April 21, 1999
As I write this, I am listening to the tape recording of this afternoon's flight. I sit here with headphones on and my eyes closed, listening to our engine run-up checklist - the last thing that happens before taxi to the end of the runway for take-off - and, in my mind, I can clearly see every little thing that happened. I recall every smidgen of discussion between Terri and I, and how it relates to virtually every tiniest move I made in the cockpit.
This is wonderful. As I listen, I can recall the whole big-picture of the day: just how the sunlight seeped through the hazy atmosphere; exactly how I glanced at the airspeed indicator as Terri explained how the airplane would fly itself off the runway at about 65 miles per hour... every little thing.
One odd feature of this recording is a low-volume whine in the background behind our voices. The pitch keeps changing, and it's the throttle setting: I can hear engine RPM's on this tape.
This is a marvelous document: Terri asked, "Are you ready?" I answered, "Yes." With a little wiggle that physically signifies the passage of control from one pilot to another, she said, "Okay, go ahead and take the stick." I said, "I've got it." "You've got it," she acknowledged. Two minutes and thirty-nine seconds after the start of the take-off roll, I was in control of this fabulous little trainer and climbing at over a thousand feet per minute.
She and I are going to get along just fine. She's very confident in me. One translation of that into the way we work is that we're able to just chat with each other in moments when there isn't some immediate flying or learning task going on.
"You know, this is great," she said. "The airplane is at about four thousand feet or so. I'm lookin' around, completely enjoying myself and you're learning... You can't do any harm to anything, and... and you're hopefully relaxed."
"This is perfectly comfortable to me," I told her.
"Yup. Isn't this great?"
"This is also my first tandem experience..."
"You feel like you're alone up there," she ventured.
"I was about to point out that I don't really feel alone, but I can get there quickly in my mind if I want to."
(I have to just about break my neck to look at her behind me.)
"Well," she said, "If you ever feel that you're too alone, I can hit you in the back of the head or something."
I agreed. "Right."
"...or pull on your pony-tail."
We both laughed, and I think we're going to be great together. Thirty seconds later, we were talking about "angle-of-attack" and other dangerously mad aerodynamic stuff. Not very much later at all, she was talking about parachutes for aerobatic flight. "That'll be for another day," she said, but she knows that there is nothing about this that can possibly make me nervous or afraid.
There is an essential team aspect of working in this airplane. She doesn't have flight instruments for her seat: they're all up-front with me. (...and they're really bare-bones. This is an old-fashioned seat-of-the-pants, dead-reckoning, style of flying.) That means that she relies on me for things like compass headings, routine engine-instrument scans, radio operations, and everything else that she can't manage from the rear seat.
(There is a fuel-mixture knob that turns off the engine. It's painted bright red. She said, "Don't reach for that knob. I had a 200-hour pilot shut off the engine once, and if you do it, I'll have to un-buckle this harness and climb over your shoulder to re-start." That would not be good: this is a really, very, tiny cockpit. I mean: I've never been in any other sort of vehicle this close and lacking in creature-comfort. Everywhere, the steel tubing of the airplane's structure is only inches away from me, and it's covered by nothing but doped fabric. That's all that's between me and the great outdoors.)
She depends on me to do my part well in this.
"I want you to try moving the stick up & down and getting those control pressures on the elevators, and get the feel of how sensitive it is."
"Ah, yes..." I said, sort of distracted by the rise and fall of the nose at the horizon.
"So," she said, "You're not really doing aerobic activity flying this airplane."
"Yeah..." I acknowledged the humor, but my mind was racing to analyze control input and aircraft response. "It's a matter of setting a pressure on the stick and holding it until you see what you want and then unloading it." (The pressure, I meant... and right there is the material for an analysis of the epistemic importance of "context". Precisely how to fit this sort of thing into the book is something yet to be finessed.)
"Yes," she said. "Exactly. Boy, you're such a bright student. You're going to be a piece of cake."
We laughed, and I said, "We'll see."
Of course, my final reply in that sequence is a matter of me being my most serious critic. I appreciate compliments, but I watch out for them going to my head, because I know there is a lot ahead of me. I know I can hack this program, but I intend to do it at the very highest level of aptitude that I can bring to bear.
Anyway, the tape-recording idea is worth everything. I stole this idea from Col. Jack Broughton's outstanding combat memoir, "Thud Ridge", in which he relates cockpit chatter during battle over North Vietnam. Because he flew with a tape machine in his cockpit, he was able to meticulously relate the pace and intensity of the experience in his book. I'll have slightly different uses for the material I'll gather, but the raw record comes from the same writer's initiative, and I can see that it's going to work like a charm.
What a wonderful day.
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