Tobias Smollett, though not a pilot, pulled off a couple of good things. He wrote novels and practiced medicine in Covent Garden in the 18th century.
He pointed out that when one has given his life to a pursuit, his ideas and pronouncements might, in fact, sound arbitrary or inane to the unschooled.
Mark Twain said it like this: “An expert is a fellow from out of town.” His opposite is Smollett’s horse in the race: the adept.
He’s done it so long, and done so much of it, that he might sound like your dismissible Old Uncle Bob, until you try out his reductive, simplistic ideas.
All of us Boy Scouts learned to sharpen a knife. One holds it at a 45-degree angle, and pushes now one side, now the other, against the hone, creating a perfect, equal bevel.
I never could do it. The blade always came out sharp as a car bumper.
Then I make friends with Bill Bagwell, Master Smith. I’m fetching coffee for him at the Soldier of Fortune show in Vegas, and he’s demonstrating his Bowies. He slashes through 4 inches of free-hanging rope, one cut. He dulls the blade on a stone — you can now run it over your palm — then he gives it but a few touch-up swipes, and does the rope trick again. But he’s sharpening the blade by drawing the cutting edge away from the stone.
I am as the caveman first watching fire.
That’s the only way to sharpen a knife, he teaches. You draw a wire-edge, or burr away from the edge, across to the other side of the blade, and then, light as a feather, you wipe the wire edge off.
Now I consider pocket billiards.
I shot a lot when I was young. Never any good, but I enjoyed it.
Fifty years on, I discover L.A.’s best old-fashioned pool hall is right around the corner from my house. A serious pool-playing friend suggested we go shoot a few racks. I explain I’m no good, and he asks if I’d like to learn.
“Yes,” I say, “I would.” He pairs me with Mitch, a lifelong competitor and coach, and I go to my first pool lesson.
I line up a shot; I re-think it; I recalculate the angles; a lot of time goes by. I line it up again. “What are you doing?” Mitch asks.
“Well,” I say, “I’m figuring out my aim.”
He says, “Don’t aim.” He explains: Learn a steady stance, a steady bridge and practice a consistent stroke. Get the stance, bridge and stroke right, and when you miss a shot your body and your eye will automatically make the adjustment.
“Try it,” he says, “and when you set it up right, you can make the shot with your eyes closed.” Works real good.
“Money Ball Blues” is the tendency of the tyro to miss an easy shot on the money ball — the shot that they pay off on: in 9 Ball, the 9, in 8 Ball, the 8, and so on.
How to defeat my Money Ball Anxiety? “OK,” Mitch says, “imagine there’s a ‘next’ ball. Shoot the money ball in order to get position on that.” Almost too good to share.
Which brings me to partial panel.
I’m going to fly under the hood, with my friend and flight instructor, John. The lesson starts on the ground.
I start the engine, and watch the manifold pressure, looking for 10 inches. John asks what I’m doing. I tell him. He covers the gauge. “Do it again,” he says. “Don’t you know what 10 inches sounds like?” I do it again, eyes closed, and find that, yes, I do possess that knowledge.
We take off and start maneuvering, losing now this and now that gauge to the inop sticker, me under the hood.
“All right,” he says, “right turn to a heading of north.” He stickers the HSI. I gaze at the whiskey compass.
“Stop,” he says. “What are you doing?”
“Well,” I say, “running through UNOS and ANDS and so forth.”
“Where are we heading now?” he says.
“West,” I say. He puts a ball cap over the whiskey compass. “Uh,” I say.
“How many degrees between west and north?”
“What’s a standard-rate turn?”
“Three degrees a second.”
“How many seconds between west and north?”
“Thirty,” I say.
“Right turn to a heading of north.”
So, I make the standard-rate turn by the turn-and-bank indicator, and roll out 30 seconds later right on north, and all the mnemonics in the world can now go do the other thing.
“Give me 120 knots,” he says. I look at the airspeed, he covers it. “What do you get with the same pitch and power?”
“Same airspeed,” I say.
“What gives one 120 knots in this airplane?”
“Flaps approach and 19 inches approximate.”
“Go do it.” So, I do.
Altitude, similarly. He covers the altimeter at 3,500 feet and requests 4,000. I am beginning to get the idea.
At 500 feet per minute on the VSI, 60 seconds will have me at 4,000 feet.
What fun. Right turn to a heading of south is 180 degrees, equals 60 seconds, and I impress myself by dredging up a timing trick from the Age of Sail: Salutes are fired at five-second intervals. The gunner proceeds from one cannon to the next, repeating, “If I wasn’t a gunner I wouldn’t be here, fire gun one,” pause, “If I wasn’t a gunner I wouldn’t be here, fire gun two …” et cetera. Twelve of them equals one minute, and I roll out pretty near south. Count 12 guns and you’ve turned 180 degrees.
I’m going to share my smarty-pants technique with John, but he consistently mocks me for bringing in tidbits gleaned from the books and magazines. He, then, usually takes me up and suggests, “All right, show me.” (“College Boy,” implied.)
Example: 180 out of a box canyon.
Old advice was: Reduce the power to reduce the radius of the turn.
I came across some more contemporary wisdom: Even better, it holds, 45 degrees of bank, plus flaps approach for the first 45 degrees of turn; then 60 degrees of bank, with full flaps for the next 45 — reverse the process for the back 90, roll out on the reciprocal course.
“All right,” John says, “show me.” I approximate the instructions, but I’ve got my head down the whole time, juggling altitude, bank angle and airspeed. Pretty sloppy.
“Now,” John says, “would you like to do that, head buried in the cockpit, trying to remember the technique, and handle the airplane at 2Gs, on the edge of a stall, while in an actual canyon and seconds away from death?”
I answer “No.”
“Then,” he says, “how about just a modified wing-over, and fly back the way you came?
Like most professional pilots I know, he has no regard at all for books. I love ’em, and frequently share with him my theoretic knowledge.
“The old guys knew that cows graze against the wind, so they learned to land into the faces of the cows,” I say. I receive a patient nod.
“And,” I say, all read-up, “they knew that fields are laid out on the cardinal axes, so, given a snow-covered field and a dead engine, they’d shun landing on the cardinal directions, to avoid setting down on a line of fence and tearing the bottom out.”
Then, “All right, so you’ve got a dead engine, and, instead of picking a direction based on the wind, you’re going to consider the layout of fence posts?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Not on the cardinal directions?” He says. I nod.
“Magnetic or true?” He asks.
“Uh,” I say.
Back on the ground, we’re having coffee. “Barometer’s going up,” I say.
“How do you know?”
“Look at the bubbles in the cup,” I say. “Bubbles around the rim, low pressure, moving toward the circle, pressure’s rising.”
I receive the look which 15,000 permits itself to bestow on 1,000 hours expressing an opinion.
The look means, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. Even if it’s true, it’s a disgrace to know it.”