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"What A Lovely Day For An Airplane Ride"
By William J. Lea
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2013 William J. Lea
All rights reserved.
YOU SEE THE AIRPORT DON'T YOU CAPTAIN?
Puerto Vallarta provided lots of fun and entertaining moments while there, and some times while leaving. Our favorite trip was scheduled to depart Puerto Vallarta at 0900. The first stop on our way back to Phoenix was Mazatlan, just 35 minutes up the beautiful coast in our fast bright yellow DC-9 jet. Yes "Bright Yellow". The owner was of course "Howard Hughes" and the President was "Russell Stevenson". More on Hughes Airwest later.
The good thing about flying in Mexico, then was, no airspeed restrictions at any altitude, other than around the airports. We enjoyed zooming up the coast at 3000'msl. The air was so smooth that morning and the visibility was unlimited. Our airspeed indicator showed 330 kts. The coastline just rushed by.
Captain Merle and I had flown this trip many times and were very familiar with this route, the approach and the airport. Mazatlan airport had a single East West runway. Arriving from the South we normally made a right turn, South of the airport for a left downwind approach to the West runway.
Capt. Merle and I were not up late the night before and was well rested. The weather was clear with no traffic en-route. This was truly, "A Lovely Day For An Airplane Ride". Capt. Merle was flying this first leg of our return trip to Phoenix. He had such a great touch with the controls of our airplane. His attitude was relaxed and confident. It was a pleasure for the entire crew to be flying with him.
So, there we were, zooming up the coast at 0925. Mazatlan airport was coming into view 25 miles ahead. I give the tower a call. They reported no other traffic in the area and cleared us to land to the West as expected.
It was a quiet Mexico morning. There was no conversation in the cockpit or on the radio. The DC-9 was quite, I was quiet and Capt. Merle was quiet. All was good.
I glanced over at my Captain, a very capable 30,000+ hour pilot. An Ex-Naval Aviator who retired as a full commander from the Naval Reserve. He was not using the autopilot to fly this leg. Both of those experienced hands are on the yoke and his eagle eyes are looking straight ahead at the airport. A minute or so passes before I glance over again. I am anticipating his reduction in cruise power and calling for me to do the "Decent Check List".
No command yet. I guess he is going to show me something new on this approach.
I just wait in anticipation.
We are crossing the water at 7 miles per minute. Airport now just under 15 miles away.
His eyes are still looking straight ahead, his hands on the yoke, the course still very steady and the altitude right on. But, we are really closing on that airport fast.
He had not said a word for the last 15 minutes and I didn't want to talk, just to talk, so I just waited.
Another minute flew by. Now we were getting very close, my guess under 8 miles, and we were still at cruise power.
The DC-9 is so aerodynamically clean it takes time and distance to slow down and turn, even with the speed brakes.
I could wait no longer. I would have to hope for another time for the lesson I was being taught. I said, "Merle, you see the airport don't you?"
He jerked up from his stare to say, "Airport". He now saw Mazatlan Airport. It was just a couple of miles away and said, "Holy @#$*".
With that, he pulled back on the throttles to idle, extended the speed brakes and made a steep right turn as we approached the center of the airport. As we slid over top of the airport to enter from the North side, we heard this loud laughing coming from the galley which was located just behind the cockpit.
I quickly called the tower and advised that we would be making a right downwind approach. They said, "Royer, cleared to land". I know I heard that Mexican Controller laughing at the "Gringo Peeloootos".
After we smoothly landed and were taxiing to the terminal gate, both girls came into the cockpit still laughing. They had been standing in the galley when Capt. Merle started the simultaneous Decent, Approach and Landing phase of the flight. Vangie and Ruth both were driven to their knees by the g's of the turn and rapid deceleration of the jet.
The great flight attendants they were, really showed when both passed it off to the passengers as a routine Mexican approach.
I thanked Capt. Merle for showing me that approach. It was the first and only time I had seen that approach done on our airline. He did ask me not to demo it to anyone, including him.
This is the first time I have mentioned it since then.
Merle and I along with 4 or 5 other pilots belonged to a golf club in Phoenix called "Indian Bend". He was a good golfer and I got to see him hole out his second shot on a par 4 hole from 230 Yards. I still remember that from over 45 years ago.
Just how did I get here? Well let me tell you my story.
PILOT TRAINING, "WHERE IT STARTS"
I am convinced that pilots, by their very nature or by their early up bringing, are a different breed. I am not sure what that breed is exactly, but I think the ones I expound on here, INCLUDING MYSELF, will give you the picture.
Certainly, many of the rare birds I am writing about today grew up the same way, with great curiosity. I was always looking to do things that were a more exciting than those that were available to me. The search for that excitement was always present. I really didn't want to hurt myself or anyone else. I just wanted to explore fun and exciting things.
The first age I remember being interested in flying was when I was 6 or 7 years old. We lived in a two story home with a big screened porch in the back in Glendale, Ohio. The porch roof was slopped just slightly with trees growing by it. What fun it was, running up the stairs, taking out the hall window screen at the top of the stairs and climbing out on the porch roof. The top of the roof led to early flying opportunities. It had to have been 15 feet from roof to tera-firma.
A large tree was close to the porch roof and mature enough to have big branches. That beautiful tree provided opportunities for me to sail. The only problem I had was that the tree was not right up against the porch. The nearest branch was about 5 or 6 feet away. The first flying I did was diving out to catch onto the tree's branches and let my weight gently take me down close enough to the ground where I could drop at a reasonable rate to the soft grass below. It was really a kick. The fear about hurting myself was just not there.
My mother, bless her heart, was so afraid I would really get hurt. I was then, as through my life, not in complete disregard for my safety. The fun and excitement was worth the measured risk. Even had I missed the limb, it would not have hurt too much, maybe just scuffed myself up a little.
I would have gotten away with that caper a little longer than I did, but the branch was so far from the porch I could not get back on the roof from the tree. Jumping again meant I had to go back into the house, up the stairs and out the screened window onto the porch roof. I got caught after too many great jumps on one day! I should have known they would figure out that I was just going up the stairs, but never coming back down.
I expanded from that tree to diving into hay stacks at my grandmother's farm in Kentucky. What fun it was to swan dive from the rafters and land on your chest in the hay. The rest of the kids that did jump just landed on their rears. Actual diving was so much more fun than just jumping. I had to really be careful diving. I almost hurt my back by hitting too vertical once. But that too just expanded my learning curve to try more things. Those early flights were great adventures. I couldn't understand why the other kids didn't want to fly off those rafters into that great stack of hay 10 feet below.
They just didn't see the adventure. They just saw the danger.
The first general aviation pilot I ran into was a middle-aged fellow who became a life long friend, "Midge Huff". Just picture Jackie Gleason telling stories and chewing on a half smoked cigar.
That was <Midge&rt;, truly a "Rare Bird".
I met Midge through my brother-in-law Jim. I was 21 years old and just finished three years in the Army, mostly with the 101st. Airborne. I naturally wanted to get into skydiving. Jim knew a guy who dropped jumpers and took me to this little grass strip in southern Ohio that they called an Airport. There, I met Midge.
Midge had been flying for over twenty years at that time and was also a Master Parachute Rigger. What a perfect fit for my skydiving aspirations. He sold sky diving buffs, like me, parachutes, taught us how to pack them and then flew us up to make jumps in his aircraft for a slight fee. It was a perfect fit for our sky diving dreams come true and make good profits for Midge.
Midge had just a private pilot license but had many, many years around aviation and many hours of flying experience. Midge did not see the need for a commercial license. I mean, he was doing what he wanted with a private license. He was dropping jumpers from his Cessna 170 airplane, flying his Bi-plane at Air Shows and selling parachutes. Picking up a few bucks here and there was all he was trying to do. He told us often that it barely made enough money to pay for the equipment, gas and airplanes.
He couldn't seem to keep the mid-section of his shirt buttoned and looked nothing like your vision of a pilot might be. But, boy could he fly! His story telling was almost as good as Gleason's too. It took quite a few years before I found out his first name was, "Millard". That RB taught me survival skills in both flying and parachuting.
Midge's second wife, "Janice", was quite young and somewhat interested in his flying. Shortly after they got married, she tried to get him to teach her to fly. The poor thing, she had to hang around the airport a lot to be with him anyway. It just seemed like the thing for her to do.
Midge took Janice up just once for a flying lesson. It was her first and only lesson. He scared the daylights out of her doing loops, snap rolls and stalls in his Cessna 170.
Yes, I said the Cessna 170.
It was her first flying lesson and her last. She almost threw up. Her learning to fly days were over.
I asked Midge why he was so rough on Janice for her first time up. He bit a little harder on the short stogie and said, "Hause, don't you know how much it cost to fly? She don't need to fly." She never wanted to go up for a lesson again.
Janice was really good to Midge and us jumpers. She did a ton of sewing on our parachute canopies and made the sleeves used on the chutes.
The sleeve slowed down the opening of the parachute and reduced the opening shock. The sleeve slipped over the entire canopy after it was straighten out and pleated. Then we would fold the entire unit and pack it in the container after first rubber banding the shroud lines. The pilot chute was attached to the sleeve and pulled the whole assembly out of the container when the rip-cord was pulled.
The sleeve was not attached to the canopy when we first started using them. Following each jump, someone had to chase down the sleeve and pilot chute. The sleeves were most colorful and stood out so we could find them easily. Usually, a bright red, yellow or blue was best to spot even in the trees. Finally someone thought of attaching the sleeve to the apex of the canopy to keep from loosing them. It worked well, no interference with the opening at all.
Midge had a parachute loft up in his large attic. It was a great loft. He had everything you could imagine for parachutes up there. He had the best sewing machines money could buy.
Nothing was too good for Janice.
He had two machines for the light work on the canopies and sleeves. Janice of course did that. He also had a heavy duty sewing machine that he used to sew the nylon harnesses. That machine was so strong that it could sew harness material up to an inch or inch and a half thick when folded together.
The amount and variety of the supplies he had in that loft was unbelievable. Military surplus canopies, still in their original boxes were sitting all over. He would buy 25 to 100 of them at a time. He even had a full length parachute packing table. We packed lots and lots of parachutes in that loft.
It was great time for me. I learned a lot about parachutes in every area. Knowing every aspect about them, how they are made and properly packed gives you even more confidence. I also got great chutes, (we called them sacks), for a reasonable cost.
What a great opportunity I had to modify parachutes with the help of "Master Rigger Midge" and Janice. I would dream up different patterns and cut the canopy trying to get max performance in guidance and still have enough nylon left to not land too hard. Janice sewed reinforcing tape to the areas cut out to keep that thin nylon material from ripping.
Twenty eight panels of nylon fabric running up about sixteen feet from the skirt (bottom) to the apex (top) made up a canopy. I would take out one panel starting at the skirt going up about eight feet to see if I got enough of the trapped air pushing me forward. Not bad, so I would cut out two panels and then three. I never knew exactly how much to take out until I jumped it. It was wild. the number of combinations we tried. Several of us were making all sorts of mods to get more performance. You never knew exactly what to expect when you got to the drop area. I found that it was better to skip a couple of panels instead of cutting panels out all together. The sack tried to collapse when too many cut outs were close together. We developed designs that worked well for us.
Single panel cuts worked great for our new jumpers giving some them some ability to guide the parachute without loosing much trapped air. They didn't have to rely on slipping the chute for guidance.
The designs we made were inverted T's, Double T's, U's and T-U's. Anything we could imagine to give us more forward speed. Always in search for higher performing parachutes. We would make mods. and I would try them out. How glad I was that I had the training in the Army 101st. Airborne on how to make PLF's, (Parachute Landing Fall). Some of the landings were really hard. I scrapped those sacks. Our mods. worked well most of the time. Some jumps we made for pay were into tight spots. Any help we could get to stay out of the trees, the rivers and the power lines was greatly appreciated.
I had made 40 or 50 jumps from Midge's airplane before I found out that Jim had yet to make a single parachute jump. That brother-in-law of mine, who touted me to skydive with Midge, had not even gotten into Midge's Cessna for a ride. Well, "we'll fix that", I said to myself. I asked Midge to drop Jim and he said, "Ok" with a quiet smile. Jim was too embarrassed not to jump now.
Before Midge could sack Jim up, (put a main and reserve chute on him), I gave Jim some training on how to get out of the airplane and how to land. Midge goes over with Jim again on how to get out of the airplane and how to pull the ripcord. Jim's first jump was to be a freefall. I asked Midge why a free fall on his first jump. New jumpers usually received 4 or 5 static line jumps before their first freefall. Midge's reason, "static lines beat against his airplane and chip the paint". We're not wimps are we?
I was becoming more comfortable with Midge's decision when he tied a shroud line to Jim's wrist and to the rip cord. That seemed good to me at first. A safety item for Jim, on this, his first freefall jump.
The only thing that didn't look right to me was the cord. It was about 6 feet long. I said, "Midge, I think that is a good idea to be sure he pulls the ripcord but shouldn't it be shorter, certainly no longer than his arm, to insure the pull". Midge said, "Hell no Hause!. I know he will pull the handle. I put that line on there so he wouldn't drop the ripcord after he pulls it. First timer's get so excited after the chute opens that they drop my ripcord. You know they cost me $6 each".
Excerpted from "What A Lovely Day For An Airplane Ride" by William J. Lea. Copyright © 2013 by William J. Lea. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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