Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Taking Command Of Your First Plane

The Bellanca that could not be resisted

It started at Disneyland, holding my daughter Elena’s hand, when my cell phone rang. My wife, holding our four-month-old daughter Chiara, was standing close by. “This is Harvey Gilman from Harvey Gilman Aircraft in Middletown, OH. I was calling to see if you’re still interested in buying my Bellanca.”

Looking at my youngest, there could clearly be a better moment to buy an airplane. But I had been looking for five years at handmade Bellancas, and from the pictures I’d been sent, this was the one. I would have to try and get it out of my system. A week later I was in Ohio, hoping to find any fault in the low-time Super Viking with a factory-remanufactured engine—newly recovered and restored by Tom Witmer, one of the best-known Bellanca experts in the country. I was in serious trouble.

The other problem deserving mention: I was a 250-hour instrument-rated pilot who hadn’t flown in five years and had no high-performance or retractable experience. I was clearly unprepared for a 300-hp Viking. How many hours of instruction stood between where I was now and being comfortable enough to solo? I had to admit it…I was a bit over my head. And just a little scared. But after I saw it, sat in it, smelled it and went on a demo flight, nothing could keep me from signing that sheet of paper.

It was the dead of winter. Several months passed as I schemed how to get the plane home to Southern California. My first lucky break was meeting Cody Williams, a CFII with more than 5,000 hours in Vikings. On a Saturday morning in February with a punishing windchill of -37 degrees F, I advanced the throttle for the first time. The sound, the sensation, the exhilaration of controlling all that power behind the prop of my own ship was indescribable. Two fingers on the yoke, trying my best not to over-control, it leapt into the morning sky.

As we flew just to the north of Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 4,500 feet, I saw another airport. “So, if we lost the engine right now,” I asked, “where would you go?” Looking around, Cody pointed to one of the many fields alongside the nose. Pointing smugly to the airport, I countered, “What about that?” Cody shook his head: “Oh you’d never make that in a Viking. If you lose your engine at this altitude, you’re looking for a place right down there.”

Hours later at our first fuel stop I received my second lesson, when the lineman in Millard, Neb., looked up from his computer, paused deliberately and said, “Seventy-four gallons.” He had read the placards and knew the Viking held 75. It took a moment for that statement and its significance to completely register in my mind. I turned pale white. We should have still had 45 minutes! An unfamiliar airplane, the first flight, strong headwinds: all of the classic “inexcusables.” I was better than this…or was I? I had to get ahead of this airplane.


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