Flying JournalThoughts About "Firsts"

We had about decided not to go anywhere over Christmas and Y2K, but we had not told our friends and relatives yet. So Dianne's niece and nephew in Florida bought us tickets to swim with dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, near Marathon, Florida. After they had spent four hours to get through on the phone and taken the only reservations left, we knew we had to go. They had gone twice before and said it was a wonderful experience.

Now I had something to look forward to, but I still had to get all these papers graded. I had tried something new with my classes at SMSU this semester. Instead of assigning traditional term papers, I suggested they write autobiographies, but with some research. They could use interviews with relatives as well as library research to support their recollections of what was happening in the world at different times in their lives.

I was very pleased with the results, and the students seemed to be more willing to learn about research when it pertained to a topic they cared about instead of some canned topic like abortion or animal rights. They also wrote longer papers, several going over 12 pages. I was glad the assignment proved educational, although it meant a lot to read.

It was also educational for me. A couple of them used the theme of telling about various first time experiences, like I use for a theme of this column. I realized after four years I had gotten possessive about my idea of "Flying Firsts" and it was good for me to be reminded that it really was not a special idea, but more a general human trait to take note of passages in our lives. In my flight instructor training we had learned that one of the laws of learning is the "Law of Primacy," that what is first learned makes a strong impression, whether first job, or first serious relationship or first solo.

Just when I begin to wonder how many more flying firsts I can enjoy, something always comes up. Roni Burns wanted me to go with him to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee so he could shut down his business at Dollywood for the season. We could combine some IFR training and I'd be along in case the weather went sour. The previous week, Raymond Plaster had wanted me to fly to Cape Girardeau (CGI) to look at a bigger plane he was considering, but the weather was uncooperative. So we joined forces and Raymond rode along with us, since "Cape" is right on the way.

The flight on Saturday to Sevierville-Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge airport was CAVU. On the leg from Tennessee to Cape, the weather was also great and Roni and Raymond sat in the front and I spread out in the back and graded papers. I realized that was a first for me--to ride in the back while two people I had taught to fly sat in the front.

We knew weather was developing farther west. We could see a wall of cloud as we landed at CGI. Darkness fell as we looked over the plane, a Beech Sierra, also a first to me. It was roomy, and better equipped than Raymond=92s Cherokee 180, but probably not much faster even with retractable gear.

When we got ready to leave, I filed an IFR flight plan since there were showers between us and SGF. As I walked out to the plane, my crew walked back towards me and committed mutiny. Worse, they threw my own words back at me.

You're the one who is always recommending against single engine IFR at night. I couldn't help but grin sheepishly, and what could I say? So it would be Boys! Night Out in the big city. But the FBO informed us that Cape basically shuts down at 5 pm and we probably couldn't get a rental car till morning. There were no motels or restaurants within sight, and they said the taxi service was poor. When I checked the weather again, the lowest ceiling was 1500' broken reported at West Plains, but in the morning the whole area was forecast 200-500 overcast. If we spent the night, it might mean another whole day or even two of delay. So I had to go against my own preaching, but common sense should always apply. I explained that even if we had a problem, we would have over a thousand feet after we broke out.

Of the 1.7-hour flight, 1.4 was in the clouds. Roni flew the whole thing, steady as a rock under my watchful scan. We broke out between Dogwood and Springfield, then went back between layers. Weather was still good at the airport and ATC told us to expect the visual for Runway 20. I recognized the pattern of Springfield=92s lights through one last thin layer of clouds. I had Roni flying about four degrees right of the GPS direct course so we'd arrive on the left base leg. I saw the glow of the lights along Kearney and I-44 beneath us. Then the controller said, "There's weather moving in from the south. If you don't pick it up soon, we'll vector you out for the VOR approach."

It would have been good practice for Roni, but we'd been in the plane for 7 hours that day, and a storm was coming in. Just then I saw the ground along I-44. I knew exactly where I was, and I could see the airport beacon glowing through wisps of cloud. I asked the controller, "How about a contact approach?" He was waiting for those magic words. "Cleared for the contact approach. Contact the tower."

Roni had been hesitant to drop below 3000'. I said, "Man, I did that traffic patrol dozens of times. There is nothing in Springfield over 1976' high. Let's get down." I know it was on everyone's mind that the Citation had crashed at Point Lookout only two days before, probably trying to use local knowledge to challenge minimums. But we came right out on short final and landed and taxied to our parking spot just as the rain began. We were all laughing and exhilarated as we piled out of the plane (always glad to be alive). Raymond, the attorney, jumped out demanding, "Was that legal?" There was no intercom in the back, so he couldn't hear my request and the clearance. I explained that it was a contact approach and perfectly legal and we just hadn't gotten to that yet in his IFR training. I knew about it and taught my students about it although it was the first time I had actually used one. We had well over 1-mile visibility and we stayed clear of clouds and we had ground contact to the airport. Now both those IFR students will remember their real life lesson on the contact approach better than any book learning.

Oh, yes, I eventually got all my papers graded. Raymond kindly loaned us his 180 and we left Christmas day for Florida. We got to swim with the dolphins, although I was a little disappointed. Some of our group had gone before, but now the program was more structured; basically we just did pre-planned tricks like we were trained dolphins ourselves. But I can say I've done it and I have pictures being kissed by "Tina."

I also spent a day as a bumbling crew member on a shrimp boat. (We ate some of our fresh catch that night, and I got to steer the twenty-ton boat for half an hour. There is a lot of lag in the steering, but once I found the lubber line on the compass, I applied some instrument flying techniques and managed to keep pretty close to the line on the Loran. It reminded me how much of our navigation and terminology of aviation originally came from the nautical trades.) We also spent a few hours picking surplus fruit at a friend's orchard. (Yummy, yummy!)

The northwest winds aloft were not nearly as bad as forecast and the sturdy 180, packed to the gills with fruit and luggage and Christmas gifts made it home in less than seven hours, certainly better than a two-day drive in the van. Happy New Year, and fly safely in this new (first) for all of us, the first year of the 2000's.

Earl Holmer

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