Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lessons Learned Part 2

The Lower 48

In Part 1 of “Lessons Learned,” Patty offered advice learned from her initial flight training in Alaska, where challenging conditions included bitter-cold temperatures, fast-changing weather and harsh terrain. This month, she shares her experiences flying in “the Outside,” where she was faced with a different set of challenges.

After earning my private pilot’s license in Alaska in 1980, I wasn’t sure what was next. I loved to fly. It was in my blood and it made me feel alive. But I didn’t dream of being an airline or air taxi pilot, and I needed a mission beyond private pilot. So I signed up with the Alaska Student Loan program, and three years later I had my commercial, instrument, ASEL, ASES, AMEL, CFII and a good start on a helicopter rating. I instructed in taildraggers, but I knew there was something else in store for me in aviation, and I wasn’t going to be content until I found it.

Aerobatics had always been on my mind. During a trip to the Lower 48, I went to see an air show and a competition. It was the first time I had ever seen aerobatics performed. As I watched the pilots interact and saw what they could do in the sky, I realized exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up—an aerobatic pilot! That moment was the start of a journey that has taught me discipline, focus, perseverance and the ability to pursue the purest expression of flight.

I followed up this epiphany with lessons and I bought a gorgeous Super Decathlon. In 1984 I flew my first air show in Gulkana, Ala. I also worked on competition maneuvers. Precision aerobatics is about seeking perfection—the perfect vertical line, the perfect hammerhead, the perfect loop, all within an aerobatic “box” (a 1,000-meter cube of airspace). Sight gauges or lines on the canopy help set your wing at a 90- or 45-degree angle to the horizon.

But even with so much aviation in its bones, Alaska wasn’t a place to pursue competition aerobatics. I decided to fly to Fond du Lac, Wis., about 2,400 nm direct on a heading of 087, or much longer if you choose the safer route following the Alcan Highway. There was an upcoming aerobatic competition that I wanted to take part in. Studying my charts, I knew how long a journey it was, but also knew that every long cross-country is just a series of short ones.

The day before my trip, a friend and I flew a few loops and rolls. Back at Merrill Field, my friend noticed a big wad of keys was missing from his pocket. We searched the Decathlon for hours, inspecting everything we could see. We found a small tear in the fabric and figured the keys must have slid out. Still, I wondered where they were and wasn’t sure we looked hard enough.

Lesson #1: Trust Your Instincts
Leo Loudenslager once told me to always trust my intuition. I had mentioned to him that I thought I had smelled fuel in my cockpit, but thought I probably didn’t have a fuel leak. He told me if I thought I smelled fuel, then I did have fuel. He was right. I had a leaky tank just above my feet. Always trust your intuition.

The next day I flew east with my sectionals and WAC charts, a VOR for navigation and some survival gear. I had a good set of airmanship tools—I could fly coordinated (keep the ball centered!), I knew how to slip, had some acro experience and the ability to judge Alaska’s radical and fast-moving weather, but I quickly found I had a long way to go on my journey to becoming a well-rounded aviator.

My route took me from Anchorage to Palmer, through Chickaloon Pass (where I almost had to turn around because of low ceilings), to Gulkana up to Chistochina, following rivers to Devil’s Mountain Lodge strip, and over to Northway for fuel and to pick up the Alcan Highway, which would take me all the way to Lethbridge, Alberta. Except for some low ceilings where I was tempted to divert away from the highway, I made good time to my first U.S. fuel and Customs stop, Cut Bank, Mont.


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