"Wow I thought Nebraska was all flat!" The words of the young pilot I was teaching to fly my 1946 Aeronca Champ. She had learned to fly in Florida and is part of the Air Ambulance flight crew now operating out of the McCook Airport. (Forget its official name!) Life Team flies a twin engine turboprop "King Air" aircraft that is most comfortable above 10,000 feet where most everything down below does indeed look more flat. The Champ seems to be more comfortable flying low and slow down about 500 feet (about as high as a city block is long) above the ground. At eighty miles per hour, one has more time to enjoy, no savor is the better word, the scene below. Besides that low and slow is just pure fun.
Actually I have had the recent privilege of flying with three of the Life Team pilots, checking them out in my old Champ. Their first revelation that this airplane is different from all they have flown before is the time honored procedure of starting the engine by turning the propeller by hand. There is no electrical system at all to power a starter. Wheel brakes are operated by pushing with one's heels rather than the more comfortable modern system where the pedals are operated by the toes. Like about all aircraft of that era, it is built to set on a tail wheel which brings the nose to a high attitude where forward visibility during ground operations is marginal. The view is even worse from my position in the rear seat which makes it necessary to make "S" turns while taxiing to keep from running into anything.
Takeoffs are initially strange to a pilot trained on aircraft with a nose gear as one has to raise the tail to the flight attitude. Pushing forward on the control stick is definitely an unnatural act on the takeoff roll and holding the tail high after landing touchdown also has to be relearned. Once airborne though "tail-draggers" fly like any other airplane.
Each of the Life Team professional pilots hail from parts of the USofA where the terrain is much different from the rolling plains where we live. After the first takeoff we venture out over the Republican River Valley where I note the vanished homestead where Walt Schutz raised his family. His house and outbuildings are gone without a trace; just a sea of grass with the stark bones of his concrete storm shelter marking the place.
Heading west I guide my aspiring student pilots over the completely abandoned home sites where Charlie Evans, Jacob Hoff, and Tooley Vontz raised their families. Not a trace of those once bustling farmsteads remain; all removed and turned back into productive farmland. In the neighborhood of my childhood the farmsteads of the Dutton brothers, Cassie, Blaine and Ernie are marked with only one derelict building each, trees, granaries, houses and all else gone to make room to grow corn. Ironically all those places were alive with growing families when my old Champ was manufactured. Our world changes but some things like old airplanes and memories are worth preserving.
Turning north we tour Hugh Butler Lake and note progress on repairing the dam. Most don't realize that the complex of small ponds below the dam where Bill Hahle raises baby stocking fish even exists. Nearly always we see large white pelicans on the mud flat shore at the upper end of the lake in addition to the ever-present ducks and geese. On the west side of the lake opposite the marina is a favorite nesting place for turkey buzzards those superb fliers wheeling below as we pass.
Leaving the lake we fly up one of the canyons, usually below the rim, and the response is "I've never flown this low before"! Note we are careful to avoid flying near any cattle or other livestock which might be disturbed with our presence. Next is the challenge of flying around the outside track of several of the center pivot irrigation systems that populate the old Army Airbase. From the air one can still spot many of the foundations of the numerous buildings from when the base was functional. The large hangars are still there but sadly most are deteriorating from age and neglect. Ramps, taxiways and runways are mostly gone taken up and the concrete broken for other uses. The normal response from the pilots up front is that "It is a shame, all that should have been preserved!" I especially agree but it was not to be.
Our checkout flights end back to the airport where the nimrod in the front seat learns to land the bird and keep it straight throughout the landing roll. The natural tendency of a tail wheel airplane is to want to go down the runway tail first a maneuver that has to be avoided at all costs. We tongue in cheek describe tail dragger pilots as those with "happy feet" for it is the quick work of their toes on the rudder pedals that keeps the airplane straight. With practice and sometimes a little help from the instructor in the rear seat all have learned to avoid the dreaded "ground loop."
For me the greatest reward is to see the huge smile when a newly minted "Tail Wheel Aircraft" pilot taxies back in after their first solo flight. "Oh that is the most fun that I've ever had in an airplane" I've heard many a time!
Our Nebraska is simply beautiful from the air this time of year. The pastures have turned green and it is heartwarming to see sleek mama cows tending their babies on lush new growth. Wheat fields are a darker bright green and by now most tilled fields display the corduroy pattern of newly planted corn or beans. Fresh new leaves cover the trees along the streams and we airmen are sometimes privileged to spot a deer, coyote, or turkey down below. What isn't there to love about this place?
That is the way I saw it.