The Big Think

October 4, 2004

Fly, Boy

Filed under: Disclosure — jasony @ 10:00 pm

By way of explaining some of my embarrassingly effusive space blogging the last few days – some background. When I was a kid I built plastic model airplanes. I built and flew a model sailplane and launched many different original paper designs from the lofty heights of the family fireplace. I read everything about aviation I could find and wanted to fly a hang glider at 16 years old. Unfortunately, and to my everlasting sadness, parental caution kept me from developing my interest in aviation. I remember vividly the day I got up the courage to ask my parents if I could learn how to fly a hang glider. I also remember vividly the bitter disappointment when they said no. I contented myself with watching airplane videos, reading books, and looking longingly in the windows of the local ultralight store (yes, there was a store that sold ultralights in Dallas in the 80’s).

I remember riding my bike to the library on saturdays and coming home with a backpack stuffed full of aviation books; Ed Yost’s Double Eagle II, books on aeronautics, ballooning, acrobatics, even the biography of Francis and Gertrude Rogallo. I think I was the only kid in the eighth grade who knew Bernoulli’s Law by heart. And NASA. Of course NASA. I have a fairly decent personal library today, and one whole bookshelf is dedicated to all flavors of aviation and space flight. I’ve read em all.

In college I toyed with the idea of aviation as a career, but feared that I didn’t have the math background for the more technical aspects of the industry. So I went into music instead. I haven’t really regretted that decision as my music career has been the source of many wonderful experiences and great memories, but I often find myself wondering what might have been if I had instead opted to fly.

After college I continued this one-sided love affair with the Wing, but somehow I never seriously considered turning my long-distance infatuation into something more lasting. After all, flying is expensive (that’s my father talking), dangerous (a bit of my mother there), and, well, impractical (a little of both). I took up building radio controlled aircraft again. I built a few of the cheaper ones (about $200), but I couldn’t get over the heartbreak of spending weeks on a model only to crash it on its maiden flight. Besides, I reasoned, even if I fly my little model perfectly and grease the landing like George Gingrich, it’s still just a substitute. It’s still not me up there- the model is having all the fun.

But then one day I was driving home through Waco on a road I had taken hundreds of times before. This particular road passed by the turnoff to the local municipal airport. I had always turned right and continued on home, but something made me turn left and head out to the airport. Once there I asked how much ground school was and what was involved in learning to fly. Almost before I realized it I was taking out my checkbook. I realize now that the decision to learn to fly had been made years before- it was just waiting for the right moment to express itself. For that time when Adult Jason finally convinced Teenage Jason that I was really, truly, Living Under My Own Roof. I paid my $250 for ground school, bought the books for fifty bucks (a ridiculously low sum considering what I had been paying for college books), and freed my inner Mitty.

At ground school I was the obnoxious guy in the front row who monopolized the teacher’s every sentence. All those aspects of flying that I had read about but never fully grasped were suddenly right there in the book and on the blackboard! And a trained pilot was there to answer my questions! (Never mind that Kevin Borak was a freshly minted Certified Flight Instructor himself). This guy was Charles Lindbergh and Chuck Yeager all in one… just because he could fly and I couldn’t. I wanted to understand everything about flying. What creates precession? Why does “north lag and south lead”? How does a VOR work? A Magneto? A trim tab? And what are all these “V” speeds? Suddenly I was a little boy again, only this time the plastic models were real, this time the R/C models were full-sized, the instruments responded to what I was doing, and I could feel the airplane around me instead of watching it in the sky. This time I was having all the fun.

I remember the first flight I took with Kevin. He showed me how to taxi and let me do it myself my very first time in the plane. He talked me through a run-up and takeoff, let me ghost him on the controls while he lifted off, and let me lift off myself on my very first lesson. I don’t think I stopped smiling for days.

I still remember my solo. I had been keeping up with my ground school and diligently practicing procedures on Microsoft’s Flight Simulator. Kevin was impressed with my progress and, one day while running touch-and-goes at the local small field, said “why don’t you drop me off on this next run and try a few on your own?” I remember feeling sweaty palms and being surprised with how quickly the little C152 (N25324) responded without his extra weight in the cockpit. I remember how it felt to look over and realize that I was all alone in the airplane and had, quite literally, my life in my own hands. After years of rock climbing, rafting, and other similar experiences, I would have thought that I would be used to the feeling, but somehow looking down and seeing Kevin as a little figure on the side of the runway and sensing the empty seat next to me made me feel more alone and solitary than I had ever felt. No matter how many hours I add to my logbook from here on, those ten minutes or so circling McGregor Municipal Airport will always be very special.

Now I know the feel of an aircraft on final approach on a calm night, on a windy day, at sunset, at dawn. I have been pushed backwards while pointed into a strong wind and practicing “turns about a point”. I remember learning how to control the aircraft at MCA (minimum controllable airspeed), and how I really enjoyed cross control (when the airplane is so steeply turned that the rudder and the elevator, confusingly, switch functions). I remember the sickening feeling of practicing stalls, and how a spin feels. I remember how long it took me to conquer my motion sickness.

And I remember my final exam.

Charles Frost looks like an old-time pilot- a “pilot’s pilot”. He’s short and stocky, grizzled like Wilford Brimley, with a no-nonsense attitude and a critical eye. He’s known as a stickler for the details. He’s very serious about what he does and doesn’t want to be in the sky with anyone who can’t fly safely. So if Charles Frost gives you your rating, you’ve earned it. The day of my final exam was breezy with medium broken clouds at about 4,000 feet. I spent the first half of my 3 hours in the air under the Hood. The hood is the aviation equivalent of the Medieval Iron Mask. Developed by some sadist with an unflappable stomach and a serious cruel streak, the hood is a device that blocks off all external visual references and forces the pilot to fly by instruments alone. Sound easy? Technically it is, but when your inner ear is telling you that your body is flailing wildly through the skies, twisting and spinning as a result of a sickening turn your instructor just put you in, and your eyes are telling you that the only thing moving are the dials right in front of you, the resulting physiological, ahem, disagreement, can be enough to turn a young pilot’s stomach. Six times.

Yup. I’ll admit it here in public for the first time. The combination of the Hood, the blustery weather, a normally weak stomach, and exam day nerves (not to mention the Whataburger breakfast taco) caused me to go for the airsickness bag as often as I did the GUMPS check. Charles was very understanding about it, offering to continue another day. I don’t know why, but as bad as I felt (and I don’t think I’ve ever been more miserable), I was not leaving the airport that day without my license. I can still remember Charles’ words after the last short-field landing. “If you can set her down and taxi in without hitting anything, I think I can sign your ticket”. Mozart at his best has never sounded sweeter.

It is now six years later. I have accumulated about 150 hours in various small aircraft (Cessna 152’s and 172’s, Piper Cherokees, a Pitts S2B acrobatic biplane, and even a few minutes piloting a King Air). At $80 per hour for a 152, flying isn’t something I do often. In fact, I became a member of the Civil Air Patrol in order to let Uncle Sam pay some of the bills. That worked great until we moved to Austin and got busy with other things. I haven’t flown in a while as life and expenses have conspired to keep me dirt-bound, but it’s still something I think of often. Like the bumper sticker says, Airplane Noise Makes Me Happy.

Witnessing SpaceShipOne rocket off into space, seeing the incredible White Knight taxi, pregnant with its little aeronautical burden, and watching the thousands of people in Mojave who just want to be present at the next Kitty Hawk, I’m reminded of how special it is to be able to take to the air and fulfill the dream of so many who have come before. All the books I read as a child. All the college trips to the airport to watch the planes take off. All the model aircraft (paper, plastic and balsa wood) that were crafted by my own hands. I’ve always known that I was meant to fly.

Space Race

Filed under: Science — jasony @ 5:34 pm

via the speculist: “We won the space race a long time ago. It was July 20, 1969 to be precise — the day a manned US spacecraft landed on the moon. But even that glorious accomplishment was the triumph of one government over another. Today, free enterprise has won. Free markets have won. The individual has triumphed over government.

Space now belongs to all of us. Not our governments. Us.”

THEY DID IT!

Filed under: Quoth,Science — jasony @ 10:25 am

Scaled Composites has won the X-prize this morning with the second successful suborbital flight in two weeks. Burt Rutan is my hero.

Quoth

Filed under: Quoth — jasony @ 12:30 am

Everybody always makes the mistake of looking South. Al Gore proved he could have been president of the United States without winning one Southern state, including his own.
John Kerry

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