If I don't practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.” So said Jascha Heifetz, the legendary violinist. Lately, I can relate. Last spring our Cheyenne turboprop sat, lonely and forlorn, in the hangar at Landmark Aviation in Tampa, Florida (our home base), for six weeks without so much as an engine start. The airplane was not down for maintenance. Its idleness was occasioned by other distractions in life and the price of fuel.
Concurrently, my Learjet career was subjected to similar disuse. First typed in the type almost a year prior, I’d managed to accumulate only 33 hours in Elite Air’s Lear 31As. Elite Air, an aircraft management and charter company, has changed my life by giving me the opportunity to learn the Lear. The reasons for the paucity of hours were other commitments on my part and the sudden appearance of a new first officer; young, handsome (I am told) and hungry. I’d had spates of Lear experience, but they were grouped in sudden bursts separated by months of inactivity. In the Cheyenne this is less of a problem than it is in the jet. There are two reasons. I have 1,600 hours in the Cheyenne and am familiar with its every noise, quirk and stunning attribute. The other reason is even more simple: The jet is twice as fast. Where I’ve got a few dropped steps in the taxi checklist in the turboprop, I’ve really been slow to relearn what I once knew in the jet. Add to that my years of auditory acclimation. For 13 years I’ve listened for ATC communications ending in “58 Whiskey.” Now I have to be alert for “Juliet Hotel” and “Fox Fox.” It is a slow process.
In my day job as a cancer surgeon, the same rules generally apply. If I’ve been gone for a week, I have more anticipatory anxiety about a big surgical procedure the next day. Once in the OR, I can feel the little tiny things that signal that I’ve had a layoff. My hands reach for the instruments with slightly less authority, and instruments don’t feel quite as much like an extension of my hand. Though I’ve been doing this kind of work for more than 40 years, there is still a price to pay for inactivity. This is when I am more likely to hurt someone by sticking a finger with a needle or, rarely, having my own hand nicked with a knife. (By the way, I have never heard the word scalpel spoken in an operating room. It is always called a “knife,” unless some neophyte has been watching too much TV.)
What’s interesting is that most people in the OR can’t tell. I work with a marvelous surgical tech named Cindy and she swears she can’t tell that I’ve lost a step. Same with the Cheyenne. My wife, Cathy, swears she can’t tell when I complain of inelegant power management after a layoff.
There are some happy consequences for all this inactivity. For one, I am way more focused on performance. For another, I savor it more. No second in either airplane is taken for granted. I relive the last flight as I fall asleep in greater detail than I would if my memory bank were full of recent activity.
My last Lear trip was a vivid example of this concept and my hagridden state of mind. It was my leg (no passengers on board!) to Pickens, South Carolina (KLQK), from St. Petersburg, Florida. It had been several weeks since I’d been in a Lear. The runway is 5,000 feet …ish. My captain, Jason Hepner, cautioned that the runway isn’t all that long and that a solid arrival and aggressive use of brakes and thrust reversers were superior to a finessed landing in every way. From the left seat it looked like things were lining up nicely. A two-light PAPI arrangement was there to help me with glidepath, and the speed was stable at Vref plus 10.
The touchdown was sweet, I do think. With spoilers out and the thrust reversers modestly powered, Jason was soon calling out 60 knots. We made the turnoff in front of the FBO about halfway down the runway. Damn, that was fine. After he finished mock applause, Jason snapped the accompanying photo of the happy pilot as he ran the after-shutdown checklist.