I spent several years teaching in a boarding school in Arizona, about half way between Tucson and Phoenix. While there I bought Microsoft Flight Simulator to play on my IBM PC. This turned out to be a surprisingly sophisticated game. It included navigational radios and the various land-based beacons that pilots use for navigation. Trying to control the plane with the keyboard proved difficult, and the type of joystick available at the time didn’t provide the right feel, so I bought a yoke that would plug into the computer and clamp onto the edge of my desk. It adjusted the ailerons by pushing and pulling and the rudder by turning, just like a real plane.
I got pretty good at basic flying. I would trim the plane to maintain altitude and approximate heading then go to dinner. When I returned I’d use the nav radios to figure out where I was, find the nearest airport and land. Well, I’d try to land at the airport. Though I was pretty good with the flying part, I could not land other than by gliding down to the ground—which took four or five times more space than the length of a long runway—and even then I sometimes crashed. I worked at it but could not get the hang of landing, so finally I decided to really learn how. I went out to the local airport and signed up for flying lessons.
I don’t remember how long it took before I soloed, but my instructor, Frank, estimated that I had about five hours’ worth of “stick time” from flying the simulator. Taking off and basic flying were no problem, other than having to constantly monitor the gauges. But landing was another story. Just like on the simulator.
I got ok at the approach—not great, but ok—but I was having a hell of a time recognizing when to do the final flare. See, the concept is that you’re coasting in just above stall speed, and when you’re a few feet above the runway you pull back on the yoke, raising the front of the airplane, and thereby inducing a stall, and the plane drops gently onto all three wheels. But I just couldn’t judge when that moment came.
One night after an afternoon of practicing landings I was lying in bed going over the procedure, reliving the experience, and I got this visceral sensation of falling at the moment when it was time to do the final flare. That was it! I knew when to flare: when it feels like the bottom has dropped out—like I’m suddenly falling. The next day I went to the airport knowing that I would be able to land successfully and take my first solo. And it was so.
Before learning to fly I could only land my simulator if I had a virtually unlimited runway, even with a small prop plane. After learning to fly a real plane, on the simulator I could land a Lear jet on an aircraft carrier.
I wrote the following shortly after the event described, in 1985.
I wrote the following shortly after the event described, in 1985.
A five knot cross wind prevented my going out solo immediately. Frank, my instructor, went up with me to do a couple of touch-and-goes first. My crosswind technique was atrocious, but on the third landing he said to drop them off. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Those were really rotten landings.” I had flown solo only once before.
He assured me that if I had to I could land normally, because the wind was so light. “But practice your slips while you’re up there,” he added.1
As Frank left the plane, he said, “Just stay on this side of the highway so if you get lost you can find the way home. Come back in about 20 minutes.”
So off I went. I headed east, out of the landing pattern, and found the road to line up on to practice slips. The desert is well-suited for this sort of drill, because all the roads are absolutely straight and flat. Mountains punctuate every horizon, but between them there is not so much as a hill. This is the Casa Grande Valley, in southern Arizona. It’s January, but even this time of year the ground gets warm enough in the middle of the day to cause turbulence in the air. Because of that and my teaching schedule, I always fly in the late afternoon.
After slipping back and forth above the road for about 15 minutes, I turned west, toward the airport. At least I thought it was toward the airport. The sky was very hazy, particularly looking into the 5:30 sun. I didn’t see the airport. Going back and forth over the road maybe I ended up further south that I started. I could see a town to the north. Perhaps it was Eloy. I turned north to check it out. It didn’t look right, and I didn’t see an airport in the appropriate location relative to it. Maybe it’s Coolidge, I thought. If this is Coolidge that the highway is way off to the west. If it’s Eloy the highway should be immediately west of town. But I have trouble identifying interstate highways from above the desert. There’s a big road down there, but it doesn’t look like it has exit and entrance ramps.
Well, I couldn’t make up my mind whether it was Coolidge or not, but I decided it couldn’t be Eloy, and something else was bothering me about that time: on the radio I had been hearing a lot of traffic coming going at the Coolidge airport, and if this was Coolidge, then there was an airport down there somewhere with planes coming and going constantly, and I could see neither the airport nor the planes. I didn’t like the idea of learning emergency avoidance maneuvers right that minute, so I figured the best thing to do was to get out of town before sunset — which was rapidly approaching.
Flying south, I recognized a lake to the southeast. That meant Eloy should be south or southwest of me. But I couldn’t see it. Finally, I called Eloy Unicom2 and asked for Frank. I figured that he’d be out there watching me and listening in on the radio. But he wasn’t listening. Someone did respond though. I told him I was trying to find Eloy and that I saw this lake to my southeast. He said “That’s Pichacho Reservoir. Casa Grande is west of there. Casa Grande VOR is 114.8. Eloy is on the 92 degree radial3.”
Frank has not taught me about the VOR, but my flight simulator has one which I have fooled around with. So I turned the VOR to 114.8 and then I figured there were two ways I could approach the problem. One was to adjust the heading indicator to tell me what course to head for Casa Grande, steer that course until the little “to” indicator popped to “from” then set the gizmo to 92 degrees and steer that course to Eloy. The other way I could do it was to set the thing to 92 degrees right away and continue flying south (or turn around and head north of the needle indicated that) until the Needle told me I had intersected the 92 degree radial. Then I could steer the reciprocal 92 degrees (272) and eventually pass over Eloy — or miss it because I intersected the radial west of Eloy.
I figured Casa Grande was a long way out of the way, so I opted for Plan B. Besides, the worst thing that could happen would be that I would end up at Casa Grande, and then I could switch to plan A. Piece of cake, right? Well, maybe, but….
You’ve got to understand something about this plane and flying. Now and then something is not working just the way it should. For instance there’s a little ball in a curved glass tube that’s supposed to tell you whether you’re skidding, slipping, or in coordinated flight4. It has little marks that indicate where the middle of the tube is — where the ball should be. But the thing is put on crooked so that if the ball is in the middle, you are skidding left or slipping right5. Another thing: for a while there was a little problem with the electrical system: the alternator didn’t work. We had to turn the power off once we got out of the pattern so we would have some battery left for when we landed. There are a couple of things that run on electricity that didn’t work when we did that. Like the radios and lights, and some of the instruments. Frank would charge the battery before flying, but sometimes it didn’t get enough charge to use the starter motor, or maybe he wanted to save power, so we would play WWI fly boy. He would go around the front of the plane and shout “contact!” I would check back “contact!” that he would grab a propeller blade and spin it. When a cylinder fired, I would jockey the throttle till she was running. Pretty neat stuff, and a real good education, but the point is that all this did not exactly inspire my confidence in the airplane.
So where were we? Oh yes, somewhere on the 92 degree radial, heading for Casa Grande. Well to put it bluntly, I missed Eloy. But I did find the highway6.
Yes, it was getting to be a nice sunset, but with the haze and all. Kind of a glowing-pink-all-over type sunset. Sunsets from the air, particularly in the desert, are really beautiful, but I was thinking more of what inevitably follows a sunset: darkness!
However, I was comforted by the highway. All I had to do now was find the Toltec Road exit and “drive” to the airport. I knew how to do that. But I had to know whether to head north or south. If I really am on the 92° radial from Casa Grande, I was thinking, then I should see where Interstate 8 forks off from Interstate 10. In fact it should be right in front of me. Well, I didn’t see it. Do you think that I decided that it really was there and I just didn’t notice it? Do you think I thought my calculations were off? Or do you think that I decided that the VOR was off? If you guessed number three then you remember the paragraph that began, “you’ve got to understand…” (Or you know me). I couldn’t decide whether to head north or south. I flipped a mental coin and went north. I figured that at 100 mph, I’ve got to see something I recognize pretty soon. I didn’t. I headed south. Same problem. There were some mountains back north, with a town to the west of them. That configuration looked a lot like Casa Grande. But, it was quite a bit to the north, which didn’t seem right.
“Eloy Unicom, this is Cessna four-eight-three-six-oh.”
“Three-six-oh, this is Eloy.”
“Is Frank there?”
“I’m next door. I’ll go check.”
After a pause, I heard Frank’s familiar Western drawl. “Bob, where are you?”
“That’s what I was going to ask you!”
“What do you see?”
I described the scenery, with particular attention to the mountains and rapidly setting sun.
“Don’t worry. You have at least two hours of fuel left.”
“I hadn’t even thought about fuel. I was thinking about light… Or the impending lack thereof. Frank, I’m officially scared!”
“Well, when it gets dark you will be able to see the airport beacon. Then it will be easy to get home.”
“I’ve never landed at night before.”
“What’s your altitude?”
“2500 feet.” (I had wondered from my intended 3000 while concentrating on the VOR and such stuff.”
“Do a spiral climb to 4500 and call me back when you get there.”
Oh boy. Turns-about-a-point. I know how to do them. This will give me something to concentrate on while killing precious time.
“Bob?” (It was taking forever.) ”What’s your altitude?”
“Okay, I want you to write down a few numbers.”
Frank told me the radio frequency of Eloy Unicom, and of Albuquerque Center. He said, “Now I want you to turn your transponder to 7700 and call Albuquerque Center. Tell them you’re lost and looking for Eloy.”
All right, I’ve had a good time, but I’m tired of this game now. I think I’ll just get out and walk home. Hmmm, I’m at 4000 feet. Well, maybe I’ll play just a little longer. But Frank has told me about transponder frequency 7700. That means emergency! What are you telling me, Frank?
I followed Frank instructions, but Albuquerque couldn’t hear me. Why should they? They’re 450 miles away! I tried again and they responded, but not clearly. I was still climbing, and before long we could communicate. (Wow, that’s amazing, I thought. Albuquerque is a long way away! Earth curvature saves the day!) I told Albuquerque what Frank had said to say and they asked me to tune my transponder to another frequency (so they could get an absolutely positive fix of me).
“Cessna three-six-oh, you are one mile northwest of Eloy.”
How embarrassing! Totally lost and only a mile from home! I headed Southeast and started searching for the airport.
“Cessna three-six-oh, what is your heading?”
“Correct to 145 degrees”
When I got around to 145 degrees, I saw the beacon – dead ahead! “Albuquerque, this is Cessna three-six-oh. I see the beacon. I’m switching the transponder back to 1200 and tuning to Eloy Unicom. Thanks for your help.”
The ground was monochromatic black. Only the revolving white and green lights indicated an airport, though I was practically right over it. I had 3000 feet of extra altitude to dump in a hurry. I was disinclined to take my eyes off that comforting beacon — I had spent so much time trying to find it.
“Eloy Unicom, this is Cessna four-eight-three-six-oh entering a right downwind for landing on runway oh-two.”
“Welcome home, three-six-oh. We missed you.” It was the woman who had gone to get Frank. I would have to thank her in person later.
“Bob, turn around and land on two-oh9.” That was Frank. Why did he want me to do that? I was more familiar with oh-two and what little wind was left slightly favored it. And I was already in the pattern and boy, was it dark out! But, I turned around and came in on the opposite approach.
On the downwind leg I had no trouble, but when I turned base10, I could barely see my estimates. You see, what little light there was came from the west, and on downwind that light was behind me, eliminating the instruments. Now it was from the side.
When I turned final, I could not see them at all. I leaned as far forward as my shoulder harness would let me to check by airspeed. Don’t get below 60 or you’re a pancake, kid. Concentrate on the airspeed and altitude; I was wandering all over the place. I’ve done approaches like this on the simulator, and they all end up in crashes.
Gee, I think I’ll go around. Full throttle, carburetor heat off, flaps up, yoke back a bit, go to the right of the runway. Okay, this time I’m going all the way around the pattern. I’ve done this hundreds of times before. (Would you believe 50?) On downwind, I searched for instrument lights, but couldn’t find them. Oh well. Punt!
Don’t rely on the instruments, Frank always says. Judge it by look, feel, and sound. Look at the angle of the cowling to the horizon. At least I could see a dim line of light on the horizon. (Frank explained later that that was why he wanted me to land on two-oh: I could see the horizon while landing.) Now, keep this thing going straight. (Small corrections, turkey.) Two columns of lights marked the sides of the runway. Keep the plane going straight and between those lights. Okay, now wait to feel the bottom drop out. (That’s how I represent myself when to pull back on the yoke to get the nose up for touchdown.) Okay, now! Not too far – you don’t want to stall here! But keep pulling. You know that’s your weakness. You don’t adjust for lost lift at this point. Keep pulling!
I even hit the first third of the runway, the way it’s supposed to be done! Okay, I hit just a bit hard, but no more so than some other times. Taxiing to the far end of the runway, I pried my hands from the yoke and dried them on my pants. Calmly watching the ground go by, I basked in the awkward jolts of an airplane rolling on the ground. On the taxiway I suddenly thought to take my dark glasses off. Another half hour and it will be dark.
¹ In a crosswind landing you let the plane slip sideways relative to the wind so that it flies straight relative to the ground. You end up landing on one wheel then easing down onto the other two.
² Unicom is the open frequency which is monitored at airports without a control tower. Most uncontrolled airports use the same frequency, and when you call a Unicom station anybody or nobody may respond. It’s rather haphazard.
³ VOR stands for Very high frequency Omnidirectional Range. VOR stations send out signals that make it possible to determine how many degrees it is either to or from that station.
4 In a skid, the tail of the plane is turning faster than the nose, so the plane is “spinning out” as a car might do when turning in snow. In a slip, the plane slides sideways and down. Coordinated flight is when neither of these other two conditions is present.
5 depending upon whether you are banked left or right.
6 As I sit here typing, I realized that had I just headed 272 degrees from there I would’ve found Eloy, because I know the highway is west of Eloy. However, 20/20 hindsight is fine for the armchair pilot, but you put your can at 3000 feet and watch the sun go down and think of all the right things at the right time!
7 The armchair pilot who is typing this says that there is no other town that sits in that relation to the highway and mountains between Picacho and Phoenix, and if I had been that close to Picacho Peak, I would surely would have seen it, even with the haze. Therefore he reasons, it had to have been Casa Grande, but I just told the armchair pilot to shut up – he wasn’t there.
8 The transponder is a device that sends a signal which is picked up by radar. With this, your plane appears on the screen is a number rather than a blip. It makes positive identification by radar possible.
9 Adding a zero to the end of the runway number gives the compass degrees that runway heads. 02 and 20 are opposite ends of the same strip, and the only strip at the Eloy Airport.
10 90 degrees to the runway, just before turning to the final approach.