I’m actually lucky to be alive to even write this column given the many endeavors I’ve undertaken in my life that could have gotten me killed. It’s not that I’m not appreciative of life, it’s just that I have a thrill-seeker personality that sometimes puts me in situations that aren’t the safest in the world.
Case in point – writing. That’s right, my very profession has nearly gotten me killed a few times. Today, I’ll tell you about one of them. By the way, I’ve been shot at three times in my life. They all missed.
However, in this case, it wasn’t lead poisoning that nearly had me pushing up daisies – it was gravity. Specifically, learning to fly. As a piece of advice, don’t take flight instructions from a guy with a fist full of bourbon and Coke.
It all began when I was working for a racing magazine several years ago. It was a pretty cool gig. I got to go around to tracks all over the country and cover races. I was once bumped by Dale Earnhardt (the Intimidator not the kid) in the infield of Bristol Motor Speedway. Yes, he was driving and I was walking. Anyway, to get around to these tracks, my employer contracted the services of a private pilot. I’ll call him Bob for the sake of this column.
Bob was a hotdog pilot. One of the best around. A real barnstormer. He liked racing. He liked flying. And last, but not least, he liked drinking. Unfortunately, he liked doing the last two things together as we were flying to races. Thus the reason I was, quite unofficially, taught how to fly. Before you technical types start calling the FAA, Bob has long since passed on (natural causes) and the statute of limitations has long since expired. Plus, unless I find myself in a remake of “Airplane” (and don’t call me Shirley), I don’t plan to get behind the controls anytime soon.
Anyway, after getting over the disconcerting aspect of flying with a pilot who sometimes had a nip or two in the air, it was kind of fun to feel the controls and fly the plane. It got to a point where as soon as we were climbing away from the airfield that I’d get to take over while Bob caught a nap or caught a buzz. I would even be so bold as to put the plane into a dive when Bob was busy snoring, screaming at the top of my lungs “we’re going to crash” as he sat bolt upright only to find it was Duane being – Duane.
There was even one occasion, after pre-flight checks, that he let me take off from the airport. It is pretty thrilling zooming down the runway, hoping that your speed gets up enough so you can miss the trees at the end of the runway.
Then, there was a time when we were heading to Indianapolis for the Brickyard. My father-in-law at the time lived in Indy so we invited my sister-in-law to fly with us even though Bob’s plane was a Volkswagen with wings – and I mean Volkswagen Bug. To call it a four-seater would be like calling a Mini-Cooper a four-seater. Just before getting into Indy airspace, I put the plane into a dive and did a roll. This didn’t set well with my sister-in-law who turned three shades of green and then promptly hurled as soon as she got out of the plane. She never flew with us again, opting the six hour drive rather than the two-hour flight.
Okay, so I guess you could call me a barnstormer of sorts. I was brave when Bob was right there, able to grab the controls in second’s notice if something went wrong. However, there was one thing I couldn’t do. Actually, I wouldn’t do. I was afraid to land.
“I’m afraid I’ll freak out and crash,” I always protested when he suggested I learn to land.
“All landing is, when you think about it, is a controlled crash,” he would counter, before giving me the old adage which I would mock as he said it. “Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.”
So, there comes a day when we’re flying into an airport near a track in Alabama. Bob had brought a large drink with him that day, bigger than usual, and had been sipping on it the whole way as I was busting through clouds at the controls. Off in the distance I can see the airport.
“It’s all yours,” I said, ceremoniously turning over the controls to Bob. However, Bob didn’t look so good.
“You okay, Bob?” I asked as I saw him slumping the seat with his head down.
“Something’s not right,” Bob responded in a feeble voice. “My head’s spinning and I can’t focus.”
“It’s the bourbon and Coke,” I replied. “You need to sober up so you can land this thing.”
I can still hear his voice to this day. “You’re going to have to land,” he replied.
“NOT ME! I DON’T KNOW HOW TO LAND NO PLANE!” I yelled, my eyes flashing around. “I’ll circle around a few times so you can pull it together.
Bob shook his head in his hands. “We don’t have enough gas,” he replied. “We’ll run out before long.”
“You didn’t fill up the tank?” I asked.
“Gas is 20 cents cheaper a gallon here,” he replied. “I knew we had enough to get here so …”
“I would have chipped in on gas!” I interjected as the runway slipped closer, realizing Bob was in no condition to land.
“You can do this,” Bob said, feebly lifting his head up. “Just begin reducing air speed and start your decent – 500 feet per minute like I showed you before.
With a white-knuckled grip on the crop, I eyed the runway as sweat ran down my brow. I could hear Bob talking but I was totally focused, looking at my altimeter and air speed. I lined the plane up, dead center and pushed and pulled all the right levers and knobs. After a few minutes, it was time.
“Pull the nose up a bit,” Bob advised just as I heard the sweetest sound ever – a bark. It was the bark of wheels hitting the runway. WE WERE DOWN!
However, almost immediately I began to struggle to guide the plane on the tarmac.
“You’re on the ground,” Bob said in his normal voice. “You steer with your feet not the flight control.”
I regained my composure and taxied us up to the hangers. I waited until the wheels stopped rolling before I look directly at Bob who had a broad grin on his face.
“You weren’t drunk, dizzy or anything, were you?” he looked at him with disgust.
“Sober as a judge,” he grinned as he grabbed his bag from the backseat and opened the door. “You just needed a little prodding to finish your training.”
“What? Are you Yoda now?” I shot back.
“Yes, my young padawan,” he called back over his shoulder.
Bob would end up losing his license a few years later but not for drinking and flying. Instead, it had to do with Christmas. It seems my barnstorming friend thought it’d be a good idea to buzz the mall before letting Santa jump from his plane and parachute into the throngs of adoring children. Long story short, Santa ended up upchucking on his suit but jumped anyway. Someone turned Bob in to the FAA and he got his license pulled.
The good news in all of this? I still don’t have a pilot’s license.