My Flying Career
My uncle, Second Lieutenant Kenneth Meeks, the family hero, had been a navigator-bombardier when his B24 was shot down during the Second World War. My father and another uncle had flown as well. I have always wanted to be a pilot.
As soon as I could pay for flying lessons, I started. I flew at an airport without a control tower or radio system of any kind, two runways, one grass, one asphalt, and no taxi ways.
I learned in a J-3 Piper Cub – the classic yellow Piper Cub. It had 65 horsepower, a wooden propeller and flew so slowly that on a hot day, we would just leave the door open. It had no electrical system, just two magnetos to power the spark plugs. The fuel tank set in front of the cockpit and behind the engine. The fuel gauge was a bent wire that passed through the fuel cap and was attached to a cork float that would go down as the engine consumed fuel. The springs in the landing gear were giant rubber bands called bungees. It had no flaps, no mixture control, no cabin heat, but it did have carburetor heat.
I soloed after 6:25 instruction. The national average is about 16. It varies from year to year. The reason I soloed so quickly – faster than anyone I have met – was because of my interest in and enthusiasm for flying. When my instructor, Paul, and I flew together for the first time, he said, “Turn that way.” and pointed. So I made a constant airspeed coordinated turn. He turned around (in a J-3 the instructor sits in the front seat, the student in the back) and said, “How many hours do you have?” I didn’t have any, but I had fantasized, studied and visualized myself in the cockpit so much and so often that I knew exactly what to do.
The national average time to solo is as high as it is because most people nowadays learn to fly in much more complex airplanes at more complicated airports. The more there is to learn, the longer it takes to learn it all. Nevertheless, I was overconfident and paid the price. – I needed 65 hours to get my private license. The legal minimum is 40 and the national average hovers around 65. I also failed my written test first try.
With an appropriately red face, I started work on my instrument rating. That one I got in 40:20 of instrument time. The legal minimum is 40 hours. That led to a now humorous dialogue on my oral examination that pilots must take before flying on their check ride. (The term ‘check ride’ is aviation slang for what the FAA lawyers call ‘practical test.’)
My examiner refused to fly with me because he thought that pilots needed 40 hours of instrument flying after they had earned their private pilot licenses. Since I was leaving the next day on a flight to the East Coast to go on active duty in the Army for a minimum of two years, I was desperate to take my check ride. So I demanded to see where the regulations made such a requirement. They didn’t. So he said that he had received a letter from the local district FAA office stating that was their policy. By then I was a bit (How should I say it?) hot under the collar. I asserted that a district office did not have the authority to issue FAA regulations. But I would still like to see that letter. Needless to say, he could not produce it.
This is not a good way to start a test, by getting into an argument with your examiner. But he relented and we started the oral examination. I got all the answers correct so he had me plan a flight that we were to fly.
After we took off he had me put my hood on. (A hood is a device that limits the pilots vision to just the instruments and not out of the cockpit.) We turned northbound and headed to our destination, the Sacramento Executive Airport. As we approached the airport, I was supposed to intercept a radio beacon (called the ILS localizer) that would guide us to the end of the active runway. My radio receiver could not receive that signal. I was able to receive the signal that give me glide path information but not the one that would tell me if I was either right or left of the runway’s center line. So I asked the examiner if I could use another radio beacon, called the outer compass locator, to home in on the airport. He approved.
Sorry if all of this sounds pretty complicated, but, in a nutshell, I was making up an instrument approach procedure on the fly (so to speak). Flying to the outer compass locator then past it to the runway requires much more skill than using the ILS localizer to fly to the runway. I am sure that the examiner knew that because later he said, “Anyone who can fly instruments with these radios is certainly an instrument pilot.” High praise. Our earlier spat was forgotten and I got my instrument rating added to my private license.
A friend whose home was Sarasota, Florida had just purchased an airplane but was not an instrument pilot, had asked me to fly with him to Florida, then we would go up to Virginia where I would enter the Army. He would fly back to California alone.
That trip turned out to be a real world repeat of my instrument check ride. His radios said on the outside that it received 360 channels, but in fact it only received 180. We were flying on instruments in the clouds and were supposed to fly to a particular radio transmitter. We couldn’t receive it. I was flying the airplane at that time, so I asked him to search for an ordinary AM station on the ground near the aviation radio we were to fly toward. He did. Using our automatic direction finder, we used that station much as I had used the outer compass locator on my check ride. We had to listen to country western music whether we liked it or not.
After three years in the Army, I returned to flying. Flying is certainly a perishable skill. I was truly rusty.
I went on to get my commercial pilot license, then multi-engine rating. I became an instructor, instrument instructor, and multi-engine instructor.
My instructor check ride had its humorous moment. After the test was over and I was landing at the Oakland Airport (the Oakland in California across the bay from San Francisco) as I was letting the nose wheel on to the runway, we heard a rhythmic thumping. My examiner said in a very worried voice, “What’s that!?”
I laughed to myself. This told me that he was not a very precise pilot if he did not immediately recognize the sound. It was the nose wheel running over the reflectors in the center of the runway. These reflectors are about six inches wide, so the plane has to be very close to exactly centered for that to happen.
To show the benefit of being apprehensive, I was really nervous about taking the written exam for the instrument instructor. It had the reputation of being the most difficult of them all. That was the only one that I scored a 100% on.
I made four trips down the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, always on the Sea of Cortez side. Flew through a crevasse in a glacier in Alaska – more correctly I was the passenger when the pilot flew through the crevasse. Made several trips into the High Sierra. Bought an old twin engine Cessna that I couldn’t afford. Helped a friend build an airplane and test flew it. Visited an abandoned gold mine in the Nevada desert that was supposed to be viable with the increased price of gold. It wasn’t.
In total, I flew 2,326.5 hours, made 5,149 landings, and gave 1,231.9 hours of flight instruction. Two of my students still work as professional pilots.
Some where along the line, I was roped in to being the president of a ten airplane flying club. Certainly a place where egos need to be stroked if any cooperation can be had.
My successes as a pilot and flight instructor led me to write Flying Secrets and to develop the online course found at http://PilotsOnlineAcadmeny.com.