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Short Tales by a Tall Pilot

Short Tales by a Tall Pilot

by Jim Lewis

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When pilots sit around an airport or get together at a hotel lounge for beers or cocktails, they're almost certain to regale each other, and anyone else who will listen, with embellished tales of their greatest aviation exploits. The longer these stories continue, the more the similarities grow between the pilots' war stories and fish stories. As the night wears on


When pilots sit around an airport or get together at a hotel lounge for beers or cocktails, they're almost certain to regale each other, and anyone else who will listen, with embellished tales of their greatest aviation exploits. The longer these stories continue, the more the similarities grow between the pilots' war stories and fish stories. As the night wears on, the exploits they share are likely to grow more and more elaborate and outlandish.

In the spirit of those war stories, author Jim Lewis, who has worked as a professional pilot since the mid-sixties, offers his share of stories from his experiences.

Many of these short stories are the result of mistakes in judgment, while others arose from deliberate decisions to proceed made from ignorance. A few were simply experiences that came with being a professional pilot, and two or three were blatant rule breaking. Lewis recalls landing in a soybean field, buzzing a nuclear submarine, flying under a bridge, running low on fuel, and tasting life in the cockpit of a jet liner. Some of his tales are humorous, while others take on a more dangerous nature. All of them, however, offer a lesson for others to learn.

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iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date:
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.63(d)

Read an Excerpt

Short Tales by a Tall Pilot

By Jim Lewis

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Jim Lewis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4759-6987-0

Chapter One


Getting Advice: High school guidance counselors, many of whom were WWII veterans, told me I could not be a pilot because of my 6' 4" height, 210 lb frame, and lack of 20-20 vision. I have no grudge against them because they were basing their views on their experience that pilots were mostly 5' 10", 175 lbs with perfect vision, but they were wrong. Being a pilot is all I ever wanted to be, and during my high school years I was an aviation enthusiast. I made drawings of airplanes, built models, talked with a neighbor who was a military aircraft mechanic, and spent hours working on projects concerning aviation instruments and aerodynamics. If I couldn't fly, I could become an aeronautical engineer, and build aircraft.

After two years of engineering at Ohio Northern University, it became obvious to me that I was not cut out to work in an office or sit at a drafting board all day. A neighbor, and friend of our family, Phil Moore, was a high school teacher, and he told me that he thought I had the personality to become one as well. So, my thoughts turned to teaching which later became a passion for me probably because I like to talk. Upon college graduation I worked as a math teacher in Troy, Ohio, but the thought of being a pilot never left me.

First Flight: I have no idea what kind of a day it was on April 21, 1966, but I do know a feeling of exhilaration and anticipation existed within me as I sped down Interstate 75 toward Ohio Aviation located at the James D. Cox Municipal Airport in Vandalia, Ohio. Finally getting into an airplane and going for an introductory flight lesson would be a childhood dream coming to fruition. I met the instructor who was going to take me aloft for the very first time. According to my log book his name was Bill, but I can not read his last name, and I never flew with him again. The plane was a Cessna 150, N6723F.

Over the next three weeks, I had two more flights with different instructors, and one would have a great effect on my techniques as a flight instructor. The issue was that I could feel my second instructor riding the flight controls. I did not know whether he was flying the plane or I was controlling it. At once I determined that when I became an instructor, I would never touch the flight controls unless I told my student, or we were in danger of a mishap. Since then I have been able to do exactly that, and my instructing techniques were greatly improved because of it. In my humble opinion, flight instructors who ride the controls while a student is flying do a disservice to their student.

For those of you who don't remember 1966, the cost of flying was astronomical with dual instruction costing a whopping $16.00 per hour, and solo in the Cessna 150 $9.00 per hour wet. Ohio Aviation had a Private Pilot Course that was $495.00. This price included ground school classes two nights a week for six weeks, an E6B flight computer, plotter, local sectional chart, all books, the exam, and a guarantee of a Private Pilot's License if it was completed within six months. The cost of ground school for $75, if taken separately, could be applied toward the total package. I paid for the entire course on May 2nd, and that meant that on November 2nd my account would read $0.00, or I would have my license. If I got my license before that date, the account would also be $0.00.

The day I paid for the course, I flew with a perfect gentleman named Henry K. Biddle. I liked Hank a lot, and he let me control the plane. Hank was not a small man either, and that little Cessna 150 lifted a heavy load when we flew. The sight of a couple of 200 plus pound guys crawling into the seats of a small two seat aircraft brought about a little skepticism from an observer or two. Later in ground school, when we were on the subject of weight and balance, I discovered that with Hank and I in the plane we could carry exactly 7 gallons of fuel to be within maximum take-off gross weight. When I told Hank he nodded, and said, "I know". I determined I needed to lose some weight if I was going to be a pilot.

As a teacher, I love being in class, and that led me to jump right into the Private Pilot ground school in order to get as much flight knowledge as possible, and to get the written test passed before continuing with flight training. Many students make the mistake of flying, but not studying for the written until much later. This will cost the student many extra dollars to get a license. The military and the airlines spend hours in ground school before getting into an aircraft. It is the best way to learn flying, and save money.

More Firsts: Solo came one month and a day after my introductory flight. I had amassed a grand total of 11.7 hours. The plane was N8254S (Sugar was the phonetic alphabet for "S" in 1966). A few days later, I was flying solo in the school's designated practice area doing stalls and slow flight when movement on the ground caught my attention. I looked down and observed a very large shadow pass quite close to the shadow of my little plane.

I quickly looked around and discovered that a TWA Super Constellation had passed just behind and over the top of me about 1000 feet. It was my first thought that another airplane might be flying around in the same airspace occupied by me, and in my practice area. I also learned that watching shadows on the ground during sunny days can be quite helpful in spotting aircraft that might be flying in close proximity, and is also helpful in parking next to another aircraft to determine the wing tip clearance. Keeping watch outside the plane for other traffic is also a practice that I emphasize to students from day one of their flight training.

In June, I was on my first solo cross country from Dayton, to Louisville, to Lexington, to Cincinnati, and back to Dayton. The first leg was 1:45 minutes into headwinds, and went perfectly. Of course that is my opinion. The second leg was going equally well, and I called Lexington tower over a small town about 10 miles to the west which was right on course. They told me to report right downwind for runway 22. Piece of cake! Several minutes later I had not seen the airport, and time of my flight log told me I had passed it.

Thankfully the 150 was equipped with a Narco Omnigator Mark 3 which enabled me to communicate and navigate at the same time. This was an advanced feature in 1966 for a Cessna 150 radio. I tuned in the VOR, discovered I was south on the 180 radial, and turned north. About that time the tower asked about my position, and I told them I was tracking north toward the VOR. The controller told me to fly outbound on the 303 degree radial and call over the VOR. No problem. I professionally got to the VOR, tuned the OBS, tracked outbound on the 330 radial, and called the tower. I had all the numbers correct, just not in the right order. I was told to call downwind for 22. A few minutes later, again the tower asked my position. My reply was "I'm tracking out on the 330 radial".

The tower controller figured out that he was dealing with a novice, and said, "N8254Sugar, look around, what do you see?" I replied, "I'm over a large racetrack". My instructor had taught me race tracks were good checkpoints. "That's not much help 54Sugar, there are 12 race tracks in Lexington", answered the controller. Another try found me saying, "How about a large mall next to an interstate highway?" His reply, "Turn left and follow that highway to the airport". When I turned to the left, the airport filled my entire windshield. I had been within 3 miles of the field and did not see a 7000 foot runway because I was looking over the nose of the plane, and not looking around in other directions. Good lesson learned about not to get fixated looking in one direction.

On my way north, I skipped landing at Cincinnati because it was getting along in time, and my instructor later reamed me out for not landing there, but I had flown enough for that day, and just wanted to get home. The total solo cross country time was 4.2 hours in the logbook. Today, instructors seem to hesitate sending students out on a 100nm cross country that only takes 45-50 minutes in a Cessna 172, and the FAA only requires 5 hours of cross country for a license. Had I landed in Cincinnati, I might have gotten the entire 5 hours on my first solo. By the end of June, I had completed my required 10 hours of solo cross country, and was working on the maneuvers for a check ride. My cross countries were great experiences. As a current flight instructor, I usually have my students go on a triangle with at least one 120nm cross country leg on their first solo. This tends to build a lot of confidence. I have rarely had a student experience any problems with going longer distances on their solo flying.

A Check Ride: On the day of my Private Pilot check ride a large squall line was moving into eastern Indiana from the west, and was directly in the path of the cross country the examiner had assigned. After the oral exam was completed, I told the examiner that I would not head out, and elected to cancel the trip. He said it was a good decision, and then said, "Let's go". We took off, and headed west toward the squall line. Apprehension began to set in when we could see the dark boiling clouds ahead. Our course was taking us directly at the squall line. It looked black, and very ominous. I was ready to turn back, but the next check point was only three more miles. The examiner wanted me to continue to that point to get a ground speed check, and then turn away. As I began to calculate our speed, the aircraft started to climb rather dramatically. My heart rate climbed as fast as the plane when the examiner took control, and put the aircraft into what seemed to be a 90 degree bank. It probably was not that steep. The Cessna 150 was climbing at 1000 feet/minute with the throttle at idle. Nice day for a glider, but the whole incident shook me a little. Soon we were flying away from the squall line, holding altitude, and all was well. This ended my first experience with flight around thunderstorm activity.

We then diverted to a grass strip for some short field landings over an obstacle. I had never landed on grass, and my practice of landing over an obstacle was done from 100 feet, where when the power was cut, one had to put the nose down rather drastically to hold airspeed prior to the flare. I did not fair well at the first attempt. My emotional state was still reeling somewhat by the encounter with the thunderstorms which I could see were again threatening from the west and my heartbeat had not settled to normal yet. In addition the power lines at the end of the runway were only 20 feet high instead of the 100 feet that I had practiced for obstacle landings. After a couple of attempts, both ending with rather dramatic bounces followed by a go-around, the examiner took the controls and demonstrated a perfect short field full stop landing.

At this point the squall line was nearly upon us, so we rushed to a tie down spot, secured the airplane, and got into the hanger just as the rain hit. It poured down for 45 minutes. We waited another 45 minutes for the field to dry, and the squall line to completely pass. This gave an opportunity to do a soft field take off, and fly back to Dayton doing stalls, steep turns and ground reference maneuvers. Upon landing the examiner told me I needed more practice on my short field landings over an obstacle, and I did not get the license that day.

After another hour of dual, on July 15, 1966, the examiner and I went flying for 35 minutes, did a couple of short field landings, and he issued Private Pilot's license #1697776. The next day I took my wife up for a ride as my first passenger. She said she enjoyed it.

I had finished everything in two and ½ months with 46.8 hours, and a balance of $0.00 was now in my account. $495.00 divided by 46.8 hours was a little less than $11.00 per flight hour. I do not know how Ohio Aviation made a profit selling guaranteed Private Pilot courses unless most of their students did not finish in the prescribed six months. They surely did not profit on my course, but I continued to rent airplanes from them, and perhaps that is the answer.

Hank checked me out in a Cessna 172 a couple of days later, and I never saw him again. The last I heard he was flying a DC3 for a corporation at Port Columbus International Airport. He had a profound impact on my life. I would someday like to talk to him, and let him know that one of his students did well in aviation. My high school guidance counselors were definitely wrong. Not only had I become a Private Pilot, but I would go on to become an Airline Transport Pilot working for a major international airline, fly nearly all types of Boeing jets including the B747-400, fly as a corporate pilot with several smaller jet type ratings, and teach flying to over 300 students. I have also had the good fortune to have been able to fly over 160 different types of aircraft.

Chapter Two


Learning to Fly: Getting a Private certificate simply gives one the opportunity to really learn to fly. Dayton was a fairly busy airport in 1966 with various large aircraft operating there. Examples were the Super Constellations that I had encountered early in my training, an occasional Boeing 707, a few DC3's, and some Convair 240's and 440's. Wright Patterson Air Force Base was very close to the east, and Boeing B47 bombers would fly over sometimes on their way to land or take off. Learning to fly in this area was fun.

Wake Turbulence: A great lesson was learned at Dayton shortly after my Cessna 172 check out. My wife invited a couple of friends from the school where she taught to go with us for an airplane ride. The day was filled by a marvelous blue colored sky with patches of white puffy clouds floating lazily along on a light breeze. The Cessna was sitting on the tarmac, waiting to be taken aloft for a spin around the Dayton/Troy area. The passengers were eager to experience the wonders of flight. As we taxied out, we were number two for take off behind a TWA "Super Connie".

At this juncture of my flying, I was a total neophyte concerning wake turbulence, and definitely an abundance of other things as well. The tower cleared us for takeoff, and the fun was about to begin. Accelerating down the runway brought feelings of excitement which were exponentially amplified shortly after lift off. Suddenly the plane banked sharply left almost out of control. Adrenalin surged through my body as a 45 degree angle of bank was reached with my efforts to stop it being ineffective. By using full aileron and rudder, I was finally able to get it to come back to wings level and climbing.

As the adrenaline rush subsided, I continued the flight without sharing with my passengers that I thought the plane had a problem. The passengers did not even know that anything unusual had occurred, and after we were back on the ground safely, I asked one of the instructors about it. This episode turned out to be my first practical lesson concerning wake turbulence. In those days, no one really talked about this phenomenon during pilot training, but it can be deadly to the pilot who ignores it. One must always be aware of wind direction and the lift off position of any larger aircraft departing ahead so as to avoid this dangerous and potentially fatal situation. Much research has been accomplished and lessons learned about wake turbulence since the advent of jets and swept wing aircraft design.

Classic Aircraft: I believe it was sometime near the end of May, 1966 when I was the only airplane in the pattern at Dayton airport, merrily doing touch and go landings, when the tower controller called to advise me that the XB-70A Valkyrie was just south of us at 2000 feet making an approach into Wright Patterson AFB. This aircraft was a large 6 engine bomber doing test flights in the area, and was reported to be planned to be used for supersonic bombing missions. The sight was truly historic for me because one of these beautiful and unique aircraft was lost on a test flight a few months later, and eventually the only one left was flown back to Wright Patterson Air Force museum in February 1969, where it can be seen today.

Career Thoughts: Flying in the vicinity of Wright Patterson spurred my desire to become an Air Force pilot. After consulting with my wife, I explored the prospect of a military career, quit my teaching job, and applied to become a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. The results came back from the battery of tests that I took, and the Air Force offered me any position that I wanted. Of course, I chose pilot training. During the final physical exam my eyes failed me on the eye chart; I missed a couple of letters on the 20-20 line. The Sergeant examiner sensed my disappointment, and suggested going to an ophthalmologist for a complete report, but I was not inclined to do that. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately depending on one's perspective, my military career was not to be. The Air Force offered me a navigator's job. I declined the offer.


Excerpted from Short Tales by a Tall Pilot by Jim Lewis Copyright © 2013 by Jim Lewis. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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