Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Summer Of Opportunity

Making the move into competition aerobatics

I followed railroads, read the names of towns on water towers and on highway signs, and learned that, in some parts of the midwest, there are still arrows painted on the roofs of barns pointing the way and distance to the nearest airport, remnants of days of transporting the mail by plane.

And oh, how I fell in love with something else—those beautiful square-mile section lines and angles that point in the cardinal headings and dominate so much of the landscape.

The Pitts had very limited fuel—about 1.5 hours endurance—so there were times I had to land at a controlled airport. I'd rock my wings at 1,500 feet over the tower and wait for the green light. After landing, I called the tower and they were always helpful and nice, but sometimes would ask to "speak to the pilot." When I told them I was the pilot, often there was stunned silence.

I ran into that a lot. A typical question when I'd hop out of my single-seat Pitts was, "Did you fly that thing?" or, "Where's the pilot?" I like to think things have changed, but sometimes I'm not so sure. Still, I really miss those days of flying freedom when I had a taste of being a real barnstormer. Today, it's difficult but still possible to fly coast-to-coast without talking to anyone.

After the Borrego contest in mid-October, it was time for me to deliver the Pitts to its home in western Minnesota before I headed home to Alaska. I was comfortable flying in winter conditions, but as I flew north into colder weather, there was snow on the ground and I froze in that little cockpit. The five-point harness that held me in tight for aerobatics made it impossible to move and get any blood circulating. The air vents blasted me with cold air and, of course, there was no heater or insulation.

At one point, I had to open the canopy in flight to scrape off the frost. By the time I got close to Granite Falls, my hands were so cold I had to keep switching them back and forth in my pocket so that when I landed, my "stick" hand would still be operational. It was brutal, but somehow worth the pain to be able to keep flying aerobatics. I dropped the airplane off at a strip of frozen grass, knowing I would return in the spring.

I learned a lot that summer. I wasn't sure where the journey would take me, but opportunities come along and it's important to take them, even if you're overwhelmed by the unknown. A long cross-country flight is just a series of short ones, and taking things one step at a time makes it easier to find your way.

Often, it's the detours along the way that make the journey more interesting. I had a long way to go, but this new sense of being on a "mission" was exciting. Sometimes you don't see the forest for the trees, but the trick is to be able to see both at the same time—and that's the secret to becoming a master. And, that's what I was looking for.


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