Leading Edge: Act As If

A return to active pilot status.

Younger’s Bonanza
Millennium cylinders, a Hartzell Scimitar and an Electroair ignition are some of the upgrades made to Younger’s Bonanza.Ben Younger

You’re not a pilot unless you are flying. Maybe you once were a pilot, or are one in spirit, or perhaps continue to be a pilot on paper (compliant in satisfying regulatory definitions). But in my eyes, until you pull back on the yoke and defy gravity’s ancient pull, you aren’t one. I did not fly for 198 days this year—the longest gap between flights since earning my certificate seven years ago. During that time, I fortified my status as an aviation aficionado, but I stopped being a pilot.

There is a reason for the lapse. My accident in 2017 shook me. Taking off from Telluride, Colorado, on a clear morning in spring, I encountered severe wind shear that, combined with an 11,000-foot density altitude, almost caused a stall/spin. The resulting gear-up was still enough to total the airplane as well as my confidence. I pressed on and bought another Beech Bonanza. But I found I was reluctant flying it. I refused to fly in IMC. Then this past January, I dropped her off for a six-month-long restoration at Advanced Aerotech in Greeley, Colorado. Engine, avionics, autopilot, control surfaces, fuel tanks, lights, interior—nothing was left untouched. Was I bettering the airplane or adding things to the list as a way of delaying delivery?

Subconscious, neurotic strategies aside, I leveraged the delay my fear caused by staying true to my mission statement: bringing a legacy aircraft up to the highest possible standard. By late July, N1750W was that plane, and I had to go get her. I started overthinking it: “There is a lot riding on this. I can’t make another mistake. Not least because insurance will become a serious issue if I do.” As it was, Avemco was the only company willing to write a reasonable policy. For this, I am grateful.

As a perfect lead-in to reclaiming my wings, the run-up to delivery consisted of me gawking at airplanes for an entire week in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I examined every V-tail I saw, measuring them up against the photos sent to me by George Aikens from Advanced Aerotech. For example, I met Adrian Eichhorn who flew his Bo around the world. His V-tail was something I did not need to see: custom everything, including a carbon-fiber umbrella slot in the baggage area. The Beech factory itself would have a hard time matching this kind of workmanship. My remodeling paled in comparison. “OK, fine. We do the best we can with what we have.”

Thoroughly stoked from my time at AirVenture, I arrived in Greeley to pick up my airplane. I checked into my hotel and tried to sleep. Impossible. But the good news was, the guys got to the shop at 5:30 a.m. Guess what time I was there?

It was still dark outside when I pulled up to the shop in the beater F150 pickup the FBO lent me for the night. I walked into the quiet hangar and there she was. Most everything we did on this rebuild is below the skin, but I saw the Whelen lights and repaired ruddervators immediately. The open engine cowls pulled my eyes straight to those Millennium cylinders and their beautiful covers: black, in stark contrast to the red spark-plug wires from the Electroair ignition system sitting above. All of the vacuum system was jettisoned; in its place sat a B&C standby alternator. It all looked the business.

As I moved around the nose, I admired the new prop. The Hartzell scimitar has performance advantages, but it also gave the plane an attractive menacing forward stance. “Utilitarian” doesn’t have to mean homely.

Climbing onto the wing, the sight and smell of my old interior (transplanted from my last airplane) hit me with a wave of geographic nostalgia: a kiss on the ramp on Catalina Island in California; a night approach over the ocean into Montauk, New York; and of course, sliding down the runway on our belly, smoking, in Telluride. All good things to remember moving forward—the last being the most imperative.

And then I noticed the avionics panel. Cue the doves and choir. I haven’t seen so much glass since we went to the Corning Museum in upstate New York on a school trip. The panel was perfectly cut and powder-coated. The Garmin instruments? All exactly where we planned them. The avionics were minimalist and yet comprehensive. I settled into the familiar saddle-colored seat and flipped on the master. The Garmin 500TXi lit up as bright as the flat screen I have in my living room. (The 10.6-inch screen is appropriately massive. It combines a PFD and an MFD but allows you to change how much real estate each gets from a simple touchscreen button.) The dedicated engine monitor came alive, showing every measurable engine/fuel parameter. I pulled the BAS harness over my shoulders and snugged it down. And then I breathed.

Read More from Ben Younger: Leading Edge

In one year, I went from not being certain I’d ever fly again to sitting inside what is now, for all intents and purposes, a brand-new aircraft. There was only one thing left to do: Fly. (That’s actually not true at all. There was a ton of stuff that had to be done first, but I am trying to make this dramatic.)

When you change this many things on an aircraft there are going to be squawks. Enter Kim Moses. He has worked for Beegles as their chief test pilot since 1989, flying airplanes that have been poked and prodded, crashed then rebuilt, neglected then cared for. Beegles fixes other people’s mistakes. Kim catches Beegles’ mistakes. He and one of Advanced Aerotech’s pilots, DJ, went up for the first test flight at 9:00 a.m. I stood on the ground and listened as they flew overhead at 1,000 feet agl, breaking in the motor as best you can at Colorado’s elevations. My big-bore Continental sounded menacing as it screamed back and forth over the field. Full throttle is the name of the game here.

They landed and adjusted the fuel flow. Matt made a few changes to the avionics as well. The next flight, I went up with Kim. I tried to fly right seat, but Kim wasn’t having any of it. He knew I was anxious, and there was only one way to exorcise it. Normally, I would find the idea of someone else flying my plane to be uncomfortable at best. Today, it was all I wanted. We taxied out to the active. I ran through the checklist then gave it full throttle. Even at Greeley’s near-5,000-foot field elevation, it launched down the runway and then jumped into the air. It felt instantly good. Cobwebs came off in seconds, not minutes. We flew for two hours in the vicinity of the field, going through the basics of the Garmin panel: G5, 500TXi, GFC500, GTN750, GTN650, GMA35C, GTX345, 700EIS—numbers and letters referring to the exhaustive instrument panel newly built into the plane. There would be a lot to learn.

Fatigued from the high-power, low-altitude flight, I made a landing that Kim feigned annoyance at. “Six months off, and you squeak one in like that?” I’m sure he was being kind, but I did not protest. This was a day complete.

With afternoon buildups popping up everywhere I decided to depart the following morning. I woke up early, had coffee and eggs, then went to the airport. I pulled the plane out of the hangar and preflighted with care. The morning had a faint resemblance to my first solo, easily the most exciting day of my flying career. It is a level of alertness that cannot be cultivated; it comes naturally, and I could feel it all the way through my nerve endings.

Lifting off the 10,000-foot runway, I watched my temps and climbed gradually. The long stretch of flat land everywhere gave me the confidence to stay low and continue the break-in. Although I made it all the way to Cleveland that day, it was a good 400 miles before I relaxed enough to realize the implausible had happened: I was flying an airplane again. I adjusted the seatback to recline one click from upright. I wasn’t feeling perfect, but I was airborne and that was enough. Enough to acknowledge I was a pilot once more.


Editor’s Note: Ben Younger belongs to the Garmin Ambassador program; this disclosure has not been included in his previous columns.

This story originally published in the December 2019 issue of Flying Magazine