The pre-dawn hours of an Alaskan winter morning tend to be ball-risingly cold. Women agree to this, despite their testicular lack, because the concept of being out in such weather invites a sort of ‘duh’ response that’s gender unspecific. Despite such unanimous agreement against it, I frequently dragged my sorry ass out into the blinding cold, testes be damned, because it was arguably the best opportunity to get some flight time in before the world awoke and decided that they, too, needed to log some hours. Selfish bastards.
The two things that I remember most about flying airplanes: 1. The peace and 2. The bowel-emptying terror of learning how to recover from a spin. I’ll supplement #2 (HA!) with an assurance that no bowels of mine were ever emptied during any flight, but it’s an appropriate association to make with the first time one experiences an aircraft entering a spin. My instructor was an F-15C pilot, which translates to his being roughly the same age and overwhelmingly cocky, but thorough. Very thorough. The first couple of times we went up, he primarily wanted to get me comfortable with the basics. Follow the checklists. Look at this, then that, then this over here, don’t push that, etc. And as I got to know both he and the plane, gradually, he began to teach me why and how a plane stays in the air and how hard it is to actually not fly it once it’s up there. For instance, early on when he would tell me to drop altitude, I’d slooooooooooooooooooowly push forward on the controls and watch the little needle start to eeek it’s way toward smaller numbers. After awhile he started saying, ‘Faster’, and I would veeeeeeeeery slowly push a little harder forward until finally one day he muttered, ‘OK, I have control’, took control, and dropped us ~1500 feet in ~3 seconds. His moral: If you want to get somewhere, just fucking go there already, holy shit.
Stalls and spins. *sigh* Ah, reverie. The power-off stall is easy, almost insultingly so. You kill the power, then attempt to keep the aircraft from sinking by gradually increasing the angle of the wings until finally, the aircraft lacks the velocity needed keep it aloft. You begin to fall, you add power, crisis averted. The power-on stall, however, can tend to be less straightforward. You apply full power and begin a steep climb, gradually increasing the wings’ angle of attack until it’s so steep that the air traveling under the wings isn’t moving as fast as the air moving over the wings. So, you’re crawling up, up, up, until you hear this little buzzing sound (stall warning) and then…..torque. Torque is the hell-bitch that you don’t expect in this situation, though any physicist worth his death ray will tell you that it’s obvious what’s about to happen. A propeller basically consists of wings attached to an axis. Let’s say you’re lucky enough to be in a plane being pushed along by a single propeller spinning clockwise. If you, gosh I don’t know, yank back on the stick and climb at a severe enough angle to eventually stall the plane, suddenly the propeller becomes the boss of everyone involved and it keeps turning clockwise, while the rest of the plane heaves over counterclockwise and begins to fall and roll until someone does something about it.
I can still hear that buzzer in the harsh and lonely night. Truth be told, recovery from a power-on stall is relatively simple as long as you don’t panic and, uh…well, do the wrong thing. Simplicity itself. Spins, however, are the asshole big brother of power-on stalls, as they not only rely on torque, but also yaw and pitch and your life flashing before your eyes. Spins are disorienting because the plane is doing something that it really shouldn’t be doing. It’s actually more awkward for the plane in some ways to be spinning sideways, but the bottom line is this: If a plane is moving sideways in a circle, then it’s definitely not moving forward, which is where you’re supposed to be moving in order to keep from gradually hitting the Earth. Recovery from many bad things that might happen in midair boils down to this: Figure out which way you’re going, then do your best to go the opposite direction. And also, it’s important that you realize in these situations that time isn’t moving any faster. He used to count the seconds aloud as I recovered from whatever it was we needed recovery from in order to illustrate that you generally always have time to do what’s necessary, as long as you don’t panic. A pretty fair life lesson, too, when you think about it.
Sir @ August 7, 2009