My friend, Jerry, soared to the Home Office, but not before learning to fly here on Earth
Jerry the Friend
My friend, Jerry the rocket scientist, passed away Tuesday morning. Saw him just a couple weeks before. He was fine. Old, as happens to all of us, but fine. Then suddenly gone.
Regina & I first connected with Jerry & Donna as fellow members of a fledgling church in northern California. They became both mom & dad and counselors to us, their lovely daughters as younger sisters. Jerry and I bonded over electronics, astronomy, and space travel. And I quickly learned he liked anything that flew. I gave him flight instruction through his solo flight.
1940s pilots navigated by listening to A-N Beacon signals
When I first got my instrument rating I reveled, awash in a sea of modern technology. Waving needles, flashing lights, and pulsing sounds enabled me to fly anywhere, anytime. Once I spoke the language and mastered the steps, it became a precision junkie’s dream. Maintaining proficiency was a joy.
In contrast, my father’s stories of 1940s flying in the clouds held almost horrid fascination. Clunky, hard to read instruments scattered haphazardly around the panel dared the pilot to keep wings level and nose on the horizon. To navigate he clamped hard plastic headphones to his ears. Then straining to discern man-made signals amidst nature’s static crashes, he steered the airplane along an A-N Beam until he found a course that merged scratchy dot-dash “As” with dash-dot “Ns” with into a constant tone. Once attained, he held that course—for hours.
A Cessna Turbo 206 in flight at 6,600′ over the Amazon Jungle
A few days ago I flew a Cessna Turbo 206G for the first time in 5,262 days. I’d flown many other types of aircraft since then—bigger and smaller, faster and slower—but not the 206.
I looked forward to the flight, but also felt just a twinge of nervousness that came from the pilot culture’s encoded schizophrenia—confident doubting. I knew I could find the ground before the airplane did but secretly wondered if I’d remember the procedures and numbers.
The FAA requires that each airplane has a copy of its own POH (Pilot’s Operating Handbook) aboard. I reviewed it the night before—power settings, weight and balance, systems, and procedures. And speeds. Speeds like Best Angle (Vx) without flaps, Best Angle (Vx20) with 20° of flaps, Best Rate (Vy) and Best Glide (Vg) are important to know before actually flying.
Observers set up equipment in the last light of day, then wait for dark
Cool desert evening. Clear sky. Sun crossed the horizon a few minutes ago as my friend, Bob, and I head towards the Snake River south of Boise, Idaho. The Owyhee mountains stretch across the horizon before us. Around us flat rolling grassland slowly descends to the river, but just a mile short we arrive at Dedication Point—a ubiquitous dessert historical site complete with parking area, restroom, intense quiet, unobstructed view in every direction, and, most importantly, the promise of dark sky.
Heading north, morning sun streaming in from the right, smooth air at 8,500 feet—what’s not to like?
Last Friday I flew to Sandpoint, Idaho in the panhandle north of Coeur d’Alene. MAF asked me to retrieve two pilots who ferried a Kodiak 100 to the Quest factory for adding a new option. My craft, a more modest Cessna 172, performed well in the smooth, cool morning air. Fitted with a 180 horsepower engine mod, it lifted me and full fuel tanks quickly to 8,500 feet. I had an easy schedule, so I anticipated a great day wandering north.
Fifty minutes out of Nampa, I crossed the Hell’s Canyon west of Monument Peak and He-Devil Mountain. Billed as North America’s deepest, its gorge plummets 7,993 feet down to the Snake river. Most of the area remains inaccessible by road, but I got a prime seat.
After 17 years flying the Amazon jungle and Andes mountains, I came to my first AirVenture at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Before first day opening, I flashed my Exhibitor badge at the dutiful guards and walked through the AirVenture gate. Thirty years of professional aviation experience provided no preparation for what I beheld. Without turning my head I saw three times more aircraft than occupied the entire civil registry of the country where I served.
As a pilot and air ops manager, who knew I needed an aviation fix? Like a starving man no longer feeling hunger pangs, I didn’t know what I needed until I immersed myself into the world of cold 2024 aluminum skin, taut cotton wings, red hydraulic fluid, flashing glass panels, spinning propellors, and clouds of 100 octane exhaust fumes—ambrosia and incense.
A Cessna 206 fuselage barely stands with most of the skin and stiff forms removed.
My friend Rondecided to build his own airplane—a Vans RV-7A. A few days ago he invited me to help him put a wing together. Seeing it reminded me that we make airplanes out of really flimsy stuff.
The outer skin of your average airliner is only about ⅛” thick. Ron’s bird—lighter, slower, carries only two people—sports a hide just over 1/64” thick. How will that metallic tissue keep him safe three miles above the ground when he flies 200 miles per hour for 900 miles?
Turns out it depends on how we stick it together. We could, for example, scrunch up aluminum foil, adding wad to wad, until we fabricated a substantial, solid mass. It might be robust but would weigh too much to fly and leave no room for motors, fuel, cargo, passengers or even, oh yeah, the pilot. Fortunately, the Germans developed a method a hundred years ago to make the skin a structural member rather than just streamlining. The technique, not widely used until the 1940’s, later acquired a French name: monocoque that literally means “single shell.”
We pilots like straight lines and often try to impose them upon unruly reality.
I like to fly direct. Takeoff, clear the obstacles, then turn to the heading. Hold that course through climb, cruise, and descent, brooking neither deviation nor detour. Such straight routes let me laugh at mountains, dismiss big waters, ignore deserts and canyons. They confirm my emancipation from two-dimensional earth. They affirm my citizenship in three-dimensional sky.
The pilot’s unique perspective rewired my brain. It replaced street and highway grids with a mental moving map that reveals the true lay of the land and plots straight lines between departure and destination. Frustrating on the ground, but priceless in the sky. So for this morning’s flight to the Waorani village of Damointaro, I turned to the direct heading—074 degrees—and climbed to 4,500 feet (local procedures allowed us to ignore the hemisphere rule).
Stopped at my favorite coffee shop for a bit of think and write time. Good coffee. Tasty pastries. Great service. No mystery why today, like most days, clutches of lovers, friends, colleagues and contacts cluster most tables, fill most chairs. The mood’s up. Most smile. Chatter burbles like a spring brook. Its bubbles froth into pleasant background easy to enjoy, or ignore, as I choose.
But today cheery grates, incongruous in light of what happened. How can they laugh? I want to rage & revenge, cry & hide, or both. The bad news? Just learned someone shot my good friend, Pastor Tim, yesterday afternoon. The good news? He’ll live—a miracle the medical folks say. The bullet stopped at his skull, providing fuel for life-long teasing about his hard head.
Afternoon sun hung low as I prepared for takeoff. Orange brilliance obscured trees at the end of the airstrip. It also hid cliffs beyond, the ones I had to fly between to climb out of the river canyon.
Checklists done? Yep. Engine still sounding good? Yep. Abort point confirmed? Yep. Departure path reviewed? I pictured where the plane’s wheels would leave the ground, how I’d hold that heading until just past the end of the strip, then the slight right turn that would keep me over the water and away from higher ground. The air was clear. No worries. I’d be able to see the cliffs well before they threatened—if everything worked right and I paid attention.