Unusual Attitudes

My 1956 Cessna 180, 72B, "wintered" in Piqua, Ohio, while Mark Runge worked his magic on the annual plus some spa treatments and minor cosmetic surgery (we old girls need all the help we can get). I was in no great hurry to get the airplane back since the January weather was dreadful and then I jungled my elbow in a fall. Most adult persons don't need to be warned about running out barefoot in the snow for the newspaper and then flying down the basement stairs to get socks out of the dryer. I did learn, however, that any pain is bearable if you keep up a stream of words you didn't even know were in your vocabulary. The guys at the ER said nothing was broken and a flying buddy who moonlights as an orthopedic surgeon did his magic with a needle in my baseball-sized elbow.

But the gnarly and uncomfortable truth is I was finding too many excuses to avoid flying my airplane alone in the clag. "Fuel's outrageous, better to save the money in this economy, sure looks like ice up there, the ceiling's too high to practice, the vis is too low, I'm kind of rusty and [the ever useful] I am so busy …" With what? Putting other guys in the hot seat on practical tests? That might have worked as an FAA inspector but not the real world of flying airplanes.

Then a friend who's sweating out his special issuance medical asked for some moral support attending a single/light twin refresher at this pricey and prestigious simulator school in Florida. You need to understand that when somebody says "simulator" I get funny noises in my head. I have this pathological hatred-read, "fear of looking stupid" -- about simulators but I knew I needed somebody putting the pressure on me for a change. Besides, how much of a challenge could a pissant little Baron/Bonanza simulator be?

As challenging and humiliating as the syllabus, the instructor and your lack of proficiency make it.

So it wasn't the most relaxing spring break but I did uncover a closely guarded secret: What fronts as a benign training center in Central Florida is in fact one of those sites where enemy combatants were "remanded." Only this one specializes in sensory deprivation, psychological intimidation and the occasional waterboarding of pilots instead of terrorists.

I last encountered one of these infernal machines about 20 years ago when my FSDO certificated Northcoast Airlines, an odd name for a carrier with a landlocked route structure but then it was kind of an odd little airline. Anyway, I needed a challenge and got my wish … a type rating in the Fairchild SA-227 Metroliner. This stretched Merlin, a cigar-shaped, Ed Swearingen design, was called (among more printable names) the San Antonio Sewerpipe and it was rumored that Mickey Mouse wore an Ed Swearingen watch. I was scheduled for a two-week all expense paid vacation at FlightSafety in San Antonio, with part of the check ride in their simulator and the rest in a real airplane at Comair in Cincinnati.

My friend Tim Terlau at Comair lent me some study materials and shared some stories about the airplane's unique systems and some of its quirks … as well as its lack of "facilities." Seems Tim was captain on a Cincinnati to Toronto flight on a cold January morning with a full load of passengers. They were in a hold over Toronto when a passenger announced that he absolutely, positively had to "get rid of some coffee and right now!" So the crew brought him up in the cockpit to kneel between the seats with the curtain sort of pulled behind him and a sick sack to use as a urinal. Whether it was turbulence, poor aim or his feelings about the airline, he peed all over Tim's Jeppesens.

I was beginning to wonder if I'd bitten off more than I could chew but my cohorts pooh-poohed any idea that I might blow it; everybody knew FAA types were a guaranteed "pass." But times had changed and I learned that the two inspectors preceding me had been sent home empty-handed. Fortunately, what I lack in brains I make up for in German stubbornness. After a bad day (and there were lots) I'd grit my teeth harder and repeat my vow not to give up without a helluva flight.

My "stick buddy" was an inspector from Minneapolis who said he'd had extensive experience on the Mesaba Airlines certificate and had flown their Metros … a lot. For him this course was a formality, actually a boring waste of time. I was thrilled to be paired with somebody who knew so much about the airplane even if he did have the personality of Count Dracula. I sure could use help, but when I suggested we study together, he told me his time was valuable and it didn't include spoon feeding or tutoring me. I decided that probably meant I was on my own.

The other challenge was the hotel, a pretty nice and newish high-rise (Hilton or Sheraton or something like that) but evidently hard up for customers. At check-in, I learned they were hosting an Intergalactic Dachshund Owners Convention, which explained why the place was lousy with wiener dogs. In the lobby, the elevators and the hallways the little beasts schnuffled at your shoes and up your pants legs. There were dachshund do-do receptacles discreetly but strategically placed on each floor.

Since the options were evenings with the dachshunds or on the computer tutorials at school, I learned just about everything there was to know about the SA-227 … by memory. But in the simulator I was still fumbling … awkward, embarrassed, cursing and sweating. Finally I demanded that a friend, a Carmelite nun, get her pals to storm heaven with prayers and something worked … either the prayers or taking out my frustration surreptitiously kicking wiener dogs in the hotel elevators. Things came together and I settled down in spite of the diabolical instructor and Attila the Hun in the right seat. And flying that thing even through all sorts of desperate emergencies actually came to be fun.

The final oral and sim tests were observed by an FAA inspector and FSI's chief instructor and I flew like Lindbergh … well, except for totally screwing up a holding pattern. But after the debriefings I don't know which emotion was stronger, relief and, yeah, pride that I'd passed, or utter astonishment that the other guy hadn't. No gloating or smugness. Just true sadness that he "didn't get it." Life, I mean.

But now here I was, 20 years later, back flying one of those infernal things like a fledgling. Over the three days it got marginally better and I guess I passed since I left clutching a certificate, a tote bag and, best of all, those neat "Crew" luggage tags. But I wonder if it would have been more useful if the sessions had been less "canned," the curriculum less rigid. Refreshers are different from type ratings and competency and proficiency checks, which necessarily follow strict guidelines and schedules to secure FAA approval. Couldn't the single and light twin refreshers be tuned more to the individual's proficiency and currency? Or bluntly, how about devoting more time to instruction and practice before throwing runaway trims, failed autopilots, broken vacuum pumps and St. Elmo's fire at a general aviation pilot trying to absorb new procedures in an unfamiliar cockpit?

Or, just as bluntly, it's quite possible I'm full of baloney, suffering from a bruised ego and dredging up excuses for my less than "graceful" performance. I got back to Ohio and brought the 180 to Lunken for an altimeter/static check at Avionics, Inc. The next day 72B was out on the ramp in a soft drizzle, anointed, blessed, signed off and disgustingly legal. And I'm looking at a juicy, gray sky, about 800 feet ceiling, two or three miles vis, nothing severe around and a freezing level at 5,000 feet. Time for some cloud flying to preserve my hard won proficiency, sure, but more to retrieve my self-respect and peace of mind.

"Hey, Justin next door at the flying school would love to go since he's working on his 'Double I'." Oh, I don't know. My 396 with all the neat weather stuff is acting up (but the 430 works fine). I can't get the Bose plugged in right since Mark installed that screwy jack (but you have other headsets). This airplane's fresh out of annual and it would be more prudent to wait for better weather (Since when have the words "you" and "prudent" been in the same sentence?).

"Knock it off, Martha. No excuses, no right-seaters and no wimping out because you were less than an ace in that simulator. Go file and go fly."

Well, it wasn't perfect but … yes it was. I did approaches and misses and holds, an ILS with a circle and the miserable back course into Lunken. Fiddling with the 396 (which got over its snit) and messing with the Bose (which slid smoothly in the panel) and chasing pencils and approach plates around the cockpit (my housekeeping needs work) resulted in a few heading and altitude excursions. But I heard Tom Slayback, a US Air captain gone west, saying, "Trim, altitude control is a trim problem."

I knuckled down to basics, reminding myself to let go of the wheel when I was distracted. And you know what? I got my groove back … I sure 'nuff got it on again.

72B was back in the hangar and I was driving up Airport Road thinking about, of all things, Amelia Earhart. Now Amelia's never been my all-time most favorite pilot hero (even though we share a birthday) but I sure admire her for being one gutsy lady. Whatever her motivations or her airmanship, I love her fierce determination and I understand and value her words: "Courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace. The soul that knows it not, Knows no release from little things."

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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