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Winging It! With Dr. Paul

Stepping Up

My Uncle Ward is a social scientist. He runs a research institute for a major university, specializing in trying to understand how people behave.

People, not airplanes.

Not too many years ago, as a renter pilot, I had reached the point in my flying career where airplane ownership began to make some sense. I was frustrated by the scheduling hassles of trying to secure a particular craft for a particular trip. All rental aircraft, it seemed to me, had been abused beyond belief by the previous driver. They never sported the right equipment. And all FBO maintenance seemed incredibly shoddy.

Uncle Ward concurred. He pointed out that renter pilots, flying a different ship on every trip, are inherently less safe than aircraft owners, whose familiarity with their equipment allows them to wear it like a glove. Owners take better care of their craft than renters, and their panels can be customized to their personal flying needs. So I was off to trade in my life's savings on a thing with wings. But not before Uncle Ward did Cuban eights with my thinking.

He inquired what kind of machine I had in mind, and I told him about the gorgeous little Cherokee 140 I had run across, low time, well maintained, well equipped and (remarkably) almost affordable. "Can you fly it?" asked my uncle. "Like I was born in it," I replied. "Then don't buy it" was his unexpected response.

The social scientist, himself a Comanche driver, then went on to sing the praises of the complex aircraft. You may recall that the FAA defines these beasts by a combination of four features: 200 or more horsepower, controllable pitch prop, variable wing geometry (flaps, slats, or spoilers), and the ability to do gear-up landings.

"But I can't handle a complex aircraft," I protested. "Too many switches and levers. I'll be miles behind the plane. I don't have any retract time. And besides, I can't afford one."

Not being the proverbial rich uncle, Ward proceeded to dispel all but the last of my concerns. A goodly dose of dual instruction would make the snarling beast as familiar as the docile Cherokee. By buying beyond my capabilities, I would be forced to upgrade my skills and expand my horizons. Since I was about to enter a new world, I was not likely to so soon be lulled into complacency. I'd be buying a plane I wouldn't soon outgrow. And finally, dealing with systems instead of simple stick and rudder would make me a real pilot (whatever that is).

I guess I'm pretty prone to persuasion, because within a month I was sporting a new bumper sticker on my car: "Happiness is being owned by a Beechcraft." A lot of money had exchanged hands, and I was now tied to an airplane I didn't even know how to taxi.

I located Mike, a senior CFI with a few gray hairs and countless hours in type, at the Red Baron Bar. He agreed to properly indoctrinate me into complex airmanship. By the time he soloed me he had a few more gray hairs, and many more months in make and model. (Mike subsequently became Ray Charles' pilot. He flies the whole band to gigs in a DC-4. I envy him all the free concerts, plus he never has to worry about the boss insisting on taking the controls. But that's another story.)

As for me, I went on to get my instrument rating in the BeechBeast, then my Commercial, later a CFI rating of my own (so I can now indoctrinate you in complex aircraft), a few years ago a CFII, and I'm now toying with the idea of using it for a single-engine ATP. The rest, as they say, is hysteria. The machine has taken my family and myself coast to coast and border to border more times than I can count, and I've come to wear it like a glove. In an emergency (and yes, we've had a few) we work as one. It's equipped to my personal tastes, maintained to my specifications, and always available to me (except when my wife is off and winging).

And what of Uncle Ward? He sold the Comanche and immersed himself in academia. I think I got the better deal.

Perhaps I'll take him flying next weekend.

Toni Wakes drawing

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this page last updated 14 June 2007
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