Flying Lessons: Past, Present and Way Ahead

Mettwurst, old friends, and technology of the future all at Sporty's annual fly-in.

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Until last weekend, the last time I'd had a mettwurst was 1987. What, you might ask, is a mettwurst? Ah. It's a spicy, little-known relative of the bratwurst that's only available, as far as I've ever determined, in a small radius around southern Ohio.

I mention the mettwurst only because sometimes, like the smell of your third-grade teacher's perfume or a remnant of an old childhood toy found in an attic corner, it's the little things that transport you most powerfully back through time. And so it was with the mettwurst.

Once upon a time, mettwurst had been a staple of my weekend diet, served at almost every airport barbecue I'd ever attended, back when I lived in Louisville, Kentucky, and flew around the Cincinnati/Louisville area. But that was a very long time ago.

Truth to tell, I hadn't even given mettwurst much thought until I was standing in line for the free hot dogs at Sporty's annual fly-in (at its Batavia, Ohio, headquarters) recently and saw some vaguely familiar reddish-brown sausages on the grill.

"What are those?" I asked.

"Mettwurst," the young man behind the grill answered.

Twenty-three years disappeared in an instant. I could have hugged the guy.

"Mettwurst!" I laughed with a smile. "My, my. Serve me up!"

Even if nothing else wonderful had happened that day, the trip would have been worth it, just for the mettwurst. But as it turned out, the mettwurst was only the beginning.

I was at Sporty's to do a talk and a signing of my Unforgettable book (which Sporty's published last fall). Since one of the chapters revolved around my first Piper Cub flight, which had taken place in nearby Hamilton, Ohio, I decided to read a section of that chapter. I asked if anyone had read the book, and only one person in the audience raised his hand. What I should have asked was if anyone there was from Hamilton.

I read aloud about the unique character of Hamilton — the Hogan family that ran the airport and the special people who had flown and socialized there. I took some questions from the audience and then sat down to sign books. An older gentleman walked purposefully up to the table.

"Do you remember me?" he asked.

I frowned. I've met a lot of people along the way. A fast file-sort through the brain photo files turned up nothing. I shook my head sheepishly.

"I'm Bernie," he said.

Even then, it took a while to register. Bernie … Bernie … Finally, the tumblers fell into place.

"Bernie of Bernie and Pat?" Bernie and Pat had owned a pristine black and white Cessna 150 (or 152), and they were responsible for the purchase of my first headset, back in the days when my then-boyfriend Jim was attempting to teach me how to fly our new Cessna 120 taildragger. The lessons were not going well, in part because we had to yell at each other to even make ourselves heard in the plane. We'd fly for an hour and not speak to each other for two or more after that.

That all changed the day Bernie and Pat flew their Cessna into Clark County, Indiana, where Jim and I based the 120. I wandered over to look at their airplane (after noticing that it was Pat, not Bernie, who'd climbed out of the left seat). When I commented on the headsets and portable intercom sitting on the seats, Pat gave me a wry smile.

"It was either that or a divorce," she said. "We figured the headsets were cheaper."

Jim and I had our own headset system within the week.

I was still turning those memories over in my mind when a woman approached the table with a copy of the book opened to the photo section in the middle. There was a photo there that I'd taken one summer Saturday at Hamilton when some of "the gang" had lined up with large, poster-board score cards to judge arriving pilots' landings. The woman introduced herself as Betty and pointed to one of the people in the photo.

"Do you remember this man's name?" she asked.

Oh, Lord. It was quiz day, and I hadn't boned up. Once upon a time, of course, I'd known every single person in the photo. I still knew their faces. I just couldn't pull back more than one or two names.

"He's my significant other," she said with a smile. "We've been together 18 years."

Eighteen years … I was still working that one through when she stepped in to help out.

"You were there before my time," she said. "I hadn't met him yet, back when you knew him."

Just then, a friend tapped my arm.

"Lane, I think there's someone else here from your past," she said.

I looked at the salt-and-pepper-haired man at her side for a long moment before recognition dawned. I jumped up from the table.

"Rick Hogan!" I exclaimed as I gave him a hug. Rick was one of the Hogans. One of the family of pilots who ran the Hamilton airport and flew everything from Wacos to DC-3s to P-51 Mustangs. Back when, he'd been a young Comair regional airline pilot. He's still an airline pilot. Just not quite as young.

Rick took a step back. "I'd like you to meet my daughter," he said.

Daughter? I didn't remember Rick having a daughter.

"She's 18," he said with a smile.

Of course. I didn't remember a daughter because Rick hadn't had her yet. It was like being in a Twilight Zone episode where the people who'd stayed in Hamilton had all aged normally, while I'd stepped out for coffee and returned to find everyone 20 years older. But it was a great reunion, all the same.

Even if nothing else wonderful had happened that day, reconnecting with my old friends would have been well worth the trip. But there was still more to come.

When I'd made my travel arrangements, I'd been surprised to discover how few flights there were out of Cincinnati on a Saturday night. I was trying to end up in or near Groton, Connecticut, after the fly-in, but there were no flights to Providence, Rhode Island — or Hartford, Connecticut, or Boston — that I could make until the next day. There was only one flight east that left late enough for me to get out Saturday night, and that was to LaGuardia airport in New York. That meant my friend Ed was going to have to drive two hours to pick me up, and we wouldn't get back to Connecticut until almost midnight, even if I left Sporty's at 3 p.m. sharp.

As luck would have it, however, Peter DiFanti, national sales manager for Aspen Avionics, was flying his Aspen-equipped F33 Bonanza back to Rhode Island after the fly-in, and he was kind enough to offer me a ride. We took off from Sporty's at 3:35 p.m. Even with a 40-minute fuel stop, we were over the Groton airport by 7:50 p.m. If I'd taken the airlines, I wouldn't have been even halfway to New York by then.

But aside from the amazing convenience flying direct via Bonanza offered (a perfect commercial for the utility of general aviation if there ever was one), the flight also gave me a chance to sample Aspen's "poor man's" glass-cockpit technology. Pete's Bonanza has Aspen's full Evolution 2500 total glass-cockpit system, which consists of three of Aspen's modular units (Aspen's system is meant to be retrofitted easily into a round-dial panel, so each unit takes up the same space as do two analog instruments arranged vertically). Pete had his PFD (primary flight display) in the center, flanked by two MFDs (multifunction displays).

Aspen's MFDs can be customized to show various kinds of data, including weather, traffic, moving map displays and charts, geo-referenced airport diagrams or other EHSI (electronic horizontal situation indicator) information, and can be configured as a single screen or in various split-screen combinations. The right-hand MFD (the 1000) can also be set, with the touch of a button, to serve as a duplicate PFD. And even flying from the right seat, heading east in the late afternoon (which meant looking at the displays from an angle, with sunlight directly on the panel), the displays were bright enough to be seen clearly.

Anyone who's read anything I've written on glass-cockpit displays knows that I have little tolerance for fancy capabilities that come at the cost of complicated operational procedures. But the Aspen system, while flexible and certainly capable, retains a pretty straightforward, intuitive design. Even some of the fancy features, like the ability to put a cursor over an airport on the moving map display and get an instant metar on current airport conditions, were simple enough for me to figure out on the fly (so to speak).

Pete had filed an IFR flight plan, and his Bonanza has a very capable autopilot, but I wanted to get some experience flying with the Aspen system, so I hand-flew the airplane from western Pennsylvania to Connecticut. Pete put the PFD information on the right-hand MFD to make it easier for me to maintain our required course and altitude to IFR accuracy standards. Both of us were pleased with the results.

Even if all I'd done that day was get the opportunity to try out Aspen's system, the trip would have been worth it. As it was, I got to reunite with friends and food treats from my past, enjoy the company of the present and fly direct to my next destination with the technology of the future, landing in time for dinner at a great restaurant, way ahead of any airline schedule.

Perfect days like that you can't plan. Like most perfect moments in life, you simply stumble onto them, sometimes. Just like those summer mettwurst barbecues at Hamilton, all those years ago.