You start your flying career with a bag full of luck and an empty bag of experience.  The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck.  -- Old Aviation Saying
Sky Below

A quiet evening with friends, Harry and Donna, Murray and Nancy. The perfect way to celebrate my small achievement in the sky.  Soon after arrival, Harry complained of a mild stomach distress. Murray offered to drive Harry to the pharmacy. I said I would stay behind and help the girls in the kitchen. Murray persuaded me to ride along.

"Don't you want to try my new car?" asked Murray. "Got a great turning radius, you know."

"Isn't that a wonderful thing," I exclaimed with forced enthusiasm.

On our return, the house was dark. And then, "Surprise!"

During our absence, 60 people rushed across the back lawn from the neighbor's house, where they had been hiding. The signal was Murray's car departing. They quickly draped the living room in orange cargo chutes, covered the walls in airplane posters, and released balloons to fill the ceiling. Everybody wore aviation garb.

Gag gifts included a risque' survival kit, WWI flying togs, a Tom Swift book, and toy planes. I received comic certificates and bogus medals. One of the treasures, a pair of fleece-lined flying gloves, was given to me by Murray.

"Those'll come in handy," slurred John. I groaned, of course. John handed me an envelope without smiling. It contained his handmade certificate for an aerobatics lesson in an open-cockpit airplane -- scheduled, not quite thoughtfully, for the very next day.

Two years later John's gift would save my life.
The instructor for my first aerobatics lesson was well into his sixties, face deeply carved by wind, sun, and scowls. Mr. Dillard had completed a distinguished military flying career. He operated out of a small office at Torrance Airport.

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

The man stood before me in a Government issue flying jacket, his stony eyes staring into a mirror on the back of the office door. Declining the offer of my hand, he continued instead the ceremonial wrapping of a silk scarf around his neck. "What is the purpose of the rudder?" he asked.

When I met Mr. Dillard that Sunday morning, he spared no time for amenities. I was startled by his question and hesitated. "The rudder -- "

"How many hours do you have?"

I shrugged. "About seventy-five."

"The rudder controls yaw," Dillard proclaimed. He stopped in mid-wrap and stared at me.

I repeated the words like a child in a classroom. "The rudder controls yaw."

"The rudder is the only control that never reverses its effect," said Dillard as he tied an intricate knot in the scarf. "During inverted flight, forward on the elevator means 'up,' and even the ailerons take on opposite sense, but the rudder -- " Dillard suddenly froze and frowned. "You will freeze in that jacket," he said. "What do you have for your hands?"

"My friends gave me a party last night; these were among the gifts -- "

"Mittens? How the hell do you expect to feel the controls wearing mittens?"

"British flying gloves, I think. They have a separate part here, probably for the trigger finger, see?"

Dillard grimaced. "Wear these," he said, tossing me a spare flight jacket and gloves. The rest of the morning, it became clear, would be an exercise in the management of relationship tension. Dillard makes Muskat seem like a lapdog. I took my ego off autopilot.

The Stearman was a wood-and-fabric biplane built in the '40s with a huge radial engine.  N68324 reminded me of the first airplane I ever saw.

Stearman and Dillard

Immaculately restored and painted powder blue, this priceless relic was owned by a local physician. His name was Gray or something. He spent his Sundays wearing fatigues, puttering about the plane. As Dillard and I strode up in our leather and silk, Dr. Gray was busy caressing the cowling with a cloth. He shook my hand and spoke reverently of the Stearman's history as a trainer in World War II.

"Pull the straps until they hurt," commanded Dillard. He stood on the wing supervising my bondage into the aft cockpit. I found a limp leather helmet atop the control stick. To the ear covers were attached rubber tubes that joined in a Y-shaped manifold connected through the panel into the forward cockpit. Dillard held up a mouth-piece in the shape of a cone connected at the far end. "I will speak to you through this," he said. Dillard commenced to climb into the forward cockpit.

"How will I be able to speak to you?" I asked cheerfully.

Mr. Dillard turned slowly to face me. "You have nothing to say that I have the slightest interest in hearing."

I get it. We are playing "Combat Flight School," subtitled "Washed-Out Flying-Ace Reclaims Self-Esteem by Humiliating Cadet."

Once ensconced in his seat, Dillard checked the one-way intercom. "If you get sick, move the stick from side to side," he said through the tube.

If I get sick? Oh, right, this is aerobatics. We will be looping and rolling and spinning. And I'm the guy who can barf on a ferris wheel.

Motion sickness, however, played no part in the distress I experienced that Sunday morning in 1967. I suffered instead from a paralyzing fear. It was a rude discovery.
"Contact!" yelled Mr. Dillard. I thought back to the Champ and Steve. Unlike that moment three decades before, my appreciation was sharply constrained by the abuse that a boisterous celebration had inflicted upon me the night before.

Doctor Gray swung his leg and pulled the propeller through. The engine coughed and sputtered, grouchy and reluctant to do business. Cold prop-wash filled the cockpit with the smells of combustion. As we turned toward the taxiway, the doctor saluted.

The sensations of flight are intensified in an open-cockpit plane. Not always pleasantly. A hundred knots gives 'wind-chill factor' a new meaning.

On the climb-out, Mr. Dillard instructed me to make 'clearing' turns first to the left then to the right. "Line up the guy wire with the horizon," he said. It was the first time I had ever flown with a stick. Rolling out level after the first turn, I watched the needle-and-ball indicator. The ball was perfectly centered. Inspired, I rolled the Stearman into a right turn. Dillard dashed my pride to smithereens.

"You slipped to the left and skidded to the right," he told me. "That ball you see there is made of steel. I put a magnet behind the panel to keep it centered for you." Dillard terminated our climb at 4,500 feet and headed the plane toward the Catalina Channel. "The Stearman is flown by feel not by instruments," he said, as if reading from a syllabus.

Above the ocean, several miles beyond the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Dillard began talking me through conventional maneuvers. He sounded like a recording. I could feel his exaggerated corrective pressures on the controls whenever I did not coordinate things perfectly, which was just about always.

My first experience with inverted flight was the aileron roll. Dillard instructed me to take my feet off the rudder pedals and hold on to the struts on either side of the cockpit while he demonstrated the maneuver. The horizon rotated before my eyes. I felt the seat withdraw from my backside. In the instant before the shoulder straps took effect, I gaped straight up -- up, not down! -- at the ocean and was seized by a primitive fright.

My mind imploded with a thousand nightmares. "Aiee!"  My shins struck the control panel. I nearly wrested two struts from the fuselage.

As we came back level, Dillard picked up the speaking tube. "Perhaps now you understand why I told you to pull the straps until they hurt," he said. "I will give you an opportunity to comply with those instructions at this time."

For a long moment I sat rubbing my shins, stunned by my own phobic impulses. Dillard glanced back over his shoulder, then spoke again. "Signal with the control stick when you are ready to continue."
 

There is nothing irrational about some phobias. A healthy fear of snakes or heights might well be favored in the genes. Indeed, our ancestors in jungles and mountains who lacked those fears must have produced few competent offspring. 

Untested, though, our phobias remain concealed. A lifetime spent rightside up and I would never have known the intensity of my aversion to inversion.

I tugged at the shoulder harness until my ribs and pelvis fused. Breathing will have to wait until I get back on the ground. I waggled the stick timidly.

"You must learn to trust the straps," said Mr. Dillard for what must have been the gazillionth time. "Hold the control stick between the fingers of your right hand and follow me through on both stick and rudder."

The Stearman rolls again. With sky below, straps be damned! Helplessly, I witness the demonic possession of all my appendages at once. My legs stiffen against the rudder-pedals while both hands join in mindless reflex. Two fists pull back on the stick, trying to restore pressure to the seat of my pants! Dillard forces the stick forward smartly and brings us around level. His words come through the speaking tube in professorial tones. "While inverted, remember, the effect of the elevator is reversed," said Dillard. "Pulling back makes the plane dive. Concentrate on the control pressures."

My maverick right hand played a lesser role in the next -- well, roll. That's progress. As instructed, I executed a climbing turn to regain altitude in preparation for more aileron rolls while Mr. Dillard lectured me through the speaking tube about the perils of the 'split-S,' the maneuver for which my errant reflexes had a passion. "Pulling over into a dive from inverted flight can result in the loss of more wings than we can spare. This lesson would be ended in about thirty seconds. With no refund."

Dillard turned us upside down again and again, each time preceding the maneuver with a new command. "Think of your ass as 'down' (roll)." "Keep your head square with the wings (roll)."

The cumulative effect of these ministrations was the conquest of my phobic funk. Gradually I was able to ignore my misguided instincts and to observe the movement of the controls: Roll-in-with-rudder, PUSH, roll-out-with-rudder.

"Your turn," said Dillard.

My, uh, turn. I listened to the roar of the wind and felt the buffeting cold in my face. All right, I thought to myself. What the hell.

"Hoo-hah!" I myself rolled a goddam airplane. Historic event: No longer stupefied by the sky below, I just rolled this son-of-a-bitchin' Stearman all the way upside down and rightside up again. I got giddy. Congratulations to me, damn it. Rightside up? Hey, what's so right about it?

"Do not yank and shove the stick," Dillard admonished. "Again -- smoothly this time."

More than two years went by before I had an opportunity to apply my limited skill in aerobatic flight. During that time, I acquired an instrument rating and hundreds of hours. A sequence of job changes and residential moves resulted in a 65-mile commute diagonally across all of Greater Los Angeles, with its contiguous suburbs lashed together by freeways chrome-to-chrome. I lived in Corona del Mar and worked in Santa Monica. For the next nine months, I became the rarest kind of commuter in the world.

Even on instrument flying days, the trip took just 15 minutes in the air, 55 minutes door-to-door. During rush hours, it could take more than two hours by car. I kept an 'airport limousine' (a '57 Chevy stationwagon) at Santa Monica Airport and flew from the Orange County Airport. It was a certifiable cross-country flight, passing over six busy airports twice a day. Some mornings I had 'sky-poolers,' but usually I flew alone.
 

The word got out. One morning I had a newspaper team take the trip with me, another time a TV crew.  For a photographic record of my extraordinary way of avoiding gridlock, see Commuter in the Sky, which features priceless photographs showing famous Southern California landmarks as they existed in the sixties -- when City Hall was the tallest building in Los Angeles and Disneyland was surrounded by orange groves. 

After a period of a few weeks, I could recognize the voices and styles of all the controllers who staffed the radios and radars along the route. They knew me, too.

"Good morning, Orange County Clearance Delivery," I would say. "Two-Four Fox is ready with the read-back." That was my routine radio call before starting the engine. Normally, of course, the pilot asks for a clearance, a formal contract with the controllers, which is then dictated to the pilot over the radio, taken down in 'aviation short-hand,' and finally read back.

"Go ahead with your 'read-back,' Two-Four Fox."

My recitation went faster each morning: "ATC clears Skylane Two-Eight-Two-Four Foxtrot to the Santa Monica Airport via Seal Beach VOR, Victor 25, direct. Climb to three thousand. Maintain runway heading for radar vectors. Contact Long Beach Departure 127.2 after take-off." I would stop for a breath, then ask, "Same squawk as yesterday?"

"Yeah."

Not all of my occasional sky-poolers worked in Santa Monica. Our main plant was closer to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Landing amongst the jets on Runway 25 Left was a daily thrill. Approach Control would deliver me high at the outer marker, which is the radio fix a half-dozen miles from touchdown, so that I could put Two-Four Fox into a full-power, shallow-dive to stay out of the way of the big guys.

The evenings were generally VFR. Once they got to know me and Two-Four Fox, the tower controllers at LAX enjoyed offering me special challenges. I remember one particularly busy evening while I was cruising directly over LAX at 2,500 feet southbound.

"Two-Four Fox, you're cleared to land, Runway Two-Five Left. Make short approach."

For a landing toward the west, I had to make a Bob Hoover-like 270-degree descending turn. I closed the throttle, and pulled the plane up to near stall. The big Fowler flaps on Two-Four Fox let me peel off into a shuddering dive. Ears popping, I flared, spiked the numbers, and caught the first turn-off.

"Nice one," said the tower operator.

"Heck, me and Two-Four Fox can land across your danged runway."

Whoosh! came the airliner behind my tail.
One morning, when I arrived at Santa Monica, conditions were reported as 'zero-zero,' an impenetrable stratus deck about 400 feet thick. I knew it would burn off by ten, but I had a meeting scheduled for nine. Over a local Unicom frequency, I requested the dispatcher, an excitable young woman, to relay a message to my office.

"Tell my secretary, please, that I cannot land and to cancel the meeting." She repeated back the message. I thanked her. Then I throttled back to maximum endurance cruise. For a couple of hours, I loitered up and down the California Coast in the clear blue sky, thoroughly engaged in the purest joy of flying.

"What happened?" asked Sol, one of my non-flying colleagues. He was waiting for me outside my office when I arrived just before noon. "They said you couldn't land!" His was the first of many worried inquiries that day. Nice to know people care.

"With eleven hours of fuel on board, I hardly regarded the morning fog as an emergency," I explained to Sol and to others throughout the day.

"Not having an eleven-hour urinary bladder was my only concern," I told Ted, the company jester, in jest.

Ted arranged for that message to be broadcast over the paging system.

Sol rushed back to my office. He's one of those people who cannot abide life's absurdities. "What in the world would you do?" he queried.

"I keep an empty peanut-butter jar in the baggage compartment," said I.  "Only trouble is, Sol, without an autopilot, I don't have any way to get behind the seats."

Always helpful, Sol offered me an idea he saw in a movie (probably a Saturday morning cartoon). It involved a rubberband jury-rigged to the control wheel to keep the plane level.

"Sol, please don't tell Ted this, but if I had a rubberband in the plane today, I wouldn't have used it on the control wheel."
Flying to work every day took some of the incentive out of weekend trips with the family. So we bought a new house in Palos Verdes. It would not be ready before school started, however. Rather than make the children change schools in the middle of a term, we decided to put another 'airport limousine,' a dented Vauxhall, at Torrance Airport and -- you have probably guessed.

"Good morning, Torrance Tower. Two-Four Fox is inbound from the Queen Mary with your numbers."

"Schoolbus-in-the-Sky, you're cleared to land," said Don, my old friend in the tower.

My wife would ride along every morning, drive the kids to school, and then spend the day supervising the contractors. In the evening, I would drop by, literally, and pick them up.  When there were no homework assignments, we might have dinner in San Diego, Palm Springs, or Santa Barbara. This procedure, however enjoyable, went on several weeks longer than we had planned.

One morning, a ground fog postponed our landing at Torrance, which necessitated tardiness reports at school. Neither my daughter nor my son had bothered to tell their teachers about our unorthodox commuting routine. One might imagine the administrative consternation resulting from the late-slip filled out by my son. "We couldn't land," it said.
My eleven-year-old daughter Victoria and I flew into Torrance one evening to round up two of her friends for a birthday party. Both girls were waiting at the airport. I shut down the engine just long enough for them to climb aboard and buckle up. Following a quick re-start, we taxied back and were cleared for an immediate take-off.

No checklists, no run-up. No prudence.

On the take-off roll -- trouble! That sound again -- "woo-AH-oo-oh" -- holy shit!
 

Nearly three years had flown by since the incident at Fox Field. Thousands of symptom-free take-offs in Two-Four Fox. The fuselage and nose-gear had been repaired, but no explanation had been found for the cause of the crash. 

Was the engine really losing its power during the take-off roll? 

  • If so, why? 
  • If not, what was wrong with me that I would imagine the sound of a failing engine and shut it down? 
  • If -- holy-moly -- if I ever were to hear that sound again, what would I do
At Fox Field, I was a mere student pilot on my first cross-country solo. Now with my logbook showing a thousand hours in the sky, would I immediately shut-down the engine and take the consequences or hesitate -- until there might be no runway left or would I wait until the engine slows to a sputtering stop?  What!

Two-Four Fox spoke, "woo-AH-oo-oh." I heard the complaint and shut down the engine. This time even sooner, and this time there was enough room to stop. Three young girls squealed.

"Two-Four Fox is aborting," I announced to the tower.

A quick glance at the control panel and a three-year puzzle was solved. I grinned at Victoria, wide-eyed in the seat beside me. "Eureka!" I shouted. She gave me a thumbs up.

The propeller control was wrongly positioned out of the panel by an inch.
 

Two-Four Fox has a controllable-pitch propeller. A better term for it is constant-speed engine. Spring-loaded weights inside the spinner actually determine the pitch and indirectly the speed of the engine. The pilot, by operating the propeller control, sets the tension on the spring. The controllable-pitch, constant-speed feature proves to be an elegant means to achieve engine efficiency over a range of airspeeds. But it adds a slight procedural complexity. 

At take-off, the pilot "pushes everything into the panel," including the propeller pitch control. The engine thus takes on its take-off load at the highest RPM setting -- much like an automobile in 'low gear.' 'High gear' is used for cruising. Once at altitude, the pilot normally pulls back the propeller control to set the pitch for a lower engine speed. Approaching the destination airport, as part of his descent checklist, the pilot routinely 'down-shifts' the propeller, as it were. That constitutes a logical precaution in case of a balked landing. Better not to attempt a go-round in 'high gear.'

A thousand hours and three years later -- this time with three passengers -- I did it again. Shoving in the throttle with the propeller control left out, causes the engine first to rev up up to about 2,500 RPM and then start automatically seeking a lower value -- 2,200 RPM in this case -- making the sickening sound of a dying engine.

At Fox Field in 1966, I simply must have neglected to reset the propeller control prior to landing. After digging a trench in the sand with my nose gear, I did not notice the mistake -- or if I did, I could not apprehend its significance.  Strange, isn't it, that none of the experts thought to ask me about the propeller control.

Oh, and to this day, I won't even go to the bathroom without a checklist.

It was a costly error: thousands for repair and, with the incident documented in its maintenance log, thousands deductible from the value of the airplane. Not that I would ever sell Two-Four Fox.

"Two-For Fox, do you require assistance?"

"Negative, OK if we taxi back for a run-up?"

"Roger that. "
One morning in 1969, during my morning commute, I had reason to remember Mr. Dillard and the Stearman. The aerobatics lesson John bought me had included much more than the aileron roll. Dillard had me waltzing the Stearman all over the sky. Loops, by the way, were easy for me. As a 'positive-g' maneuver, the loop keeps one's bottom firmly pressed into the seat. Same with spins.

The main gain from that aerobatics lesson, however, was learning not to go psycho with the sky below.

There was a 500-foot ceiling over Orange County Airport that morning. Tops were reported at about 1,500 feet. As is so often the case in Southern California, where most of the weather is produced over the Pacific, conditions were nearly the same as the day before. I was taking off alone behind a Fairchild F-27. That, too, was the same as the day before. I watched the medium-sized, turbo-prop airliner pull up and disappear into the overcast.

"Two-Four Fox, One-Niner Right, cleared for take-off. Caution wake turbulence from departed F-27. Wind calm."

"Two-Four Fox is rolling," I said, conforming to the custom of that time. The term 'rolling,' of course, refers to what the wheels do on the runway, not to -- well, I'm getting ahead of my story here.
 

The expression 'wake turbulence' does not precisely express the danger encountered by light aircraft flying behind the big guys. 

'Wingtip vortex' is more to the point.

Trailing each wingtip is an invisible whirlpool produced by the difference in air pressure that necessarily exists between the top and bottom of the airliner's wing. 

Think of the 'pipeline' in surfing parlance. Imagine then a small airplane flying along inside the unseen pipeline, its wings torqued by the swirling air.

Depending on local wind, wingtip vortices can stay in the air for several minutes. Calm wind happens to be the worst condition for vortices. Not long before that day, I read about a light twin that flipped over and slammed upside down onto an industrial parking lot while approaching LAX, having followed too closely behind a heavy jet. 

With that in mind, I should have declined the take-off clearance for a couple of minutes to allow the F-27's vortices to dissipate.  Instead...

Two-Four Fox came off the ground and established its climb. Orange County Tower authorized the frequency change to Departure Control.

"S'long," I acknowledged, then changed frequencies.

"Departure Control, Skylane Two-Eight-Two-Four Foxtrot is with you, climbing to 3,000."

"Good morning, Two-Four Fox, radar contact one mile south of Orange County Airport, maintain one-niner-zero, and report reaching three thousand."

"One-niner-zero the heading. Will report three."

I hung up the microphone and locked my eyes on the gauges as the plane entered the overcast. I hummed to myself as Two-Four Fox showed me 600 feet per minute climb rate at 85 knots. A couple of minutes to 'on-top.'

The sky is getting brighter, the sure sign that I am reaching the top of the stratus layer. Bursts of cobalt blue above.
The next few seconds are among the most durable in my recollections. In the time since that take-off from Orange County behind the F-27, I have experienced any number of intense adventures -- in business, in travel, in life. Yet, nothing has displaced even the smallest detail in my memory of Two-Four Fox's encounter with an invisible whirlwind.

First, I felt a thump as if Two-Four Fox had been driven off a curb. The plane began a spontaneous roll to the right. I vainly opposed the motion, increasing left aileron until the control wheel was against the stop. The horizon passed through the vertical, and my seat strap pulled up taut against my legs. My briefcase hit the ceiling. The engine increased in pitch.

The sky below disappeared in the clouds. I cast my eyes toward the gyro horizon, which had already tumbled and was wobbling hypnotically, like an oversized coin spinning on a counter-top. The altimeter started to unwind.

Somewhere from the inner recesses of my frantic mind came a command repeated by Mr. Dillard through that confounded speaking tube. "PUSH!" It was counter-intuitive. And it was correct. "Push," he had hollered, "means up not down when you're upside down!"

The engine labored into an inverted climb. My head pressed against the ceiling. The control wheel was still hard left unable to arrest the roll. Another thump and I fell heavily into my seat. My briefcase banged against the back of the seat beside me on the way to the floor. The direction gyro was a blur of spinning digits. It, too, had tumbled. The magnetic compass was knocked off its axis.

With my briefcase on the floor and my backside pressed into the seat, I had reason to believe the plane was rightside up. The needle-and-ball told me the plane was turning left. I neutralized the controls and checked the airspeed: 100 knots. Altimeter 1,100. The turn stopped, and I pulled back to 85 knots. A brisk tapping on the compass and it regains its bearings, floating in mineral oil with a couple of bubbles added. I caged the direction gyro and reset it. The artificial horizon was stuck askew. Heading about 180. Breaking out into the blue again.

I don't feel like humming just yet.

Dillard would surely have grumped that it was a mistake to fight the vortex -- that I should turned the wheel to the right instead of trying in vain to roll back to the left.

One thing, at least: On a certain morning in 1969, upside down in a cloud, I did not pull Two-Four Fox into any panicky split-S, and my plane was allowed to keep both its wings. Thanks for that, Mr. Dillard. Go ahead and admonish me for wrenching the controls around the wrong way. Next time I'll do it smoother.

"Two-Four Fox, turn right, heading two-seven-zero. Radar vectors to Seal Beach."

Unaware of recent events, Departure Control casually gave me my morning turn on-course for Santa Monica.


 
 
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