Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lessons Learned Part 1

Alaska vs. The Outside

This was a huge, beautiful country, and flying during a time without GPS or Loran forced pilots to know the territory better than the back of their hands. We navigated by rivers in particular, but also lakes, hills, mountain ranges and the shape of the land. Navigation was all about pilotage.

For s-turns across a road in a land where there were no roads, we flew each turn of a stream; for turns around a point, why not circle the solitary moose looking up at us with some curiosity?

There always was wind, and every landing was an exercise in crosswind technique. After finding a strip at a remote village, my instructor would tell me to do a touch-and-go, if I could figure out the wind before I got there. He told me that the first thing a good pilot does is look at the sky in the morning and know what the winds would be that day. When an emergency landing’s success could be gauged on whether you land into the wind or downwind, it’s always important to know the direction of the wind. And, the weather window in the Alaska Peninsula is quick and unforgiving, so keep your eye on it, because it changes quickly.

After landing back in Dillingham, my teacher would go back to his Air Taxi service, and I’d be left out in the bitter cold to tie down the airplane.

Was it worth it? You bet. The flying was grand. It was great. It was beautiful! Everything was crystalline and clear. Ice crystals sparkled and danced off every surface. The ceilings often were low, but the visibility was huge! Flying in Alaska gives you the feeling you’re the first person to ever be there—and after a fresh snowfall, it feels new and untouched.

My point isn’t to complain about the hardships I was faced with (I really didn’t mind preflighting, it kept me warm), but to pass on some of the lessons I learned in those early days.

I flew in Alaska, finishing my ratings, for five years before I flew in the Lower 48. I went on to fly with other instructors, some of whom not only were wonderful at teaching how to fly, but also had good judgment and intelligence in flying. I was extremely fortunate to have been taught the basics early on:

Keeping the ball centered increases your safety margin
Keep the ball in the center. This is huge! Probably the biggest lesson I learned was when I took off out of a short bush strip and my CFI pointed out the ball wasn’t centered. He showed me how centering it would increase our climb rate, safety margin and clearance over the trees. The light bulb went on. Today I find it a gigantic disappointment that CFIs aren’t always teaching their students this! Try it—take off, climb with the ball out of center and watch the VSI. Now, try it with the ball centered. See the difference. Keeping the ball centered leads to safe airmanship in all regimes. Stall/spin base-final-turn accidents could largely be avoided if the ball were centered. The warbird in-the-pattern accidents—same thing. Every one of those accidents is probably the result of not being in coordinated flight. Some airplanes are more forgiving than others in the slower regimes.

Learn to slip. I asked a famous old-time bush pilot to fly with me. We flew out to a small dirt strip, and he told me to land on a certain spot. I kept missing it, but somehow he could nail it every time. Then he taught me his secret—how to slip to a spot. Every pilot needs to learn this skill. If you ever think you might need to make an emergency landing and want to know you can put your airplane exactly where you want it, then find someone to teach you.


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