A pilot's pilot

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Grannie Annie and I heard a great sermon on Easter Sunday.

The minister talked about encouraging other persons. Look them in the eye and tell them that you believe in them. In his case, he was a retired minister driving a school bus to keep his mind and life juices flowing. He befriended a high school age student (unsaid but probably the old gent became friends with all his students) and asked the polite young man boarding his bus how his grades were going.

“Terrible” was the reply. The friendly bus driver told the young man to go home and complete his homework papers and he did! Through this bus driver’s encouragement the young man put his nose to the grindstone, grades improved and he graduated. Someone cared.

Bravo to the High School Mentoring program recently reported in the Gazette which succeeds in doing exactly the same.

A different circumstance but your columnist’s buttons are popping with pride as I follow several of the young students I’ve taught to fly in this area and now are doing good things in their Air Force careers.

The latest achiever is Lance Wach who hails from west of Hayes Center. Lance at the moment is going through training to fly the F-22, the premier fighter in our military, the best in the world. I didn’t do it but maybe I reinforced a dream that he could fly the best there is. He worked, studied hard and earned his way to the pinnacle of aviation. A farm kid from our very rural area becoming one of the best of the best. We can all be proud.

United Airlines made the news this past week by dragging a passenger of one of their airliners. The gent had been asked to get off the airplane to make room for four United employees that needed to fly from Chicago to Louisville.

At least three other passengers of the fully loaded flight had accepted a reported $400 cash payment and a voucher for an overnight hotel stay. Dr. Dao refused to get off and eventually was manhandled by security personnel and dragged out of the cabin. It wasn’t a good scene and United is suffering from the social media exposure of the incident.

Now personally, I have little sympathy for Dr. Dao. Had I been a passenger on the flight I would have vacated my seat when asked to get off.

The $400 or $800 offer would have been rather irresistible for me, but I would consider it a bonus after being asked to get off the airplane. Possibly my attitude stems from long experience in hauling passengers around the world in my Air Force KC-135 tanker, a close cousin to commercial airlines Boeing 707s.

In those days we tanker aircrew also carried in plain sight holstered .38-caliber revolvers. For sure, armed crewmembers inhibited anyone foolish enough to think of trying to hijack our aircraft! If needed to order a passenger to disembark I am sure they would have marched off my aircraft.

Still, it was an embarrassing scene.

These past several weeks this long-time flight instructor has been privileged to teach a high school student at Imperial to fly in a really special airplane.

It was manufactured in 1950 as a 7EC Aeronica Champ. Actually, 1950 was about the end of the line for the Aeronica Co. before it went defunct. Aeronica designed the Champ to compete with the Piper Cub.

In fact, it looked like the Cub, high wing with wood spars.

It had a potbellied fuselage and conventional tail feathers, all fabric covered.

The early Champs used the same engine as the Cub, all of 65 horsepower (on a good day) swinging a wooden prop, tandem seating. Neither had an electrical system so they had to be hand propped to start.

Pretty basic airplane, but fun to fly and a great trainer. In all, Aeronica produced some 17,000 airplanes of various models and several of their designs are still being produced today by other manufacturing companies.

The airplane that Blake and I have been flying is in a sense special because it is a pristine, exceptionally well-kept 67-year-old Aeronica.

It was owned until his death five years ago by a famous icon in aviation, a pilot named Dennis E. “Denny Fitch.”

You may remember the crash of a United Airlines DC-10 at Sioux City, Iowa. United Airlines Flight 232. Through Denny’s actions that day he was credited with saving the lives of 185 of the 296 people on board as the airplane crashed in a cornfield alongside the runway of Sioux Gateway Airport.

The DC-10 airliner that day had suffered from a complete failure or all its flight controls when the No. 2 engine, the one high up in the tail, catastrophically failed and severed all three hydraulic systems. Denny had been riding in the back as a passenger on his way home and promptly went forward to help Captain Al Haynes.

Denny was an instructor for United and knew the DC-10 intimately. The only way to control the airplane in that condition was through differential thrust of the two remaining wing mounted engines.

Pull the power back on the right engine and the airplane turns right. Increase power on both and it climbs, reduce the power and it descends. It had never been done before, but Denny Fitch learned quickly and was able to maneuver the stricken airplane to the nearest runway.

No way to control speed and when it touchdown it cartwheeled and tore itself apart into three major pieces. The lucky 185, including the flight crew up front in the nose, survived. Denny Fitch a pilot’s pilot.

So Denny had owned and obviously loved the old Champ that I’ve been privileged to fly. When Doug and Taylor Wilson purchased it from a subsequent owner north of Chicago they flew it a short distance and landed to top off with fuel. They taxied to the gas pump and about four of the airport locals came out and asked: “What are you doing with Denny Fitch’s airplane?” Of course, the explanation was easy and my two friends happily then flew their new acquisition on back home to Imperial.

We are all friends in aviation and we watch out for one another.

That is how I saw it.

Dick Trail

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