There’s an old adage among pilots: the propeller isn’t really there to make the plane fly, it’s just a fan to keep the pilot cool. Because if it stops spinning, you’ll really watch him sweat.
I can say from first hand experience there’s some truth to that.
I must have been bored in the late ’80’s. Folks who’ve been following this blog know I took up SCUBA diving in 1988, but the year before I’d taken up flying too. I let nothing stop me from pursuing the heights and depths of life.
Learning to fly was a bucket list item I can blame on my Uncle Bud back in Minnesota. I don’t know where he got the bug, but by the time I hit age 12 he owned or co-owned three planes: a Cessna 195 on pontoons, a Piper Super Cub, and a bi-winged Steerman. The Cessna was mostly for fun, but the other two were used for crop dusting.
All pilots are a little crazy, but crop dusters must have an extra dose. I remember one afternoon when I was 16, working on a farm with my brother when Bud came buzzing by and demonstrated those flying skills. First he made a low and slow pass, checking out the ground conditions. Then, at the end of the field run he pulled a steep turn; set the plane on its ear, spun it around 180 degrees, and leveled out, all about 15 yards above the ground. Just to land and say howdy.
So, when we went to visit the cousins and Bud was around, we’d always bug him for rides. Usually when we succeeded we went up in the Cessna, taking off from a river he had it moored in. Those experiences gave me the flying bug too; it was just a question of time.
I learned to fly in Oregon; it’s a picturesque place to fly. The Willamette Valley sits between two mountain ranges: the Cascades running down the center of the state and the coastals running parallel to the Pacific. From here we can fly up or down the valley, over to the coast to fly along the beach, up the Columbia Gorge, or over to Mt. St. Helens to check out the volcanic dome, or Mt. Hood, or Mt. Jefferson, or the dry country east of the Cascades, or wherever the urge takes us. Unlike cars, we’re not limited to roads, you get a feeling of freedom to just tooling along. You want to climb, or dive, or cut a turn? Go for it (with precautions and controlled airspace considered, of course).
One fine day I opted to make a run to the coast. I rented a Grumman Yankee (pictured above), as it’s a sporty little plane, and the canopy gives it a good view and a Top Gun coolness factor.
All planes store their fuel in their wings. On the Grumman, there was a selector lever that allowed you to pick which tank the fuel was being fed from. After flying about 30 minutes or so it felt like the balance of the plane was getting a little off, so I decided to switch tanks.
My experience with tank selection levers was limited. The majority of my flight time had been in Cessna 150’s. They don’t have a tank selection switch, it always drains from both tanks. I’d also flown Cessna 172’s, the 150’s four seat bigger brother. The 172 does have a fuel selector, with the option of picking the left tank, right tank, or by setting the selection lever to the mid point, both tanks. Going on my 172 experience, I set the Grumman’s fuel selector to the mid point.
Thumpa thumpa thumpa silence. The engine died. Nothing but wind noise to keep me company. The prop, no longer a noisy blur, did a bit of gentle windmilling.
Suddenly that canopy that looked so cool was more like a greenhouse. Without my friendly fan up front whizzing away I, like the proverbial pilot, broke into a sweat. At least it was a cold sweat.
Pilots are trained to look for emergency landing places when the engine dies – farmers fields, highways, whatever will serve. By this time my headway had already taken me over the coastal mountain range. All trees. No level spots. No highways in sight. The Grumman has short, stubby wings, and although that lets it turn on a dime, it also has the glide ratio of a brick. Oh shit.
The next thing was to figure out what went wrong, and the fuel selection position was a prime candidate. I switched it to the left tank.
Sputter sputter brrroooom!! The engine started up again, the fan did it’s thing, and the pilot stopped sweating.
The years flew by, but I didn’t; I stopped flying in 2001. It’s a very expensive hobby, and I wasn’t flying often enough to even justify what I was paying for insurance. But it wasn’t for lack of interest. Even now, on a clear summer day when local pilots fly their little two seaters overhead, I always look up and follow them by, wistfully wishing I was up there, and remembering what it felt like to be on top of the world.