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Winging It! With Dr. Paul


I hear they closed Skypark recently. I suppose it was inevitable. Picturesque airstrips nestled in rolling hills seldom survive the onslaught of civilization. Still, the aviation community is all the poorer for the loss.

Skypark is where I learned to groundloop. The lesson didn't start out that way, but that's sure the way it ended. This was no mountain strip; it sat at only 500 feet of altitude, but the hills on all sides were at 1000. Wires across one threshold, a sharp dropoff of a cliff at the other. 2000 feet is plenty of runway, but with the obstructions, this field looked much shorter.

Avalon Eden, my longtime flight instructor, brought me to Skypark shortly after my first solo. She carefully explained the procedures to execute a successful obstacle approach: Fly pattern altitude all the way through base leg, slow-flight on final, airspeed control at all costs, full flaps if available and a forward slip to the numbers. Each of these maneuvers we had practiced tens of times at altitude, but it's somehow different with the trees and the power lines looming up toward your flight path, with the gully at the far end of the field fast approaching.

"Don't dive for the runway," Avalon cautioned as I dove for the runway. "Keep your airspeed under control," she reminded me as I lost control of my airspeed. "Go-arounds are acceptable," she hinted as I spurned the go-around. "Never force an airplane on to the ground," she commanded as I forced the plane on to the ground.

"Do you have the landing under control?" Avalon inquired as we screamed over the wires. I did, I said. "Are you sure?" "Absolutely!" my pride replied. "Would you like me to take it?" she ventured. "It's in the bag," I boasted. And proceeded to touch down not less than halfway down the runway, at easily twice stall speed. I rationalized that this was an acceptable wheel landing. Until I saw the cliff end of the runway approaching.

So did Avalon. With insufficient airspeed or runway to initiate a touch-and-go, she calmly jabbed full left rudder, and we slid sideways to a stop just inches from the precipice.

"Was that a ground loop?" I asked when the dust cleared, and Avalon smiled. "Welcome to the ranks of those who have."

Years later, Tom Cook, the local flight examiner, brought my own first student to Skypark, on her private pilot checkride. This was the obligatory divert to an unfamiliar field, and sure enough, she'd never been to Skypark. Ah, but Suk had heard my story! She deftly held altitude through base leg, flew minimum controllable airspeed on final, slipped down to kiss the numbers and easily made the first turnoff. Tom told me afterward this was the first private pilot applicant he'd ever seen make that landing on the first try. Who says the student can't surpass the master?

Avalon and Tom are both long gone from the flying scene. And so, now, is Skypark. I'll miss them all.

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