Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Pilots have the ability to find a way, no matter how great the challenge
Aviation people are pretty resourceful by nature. Look around any small airport, and you'll find evidence of this by the way people tinker with their airplanes in hangars filled with parts. It takes a resourceful person to find their way in aviation, to build an airplane, get their license or make it their career.
Some of the most resourceful pilots I know are bush pilots. Pilots in Alaska know how to scrape ice and preheat an airplane in winter; how to take a jar of engine oil into the cabin with you at night to see if the engine needs preheating in the morning, how to land a Super Cub up the side of a mountain when blinded by a whiteout. Bush pilots in Africa can tell you the best way to transport a doped-up lion or how to filter petrol when fueling from a 55-gallon drum in a sandstorm.
In aerobatic circles, people who do funny things with little experimental airplanes also are quite resourceful. One year, a few of us were practicing in Oklahoma for the U.S. National Aerobatic Championship. It was late September, and I was flying an Extra 230—the first production Extra. Another competitor, whose name I won't reveal in order to protect the guilty, was practicing at a nearby airport also flying a 230. Taking off to practice, his canopy latch came loose. The canopy almost departed the plane and was badly cracked and unfit for use. Devastated, he thought he wasn't going to be able to defend his aerobatic title. He called me and asked if he could fly to Chickasha where I was training to see if my canopy would fit his airplane and, if so, could he borrow it during the contest? Displaying enterprise and courage, my friend craftily trimmed his canopy so it looked like a small motorcycle windshield, and flew from warm weather to very cold weather across one of those autumn Oklahoma cold fronts to see if my canopy would fit. It did, and I let him use it in Texas at the Nationals. Saved the day!
A few years later, I was flying the Extra 260 (now owned by the National Air And Space Museum). The 260 is a beautiful airplane, but was designed strictly as a one-off prototype, constructed of a combination of wood, fabric and composite materials. It led to the popular all-composite Extra 300S and 300L series. I had planned a flight from St. Clair, Mich., direct to Buffalo, N.Y., for an air show. A large stretch of the flight would take me over Ontario, Canada. I had no plans to land in Canada, so I didn't file a flight plan or advise customs. Everything was going fine until the halfway point when I noticed a bolt in my rudder pedal slipping out. What to do? If I continued the flight, there was a good chance I'd have no right rudder on landing—not a good thing in a slick little high-performance taildragger! My only safe option was to land in Canada—sans flight plan. It was risky because Canadian Customs could have thrown me in jail, but I gave them a quick explanation of my predicament, and they looked the other way while I got out my Swiss Army knife and Crescent wrench. Necessity—the mother of resourcefulness.
The early-era kick-the-tires and light-the-fires test pilots are great examples of "finding a way." Arguably, the most classic example of resourcefulness is how Chuck Yeager enlisted his friend, pilot and engineer Jack Ridley, to help him close the canopy of the Bell X-1 for his sound barrier-breaking flight. A few days before the record flight, Yeager was seriously injured in a horse-riding accident and broke two of his ribs. As the story goes, knowing his injury would probably ground him, Yaeger went to a veterinarian for treatment. On the day of the flight, Ridley rigged up a clever device using a broom handle so Yeager could close the hatch. The rest is history.
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