For Tom, who loves to fly.
The man stood next to the flagpole and felt the autumn breeze brush lightly over him. The faded colors above his head snapped lazily against a sky of broken clouds signaling that the wind was out of the southwest. A glance at the windsock confirmed it. Looking farther to the west, he could see that the sun was slowly draining itself into the horizon, beginning to take the late afternoon light with it. A cold front was coming, and a line of steel gray overcast was stretched tight on a diagonal across the sky in the distance, with broken puffs of cumulus hanging, backlighted, against the setting sun. With the front would come rain. But there was enough time. Enough time to fly.
Loose gravel crunched under his feet as he walked toward the tie-down area. His light cotton jacket was open, despite the slight chill in the air, since he knew once he was in the cockpit the warmth of his body would be enough. The Piper Archer was parked in the first tie-down spot west of the taxiway. As he approached the airplane he looked at the wings and then the tail, searching for any sign of irregularity – a wing down, an uneven liney – any asymmetry in the otherwise clean, straight lines of leading edges, dihedrals, and wing cords. Three tie down ropes were in place. The “Remove Before Flight” ribbon fluttered beneath the well-worn cowl plugs.
He walked slowly around the airplane, coming to a stop at the right wing root, and placed his flight bag on the ground. He stepped up, unlocked both door latches, and entered the cockpit, resting one knee on the right front seat. A faint, stale smell of aviation gasoline permeated the seat fabric. The bungee cord securing the control yokes was in place. He quickly unfastened it and slipped it into the pocket behind the right seat. Next, he checked the Hobbs meter and scrawled the time on the tach board he had brought with him from the clubhouse. A quick glance at the instruments, noting that the radio avionics switch was in the off position, was all he needed before he flipped on the master switch. The gyros, needles, and the low voltage light all came to life.
The fuel tanks each showed three-quarters full. He rolled the stabilator trim wheel until the mark lined up for normal takeoff position. He reached down between the seats and slowly pulled up on the flap handle, waiting to hear each successive click as the flaps extended. With a quick look around, he pressed the master switch back to the “off” position and exited the airplane. Preflighting an airplane had become second nature to him. He knew what to look for; he knew where to look. He knew what the airplane felt like; he knew what it smelled like. And he knew, after walking around one last time and performing all of the checks he knew so well, that the airplane was ready to fly.
He adjusted the seat and buckled himself in. The two prongs of the cord attached to his headset slipped easily into place on the lower left corner of the instrument panel. The headset, with its familiar green ear cups, was balanced on top of the panel just to the left the compass. His movements now became slow and deliberate as he scanned the “Starting Engine” checklist. A couple of shots from the primer. Throttle pumped three times and opened just a scootch. Master switch on. Electric fuel pump on. Mixture to full rich. Rotating beacon on. Confirm that no one is around the airplane. Open the storm window.
The engine turned over slowly at first, so slowly he thought he could almost count the spinning prop blades. As he cranked, he pumped the throttle twice. The engine caught. He knew it would catch, expected it to catch. The engine vibration was steady, comfortable. He settled into the left seat, rocked slightly, and scanned the instruments. R-O-R-F-LD. Rpm one thousand. Oil pressure in the green. Radio avionics switch on. Flaps up. Lights. Directional gyro set. Brakes released, throttle forward, slowly the airplane began to taxi across the matted grass toward the single paved runway.
“Westosha Traffic, Archer 2241 PAPA back-taxiing Runway 21, Westosha.”
Turning to the right, the Archer bumped onto the hard surface of the runway and began tracking the faded white centerline. After the run-up, he was ready to go. He looked down the strip, making sure it was clear, and then once more looked at the sky, verifying that no one was on short final or had sneaked into the traffic pattern unannounced.
“Westosha Traffic, Archer 2241 PAPA departing Runway 21, Westosha. Staying in the pattern.”
Glancing again at the instruments, he confirmed he was ready to go. Full aileron deflection into the wind. Smoothly to full throttle. Track the runway centerline. Right rudder. Roll out the aileron slowly. Good rpm. Good oil pressure. Fifty-nine knots. Rotate.
He pulled back on the yoke and the Archer lifted easily into the air. Tracking the runway heading, the ground slipped away beneath him. Flagpole and clubhouse passed under the left wing. Rpm good. Oil pressure good. Wings level. Heading is two one zero degrees.
“Westosha Traffic, Archer 2241 PAPA departing Runway 21, Westosha. Staying in the pattern for a touch-and-go.”
At one thousand three hundred feet, he started his left turn, using aileron and rudder to bank the airplane into the first leg of the rectangular pattern. The low clouds had started to move in. Sticky puffs of cotton, some smudged and dirty, as if they had been dragged along a garage floor, floated in clumps or were stretched thin by the wind just overhead. TPA was one thousand five hundred feet. The clouds would easily be a few hundred feet higher. But still close enough to see them - really see them - in a way he never could see them when he was standing on the ground. Close enough, at times, that he thought he could almost reach out and touch them. See them stream through his fingers. Feel the cold, damp chill. Know what it was like to be in a place where, as a small boy, he thought only angels could know.
As he reached one thousand five hundred feet he throttled back and began his turn downwind, pointing the nose of the airplane to a heading of zero three zero degrees.
“Westosha Traffic, Archer 41 POP entering left downwind for Runway 21, Westosha.”
He crabbed slightly to compensate for the light crosswind. The sun was setting. Its fading light continued to backlight the approaching clouds stretched across the horizon. The area surrounding the airstrip, cast in its patchwork quilt of fall browns and golds, spanned out beneath him, and the flat black ribbon of runway, intersected by his left wing tip, was neatly parallel to his path of flight. The twin lakes to the west shimmered in the remnants of the late afternoon light. B-G-U-M-P-C. Boost on. Gas on fullest tank. Undercarriage down. Mixture full rich. Prop. Carb heat. He touched each lever or noted each item as he went through his short checklist.
He looked first at the runway, then the tie-down area, looking to see if there was other traffic he would need to locate. The clubhouse was at the southwestern end of the runway, with a row of T-hangars running alongside to just before the end. The T-hangars had red and white striped roofs. Somebody had thought that this color scheme would improve visibility. It did, but was really only of use during the summer months, when the dark green of the grass made the small structures stand out at a distance of a few miles. Looking straight ahead again, he adjusted the pitch attitude slightly, inched the throttle back to achieve 2100 rpm, and confirmed the altitude of one thousand five hundred feet. No traffic on the ground. No traffic in the pattern. The airplane was now almost opposite the spot on the runway where the man intended the airplane to touch down.
He throttled back to 1500 rpm and adjusted the nose of the aircraft to a point just above the horizon that he knew would give him best glide pitch attitude and airspeed. This was the part he liked best. With the engine almost at idle, the Archer was gliding gracefully back to earth. With best glide pitch attitude, the airspeed started to fall. As the needle passed into the white arc of the airspeed indicator, the man reached for the flap handle.
He pulled it up, stopping at the first audible detent in the mechanism – one notch. Flaps down, nose down. The man adjusted the pitch attitude slightly to maintain seventy-five knots of indicated airspeed. The end of the runway had passed under the left wingtip of the Archer and the distance between them was now increasing. Looking first forward, then at the airspeed, the man looked several times over his left shoulder at the runway. He then scanned forward again, extending himself slightly to see any traffic which may have been approaching from the north. When the angle between the intended touchdown point and the position of the Archer appeared to be about forty-five degrees, he banked the airplane to the left.
“Westosha Traffic, Archer 41 POP turning left base for Runway 21, Westosha.”
He gently rolled the airplane out of the turn with the directional gyro indicating three zero zero degrees. The sun was nestled comfortably between the horizon and clouds now. The sky to the west had been painted in soft pastels by a master’s brush. Airspeed seventy-five knots. Key position.
Distance looks good. Altitude looks good. Add one notch of flaps. Flaps down, nose down. The Archer was gliding northwest, descending steadily, predictably, traveling a line perpendicular to the runway, between one-half and three-quarters mile away. The man looked ahead, checked his airspeed, looked to his right, and then looked down the left wing, locating the runway threshold.
He didn’t know how many times he had landed an airplane. You could have asked to see his logbooks. The ratings, the aircraft, the trips, the significant events were all recorded there. “An equal number of take-offs and landings,” he would have said dryly to the person posing such a question. You might as well have asked him how many times he had cut the grass in the tie-down area or how many gallons of gasoline he had pumped into the wing tanks of the club airplanes when he was a teenager.
After a while, the number of hours no longer had any real meaning. It wasn’t the number that was important anyway. It was the experience. For him, flying an airplane, landing an airplane, was an experience like no other. It wasn’t like work, or sports, or trying to get along with people he didn’t really care for. It was planning, and experience, and using his head to manage. Almost everything about his flying depended on him. He made the decisions; he complied with the rules; he anticipated, and acted, and reacted. It was satisfying and challenging, and just plain fun, in so many ways that life’s other endeavors, both small and large, were not – and could never be. Looking to his right, then swiveling his head left, the man checked for traffic again. No traffic. No radio chatter.
“Westosha Traffic, Archer 41 POP turning final for Runway 21, Westosha. Touch-and-go.”
As the man keyed the microphone, he turned the yoke to the left and touched the left rudder pedal, causing the Archer to enter a gentle bank. He held the turn until the white spinner of the propeller lined up just off center of the extended centerline of the runway, crabbing slightly for the crosswind. The aircraft was now on a glide path the center of which would bring the Archer straight down to the middle of the runway threshold. From this position the world always looked beautiful. The runway numbers and markings, painted white against the darker background of the asphalt, stood out against the pavement, occupying a spot approximately one-half the way down the windshield in front of him. “Just keep the numbers there and watch them grow larger,” his primary instructor used to say. If the numbers started moving up, he knew he was falling below the intended glide path.
If the numbers started moving down, he knew he was above the intended glide path. The numbers didn’t move. They stayed put. The man used the controls judiciously, making small corrections as needed to keep the numbers centered. Airspeed seventy knots. Descending at about four hundred feet per minute. Flap handle. Add the last notch of flaps. Flaps down, nose down.
The runway threshold for 21 always looked a little imposing for newcomers. It wasn’t what every pilot was used to. The runway itself was fine, not as long or wide as some, with two thousand eight hundred fifty feet in length and a thirty-eight foot width. At the threshold of 21 was a dropoff of some thirty or forty feet, opening into a shallow valley wedged between the surrounding farm fields. You wouldn’t want to be short coming in at this end.
The man thought back to that early evening when he was returning from his first check ride. He had earned his private license that late November afternoon, and flew back to Westosha in the gathering darkness. He called about five miles out. Mel was still in the clubhouse finishing the last of the day’s coffee. “I’ll put the lights on for you,” he said. As the man thought back to that day, he smiled to himself. For a moment, he was once again on that short final. The air was still that night, and the twin rows of runway lights sparkled invitingly before him as he gently glided earthward. He would always remember that landing in the dying light at the end of that day.
The Archer’s airspeed was now at sixty-six knots. Small control inputs, pitch for airspeed, power for altitude, kept the light airplane on its intended course. From this point, the Archer could glide in on its own. The man knew he had the runway made. He throttled the engine back to idle. He pitched the nose up slightly and the airspeed hovered at about sixty knots. The runway numbers flashed under the wings. He applied slight back pressure to the yoke, causing the nose to move gently upward, and leveled the airplane about fifteen to twenty feet above the runway. As the man held this attitude, keeping the wings level and the nose tracking above the runway centerline, the aircraft’s speed began to bleed off.
The man now looked down the left side of the engine cowling to a moving spot about two hundred feet out and equidistant between the runway centerline and the edge of the runway. As he focused on this distant spot, he began to sense the deceleration of the aircraft and continued to apply slight back pressure to the yoke. The Archer continued to slow and settle.
Each moment brought the minute, familiar sensations of pitch, bank, and yaw as the aircraft passed over the asphalt. Track the centerline. Bank a little right. Left rudder pedal. Back pressure. Track the centerline. Bank a little left. The Archer’s mains were barely above the surface. Airspeed continuing to decelerate. Pull the yoke back. Slowly. Slowly. Back…Back…Back. The rubber tires chirped lightly as they contacted the abrasive surface. Hold the nose wheel off. Off. Now, let it down gently. Gently. On the runway centerline. Full aileron deflection into the wind. Flaps up. Smoothly to full power. Adjust the ailerons. Right rudder. Track the runway centerline. 2700 rpm. Fifty-nine knots. Rotate.
“Westosha Traffic, Archer 2241 PAPA, departing Runway 21, Westosha, staying in the pattern.”
The man didn’t need to think about the just completed landing, although he felt pleased. Pleased to be flying. He would think more about it later. Now a few small drops of rain were spattering on the windshield, smearing the fall colors and the scenery below. He flew the rectangular pattern twice more that afternoon. Each time he flew it, he thought about the small corrections that he would need to make, the perceptive adjustments that would result in the Archer being at the right airspeed at the right position in the pattern at the right time. And he would think of other memories and special times in his life. He knew he was happiest when he was flying.
The Archer exited the runway and pulled on to a narrow concrete taxiway. The man stepped hard on the right rudder pedal, resulting in a sharp turn into the first open tie-down spot. He reached over and retarded the throttle while in the turn. The aircraft rolled slowly forward, engine at idle, propeller whistling softly, until the tie down ropes, lying coiled in the grass, disappeared under the wings. The man touched the toe brakes, easing the pressure at the last instant, bringing the Archer to a smooth stop. He methodically went through the “Stopping Engine” checklist, pulling the mixture and waiting for the shudder of the engine as it gasped for fuel before going silent. The only sounds remaining were the gyros spinning down and the light rain skidding intermittently on the aluminum skin of the aircraft. The lingering smell of the warm engine mixed with the scent of the man’s own perspiration in the cramped cockpit.
The man unbuckled his safety belt. As he stepped down from the wing he looked up into the gray and mottled sky. The small, cold droplets softly pelted his face. He stood next to the Archer for a moment. He did not have to say it. He did not even have to think it. He knew in his heart he loved to fly.
He knew he always would.
©1996 Dean R. Zakos. All rights reserved. Images by the author. Used with permission.