Flying is a serious addiction. It needs feeding, and a sufferer will need to get a regular fix if he or she is to remain happy. Denying any aviator their flying fix will result in massive mood swings, irritability, loss of sense of humour, and a restlessness that is impossible to shift.
Having passed my written examinations for my ATPL in the UK, I needed to build my flying experience, and amass a considerable number of hours in a relatively short time.
Working in Flight Operations for a major British Airline, meant that I had access to heavily discounted airfares, and in some cases free tickets and as flying light aircraft in the USA was half the price of flying in the UK, it made sense to go to America.
Readers of my previous posts will know that I learned to fly in Fort Worth near Dallas, however, I wanted to do my hours building in an area where I could partake of other leisure activities when not flying.
This left me with two choices; Florida or California. I did a lot of research on the two states, and their flying schools, and decided to go to Southern California, initially to Fullerton Municipal (KFUL) and then to Long Beach (KLGB).
As I had friends in Southern California, I frequently combined flying with chilling out in either Rancho Santa Margarita or Dana Point. This naturally involved drinking beer, shooting the breeze, and in some cases, shooting firearms on a friends ranch.
Which brings me to the point of this article. There is always one person that you will meet in aviation who is a true professional and leaves a lasting and indelible impression upon you, stamping their ethos onto your soul.
I met that man in February 2002, at Long Beach Airport.
I had landed at LAX the previous afternoon and planned my stay in such a way as to maximise my flying time. I booked a hotel near Long Beach Airport and drove there from LAX so that I could be at the flying club first thing the next day.
Walking into the flying club, I chatted with the ops desk clerk and told him that I wanted to book an aeroplane and an instructor. I had decided that I would use the hours building opportunity to do the differences training onto a new aeroplane type, and I was offered a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. I was told that Harry was available and that they would ring him for me to discuss times with him.
When the call connected, I explained to Harry what I wanted to do, that I wanted to convert onto a new type and to undertake my biennial flight review.
“Sure,” he said, “The airplane is booked at 1500, for a two-hour slot. So, meet me at the club at 1430, we’ll go through the paperwork, and briefing. Then we will go and sit in the airplane for an hour, going through the drills and talking about the performance. You gotta pay for my time whatever, but you only pay for the airplane once the engine is running, so better to do the classroom stuff on the ground, then we can concentrate on having fun and flying”
Putting down the ‘phone, I smiled. Harry sounded a nice bloke. He’d saved me a good few dollars, so I decided to invest in a new checklist, a chart, and other bits and bobs in the pilot shop.
When I say bits and bobs, I mean a new Noise Cancelling Headset and a RAM mount for my GPS navigation unit.
I read the club rules, signed the books, and reviewed the departure procedures and any long term NOTAMs that would affect me the next day. I decided that I would leave the route plan up to Harry, and just see what happened.
The next morning was gloomy and foggy, typical LA Basin weather, but if it was true to form it would have burnt off by about 1400, so happy days.
I grabbed a quick hotel breakfast, and glugged back a mug of coffee, and then drove to the airport.
Parking up, I walked up the stairs to the club, grabbed another coffee, and went and sat on the balcony overlooking the ramp. On the far side of the airport, the Sheriff Department’s helicopter sat forlornly on the parking, and I could see a C-17 being towed into the McDonnell-Douglas (now Boeing) hangar.
I killed the time reading the Pilots Operating Handbook for the Cessna C172 SP Skyhawk and chatting with the other students and club pilots. After a relaxed lunch of a grilled sandwich washed down with Sprite, I went back into the ops room to meet Harry.
Harry wandered in at 1430, carrying his clipboard, headset, chart and a small case. About my height, but with at least ten years seniority on me. He had a luxuriant moustache, which emphasised his happy smile.
We shook hands, and after a few pleasantries, went down to the aircraft, where he patiently went through the controls with me, paying special attention to the fact that this was an injected engine – different to the normally aspirated models that I had flown previously.
He conducted a brief questions and answers session with me, then briefed for the departure out of Long Beach. It was as I remembered, straight out, a left turn at the Los Angeles River, and down to the Queen Mary, where we would turn south.
The route was down to San Diego via Mount Palomar. Cool. I swiftly drew lines on the chart, and calculated times and headings, corrected with a quick call to 1-800-WX-BRIEF for an en-route weather briefing.
Then it was back to the aircraft.
Harry leaned back in the right-hand seat, looked across at me, and said, “OK, It’s your airplane, I’m just here for the ride.”
So saying, he looked out of the window, as I called Long Beach ground for taxi clearance, and requested a squawk for SOCAL approach Southbound to San Diego.
I frantically scribbled the clearance down, together with the Squawk; I was surely not used to the machine-gun-fast radio in the US.
We taxied out, number two to a Douglas DC-3, and stopped at the holding point to do the vital actions and pre-flight checks.
Once the DC-3 had departed, I lined up and asked Harry if he was happy and good to go.
“I’m good” was his laconic response, and I eased the throttle to the stop, and we accelerated down the tarmac, lifting off cleanly, and climbing away into the bright sunlight.
I smiled to myself. My prediction was correct – the maritime layer had burnt off nicely, and the sky was bright blue.
I changed frequencies to SOCAL approach, and they immediately had me identified on radar and cleared me to the south as filed. Crossing the LA River – which flows through a concreted canal, I rolled into a left turn and then left again to parallel the coast, gently climbing to my planned cruise altitude.
Interestingly, the Los Angeles River has been used in several movies, with probably the most famous ones being Grease, Terminator 2 and The Dark Knight Rises.
I could see Emmy and Eva the two oil platforms out ahead near the shoreline and some large cargo ships entering the Port of Los Angeles at Long Beach.
Harry seemed quite happy with my performance so far and once I had the aircraft trimmed out for straight and level flight, Harry came to life, as if energised by a switch in the cockpit.
He asked me to demonstrate several manoeuvres and spotted a number of areas where he thought I could improve my flying. Climbing a little higher, he had me stalling in every configuration, steep turns, timed turns, slow flight and practice engine failures.
At the end of each feedback session, he would get me to repeat the manoeuvre, and if I did it to his satisfaction, he would murmur “There ya go” If not, it was more practice required.
Having performed all of this he asked me to plan a diversion to Los Alamitos Army Air Base.
This made me work hard. The grilled cheese and ham sandwich and can of Sprite I scoffed earlier was conspiring against me, aided and abetted by the turbulence. I had to be head down in order to plan the divert (No Sky Demon moving maps then!), and I was grateful that the planning didn’t take too long, as I really didn’t want to toss my cookies in the aeroplane.
I rolled the aircraft onto my calculated heading and guessed at a wind correction, and we flew inland towards Los Al, descending at a pedestrian 500 feet per minute.
Harry leaned over and stared hard at my chart and the planned diversion, and then peered at the Direction Indicator. “That oughta work,” he said softly. After a few flights with Harry, I came to recognise this as high praise.
He leaned back into his seat, idly tapping his fingers on the glareshield.
“Hey, Y’know what would be good here… You done a talkdown before?”
I had never undertaken any Precision Approach Radar approaches, even during my instrument training, so this was going to be good.
Harry then said that he would take the radios and that I should concentrate on flying the aircraft.
I continued to descend, and Harry took control briefly and told me to put the hood on.
Once I was wearing the hood, he relinquished the controls. “She’s all yours” he grinned.
For the non-flying types that may be reading this, the “hood” is a smoked plastic visor designed to prevent a pilot from looking out of the windows, thus forcing them to fly using the flight instruments as their sole source of reference to navigate and control the aircraft safely.
I was now working at the extreme boundary of my performance envelope if I am honest. I was jet-lagged, and mentally tired, bearing in mind that this was my first flight for about a month.
Listening intently to the stream of instructions from the Radar Approach controller, I was constantly adjusting the power, rate of descent and heading. We were also getting lower and lower until finally the controller called “Radar Service Terminated”
Harry flipped my visor up, and there ahead of me was the main runway of Los Alamitos right under the nose.
“Will ya look at that! That came together nicely. Now, Go Around, and take me back to Long Beach, and we will have a coffee and a chat about what we should do tomorrow.”
The rest of the flight was almost routine, and I made a standard approach to Rwy 30 and an uneventful landing.
Switching to Long Beach Ground, we were cleared back to the flying club parking and as we taxied sedately back, Harry was giving me more feedback.
Pulling onto a vacant pan, I slowed the aircraft to a halt and performed the shutdown checks.
As the propellor jerked to a stop, the cabin became almost silent. I say almost, because the whine of the gyros spooling down and the ticking of the engine cooling reminded me that I still needed to secure the aeroplane.
We both got out, unplugging our headsets, and chatting amiably in the early evening sunshine.
Popping the control locks in, and removing the key, I made a final check that the master switch was off, before slamming the door and locking it.
I swiftly snapped the tie-down chains onto the lugs under the wings and walked around the aircraft tail to help Harry.
As I approached him, he held out something to me in his hand.
I took the item; it was a C90 cassette. I must have looked at him blankly, because he clapped me on the back, saying “Its an audio cassette, feller”
He reached back into the rear seat area and pulled out a small tape recorder. He had plugged it into the intercom jack in the rear cabin, so I had a complete record of the entire flight; his training, my responses, and the Air Traffic conversations.
He did this for every student that he took on an instructional flight. He made no charge for this. Not only was he an excellent instructor, from whom I learnt so much, but he was generous of spirit, and we flew many subsequent flights, where I was to enjoy his skilled instructing and excellent sense of humour.
His comedic muscle was well-developed. I remember that a few months later, I emailed him from England before my next arrival saying I wanted to do some interesting, longer navigation exercises, and he sent me a reply by email with a number of airfields to visit, together with web-links.
The suggestions were:
Las Vegas Muni, Santa Barbara, and the Chicken Ranch in Nevada…
I duly checked the links, to discover the Chicken Ranch was a brothel with its own airstrip.
I called him from the UK to explain that I didn’t think that SWMBO would be too enamoured of me visiting the Chicken Ranch.
He was roaring with laughter, as he said that he was thankful that I didn’t want to go there because his wife would be equally unhappy.
So, we went to Santa Barbara, but that’s another story.
Sadly, my mentor, instructor and friend died when his parachute failed to open at Perris Field in Southern California in October 2008.
After all these years, I still have four of Harry’s C90 cassettes, which I need to get digitised. I am sure there is still information that I can learn from.
Blue Skies Harry.
See you at the bar in the Big Flying Club in the Sky.