Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lessons Learned Part 2

The Lower 48

Pressing on across Minnesota, the weather turned sour. The ceiling was low, though that didn’t bother me. I had flown under a lot of low ceilings even when it was raining, but in Alaska, the visibility was usually unlimited. In this case, the ceiling was low and ragged with poor visibility and it was getting worse. I really wanted to get to the competition, but my get-there-itis was cured after I started looking up at towers. I turned back and landed on a tiny grass strip that had no services. A farmer gave me a ride into town and I waited for two days for the ceilings to pick up. I had read about these slow-moving Midwest fronts and now I was stuck in one. I barely made the contest—it had taken me longer to get from Minnesota to Wisconsin than it did from Alaska to Minnesota.

Lesson #6: Have An Out
I’ve found myself down low scud-running and thought of Clint McHenry telling me to “look for the bright spots in the horizon.” I’m not recommending that pilots fly VFR in bad weather or ever do anything outside their comfort level, but if you do find yourself in a tight spot, always consider the options and always leave yourself an out.

Once in Fond du Lac, it was amazing to be surrounded by acro pilots from all over the country. I flew my first contest in the Intermediate category and was proud to tell everyone I didn’t come in last! It was an exhilarating, exciting and nerve-wracking experience. I questioned why I had put myself through such an arduous and embarrassing experience, but at the same time I couldn’t wait to do it again.

At the end of the contest, pilots were asked if they wanted to volunteer to fly an air show for the locals. My hand flew up. I performed a short routine, landed and taxied back to the fuel pumps with a quartering tailwind, no smoke oil in my smoke tank and a light load of fuel. I didn’t have the stick back all the way, and when I tapped the brakes to stop, the airplane nosed over onto its prop—in front of the waving crowd. Holy cow! I refused to get out of the airplane and take my bows, but wonderful Herb Cox, longtime member of the IAC, came over and said, “Don’t worry. The crowd will think it’s part of the show. Just get out and wave.” So I did, and I sucked it up.

Lesson #7: Compartmentalize
One great thing about aviation is that every flight is going to be different and is a new experience. My prop strike at Fond du Lac was probably caused by the many distractions I had: It was my first air show, there was a big crowd, etc. It takes compartmentalization—the ability to shut out distractions and pay attention to the task at hand—to be a pro. It’s not always easy, but we all have the capability to compartmentalize and can get better at it with practice.

If the price of learning to be a well-rounded pilot is humility, then it’s worth the price of admission. I had obviously found something worth putting my soul into, and I knew that these experiences would make me a better pilot. Indeed, aviation provides the full spectrum of the human experience: freedom, challenge, speed, humiliation, insight, inspiration, satisfaction and wonder!

Lesson #8: And By The Way…
Keep the airplane coordinated and the ball in the center, especially when low and slow!

Patty Wagstaff is a six-time member of the U.S. Aerobatic team and a three-time U.S. National Aerobatic champion. She flies for the California Department of Forestry during the summer months.


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