The Early Days in the Air

I got my pilot’s license Saturday, May 1, 1993.

I shot this from Cougar Field, the Ada High School baseball field, which is right next to the airport. You can see the date stamp on the left edge of the photo, April 30, 1993, and the tail number, N6059G. It was just the next day, in this airplane, that I took my check ride and became a private pilot.
I shot this from Cougar Field, the Ada High School baseball field, which is right next to the airport. You can see the date stamp on the left edge of the photo, April 30, 1993, and the tail number, N6059G. It was just the next day, in this airplane, that I took my check ride and became a private pilot.

Every pilot remembers seminal moments in their flying careers, like their first solo, their first long cross-country, or the first time they carried passengers.

The day of my check ride was no different. Fellow student Dub and I were both getting our check rides that day. The examiner was about two hours late. He gave a rambling, three-hour oral “exam,” which was mostly him telling us to…

  1. Stay out of the weather
  2. Don’t fly at night
  3. Don’t mis-load the airplane.

We plotted our cross-country flights. I knew my charts, numbers, and regs pretty well.

Dub flew his check ride in a Cessna 172 he had just bought. I flew mine in the Cessna 150 I’d trained in.

On my check ride, which is slang for Private Pilot Practical Test, he had me do a soft-field take off on runway 12 (the shorter crosswind runway), which I executed well. We turned east and practiced some slow flight, then climbed north for some steep turns, one (yes, just one) stall (straight ahead, power-on), and about five minutes under the hood (a view-limiting device) for unusual-attitude recovery and VOR navigation. Over the river north of town, we did turns around a point and half an s-turn, then headed to the airport. I set up for a soft-field landing. He told me to go around at about 50-feet above the ground. We climbed to pattern altitude and turned downwind for 17, where he pulled the throttle to idle to simulate an engine failure.

We taxied to the ramp, where he said, “You go tell Phil (my instructor) you flunked your check ride, and make it convincing. Then I’ll go inside and write your license. Congratulations.”

Dub went next in his 172. Phil was nervous like an expectant father. And since I tested first, I had the honor of being Phil’s first student to “graduate.”

I flew my first passengers just two days later, in a 1966 Cessna 150 I rented in Norman, Oklahoma.

Robert and I horse around one fine and fun afternoon in the air.
Robert and I horse around one fine and fun afternoon in the air.

A couple of days later, Dub and I flew his 172 north of town to find and look at an airplane one of our fellow pilots, we’ll call him “Frank,” had landed his plane in a wheat field after the engine failed. “Frank” was notorious for getting in his airplane and flying off without any preflight checklist or briefing of any kind, and on this occasion, it was rumored he flew it without any engine oil, causing it to fail.

It was also that spring when I found out I had won the AP’s Photo of the Year, and The Oklahoma Press Association’s Photographer of the Year awards, so I really was flying high.

Here are some items about flying to commit to memory.

  1. Be humble, approachable, and credible.
  2. Always, in order: aviate, navigate, communicate.
  3. If you are lost, climb, communicate, confess.

And I can’t stress this one enough: put. the. nose. down. How many more tragic accident reports and YouTube videos (including four fatality accidents that I covered for my newspaper) before pilots stop being so incompetent with the elevator?

Just weeks after I got my license, I was flying with someone from my class who was still working towards his license. The cross-country went fine, but on final I saw his airspeed decay to something like 40 knots, and although I was a green pilot myself, I said, “my airplane,” and salvaged the landing. How? By putting the nose down!

This is a pretty good setup for turning base to final in a Cessna 150; about 70 knots, 1800 rpm, 700 fpm down, 10 degrees of flap. The temptation is to let too much speed bleed off from here to the threshold, but I typically kept that 1800 rpm until I was over the numbers, maybe even pushing it up just a bit to slow my descent rate. I got very good at landing this airplane in just a few hundred feet of runway. And if you feel too low or too slow, don't raise the nose! Stay calm and add power!
This is a pretty good setup for turning base to final in a Cessna 150; about 70 knots, 1800 rpm, 700 fpm down, 10 degrees of flap. The temptation is to let too much speed bleed off from here to the threshold, but I typically kept that 1800 rpm until I was over the numbers, maybe even pushing it up just a bit to slow my descent rate. I got very good at landing this airplane in just a few hundred feet of runway. And if you feel too low or too slow, don’t raise the nose! Stay calm and add power!

1 Comment

  1. I’m just now hearing the “my airplane” story. What if he’d refused to hand over control? Surely that’s a thing that happens.

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