Sunday, October 01, 2006

A Piece of the Magic

Periodically I check out fellow instructors in J’s plane. J. has a very nice fixed-gear Cessna Cardinal (C177). However a checkout in this plane reduces most instructors to feeling like a student pilot again. Remember how you felt the first time you tried to taxi an airplane? Well, you will relive that feeling on your first attempt to taxi J’s plane.

J. is one of the coolest guys I know. When he was 16 years old he fell off of a ladder and broke his neck. It left him in a wheelchair. But J. didn’t give up on life or his desire to learn how to fly. J. bought the Cardinal and had the left side fitted with hand controls. Although the right side has conventional controls, I have all instructors who fly with J. do the checkout in the left side, so they will understand how to fly a plane with hand controls and what J. is dealing with.

The hand controls hook on to the brake and rudder pedals with j-hooks. A bar comes up and rests on the pilot’s right leg. This bar has a knob to use when moving it. Move it to the 9 o’clock position and you have engaged left rudder. Moving it to the 3 o’clock position engages the right rudder. 12 o’clock engages both brakes, while 10:30 and 1:30 engage left brake + left rudder and right brake + right rudder respectively. You must learn to taxi and fly the plane with both feet flat on the floor. In the air it flies pretty conventionally, but taxi, take-off, and landings are very challenging.

When the first version of the hand control was installed in the Cardinal, it was not as functional as the current version, and I had an extremely difficult time learning to use it. I was the Anoka version of “Entertainment Today” for the tower. I will never (ever) forget the day I was going to taxi out to runway 27. I had to taxi north past the tower and then hang a hard right to go out to runway 27. When I started trying to make the turn to the right, I could not get the airplane to go all the way around to the desired direction. Unable to turn right, I decided I would do a 270-degree turn to the left. About a quarter of the way around, I came to a dead stop, unable to get the hand control to keep the airplane turning left. Completely frustrated, I decided to drop the hand control bar down on the floor and resort to using the rudders. However the j-hooks were still firmly attached to the rudder pedals and the bar was hitting the seat pedestals, preventing full use of the rudders. As a result I was unable to go in either direction. I was finally forced to shut the plane down and ask ground control if they would have a tug sent out for me. By this time the tower was in stitches, and I was completely embarrassed. I was definitely the talk of the airport for a couple of days.

One day when I was talking to J., I asked him why he was so determined to learn how to fly. He told me how he had always hung around airports, listening to the pilots talk. And then he said something that almost brought tears to my eyes. He said listening to the pilots talk, “flying was like magic, and I just wanted a piece of the magic for myself.” Go for it, J. – you’re an inspiration to everyone who knows you.

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