Unusual Attitudes

I soloed Andrew Loewenstein last week. He's a good-looking kid with black curly hair, the 16-year-old son of a corporate pilot friend. Drew had only three hours of "dual received" in his logbook but that doesn't reflect years of flying little airplanes with his dad. So I sat in the grass while he took a venerable old 172, fondly known as "The Green Slime," around the traffic pattern. And I found myself using the same body language I did years ago when, despite warnings of less weight and a longer float, your fledging tends to be high and fast.

The tower had a hissy-fit when I'd told them I wanted to get out of the airplane for a first solo. OK, OK, we'd taxi off the approach end into the Hangar Four and I'd wait on their ramp. Talk about venerable: This 1928 structure was the original Aeronca Company and then, until recently, the home of P&G's flight department. Now Million Air leases it for overflow and corporate customers.

"You can't go in there unless you have permission from Million Air."

"Sure I have permission." Well, don't I buy tons of avgas for the 180 and make peanut brittle for the line guys at Christmas?

Later, back at the T-hangar I cut-off his shirttail while Andrew called his dad on his cell phone. Joe was in Beijing. It was about 11:30 a.m. in Cincinnati, which made it close to midnight in China, and Joe had landed the Gulfstream 550 a few hours before. Drew was a little disappointed that his dad sounded kind of spacey with jet lag but within a few minutes Joe called back, fully awake now and excited, hugely proud and anxious for every detail of the adventure.

I'd turned my little monster off ... which I do pretty often ... and it was mid-afternoon when I picked up a call from Steve Crow, the tower chief. I guess most of us have the same reaction to the words, "Call the tower," as we did to "Go to the principal's office" when we were kids.

"You have everybody all upset."

"Really? About what?"

"You can't just get out of an airplane on the airport. You have to return to the hangar before you can get out and send the student for solo."

"I didn't get out on the airport. I got out at Hangar Four."

"Well, the security guard up there was alarmed because some lady was sitting in the grass next to his taxiway making daisy chains. He called the office at Million Air and the girls there didn't know anything so they called the tower."

"Gee, I'm glad he didn't shoot me. But then I usually don't wear a burkha when I fly. So, what did you guys tell them ... I might be armed and dangerous? Or a deranged bag lady? Possibly that hooker who works Wilmer Avenue every afternoon? More likely just somebody retrieving golf balls or hunting mushrooms or poaching groundhogs."

"C'mon, Martha, we knew who it was. But you can't do that."

"OK, Steve, I'll make sure Million Air briefs their rent-a-cop. But I'm not soloing anybody without staying out there to watch."

So I dutifully called the Million Air manager. Bill Wildeboer's a neat guy and was gracious and probably terrified they'd lose my huge 180 fuel business. He did the "oh-the-girls-didn't-know-and-just-please-tell-us-in-advance" thing and I promised not to break any more rules ... that day.

I guess I'm just not into all this airport security stuff; I wedge rocks into the closing mechanism on those stupid electronic gates and I hate the 8-foot fences that keep kids out. Come on, what self-respecting terrorist would blow up Lunken Airport? In the old days I'd stand out in the grass triangle for first solo and the tower would gleefully clear my student back to the hangar when he was finished. In his excitement he'd forget all about me, of course, and it was a long walk back!

What a privilege to launch a kid on his first solo, the first time he's ever been completely dependent on his own skills and judgment. You hear people downplay that event but it's huge, a true rite of passage, one of the greatest moments in life and one most of us remember vividly. Mine was on a cold February morning and Larry Whitesell let me do only one landing (such confidence). Oh, and leave the canopy open in the Ercoupe in case I crashed and had to get out quickly. I was scared so I didn't feel the cold but I sure remember singing at the top of my lungs all the way around. It was a Negro spiritual and I still sing it softly sometimes when I'm flying alone and especially happy, "My Lord, What a Morning."

Martha Schwinn had soloed in my flying school's Cessna 150, and then we put her in our Cub because she and Bill owned an Aeronca Chief and later a Cessna 170. I'm not sure that was a wise move because, when she got her private license, she and Bill always flew together ... I mean like simultaneously. Anyway, soloing the Cub from the back seat and on concrete was challenging enough for her so at first I handled the radio. Remember the Bayside portable comm radio? It weighed about 40 pounds and was roughly the size of a microwave. We sat it on the luggage bin cover behind the rear seat and stretched a mic cord up to me in front. No headsets, of course. In the '60s and '70s you turned the speaker volume way up and yelled at each other because only wimps used headsets and intercoms. And we wonder why we don't hear too well any more.

Martha was gutsy and fun and a nonstop talker -- like 300 words per minute with gusts to 400. The solution was a homemade one-way intercom made out of those plastic headsets the airlines used to provide free. You remember, before they started charging for seatbelts and bottled water and the flow of oxygen if the masks dropped. Anyway, we borrowed a couple, cut off the plug-in end and "welded" it into the small end of a plastic kitchen funnel with a lighter. I could talk into the funnel and Martha listened through the airline headset. The genius of this was, besides being cheap and low-tech, it was one-way ... she couldn't talk back.

So it was a hot summer afternoon and we were bumping around the traffic pattern, me in front clutching the Bayside microphone, my kitchen-funnel gosport and, occasionally, grabbing for the stick or the throttle. Martha was too short to see the instrument panel over my shoulders and she didn't quite have the wing chord/horizon thing down yet ... or, more likely, there was no horizon. Anyway, we were mushing along the downwind leg.

"Martha, put the nose down."

No verbal response (of course she couldn't) but no change in airplane attitude either. So I gestured with my fingers out at the wingtips and ahead to indicate the nose was high.

"C'mon, remember the level flight attitude?" I scootched to one side and pointed to the airspeed indicator, which was down around 50 mph.


"Martha, damn it, we're just mushing along here. Add some power and decrease the pitch attitude."

I turned around and she was just smiling blissfully, totally oblivious. Suspecting the intercom system had failed I checked the integrity of the weld. The funnel was securely attached and the headset seemed to be properly inserted in Martha's ears. Guess I just need to talk louder with the door and window open.

"Will you please put the nose in the level flight attitude or we're going back out in the practice area."

No change.


Then I looked down at my hands, each holding a "transmitting" device, and realized I had been yelling instructions at the tower through the Bayside microphone instead of the funnel.

It was a slow day in the tower, and I suspect they were enjoying the performance as much as they had a few weeks earlier when a wheelpant suddenly broke loose from my Cessna on a landing. They let us shutdown briefly so I could retrieve the errant piece of fiberglass from beside the runway. Everybody on 118.7 MHz was glad to know that the runway would reopen "as soon as Martha found her pants."

I can't talk about landings without getting back on my soapbox, but hang in here because I think this will strike home. On private pilot practical tests, when we've finished the high stuff -- navigation, instrument work, steep turns, stalls and slow flights -- I often simulate an engine failure right over a strip or field I know. The applicant usually establishes a glide and troubleshoots the problem to no avail, of course. If he hasn't already spotted it, I'll say, "Hey, there's a runway directly under us. If you can land on it and get us safely stopped by the end I'll knock $50 off the test fee."

"Wow, sure thing from this high. No sweat."

So far nobody's won their fifty bucks back.

Then, when we get back home, I'll ask him or her to close the throttle at the end of the downwind leg. Just establish a normal glide and touch down somewhere on the first third of the runway. And, sure, use whatever you want ... flaps, slips, s-turns or open the cabin door. Woefully few can make that happen either.

So what's going on?

What's going on is that nobody's teaching accuracy landings because sometime back an FAA desk jockey decided all approaches should be made with partial power. Well, that's fine and it's normally the way you approach and land. But if you're aviating with one motor and no ballistic parachute you'd better know how to put your baby on the ground with no power. And with an engine failure at altitude you'll never make the runway or field by aiming for it. Try it if you don't believe me. You have to go for that "sweet spot," the key position about 1,000 feet agl and about 45 degrees off the intended landing spot on downwind. If you're reasonably adept at accuracy landings it should be a piece of cake. Try these 180-degree power-off approaches with an instructor to coach and don't use one who can't do it himself. Then practice, practice, practice. And don't forget my cut on all the money you'll win in spot landing contests next summer.

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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