In Part 1 of “Lessons Learned,” Patty offered advice learned from her initial flight training in Alaska, where challenging conditions included bitter-cold temperatures, fast-changing weather and harsh terrain. This month, she shares her experiences flying in “the Outside,” where she was faced with a different set of challenges.
After earning my private pilot’s license in Alaska in 1980, I wasn’t sure what was next. I loved to fly. It was in my blood and it made me feel alive. But I didn’t dream of being an airline or air taxi pilot, and I needed a mission beyond private pilot. So I signed up with the Alaska Student Loan program, and three years later I had my commercial, instrument, ASEL, ASES, AMEL, CFII and a good start on a helicopter rating. I instructed in taildraggers, but I knew there was something else in store for me in aviation, and I wasn’t going to be content until I found it.
Aerobatics had always been on my mind. During a trip to the Lower 48, I went to see an air show and a competition. It was the first time I had ever seen aerobatics performed. As I watched the pilots interact and saw what they could do in the sky, I realized exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up—an aerobatic pilot! That moment was the start of a journey that has taught me discipline, focus, perseverance and the ability to pursue the purest expression of flight.
I followed up this epiphany with lessons and I bought a gorgeous Super Decathlon. In 1984 I flew my first air show in Gulkana, Ala. I also worked on competition maneuvers. Precision aerobatics is about seeking perfection—the perfect vertical line, the perfect hammerhead, the perfect loop, all within an aerobatic “box” (a 1,000-meter cube of airspace). Sight gauges or lines on the canopy help set your wing at a 90- or 45-degree angle to the horizon.
But even with so much aviation in its bones, Alaska wasn’t a place to pursue competition aerobatics. I decided to fly to Fond du Lac, Wis., about 2,400 nm direct on a heading of 087, or much longer if you choose the safer route following the Alcan Highway. There was an upcoming aerobatic competition that I wanted to take part in. Studying my charts, I knew how long a journey it was, but also knew that every long cross-country is just a series of short ones.
The day before my trip, a friend and I flew a few loops and rolls. Back at Merrill Field, my friend noticed a big wad of keys was missing from his pocket. We searched the Decathlon for hours, inspecting everything we could see. We found a small tear in the fabric and figured the keys must have slid out. Still, I wondered where they were and wasn’t sure we looked hard enough.
Lesson #1: Trust Your Instincts
Leo Loudenslager once told me to always trust my intuition. I had mentioned to him that I thought I had smelled fuel in my cockpit, but thought I probably didn’t have a fuel leak. He told me if I thought I smelled fuel, then I did have fuel. He was right. I had a leaky tank just above my feet. Always trust your intuition.
The next day I flew east with my sectionals and WAC charts, a VOR for navigation and some survival gear. I had a good set of airmanship tools—I could fly coordinated (keep the ball centered!), I knew how to slip, had some acro experience and the ability to judge Alaska’s radical and fast-moving weather, but I quickly found I had a long way to go on my journey to becoming a well-rounded aviator.
My route took me from Anchorage to Palmer, through Chickaloon Pass (where I almost had to turn around because of low ceilings), to Gulkana up to Chistochina, following rivers to Devil’s Mountain Lodge strip, and over to Northway for fuel and to pick up the Alcan Highway, which would take me all the way to Lethbridge, Alberta. Except for some low ceilings where I was tempted to divert away from the highway, I made good time to my first U.S. fuel and Customs stop, Cut Bank, Mont.
Aerobatic training and cross-country trips taught Patty many valuable lessons, including precision flying, the importance of listening to those with more experience and always leaving yourself an out in deteriorating weather conditions.
Lesson #2: Listen
Someone once told me the definition of a “master” is someone who has been through something before you have. Might sound simple, but why reinvent the wheel? No one could possibly know everything, so ask, listen and learn from those who have gone before you.
Cut Bank Municipal Airport is a favorite fuel stop for Alcan flyers coming from the North. It sits at 3,854 feet MSL and can be pretty hot in midsummer. After getting fuel and clearing customs, I drained fuel from the wings of my airplane. I was a little alarmed—why did the fuel smell so strong? I convinced myself it was because of the heat and Alaska is usually relatively cool. Fuel just didn’t have as strong a smell in cooler weather. I tried to crank the engine, but it was harder than usual to start. A wise older gentleman offered advice. He told me the engine was flooded and patiently explained high-altitude starting procedures. I hadn’t leaned the mixture for the higher elevation.
Lesson #3: Pay Attention
Watch out! Density altitude has been written about in every textbook on flying and discussed at every safety briefing for years. Yet why do some pilots ignore the reality that air gets thinner with heat, humidity and altitude? Density altitude is real; take it seriously.
Lesson learned, and I continued east. Section lines, wheat farms, silos and the way people lived were fascinating to me, and I wanted to fly at lower altitudes so I could see it better. Plus, I was used to cruising at about 800 feet AGL in Alaska. But wow, all those power lines and towers—they were something I hadn’t seen in Alaska! And so I kept a really close eye on my sectional chart for obstructions.
Even though I knew it and could teach it, controlled airspace was still mostly theory to me. At some point, I ended up underneath the approach
path to a military runway. I was pretty clueless until a big jolt woke me up. I caught a glimpse of a military jet crossing over and very close to me. Yikes! Another lesson learned. I now knew what all the fuss about airspace and wake turbulence—my G meter showed 5 G’s—was.
Lesson #4: Confess
We all make mistakes and the airspace maze can be confusing, even to a pro. In the early days, when flying a Pitts on cross-country flights, sans radio or compass, I made other mistakes in the traffic pattern and, on occasion, was asked to “call the Tower after landing.” If you’ve made a simple, unintentional mistake at an airport, be humble and apologetic. The Tower personnel generally will be understanding.
My third overnight took me into Minnesota, and I thought Hibbing looked like a good place to stop, if for no other reason than that Bob Dylan was from there. I decided to stick around town and get in some acro practice. On one flight, I rolled inverted and back upright a couple of times, and everything felt good until another half roll to inverted when the controls felt weird. What the...?
I was able to roll upright and found the ailerons to be free, but the elevator was completely jammed. Luckily, the Decathlon has very good trim authority, and I had practiced and taught people to fly with trim alone so I was able to safely land back at Hibbing using trim only as an elevator. Back on the ground, I got out my pocket knife and took off a control panel in the tail. Voilà! I found a big set of keys tangled up in the elevator controls, where they had been hiding for four days.
Lesson #5: Practice
Learn to fly your airplane with only trim. Aerobatic airplanes don’t have bulkheads to protect the flight controls from loose, foreign objects (FOD), so the risk is much greater for something to get stuck in the tail. (The Extra and many other aerobatic airplanes have a small clear plastic window at the bottom rear part of the fuselage—now you know why.) The incident with the keys getting stuck around the Decathlon’s elevator controls was the first of several control jams I’ve had. I hope it doesn’t happen to you, but are you prepared to fly the aircraft by trim only?
Pressing on across Minnesota, the weather turned sour. The ceiling was low, though that didn’t bother me. I had flown under a lot of low ceilings even when it was raining, but in Alaska, the visibility was usually unlimited. In this case, the ceiling was low and ragged with poor visibility and it was getting worse. I really wanted to get to the competition, but my get-there-itis was cured after I started looking up at towers. I turned back and landed on a tiny grass strip that had no services. A farmer gave me a ride into town and I waited for two days for the ceilings to pick up. I had read about these slow-moving Midwest fronts and now I was stuck in one. I barely made the contest—it had taken me longer to get from Minnesota to Wisconsin than it did from Alaska to Minnesota.
Lesson #6: Have An Out
I’ve found myself down low scud-running and thought of Clint McHenry telling me to “look for the bright spots in the horizon.” I’m not recommending that pilots fly VFR in bad weather or ever do anything outside their comfort level, but if you do find yourself in a tight spot, always consider the options and always leave yourself an out.
Once in Fond du Lac, it was amazing to be surrounded by acro pilots from all over the country. I flew my first contest in the Intermediate category and was proud to tell everyone I didn’t come in last! It was an exhilarating, exciting and nerve-wracking experience. I questioned why I had put myself through such an arduous and embarrassing experience, but at the same time I couldn’t wait to do it again.
At the end of the contest, pilots were asked if they wanted to volunteer to fly an air show for the locals. My hand flew up. I performed a short routine, landed and taxied back to the fuel pumps with a quartering tailwind, no smoke oil in my smoke tank and a light load of fuel. I didn’t have the stick back all the way, and when I tapped the brakes to stop, the airplane nosed over onto its prop—in front of the waving crowd. Holy cow! I refused to get out of the airplane and take my bows, but wonderful Herb Cox, longtime member of the IAC, came over and said, “Don’t worry. The crowd will think it’s part of the show. Just get out and wave.” So I did, and I sucked it up.
Lesson #7: Compartmentalize
One great thing about aviation is that every flight is going to be different and is a new experience. My prop strike at Fond du Lac was probably caused by the many distractions I had: It was my first air show, there was a big crowd, etc. It takes compartmentalization—the ability to shut out distractions and pay attention to the task at hand—to be a pro. It’s not always easy, but we all have the capability to compartmentalize and can get better at it with practice.
If the price of learning to be a well-rounded pilot is humility, then it’s worth the price of admission. I had obviously found something worth putting my soul into, and I knew that these experiences would make me a better pilot. Indeed, aviation provides the full spectrum of the human experience: freedom, challenge, speed, humiliation, insight, inspiration, satisfaction and wonder!
Lesson #8: And By The Way…
Keep the airplane coordinated and the ball in the center, especially when low and slow!
Patty Wagstaff is a six-time member of the U.S. Aerobatic team and a three-time U.S. National Aerobatic champion. She flies for the California Department of Forestry during the summer months.