Quiet time

If you’ve been following the blog you know that for the past two days, I’ve been riding backseat, up close and personal with some of the the most intense flying I can imagine.

Not quite enough sleep, and this morning I woke up clearly not on my game. Forgot my flightsuit at the hotel, missed half the briefing, left my headset at the briefing desk. I was backseating for Martin this time, so I made do with his spare headset, and pointedly asked him not to set us on fire this particular flight, as I was riding along in my particularly flammable shorts.

Formation was good though, great fun. I could follow most of Falcon Lead’s hand signals, and was getting to the point where I could anticipate Martin’s power changes. Even had some unexpected fun when lead called “Falcon Four, bogey closing at 6” – a rogue Yak-52 had decided to intercept us, and joined up on Four’s wing. Rudy (Falcon Leader) told us on the debrief that, if we’d had a little more experience as a flight he would’ve split us and tagged the Yak in a squeeze play. But we were a training flight, so Rudy just pulled us left, and the Yak broke off right to disappear in the haze. Never figured out what he was up to.

Anyhow. By the time we were down, I was done for the day. Not just tired – out of sorts. The air was thick with impending rain and my head was full of fog. Cave time, stat. I bummed a ride back to the hotel from one of the volunteers (my God, the volunteers here are amazing!), put the “do not disturb” sign up, tucked myself under the cover and slept for almost two hours.

It was afternoon when consciousness drifted back in, and I took my time getting back up to speed. Answered email, read the news, then carefully repacked my flight bag and headed back to the field. It was like a different day. The rain had broken during my nap. The air was clear, and so was my head.

I found Martin and 5Q parked out on the grass, just putting things away. After three flights he was clearly exhausted, laboring a little to put the canopy cover in place.

Me? I was completely spooled up. I wanted to go flying. The big boys were done for the day, and the pattern was quiet. Waved Martin off to head back to the hotel himself (he said that this “nap” thing sounded like it might have some merits), climbed into my Nomex and strapped in.

There’s a strange Walter Mitty transformation when you cinch the parachute straps down in a plane like this. I was buckling myself into the machine, becoming a component of it, while it became an extension of me.

For two days I’d been backseating – watching, learning, observing and – just occasionally – asking questions. But my hands had to stay in my lap. Now? I was gonna fly.

“Clear prop!” – loudly. Stick back, four turns of the blade before the mags switch on, and the old R-1340 sputters to life belching its trademark cloud of smoke. Got ground taxi clearance while rolling across the grass and out onto the taxiway. Runup, then cleared straight out departure on runway 18. As I rolled into position and eased in takeoff power, the transformation was complete.

Two minutes later, I was barreling along at 3000 feet, banking and yanking above the rolling hills of Iowa, as clear, present and in the groove as I’d ever been. The plane felt right, I felt right. I was riding an old horse that remembered me well, and she was eager to run.

It was a good hour. Airwork, landing practice at Monticello 20 miles west, and some more messing around on the way back. Tower asked whether I wanted the “normal” pattern or an overhead break. Hell, I was feeling good – I took the overhead break. Cruise power at 1900 feet over the threshold, then a hard break left to burn energy while throttle came to idle. Momentary level, while the gear comes out at the 180 degree point, then full flaps and a steep power-off descent. Squeaked the wheel landing on like I knew what I was doing and taxied back for shutdown.

The prop had barely stopped turning before the volunteers were at my wing to offer water, fuel slips, a ride back to the hangar; anything I needed (did I mention how great the volunteers were?). I waved them off as graciously as I could – I was all set, thanks.

In the magic of that moment after a perfect flight, what I really wanted was some quiet time with the plane. Everyone else on the ramp had headed back, and I was blissfully alone with my machine. I pulled out the paper towels and began wiping off the fuselage oil streaks that follow any flight behind an old radial engine. Cowl, belly, leading edge. Cleaned the windshield and tidied the baggage compartment. Then sat on the wingwalk for a few minutes and just looked out at the late afternoon sky.

Another volunteer rolled up in a golf cart – he’d noticed me out there and wanted to know if I needed a ride. No thanks, just taking my time putting her to bed for the evening. He nodded appreciatively – “Burping her and tucking her in?” “Yup! And don’tcha know – she always wants just one more bedtime story.” Yes, he definitely got it. Fired up the golf cart and waved me off while I had my alone time.

Martin once related a lesson he teaches every one of his students when they cover emergency procedures: “I always tell my students” he says, “that if you lose the engine in flight, the insurance company owns the airplane. Your job is to save yourself. You shouldn’t think about saving the insurance company money by not damaging their plane. You’re flesh and blood; the plane is just a piece of machinery.” He pauses. “I always tell my students this, and make sure they really understand it.” (and his voice drops down to a whisper) “But I make sure to tell them when we’re far enough away that the airplane can’t hear.”

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