34. ON HIGH
After my family and art my principal passion has been flying airplanes. Flying, to me, is a unique combination of utter freedom and total discipline. I love it because it is reality -- the unvarnished truth.
Connoisseur nudged me into the world of airplanes. In the spring of 1983, I was invited by Malcolm Forbes, the owner of Forbes magazine, to come to his annual balloon festival at his magnificent seventeenth century Chateau de Balleroy near Caen. Forbes, a crack balloonist, had assembled the world’s A-list of champion aviators and big name members of the press to be sure his image was always being burnished.
I knew some of the TV biggies from 20/20 days, luminaries such as Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and the young and sassy Bryant Gumbel, who muttered darkly about "all this ancient French stuff."
Near the splendid gardens of the imposing chateau was a long rectangular field on which dozens of balloons of every design -- including Forbes’ special beauty, a replica of Chateau de Balleroy itself -- were laid out awaiting calm winds so that they could be inflated. That year the fickle Normandy breezes were light and steady. We took several rides in tourist balloons and enjoyed grazing at two feet off the ground over fresh hay fields, zooming up and over hedgerows and, on one occasion, navigating around the spire of the Cathedrale des Hommes at Caen -- our pilot was so good that he could go up or down a few feet to catch the winds for each direction he wanted to fly.
To me, far more intriguing than the balloons, despite the traditional Champagne were two small single-seat aircraft, made out of blue fabric, with an engine in the back. They looked like modern versions of the Wright brothers’ plane. Once I saw one taking off and landing, I said to Nancy, "I want one of those."
The inventor turned out to be Larry Newman, who had been on the crew of the first hot-air balloon to cross both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. We had dinner that evening and after he had gotten used to me -- he was very suspicious of anyone with knowledge of anything other than aviation - he told me the quick story of his life and we bonded.
"I soloed at twelve and by seventeen I was an instructor. I have ratings in everything, including jets. I co-invented the hang glider and now this ultra-lite you’ve fallen in love with. You wanna buy one? How much, you ask? Only three thousand with everything. Come this early August to Oshkosh for the Experimental Airplane Association week -- I have a booth there and will fit you out."
We bought the Eagle, a 210-pound ultra-lite aircraft and the parts for a fabric hanger and soon both had been delivered to a grass strip behind our house on Quaker Hill, a field that had been there since the early 1950s called the Muller International owned by farmer friends, Marty and Peter Muller. There were already several planes at Muller’s -- a Piper Cub and a Cessna 182 owned by Marty and two commercial pilot friends. They looked upon our foldable ultra-lite with skeptical amusement.
Our training consisted of being towed behind the car of the local Eagle dealer and lifted into the air for short distances. I got the principle of take-offs and landings but never felt comfortable in the tiny thing. My landings were only slightly better than crashes. So, when a tornado slammed through Muller International and shredded the Eagle and hanger I wasn’t all that upset. "God was telling me something," I joked to Nancy.
A year later Larry Newman phoned me and said, "I have designed the plane for you, not an ultra-lite, but an experimental category, a real plane, a two-seater with a built-in parachute. It weighs five hundred pounds, can lift another five hundred. Three-hour fuel range, snappy, looks like something out of Star Wars. Only ten thousand and that includes everything -- headsets, radio. Come out to Albuquerque and you can build one. It’s a real plane with an ‘N’ number, so start learning how to fly. I call it the Falcon XP."
My interest was further sparked by a story I wrote for the magazine. One day at Connoisseur a chap introduced himself to me on the phone as, "Tom Hall of the Navy," and asked if I might write an article on an unusual art form -- "equivalent to ballet." He was talking about the show performed by the Navy’s crack aerobatic jet team, the Blue Angels. "We have one A-4 jet with two seats that can take a passenger and we invite VIPs to fly the drill, want to be one?"
You bet! By then I had started to learn how to fly and had seen the team at a recent air show.
I shuttled to Washington the night before and was careful not to eat too much -- I knew how tough even a few aerobatics would be in a fighter going 500 knots. The morning I awakened at 5:30 to be at Andrews’s air force base for three hours of emergency drills -- ejection and the like -- and the newspaper outside the door had a front page story about the crash of the Canadian aerobatic team in which several pilots were killed. Should I really do this? Hell, yes!
When I climbed into the A-4 the pilot, a Marine Corps lieutenant, asked me politely if it would be okay to execute a gear-up take-off and accelerated climb. Not having any idea, I said, "sure." He gunned the huge jet and sat on the brakes. When the powerful engine had fully spooled up he let it go. We’d rolled maybe a plane’s length down the runway when he retracted the gear -- we were only ten feet off the ground but the engine was so powerful we didn’t smack down. We barreled down the runway, only ten feet off the deck, and at the very end pulled straight up. Straight to 7,500 feet and then leveled out. I could not have imagined such power.
He executed a snap roll; it was so rapid that I couldn’t even detect it. He allowed me to fly the plane and I did a slow roll. He took over three-quarters of the way around, as he drawled, "I’d better take it, we are about to violate Washington’s airspace." I let him.
Then we did a loop. On pull out I lost consciousness. I had been briefed on how to make the G-force growl, a kind of loud groan coming from the pit of the stomach to ward off the heavy gravity forces. It didn’t work for poor me. I had no G-suit; the Blue Angels don’t use them since they flew so frequently -- nor do their guests. It was at this point that I started to sweat copiously.
Just as my gut was churning, my genial Marine pilot asked me what great restaurants I’d recommend for his next trip to New York. He added that he particularly liked greasy food. Aha! A new form of Marine Corps hazing. But I managed to keep the little food remaining in my gut down.
On re-entry to Andrews he asked -- again so politely -- if it would be acceptable for him to execute a "Navy break" for landing. What could I say? The maneuver he explained was to make an abrupt and very steep turn to final to slow the plane down. As the plane suddenly made a ninety-degree left turn at maybe 300 knots. My stomach shuffled off towards Portugal. He slammed the jet down with a frightening smack, which he told me was the standard carrier landing, "That’s why this aircraft has such tall gear, sir."
I could barely climb down the narrow twenty-foot ladder when we’d halted. I could feel water in the bottom of my sneakers -- a half-inch of my sweat. I lost five pounds in the half-hour series of moves. For a week thereafter I felt like the piece of luggage the gorilla throws around in the TV commercial. But I loved every second of it.
Once Newman had alerted me to the Falcon, I began taking flying lessons at Stormville airport, not too far from my house on Quaker Hill. The instructors were young Norwegians with rudimentary English who taught me in a Cessna 152. The entire family joined in and Nancy, Trea and her boyfriend, my skiing buddy John MacWilliams, began training. Nancy soloed but never got her license because she was wary about getting lost once aloft and didn’t like examinations.
As soon as I took to the air on the introductory flight, I knew this was what I yearned to do. My fear of heights was alleviated by the safety belt -- strapped in I had no horrors looking down from 5,000 feet. I also found that I was a check-list man, for much of flying is following standard procedures, listening to controllers, writing down what they say, carrying out their instructions to the letter. On a quiet December day after doing several touch-and-goes, my instructor, Trond, told me to stop the plane before taxiing to our tie-down. It was solo time and I have never flown any plane with more maniacal concentration.
Five months later I was signed off for the private pilot flight test. The examiner, an American Airlines pilot, was said to be the toughest one in the Northeast.
On take-off roll from Stormville I heard an ominous clattering from his side.
"Abort, abort," he yelled.
"Don’t worry," I drawled "It’s your seat belt; you didn’t secure it; the metal buckle is outside, hitting the side. I’ll do the pattern and land and then you can secure."
We did and after that Albright had me do basic maneuvers for less than a half hour and ordered me to land.
"You pass," he said. "Because you were so cool when that god-awful noise started."
From that moment on, every time I have flown -- by now almost six thousand hours, which is more than most commercial airline pilots -- I always say to myself, "God, how great it was to have learned and gotten my ticket!"
For the Falcon, John MacWilliams accompanied me to Albuquerque where, in four days in the American Aircraft factory, we built Falcon XP N530AA. The Falcon is sleek and low with tricycle gear. It looks like it’s flying backwards. In the front is a "canard," a small rectangular wing that fits in to the rounded nose with slats for ascending and descending. The main wings -- 36 feet wide and tapering -- are fitted on top of the aft fuselage and sprout from their ends are two three-foot high rudders. The engine, a Rotax 503 air-cooled 40 horsepower job, is in the back. The propeller is a three-blade number made of Kevlar, a material so strong that you could hit it with an axe and not see any mark.
The fuselage, only eight inches off the ground, looks like a sleek bathtub. The sides of the cockpit are at elbow height. There is a two-foot high stick between the pilot’s legs which can be pushed forward and back for ascending and descending. The stick also has a brake handle. The rudder and steering pedals are at one’s toes. The passenger sits erect on a seat behind the reclining pilot and has another set of rudder, stick and throttle controls so the Falcon can be flown from the back seat. With one person it had to be from the front. The visibility is better than any plane I know.
The wings and canard are covered in semi-see-through Tedlar, a material impervious to ultraviolet deterioration. A parachute sits under the passenger seat and a rocket can send the chute exploding out of the bottom of the plane and the aircraft will sink gently to the ground.
It took us four days to assemble the machine. Larry Newman supervised our every move. "I don’t want to read about Tom Hoving in next week’s obituary somewhere."
He then made us take a completed Falcon apart so we could learn to recognize every part in the assembly. The manual was superior, written in non-technical English with copious illustrations and measurements. Newman had also designed it so that no bolt or fitting could be put into the wrong place.
The small plane, I learned over the years, was an impeccably crafted and safe machine. Not only did it have that parachute, but also the canard made stalls impossible. The canard stalled long before the main wings felt anything, which guaranteed the plane could never spin out of control. If one pushed the stick forward to the fullest, the Falcon would dive, come to its top speed of ninety miles an hour and then placidly would recover on its own.
The FAA examiner inspected it for four hours and found it perfect and gave me an Airworthiness Certificate for the life of the aircraft.
"It’s swell," he said. "It’s a beautiful still evening. Aren’t you going to take it up?"
Failing to tell him that I had never been checked out in the aircraft type, I taxied to runway 24. I sat there revving the engine for ten minutes, hesitating. Then I said to myself, "If you don’t just go, you’ll taxi back to the ramp, take it apart, put it in the trailer and sell it. Go!"
I did and the plane performed like a fine Swiss watch. It was far easier to fly than the Cessna 152 and in a day I was up there floating around Quaker Hill for hours every evening. I took it over to Muller International for the summer and this time all the pros said, "Now this is a real plane, not that accident-waiting-to-happen you had before."
Since it weighed only five hundred pounds I had to be careful about winds and turbulence and I learned to watch flags, the direction and velocity of any smoke on the ground, the wavelets on ponds and the ripple in leaves. My years of sailing had prepared me well for flying. I owned the Falcon sixteen and a half years through 2,000 hours, three engines, hundreds of hours of tinkering -- once, to diagnose and find an engine flutter it took me seven and a half hours of analysis -- and never had more fun in my life. Nancy adored it.
My favorite flights included climbing to ten thousand feet over Martha’s Vineyard, turning off the engine and spending an hour and a half gliding around. I could fly it as slow as twenty-five miles an hour and once ghosted for an hour over farm fields near our house at five hundred feet watching, spellbound, as a herd of two dozen deer played an organized game of tag. The Falcon was perfect for spotting animals and I had regular rabbit and fox and coyote friends I’d check out from the air. I joined a Vee of Canadian geese going south over Muller field one evening. I banked away when one guy at the end of the Vee, looked back, and started to turn towards me. He looked like he meant business and it was outta there for me. I learned that red tailed hawks, when frightened in the air, always shoot straight up twenty feet and so when I’d come near one, I’d always shoot up higher before he could.
Once I took off in the spring and was amused to see a baby mouse walk calmly on the two-inch-wide cockpit rim. He sat there looking at me and then down, not disturbed in the least. I flew around for fifteen minutes, landed, found his mother and siblings in a nest in the back of the plane and carried their nest into the crotch of a tree. I saw them throughout the summer.
There was nothing in the world like the feeling of peace and tranquility floating around in the Falcon over the fields of Quaker Hill, seeing spring bursting forth or the leaves changing in October. On a quiet evening, I’d jump in the plane, tied-down a minute’s walk from the house, fire it up and have a serene hour’s trip, gently wafting up and down and making slow, lovely turns. I flew it all year round and bought a pair of electric socks for warmth on freezing winter days. Flying is better in the winter because the cold air supports the plane more and the air is far more still.
Nancy’s mother in her early nineties flew several times with me -- and enjoyed it.
One still evening I was flying near Muller and I heard the unmistakable sound of a bullet ricocheting off the engine. As I gained altitude for safety, I noticed a guy running into a log cabin in the thick woods. When I landed I saw that there was a slash of a
bullet on the side of the engine. Later, the sheriff rounded up a recluse who confessed shooting his .22 at me (he’d tried to shoot down jets, too) and said he did because he was angry that I was flying backwards. The canard in front and the engine in back did
make it look like that.
Once, when I was at Martha’s Vineyard, a flying buddy flew over from Plymouth for the day and we raced around the island in formation, repeatedly buzzing our beach house at East Chop. When I was coming in to land in the evening, one of the controllers said, "Get lost for a half hour or so." When I landed he told me that the local FAA had received dozens of phone calls from panicked Vineyarders who believed a pair of Communist Jets were attacking and wanted them shot down.
Almost everything that could happen in the Falcon did happen. I was caught in severe turbulence in which I thought briefly a wing would separate but I escaped. On landing one day at Stormville, the engine stopped as I was taxiing -- a piston ring had failed and was kept together in the air only because the power was higher than taxi power. The engine utterly failed in flight one morning. I was at 1,500 feet, too low to make it back to Muller’s International (never try to get back to your field is the cardinal rule). I calmly tried a re-start. Nothing. I had spotted a farmer’s field that I had been looking at for years -- small plane pilots always look for the nearest field. There were fifty-foot-tall trees at the entrance to the field and I got too low, so I thrust the stick forward to gain speed and yards away from the trees pulled back and over and then ghosted down to the field -- one of my better landings. Was I afraid or nervous? Not in the least, for I had just received my commercial ticket which is all about emergencies.
The end for the Falcon came when I was teaching a friend how to enter the traffic pattern at Muller field. I had intended to put him in the front seat where the controls were more sensitive than the back ones, but he was late, so I motioned him into the back seat and we took off. Some quarter of a mile from the field there was an explosion. It wasn’t the propeller because I could feel no violent shuddering. It wasn’t the engine for I gave it a quick revving. Was it a bird? Then the plane began to sink rapidly to the left. Because of my hundreds of hours in a canard airplane, I instinctively cross-controlled in the opposite direction and the Falcon leveled off. I landed rather long and very fast.
One of my commercial pilot friends washing his Cessna at our hanger looked white as a sheet when we taxied in. "I cannot believe what I just saw. You are either the luckiest pilot or the best. I heard the bang and saw it all. Do you have any idea what happened? Get out and take a look at your right wing."
We climbed out and were astonished to see that all the Tedlar fabric on the upper part of the wing had blasted off. We are alive only because of the "canard friendly" Falcon XP. The next day I sold the plane for parts -- removing the "N" number so no one else could fly it again. I figured that after sixteen and a half years and so many hundreds hours, it was time to retire.
To another plane, of course. Planes are like motorcycles. You start with the smallest, then year after year, you go up to real hogs. Now, I never got into jets or even twins (the single-engine plane is statistically far safer than a twin because in the latter if there’s a failure, you have many, many things to do real quick) and my funds were such that I couldn’t buy twins.
I was committed to get my instrument ticket; without it you could be stranded possibly for weeks as a fog bank shrouded, say, Martha’s Vineyard. The work is grueling, some eighty-five hours in the air and a tough multiple-choice written examination. The rule is always to get the written done before you even get into the plane -- why waste money on an instructor learning what the book would give you? I smacked the exam -- a 98%.
My Norwegian instructors at the Stormville flight school had between them something like a paltry 200 hours and no more than a couple of dozen hours as instrument instructors. Their conversational English was "Yuh" and "Huh." Luckily, the vocabulary for flying is not a very large, so we got by. Not that there weren’t moments. Once, on a night exercise flying instrument to Groton, Connecticut, when we were on approach over Long Island Sound the controller asked, "Report initial approach fix inbound."
Trond said, "You talk to him, I don’t know what he means."
This was my first ILS approach -- a precision approach in which you pick up on a special instrument the radio "arrow" that leads you down to the runway. I said, "Marker inbound." The controller chuckled and said, "You’re over water, there’s no marker; it’s an intersection." I came back, "Intersection inbound." "Cleared to land, guy," he said and laughed. I did without a problem. I soon learned the difference between markers and intersections -- the former being actual physical radio transmitters on the ground and the latter being mapped fixes in thin air.
The flight examiner who had so speedily passed me on my private check ride wasn’t so nice on my instrument check. He failed me and urged, "Get a more mature instructor than these Scandinavian teenagers."
Thankfully, I met David Perunko, a forty-something employee of the telephone company and a part-time instructor whose philosophy was, "No one gets it perfect; but we’ll try for the closest we can. And we’ll do it by the book -- you can read, can’t you?" By the end of the first week with him I had learned more than with months with the boys.
Yet the examiner failed me a second time and turned me back to Perunko. And he washed me out yet a third time. For a reason that I, frankly, didn’t know and he seemed reluctant to tell me.
It was back to Perunko for several hours.
Fourth time. If I failed this one, I was thinking of giving up flying. Playing the part as flight center, the examiner gave me a route to file and I noticed just in time that he had assigned me an incorrect altitude. I asked for a change and he smiled. But then, as we taxied out, I saw that the fluid on the compass was down to less than half, making the plane technically un-flyable for instruments. I kept concealing it by waving my large hands near it and took off. Albright took me through a rigorous hour under the hood -- so I could see nothing but the instruments. He sent me here and there, ascending, descending, round and round and finally vectored me southwest and said, "Take off the hood."
To my surprise and consternation we were on perfect final for runway 24 at Stormville at only two hundred feet off the ground. Much too close and too low. As we taxied to the ramp, he asked, "Should I pass you?"
"No, sir, as you can see, the fluid in the compass is too far down."
"Good for you."
He passed me because of that and my adept maneuvers. Then he said without a hint of guilt that my flying the past two failures was adequate, but for my sake he thought I ought to have more time with a good instructor. "Besides, I needed the money, I’m building a patio," he said. Each examination cost $350. I let it go, not wanting an angry examiner on my tail.
My first flight under actual instrument condition -- a short route from Stormville to Bridgeport -- I got to the assigned 5,000 feet and suddenly my radios failed. I followed the checklist and set everything to "radio out" mode. I flew into a holding pattern where I made one turn so I could reach Bridgeport within three minutes of the regulation time I had filed for and started towards the Bridgeport.
Abruptly, my radio came back on and everyone one in the air was trying to talk to the controller -- commercial pilots in 747’s and whatever. Chaos. When they all got straightened out, the controller called me and said, "Are you a new instrument rating?"
"Two days ago, sir."
"It figures. We had a ten-minute radio and radar outage in the area and you are the only one who did the right things. Direct Bridgeport."
With my instrument license in hand Dave Perunko and I would cheer when the worst kind of weather came along. We wanted to fly in hard IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) and thought nothing of tooling up to Nantucket and shooting a few low approaches -- 200 overcast and a half mile visibility. It was like flying inside a milk bottle and to break out very low to the ground and see the runway just where the instruments indicated was a sensation I loved.
Only once was I the slightest concerned in instrument conditions. I was flying to my home base at Skyacres New York fairly near home from Norfolk, Virginia, and the forecast for the hour and a half flight called for a ceiling of 800 feet and a mile visibility at Poughkeepsie, very near my base. But when I was over New York City flying in the milk bottle I received the automated weather at LaGuardia -- it was closed! I heard a Lufthansa pilot execute a missed approach at JFK because of wind shear and I began to get concerned. I kept on and heard that Stewart airport, a few miles from Poughkeepsie, was also closed due to low ceilings. I finally got the automated weather at Poughkeepsie and, oh Boy! It was 700 overcast, light winds from the east and 3 miles in rain. I made it easily. I have often wondered what I would have done if Poughkeepsie had also closed. I couldn’t return to Norfolk, because that field also getting lower and lower. There’s always a certain amount of luck in the flying game.
Perunko wanted me to get my instructor’s license, but I resisted, arguing that that would cut down on his "hefty" earnings (an instructor back then got ten bucks an hour). So, instead, he persuaded me to obtain my commercial license. The official FAA description of the rating is for an aviator to fly with "grace and elegance." I sure wanted to be that.
After I had gotten a 99% in the written exam, I took the in-air course. It took over eighty-five hours, many in a retractable-gear airplane. The maneuvers -- chandelles, eights on pylons, eights around pylons, lazy-eights, steep turns -- were, curiously, those first created by fighter pilots in WW I and were intended to teach the pilot perfect control in various attitudes. The majority of the training was, however, emergency procedures, ranging from fires in flight, to unruly passengers trying to slug you, and engine and gear failures.
When I was ready for the FAA examiner -- not the one who had retired to his patio -- Perunko gave me the last tip; walk slower than the FAA guy so I’d look real cool and confident. My examiner, Norm Quade, was in his mid-seventies and real relaxed and as I sauntered so casually I cracked a smile for it seemed it would take us a half hour to walk the fifty yards to the plane. He peppered me with questions as we ambled and as I did the pre-flight examination. Once in the cockpit, Quade said, "We’re going to stay within five miles of the field. I’m going to ask you to do a number of maneuvers. None you’ve ever done before. They are based on your training, but each will be new. I want you to perform them perfectly the very first time."
I carefully took out a flight map of the region and punched my stopwatch when I started the engine to time the fuel burn, something I had "invented" to be sure how much fuel I had.
It was hot -- 100 degrees -- and the session was grueling, lasting for more than an hour. I had a hood over my eyes most of the time. He asked me to do a half eights-around a silo. I was never able to do the full maneuver without losing a bit of altitude, so David had taught me a trick, which was to divert the attention of the examiner and surreptitiously thrust in the power.
When I had finished the maneuver successfully, Quade cried out, "How did you do that? In my forty-five years of doing this, I’ve never been able to hold altitude like that."
I confessed what I had done. He took the controls and made me look elsewhere a couple of times, chuckling as he subtly thrust the power in.
We ended the session by making four simulated engine-off landings to no further than five feet away from a marker on the runway.
I secured the plane and as I walked to his office I could hear him pecking away on a typewriter. I knew I had passed because failures were hand-written.
"I guess I passed," I said.
"You did in the first minute you got into the airplane. I was impressed that despite my saying we were going to be close to the field you got out the sectional chart. And, I’ve never seen anyone time the fuel burn with a stopwatch before. I figured right then you had the makings of a commercial pilot."
The commercial training possibly saved my ass when the front gear of my Cessna 182 retractable wouldn’t come down. By this time -- 1995 -- I had bought a low-wing Beechcraft Sundowner with John MacWilliams and then traded up to a stout turbo-charged four-seat retractable Cessna with an eight-hour oxygen tank. It was also equipped with STOL, meaning short take-off and landing configuration, so I could land at very slow speeds and at small airports.
I had been tooling around locally in the Cessna when I decided to go to Stormville and when I put down the gear the green light didn’t go on. I recycled the gear and the noise of the gear going down was different from the normal sound. Thinking the green bulb was out I unscrewed the orange one and put it into the green plug. Nothing. I flew the short way to Poughkeepsie and asked the tower to see if my front wheel was down. Negative.
I went to a practice are and tried to put the gear down manually. The front gear was still stuck up there behind the doors. Coincidentally, my mechanic happened to be mowing his lawn near the airport and noticed my plane without the front wheel down. He came to the tower and he talked to me on the radio about what to do. I was getting some oddball advice from other aircraft that were listening in on the communications. One creative one said I should try to land real hard and see if the hit would free up the gear. My mechanic eventually diagnosed the problem; the doors were jammed and would remain so.
In my checklist I found the section devoted to no-front-gear landings and followed the instructions to the letter. It was late afternoon and the winds were calm. I opened both doors a jar, slowed way down, touched down lightly and held the nose up in what is known as a snowfield landing. I had judged the distance so I could land very close to the fire trucks, as the tower had asked. Inevitably the plane tipped forward and gently scraped ten feet or so down the runway. I wasn’t even thrust against my seatbelt and my operating handbook on the seat next to me didn’t move.
I shut down and calmly walked out. A fireman dressed in a silver fire suit whipped off his helmet and said, "You haven’t given us anything to do."
"Gotta match?" I asked cheekily. "I’ll light what little hair there is left."
I smacked the same plane on landing at a grass strip in Vermont with Nancy and my dog Buffalo. I landed perhaps too slow and the front wheel slammed down and, unluckily, lodged in a rabbit hole and snapped off. The plane slid along some twenty feet and turned violently left. My dog seemed to love the action. We weren’t hurt in the slightest.
Maybe it was a good thing that I smacked in with $42,000 damage. Cawley Aviation won the bid to fix the plane and several weeks after the work had begun the owner, Tom Cawley, handed me a six-inch-long bolt. "Look closely." I held it up to the light; there was a crack running part way down it. "That bolt holds on your right wing. If you hadn’t cracked up, no one would have found it. In serious turbulence that wing might have fallen off." Both right and left wing bolts were replaced by a very, very tough material. As I’ve already said, luck is part of flying.
We flew both our little Beechcraft Sundowner and the Skylane N4211S everywhere we could. In 1990, in the Sundowner, Nancy and I went from Poughkeepsie to Denver, to archaeological sites throughout the South West, the Grand Canyon, Santa Fe and back. It was in early April, my first time in a small plane across the country. Flying at night from Rome, Georgia, to Tulsa, I thought I could see a green and white flashing airport beacon when I was one hundred and fifty miles away from the airport. I asked the controller working us if it were possibly and he replied, "Out here, away from the haze of the East, you can easily see 150 miles. Yeah, it’s Tulsa."
On landing at Tulsa International we switched to ground control and were taxing only suddenly to be told, "Stop! Now!" I screeched to a halt only to see a few yards ahead a plane landing on a crossing taxiway. He had taken off, had an engine failure and had been fortunate enough to be able to turn back and land on the taxiway.
Another time we were flying to a dude ranch at Buffalo, Wyoming, by way of Chicago. The controller gave me the choice of going way out of the way at 8,000 feet to avoid O’Hare airspace or to climb to 14,000 to go over it. Since we had oxygen, I decided to save the time. We were crunching along in moderate turbulence at fourteen thousand when the controller screamed, "4211 Sierra, plunge, descend, quick, quick, down! To 8,000!"
I stuck the nose down and plunged. The controller came back to us and explained that a 737 on the wrong radio frequency so he couldn’t hear the controllers yelling at him was coming right up our tail.
The ride at eight thousand was placid and Nancy, who had never before spoken to controllers, did with this one, saying, "Can we stay here at eight? I mean, fourteen is very bumpy. We did something nice for you."
"But, lady, you're right in the middle of O’Hare air space."
"But we did what you wanted," she persisted. He sighed and said, "Okay, lady, maintain eight thousand."
I’ll never forget our first of a dozen trips to the Bahamas and the sheer joy of knowing we could just go anytime we wanted. John MacWilliams and I joined a flotilla of some three dozen small planes on a trip to the Cayman Islands for a seminar on flight safety organized by the IFR magazine. The route took us in groups of four over the heart of Cuba. The organizers had arranged all permissions and John and I looked down into the streets of Havana from eight thousand feet talking to an eager and friendly Cuban woman controller. We decided not to ask about her politics.
I had gotten an assignment from a travel magazine for a piece on Belize, the former British Honduras situated just below Mexico and on the border with Guatemala. It was August, hurricane season, but I decided to fly the Cessna. I arranged the paperwork, which included permission to over fly over Cuba and paid the fee in Canadian dollars. I contacted the head of the Belizean civil aeronautics board, Enrique Hoare, who sent me information on all of Belize’s ten airports, giving me the coordinates for each and an aerial photo plus phone numbers of hotels, restaurants, cabs and guards who might watch over the plane.
We flew from Key West on instruments despite the clear weather at a level of ten thousand -- the higher the better for a long glide to the sea if we lost the engine. We had our six-man life raft, extra radios and GPSes in a diver’s bag and put on our life jackets before take-off (who wants to search frantically for the vests when the first stutter is heard)? We had to laugh when on the way to Cancun we saw a line of container ships, almost nose to stern all the way down -- some of them even had their radio frequency painted on the deck. Nancy observed, "If the engine quits, we’ll call several of these guys to see who has the best cabins -- and cuisine."
On the way I got the same Cuban controller who remembered my tail number several years before on my way to the Cayman Islands. Over Cancun one Mexican controller strongly suggested I land immediately at Achital, some offbeat Mexican airfield. I knew exactly where I was because I had purchased one of the first little hand-held GPS instruments. I simply blew into my mike and said something garbled about radio interference and stopped talking to him. We picked up Enrique Hoare some fifty miles out and soon slipped into Belize International.
We were whisked through customs and registration and were given permission to land at any one of the small airports that dot the country. On the way back to the plane, a security officer started to lead us to the electronic zapper and then laughing, said, "I guess you’ll not be interested in hi-jacking yourselves."
Flights to the various hotels and resorts I was covering for the article took twenty minutes at most whereas a rented four-wheel car might have taken five hours or more because Belize is predominantly rain forest. Our first stop was the town of Gallon Jug which had a field owned by the proprietor of the Chan Chich resort, Barry Bowen, a flyer. The place was enchanting, "a posh desert island in the middle of a green sea of jungle -- that ever-present canopy always 130 feet high. There are luxurious square huts with porches all around, so you can always sit in the shade. And the ceilings are twenty-five feet high, so the heat rises away from you. These huts give the impression of being finely crafted pieces of furniture, not a nail in sight, and they are set in the flat ritual ball court of a classic Mayan temple complex. It’s like being in a hotel room in the middle of the Valley of the Kings," I wrote in my article.
A ten-minute flight some days later got us to the Chaa Creek Hotel and a cabin overlooking the broad, slowly-running Macala River and an impenetrable forest. Binoculars were supplied and we gazed at hundreds of fabulous birds and dozens of huge iguanas, some of them black and green and white more than ten feet long, lolling in tree branches from which they splashed heavily into the water when they fell asleep. The day before we were to go on to Rum Point it rained seven inches. At dinner I chatted with the proprietor and asked, "What would we have done last year when the field was grass?"
"No problem. Last year we had a similar rain and two guests were on the grass with their Cessna like yours. When they had to leave, I called the British Commando unit near the field and the boys came out, lifted the plane from the mud carried it to the road to San Ignacio. The police chief asked the pilot how much space he’d need and cleared the road for that distance. Easy."
Thank goodness the rain stopped the next morning and we were off to Rum Point. When I spotted the 2,100-foot-long field I was puzzled. Half was black asphalt and the other half towards the sea was yellow mud or sand. The storm I thought had thrown sand on the runway. What happened next was hairy. I flew over real low and some back-packers waved me in -- giving me the feeling of those sad suicide jumpers encouraged to "Jump, jump!" Came in slow, far too slow, because I had this impulse to want to stop the plane before the black asphalt gave out just in case it was slippery yellow mud.
I got badly behind the power curve and tried to dive to pick up speed. But I slammed, hard. The plane started to skew to the left off to the soft sand -- and oblivion -- and we hit a second time, this time on the front wheel. I thought for a second I’d lost it So, I jammed the throttle and tried a very late go-around -- almost too late, for a second later we would have crashed.
We came in again. This time I kept the speed up and factored in the hot-weather loss of lift and it was one of the best landings I’ve ever made, natch.
The yellow "mud" turned out to be hard yellow asphalt and so I could have landed the full length. The next day on take-off I discovered that my gear would not retract. I landed in Dangriga and learned of the name of a mechanic in Belize City who could fix the plane. That night the proprietor of our hotel suggested we might want to have Juan guard the plane -- not that there had ever been any trouble. All night for $10. Sure! When we were preparing for bed, Juan knocked on the door; he was a six foot four lean guy in camouflage dungarees with a three-foot-long machete hanging on his belt. His beret made him look like a combination of Jimmy Stewart and Che Guevara.
"Juan, are you really going to sleep under our wing tonight?" I asked.
"No. I’m just going to let the word get around that Juan is on the job," he said, patting his rifle like a fond pet.
For gear repair at Belize International we were guided inside a huge hanger and a red carpet was put at our feet. A quick inspection by the mechanics confirmed that I had ruptured a seal during the hard landing and something called the squat switch had jammed. When I tried to retract the gear the squat switch thought the plane was still on the ground and refused to lift the gear -- sweet, clever little robot. The friendly mechanic found also that my gear doors were always slightly open, causing a loss of speed. The thing was fixed during our lunch and cost a mere $125.
I have always had luck with parts and mechanics. Once flying out of Buffalo, Wyoming, with Nancy, Patty Nixon, a dear Vail friend and a constant flying companion, and my new puppy, a Tibetan terrier mutt named Buffalo, all electricals failed. I decided not to return to Buffalo but to continue to Sheridan, a field where commercial planes came in. I put down the gear, turned off all but one radio and landed without incident.
It was 7:30 in the morning and I informed the chaps at general aviation that I might need a new alternator. We went to town for breakfast and when I returned the plane was not in sight; it had been towed to a maintenance hanger. "I walked over and there was the cowling off. On the tray was my alternator. Bad news. The bolts had become loose. One had even fallen off. The mechanic said he could put it all back together and it would work -- for a while. I said no. I didn’t care how long it took to get the part, but I wasn’t flying over the Wind River Range and the Grand Tetons to Sun Valley with the distinct possibility of electrical failure. The mechanic, smiled and said, "Good decision." I asked, "How long might it take for FedEx or UPS to send the part?" "No need," he said. He motioned to the shelf where there just happened to be a freshly rebuilt alternator for my exact plane! Half a million to one shot? Hallelujah!
One of the genuine thrills of flying near New York City is to go down the Hudson on the Jersey side, below 1,100, circle around the Statue of Liberty and fly back at, say, 700 feet by the towers of lower Manhattan and north over the George Washington Bridge. There are no restrictions, no FAA permissions to obtain, you just announce yourself on a special frequency to other fliers. I have done the Hudson River dozens of times and people -- especially foreigners -- with me are astounded that it’s permitted, even now after 9/11. Every time I’ve flown the route, I have had this heady appreciation of the joys of living in a free country. I have never gone up the East River to the north end of Roosevelt Island because there’s little room to turn around up there in an exceedingly narrow corridor. Recently a small plane crashed into an apartment house on 72nd Street when it failed to negotiate a sharp turn and stalled.
Oddly enough, Nancy and I were flying the same late afternoon that John Kennedy, Jr. crashed. We were at East Hampton and the weather called for a high overcast, visibility three miles in haze. I took off and at five hundred feet found myself in what aviators call a milk bottle -- impenetrable clouds. I called a controller to file instruments but he was too busy and gave me a tracking code and followed me to Muller International. I had never seen thicker haze. I made a low pass over my strip to see if I could clearly see the tops of some high trees in my path. I landed safely. John Kennedy, having no instrument rating and flying a highly complex plane with which he was unfamiliar, took off later, at night, and without talking to any controller flew to Martha’s Vineyard over water. He disappeared just short of the island. A year later, I figured out what happened.
It was on a flight from Phoenix, Arizona, to Anchorage, Alaska, delivering a Cessna 206 float plane to one of Larry Newman’s friends. Once aloft, I took over from Newman and at cruise, turned on the autopilot. The plane banked steeply to the left. Had I not seen the horizon, disconnected the autopilot and grabbed the yoke the plane would have banked to a point where the wings could not lift it and we would have crashed. As I recovered, Newman mentioned, "In this plane, you’ve gotta calibrate the HIS, or the auto-pilot will do crazy things." I think Kennedy, who had the same complex equipment, when confused and disoriented by the dark milk bottle, turned on the autopilot and never knew the plane was going into a sharp and killing bank -- his body would not have detected the motion.After my Falcon XP was retired, I bought with a young neighbor, Jordan Lewis, a Piper Cub that had been in the Muller hanger for years. I had given Jordan a ride in the Falcon when he was twelve. When he was in his early twenties he showed up again still wanting to fly. I "taught" him in the Falcon and he was thinking of buying it. Then the Falcon incident happened and together we bought the Cub for a hefty $15,000.
I learned how to fly the tail-dragger and had hundreds of hours of fun cruising around the Hudson Valley. The Cub, built in 1941, was stout, could handle tough winds and was a dream to fly (when I got over the fear of making a ground loop every time I landed it). Dave Perunko checked me out in it and together we amused ourselves in making spins. Jordan outdid us on the spin score. One day he muscled the Cub up to 10,500 feet, made twenty spins to the right, leveled off and made twenty to the left, howling with pleasure. I would have croaked.
We sold the Cub and Jordan bought a tail-dragger Husky, an advanced, powerful airplane painted Ferrari red, which, outfitted with a pair of huge tundra tires and could land in unusual places. Jordan managed to bring it to a complete halt in something like seventy-five feet. The plane also had skis, which fitted over the wheels and in the winter could be landed on both our snowy strip and a regular airport. I found it exciting to fly a short distance to Candlewood Lake and land on the thick ice and snow. In fresh snow it would come to a stop in thirty feet. It was like deep powder skiing.
Since 9/11 I have only once been on a commercial domestic airplane. Plugging my books and making speeches, I fly my Cessna to Denver or Savannah or Florida or Nebraska. In 2005 I decided to buy a new engine in order to feel safe on a trip to the Caribbean island of Anguilla where my daughter, husband and three daughters were to go for Christmas and New Year’s. The old engine had 1,800 hours on a recommended change at 2,000.
The engine didn’t get installed in time and we had to go commercial. Disaster! The flight from New York through San Juan to St. Maarten to Anguilla, normally six and a half hours, took eighteen and a half. Coming back -- even worse -- twenty-seven and a half. So, in 2006 we flew the Cessna. What a breeze! It took twelve down and eleven back and we stopped in a number of entertaining places. We planned to do the same in 2007.
In the summer of 2006, I had one of the most amusing flying road trips I’ve ever had. Donovan Moore, my best 20/20 producer, a recent pilot, asked me to fly with him from East Hampton to Myrtle Beach, then on the Atlanta and back. Armed with a brace of fancy satellite weather computers, we ducked around huge thunder-storms, made a prudent landing in North Carolina knowing that, because of the severe storms, we’d never make it to Myrtle Beach and found a genial lineman who kindly put the plane in a hanger -- putting the key under a mat so we could get out early the next day. He gave us a loaner car.
On the way back north out of Atlanta, I filed instrument despite the gorgeous weather so that Donovan could log the hours. It was direct Atlanta Peachtree to Lynchburg, Virginia. There, seeing the confusing welter of restricted areas around Washington and Baltimore, the post-9/11 ADIZ secure zone (this is the one where if you aren’t careful F-16’s will shoot you down), I waggishly filed no specific route, but simply asked for "Direct East Hampton." Let the FAA figure it out. Was sure we’d be directed east to Norfolk and up New Jersey somewhere, anywhere but through the ADIZ. Yet to my astonishment we were vectored right through the center of the highly restricted area.
Donovan and I were speechless as we coasted in smooth-as-yoghurt, crystal-clear air at seven thousand feet right over the beautiful center of our nation’s capitol. Nowhere else in the world would one be permitted to do it. We all but choked up. Here I was with a flying pal, doing what I had been trained for so many hours how to do very well, in perfect conditions, reveling in the sights, profoundly thankful that I had gotten my pilot’s license. What a thrill!
It was almost as thrilling as the time -- also at seven thousand feet -- somewhere over Pennsylvania, flying alone on instruments, when I was struck by lightning.
For a second or two I was blinded. The plane was kicked five hundred feet straight up and my cabin looked like one of those Christmas snowstorm glass balls -- a blizzard of luggage, water bottles, spare headsets, pillows, rags and everything else not tied down. When I could see, I punched the "Nearest Airport" button on my GPS to find a place to land. East Stroudsberg was nearby and I knew the place.
Trying to sound like the calm commercial pilot that I am, I said to the controller, "Request amendment to my clearance -- direct East Stroudsberg."
"Just a lightning strike," I said in my phony deep "commercial pilot" voice.
"What are your intentions?" He sounded very worried.
"I intend to land and check it out."
"Cleared for the approach."
I landed, inspected the plane, found no gashes or burned areas and, after allowing the killer front to go by completely, went home. I eventually found a pinhole in the canopy where I had been struck.
I just loved it!
Like a bigger motorcycle, we have just bought a new plane, a Cessna six-seater, Stationer, 206 with a turbo-charged engine, air-conditioning, leather interior and an anti-icing system. We immediately flew the new plane to Anguilla and it was glorious! This time, no lightning. Aw, shucks.
I have a rule about my instrument flying -- I keep a list of any mistakes while flying in instrument conditions and when I have decided that when I make three in a row, I’ll quit. Not too long ago I took off in my new Cessna 206 from Easthampton on the way to Maine in very low ceilings. On climb-out the autopilot started screaming at me and locked up so I could not disengage it. I concentrated on flying the plane real cool and steady -- no steep banks -- back to the now-obscured airport to land and here was an autopilot taking me elsewhere. I pulled out the checklist, read that the recommended procedure was to flick out the circuit breaker. Did. The autopilot gave up and I landed safely.
I have just ordered a new plane to be delivered in two years or when I feel I have lost that instrument sharpness. It’s a special new category, a light sport airplane, a German-designed, Ukrainian-built two-seater called a CT, which has a cockpit as wide as our big Cessna. It comes with autopilot, bells and whistles, including a parachute. When I have stopped flying instruments I figure I won’t need a huge Cessna to fly in fine weather. Plus, I don’t need a medical to fly the light sport aircraft.
I hope to fly as long as I can walk and see.This is chapter 34 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.