Gear Up: Forty-Six Years and Still Learning

A flying life is defined by those who pass on the “gouge.”

Gear Up Hepner and Karl

Gear Up Hepner and Karl

** Mentor and mentee, Jason Hepner and Dick Karl.**

"Whoa! Stop. You would not do that to your lawn mower.” I hear this over the din of the engine and next feel a firm left hand atop my sweating right hand. The left hand slowly pulls my tightly clenched right hand and the throttle on the Cessna 150 toward the idle position. As opposed to the inelegance with which I’d rammed the throttle open, this diminution was all grace and smoothness.

It was the summer of love in San Francisco, where I was living for the season, but I wasn’t inhaling reefer at the Fillmore; after work I was driving over the Bay Bridge to Oakland, where I was learning to fly. It was 1967. It was Runway 9, where, in the late afternoon, the sun bore directly into the eyes of this young pilot wannabe. It was the Fourth of July weekend. Two weeks and nine hours of instruction later, I soloed.

That firm hand was telling me to be gentle with power inputs. It was attached to Jim Quistorff, my first instructor. He told me to be gentle about many things, from heading changes to taxiing. Think back to your first instructor. I’ll bet you remember him or her well and may have even named a child or two after one of those unique teachers who ushered you onto the stage. I certainly remember.

Jim was just what I needed. He was thoughtful, patient and persistent. On Aug. 23 I was awarded a private pilot certificate by Virgil Simmons. He was ancient. He signed his name and “FAA-WE-07-5.” On that day I received a certificate number, 1782747, which I have had ever since. I enjoyed that private license for 43 years until I got the bug to fly for hire, when I pursued a commercial and then an ATP rating.

The next summer I was back in San Francisco, and I ran immediately out to Oakland and got checked out by Jim. More than that, he took me with him in a Cessna 206, a massive machine or so it seemed, to Mendocino, Sea Ranch and later all the way to Seattle (Kitsap), where he had family, with stops in Portland on the way up and Eugene on the way down. I will never forget his largess. These were defining flights for me, for they took a kindled passion and set it on fire. There would be no regression, no turning back.

The next big step came at the knee of Gene VanMeter, who guided me to an instrument ticket. Gene was Kentucky all the way through. His quiet patience was a respite for me while I was serving as a general medical officer at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Just up the road in Louisville was Bowman Field. It was 1971. Gene was the quiet pro — he made everything seem easy. When explaining the turning error that characterizes a wet compass, he simply said, “When turning south the compass turns more quickly, because everybody wants to go south. When turning toward the north the compass lags, because who wants to go back north?”

Gene took me on some revenue flights, where I got to watch a real pilot shoot a real ADF approach. Unbelievably, the airport always appeared out of the mists on schedule.

Instrument flying is the detent over which a pilot must pass if real flying is in the cards. Up until then, too many planned weekends were derailed by a cloud deck no more than 1,000 feet from bottom to top. If I was going to fly, I would need this ticket. Besides, I loved it. I loved the instruments and I loved the language. When invited for dinner at Gene’s house, I placed his written directions just forward of the gearshift lever on my car, as if it were an approach plate. And you think I wasn’t hooked?

It was with Gene, on Sept. 15, 1972, that I pushed the throttle forward, gently, on 24 Tango Delta, the Beechcraft Musketeer I had just bought in an auction. I had no idea whether it would fly, and neither did Gene, but his reassuring presence gave us both the chance to find out. That was one dedicated (and generous) instructor. In retrospect, he was as hooked as I was; he was just a lot further along in the learning and had declared formally that aviation would be his vocation, not just his avocation.

My next several years of flying brought a parade of airplanes. The Musketeer gave way to a Piper Arrow, which lasted only a few years before the big Cessna 210 came along. Three years later I bought a Cessna P210 — a remarkable airplane that I kept for 13 years.

In those days a new (to me) but used (to the previous owner) airplane involved little more instruction than the owner’s obligation to show you where the key went. Of course there were biennial flight reviews, but frequently those evaluations were done by pilots who had less time in the airplane than I did. I learned a lot from the airplanes. The P210 was one of my best instructors, if you know what I mean.

Finally, I was ready, in terms of proficiency and pay grade, for a twin. When my wife, Cathy, and I bought the Cessna 340, you would have thought it was a DC-7. Ed Stark came down from New York to teach me how to fly such a brute.

Ed, a former Eastern Airlines DC-9 pilot, had an easy manner and a bag full of stories. He taught me that multiengine airplanes should be taxied on the centerline; he explained that props “way out there” can hit taxiway lights. This had never occurred to me in the 210. Ed taught me to level off gently even if on the autopilot. In fact, especially if you are on the autopilot — it had a hard enough struggle to capture the altitude in any case. “The last 500 feet at 500 (feet per minute),” still rings in my head today.

Mostly, Ed gave me comfort that I could fly this airplane. “You sound on the radio like a rich airline captain,” he told me, and that was what I needed to hear.

Moving up to a Cheyenne turboprop brought more instruction. At FlightSafety in Lakeland, Florida, my friend Bill Wyman and I would rehearse critical engine loss, fire and electrical failures. We recently moved to SimCom with similar scenarios and excellent instruction.

But this piece is about learning in the airplane itself, not in the simulator. It is in the airplane that you first hear the squeal of the stall warning while taxiing downwind and wonder what in the world that noise could be about. (Pull the circuit breaker to calm the passengers, but don’t forget to reset it before takeoff.)

In this perspective, my recent tutelage at the hands of some terrific aviators at Elite Air in St. Petersburg, Florida, has been the most rewarding since Jim Quistorff grabbed my hand in 1967. After getting type-rated in the Lear 31 at FlightSafety in Atlanta in the capable and informative hands of Jay Christensen and Vic Bucci, Mike Bronisz and Jason Hepner have worked hard to bring this boy up to speed on the road.

On my first-ever revenue flight as a first officer, we took off out of St. Petersburg (KPIE) into airspace just beneath Tampa International’s Class B. Being restricted to 200 knots in such airspace had never been a problem for me. Until the Cheyenne, most airplanes I had flown had a hard time doing 200 knots in descent, much less in climb. Mike Bronisz clearly told me to “contact departure, man. You can run the after-takeoff checklist later.” I was learning about priorities in fast-moving airplanes. Mike also introduced me to the max performance takeoff in the Lear 31A. This is a seminal event in any pilot’s life and is never to be forgotten.

Jason Hepner has provided increasingly subtle instruction as to the safe operation of the Lear. He started with the simple things, like test the brakes early after landing and don’t, for goodness’ sake, touch something on the autopilot/flight director panel just as we’re landing in a crosswind.

After the basics, Jason has taught me the more arcane art of getting the most out of the Learjet. He frequently has me look up long-range speed numbers early in long westbound flights. He has introduced me to the concept of requesting wrong-way altitudes for fuel efficiency — an example would be Flight Level 450 going west. Recently, when it was ISA plus 10 at Flight Level 410, he taught me how to request a block altitude from 410 to 430 so that we could soldier on at 42,500 feet, much as Concorde used to saunter across the Atlantic at 56,330 feet when it wanted to.

For all of this, and for all of you patient instructors, there are legions of us grateful pilots, whose lives have been enriched and in many circumstances saved by your kind tutelage. May I speak for all of us and say thank you? I know I have not said that often enough.

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