The Souls of Airplanes

I remember the first time I realized an airplane could seem as though it were a living being. I was out at the Zephyrhills airport near Tampa, where I met a young man who owned a Republic Seabee amphibious aircraft.

The big amphibian, with the propeller in the back, allowed me to stand safely near the cockpit when he started the engine to test it. I watched in awe as he went through the pre-start checklist. Then he yelled, “Clear!” and engaged starter.

I could hear the grinding of gears and the propeller started to turn, the needles on the instruments jumped, and then the engine barked and coughed smoke out the stacks.

Suddenly, the engine was running. Looking into the cockpit, I could see the tachometer was bouncing on 600 rpm. I also noticed the oil pressure gauge rising. Just like any other living organism, the airplane had temperatures, pressures, and a rhythm to life. From where I was standing and watching, it would be hard to discount the fact that the airplane was not a living, breathing beast.

The old Seabee reminded me of an aquatic bird sitting on the beach getting ready to fly. It seemed as if the old amphib wanted to fly, but the pilot knew something was not quite right about her and she needed fixin’. So, like an injured seagull or pelican, she hopped around at the edge of the water poised to fly, but unable.

The experience of standing next to the Seabee as her owner ran up the engine testing systems left me with more of a desire to learn how to fly than ever before. It was as if someone had introduced me to a new friend. And I wanted to spend more time with this friend and more friends like her.

After the pilot shut down the engine, we talked and he told me of the old man who had taught him how to fly. Coincidentally, it was the same instructor the boys down in the propeller shop where I worked told me, “If you want to learn how to fly, you need to go see Charlie Miller. If he takes you on as a student, you will know how to fly when he is done.”

I sought out Charlie, finding him on the last day of July in 1971. He took me on and I learned to fly. The first airplane he introduced me to was the 1947 J-3 Piper Cub, N6269H.

After 69H, there were the other Cubs he operated: N42684 and N98048. After the Cubs, there was the Cessna 150 I would take my private checkride in, a 1959 model, N5523E.

I came to know each of these airplanes as wonderful mentors. They taught me a lot and I regarded them as living and breathing teachers as any other I had in life up to this point. I would go on to know more airplanes as teachers. I discovered they all had something to say about flying, about their idiosyncrasies, things they liked, and things they did not.

Some of the airplanes I have flown over the course of my lifetime taught me great lessons about flying, wonderful things about physics, a lot about math; each has told me great stories. Most have taught me about life, in one way or another.

After I learned to fly, I realized airplanes allowed you to become a part of them. In other words, the wings were extensions of my arms and my hands and fingers became the personification of ailerons. I discovered I could feel the lift of the wing through my arms and hands and fingers. I did not need an airspeed indicator to tell me whether or not the airplane was capable of flying; I could feel the wing fly!

Teaching this concept to new student pilots can be difficult. Some get it, most do not. Those who get it, eventually go on to do very well in their flying careers, whatever type of flying they choose to do. They also maintain a connection with “real flying,” flying that is pure and true to the art form, such as flying taildraggers or seaplanes or sailplanes or teaching.

This is fun flying, which is why we, those of us who truly fly for the sake of flying, fly.

-30-

©2012 J. Clark

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6 Responses to The Souls of Airplanes

  1. Dave Bowyer says:

    Hi Joe

    I loved this post. I haven’t blogged for a while, in the more than 12 months now since I attained my PPL, and goodness knows I’m not flying anywhere near as frequently as I would like. (Every 6-8 weeks is about average, though I have had some memorable flights in that time flying passengers who share my joy of flight).

    I have had to put flight somewhere in the middle distance of my consciousness for now – something I do and love on occasion, and will do more frequently again as I get older and have more spare time and funds, but have to enjoy in relatively limited doses for now. So it makes your timely post all the more relevant and enjoyable. I love how you give words to that feeling of the wings being “extensions of your arms and hands”, feeling the lift, not needing the airspeed indicator.

    From my humble 85 hours I can’t claim to be a seasoned aviator, but I think I can claim to have shared that feeling – perhaps in the last 15 or so hours of flying I’ve done.

    So, thanks. Great to see you’re still blogging about the flying life. It’s what it’s all about.

    • Joe Clark says:

      Hello Dave!

      Thank you for your kind comments from Down Under. I fully understand what you mean when you talk about the “middle distance.” If there is one thing that is irritating about flying, it is the cost – just ask any pilot, student, professional, or seasoned.

      You may only have 85 hours at this point, but it will increase, I promise. And may I suggest(?) – you should become a flight instructor. I think you would be a very good teacher based on the descriptions of flying you have written.

      I look forward to the day that you either come visit the States, or my wife and I go to Australia. I look forward to the day we get to fly…

  2. Michael J. Friese says:

    Joe:
    Nice blog, I enjoyed reading it. Even with 9,000 hours under my belt, I still look forward to flying. The cost of flying has become so expensive, I feel fortunate that I get paid to fly for a living. Even on my days off, I go sailplane flying. When Im not flying a sailplane, Im usually flying my glider clubs Piper PA25-235 Pawnee tow plane.

    Flying is one of those things that when it becomes a passion, no matter how much you do it, you want more. Kind of like sex.

  3. Harrison says:

    Sometimes I think it’s more art than science. By the time you get science involved, you’re usually in trouble. Thanks for the nice post!

    • Joe Clark says:

      I think you’re right, Harrison. Sometimes science can get you into trouble. I seem to do better with words, rather than numbers. However, I still manage to get myself into trouble with both words and numbers on occasion. ;o)

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