Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Back Off My Feet Again

Sometimes I think back to when I was that little boy who would do anything for an airplane ride. I flew in some questionable airplanes! I had no fear and even back then life off the ground was much simpler. Ask any old pilot about the smell of an airplane. The old vinyl and fuel smell… When you climb into an old airplane and it doesn’t have that smell, it’s just not the same! I remember how sad I was listening to the gyros wind down and knowing we would soon push ol’ triple niner eight back into the hanger and close the doors.  I have so many fond memories of flying, I don't think I could live without aviation in my life.

Fast forward to today, about 30 years later, and I’m riding with Travis to Temple to fly in his Luscombe. I’m nervous, on the edge of being downright scared. I keep telling myself to relax. Hundreds of flights before were fine and this one will be as well.

I try to think back to other times I’ve been scared to fly or scared when flying. There aren’t many. In fact, other than some trepidation when pushing the throttle forward on an unfamiliar plane, I can’t remember fearing a takeoff. I’ve often known that if the engine failed I didn’t have many options, but that didn’t even bother me. It was just something to keep in mind.

It’s now been over 3 weeks since we crashed and I’m still sore. Physical pain doesn’t help when trying to convince yourself the fear is irrational.

Maybe too soon, we’re at the hangar. I’m trying to carry on normal conversation. Travis climbs in and I prop the plane. Soon we’re on the way to runway 2 to head over to McGregor. Travis has a checkride tomorrow and he wants to practice. While he does his run-up, I watch a V-Tailed Bonanza take off and I smile. Aviation hasn’t changed, I have.

Travis lines up and we’re soon in the air and I’m okay. In fact, I’m completely relaxed.

When we arrive at McGregor, I’m impressed with the way Travis handles a plane. A few short months ago, he was nervous and was making a lot of mistakes. That’s how you learn though and he did learn. I now watch him giving input before the plane demands it, gently giving a touch of rudder when needed...  On one takeoff in particular, I felt the plane get squirrelly and he expertly corrected and then smoothly lifted off. He’s ready for the checkride and I’m glad to have played a small part in it. (He passed, BTW!)

After a few landings, we head back to Temple for a nice landing and as we were putting the plane back in the hangar the sun set on an awesome day. I never doubted I would be back in the air, but it was the perfect day for this flight I needed so badly.  I'm ready for another plane.

Jack “Back In The Air” Fleetwood


It was an eerie quiet. It seemed like an eternity, but was probably 10 seconds. The birds weren’t even chirping. My life as a pilot would never be the same.

Earlier on Sunday afternoon, Bruce and I met at our hangar at Kittie Hill. We pre-flighted the plane and pulled it out of the hangar and turned it toward runway 17. We climbed in and fired it up and began the long bumpy taxi ride out to 17.

When we got to the 17 taxiway, I ran it up to 1700 RPM, checked both mags for an RPM drop, pulled on carb heat and watched the RPMs drop again, then pulled the throttle back to make sure it would run with no throttle. Then I pushed in the carb heat, checked the controls and lined up for takeoff.

Kittie Hill traffic, Luscombe N71743 is taking off runway one seven… We started down the runway as normal and lifted off where I normally do and nothing seemed out of place.

It was about then that I realized I didn’t have the normal amount of power. Everything from that point on happened very quickly. I remember a sinking feeling. Almost as soon as I thought I could save the plane, I realized I couldn’t. I saw the trees coming up quickly and I knew we wouldn’t make it. I told Bruce we were going to crash. I may have also muttered something about the fact that I was going to stall the plane and to hang on. The last thing I did was to pull the stick all the way back and stall us into the trees. According to investigators, this probably saved our lives. I knew I had to do it, but it’s a sickening feeling knowing all of your options have run out.

I remember metal screeching, tree limbs hitting the plane, and my face going toward the panel. I also remember trees going up the windshield at an alarming rate as we fell and knowing it would hurt when we stopped. Then a jolting impact and it was over. My face and ribs hurt and I was scared to touch my face thinking it would be badly damaged.

Then the silence… it couldn’t have been long, but I remember everything being quiet. I felt as if my life had dramatically changed and somehow I just couldn’t believe it.

I looked at Bruce and he looked like he was in shock. I told him we had to get out quickly and then we were climbing out over cactus that had mercifully been crushed by the plane.

It is a horrible feeling to look at the beautiful plane you just bought and know it’s gone. What had been a great source of pride a few minutes ago is now a heap of metal. The wings were bent down, the struts twisted up, the landing gear bent backwards, the windshield shattered, the door posts bent, but remarkably the cockpit had held up and saved our lives.

We stood there in shock for a long time. Bruce and I both had similar injuries, mostly scrapes and bruises. I just couldn’t help but be thankful that we were alive and only had such minor injuries. How we walked away I will never know.

Eventually we walked back over to the hangar to get my truck. I called Travis and Chris and they headed our way. We drove back over to the plane and waited for them to arrive.

A few hours later enough police, fire, and EMS teams showed up to rescue a downed 747. It got interesting for awhile as one of the state troopers decided to be a jackass. I usually don’t have the longest fuse, but I thought I did pretty well with this cop with a Napoleon complex! He was the investigator and I wasn’t going anywhere until he said I could. We were tempted to call the ambulance back and just leave with them! They really wanted to take us anyway!

It’s been a couple of weeks now and I haven’t been back up in a plane. I know the first few times will rattle me. I also know I will fly again. It’s a part of me and I couldn’t live without it. How long before the nightmares stop? How long before I feel I’ve answered all of the questions running through my head?

As of today ,the NTSB and FAA are still looking into the accident. Last I heard they’re leaning toward carb ice and also looking at a fuel selector valve. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I’ll be glad when it’s over. I’ll let everyone know what comes of the investigation and anything else we find out. For now, I’m feeling pretty lucky to be here writing.

Jack “Battered and Bruised” Fleetwood