Flying Airplanes (part 2)
An essay by James A Graves, Jr.
When I was ready for my final flight exam to become a private pilot, which is called the “Check Ride”, I had to fly to Elizabeth City Regional Airport (ECG), NC, to meet my pilot examiner, Buck Evans. He is, by far, the most experienced pilot I’ve ever flown with. Mr. Evans was a retired USAF F-104 instructor pilot, and had been an FAA certified flight instructor and flight examiner for decades.
During my check ride Mr. Evans directed me to do various maneuvers showing my ability to properly control my aircraft. He told me what to do, I pointed the aircraft in the direction that he said and flew it the manner in which he required me to fly it.
At one point he drew my attention to a nearby area and asked me what I saw there. I looked and replied that I saw an airport with a single runway. It was a little, paved airstrip beside Albemarle Sound on Harvey Point, NC just southwest of Elizabeth City. I wasn’t familiar with this particular airport, and didn’t have time to find it on the chart. These days it’s called the Harvey Point Defense Testing Activity Airport, Hertford, NC. Back then I think it was just called Harvey Point Airport.
The approach end of runway 21 at Harvey Point is unique, in that it has an amphibious ramp that literally extends into Albemarle Sound, enabling amphibious aircraft access to and from the water.
Mr. Evans replied, “Okay, how about doing some touch and goes.”
Making my obligatory radio calls, I flew close enough to see the windsock, and determined that the wind was out of the south around 15 knots. That meant that I would have a left quartering headwind as I landed on runway 21. I then turned towards Albemarle Sound and began setting up to enter the downwind approach for landing. I continued on, making the base and final turns over the water, and then executing a perfect touch and go.
I climbed out, assuming that he wanted me to stay in the pattern, then turned crosswind, attained pattern height and began turning downwind. Just as I entered downwind and got wings level, Mr. Evans reached up, pulled the throttle back to idle, and said, “You’ve just lost your engine, what are you going to do now?”
I replied, “Well, I have plenty of altitude. I’ll continue on the downwind, but turn short, into the wind, and touchdown near the middle of runway 21.”
It sounded doable to me. But Mr. Evans had a different plan. He pointed at the runway and strongly suggested that I put the plane on the runway ASAP. So I pointed the little Cessna directly at the runway, and prepared for a dead stick (engine out) landing on runway 3, looking at Albemarle Sound waiting at the end of the runway, landing downwind, with a nice, stiff, 15 knot tailwind to push me along, just hoping that I could make a full stop landing. I emphasize, "full stop", because if I could not stop at the end of runway 3, we would be going swimming – well, wading anyway.
I crossed the tree line that was parallel to the runway just above the treetops and made a hard right bank to line up with the runway.
“You’re doing fine.” Mr. Evans said, "You can make it. Just fly the airplane."
To me it looked like I had just left most of the runway behind me as I got the wings level and flared for touchdown.
Mr. Evans continued to reassure and coach… “Keep the nose up. Watch your airspeed. You need to bleed off more speed or you’ll blow a tire. You still have plenty of runway. Just fly the airplane.”
All I could see was Albemarle Sound coming at us at 50 knots and pictured the airplane floating nose down in the water as we waded ashore. I could almost feel that annoying tailwind whispering, “Fly! Fly!” as it pushed the little 150 along like a paper airplane.
My mind kept screaming, “Land dammit! Land!”
Buck Evans, with more pilot-in-command time than I had on the planet, and apparently nerves of steel, sat quietly and watched.
When I finally got that Cessna 150 stopped, we were already descending down the incline on the end of runway 3 that disappeared into Albemarle Sound. All I could see through the wind screen was water. The wingtip actually swung out over the water, and the right main tire may have rolled into the water as I applied power and made a left 180 to taxi that little bird back up the ramp and onto the runway.
Buck said, "See how easy that was."
I wasn’t so certain about the “easy” part. I was just thankful that he felt that it was easy.
Personally, I hope to God I never have to make another dead stick landing unless it’s on a runway like Groom Lake, which is five miles long!
And thankfully I only had one close call in my Cherokee 140, which was hangered at our home base of Ajo (PO1), now called Eric Marcus Municipal Airport. One fine morning I leveled out at 3500 feet MSL and was happily cruising along when a large bird streaked at an angle from right to left across the nose of my aircraft, between the prop and the windscreen.
At first I couldn’t believe it. A collision with a large bird while in flight is something that pilots don’t like to think about, especially hitting the windscreen. It would be like getting shot with a cannon using a bird as the projectile. The results would not be pretty. Actually, I’ve seen the results of bird strikes and all were messy. Being blinded or severely injured in flight would be a terrifying way to die – shot down by a bird.
I quickly turned and pointed the Cherokee in the direction that I thought the bird had gone.
In only moments I spotted it, throttled back and lowered the flaps in order to slow down and get close enough to see that it was a Red-tailed hawk. The hawk wasn’t exactly thrilled that I followed it. Our first encounter was enough for both of us, so I turned back to my original course, leaving the hawk with the memory of an encounter with a big, noisy bird and an exciting near mid-air collision tale that he could recount to his mate, fledglings and fellow feathered friends.
And so, I finally realized my dream to fly. It is one of my proudest achievements. The joy of flying is something that I find most difficult to describe. I have a deep and abiding respect for the dangers of flying; like scuba diving, it is very unforgiving of mistakes. That fact I know well; my old friend and scuba diving buddy, Bill Braxton, died in an aircraft crash while flying a drug interdiction mission.
But Bill was living his dream, he knew and accepted the dangers. I know that he would agree with me when I say that the exhilaration of flying, and feeling of uninhibited freedom, is beyond compare.
I’m certain that Bill would highly recommend it, and so do I.
©2017 James A Graves, Jr.