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08 August 2014

The Day I Almost Flew a Tiger Moth Single-Handed

What’s it like flying a Tiger Moth? Absolutely AMAZING! I don’t think I can do the experience justice, but I have to try.

You can imagine my excitement when Into the Blue asked if I’d be interested in trying out one of their summer aircraft experiences and I saw Tiger Moth Flights – Classic Biplane and Tiger Moth Experiences. YES PLEASE!

I chose the Tiger Moth flight at Old Sarum Airfield. The Into the Blue flight experience is 30 minutes and offers a choice between a training flight or half an hour of aerobatics. The aerobatics offer was verrrry tempting, I have to admit. However, I was already jumping around about ME IN A TIGER MOTH, I decided that flying upside down might be more excitement than I could handle. I went for the training flight.

Signing up was simple. I booked it online but followed up by phone because I was just that excited I wanted to be sure of the details. GoFly at Old Sarum confirmed it was a REAL LIVE Tiger Moth and that yes, I really would be allowed to fly it. I told her I had my PPL but I didn’t mind if it was just a scenic flight. But no, I didn’t need to bring any paperwork but she confirmed that I would be going out with a qualified instructor who would tailor the flight to my experience level. So not just a joy ride! I chose a day at the end of July, hoping that the British summer would be kind to me.

It was: the day dawned bright and beautiful with brilliant blue skies and little puffy clouds floating past as if they were auditioning for a children’s picture book. I packed the essentials: log book, sun glasses, camera, hair band. There was a major sky-diving event at the airfield so the place was crawling with young people in red jumpsuits strapping on parachutes. I avoided them as best I could (“No, thank you very much, I’m here to fly not to fall.”) and was greeted at the GoFly office. There were two of us flying the Tiger Moth that day, me and an 80-year-old gentleman who if at all possible looked even more excited than I did. We were both almost an hour early for our flights. The gentleman had also trained to be a private pilot when he was 17… in 1951 in a Tiger Moth. I was enthralled. He was really looking forward to flying in one again and the time waiting for our instructor flew past as I listened to his stories of the aircraft he’d flown in the UK and the US.

We were both chattering excitedly as we were led inside for our briefing. He smiled and stepped to the side as we reached the training room, letting me go first. Our instructor was David Wood, a tall, dapper fellow who wouldn’t have looked out of place on a wartime poster posing with his bi-plane. The Tiger Moth, he told us, was G-ACDI, still the same registration as when built by de Havilland in 1933. “A year before me,” said my new gentleman friend with a grin.

He didn’t tell us the full history of G-ACDI but of course I looked it up. In 1940, it was taken over by the RAF where it was reregistered as BB742. A year later, the aircraft collided on the ground with another Tiger Moth – a bit of bad taxi-ing, that! – and had to be transported by road to be repaired: an indignity for any aircraft. It stayed in the RAF until November 1947 when it was flown to Little Rissington “for disposal,” which is not quite as final as it sounds. The aircraft was sold in 1948 and regained its civilian registration of G-ACDI. In 1954, the Tiger Moth suffered an engine failure and crashed on take-off.

The aeroplane was deemed beyond repair but someone collected all the parts and stored them in the corner a hangar for fifty years. It was 1995 before G-ACDI was rescued from the scrap heap, when it was restored at Old Sarum. David, our instructor, bought the Tiger Moth after the restoration and helps with the maintenance and care (under supervision) and it showed. I was quite intrigued by the bi-plane but David was clearly deeply in love.

“Here’s a list,” said David, “of all the things the Tiger Moth does not have.” It seemed to be quite a long list. The Tiger Moth has no starter, no nose wheel, no stall warners, no flaps, no roof, no brakes. I had vaguely understood that the Tiger Moth was a relatively simple plane but it was a bit disconcerting to see all those pieces of equipment that I relied on for flight to be missing. This was unlike any plane I’d flown before.

“This is why the Tiger Moth is one of the very finest basic trainers ever produced. It requires real skill to fly it well. It may seem ludicrously hands-on but as a trainer, it teaches skills not knowledge.” The gentleman next to me nodded. “Seat of the pants flying,” he said knowingly.

That was all fine but I’m not all that good at flying. I mean, no one has ever looked at my dumpling-shaped 5’0 frame and said “Hey, you are a natural pilot.” And here was an aircraft that was specifically designed to show me up.

On top of everything, I’d never flown a tail dragger: an aircraft which has what is confusingly called “conventional landing gear”. There’s no nose wheel, just the two main wheels under the wings and a skid at the back to keep the tail off the ground. Taxiing, take-off and landing were all very different and tail draggers were notoriously easy to tip over. I’d seen plenty of photographs of vintage aircraft with their noses digging into the grass as a result of bad handing.

I took a deep breath and we went over the emergency procedures. David asked each of us about our experience. The 80-year-old had vastly more hours than I did. Once he was finished, they both turned to me. “I’ve done about as many hours in total as he has in the Tiger Moth alone,” I admitted. “And I’ve never flown a vintage plane.” My gentleman co-student threw me a look and I considered that possibly referring to his trainer as “vintage” was not my most tactful comment of the day.

David just smiled. “So, who wants to go first?”

“I will,” said the gentleman who up until then had been very courteously stepping aside to let me go first. It appeared that first access to the Tiger Moth was a bit different. I grinned at his obvious excitement and walked out to the Tiger Moth to watch him get set up.

It was a beautiful aircraft — she, corrected David. And of course it was a she: glossy red lacquer with leather straps and brass rings. It seemed incredible that we were going to just hop in and fly this thing.

The gentleman beamed like it was Christmas day as they looked over the aircraft. “Can I sit in the back?”

David paused and then nodded. “I’ll just need you to do the radio.” The old man pulled on his helmet and started climbing in, leaving David rushing to the other side to steady him. I was disappointed to see that they were motor-cycle style helmets. I’d been hoping for leather ones with sheep’s wool earflaps and aviator goggles.

“I’ll sit in the front when it’s my turn,” I said. The front dashboard was not quite so well kitted out and was clearly the passenger seat. But no one heard me, they were intent on their flight. David swung the propeller around and the engine started with a roar.

The half-hour dragged, although I suspected it flew past (no pun intended) for the pair in the cockpit. It was a hot summer’s day and I only survived the wait at all because the GoFly operations guy brought out glasses of water (and friendly conversation). But finally, the aircraft returned home. It had barely stopped rolling before David waved at me to come on over. It was my turn.

I kept my sunglasses, as they’d be protected by the helmet, but David recommended that I leave the camera behind; advice I was grateful for when we turned upside-down. But that was later.

Physically getting into the cockpit was more complicated than I expected. I clambered onto the wing trying to remember all the places he had warned me not to touch the aircraft (“It’s all just wood and fabric, remember.”). Finally, I stood on the seat and slid into place. I was in. Now I had to try to make sense of the seatbelt/harness thing. There were four leather straps with brass rings and a pin and a metal triangle that looked like a children’s puzzle game.

The dash was a thin wooden panel like I’d expect to see in my grandfather’s old work room in the cellar. It didn’t look it should be on a real plane. The whole experience was somewhat unreal. I pinned the straps together and gave the harness a tug. It seemed safe enough.

“Hold back the stick while I start up the engine,” said David. “Otherwise the nose will tip forward.” I clenched that stick like my life depended on it and flipped the magneto switches up at his signal.

Finally, we were surrounded by the familiar sound of the Tiger Moth engine. He climbed in and we were moving.

I smiled and sat back. I was in a beautiful vintage plane about to take off and fly over the Salisbury plains in the sunshine. Could life get any better than this? David interrupted my day dreaming. “Now you too can experience the joy of taxiing a tail dragger. You have control.”

I choked and then rapidly grabbed the stick and looked for the rudder pedals. Memories of my first-ever training flight came back to me: I couldn’t reach the pedals. Weren’t they all a lot shorter in 1933? Clearly still not as short as me, though. David agreed to do the rudders. I increased the power and we trundled down the taxi-way.

“Here’s the thing,” said David. “We have no brakes. We’re following another aircraft. And we’re about to start rolling downhill.”

I twisted for a better look as the bi-plane picked up speed. We were coasting straight towards a small gyrocopter which was paused ready to enter the runway. How the heck was I supposed to taxi with no brakes?

“I think you should taxi,” I said. He laughed and pulled the power right back. “It’s all about thinking ahead.” David turned the aircraft right then left, zigzagging his way along the grass taxiway at a slow speed. I breathed a sigh of relief when the gyrocopter entered the runway.

Next it was our turn. David pulled us onto the runway. “You need to be very careful to ensure your nose doesn’t go forward on take-off,” David explained. “I’ll do this, but follow me through on the controls.”

I barely had time to find the controls before we were climbing away from the airfield. “That…. what did we need the runway for?”

He laughed. “I have a 400 metre farm strip at home. I’ve never even needed to use half of it.”

That’s not me in the aircraft but we looked just like that! Except it was louder and windier and a million times more awesome.

We flew. I remember it now with the wind blowing through my hair although of course I had the helmet on. But it felt like the wind blew through my hair and the sun shone on my face and I was out there, in an open top plane flying into the blue unknown.

We climbed and made a slow right turn. I was content to just watch, with the breeze flowing over us and the beautiful Wiltshire countryside green and languid below. But David wasn’t going to give me the easy way out. “Look out, see how the horizon is positioned here? That’s straight and level.” It didn’t look straight nor level to me but I didn’t get time to think about it. “You have control.”

I nervously gripped the stick and the aircraft tilted. “You have to be gentle,” said David. “She’s in trim, just let her fly.”

I patted the Tiger Moth’s dashboard and hoped that it she knew what she was doing. I tried to make sense of the compass but it was horizontal and bouncing. Every gust of wind seemed to make the aircraft sway. I gripped the stick again and the aeroplane tilted again.

“Let’s climb. I’ll show you how to use the trim.”

Now you have to understand, my understanding of a trim is the electric buttons on my beloved Piper Saratoga. I vaguely remember using a trim wheel when I was training and I figured I would still be able to do that. But that’s not what this was. The cables and rods were disconcerting. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be this close to the inner workings of the aircraft. It seemed unbecoming, like looking at the innards of a loved one. David talked me through it as I pulled a knob towards me, slid it towards the rear and then locked it back into place.

Of course, while I was concentrating on that, I stopped paying any attention to the flight or even the stick. I wasn’t confident that I was tugging on the right bit and had visions of the entire aircraft unravelling like an over-worn cardigan. I eventually understood that I had to actually be flying the plane in the right configuration in order to set the trim, for some value of “setting a trim”. In theory, I know this to be true but other planes would let me set the trim despite myself. I wasn’t used to having to get it right.

On the fifth try, David took pity on me. “Are you looking out?”

Of course not; I was staring at my feet wondering if I’d ever get this trim thing into the right place. I gave up and looked out.

It was a stunningly beautiful day and we had the entire countryside unfolding below us. The Solent was a glittering ribbon of light in the distance. Beyond that, the dark smudge of the Isle of Wight.

But of course the moment I started sight-seeing, the aircraft tilted and swayed again. It seemed like the slightest breath would set it her off. I began to understand why the Tiger Moth has such a reputation as able to separate the good pilots from the great ones. It may not be too difficult to fly (David certainly made it look easy) but even the smallest deviations were immediately noticeable.

I was helplessly confused. I wanted to lean back and just take it all in. I also wanted to fly the plane, of course I did, but that took concentration and at the same time I didn’t want to miss a single second of this experience.

David sensed my change of mood, or maybe I just finally relaxed my grip on the stick. He took control and regained the height I had lost. “Would you like to try aerobatics?

Would I! “Oh my god yes.”

He grinned and stepped me through the HASELL check. I belatedly remembered that the sky was full of sky divers. I really wasn’t competent to do a look-out, could barely see beyond my own excitement. Everything about the flight was so amazing and interesting, it was impossible to concentrate.

“Watch the wingtip,” he told me. I was a bit surprised, I thought I would watch above and see Wiltshire come into view above me but I dutifully turned my head. I always imagined a roll would be like a loop on a roller coaster but it was much more intense than that. My jaw dropped open as the world turned sideways.

I laughed in excitement as the horizon swung around us. Then we were properly upside down and I looked down in horror at my harness. I mean, it seemed stable enough down on the ground but I hadn’t tested it for holding me into the plane as we flew upside down. Besides, it was just a bit of leather after all, and probably 80-year-old leather at that, depending on how obsessive the restoration was about keeping the original aircraft intact. But before I even had time to finish the thought we were straight and level again. I was still laughing.

“Was that all right?”

I squeaked in delight and tugged again at my harness. It was definitely still all connected.

“Was it? Want to try a barrel roll?”

I needed to regain the power of speech. “That was amazing! Yes, please!”

David took the Tiger Moth through its her paces. We climbed and fell and spun and recovered. “We’re going straight down now, ” he said as we dive bombed a flock of sheep, as if I couldn’t tell. It was somewhat reassuring to hear that he was doing this intentionally. David filled me in on the details. “That’s us hitting our own slipstream. Here’s where the rudder control becomes critical. Feel that adverse yaw? Here’s another roll. Not bad for a 81-year-old, huh?” Through out it all, I giggled like a mad woman.

All too soon, I saw the airfield in the distance. We were heading back. “Watch the nose as we come in. It’s a different viewpoint than what you are used to.” In a tail dragger, you typically land by touching down nose-high in what’s called a three point landing, with both main-wheels and the skid touching the ground at the same instant. This allows for a super-short landing distance. “There’s also a wheel landing where you keep the tail off the ground until the aircraft is slowed down,” said David. “It’s useful if you have a long taxi ahead of you. I’ll do this bit.”

I laughed; it hadn’t even occurred to me to try. I was not under any circumstances risking breaking this beautiful plane. We touched down like a feather and turned off the runway. I was pretty sure the skid on the back was probably still touching the numbers, the landing was so short.

“Not quite right,” David said. “But close. Close enough.”

On the ground again, I found I’d gained a new respect for this crochety old Tiger Moth. I thought she was interesting before, but now she was beautiful. David let me have another look around. I discovered all kinds of bits and pieces to the plane that I was just too distracted to notice in the sky. I ran a finger down her fuselage. The glossy red finish and quaint brass fixtures were not just for show. She might not be high-tech but every piece of the Tiger Moth was beautiful and efficient and utterly complicated.

It’s one hell of an aircraft, it really is. The truth is, I don’t think I’d want to fly one full time. I’m distractable enough as it is without the poor visibility and special handling that a little aeroplane like that requires. I would want a bit more range and I’d like to feel secure that when I went someplace, my plane could handle it.

But if wishes were horses, I’d love a Tiger Moth for hopping around the UK in – visiting friends and attending every air show in the country. I certainly would be more than happy to recommend to anyone who loves planes, especially vintage planes, regardless of their skill level and experience.

A huge thank you to Into the Blue for providing me with a unique experience and a special day out.

12 July 2013

The Last Flight

Max Grogan, a pilot and avid photographer, posted this story to, a wonderful community of pilots and Beechcraft enthusiasts. I was immediately entranced and contacted Max directly to thank him for this heartwarming story of the brief friendship of two men, united by a love of flying. He was kind enough to give me permission to reproduce his words and photographs so that I could share them with you.

This was a few years ago but as I’m on holiday this week, I thought it was a good chance to revisit this beautiful piece. It is worth putting aside half an hour of your weekend for this, I promise.

My Friend Clayton

This is a true story. May you be so lucky as to meet a man like him.
Words and Photography by Max Grogan

Although I had never seen the man before, I knew it had to be Clayton. I could tell by his walking cane. It was a knotty, crooked and gnarly old thing. I was sure I had seen it before. It looked as if a vine had once wound itself around a young sapling which was now fashioned into a support for an ancient relic of a man. Later I would find a joyful spirit, and the enthusiasm of a much younger man lay hidden in repose within his large but frail body. Once he was a young hero, answering the call to arms and performing his duty to preserve his nation’s freedom. But this day he leaned heavily on the cane as if he would topple, helpless, into a heap of old bones and wrinkled skin without its solid support.

The pilot grapevine works quickly. Should a wing be dinged, a tire burst upon landing, or someone forgets to lower their wheels, the phones will ring. Pilots are gossips when it comes to unusual happenings at their airport.

I got the call on that beautiful post Labor Day afternoon: A plane had slid off the runway into the Tennessee River at Knoxville Downtown Island Airport. The story being relayed was that it was a beautiful and recently restored Mooney flown by a very old man.

I got the message around noon. I’m not one to go running to look at a wreck or other traumatic event, so I took no action to see the plane. I was planning to fly my plane that afternoon and decided I would look into it when I arrived. I had almost forgotten about the event by the time I drove across the bridge to our lovely airport. Upon arriving I went into the office for the usual free cup of fresh coffee. The place was buzzing with talk of the earlier incident when the plane went into the water. Now I was at the root of the grapevine. I listened as people described the event and the participants.

The stories related how an elderly gentleman, a former World War II pilot, had recently bought a newly refurbished Mooney airplane. He and his nephew decided it was a fine day for an airplane ride and off they went. Never mind that he hadn’t flown in over thirty years, or that no one had checked him out in the plane. Since he had paid cash and did not have an insurance policy with which to comply he felt he was on his own and could do as he pleased.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires a pilot to pass a physical examination and a flight review conducted by an instructor before acting as pilot in command. This pilot knew he could not pass either. But he had a burning desire to fly his own plane again. The gossip was he bought the plane and defied the regulations. He flew it. Fortunately he also took a passenger along on that fateful flight.

As I sat alone, on a picnic bench outside the airport office while finishing my coffee, an ambulance drove into the parking lot. A man in his forties, wearing hospital scrubs and carrying a small plastic bag exited the ambulance and entered the office. Shortly afterward he came outside and sat down near me. He was now carrying a strange looking walking cane as well as his package.

It occurred to me he might be one of the accident victims and I asked if that were true. With a sigh and a deep breath, he acknowledged he had, indeed, been in the plane. I asked him to tell me about it and he related the events of the crash. He paused occasionally to stare toward the runway and the hidden spot where the plane was mired in river bottom mud as if he were reliving the frightful experience. He was obviously shaken, and very concerned for his uncle who had sustained a bad bruise and serious cuts on his right leg, his only injuries thankfully. He had returned to the airport for his car and his uncle’s cane which the divers had recovered. The hospital had given him the scrubs to wear and the bag contained his wet clothing.

Clayton was his uncle, he said, and he had admired him all his life. He wanted to be like him and fly airplanes but had never had the opportunity. Uncle Clayton had lived in California since before he was born and he rarely got to see him. Over the years his uncle would talk about flying the big planes during WWII, including the biggest, the B-17. He had promised: Someday he would take him into the air.

Uncle Clayton’s wife had died only a year earlier. She had begged him to move her back to Tennessee before she died and it seemed the end was near for her. So Clayton sold their beautiful home of many years. It was very nice, and was perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately Clayton’s wife died only a few months after their return to Tennessee.

Clayton had loved his wife dearly. They were married for 67 years. He would do anything for her. After the war he had owned several small planes and had a slight accident in one of them. He gave up flying after that to please his wife. That was a huge sacrifice he made for love. Yet, he never gave up his dreams of owning and flying his own plane again.

Now, his wife was gone. So many years had passed since he was last involved in aviation. The old desire to lift into the sky and fly his own plane began to haunt him. He dreamed of flying once more. Old memories kept flooding his mind and he thought perhaps there might be one last chance to relive the days of his youth. As he mourned the loss of his beloved companion, the memories of his days performing graceful pirouettes aloft became overwhelming and he bought a plane. He was a man of significant wealth. He could afford to buy a nice airplane. He answered an ad in an aviation sales magazine and agreed on a price.

The plane was delivered to the Downtown Airport. Clayton went up with the seller for a short flight, payment was made, and the deal was completed. Once again Clayton owned a plane. It was a beauty, a Mooney, resplendent in its new finery of glistening white paint, leather upholstery and high end avionics. This Mooney was a fast, complex, high performance plane. Its forward cocked tail and low slung retractable landing gear showed promise of high speed even while sitting still on the airport ramp. Clayton wanted to fly it and take his nephew aloft but there were the license and medical currency problems.

Clayton had a valid pilot’s license, as they never expire, but he was 89 years old and in bad health. He knew he could not qualify medically so therefore could not be tested for proficiency with a required semi-annual flight review. Also disappointing for him was that none of the instructors of whom he inquired would go up with him. They feared, rightly so, he might go flying on his own with possible serious consequences.

So, unable to meet federal requirements, Clayton woefully let the fast, sleek Mooney sit on the ramp for days, then weeks, until finally a month had gone by. Clayton could resist no longer. He went to the airport and started the engine in his plane. It purred smoothly, with a low rumble and a promise of speedy high adventure. He taxied it across the ramp and down the taxiway to the end and near the runway. He ran the engine up to medium power while holding the brakes, but he resisted the temptation to go at high power down the runway and lift off into the sky. He returned to the ramp, tied the plane down and went home. Sadly unfulfilled, he returned again the next day, and the next. The routine of taxiing was repeated at higher and higher speeds but he would, each time, return and park the plane on the ramp. Then he gave in to temptation. He called his nephew and announced he was ready and they were going flying. The big day had arrived.

The nephew innocently arrived after the announcement that Uncle Clayton had been practicing and was ready for their flying adventure. Finally, the promise would be kept!

They boarded the plane and, in routine fashion, Clayton taxied the plane, performed the engine check, and off they went. Into the sky they soared. Clayton made graceful turns, climbed and dove. He performed a stall and even a spin. What a skilled pilot he was and the nephew was so excited and proud. All too soon they flew toward the airport. Clayton announced he would make a few landings. As they neared the runway he lowered the landing gear.

He flew above the runway at high speed and the nephew though it was just practice, a low pass but, suddenly, at 120 miles per hour, the plane’s wheels touched down on the runway. Uncle Clayton was attempting to land the plane! The nephew instinctively knew they were flying much too fast, but it was too late. Although the runway is 3,500 feet long there was less than a thousand feet remaining when the Mooney first touched down. Clayton closed the throttle and applied full brakes until they were locked and sliding, but the nephew knew this was not going to stop the plane in time. Down the asphalt they skidded, then across five hundred feet of grassy over-run, but still the plane was not stopped. Beyond the grassy area was the rocky rip-rap protecting the island’s banks. They bounced through the rocks and on beyond and across the sandy shore. Still with energy in reserve the Mooney skidded into the water and was propelled fifty feet from shore before it finally stopped.

Now they had been in a plane crash and the plane was sinking into thirty feet of water. The nephew hastily opened the door and crawled onto the wing. He reached back inside and tugged and pulled at his uncle until finally he too was on the wing. Just as the plane slid beneath the surface they began to swim for shore. Clayton was struggling and the nephew, a skilled swimmer, turned him onto his back and began one-handedly paddling them to shore with Clayton yelling and splashing. Fortunately a mowing crew of two men had rushed to the shore soon after they saw the plane slide into the water. The two men dove into the lake and met the nephew and helped get Clayton safely on land again. Although shaken the nephew was uninjured but Clayton was having problems with his right leg.

Soon emergency medical personnel arrived and transported both men to the nearby hospital for observation and possible treatment. A rescue team was summoned and divers went into the water and attached a cable to the tail-end tie-down ring of the fully submerged plane. An attempt was made to pull the plane ashore but the landing gear dug into the muddy bottom twenty feet from shore, halting the removal effort. The divers removed what personal items they could from the plane, including the pilot’s walking cane. They tied the cable to a small tree to keep the river’s current from sweeping it downstream toward Knoxville.

As I flew over the partially submerged Mooney later that afternoon, I reflected on the events related by the nephew and others. I was saddened by the end of the story about his long awaited adventure with his Uncle Clayton. The plane would remain there for two weeks until a salvage crew finally arrived, lifted it ashore, removed the wings and carted it away.

A few months later, on another of my frequent visits to the airport, I was looking out the office window at the planes tied down on the distant west ramp. I spotted a V-tailed Beechcraft Bonanza that I had not seen before. Since that is the type of airplane I own, my curiosity was aroused. I asked the lady on duty if that was a transient or a newly based plane at our airport. She allowed as to how it was now based at our airport and owned by a man whose first name was Clayton. I said “Surely you don’t mean the same Clayton who put the Mooney into the water!”. With a big grin, she said it was. I asked if he was flying it. She said he wasn’t, because he couldn’t get anyone to fly with him. I couldn’t believe it. He had bought another plane. His dream was still alive!

Weeks passed and the Bonanza apparently was never moved. Over time sand and grit had blown against the plane’s tires making a little ridge, a tell-tale sign of inactivity. The windscreen was hazy with a thick layer of dust. I kept checking, but there was no change and the tires were slowly losing their air.

Then, on a mid-afternoon visit to the airport office, I saw the gnarly cane again. I stood and studied the man leaning upon it for support. I recalled the other time I had seen the cane and the story I was told that fateful day.

There could be no other like it, being of such uncommon design. It was being leaned upon by an elderly gentleman engaged in conversation with another stranger. This had to be Clayton. I was excited. I really wanted to meet him. I walked over to the ancient stranger and introduced myself, announced I was a plane owner and asked if he owned a plane, while thinking I probably knew the answer. The old gentleman looked me squarely in the eye, and, while leaning upon the cane, rose to the full height allowed by his worn body. Then he took a deep breath, pointed with the cane and proudly said “Yes, I do, I own a Bonanza, the one parked on the ramp there.”.

Smiling inside, and feigning ignorance, I asked if he was flying it much. He replied that he was not, and as a matter of fact, had never flown it. He said he could not get anyone to fly with him. I announced firmly “Sir, you are looking at a man who will fly with you.”. He looked at me with a wide smile and a bright sparkle in his old grey eyes. He said “Hallelujah, I will get to fly my plane.”.

Our friendship had begun.

Clayton and I went to my hangar where I showed him my Bonanza and related a summary of my flying experience. We sat on the old tattered sofa and enjoyed the warm spring weather with the hangar door fully opened. We sat and chatted for a long while, into the late afternoon. He showed me the bandages on the unhealed leg and related the events of the Mooney crash. They were much the same as related by his nephew. He matter-of-factly said he just forgot how to slow the plane down for landing. No excuses. I liked that about him.

The better part of an hour was spent listening to Clayton talk of his days in the US Army Air Corps. I kept prodding him for more information until I had a pretty good idea of his military service. He was inducted fairly late in the war as he was employed in a job which excluded him from military service when the war started. He left the job and volunteered for the military with a firm goal of becoming a pilot. He reached his goal and received his initial pilot training in Texas. He trained in open cockpit Boeing PT-18’s (Stearmans) and advanced to instructor. He soon moved into multi-engine training and eventually became qualified in the B-17, a very large four-engine bomber. He was instructing in the B-17 when the war ended, having never left the states for combat.

Over the next few meetings with my elderly friend I was able to extract more and more fascinating information about all the planes he flew. The things he related from his two years flying in the military were of great interest and I never tired of hearing of them. He had an interesting civilian life as well. After the war he returned to his original home, Knoxville, and gained employment with a food processing company. He advanced to plant manager then accepted an offer to move to California in 1957 for a similar but much higher paying job. He got lucky with stock options and was able to retire at the very young age of fifty.

Clayton owned several single engine airplanes between 1946 and 1975. The list included planes made by Luscombe, Taylorcraft, Cessna and, his favorite, Swift. He flew all over the country as he lived in the east and later on the west coast. His wife never really liked airplanes and only flew with him a few times. Although he quit flying to please her he never lost his love of aviation and missed it greatly during the following years.

During that first meeting at my hangar we made plans to fly his plane. We agreed to meet the following day and set a time. He reached for the old cane and, using it, struggled to his feet, flashed the wide smile I’d seen before and laughingly proclaimed “Boy,oh boy, we’re gonna have fun!”.

I purposefully arrived a half hour early the next day to do a thorough pre-flight inspection of the Bonanza and to put air in the tires. It was a fine day in mid-May, cloudless, with bright sunshine and light wind. Clayton, full of exuberance, was already there ahead of me. He was sitting in the cockpit of the plane, on the pilot’s side, manipulating the controls. Clayton, by now, was ninety years old. But his attitude belied his age this day. He had the look and air of excitement of a child about to be turned loose on a playground.

I performed a very thorough inspection of the plane. It had now been sitting on the ramp for over two months without being flown. As I finished checking all parts of the plane, and satisfying myself it was in a safe flying condition, I walked in front of the left wing and spoke through the window opening. I told Clayton the plane was ready to be flown but there was one last thing: I would be occupying the left seat as I would be the chief pilot. Though I could detect slight disappointment, he nodded and said “That’s fine, I just want to get in the air.”.

We were ready. Surprisingly, the engine started very easily. It ran smoothly and oil pressure was excellent. I made sure we had good communication over the intercom and left the ramp for the run-up area at the end of the taxiway. The run-up check verified excellent engine and propeller function. I turned and told Clayton to put his feet on the rudder pedals and his hands on the wheel. I instructed him to put no pressure on the controls and the goal was for him to be able to feel the control inputs I would make.

I taxied the plane to the departure end of runway 8, applied full throttle and guided the plane down the centerline. The plane lifted off smoothly and I raised the landing gear. We were flying. When we had gained 200 feet of altitude I removed my feet and then my hands from the controls. I turned to Clayton and announced “You have the airplane, maintain this attitude and fly straight ahead. He seemed to sit straighter as he assumed control and he had a look of great concentration as he guided us through the air.

I directed Clayton’s efforts. I would give him a compass heading and an altitude and he would guide the plane in response to my requests. At first I handled all engine power settings. He flew to the northeast until we had risen to 5,500 feet as indicated on the altimeter. After having him level the plane I told him to make some ninety degree turns and to maintain a constant altitude. I gradually increased the difficulty of the maneuvers. We flew in steep turns, climbs and descents. We did figure eights and 360 degree turns. My new friend and co-pilot flew the Bonanza with skill and finesse. He was an excellent pilot and his touch on the controls was light and smooth.

After twenty minutes of maneuvering I asked what he wanted to do next and he said he just wanted to fly around and look at the beautiful countryside. So we sat and flew in silence. He would occasionally dip a wing for a better look and make a turn or two. I managed a few covert glances at my co-pilot. The look of joy and contentment on his old sagging and wrinkled face was one I shall always treasure. That look put a song in my heart that still resonates to this day whenever I think of him.

I finally said “Clayton, take us home. We need to work on your landings.”. He burst into laughter and cackled: “I’ve sure proven I need help with that, haven’t I?”. He flew us back into the vicinity of the airport and I began to advise him on power reduction inputs and speeds to fly. I told him I would re-take control of the plane once we were lined up with the runway. This I did and executed a landing, with him on the controls, lightly, feeling my movements. Then as the plane rolled down the runway there was quite a bit of vibration from the left wheel. I called it quits for the day as I thought this would require either repair or adjustment.

What a magnificent day of flying we had! We tied the plane on the ramp and went to my hangar for a soda and a de-briefing.

We sat on the old sofa and talked on and on about all the things he wanted to do and the places he wanted to visit in his plane. We talked of other things as the day wore on. He told me of his career and good fortune in business. I learned how he met his wife almost three quarters of a century earlier, and how much he had loved her for all those years. As he spoke of her, I sat in silence. I noticed that tears were making little trails across his weathered and lined face. There were no apologies for the tears, and he made no effort to wipe them away. We looked directly into each others eyes, and he knew I understood.

I fell in love that day, in love with Clayton’s ebullient spirit and a determination to continue having a zest for an exciting life. I discovered a kindness and caring for others that was admirable. Most of all he was a true gentleman whose courteous ways reminded me of my father and others of a bygone era.

I took control of the plane’s maintenance and had it inspected and serviced by my mechanic. It was two weeks before the plane was ready. I kept Clayton briefed on the progress and let him know when the work was done.

We flew again in early June, flying to Oneida, Tennessee, where we fueled the plane and practiced a couple of landings. He flew the plane for all except the last minute or so of the landings. After we parked the plane I told him I was nervous now because he was again a good pilot. I asked him to promise he would not fly the plane without me. He said “Sure thing, Boss”. He pitched me the keys to the plane. He put me in charge.

He insisted he would treat me to dinner and we went to his favorite place, a steakhouse overlooking downtown Knoxville and the Tennessee River. We sat out on the patio and enjoyed our meal in the late afternoon sunshine as gentle breezes wafted up from the river. I discovered Clayton’s fluency in Spanish as he had a short discourse with our server. I was surprised. He ate there often, he explained. He had learned earlier she was a graduate student at the university and Spanish was her major. His knowledge of Spanish was acquired while living in California. He had vacationed often in Mexico and learned the language to be able to talk to the natives. It was another interesting facet of this jewel of a man.

Clayton invited me to his home and told me to bring my wife. I jokingly said “Oh no, I can’t bring her, you will try to take her away from me.”. He replied with enthusiasm “You bet I will and I just might do it!” So we agreed on a date and my wife and I drove the twenty miles to the northeast to his lovely hill-top home where he had a view of the distant Smoky Mountains. In his den I saw a karaoke machine and asked him to sing for me. He had a deep resonant voice and sang well for a couple of minutes then asked us to join in the singing. We sang a few songs with him and had a very pleasant visit. We made plans to fly again soon.

We flew again two weeks later. Clayton was making the landings during the end of the flight as I followed on the controls. His injured leg still bothered him. It had been bruised badly in the accident and a body as old as his repairs itself slowly. But, I was impressed with his ability and would have felt comfortable with him in command in the left seat. I told him so. He thanked me for the compliment and asked if I would go on a long trip with him. I responded in the affirmative and he said he wanted to visit someone in Arizona. We went to my hangar and pored over an aviation map of the United States. We planned two fuel stops for comfort and he was very excited. I said “Captain, I’ll put you in the left seat. I’ll bring a good book and relax while you pilot us to Arizona”. He beamed a radiant smile and used his favorite exclamation: “Boy, oh boy, we’re gonna have fun!”. He wanted to go soon and we talked of possible dates, needing to work around a couple of doctors’ appointments he had on his schedule. It became time for him to go. We hugged each other as had become our custom on parting. He shuffled to his car using the old gnarly cane and drove away.

As I watched him depart, I could not have known I would never fly with him again. I got the call. The one we never want. Clayton had died. His old heart had given out, beat its last beat. He made his last flight from earth and is now flying with the angels.

I grieve for my friend Clayton. I never fly my Bonanza without thinking of him. I loved his spirit, and the tenderness and kindness he showed me. He gave me the gift of his confidence: Confidence in my ability as a pilot and the very personal things he shared with me, never saying they were not to be repeated. We understood each other. We soared together, in his plane and in our many visits on the old sofa in my hangar. We talked of the things we had loved in life and the things we hoped to do. Though only a memory now, Clayton lives on in my heart and I treasure what we shared. Every moment. Every laugh. Every tear.

He was buried on a hot day in early July.

The cane was buried with him.

Author and Photographer: Max Grogan
All Rights Reserved.

(See more of Max Grogan’s photography here)

08 February 2013

Instruments and Visuals

Flying with non-pilots always brings up interesting questions. Tony isn’t all that interested in planes; however he was quick to notice after only a few flights that there was some important difference between my licence and Cliff’s. He’s right: Cliff is instrument rated and I am not, I can only fly in visual conditions.

Cliff’s gone through additional training to fly using instruments for reference. I have a simple PPL which means that I require visual contact with the horizon and the ground in order to fly safely. Imagine driving your car with all the windows blacked out, so you could only drive with reference to the dashboard gauges (for example the speedometer and compass) and a GPS. It could work, but it wouldn’t be easy and there’d be a pretty big risk of an accident. That’s a pretty simplistic analogy but it comes down to this: Cliff has gone through extensive training so he doesn’t have to look out the window except on take-off and landing. If I can’t see out the window, I have to land.

Most of my blog posts about accidents involve instrument rated pilots. That’s not because instrument rated pilots are less safe. It’s simply that they offer more for discussion and learning.

So many fatal PPL accidents start with non-instrument rated pilots flying into instrument conditions that it’s depressing. In 2003, 69% of fatal weather-related accidents were the result of pilots without instrument ratings flying into instrument conditions. Spatial disorientation occurs when you can’t see out the window. 91% of spatial disorientation accidents between 1994 and 2013 were fatal. It is one of the biggest killers of General Aviation pilots. And the lesson to be learned is simple: do not fly into cloud or low visibility conditions unless you have your instrument rating.

The practical benefit of having an instrument rating is straight-forward: Cliff can fly in marginal or bad weather. I am limited to sunny days.

That’s the main aspect that I expected Tony to notice after a few flights across Europe. If the weather is not clear, I grumble a bit and then explain that Cliff will be flying instead of me, once again. It turns out that Tony’s picked up on a lot more than just that.

He says that it’s obvious who is going to fly the plane a few days before the flight. Our flight planning processes are very different.

Cliff sits down with a laptop and loads up Flitestar, looking at the airways. IFR planning always strikes me as a bit of a dot-to-dot game, where you are looking for the best route to get to your location. I could plan my VFR flights using the same software if I wanted to.

But I don’t feel like I get a strong enough understanding of my route doing that. I have big laminated maps with 1:500,000 views of Europe. I plot on the map, drawing red lines and planning a route so far around airspace that Cliff scowls in frustration when he sees my maps. He’ll always plot the straight-through route and presume he’ll be given permission to cross. After years of VFR in Spain, I presume they’ll tell me to go away and make me go miles out of my way.

My flight planning is a much longer process but it takes the stress away during the flight, which is critical for a VFR flight when you need to be able to react quickly. This process forces me to focus on the route and the surrounding area while I’m on the ground. That means I have much better spatial awareness when I’m in the air than I would if I let the software simply offer me a proposed route from A to B.

I also have a full list of radio frequencies that I expect to occur en route so I know who to talk to as I go. On an IFR flight, you are constantly told who to talk to. It’s pretty common to be handed off VFR as well, especially in the UK. Still, I’ve had my share of controllers end our friendship with “Free call next station” with not even a hint as to who I should speak to next.

If I already know the frequencies on my route this all becomes trivial. It also means I can key in the stations from my flight planning in advance. This way, if a controller tells me where to go next, I am not scribbling down numbers and then entering them every time. Mostly, I’m just verifying that the frequency I’ve been given matches the frequency I’ve already keyed into the radio.

“Sylvia can’t fly through cloud” is the other aspect that Tony has picked up on. Cliff plans flights at 10,000 feet so the first thing he generally does is take us straight through the clouds to get to his sweet spot in the sky. This gives us max speed and fuel efficiency and of course, he isn’t worried about getting trapped above the clouds. Meanwhile, I see a single fluffy cloud on the horizon and start talking about what I’m going to do to avoid it.

Tony’s also noticed that I tend to chug along between 4,000 and 5,000 feet, even in clear blue sky, despite the loss of efficiency. I always claim I have to do this so that I don’t have to worry about changing cloud above/below me as we go. But I’ll tell you honestly, it’s really because I like the better view of the countryside. Just don’t tell Cliff that, as he’s the one who pays the fuel bill.

05 October 2012

Flying into the Storm

Ken White is a flight instructor at Tailwheels in Florida and an amazing pilot. The son of a pilot and A&P mechanic, he’s spent time in the U.S Air Force as a cargo transportation specialist, contingency response group (CRG) member, and currently serves with the Florida Air National Guard as a jet propulsion technician for F100 series engines. Ken earned his flight ratings by being the jack of all trades at just about every airport he’s been around. From pumping 100 low lead and Jet A on the flight line, to serving tables at airport diners, he’s built his time and reputation one hour at a time. He completed the restoration of a well-abused Cessna 150 in 2009 and has been behind its yoke ever since.

He’s also brave enough to admit when he makes a mistake. Here’s his story of flying VFR as a low-hour pilot into bad weather while under pressure to get home.

First let’s set the stage. I fly in Florida and at the time, might have had about 200 hours total, just enough to feel slightly invincible. I was flying an old school Cessna 172 Skyhawk with a STOL kit (short take off and landing modifications) that I had come to love. I can park that plane anywhere. Onboard were myself and the girlfriend. We had just flown down to Venice, Florida for some sun and surf as the beach and Sharky’s, a great restaurant, are a short walk from the airport.

Now let’s talk about Get-home-itus and how it can make you do some really stupid things. We’d finished dinner and were on our way back the field. The restaurant faces south south west so you get one hell of a sunset with your meal. That being said, as one would expect, it’s very dark when we get back to the airport. I had noticed some off-shore lightning on the walk back but didn’t think much of it. However the lightning that did get my attention was north and east of the field.

I spin up the GPS and sure enough, there are three cells in the previous mention directions forming up a nice horse shoe around central Florida but wide enough that we might make it back before they roll over the airport. My instincts are screaming at me, DO NOT FLY THIS OUT! The girlfriend, on the other hand, was extremely concerned about getting home as she had to work in the morning. She had started a new job and was ultra-concerned about making the right impressions…yadda yadda. Long story short, I gave in and we jumped in the hawk.

Right off the bat I knew this was a bad idea. We took off down wind (only four knots by the AWOS) to avoid flying over the black hole of the gulf of Mexico and to avoid the storm already closing in from that direction. So, long take off roll, reluctance to climb. Otherwise smooth. I expected this. I’m on the horn with Tampa ATC and immediately notice the surprise in the controllers voice that anyone would even be out in these conditions. Should have been a clue. I’m getting vectors north around the cells and thinking everything’s relatively cool although I can see lighting in all four directions. Ok, getting my attention but not sweating it yet.

ATC calls up and tells me he needs a turn to 090 to clear the way for a Mooney on a long 15 mile straight in final to Sarasota. Another invincible soul who thought he could sniff his way through the CB (cumulonimbus) clouds that night. This is when alarm bells start a faint whisper in my ear. Here’s another aircraft getting a 15 mile final straight into an airport. 15 miles out. I suppose it crossed my mind that if he can’t make a turn, or setup for a local pattern or approach then something must be very damn wrong with the weather since he hasn’t declared an emergency. ATC tells me that the nearest cell to me is 20 miles away and he will get me turned back on course before I get too close.

I’m about to learn a very important lesson about what ATC can and can’t see on their radar scopes.

Radar can only reflect falling precipitation. It can’t do anything for you as far as clouds are concerned and the sweeps are a bit delayed from reality. So what seems like a wide open hole in the sky could actually be a filled with all kinds of nasty weather.

I turn to 090 blindly accepting that ATC has the world completely under control. I’m at 2,500 feet at the time. Just as I roll level the world outside the window goes completely black. I’ve just flown into a wall of cloud and I’m completely in the soup. I immediately tell Tampa what’s going on and roll back into a left turn, intending to 180 out of there. Tampa is actually a lot more concerned about this as I am and starts rapid firing instructions to do exactly what I was already doing. I’m completely glued to the instrument through this. The outside world is starting to deteriorate rapidly however, the plane is getting bounced and is starting to roll uncommanded by the pilot.

Just as I break out we get hit. It must have been a downdraft just breaking over the crest of the cumulonimbus clouds it came from but it hit the Skyhawk full broadside while we were in a 30 plus degree bank. The bottom suddenly fell out from under the plane. The girlfriend is death-gripping the sides of her chair and the only part of the world I can even recognize are the instruments in front of me. The most alarming of which is the vertical speed indicator showing a 2000 feet per minute descent correlated by an altimeter which is spinning off just as rapidly…things have gone very very south.

The plane is still getting buffeted but I finally get her to level off around a grand, wings level and somehow under Va speed. I had just lost 1500 feet of precious altitude in the span of a few seconds. I have a white knuckle grip on the yoke and a laser focus on the panel in front of me. The rest of the planet as far as I’m concerned does not exist. Calm as a coma I key the mike and ask Tampa for a straight in to Sarasota, I’m completely done with this flight and want nothing more than to be on the ground. I get the request, switch to tower and make the smoothest landing I’ve ever performed in my flying career. I didn’t even realize I had landed, the wheels just started rolling. After I taxi and shut down I finally look to my significant other in the right seat. She’s completely pale, and still white knuckling the chair in both hands, and simply mutters “Nice landing”

We managed to get home later that night after waiting a solid two hours for the surrounding convection to burn off. Lessons learned were stark and profound:

  • Never let the urge to complete the mission compromise the flight
  • Never fly into box canyon formed by surrounding weather
  • And never put your complete faith in ATC, they’re just as human as the pilots they direct
01 June 2012

Pat Flannigan Looks at Manoeuvring Speed

Pat Flannigan over at Aviation Chatter has created an interesting series of posts on manoeuvring speed and weight.

Why Does Maneuvering Speed Increase With Weight?

Aircraft maneuvering speed, increases as the airplane gets heavier. It’s a simple fact that most pilots are either blissfully unaware or simply take for granted, and I’ve honestly never given it much thought. But then one AskACFI user posed the question – why does maneuvering speed increase with weight?

Patrick diagrams the problem to help us understand how many G’s we could load before stalling the airplane:

I recommend reading the full article but the summary is killer:

Now think about the question: Why does maneuvering speed increase with weight? Recall that stall speed increases with weight. Since maneuvering speed is really just a stall speed at a higher G load, then maneuvering speed will also increase with weight!

Got that? Good, because there’s more. That post inspired Pat to research and write more on the subject.

A Closer Look at Maneuvering Speed

Last week’s piece on maneuvering speed inspired me to dig a little deeper into the topic of VA. It really is an interesting topic that forces pilots to delve into aerodynamic theory. This week, let’s take a closer look at maneuvering speed.

I won’t give away spoilers but we end up in close quarters with Aerodynamics for Naval Aviators and yet a third post which brings it all together.

The Myth of Maneuvering Speed

Most pilots and flight instructors understand VA as the maximum speed at which the airplane will stall prior to structural damage, and that full deflection of the flight controls at or below this speed poses no risk to the airplane. This is a dangerous assumption and it is simply untrue.

Guilty as charged. And although I am really not very good at aerodynamics, I now feel that I understand a little bit better about the mechanics of the plane.

If you are a pilot (and especially if you are an instructor) then I recommend reading all three pieces on Aviation Chatter:

12 August 2011

Near Miss

Alistair Mayer is a brilliant science fiction writer and all around nice guy whose stories regularly grace the pages of Analog magazine. He shared this story from his flying days in Canada and kindly allowed me to share it with you here as a part of my I learned from that series. You can find out more about him on Alastair Mayer’s T-Space.

There were a bunch of us that regularly hung out at the local flying club, we’d gone through the same ground school together and were still pretty new pilots. We sometimes did some pretty stupid things. One guy, Terry, once came back with a small tree branch in his landing gear.

Anyway, one fine Saturday afternoon I was taking one of the planes out for some practise and invited Terry along. This was near a small town in southern Ontario, lots of farmland. I’d been practising approaches and — not sure whose idea it was, probably both of us — decided to try a soft-field landing on a large grassy field. The landing was no problem — except that as we rolled out I realized that there was a slight slope to the field and where we were headed was getting softer and muddier from the rain we’d had a day earlier. I was worried about getting stuck, so made a (in hindsight, ill-considered) decision to just turn around and take off before I lost more speed.

So, there we are, rolling along on a very soft, grassy field, slightly up-slope, trying to get flying speed. There are trees at the end of the field — not a problem on landing, potentially a serious problem trying to take off with the drag of the soft field and wet grass slowing us down. But there’s a nice wide gap in the trees, and I’ve almost got flying speed. Terry is starting to look nervous. Then I see the wire fence across the end of the field, between the gap in the trees. The kind that probably eats landing gear for breakfast. Crap.

Actually at that point I was pretty confident I had the airspeed to lift and clear the fence and maybe even the trees (but there was room to go between them), but Terry is getting really nervous. Just to bug him, I took one hand off the controls and crossed myself (I’m neither Catholic nor particularly religious), then pulled back and cleared the end of the field.

I’ll say one thing — I never heard any more stories of Terry coming back with leaves in his landing gear after that.

Bio: Alastair Mayer was born in England, raised in Canada and now lives in Colorado. He grew up reading science fiction, and got serious about writing it a couple of years ago. He builds on a good base: he majored in life sciences and computers in college, has sky-dived, earned his pilot’s licence and done hundreds of scuba dives, served in the reserves and been a member of the L5 Society, National Space Society, Planetary Society, and probably a few other things he doesn’t remember right now.