Love and Airplanes

This is a very belated Valentine’s Day post.

A long-term relationship with aviation is a lot like a romantic involvement with another person. There’s attraction, a first date, and excitement.

Some flying relationships don’t last forever. Priorities change, the passion dies, and the inevitable drain of financial and emotional resources doesn’t deliver the same excitement anymore.

For a few lucky people, though, the love of flying develops like a steady marriage. Even though it’s the hundredth, or thousandth, time seeing the rolling shadowy forest canopy from above, or the moonlight sparkle on a black diamond ocean, or a blazing sunset aloft turn the whole world into glowing liquid gold, there are subtle differences each time and no day is ever quite the same as any other.

There are still storms, delays, breakdowns, and even emergencies bringing moments of sheer terror. But the happy marriage is based on understanding instead of raw attraction, commitment instead of bare promise.

Heading home into one sunset, high in smooth cold air, with baby finally sleeping peacefully in the back seat and wife looking contemplatively over the world almost a mile below, it would be easy to take the moment for granted. I could think it is no longer beautiful because the novelty has worn off and it’s not all that unusual for me to be taking my wife and daughter for an airplane ride. But in so doing I would miss the greater truth.

Instead of taking it for granted I savor it now so I can have it again later, in my memory, when the bills and the office can’t be avoided and the winds and rains keep me away from this peaceful place in the sky.

I am lucky to have this peculiar set of skills, which lets me see the sun sink in molten gold and spin the whole world around me on the tip of a banked wing. I’m luckier, still, to have a wife whose love is of understanding, and whose only caveat to my flying is that I take her with me.

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The Battle of Chesapeake Light

“Three minutes,” I said over the ICS to my crew chief as I pushed the nose of our helicopter over, accelerating low across the ocean for the final assault on our objective.

The bad guys had been using the Chesapeake Light platform as a transfer station for smuggling weapons and personnel between Cape Henry and the Eastern Shore. I was leading a flight of two MH-60S helicopters to insert a team of Navy SEALs and take down the platform.

I pulled the trigger on my cyclic control stick to talk to my wingman over the radio. “Two from one,” a short pause. “Okay, winds are a little off to the right. So we’ll go up the left side and set up sniper cover. You come up on the right and drop your guys. You slide out, and we’ll drop ours.”

“Roger.”

The platform grew bigger and bigger in the windscreen. My copilot, in the right seat, was now flying us toward the left side. When we were close, he popped the nose up into a quick-stop, settling in a high hover so the sniper in our right door would have a clear shot at the deck.

“Platform is clear,” he said over the radio. A second later, I saw my wingman’s helicopter slide up the other side, nose up as it slowed down and settled in low over the platform to insert the SEALs via ropes. This took only seconds, and then they were coming up and away from the platform to cover us while we made our drop. So far, so good.

Then, trouble. “Rambo,” my crew chief said, using a pre-briefed codeword to indicate he’d spotted an armed crew member on the platform.

I froze. I was mission lead. What should we do?

More trouble: We were getting shot at. I was still frozen. More trouble: Our sniper was hit. We had to get out of there, but my wingman had crept slowly forward, and was now hovering almost directly in front of us.

“Sir, permission to open fire,” my right-side machine gunner asked over the ICS. We could shoot back. Duh, Dave.

“Open fire!” I said.

“No!” said my copilot, who was actually the aircraft commander, and my instructor on this training flight. Firing the imaginary machine gun with half a team of imaginary SEALs on the deck was a bad idea. We would have been shot down because of my slow response, anyway.

Both helicopters flew away to reset and try the scenario again, this time with the other helicopter in the lead. Even after four practice assaults on Chesapeake Light, we’d both done poorly enough that our instructors determined we’d need to do the entire flight again before it could be signed off. It was a huge letdown. We’d spent hours and hours over several days studying and preparing, and we’d have to do it all over again, except much better.

For my infant daughter, learning to pull herself up to standing was only half the puzzle. She’d stay happily on her feet, until she lost her balance or got tired. Then she’d fall, usually hitting her head on the way down. If she stopped trying to stand, she’d never hit her head again. She also would never learn to walk. Instead of quitting, she learned to put herself back down again without injury. Once the fear of falling was gone, there was no longer any reason not to stand up.

Fear of failure must be the main reason why people don’t try things they would otherwise want to do. Living with failure is easier than living without trying. Just ask my daughter: Falling down means you stood up in the first place.

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The Day I Went Pro

I didn’t become a professional pilot the first time I got paid to fly. It wasn’t even when I got my shiny gold wings.

It was a sunny September morning at NAS Whiting Field in Milton, Florida. I had just passed my instrument checkride in a TH-57C helicopter, the Navy’s orange-and-white version of the ubiquitous Bell Jet Ranger. My coveted “wings of gold” were basically in the bag, and in less than two weeks I’d officially have the right to wear them on my uniform. I’d been going through intensive flight training for a year and a half, and today I was getting the keys to my own turbine-powered helicopter for a few hours.

Even though the weather was beautiful, I filed an IFR flight plan to New Orleans Lakefront Airport. The FBO there would let us take a car (Jaguar!) out to lunch while our helicopter was refueled for the trip home.

In the other pilot’s seat there would be no instructor. Instead, I had a “winger,” a recently-graduated student awaiting transfer, to tune the radios and act as a safety observer.

IFR clearance copied, radios and navaids tuned. Cleared for takeoff. Hover-taxi, five feet in the air, across the yellow hold-short lines, and swing the tail around, nose into the wind. We skidded slightly sideways to the right to catch the centerline. It was against the rules to slide through a turn like that. I didn’t care. It was just a little bit, and I was in charge today. No instructor around to complain about it. We were off to New Orleans! Cajun food and a Jaguar were waiting for me!

I can’t remember any of the small talk I had with my winger copilot that day. But what he said as I slopped onto the runway was like a sledgehammer to the head of my pilot-ego.

“Dude, don’t slide.”

It bothered me all the way to New Orleans. It wasn’t even a graded flight, and I felt like I’d blown it. The rest of the mission went perfectly, food and sporty luxury car included. Even so, nothing I could do would remove the stain of my carelessness from my memory.

Finally, on the way home, I understood the problem. It wasn’t wrong because I’d done badly, but because I could have done better. I’d violated one of the most basic rules of flying: Instead of flying the aircraft, I’d let the aircraft fly me.

I got sloppy because I didn’t think anyone would notice. I realized my own knowing I’d flown well was more important than an instructor saying so on a grade card.

I became a professional pilot when I stopped flying for the guy next to me and started flying for myself.

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