, I kept the airspeed pinned at 55 knots. As we crested the hill, I closed the throttle and reviewed the situation. Our angle-of-descent was exceptionally steep, but the Santa Susanna pond was already passing behind us. Full power again.

Well now just shit.

The regs say that either party -- candidate or examiner -- can terminate the check-ride at any time. This would never be my day. So much for the flight school. So much for John. So much for adventures in the sky and Two-Four Fox. I was ready to give notice.

"Mr. Muskat, I think -- "

"Mind if I try?" asked Mr. Muskat. Once again, he put the clipboard in his lap and took the control wheel, slouching in his seat. "The whole trick is to adjust your approach pattern to fit the conditions at each airport. Santa Susanna is not Van Nuys." Mr. Muskat extended his crosswind leg for a quarter mile. "Here, you should fly a wide pattern," he continued. With one glance over at the runway, he closed the throttle. "We don't need that anymore. Now, we simply play the flaps on base, see?"

The plane glided directly at that goddam hill but this time at a right angle to the strip. At the last second, Mr. Muskat racked into a turn and put down full flaps.

"I'll be damned," I said. Our touch-down point would be just before the mud puddle.

"Your airplane!" exclaimed Mr. Muskat, relinquishing the controls. "Take it around again."

"Hey, I gotta try it your way." My emulation of the Muskat approach was nearly perfect. I even slouched in my seat. On short final, I became transfixed by the achievement. Mr. Muskat broke the spell.

"Let's not muddy-up this airplane," said he. "Take me back to Van Nuys."

The return trip was routine. I expected that Mr. Muskat would put me through several touch-and-go landings. Instead, on the roll-out, he picked up the microphone and requested a taxi clearance back to the GADO building.

"Better to enter patterns further downwind," he said while we taxied. "That way you are less likely to overlap with departing aircraft." It was more of a tip than a criticism.

Back in his office, Mr. Muskat offered me the use of the work table to complete my study of the questions I had missed. It was four o'clock. After a half an hour, I suddenly craved the chocolate bar in my pocket, now melted. Peeling off part of the paper, I extruded its lumpy mass into my mouth with one hand while excerpting regulations with the other.

"Do you take cream?"

I looked up, surprised to see Mr. Muskat standing over me. He put a cup of coffee on the table and sat down.

"Black is fine," I said. "Just a few more of your questions."

Mr. Muskat sat back and put one leg up on the corner of the table. He cradled his cup in both hands. "Did you get the one about the 'control zone'?"

"'Control zone' and 'airport traffic control area' -- I always get the terms confused," I said.

"Lots of people do. What else is giving you trouble?"

"The purpose of the blue-tinted transition areas -- "

"Hell, that's just to give you VFR pilots some extra uncontrolled airspace to fly in," said Mr. Muskat with a chuckle. He dropped his foot to the floor and stood up. "Bring your stuff back over to my desk."

Other GADO people began leaving for the day. Mr. Muskat took off his glasses. He put his hands behind his head and looked at me with tired eyes.

"Well, what do you think?" he asked.

"I sure missed a lot of questions this morning," I said.

"You found the answers, though. In flying, you must never stop studying. What else?"

"I neglected to check the Weight-and-Balance thing -- "

"You will never make that mistake again."

"Mr. Muskat, the acceleration stalls -- "

"Your maneuvers were commercial quality."

"How about Santa Susanna?" I asked.

Mr. Muskat grinned. "Until you have several hundred hours, you have no business going into airports like that."

We sat in silence for a moment. Mr. Muskat opened a folder on his desk and examined a small white paper. He took a deep breath.

"Here's your license," he said solemnly. "Now go out and learn how to fly an airplane."

Home Page
Table of Contents
Contact Author