The Story of the Old Girl and the New Pilot

On a midsummer’s morning in the high desert of Montana, you can expect the warm sun to rise around 5:30 am. During the first few hours of the morning, flight feels like sailing on calm, glassy waters. With the wings cutting through the air like a hot knife through butter, you can bank and pitch however you want, as it’s a pilots playground. Once the sun heats up the ground and creates thermals of warm air rising, the flight can become significantly more bumpy.

On this particular morning, I had the hangar door open doing my pre-flight inspection as the crisp cool air instantly changed from shadows to an alive golden warmth coming across the fields next to the hangar. This was my cue to pull the plane out, fire her old tired engine and listen to her purr like she did when she rolled out of the factory in 1969. As the gauges all turned to normal, I soon had the wheels retracting into the fuselage, and the nose was pointed south towards Wyoming.

As I left the populated areas and the landscape became more craggy and vast, I followed an old river south of town creating a valley of green in an otherwise rocky badland. Once past the northeastern edge of Yellowstone Park, I could see the mountains turn into buttes, overlooking the town of Cody. After the wheels down on the town’s runway, I quickly pushed the throttle in, hearing all six cylinders roar making me practically throw a lasso around all 300 horses to keep the old girl from climbing too fast and wearing herself out. Together we felt free again, as we quickly banked right to avoid the rims overlooking the town and turning the nose towards Red Lodge.

As the wings leveled out from a bank and I notified the airspace of my position, I had a brief radio exchange with a helicopter sitting over a mesa. It almost felt strange to run into anyone as I felt as if I was living in a world all to myself. I’m not sure if I was happy or a bit sad for the realization of contact with anyone else.

I was 10 miles north of Cody when I looked at my watch; it was time to switch fuel tanks to ensure I am burning fuel evenly through the Continental and her slow but needed thirst for 100LL fuel. I reached down and turned the cool dial of the fuel selector of the reserve tank from ‘Left’ to ‘Right.’ As I gazed down at the rugged terrain, the prop started to sputter in front of me. From years of machine operation and quite a handful of risky situations, accidents, whatnot – my body is now conditioned to become calmer in these type of situations that can be incredibly stressful for some. As trained, I started positioning the aircraft into the best rate of glide and looking for a spot to put down. Concurrently and without thinking, my arm lurched down to switch the fuel indicator back to where it was, knowing it ran properly on the other tank. This last chance effort caused the prop to start humming again like she was getting all requested fuel, and before I could diagnose if there were a clogged fuel line, I realized I had gone one click too far and turned the fuel to 'off.' It was fortunate the prop did not quit as there is no guarantee you can fire it back up with a potential vapor lock in a fuel line. Crisis averted, and a lesson to always slow down when you’re in the cockpit. “If you feel like you’re going to slow, slow down” echoed through my head, as your mind can want to rush ahead and flying is just as methodical as an art. Red Lodge was 30 nautical miles away now, and I couldn’t wait to see the sunrise light up the peaks of the mountains that were immediately nestled behind the town. The runway was to be the highest elevation I have ever landed at, and the shortest distance to roll out, but I felt I was prepared to take this on and ready to give it multiple tries until I felt comfortable I had it.

As the prop started to hum a constant hum again, I checked my gauges to make sure my manifold pressure and RPMs are stable. “Whew, that could have been bad back there,” I thought to myself as when looking around I was almost a mile above jagged mountains without a flat field or road in sight, meaning I would have needed to be creative on finding a spot to put her down. As I re-centered my thoughts, I watched the Rocky Mountains come alive off my wingtip and looked ahead for Mt. Maurice, knowing once I rounded the corner I would have the small mountain town of Red Lodge in sight.

“Red Lodge airspace, Viking 6-3 Victor 10 miles to the southeast going to be approaching the field from the east for a mid-field”. I radioed ahead as protocol, though know my call would fall into a silent radio abyss as there wasn’t another pilot soul in the area. A mid-field flyover is a technique a pilot can do when they are unsure of the runway, wind direction and sometimes just a shortcut instead of flying around the airport to get into the traffic pattern. As I passed over the field, I could see that the runway is indeed shorter, and backs right up to mountains to the south. I vigorously searched for the windsock wondering where they placed it on the field. As I passed over at the required elevation, I couldn’t find it and decided I needed to circle to see if that will help determine the wind direction.

As I circled the airfield like a hawk searching for an unsuspecting victim to sweep off the ground with its piercing talons and deadly grip, I saw the windsock appear. The wind was coming down off the mountain from the south, which made sense given the time of day and the leeward air moving off the warming surface of a cold mountain face. I made my call to the airspace, again more for the practice of routine rather than actual usefulness to anyone, and began to slow the plane to proper speed and set up for landing.

As soon as the speed hit the acceptable range for landing gear, I pulled the switch and watched each of the green lights shine brightly letting me know the landing gear was securely down. As I adjusted the flaps to create more lift and drag, the aircraft transformed from a streamlined dart to a highly maneuverable vessel cutting through the liquid air. “Pitch for speed, power for elevation” I kept reminding myself as I tried to keep the basics in mind and not let the short runway get in my head. My hands and feet coordinated on the yoke and rudder pedals held the nose down the center of the runway but realized I was coming in faster than I would like for the length of the field.

I called my last call to report I turned down final, meaning the last stretch of landing. The bluff that the airport is on began to swell closer to me. I felt a bit out of position as I might be too high and too fast. As the plane descended closer and closer to the ground, I could feel the warmer air come through the vents of the airplane almost to the point where you could denote the elevation. My eyes kept steady on the runway ahead, ensuring the nose was pointed down the center of the runway with subconscious adjustments of the rudder and ailerons, slipping the aircraft closer and closer to the ground. As I was about to pull out all the power, for the final glide to the ground, I looked at my airspeed. “110, far too high especially for a short runway – I don’t know if I’ll be able to get her to stop rolling in time.” A decision was imminent.

My hand felt the cool knob of the throttle handle, fingers wrapped around the knobs and the insides of my index and middle fingers feeling the rod that protrudes from the dash of the instrument panel. With one swift effort, I squeezed the release and pushed the throttle in feeling the aircraft yaw to the left as she always does under the amount of torque from the 300hp engine and the aerodynamics coming off the prop. “There is no shame in going around,” I told myself

I did a quick flyover the runway and now felt much better as I had an improved feel for where I was about to land. The sun now was increasingly warm on the glass of the cockpit, I could feel the heat warm up the entire cabin, or perhaps it was my nerves from landing in this new airfield. As I quickly pass around still in landing configuration, I turned final again and found myself in the same predicament, though slightly slower and lower than I was before. “I got this,” I told myself which is a risky thought as a pilot, especially a newer one.

I pulled out the power and pushed the nose down towards the earth. You need to fly this plane all the way to the ground which was a counterintuitive experience for me when I first learned to fly her. As you near the earth, you can see the opposite end of the runway swell up, which is a note to flare out and pull back on the nose, letting the mains (rear two wheels of the tricycle gear) touch down on the earth. If you land correctly and ‘grease the wheels,’ you don’t even really know you’re on the ground. That was not the case today, the mains slammed onto the ground, and the front wheel came down hard making me nervous that the prop would hit the ground. The airplane lurched back in the air as I pulled back on the elevator to slow her down and quickly slammed back down. My right foot slammed the right rudder pedal to the floor to keep aim the nose wheel of the plane down the runway, but she lurched in the air again, and back down before she could straighten out. She came back down hard one more time and was veering quickly off the left side of the runway; surely I would be off the asphalt any moment. My hand slammed the throttle back into the dash as I decided to take my chances in the air versus the high risk of danger off the runway.

The nose lifted, check. I was back off the ground and flying over the taxiway, but my airspeed was low. I was right at stall speed and only 20 feet above the ground. I summoned the gear to retract; this would surely reduce drag and help increase airspeed. I could hear the Continental engine roaring with all her might, though I noticed she didn’t have the full power she does at a lower elevation as the air particles are spaced further apart, and she has less dense air to grab. The airspeed increased but marginally, typically you can put the nose down but with my margin of error to the ground that wasn’t an option. I kept her as level as I could so she could try to build airspeed, but to no avail. I was hovering at stall speed, and surely if I didn’t have a high-performance plane, I would be nose down in the dirt right now.

As the ground passed below me, and the airspeed indicator still showed below stall speed, I was hearing the alarm go off in the cabin screaming that we are in a stall warning. At any given time the plan could fall out of the air and drop feet to the ground. I lifted the flaps to reduce drag to help improve the situation, which also reduces lift and to this day is questionable about whether it was an improvement or adverse to my cause.

“Come on old girl. You got this, we got this” came out my lips, almost as if it was summoned. With one hand on the knob for the throttle, which was pushed as tight as I could to the instrument panel, and the other hand still calmly but diligently controlling the yoke ensuring I stay level over the ground and am not losing any of the precious feet that I am fighting to keep. Separating me from the ground – I held it steady, and finally, we flew over the edge of the bluff that the airport was located on.

This was good as now I have more space below me and the bluff the airport sat on was a couple of hundred feet tall. The downside of this was I was now over the somewhat populated town of Red Lodge and have now a more severe risk of having a safe landing and at worst case, crashing right into someone’s home.

My eyes darted down at the homes below, unsuspecting of the danger they could potentially be in at 6:30 am on this Sunday morning. They were probably still tucked in bed, or letting the morning sun slowly push them awake as the smell of coffee would retrieve them from their beds. I knew the only way to be in control was to gain more airspeed to help the aircraft maneuver. As I pushed the nose down, I watched the airspeed rise steadily as I barreled down towards the homes below. 80, 85, 90, 95, 100… As soon as I watched the gauge hit 100mph, I quickly but smoothly rolled back on the yoke causing the airplane to pull out of the dive bomb and into a rate of climb.

There was only one problem now; I was headed directly for the mountain that edged up against the edge of town….

The old girl was giving it all she had to continue to climb with the airspeed she had. Her frame was built with wooden wings covered by fabric making her exceptionally lightweight and known to have an excellent ratio of power to weight, and without rivets in the wings, there was a significant reduction of parasitic drag on the wings meaning these factors were in our favor.

As with time behind any relationship, I’ve started to become intimately familiar with the old girl's quirks and tendencies, and I knew that she had confidence in what we needed to do as we climbed towards the mountain, as we had a quick decision to make. If we banked to the east, we would quickly gain separation between us and the ground. However, we would then be flying over the sleepy town of Red Lodge at near stall speed. This means that if the wind had dropped from beneath our wings, we would be hard-pressed for options to put down and not put anyone else at risk. We had to bank west, further towards the mountain.

My eyes kept a close watch on the angle of bank to ensure we could get enough lift and rate of climb to allow us to build enough speed and out the window to make sure we were on course to clear the mountain and climb above the trees and any other obstacles. She locked into the bank as if we were an Indy car tightly riding a groove through a corner, and soon there was nothing but fresh, blue, morning skies in front of us and we climbed at almost too excessive of a rate as if she was showing off. As I leveled the wings and pointed the internal heading indicator to the NNE, it became clear that it was only me between the two of us that were worried that morning. She was built for speed and performance, and it’s been a while since she’s been able to show it off since she was in the hangar for the past eight years before we rescued here and fixed her back to flightworthy condition.

With my home airport in the crosshairs, I looked down and diligently switched the tanks back to the other wing to level off remembering the event earlier in the morning and could feel the foam of the headset mic push a little more firmly into my lips as my mouth smiled. I thought about how it’s been one hell of a morning, and it’s not even 7 am yet.

Once back to my home field I decided I would work on some short field landings so I could prepare for another day like today. I jumped into the traffic pattern behind two other locals who were getting some quick laps in that morning. Once the ground heats up on hot Montana horizon, the wind also picks up distributing the warmer air to the places that are cooler. After greasing the first landing, my confidence shot through the roof and I pushed throttle back in ready to take on the world again. The RPMs of the Continental once again send a rumbling roar through the cockpit, and as routine, I once again pushed in her left rudder to offset her wild side. As the front wheel lifted off the ground, I made my call, “Viking 6-3-V, on the go again” to let other traffic know the active runway is clear. I could feel her jump into the air almost as if she told me she didn’t ever belong on the ground. The left rudder mashed to the floor to keep her pointed down the runway as I climb to my first check of 500 ft looking outside for traffic.

Looking at the windsock at the opposite end of the runway I noticed the wind was picking up and coming directly as a crosswind. “I should be fine until for a couple more,” I thought to myself. As the wheels lift off the runway and after you make your call, you hold the airplane level 50 feet over the runway to build airspeed before retracting the gear. 100, there we go, lift the gear lever up hearing the sound of the hydraulics underneath lift the wheels into the wings, and the nose wheel tucks nicely into the engine cavity.

As I reached 500 feet, I started to bank left while still climbing to the pattern elevation of 1000 ft above ground level. The old girl is a quick plane, so I made sure to slow her down as much as possible to keep a steady distance behind the newer, shinier, and slower Cessna in front of me. This can be a fight with someone who is born to run, I should know as at times I feel we are kindred spirits, so I do what I can and fly a little looser pattern to give her some extra room to run. As I reach elevation and set up in the downwind portion of the pattern, I can feel a crosswind coming directly perpendicular to the runway. Halfway down the field, I lower the gear, watching that all the indicator lights show I’m down and in a locked position. “Three in the green, we’re clean,” I think to myself as pilots have a mnemonic for just about everything. I felt the extra drag from the wheels catch the wind and depressed more right rudder slightly, keeping the parallel with the runway.

As the Cessna made his turns and set up for final, I saw the white wings glisten in the sun waiting for him to pass me in the air before I make my turn towards the runway. This allowed for enough space to allow him time to land and rollout if he needed. Airmen have a code with each other to never compromise another pilot, as we take enough inherent risk ourselves by getting in the aircraft.

As I turned base and setup for final, I felt the crosswind now really picking up to a level I’ve never felt before. The Cessna called that he was going to hang it up for a while, probably an indication that the wind was less enjoyable if not uncomfortable for his high-wings, which can act as a kite in these conditions. With the wind from left to right, directly across the field, I have left rudder depressed to crab the plane into the wind with the yoke turns right. The technique is called a slip and creates emotion between younger and older airmen, as the statistics the young airmen boast show how safe the method is. But every veteran can tell you about a time he or someone he knows threw the plane into a dangerous if not lethal spin right about the ground because of the technique. As I feathered the rudder, and the ground descended closer and closer, my grip tightened on the yoke. Reflecting on this reaction, I knew my body was focused though maybe letting the stress come through in the form of faint perspiration out of my palms. My right hand was entirely on the throttle, making minor adjustments to keep the elevation and speed I desire.

As I was 50 feet above the ground, I pulled out the throttle and started to push the nose towards the earth to fly her in for the final touchdown. A strong gust of wind, coming across the bluffs and prairie to the north picked up and pushed the entire plane and course to the grass off the asphalt. Without hesitation, my hand mashed the throttle back and fired up all six cylinders, listening to her roar again as I heard all morning, and watched the RPMs and manifold pressure rise into the green and towards the yellow telling me she was giving it hell. My left foot smashed the rudder to the floor, and as taught, I flew the plane first and then worried about calling out second. Once stable and flying back over the runway, I made the call to let anyone in the area know I was on the go again. “There is no shame in going around.” I echoed to myself as I hoped the wind died down enough to get this bird on the ground in one piece.

As I went around, the airspace was wide open now and afforded me the luxury to set up more comfortably. This time, I was ready for the conditions and didn't feather-foot the airplane down to the ground but came in faster and flew her all the way to the field to counteract the wind. As I near the runway again, I feel the gusts fight us from maintaining a straight line down the middle of the runway. As I mash in the left rudder, the old girl re-adjusts so nimbly it was almost as if she winked to me that we will be just fine. As the earth swells one final gust tried to blow us off course but the mains touched down and as the nose wheel connects we straighten the nose down the middle again. “Thank you, God,” leaked out of my lips involuntarily followed by a quick rub on the dash or instrument panel as if I were scratching behind the ears of a pet – “and Thank You as well.”