Thursday, June 11, 2009

Light-Sport Chronicles: Ghost Wings

Remembrance of flights past and lessons learned

lscEvery flight has ghosts, if you’ll see them. Mine come in those times when I need a little help to get me through a tough spot, or raise my perspective above ground level to reconsider the depth and breadth of the singular, incomparable joy we call flight.
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Up ahead lurks an immensely tall radio tower. It makes an exclamation point on the rolling countryside that I can ignore only at my peril. Peering into the distance, I remember a different flight with a similar task.

1963. I’m an idealistic Air Force Academy cadet riding tandem in a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star. Crammed into the cockpit, dressed to the jet-flight nines in AF flight gear—G-belt, oxygen mask, helmet and black leather gloves—I jump when my instructor’s voice crackles over the earphones.

“What say we buzz a Titan missile silo, mistuh?” comes his southern drawl.

“Yes, sir!”

I peer through the sleek Plexiglass canopy, expecting a phalanx of towering cranes and pencil-thin nuclear missiles pointing at the sky, ready to defend our freedoms.

“Watch thuh airspeed needle,” he instructs.

We’ve been cruising east of the Rockies, southeast of Denver. I’m enjoying the view when, suddenly, over goes the nose and here comes the red earth! My weight, and stomach, quickly lighten. At 300-plus knots, even subtle attitude changes hit with the suddenness of an invisible bull sitting on you...or, as now, pulling me skyward against the straps.

“Down we dive, spouting our flame from under,” as the Air Force song says. I seek out the airspeed indicator: 500 knots! The ground rushes up and past faster than my brain can process, then we’re climbing the backside of a mile-high inverted parabola, arcing for Colorado blue. My face pulls down, my arms and legs are cement weights.

“Did you see it, cadet?”

“Uh, umm...great, sir!”

I hadn’t seen a damn thing except a flash-by of circles and low angular concrete blocks in the red earth of the eastern plain. That, as my instructor told me later, was the silo complex.

Staying ahead of the airplane: That’s a concept I’ve learned to value and apply throughout my sport pilot training. The thin red pencil of the immense radio tower eases by 1,000 feet below. Long before, I had spotted it on my sectional, then on my GPS and, now, visually.

Then, turning final for landing at Groton, I cuss myself out. Too high—again! Misjudging approaches is becoming my favorite outdoor sport.