Flying Lessons

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There's a crosswind. A stiff one. Yuck. I sigh and do a conscious file-sort through the very dusty bins in the back of my brain. Let's see. Slip to the left and land left-wheel first, being careful not to overreact on these super-light controls, be ready to add a little power if it bounces, and hope some level of intuitive feel for the touch-down attitude and position returns by the time we get close to the pavement. Right. I glance over at my dentist/friend Jeff Rose, whom I fear has taken temporary leave of his senses, letting me fly-and land--his beloved and brand-newly-restored Cessna 120.

"You ARE following through with me on this, right?" I say. It's a statement, not a question.

"You'll do fine," Jeff says with a grin, even as he nods. "You know how to do this."

"No," I correct. "I KNEW how to do this. A very long time ago. I haven't landed one of these in 12 years. Do not assume I still remember how."

Twelve years. It feels like a lifetime. Or at least a different time, with so few connecting threads to my life now that it feels more like a different world. A world that is now layered with more than a little rust.

The Cessna 120 is, at the core, a very basic airplane. Straight out of the factory, the Cessna 120 had an 85-horsepower Continental engine, but an electrical system was optional. The fabric-covered wings lacked flaps, the gravity-fed fuel system required no boost pump, and the fuel gauges registered directly from the wing tanks, right above the side windows. The panel machinery consisted of just throttle, mixture, carburetor heat, cabin heat, airspeed, altitude, tachometer, compass, oil temp and oil pressure. Radios, transponders, VOR heads, turn and bank indicators, and any other luxuries all came later.

And yet, the Cessna is also a masterpiece of beauty and simplicity-from the smooth, unbroken lines of its conical, monocoque fuselage to its basic systems and operation. Perhaps that's why I fell in love with it, all those years ago. Like a perfect Porsche, or an F-86 Sabre, the Cessna 120 has true artistry in its lines, from its art-deco cowling grills to the rounded tip of its vertical tail.

But the simplicity that so defines the Cessna 120's design and basic flying characteristics does not, unfortunately, extend to the process of landing the infernal machine. That beautifully simple spring-steel landing gear is far more demanding of precision than it might appear. Drop a Cessna 120 in from six inches, and the bounce will feel as if you've dropped three feet. Drop it in from three feet, and … well, you won't get slack about that twice. Not to mention the squirrelly crosswind characteristics that come with any tailwheel airplane.

I learned to fly in a Cherokee Warrior that was equipped not only with a nosewheel, but also with a low wing and very forgiving oleo landing gear struts. That combination of features masked so many bad habits that when I first tried to land my newly-purchased Cessna 120, I decided the FAA should take my license back, because it seemed I couldn't land an airplane, after all. Over time, I relearned how to fly-and land. But that was a lot of years ago. For the past eight years, my primary aircraft has been a Grumman Cheetah-with a low wing, very forgiving landing gear and, most importantly, a nosewheel. I shuddered to think what habits had crept back in. And one thing was for sure. The Cessna would have no hesitation or mercy in pointing them out.

My first approach in Jeff's C-120 (or "C-130" as he calls it, owing to its combination of a C-120 wing and a C-140 fuselage) went fairly well, all things considered. But after years of looking out from the Grumman's cockpit, the view out the Cessna's window in that first flare looked all wrong. I couldn't tell exactly how far below me the runway was, and the crosswind wasn't helping. I flared a little high, bounced, added power, got flying again, got the upwind wing back down, eased the power off again and finally planted the wheels down on the runway with a decidedly firm triple thump. They stayed down the second time, but the maneuver was a far cry from pretty. Why was it I used to love this airplane, again?

The answer, of course, is that it wasn't because of its easy landing qualities. If I'd wanted an easy landing airplane, I would have bought an Ercoupe, not a tailwheel Cessna. No, the appeal of the Cessna was that it had the capacity to transport me to a time when hours passed slower, life was simpler and the sky was an open adventure. With a little challenge and art thrown in for good taste.

In truth, I think the Cessnas and Cubs of today are the sky-bound equivalent of the sailboats that capture weekend sailors' hearts around the world. Neither the sailboat nor the two-seat, tailwheel airplane were originally designed for nostalgic or impractical fun. On the contrary, the designs represented the most practical technology available for their respective missions-at the time.

But technology eventually far outpaced those early approaches to transport. So those once cutting-edge designs evolved into less-serious outlets for fun and sport, as well as a way to reconnect with the elements and challenges that confronted the early pioneers of sea and sky. As a sailor/pilot friend of mine said to me recently, "Nobody uses a sailboat to try to get anywhere, Lane. If you want to get somewhere, you go by powerboat. Or by airplane." Likewise, no sane person buys a Cessna 120 today with even the vaguest notion that it will be a practical transportation machine. Pilots who actually want to get somewhere buy one of the Cessna's more modern big brothers-the Cessna 172 or 182-or something along the lines of a Cirrus, a Columbia, a King Air or a Citation. Which is not to say that a Cessna 120 doesn't get a pilot anywhere. The place it takes you just has very little to do with distance.

Even my still relatively basic Cheetah has far more systems, cockpit comfort, speed and practicality than my old 1946 Cessna. All those systems make the aircraft easier to fly and land, and far more capable in terms of traveling anywhere. But they also serve to insulate me from the sky. Flying the Cheetah, I am in a bubble above the Earth. I'm so accustomed to it, however, that it isn't until I lift off in Jeff's little blue-and-white Cessna that I remember how flying used to feel.

It's a hot day in the Sacramento Valley. Almost 100 degrees hot. So Jeff and I pop open the elbow-style latches on the Cessna's side windows and leave them that way for the entire flight. The Continental 90-horsepower engine in Jeff's 120 creates a softer and more staccato "putt-putt" noise than the 150-horsepower Lycoming in my Cheetah, even on take-off. And the rattling, "bump-bump" noise of the tailwheel rolling over every taxiway crack, echoing forward through the Cessna's conical fuselage, is a reminder of how little airplane there is between me and the world outside.

Almost as soon as we take off, a gust of wind lifts the left wing, and even a sharp, full-deflection turn of the control yoke doesn't produce a full wings-level response. I'd forgotten how kite-like the Cessna is; how susceptible to the whims of wind and air. We bounce our way up to a few hundred feet and head out over the northern Sacramento farmland, the summer air not only playing with the airplane's wings, but also flowing through the cockpit windows with the faint scent of grassland lingering in its wake. Flying a Cessna 120 doesn't really detach you from the Earth. It just allows you to experience it in a fuller dimension.

I bank right and left, enjoying the view below the Cessna's high wings, and I don't even feel like I'm flying low until Jeff suggests I climb to at least pattern altitude, since we're getting close to an airport. If I fly low in the Cheetah, I know it. And it feels a bit odd. But the Cessna feels comfortable at 500 or 800 feet above the ground. I may not be getting anywhere at any great pace but, flying the Cessna, I am both immersed in the sky and connected to the land, skimming along in a magical cushion of air where both of my worlds meet.

"I think you're starting to like the old girl," Jeff comments with a smile. This even though his Cessna, like all good classic airplanes, is full of peculiar idiosyncrasies. But you don't fly an old airplane because it's straightforward or easy. You fly it for the experience … which may take you not so very far in space, but can take you decades and ages back in time. Every time I flew my Cessna, I was aware of all the pilots who'd owned and flown it before me. Sometimes, on quiet summer evenings, I'd even sense the imprint of their hands on the yoke; feel their presence still lingering in the scent of the engine and the response of the controls.

That link with the past is still present in Jeff's 120. But the past is a far more complex place, once you've lived a bit longer. And flying a 120 again after all these years turns out to be a more layered experience than I anticipated.

Now I understand what was going on in the hearts and minds of all those people who used to walk up to the Cessna after I landed somewhere, joy in their eyes, and say things like, "I learned to fly in one of these! Could I look inside for just a minute?" At the time, the Cessna was all that I knew. But walking up to Jeff's 120, my heart catches for a moment with the ache of a world that now lives only in my memory. If I didn't know Jeff personally, I could easily imagine myself approaching him, past days and flights coming to life again in my eyes, asking if I could look at his plane for a minute, and explaining, even as I knew words could never explain, that I'd owned a plane like this, once upon a long time ago.

Jeff's 120 is not identical to the plane I flew. But it's close enough. And, oh, the memories it brings back! Those distinctive double struts. The handhold dug into the top of the instrument panel. The trick of hoisting yourself up and into the seat. The cozy quarters. The basic instruments. The peculiar way the door does or doesn't shut. Craning up in the seat to peer past the nose as you taxi. Even the way it bounces if you touch down just the tiniest bit fast or hard.

Perhaps the bottom line is simply that the Cessna 120 is and forever will be an old friend of mine, whose idiosyncrasies I know, for better or worse, and whose strengths and gifts I still cherish, even after all these years. For what the Cessna 120 lacks in practicality, it makes up for in magic. A magic that can transport pilots back to a place and time they never knew … or a place and time they once knew very well, indeed … and bring the richness of that past into a moment that lingers, with the scent of summer grass floating through an open window, a few hundred feet above a timeless stretch of land.

In memory

For those readers who might recall a column I wrote last year about "The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth"-John Padrun, a remarkable teacher, pilot and human being, finally lost his battle with Lou Gherig's disease on June 20, 2006. But John's zest for life, and his awareness of all its precious gifts, will live on in the many, many people-myself included-who had the privilege of knowing him, even for a very short time.