My social media circles might have noticed this week that I have returned to the aviation hobby after a 20-year hiatus.
I always wanted to be a pilot. I became a licensed private pilot May 1, 1993, just short of 30 years ago.
I flew a lot in the 1990s, when the hobby was less expensive. My wife (then, girlfriend) Abby and I flew together in the spring of 2003. By then, the local aviation community had become less active, and there weren’t really any airplanes to rent here. She and I rented airplanes at Shawnee.
One of the reasons I am flying again now is that thanks to Ada Wings, there are three aircraft that live here at Ada to rent.
There are some myths about flying as a private pilot that I should dispel. It’s very safe. We’re not test pilots or daredevils, and the airplanes we fly are airworthy. One thing that keeps us safe is our respect for the weather, which most non-pilots don’t really understand. We don’t have airliners. Most private pilots like me fly close to home because it’s fun. We can’t jet up to Nova Scotia in a couple of hours. We fly for fun, and for the challenge of becoming better pilots.
Monday I flew with Ada Wings’ flight instructor Zach Burkhead, who gave me my first flight review in 21 years. Everything came back to me pretty quickly, but I still feel like I should sharpen my skills. My landings were sloppy, but that’s to be expected with dormant muscle memory.
The two aircraft I flew Monday were a straight-tail Cessna 150, and a Cessna 172.
Burkhead signed me off for two years, and checked me out to rent their airplanes.
If you’ve ever dreamed you would like to learn to fly, make it happen. I did, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
The hottest movie topic in 2022 was Top Gun: Maverick. I am sorry, my friends who loved this movie, but…
The biggest problem I have with this film is the same problem I have with the final three Star Wars films in the saga: rehash.
The same title card and Faltermeyer/Loggins intro music.
The same fighter jet porn in the intro.
Goose’s son wears Goose’s exact same mustache.
The fighter pilots are approached from behind in an ambush-introduction.
The motorcycle scene with his girlfriend (even riding in the same direction as the original scene). Same jacket, same motorcycle.
The stupid sunglasses they all wore in the first movie and in this movie; they were on-point stylish in 1969.
The mission is almost identical to the mission the rebels undertook in Star Wars: A New Hope… a very small force is tasked with skimming a narrow canyon to hit a small opening in the enemy base, and the mission is saved at the last minute by an arrogant pilot who was not part of the original plan.
He steals an F/A-18?
The ultra-sonic test jet flying over North America? Never happen. Supersonic flight of any kind is done over the sea.
The task group fires a spitload of Tomahawk cruise missiles at one runway. Each one of those costs about two million dollars, and just one of them would be adequate to take that airfield out of the fight.
Or, you could use the Tomahawks to actually do the mission.
No one with bitter feelings about the instructor would even be assigned to the mission, no matter how skilled he or she is. Direct conflict of interest.
By the way, Iran is the only nation in the world to have any F-14 Tomcats in service, so duh, it’s Iran. But of course, the presence of the F-14 was shoehorned in to get Tom Cruise back into one for the final scene, and, of course, with Goose’s son in the back seat.
A note about G-forces: this happens when an aircraft is experiencing a lift vector that changes the attitude of the aircraft. The instant an aircraft stops that vector by leveling off, regardless of the direction it’s nose it pointed, the G-force falls back to normal. We see these F/A-18s pull out of the attack, and the pull-up maneuver is what creates the Gs. An aircraft climbing straight up or diving straight down is not experiencing high G-forces.
The bottom line is, for me, that Top Gun: Maverick is easily the most over-rated, over-anticipated movie in the last five years. I didn’t really enjoy it.
“You sounded really euphoric on the phone,” she said.
Alone in the four-seat Cessna Skyhawk, I climbed quickly to 4500 feet to find a very special layered sunset. I did a couple of hard-breaking power-on stalls, and handled them perfectly, then headed back for my required three night full-stop landings to remain current.
In some ways, the era before 9/11 was an age of innocence.
I have written many times over the years about where I was when 9/11 happened. Since Saturday is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, an entire generation of people, some my friends and relatives, have little to no memories of that day.
So today I’d like to share not where I was or what I was doing, but who I was on that day.
I was still flying all the time. I earned my pilot certificate in May 1993, and flew a lot in those years. There were a couple of nice, affordable airplanes to rent at the Ada and Norman airports, and I was building hours by flying and training. 9/11 had a chilling effect on this, since, only marginally related, the terrorists involved had a small amount of general aviation training.
I was unmarried and wasn’t dating anyone. This wasn’t for lack of trying, but more about how difficult it is to be in a good relationship or in a good marriage. From the moment of 9/11 to my first date with my wife Abby in January 2003, it seemed like an eternity, but of course it was just 16 months.
I lived in a very small downtown Ada apartment. Because it was near the college, my apartment tended to be more culturally diverse than most neighborhoods, and I really liked that.
I still had a darkroom at our newspaper, so I was still very active in film photography, especially black-and-white photography.
On September 12, after more than 24 hours of watching the news about the attacks, a friend told me on the phone that, “I’m really brain dead. I wonder if it’s information overload. I feel like the wheels are just whirring away inside my head.”
I was recently honored to once again help jury some East Central University Mass Communications students’ senior presentations, specifically those students who emphasized visuals like photography, graphic arts and design.
It got me thinking about my college days and earlier, and about what I imagined I wanted to be as an adult – “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
In 1974, I was absolutely sure I wanted to grow up to be a pilot. I had a beautiful model of a Pam Am Boeing 747-200, an aircraft known as “the queen of the skies,” that inspired a whole generation of young people. Although I never did it professionally, I became a pilot in 1993.
In sixth grade, a teacher we all liked and admired, Mrs. Gerber, asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. When no one volunteered an answer, Mrs. Gerber got out her roll call book and started calling our names in alphabetical order, so I was first. I blurted out, “Farmer,” and the class laughed and laughed. But the next kid didn’t have an answer either, and also said, “Farmer!”
Eventually we had a room full of 26 would-be farmers.
That summer, my mom got me a part-time job working for an oral surgeon for whom she worked as an office manager. My job mostly involved mopping and cleaning, but I also learned how to clean stainless steel dental instruments and sterilize them using an autoclave, so for a while I had dentistry in mind.
In 10th grade, I was fascinated with the weather, and even wrote down watches and warnings on my journal, so there was a short period when I wanted to be a meteorologist.
By 11th grade, I’d been keeping a journal for a while, and imagined I could one day be a novelist, albeit one without a plan for writing even my first novel.
As a senior in high school, I was taking pictures for yearbook, and got addicted to that. Around that same time, I started hanging out with guys who loved hi-fi stereo, so there was a period when I dreamed of working in a stereo store.
I asked my wife Abby what she wanted to be when she was young.
“I wanted to be a cowgirl when I was four,” she told me. “But not like Dale Evans. I wanted to be Roy Rogers.”
She wanted to be a mechanic, and actually did a fair amount of that kind of work as a hobby. She knows pretty much everything there is to know about internal combustion engines, even rebuilding one with her brother-in-law, Ralph Milligan, which she raced.
She played with being a math teacher, a child psychologist or a veterinarian. She worked in a veterinary clinic in the 1990s.
By my late college years, I had settled on being a photojournalist, in part because I was good at it, and in part because the equipment is pretty sexy.
Aviators and aviation fans who follow the news know that recent months have not gone at all well for American passenger aircraft manufacturer Boeing. Two Boeing 737 passenger jets crashed in recent months, both brand new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, killing a total of 338 people.
The entire 737 MAX fleet has been grounded since the second crash. Subsequent investigations have pointed to the jet’s new MCAS system, a computer-controlled device intended to tame the aerodynamic difficulties that came about from the necessity of adding bigger, more powerful engines that didn’t quite fit under the low ride of the original 737, engines that had to be reshaped and moved forward and upward on their mounts.
The whole idea of putting big engines on this jet has its limits, and, as we are now seeing, has a huge consequence.
Where am I going with this? In the 1980s and 1990s, Boeing built an excellent, powerful, reliable, narrow-bodied jet that, had it been nurtured and developed within its role among airliners, would have been perfect in the role the 737 MAX is trying to occupy: the Boeing 757.
Boeing built the 757 from the start to serve to 200 to 295 passenger market. It featured a large, ahead-of-its-time wing, and huge, fuel-efficient engines. It was a beautiful aircraft, and remains a workhorse jet for airlines like Delta, American, Fed Ex, and UPS, who are looking without success for a replacement for the 757.
The problem arises from Boeing’s short-term thinking. When 757 sales slumped, Boeing abandoned it, and tried to work stretched 737’s to take its place. The real answer would have been to make the 757 a priority, in engineering, performance, efficiency, and reputation. Let the 737 be the perfect plane for Denver to Sioux City, then position the 757 for Houston to Seattle.
The same thing happened to precipitate the 737 MAX debacle: when airlines told Boeing they needed a “new” jet right now, Boeing decided to abandon any new designs and “MAX” the 737, a jet that fundamentally dates back to 1963.
I know: who am I to talk but a business dilettante? But I’ve been right a few times about this and that: MySpace, Radio Shack, JC Penney, Sears, Wards, Hipstamatic. And it’s absolutely valid for me to make observations about the business world in which huge, thriving corporations are driven into dust by MBAs who should know better than I.
YouTube has recently suggested a lot of 9/11 conspiracy videos to me. If I click on one of them and watch it, YouTube mines that and suggests more. As I watch them, one thing is pretty clear: few people buy all the way in to the “official” story of the day, which says that 19 Islamists simultaneously hijacked four airliners on the east coast, flew them for some distance without effective official countermeasure, then successfully flew three of them into symbolic structures. Two of those structures, very tall skyscrapers, then collapsed in an identical fashion, and later that day a similar nearby skyscraper also collapsed in a nearly identical fashion.
The problem with the conspiracy theories is this: as implausible as the events of 9/11 seem, no one seems to be able to suggest either a more passable scenario or explain why powers that be would create scenarios that seem so inconsistent.
So, let’s break it down 9/11’s most implausible items…
Steel skyscrapers collapse due to impact plus fires. I’ll grant you that this is a pretty hinky occurrence, and what the theorists say most often, that no modern high-rise has ever collapsed in its footprint after being damaged or destroyed by fire, is true.
Airliner wings and engines “melt” into the side of a steel structure like the WTC towers or the side of the Pentagon. I suspect this one is related to speed; bullets go into stuff all the time and seem to melt, despite being much softer than the materials they strike.
Airliners flying near the ground at very high airspeeds. A lot of conspiracy videos assert, and even cartoonishly illustrate, that wings of airliners would be torn off at 500 knots at sea level. As a pilot, I know a few things about speeds, and they are talking about Vne, or Velocity Never Exceed, the bug on the airspeed dial the represents sound advice from the engineers who designed and built the aircraft: if you go faster than this, we can’t guarantee the airplane will fly a like it should or even hold together. While it’s true that on the flight decks of the jets that struck the WTC, there were probably audible and visual warnings going off, and that flying a jet at these speeds would mean taking it out of service for inspection, it is not a guarantee that the wings and empennage would fly off.
No black boxes found/black boxes found by the FBI and/or not released. This is probably a consequence of the FBI being in charge of the investigation. Only the NTSB knows how to collect and interpret such devices. A more marginal explanation might be the desire to “spare” the families the horror of reenactments.
The planes were actually missiles that were switched for the actual planes that ended up somewhere else. Even if this were the case and for some reason you needed to shoot the WTC with a missile, why not just put it onto a 767?
That airliners would be able to shut off transponders at a certain time of day. Actually, Occam’s Razor favors this one, as a bunch of teenage boys with walkie-talkies could have done it.
One way to measure the logic of a scenario is to examine what it accomplishes.
Certainly if you wanted to commit 9/11 from the inside, the hijacking scheme is one way to do it, but why would you? If you wanted to burn records or destroy specific buildings, a far simpler way would be to stage a fire or explosion. Or a more straightforward terror attack, like a successful version of the failed 1993 WTC attack.
Or turn it around: what did 9/11 accomplish for the U.S. government? Specifically? That’s really the biggest hole in the 9/11 conspiracy scene: what did 9/11 accomplish for the insiders?
Somebody please talk some sense to me. I certainly can’t find it from the internet’s so-called Truthers.
Readers might recall that three years ago my media cohorts and I were treated to a “media ride” on the Experimental Aircraft Association’s 1929 Ford Tri-Motor. The “Tin Goose” was in town again this week, and we took the usual media ride.
It was fun, but in all honesty, as a pilot, I’ve flown a lot of airplanes, and done a lot of crazy fun stuff in the sky, so puttering along in the world’s slowest airliner wasn’t exactly a thrill ride. Still, it’s always nice to be in the sky, and fun to meet up and do something unusual with my fellow media friends.
As I covered an Ada softball game at their field next to the Ada Municipal Airport, I couldn’t help but notice a larger number of Cessna Cardinals in the landing pattern, and an even larger number parked on the grass near the airport’s signature business, GAMI/Tornado Alley Turbo. I surmised we were having a fly-in of some kind, and as my readers know, I am a pilot, and powerfully attracted to anything related to aviation.
When I finished working my softball game, I drove next door and found long-time friend and fellow pilot Tim Roehl, who was organizing the event. After I made a few feature photos of pilots and planes, Tim hooked me up with Cardinal Flyers Association President Keith Peterson, who took me around the patch for some images of the fly-in, and to talk about flying. It was fun, and, as always, great to be in my sky again.
I departed Ada in a rented Piper Cherokee 160, N5422W, intending to fly to Tulsa International Airport (my friend Robert lived near there at the time) at about 3 p.m., climbing to 3500 feet. It was choppy at that altitude, but I couldn’t get higher for a scattered to broken layer of mixed towering cumulonimbus. Visibility was good and because of the weather, I kept my eyes open for alternate airports. About halfway along, I had to go between two large thunderstorms, but it got clearer as I approached Tulsa.
I navigated mostly by VOR; there are surprisingly few landmarks between Ada and Tulsa.
I could see huge towers of a thunderstorm over Tulsa and began planning my return to Ada or, if necessary, Okmulgee (which was close). I tried to tune in the Tulsa International ATIS, but at first I wasn’t receiving it, then suddenly it came on the air and simply reported, “contact approach for rapidly changing conditions.”
I listened to approach for a few minutes, and heard them vector an American Airlines MD-80 back to Oklahoma City. I decided to go to Tulsa Riverside, which is on the other side of Tulsa. I called approach and they gave me two VFR vectors for spacing, then handed me off to the RVS tower. They had me fly three miles downwind, which almost put me into the growing thunderstorm to the north. I slowed the aircraft. Finally he called my turn to base and cleared me to land. In a light rain I touched down, perfectly smoothly.
I had dinner with Robert and his (then) girlfriend Karen. During dinner we nicknamed her Snow Pea (which stuck with her). We went back to Robert’s apartment and photographed Karen, who looked very beautiful.
The flight back to Ada was very different from the trip from Ada. From the very moment I took off, it was as smooth as I’ve ever flown. In the safe, warm glow of the red lights of the instrument panel, I climbed to 6500 feet in perfect visibility and started receiving the Ada VOR. I called Fort Worth Center to request flight following, and apparently I was their only low-altitude business for the night, because they never gave me an advisory.
On eight-mile final I canceled radar service and arrived with an even smoother landing.
May 1, 1993: I climbed into a spritely Cessna 150 named “Old Gomer” with a flight examiner. We flew for an hour, testing my skills and knowledge. When we were done, we parked the airplane, then went into the airport so he could issue me a temporary airman certificate. I was a pilot, the first of my flight instructor’s first class to become a pilot.
Next up for his check ride was Dub Tolliver. He bought a Cessna 172 near the end of his training, so he tested in it, and he too got his airman certificate that day, but he and I both got most of our training in Old Gomer. I hung around, and after we both had our “license to learn” in hand, we sat and talked about flying with our examiner.
A couple of days later I flew my first passenger, the late Kathy Godfrey. We had fun.
That weekend, Dub called me to say that a pilot from our airport had put his airplane into a field near the Canadian River 10 miles northeast due to an engine failure, and would I like to fly over there and see it. Of course, I did, and Dub let me fly his 172, which was new to me.
As the months went by, Dub and I did a lot of flying together. One time we flew two 172s to a spot south of town and flew in formation for a while, which was even more fun than it sounds.
On another occasion, he and I formed up and stayed in formation all the way down to Alliance Airport in Fort Worth, Texas, where a group of Ada pilots got a tour of Fort Worth Air Traffic Control Center and the tower and Dallas/Forth Worth International Airport, an experience much harder to come by in the the post-9/11 world.
Dub bought two more airplanes as more time went by, a twin-engine Piper, and a Bellanca. I got to fly both of them once or twice, and the time I flew his Bellanca, it was from the left seat, which for some reason (hopefully not my flying skills) made him very nervous.
On another occasion, we flew together to Tulsa where his Piper was being repaired. I left him to fly it home and took his 172 home for him.
Dub had the odd habit of wearing an orange hoodie when he flew. I guess he thought he’d be easier to spot if he had to put down in the middle of nowhere. Dub also loved flying really low, and his favorite thing to do in his airplanes was buzz the Canadian River with the wheels about six feet above the water.
Dub never really got comfortable with the Piper twin – the axiom in aviation is that if you don’t train in your twin constantly, it’s twice as likely to kill you as your single. He eventually sold it.
Dub died Monday after a battle with cancer. He was 68.
In the summer of 1992, I was encouraged by a young lady I was dating at the time to embark on a lifelong dream, to learn to fly. I began my training in August with an excellent pilot named Phil Lawrence, in a sharp-looking Cessna 150 with the name “Old Gomer” painted on the engine cowl. My training was limited to three or four sessions a month, but as fall went on, I got more and more comfortable flying the 1600-pound two-seater.
On December 20, 1992, on a bone cold, slate grey day, after flying three touch-and-go landings from Ada’s runway 35, Phil and I stopped the airplane on a taxiway. He endorsed my logbook, got out of the airplane, and said “Shoot three more,” meaning fly three touch-and-goes by myself. I taxied to the threshold, prepped the airplane by the book, and took off. I remember how much lighter and more responsive the plane felt without the weight of my instructor in it. My three landings were flawless.
Once back in the hangar, by tradition, Phil cut off my shirt tail to “hang it out to dry.” Later that day I got on a jet and flew to Florida for Christmas, with a once-in-a-lifetime story to tell.
Soloing is a seminal moment in every pilot’s life.
I am counting on most of my fans to be like-minded in the way I let music carry me away. For example, if I listen to “Crystal Baller” by Third Eye Blind, it takes me back to my first vacation with Abby in 2003. If I listen to “Mercy Street” by Peter Gabriel, it takes me back to the first weeks I spent with Kathy Sterbenc in 1986. If I was listening to something a lot during a season, that song takes me back to it.
Tonight my iTunes shuffled to “Subterraneans,” one of the three movements of the “Low” symphony by Philip Glass, and I was instantly taken back to one particular season, the summer of 1993. I was logging a lot of Cessna hours back then. The airplane I rented most was a Cessna 150, and it was cheap enough that I could sometimes fly a couple of times a week.
It was on one of those days that I wanted to play around with the airplane and my experiences. That hot summer day in 1993 I decided to climb that little airplane to 10,000 feet. It took quite a bit of patience. Unlike airliners, by the time you get a Cessna 150 to 10,000 feet, it’s 108 horsepower engine is struggling to climb 100 feet per minute. By the time I finally got there, it was an absolute pleasure to feel the cold rush into the cabin through those infamous Cessna “beer can” vents at 40 degrees cooler than it was when I left the summer-hot tarmac.
I excitedly noted in my log book, “10k feet!”
Another piece of music that brings back that summer with intense longing is Grieg’s Piano Concerto In A, Op. 16 – 2. Adagio. I can listen to either of these pieces of music and close my eyes and be there again, alone in that tiny airplane in that big sky, just flying for no other reason than to be flying.
For many years in the 1990s and early 2000s, I flew a lot. Airplanes in my neck of the woods were cheap, my rent was low, and it was easy and convenient. A lot of people flew with me over the years, including my mother. (My sister says that the day I took mom flying over the pristine beaches of northern Florida, she and my dad sat at home in abject silence the entire time.) Others who came on board through the years include Michael Zeiler and his wife Thea Goldsby, David and Brenda Wheelock, the late Kathy Godfrey, Melissa Price (who asked me, “Do we get helmets?”), Joanna Teel, Caprice Harris, Scott Andersen, Rosemary Swift, Anne Roberts, Robert Stinson, Debbie Harris, Kris Cash, Jennifer Leirer, Michelle Bullard, David Martin, Ann Kelley, Sharon Maupin, Jamie Harrel, and bunches more. I’d call somebody up and say, “Hey, I’ve got the airplane. Want to come along?” They always did.
Of course, nobody was more eager to go or enjoyed it more than Abby. The times I let her fly the airplane, she seemed like a natural, and if money and circumstance ever allow, I would love for her to learn to fly.
I saw a lot in my years of recreational flying; amazing sunsets that went up and down as I flew touch-and-go landings, towering cumulus like mountains all around, the lights of Dallas and Oklahoma City at the same time late at night, formation flying, aerobatics, airliners beneath me on approach to Oklahoma City, fog rolling in in the distance, shimmering sunshine on lakes far below, and on and on.
1992, was strange, painful, wonderful and exciting year for me. In 1992, I bought my 300mm f/2.8. In 1992, I started learning to fly, and on December 20, I soloed. I can still remember that cold, grey morning; we shot three touch-and-goes on runway 35, and then Phil, my flight instructor, got out of the plane and told me to do three more. I remember how much better that Cessna flew with just my 150 pounds aboard. When I was done, he did the shirt tail tradition. I don’t know if non-pilots know about this, but when you solo the first time, your instructor is supposed to cut off your shirt tail and “hang it up to dry.”
The middle part of my 1992 was occupied by spending time with a very beautiful but somewhat troubled young lady who believed in spirit photography. In May, I photographed a quadruple fatality (my famous “Funeral Crash” photo that published around the world), then came back to the office to soup film and give something to the AP. That’s when she came in and asked to see my film, because she wanted to see if there were ghosts or spirits in my photos.
Wil Fry got tagged by someone to post eight things about himself that no one, or at least very few people, knew about him. One of his was that he witnessed the murder of a police officer, which is tragic and wicked cool at the same time.
So, here are eight things you might not know about me…
My first recognizable word as a baby was, “Radio.”
I am CMV free, making me a choice plasma donor, and I have donated five gallons of plasma.
Here are a couple of photos from my days as an aviator. The reason I don’t fly any more, and many of my pilot buddies don’t fly any more, is that it has gotten much too expensive. Part of that is the panicky idiot mentality of Americans after 9/11, which was incorrectly laid at the feet of general aviation, and part of it is the absurd rising cost of fuel. If I ever hit the lottery, I will rejoin the ranks in the sky, but in the mean time I reflect on what a great time I had in the air all those years.