Monday, February 24, 2014

Part One: Two Men, a Plane, and the Legend of Harvey

The Great Cross Country

     One late June morning a few years ago now I received a phone call from my friend Steve asking me what I was up to during my coming days off. I replied that I didn't have much of anything going on, except for maybe screwing around and being lazy. I'm wicked good at both screwing around and being lazy, and if you catch me on a good day, you'll see both done at the same time. At that time Steve was in his final year of school at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. He had just bought a Piper Cherokee and wanted to come home for a visit. His father and mother wanted someone else to go with him, they'd just feel better that way, and offered to fly me out to Arizona to fly co-pilot on the two day trip back. So clearly I said yes. I mean, what aviation fan in their right mind is turning that adventure down?
     So I think that it is only fair to Steve to state right up front, that he is an excellent pilot, who now holds multiple ratings. He runs the flight department for a private corporation and has an office bigger than the biggest bedroom I've ever had. I think he has his own bathroom in that thing. I know for damn sure he has snacks, because as you'll read...he always has snacks.

     I left from Portland, Maine (KPWM) on a United flight, which would take me down to Dulles. I packed light, just a back pack with some flying gear and a change of clothes. Now, I soloed at 16 in a Piper Cherokee, so I've always had a soft spot for the little low winged beast. True, you couldn't see squat below you because the wings were in the way, but you had great up and forward visibility. The best things about the Cherokee was that you couldn't spin it, you couldn't stall it, and it was rugged. I decided that I would re-read the manuals for the darn thing on the short hop to Dulles. As it turns out, the guy sitting next to me was a non-rev passenger. He was a Delta pilot headed to work. We had a great chat about flying and his unique "fly to work to fly for work" life style. It was really eye opening about airline pilot life. A secret note was made inside my head that I wanted to do that.

     To add to the extra special nature of this trip, when I got to Dulles, it seems that all the regional jets did not get a jetway, you just deplaned via little airstairs and walked across the tarmac and inside. Pretty cool stuff if you stopped to take a couple of pictures really quick without managing to get arrested or draw too much attention to yourself. A quick shuffle inside the terminal and a ride on the famous double ended buses that take you across the airport and I was sitting on a United 757 ready to head Phoenix. I took a good snooze for most of the flight and ended up in Phoenix around 7pm local time, 10pm body time. Steve met me inside and as we headed to the car he warned me that it was a little warm out. He wasn't shitting. It was like walking into a blow dryer; I was in love. I love dry heat.

The Crash Pad and Departure from Prescott

On the way from PHX to Prescott,  I got to see something I had always wanted to see, and hadn't yet despite a recent trip to Vegas. A tumble weed! Maybe it was a long love of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood westerns, but I had always wanted to see one. I mean, the west in general has been a love story for me. From the moment I first flew over the painted desert, high bluffs and plateaus, canyons, and rivers I was hooked. To see it from the sky truly sets my mind free.

The second important item on the way to the Steven crash pad was IN-N-OUT Burger. At this very moment I would do unspeakable things for an animal style double double and fries, and if you don't know what the hell I'm talking about, you're missing out. Big time. I guarantee Steven is laughing out loud reading this right now, because he knows how intense I get about my airplanes and my IN-N-OUT.

So after all of those exciting sights and cuisine, we arrived at a nice little development to a single story residence. With fake grass and all. It was as dark as a boot. Steven had a little Chevy Nova that was his around town car. It wasn't a cool Nova, like an SS Nova. It was the remake, the economy Nova. If you've been in aviation any amount of time, everyone knows you have an airport car, one you take to bum around the airport and your plane, and a normal car, one you take to normal people stuff. The Nova was Steve's airport car. It was a deathtrap on wheels. I'd have trusted one of the first DC-10's over this thing. At the same time, it was legendary. Probably because it was spray painted like the General it, you'll laugh if you don't already know. So we went off road in this s-box really quick before bed. You haven't lived until you go bombing through the sand and cactus in a 20 odd year old economy car on a gorgeous Arizona night.

After all of that fun, we got back to the house. I hadn't been inside yet, and this was the best part. There was a couch where I would sleep that night. Cool. The rest of the furniture, well, let's just say it was economical. There was plastic patio furniture in front of the fire place, the kitchen table was covered in aircraft radios in various states of repair and there were two steel propellers lying on the kitchen floor. It was really aviation heaven.

The Departure

I was in Arizona for less than eight hours. Eight friggin hours out west was all I got. No more than six hours after my head hit the pillow it was time to roll. We stopped off at the gas station and grabbed a pile of snacks and some coffee. I was mindful that I wasn't flying business class, so I had a baby coffee. It seems they don't put lavatories in general aviation aircraft and I didn't feel like filling any bottles. Not to mention we were loaded down with Steven's luggage, our food supplies and I'm not kidding, eight cases of Capri Sun. Somehow, Steven lucked into one of his many deals and got the for next to nothing, so those were the drink of choice. Neat thing about those: They are hard to spill everywhere in a tiny airplane.

The desert at night is a very dark place. Compounding that issue, the early morning hours were near moonless and it was actually very cold. This was good as the lower density altitude and smooth air that the coolness provided would help our laden Cherokee soar into the early morning sky. After pre flight inspection, settling into the cockpit, and monkeying with the GPS, we did just that. Fun fact about the GPS. The bracket was broken and it sat on my lap for a good part of the way across these ol' United States. I still hate that GPS.

First stop: Dalhart, Texas. Home of a prison, a stockyard, and an airport. And not a lot else.

To be continued

Monday, February 17, 2014

"Come on, we're going to Canda"

Back when I was a kid...

Once upon a time, long before bad folks decided to start using commercial aircraft as a means to carry out terror plots, a young man could simply show up at a small airfield and "hang out". And starting at age 14, this was exactly what I did on weekends and summers.

Each morning I would climb on my bicycle and pedal the three miles out to the airport. Yeah, that's right, three miles. I was kinda fat back then too, but not by the end of the summer. I would arrive at the flying club building and soon be assigned to special projects. At first, these projects involved sweeping hangar floors, cleaning, and painting. As time wore on and trust was built, I did some more fun things, like pulling airplanes out by hand, fueling, and washing them.

Now at the time I wasn't aware that the joke was somewhat on me. While I got to be around what I loved, there were lots of old timers sitting back with a chuckle as I scrubbed their airplane and cleaned their hangars, all for the low price of allowing me the privilege to do so. Looking back, I must have looked pretty funny, a little fat kid pulling on a Cessna 180 with all of his might. One word: Sucker.

All kidding aside, this work allowed me get some hands on experience with lots of different planes. I was taught how to load them properly (lots of guys flew rich  people out to the coastal islands for vacation) And while cleaning interiors and exteriors wasn't a lot of fun sometimes, most of the guys would reward me by taking me flying.

Come on, we're going to Canada
One such morning, when I was a junior in high school, I had driven over to the airport to fill in some blocks of time for my flight lessons. Ed showed up and started screwing around with his plane. He came into the club building and started rooting through a box of approach plates. Without looking up he asked me what I was up to today. I told him nothing. As he headed toward the door without looking back he said " Come on, we're going to Canada."

So, given that this was like 2000, I didn't have a cell phone at this point. Come to think of it, neither did too many other people. So I did what any 17 year old high school kid would...I left my parents a message on their machine that said something like "Hey, I'm going to Canada with Ed, I'll be back at some point". And that was it. Now if that were my kid this day in age, I'd probably freak out, but as I said before, things were different then. Clearly.

We climbed into the plane and made a direct flight to St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada. It was a beautiful late summer day and the thermals headed up the rocky coast made for some great practice on hand flying a course. Now there were GPS units then, and Ed had his bag somewhere. We were doing the good old fashioned whiz wheel, paper chart, and compass navigating. If worse came to worse, we'd go IFR ( I Follow Roads).

We entered the pattern in St Stephen and Ed did his voodoo and greased a beautiful landing in the Cessna 172 tail wheel conversion. Customs consisted of calling the Canadian Customs folks who took our names by telephone and told us to have a nice day.

It was around lunch and Ed, who was perpetually hungry, decided we'd walk into town to eat. We soon came across a little red white and blue painted log cabin. It was a Chinese takeout place called Wong's. No shit. Wong's. Mr. Wong spoke neither French nor English. Ed, having been to "The Big War" (more on that later) also felt he didn't speak much of anything but "Wong-ese". To paint a picture as to the state of this place, the menu was painted on ply wood pressed up against the plate glass window. Sandwiched between the two items were the biggest mosquitoes I have ever seen. Ever.

After getting our order we adjourned to the picnic table. I sat on one side, and Ed sat down on the other. This lasted about three seconds before the rotted bench gave way and Ed went ass over tea kettle onto the tall grass. After getting his bearings, he found a milk crate and sat down. Looking at the food I asked him if he thought the food was good to eat. He stuck his finger in it and said "well, it's hot enough to kill anything swimming. I ate worse in Vietnam." It was that kind of day.

Soon after we sucked down our greasy Wong-ese food, we headed to the plane and departed for Bangor. For a young kid, this was the better part of the trip. I flew an approach into Bangor International five miles in trail of an Air Force C-5 Galaxy. For the uninitiated, this is the largest cargo jet the Air Force has. I learned a valuable lesson about "wake turbulence". When a small plane lands too close behind a large jet, the disturbed air from the jet engines is like flying the small plane into a brick wall. I also learned to make sure your seat is locked into position too. I got to experience the windscreen coming at my face at high speed before the seat caught. The odd thing about the whole trip was the Customs man at Bangor. He came over, had us fill out a form, and left. He didn't bat an eye at a 17 year old wearing a shorts and a tee shirt standing next a 6'6" 60 odd year old covered in Chinese food. He just grumbled signed the paperwork, got in his car, and left. Homeland security pre 9/11 at his finest.

When I finally got home that evening my father scarcely looked up from his book. "How was Canada?" he said. "Pretty good. Ed says hi." That was it. Not angry, not surprised, not even curious.

I was soon sent to the store to get him a copy of the Courier and a 2 liter bottle of Diet Coke to go with supper. And that was it. Just another day in the life of a 17 year old student pilot I suppose.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

" I'll never start blogging I swear..." Glad I didn't put money on that.

So a long time ago I made a similar statement. One of the reasons behind all of that is my horrible grammar and spelling. Finally, at 30 years old, I decided it really doesn't matter if you're writing for fun. So here goes:

My name is Mike and I'm a 30 year old guy from sunny, check that, snowy southern Maine. I grew up on the "mid coast" of Maine, specifically Knox County. It was there that I fostered a love for aviation after watching the transportation museum Stearman, Colgan Air Beech 1900's, and MBNA's G-V set up for the approach above my house. 

I was lucky enough to have  an amazing friend of the family, retired USAF Colonel Edward Sleeper take me under his wing and teach me how to fly. I learned the old fashioned way, long before 9/11 ramped up security, and just slightly before parent's freaked out and sued people for damaging their children. Yes, I think I'm part of the last generation that was just sent outside to play. But more about all of that, and Ed, later. 

Fast forward a few years. Ed passed away when I had just started in the working world. At the time of his death I was in the reserve police officer training class, and working full time as a public safety dispatcher. After Ed passed, and with life picking up speed, I abandoned flying. A lot of this was due to the sadness of Ed's loss. I just couldn't imagine flying without him. Eventually, I would. 

The short story of why this is called Stall Recovery is this: After having been a golden child for a so long, I made some mistakes. After a saddening separation from my son's mother, sad in terms of not being with him full time anymore, a short time later I  found myself outside of public safety for the first time in my life. 

Forward to present day. I work as a customer service/inside sales/all around office guy for a locally owned, yet large, food distributor. Do I like it? No. Is it paying the bills? Kinda. Bottom line, is at 30, I have pulled out from the stall, got the wings level, and am starting to put the power on.(Hey, I had to put some quirky aviation talk in here, right?) We're only going up from here. I am fighting to get into aviation, in any manner, professionally. I am writing to share the journey of a 30 year old trying to get in the business. I'll share some stories, make some funnies, and let you know what's up. I hope you'll join me for the flight.