Taking Wing: Young and Dumb

On surviving inexperience while gaining experience.

Taking Wing
No good career advice matters unless you remain alive and accident- and violation-free.Alamy

I grew up and learned to fly on the snow-swept plains of Minnesota, but I really grew up in the crowded, smoggy skies over Southern California. It’s where I spent a couple of lean years flight instructing and freight dogging, making lifelong friends while scrambling to make ends meet on some vanishingly small paychecks.

I left SoCal when I started working for the airlines 14 years ago, but flying back here still feels like a homecoming. The descent into LAX takes me right over all the airports and landmarks I knew then, and a flood of memories accompanies each one. Back then, flying a Boeing 767 from New York to Los Angeles seemed like a pleasant but impossibly distant dream; now it’s a perfectly routine workday, and I don’t feel too many years removed from that young flight instructor dreaming of flying the big jets.

Ah, but a look in the mirror tells the truth. I’m not truly young anymore; I am in fact rapidly sliding into the dreaded “middle age.” I have aches and scars and a waistline that lately refuses to keep the secret of my fondness for craft beer and lack of enthusiasm for gyms. With approaching decrepitude comes the temptation to cast a retrospectively rosy hue upon the misadventures of my youth, remembering the “good old days” to the exclusion of the not so good. Gazing over the vast expanse of Southern California, it is all too easy to declare my years here some of the best of my life. But then I look at specific places, and recall certain events, and I remember things that weren’t at all pleasant. I remember being tired and frustrated and scared in airplanes. I remember doing boneheaded, unprofessional things. I remember being ashamed of the inexperience and stupidity that led me to make those choices.

We’re passing over the San Bernardino Mountains that form the eastern rim of the LA basin, and looking down I can see the crenulated shore of Big Bear Lake tucked into a high valley at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level, flanked by peaks nearly 11,000 feet high. In the summer of 2001, I taught at a flight school whose aircraft check-out process included three landings at Big Bear City (L35). Mind you, before this, I had never landed at any airport over 1,500 feet elevation, but after a cursory checkout of my own I was unleashed upon unsuspecting renters with an admonition to take only 180 hp Piper Archers to Big Bear, not 160 hp Warriors. Fast-forward to two weeks later: I was scheduled to do a PA-28 checkout, but the assigned Archer had been swapped to another student and my only recourse was to take a Warrior. Not wanting to inconvenience my student, I calculated the takeoff performance for Big Bear City. It wasn’t that warm of a day, and by interpolating off the edge of the performance charts I concluded we would use no more than 3,000 feet of runway and have a solid 300 fpm climb rate. No problem, right?

You can guess what happened next. The landing at Big Bear was fine, but the takeoff was interminably long and then the aircraft refused to climb out of ground effect. By the time I realized it, there wasn’t enough runway left to set back down. So we flew off the end of the runway at 10 feet, across a marshy slough and toward a causeway flanked by power lines. I briefly considered flying under them, but we built up just enough airspeed to mush over the lines before settling back down over the water. We flew like that for the full 8-mile length of Big Bear Lake before clearing the dam at the western end and diving into the canyon back down to San Bernardino.

Those performance charts didn’t account for the fact that this Warrior sported one of the world’s most tired O-320s, with thousands of hours since its last overhaul. My mistake was cutting it too finely, where a more experienced pilot would have left himself more margin for error. What made this particularly inexcusable is that it wasn’t my first close call with marginal takeoff performance. Three years earlier, as a new 17-year-old private pilot, I had loaded three of my high-school buddies into a Cessna 172 and attempted to fly off a rain-softened 2,600-foot grass strip bordered by tall pines. I got it off the ground, but then mushed along and unconsciously drifted toward the tree-fringed edge of the runway, having failed to account for the extra P-factor. The eerie wail of the reed vane stall warning snapped me out of my stupor, and I corrected toward centerline, ever so gingerly, as trees whipped past my left wingtip. Twenty years later, it still gives me cold sweats and puts a gnawing dead feeling in the pit of my stomach to recall waiting for the slap-slap-slap of branches that never came.

Twenty years later, it still gives me cold sweats and puts a gnawing dead feeling in the pit of my stomach to recall waiting for the slap-slap-slap of branches that never came.

I’ve only felt that mortal in an airplane one other time, and just ahead and to our left is where it happened. Lake Matthews was and is one of the Inland Empire’s more popular practice areas, and in the summer of 2001, there was still quite a lot of training activity in the LA basin. On the day in question, a commercial student and I were over the lake in a Piper Arrow, practicing steep turns at 2,500 feet. We were about halfway through a left turn when a Cherokee flashed across the windscreen, wing-up in its own steep turn, no more than 50 feet ahead. There was a heavy jolt as we flew through his wake. For a moment I thought our wingtip had caught his tail. My student slowly leveled out; neither one of us said a word. My hands started shaking, and I noticed that his were too. “Wanna head back?” I finally ventured. He nodded and turned for home. I tried to figure out where the phantom airplane had come from. We had done clearing turns, but I obviously hadn’t been diligent enough in looking for traffic. I’d always had a fair amount of faith in the big-sky theory, but from that moment, I realized it really didn’t apply in Southern California. A few months later, two training aircraft collided over the Long Beach Harbor practice area, with four lives lost.

Descending in the big iron through 6,000 feet on the ILS to 24R, I see Long Beach to our south, and beyond it Catalina Island. I think of all the times I flew out there across 26 miles of perpetually cold (and sharky!) water in ratty training aircraft of variable airworthiness without so much as a life raft, EPIRB or survival kit. Hell, in those years I didn’t think twice about flying single-engine airplanes over rugged mountains at night, or in hard IFR without an autopilot or a secondary vacuum source. I look to the north, and in the distance I can make out the escarpment of the High Sierra. Five days a week for one memorable winter, I flew freight up there via the Owens Valley, slogging through severe turbulence on a fairly regular basis (“Life and Death in the Owens Valley,” September 2013). Much closer, I spy Burbank Airport in the San Fernando Valley. That’s where I momentarily fell asleep one night at 3 a.m., dead tired after a long day of freight dogging — and when I woke with a start, on short final for Runway 8, I had no recollection of the previous half-hour.

Like most 20-year-olds, I didn’t dwell too much on risk in those days. When I did think about it, I accepted increased risk as part of being young, broke and building a new career. If age and experience have made me more risk-averse, improved circumstances have also made it more convenient for me to avoid it. Most of us were lucky enough to emerge from our young and dumb years with life, limb and license intact — but not all. Mike Ahn, my co-worker at three jobs, died covering my route in the Owens Valley — not in a snowstorm or hellish turbulence, but lulled to sleep on a sunny day. My first flight instructor, Slade Shipshock, fatally crashed in Watertown, South Dakota, on a frigid December night when he failed to deice on a quick cargo stop. Another former instructor lost his job and certificates (but thankfully not his life) when he aileron-rolled a nonaerobatic training aircraft in an apparent fit of boredom. Over the years, as my network has grown, I’ve heard of too many similar tragedies from industry friends, several of whom lost young pilots they were mentoring.

With the arrival of the pilot shortage, there’s a major influx of young people getting into aviation, and a sudden torrent of career guidance. Much of it is good advice, but here’s the stark truth: None of it matters unless you remain alive and accident- and violation-free. Accidents happen to pilots of every age and experience level, but the triple-whammy of being young, inexperienced and a little desperate makes you more vulnerable than you think. If you understand that, take your mortality to heart, and get used to thinking about risk and ways to mitigate it early on, you stand a much better chance of making it through your “young and dumb” years. Before you know it, you’ll be enjoying a long and successful career, looking back on this time with a lot of good memories, and hopefully not too many regrets.