Flying Airplanes (part 1)

An essay by James A Graves, Jr.


Iíve been fascinated with airplanes and dreamed of flying since I could walk.† There was a giant short-leaf pine deep in the planted pine grove about a quarter mile from our trailer.† I used to stand underneath and look up, wondering how tall it was and how far I would be able to see from high up in its branches.

When I was tall enough to reach the bottom limbs I climbed all the way to the very top.† Towering over the slash pines around it, the ancient pine provided a view of the surrounding forest that seemed to go on forever.† It was the closest I had ever been to flying and I loved it.† That treetop became my airplane, and we flew often, soaring above the forest.† My pine tree aircraft swayed quite a bit, but that only added realism to my pretend flights and made my dream of flying even more desirable.

Unfortunately, I received no encouragement or help with my dream.† On the contrary, I was told by my father and others that I was too stupid to learn to fly.† They said that only people who had a high aptitude for mathematics was smart enough to fly an airplane, so I might as well forget that idea.

It was very disheartening, and frustrating, because a pilot and aircraft owner, Captain Waldo, spent summers living in a travel trailer at Morrison Spring, no more than fifty yards from our trailer.† Although I was never given an opportunity to ride in his Mooney Mark 21, he was kind enough to give me my first airplane ride in a Piper Cub that belonged to the Walton County Civil Air Patrol, based at the airport in DeFuniak Springs.† We flew over Morrison Spring.† It was the first and last time I had an aerial view of the spring except for the satellite pictures from Google Earth.

In my early 30ís an opportunity finally presented itself and, in the spring of 1984 I enrolled in Pilotís Ground School at a local community college in Manteo, North Carolina.† I was more than a bit irritated to discover that the ground school and the FAA Pilot Written Exam was relatively easy.† Apparently, I wasnít quite as stupid as I had been told.

I had flight training at Dare County Airport (MQI) in Manteo, and earned my wings - my private pilot certificate, on November 8th 1984.† During my next visit home I took sadistic joy in flaunting that certificate in my fatherís face.


When you allow someone to crush your dreams and hold you back itís often difficult to overcome it.† You might even begin to believe that you canít do it, but you need to keep trying anyway.†

I couldíve been flying since the early 70ís when I was in the USAF, but I didnít have any confidence in myself.† Also, I thought that learning to fly was too expensive, but hindsight is heartless. 


Aircraft rental rates for Air Force flying clubs back then were really low, like $12-$15/hour for a Cessna 150.  Throttle jockeys were typically instructors, building hours for a future job with the airlines, and their rates were low as well.  The training cost to get a pilotís license in the late 60ís and early 70ís was around $1,000.00, but it was spread out over the span of the training, paid a lesson at a time, so it was affordable.  Hindsight is so aggravating.  My actual training cost was closer to $3000.  Now itís closer to $10,000.


I wanted to build my own airplane from a kit.† Many kits are available.† I also wanted to get my Rotary Wing Rating to fly helicopters and build my own helicopter from a kit.† Many helicopter kits are available, too.† All it takes is money.† Money that I didnít have and still donít have.†

Reality has a nasty habit of intruding on dreams and taking them down a notch or two.

But wouldnít it be cool to have a small helicopter parked in your back yard that you could fly anytime you felt like it?  (One of my many rich-guy-toys dreams) J


In 1985 I bought in to a 50% partnership on a 1968 Piper Cherokee PA-28-140B, FAA tail number N5541F, for $2000 after I moved from Wanchese, NC back to Ajo, AZ.  It was a helluva deal - the Cherokee was valued at $12,000 for insurance purposes, but the owner was desperate because all of his partners had bailed (no pun intended).


Unfortunately, my new partner was lazy, so I did most of the work to get the Cherokee in proper flying shape, repairing the radios, sprucing up the paint and such.  But I loved that little bird and had a blast flying it around Arizona.


It was a truly sad day for me when I had to sell my share of the Cherokee after taking a 33% pay cut after leaving the defense contractor that I worked for and hiring onboard with the FAA. 

My co-owner, claiming that he couldnít afford to keep the Cherokee, gave me no choice but to sell my share, and managed to work a scam that left me with less than I had originally invested, but I had no way to prove it and negotiate a better deal.† But, as the Tralfamadorians in Kurt Vonnegutís classic novel, Slaughterhouse-5, were fond of saying, ďSo it goes.Ē

After that our finances never really recovered enough to get back into flying the way I wanted to.  Owning an airplane had spoiled me and the cost of aviation continued to skyrocket.  Renting a plane and flying a few hours each month, or worse, every other month, is just not enough flight time to maintain proficiency, and a good way to end up an air crash fatality statistic.†

As the old pilot motto goes, ďFly with care, else the ground rise up and smite thee.Ē


However, I had a few interesting events during my flight training.† In June of 1984 I flew a Cessna C-150 Commuter N11463 from Manteo (MQI) to Norfolk International (NFO) with my instructor for cross country & night training.† On the flight back to MQI I was doing touch & goes at Chesapeake Regional Airport (CPK), which is 12 miles south of Norfolk.† CPK is an uncontrolled airport.†


For those not familiar with flying, a VFR (visual flight rules) landing pattern is rectangular, with one of the long sides of the rectangle being the runway.† A landing pattern is typically flown counterclockwise (making left turns), at around 1000 feet above ground level (AGL).† Although the pattern altitude isnít mandatory, most small aircraft pilots adopt a pattern altitude between 800 and 1000 feet.† Faster, high-performance aircraft pilots typically use 1500 feet.†

Since it is much easier to control an aircraft at slow speeds while flying into the wind, the aircraft is configured for landing Ė altitude, flaps, engine RPM, airspeed, carburetor heat, etc., while flying with the wind, parallel to the runway.† This is called the downwind leg.


Continuing on the downwind leg, adjacent to the touchdown point on the runway, power is reduced and a left turn is made to the base leg of the landing pattern.† The aircraft descends and travels on the base leg to a point perpendicular to the runway.† Then the turn to final is made, into the wind, lining up with the center line of the runway.†


On final approach, the proper touchdown speed (referred to as VREF) and descent rate are attained.† Just before touchdown, engine power is cut, the wheels touch, brakes are applied if needed, the aircraft slows down, and the pilot taxis the aircraft off the runway at the appropriate taxiway.

If the pilot chooses to do a touch and go, as soon as the wheels touch, carburetor heat is turned off, flaps are retracted, power is applied, the aircraft accelerates and the pilot rotates the aircraft off the runway when the proper takeoff speed (referred to as V2) is attained.

As the aircraft climbs, the pilot attains the best rate of climb speed (referred to as Vy), and continues to climb toward pattern altitude, then makes a left turn to the crosswind leg.† As the aircraft reaches pattern altitude on the crosswind leg, the pilot makes another left turn to enter the downwind leg.† At this point, the pilot either levels out and begins to configure the aircraft for landing, or continues to climb and departs the pattern.

At CPK, on that moonless, pitch dark night in Virginia, I was making the proper radio calls on the designated CTAF (common traffic advisory frequency) as I entered downwind, transmitting in the blind to any pilot listening, announcing my aircraft type, tail number, and intention to do a touch and go on runway 5.† I made a call before each turn in the pattern, providing the necessary information to determine my exact location in the landing pattern.†


As I climbed out on the crosswind leg of my second touch & go, I announced my turn and intention to enter downwind for runway 5.† I had just begun my turn to downwind at about 1000 feet AGL, when suddenly, a high wing aircraft appeared directly in front and slightly above my aircraft.† The intruder filled the entire windscreen, and was so close that I could only see part of the fuselage, including the right side windows and door, and part of the right main wing, the strut and right main landing gear.† The red interior lights were on.† I saw the pilot, sitting in the left seat, wearing a baseball style cap.† To this very day I can recall that moment; a slow motion replay permanently etched into my memory.†


I instantly shoved the yoke (aileron and elevator control wheel) forward to put my aircraft in a dive and try to slip beneath the intruder.† When I looked down at the instruments to determine the attitude and situation of my aircraft, I was surprised to find that John, my instructor, sitting in the right seat, had one hand on my yoke and one hand on his yoke, making certain that the aircraft was in a full, nose down, wings level attitude.† The entire event transpired in no more than three seconds.


John immediately released the controls as I pulled back on the yoke to level out and regain control.† I looked to my right and I could see the white tail light and flashing red beacon of the clueless intruderís aircraft in the distance as he made his way toward the northeast.


I immediately initiated a hard right turn and said, ďLetís follow that bastard!Ē

John chuckled and said, ďLet him go.† He never even saw us.† Do one more touch and go and then head to the barn.Ē


If I had been flying solo Iím certain that I would have followed the idiot.† He had blown through the Chesapeake Regional Airport pattern, at pattern altitude, obviously not listening to the CTAF, otherwise he would have heard my radio calls and avoided the traffic pattern entirely.

I wouldíve liked to have seen the look on his face when I told him that our aircraft had missed colliding by a scant few feet, and that tiny distance was just how close our lives came to ending that night.


Toward the end of my flight training I was flying C-150 N50854 in the process of completing a requirement to fly a three-leg solo cross country, with each leg in excess of 100 miles.† I completed the first leg from Manteo to Emporia-Greensville Regional Airport (EMV) Emporia, Virginia, but the weather was deteriorating due to a cold front moving through the Eastern Seaboard.†

I had encountered a lowering ceiling and light rain on my way to EMV, so I decided to get an updated weather report for my second destination, Coastal Carolina Regional Airport (EWN) New Bern, NC.† EWN reported thunderstorms in progress with a tornado watch.† I take very seriously the three rules of flying near thunderstorms; 1. Do not fly into or near thunderstorms. 2. Do NOT fly into or near thunderstorms. 3. DO NOT FLY into or near thunderstorms!

So, I cancelled my original flight plan, refueled, and filed a flight plan for a return to Manteo.


On my return trip the ceiling was initially somewhat low, and since visual flight rules (VFR) require the aircraft to stay 500 feet below the cloud ceiling, I was cruising at 1800 feet AGL or so, encountering occasional showers but no turbulence.† It was a pleasant flight with good visibility despite the rain.† It was the first time that I had encountered rain in flight.† I found it fascinating to watch the raindrops fall past my aircraft, only to disappear below me as they continued on toward the ground.† Somehow, flying alone in that peaceful, wondrous solitude, I actually felt at home in the sky.† I enjoyed the challenge of making a good landing, but that emotion was mixed with the disappointment that the flight was ending.† I always wanted to stay up there just a little longer.


As I made my way toward the Outer Banks, the rain stopped and the ceiling lifted considerably.†

I climbed to a more suitable 3500 feet AGL and slid along beneath puffy white mounds of scattered cumulus clouds, watching for my ground check points across the flat landscape that stretched out before me.


Except for my regimented scan of the instruments every few minutes I kept my eyes outside the cockpit, scanning for birds, other aircraft and the multitude of unexpected things that can be seen along the way.† Suddenly, less than a minute ahead of my aircraft, a twin engine aircraft popped out of a cloud, descended from the upper left of my windscreen to the lower right of my windscreen, cutting directly across my flightpath, and then quickly disappeared into the distance.


Seconds later I passed by the point where the twin had popped out of the cloud and thought, if I had taken off from EMV just thirty seconds earlier, the burning rubble that had been our two aircraft might be raining down on the ground below me right now.† And I wondered if the pilot of that fast, twin prop aircraft even seen my aircraft, or realized how stupid it is to punch through a cloud layer, flying totally blind with no clue what might be waiting just ahead.† Such is the mentality that creates air crash fatality statistics.†††††† †††††††††† ††††††††††

End of Part 1

©2017 James A Graves, Jr.†††††††††††††††††††††† Click Here for Part 2