An excerpt from “Flying Alone”…

…Steve sent me out to do the pre-flight inspection while he ate a ham and cheese sub at Rod’s desk. I’d picked it up for him when I made the afternoon liquor store run for Rod. The store was out of Rod’s favorite cigars, but there was plenty of whiskey, and he was now on his way to a smile.

“You mind if I fly left seat tonight?” Steve asked as he approached the plane. “Sometimes I think I’ve forgotten how. Besides, you need to start learning to fly from the right seat when it’s time for your instructor ratings.”

My instructor ratings were a long way off, and at this point in my aviation career—and it had become a career—it didn’t seem I would ever get to that level. My private license was only four days old, and I had a grand total of only sixty-two flight hours. I was counting on Steve to guide me further down the road. He led, and I followed.

“You said you wanted to show me a few things anyway,” I answered and stood aside as he climbed in first. The only entry door was on the right side, so the left-seat pilot needed to climb in first.

I latched my seatbelt but left the door open for air. “You can do the checklist since you’re in the left seat,” I said, holding out the clipboard for him. He took it and promptly stuffed it in the door pocket.

“If you really want to be a pilot, then you learn to fly without a checklist. Just keep it all up here for the day you need it.” He pointed to his head. “Most of the time, it’s all so routine you don’t even have to think about it.”

Wow! This was a different Steve. I was shocked but tried not to show it. Was this the way it really was? I came from a very rule-based background—there were rules, and I followed them. Now, my flight instructor was giving me a new ‘rule’ that was entirely contrary to what I previously understood. In my new world of aviation, though, Steve was the king of flying, and his rules were the rules. Still, I wondered if this was how every pilot did it or if he was just such a skilled pilot that he could get away with it.

“It’s not how you would have learned it in the Navy. This is real world flying,” he said with a touch of arrogance.

He ran his fingers across the circuit breaker panel to feel for any that had popped, and then over to the switches. He turned on the master switch and fuel pump. Five-Two-Five was humming the familiar sounds now. He opened the tiny pilot’s window and yelled, not too clearly, “Clear!” The prop was turning before anyone would have had the chance to run clear. It caught on the first spin, the engine was running, and the microphone was in Steve’s hand. “Ground control, Seven-Two-Five-Two-Five, east ramp, ready to taxi with information Charlie.”

Charlie was the code word for the current airport conditions recorded on the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS). It told us what the wind direction and speed, barometer setting, visibility and runway in use along with other pertinent details. The ATIS information was pre-recorded by the tower controllers and could be heard on its own radio frequency. As the conditions and details changed, the tower controllers changed the recording and the code word, which progressed through the phonetic alphabet. This evening, the weather was stable, so when we returned from our flight, the information would likely only have changed to Delta, if it changed at all.

“Roger, Five-Two-Five, taxi to Runway 34,” the female voice came back. The tower was directly behind us, and all the voices were familiar. This was Laverne, whose voice maintained a monotone at all times.

I looked at him, surprised by how fast he went through the procedures. I almost couldn’t keep up with him. “How did you know the information was Charlie?”

“I got it on the radio in the office before I came out.” Steve released the brake and punched the throttle up to get out of the parking spot. “Ground, Five-Two-Five requesting an intersection takeoff.”

“Roger, Five-Two-Five, taxi to Runway 34 at the intersection.”

Steve flipped the frequency to tower, the controllers who handled takeoff and landing. “Tower, Five-Two-Five ready for takeoff. Right turn out.”

“Five-two-five, cleared for takeoff at the intersection.” It was still Laverne. Apparently, she was alone in the tower tonight manning both ground and tower functions.

The words were barely out of her mouth, and Steve had Five-Two-Five rolling onto the runway and right into the takeoff, popping down two notches of flaps as we hit the runway centerline. With a takeoff at the intersection, roughly one third beyond the start of the runway and flaps down, he was showing off his short-field takeoff technique. The flaps on takeoff added lift to the wings so we would be off the ground more quickly. Left hand on the yoke, right on the throttle, he pulled the plane into the air at precisely the moment it could fly and held it a few feet above the runway in what was called ground effect, making it feel like we were floating as we continued to accelerate to gain enough speed for the climb. If only I could have shown such an efficient short field technique when we were preparing for my flight test. But that took practice in real-life situations, and Steve promised I would get plenty of that.

With the flaps back up to zero degrees, he climbed at just above the stall speed to get the maximum climb angle. Now and then, he pushed the nose down to check for traffic. He was quiet as we flew to the northeast from Beverly. We passed over Hamilton and Ipswich and then on towards Plum Island and the ocean. This was what we called the ‘practice area’, uncontrolled airspace with very little traffic where we could safely practice flight maneuvers. It had become familiar terrain to me during my private license training, and I recognized every feature on the ground between Beverly and the practice area. This time, though, I watched Steve’s own movements rather than the visual references outside the plane. It was the first time I had been in a plane with Steve flying from the left seat, and I couldn’t help but feel awe by his confident movements.

His flying style was distinctive, just as most everything else about him. It all just carried over into the airplane, the car, and the bedroom. Nothing was tentative or appeared unplanned. Control was unmistakable.

We climbed to three thousand feet, the standard altitude for airwork practice, and leveled. He pulled the power back to twenty-three hundred RPM, leaned the fuel mixture and trimmed the aircraft for virtually hands off flight. The air was clear and still, a beautiful evening for flying. We flew up the coast from Plum Island, and I waited for his next move. Eventually, Steve turned east over the water.

“You want to see a roll in one of these things?” he asked.

“You can’t roll a Warrior,” I said in disbelief. Rod and Steve always told me that the Piper low-wing aircraft could do nothing aerobatic. Not even a spin unless you tried really hard, and even then, it was never a full spin.

“You can do anything you want with it—you just have to know the airplane well enough. Watch this.”

He pulled back the power and edged the nose down to gain speed. I tried to make mental note of his moves, but in the next moment, I lost all ability to keep track of them as the plane reached some unknown speed in a nose down attitude, and Steve yanked on the yoke and turned it hard. The right wing dropped violently, and I felt the effects of aileron and rudder action as the blood in my head moved with the roll like a momentary high.

And then it was over. Steve’s hands and feet seemed to have hardly moved, and we leveled at just two hundred feet below the starting altitude.

“Wow!” I laughed out loud. “That was wild!”

Steve had a self-satisfied grin on his face.

“It was over so fast, though. How about once more so I can see how you did it?” I was not scared. No, instead I was in even more awe of his flying skills, and as my admiration grew, so did my own goals. I trusted him.

“Okay. This time to the left,” he agreed. He was definitely enjoying it.

Once again, nose down, speed up, nose back up, power, left wing down… and we rolled to the left with aileron and rudder forces I still did not understand. Steve leveled the wings, facing the ocean. This time I just smiled. Rolling was sexy, flying was sexy, and Steve was sexy…

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