Volume 14, Issue 21 ~ May 25 - May 31, 2006

Getting High over Maryland

Project pilot put the joystick in my hand

by Matt Makowski

There aren’t nearly as many universal truths as writers and philosophers claim. In fact, only two spring to mind: We will eventually breathe our last breath, and traffic is best experienced from afar. The latter is why I’m especially partial to blowing by a traffic jam at 140 miles per hour — in particular at 2,500 feet.

I’m not breaking the law. I’m manning the helm of a Piper Arrow II propeller plane. Cruising under the clouds but over the rush-hour congestion, I am a law-abiding citizen.

Until this month, I had no experience in handling an airplane. I’m not even particularly good at checking my bags at BWI. But for a brief stretch of time, I took the helm of a Piper Arrow II heading from Cambridge, Maryland, to Lee Airport in Edgewater.

I didn’t start out my round trip at the controls. I was tagging along with the two instructors. Frank Kennedy, an old-school Marine, has been flying since before I was born and in conditions I hope I’ll never experience. Kevin Hollingsworth, 23, is a Certified Flight Instructor-Instrument with a degree in aeronautical engineering from Purdue University. He also teaches the twice-a-week ground school classes at Lee Airport. He’s got the flight thing down pretty well.

So I was in good hands as Kennedy evaluated Hollingsworth on the Piper Arrow.

Still, nervousness quickly crept in when Hollingsworth handed me a barf bag before we left the ground. Kennedy assured me that if it was needed, no big deal.

“I’ve seen Navy pilots who’ve flown for 10 years need to use it,” Kennedy said with a wry smile. He then went on to tell me that he’d even used a bag or two in his time.

Wondering if my experience on roller coasters mixed with my passenger-style preparation on 747s had equipped me for this, I tucked the bag in my pocket and grabbed my camera.

Gall and Approval

We eventually loaded into the clean white plane with green and black piping. Watching the two pros go through the pre-takeoff routine from the backseat I regained my confidence — a bit.

Before we pulled out of the plane’s parking spot, they looked both ways. “It’s just like driving a car,” was the last thing I wrote down on my notepad before we took off.

My anticipation rose with the speed of the propeller and the sound of the engine as the plane shot down the runway. Before I noticed we had taken off, we’d soared a few hundred feet in the air.

“How ya doin’?” Kennedy asked over the closed-circuit headsets we were wearing.

I positioned the microphone in front of my mouth and said, “Great.” Then the turbulence started.

The big 747s and 767s can take a licking from the heat rising off the ground without most passengers giving notice. In a 200-horsepower propeller plane, the small stuff is a little conspicuous.

We got 2,300 feet into the air and things smoothed out slightly. Passing over Deale, I got ready to snap a picture of Bay Weekly’s southern office.

“We’re gonna get that wing out of your shot,” Kennedy said.

Then the plane went full tilt with the right wing pointing at the ground. I fell toward the window and snapped off a couple pictures. When we straightened back out I made a note to thank my seatbelt later.

Over the water, as we headed toward Cambridge Airport, the flight was pretty smooth, as if the skies were freshly paved. The smooth skies didn’t go on forever.

Back over land, Kennedy radioed the Cambridge airport for permission to land. We got clearance and took a wide turn around the landing strip. With no other planes in the sky, Hollingsworth brought us down. My knuckles were ghostly white from clutching the seatbelt, but we landed with a barely noticeable bump.

Kennedy was not impressed. “You brought the nose up too high. I hope you aren’t teaching your students that,” he told Hollingsworth.

After taxiing around, we got clearance to take back off. Hollingsworth and Kennedy went through the take-off procedures again, and it was back to the skies. After two more landings that met my standards — anything better than a crash is fine by me — Kennedy asked how I was doing.

“Great,” weakly came out of my mouth as I fished through my pockets for the barf bag.

Approaching for the fourth time, Kennedy asked how the engine sounded.

“Fine,” Hollingsworth answered. Then Kennedy turned it off.

Hollingsworth guided the plane tightly around the landing strip and delivered a 10-point landing. Even Kennedy gave his approval. I would have been more impressed if I had been able to see straight. I was too busy keeping breakfast down. All six feet six inches of me was working toward the same goal: Don’t embarrass yourself.

The Silver Lining

While taxiing around after the faux emergency landing, Kennedy invited me to try sitting up front. I wanted out, but I climbed from the backseat and onto the wing, where Hollingsworth and I changed places.

“This pulls the nose up,” Kennedy said once I had secured my seatbelt. “And this pushes the nose down,” he said while pushing the steering wheel forward. “That’s really all there is to flying,” he said, laughing back at Hollingsworth.

As we pulled back onto the strip, Kennedy put my left hand on the throttle. He throttled forward. We sped down the black pavement as I pulled the steering wheel in front of me. I barely noticed when we were in the air. Looking at all the dials and gauges, I was getting intimidated.

“Up here, you’re juggling 15 things at once,” Kennedy said. “You can’t focus on a single thing.”

I was still thinking about how nose up and nose down were all there is to flying.

Once I figured out how to keep the plane from dropping 500 feet per minute, all was well. We headed for Lee Airport, a far-off white dot. Across the Chesapeake, turbulence welcomed us. While I at the wheel, the turbulence didn’t affect me the same way. It still hindered a steady flight, but it didn’t wreak havoc on my belly. I was too busy keeping an eye on the few gauges I recognized.

As we circled around a big, blue water tower and approached for landing, Kennedy said a bunch of stuff to the control tower over the headset. I was too busy to pay attention. This was the part that pilots who have been flying for years mess up.

We dropped the plane down and eased back on the speed. As the runway grew, the big white line in the center was no sweat. We touched down. I’d landed my first plane.

But I wondered where the brakes were.

“I’ve got them in front of me,” Kennedy said, and I gave a sigh of relief.

Home Free

When I got out of the plane, my chest puffed out a bit, but my legs were a little less sure of themselves. After putting in two hours at 2,000 feet, I paid close attention to avoid tripping.

After mastering the art of walking again, my ego grew exponentially. I had just done what Leonardo da Vinci only drew of doing. I may not have been a natural, but with a little practice, Kennedy assured me, I could do this by myself.

Inside the small barn-like building Navy Annapolis Flight Center calls home, I asked an instructor how long it takes to really learn how to fly. Just over an hour before I was dreaming of sitting in my office chair and locking the wheels to avoid any movement, but after a little time at the wheel, I wanted more.

Just 35 flight hours and I could have my pilot’s license, Colby Correra, a certified flight instructor at the school, told me. And some people, he said, are ready for a solo flight after just eight hours.

Prices vary for the time, depending on the plane. Flying a little Cesna 152 consists of $63 per hour. The Piper Arrow runs $110, including fuel at the flight center. Even I could afford a little.

Even if you go all the way for full certification, you’re probably not going to skip over the rush-hour traffic on your way to work every day. But on your day off, 2,500 feet in the air is a pretty incredible place to be.

Try a reduced-price introductory lesson at some 3,500 flight schools through Project Pilot: www.projectpilot.org.

Matt Makowski. a journalism graduate of Rutgers, writes from Annapolis. His last story for Bay Weekly was the reflection What’s Steadfast, Skilled and Wet All Over? (Vol. xiv, No. 20: May 18).

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