It’s been unusually quiet in the pilot’s lounge at the virtual airport. We lost Old Hack last week. No, he wasn’t missing. I’m getting the words all wrong. We knew right where he was—in the long-term care facility where he’d been the last year or so—the place that he rudely referred to as the “feebs and droolers” ward because he said it described him. But we lost him.
He went west, dammit. Yeah, that euphemism for death has been around for something over 700 years, but it came into common usage among aviators in World War I. I find that using it is a comfort when I think of a pilot friend who has closed their logbook forever.
We got the summons via email from Karver. Karver, who is barely into his 20s, a relatively new pilot and who had become close to Old Hack as he, Karver, was starting to add ratings, told everyone he could think of to show up at the pilot’s lounge because he was throwing a wake for Hack.
I got here early so I’d get a seat in one of the big, ratty old recliners and got to thinking about my late friend. Hack had been in his 90s. He’d bought a Piper Super Cruiser nearly new and flew it with panache and élan until he was well into his 80s—and had crossed the line well into irascible decades ago. Karver’s friendship with Old Hack had turned out well. After Hack was moved into long-term care, Karver would sneak him out and bring him to the pilot’s lounge. We loved those visits. Old Hack’s mind stayed clear to the end; his body just wore out.
The lounge filled up. I saw Sandy, retired from flying wide-body freighters, talking with Barb, whose twins had grown up flying with their mother whenever she had the extra cash to rent an airplane. On the other side of the room, Armando, who’d become an instructor when he was in his 40s, was talking with some of his teenaged students.
About then, Karver walked in carrying a small box and went to the center of the room. He looked around and began, “All right. We’re here. Thank you for taking the time to come to remember someone we all loved and who, admit it, made a big impression on each of us. We’re going to have a wake for Old Hack, and we’re going to do it his way.”
Karver reached into the box and pulled out a bottle of very good single-malt scotch. “Hack told me what he wanted—this bunch of pilots getting together to talk flying over what he referred to as a wee dram of the good stuff.”
Karver set the box down and then withdrew a stack of small paper cups. Over the course of a few minutes each of us who was over 21 wound up with a little cup containing a splash of scotch.
Karver held up his cup and scanned the room, “We all knew Old Hack as one of the toughest, orneriest sorts around. You also know that he loved to fly more than anything. What you don’t know is that over the last two years he had me coordinate with the owner of the flight school, Dave, to find out if there were any kids that were learning to fly, were the sort that wanted to fly more than anything in the world and could use a little help. He arranged for some extra money to show up in those kid’s accounts at the flight school. Dave was only allowed to tell them that it was from an anonymous scholarship.”
I noticed that four or five of the younger student and private pilots in the room were looking startled as Karver continued, “Those of you who received some surprise help toward your ratings now know where the money came from. Old Hack wanted to do what he could to help as many people as possible follow their dream of flight. So, ladies and gentlemen, please raise your cups to Old Hack.”
After our toast with “the good stuff,” Karver went on, “About six months ago I told Hack that I’d found out that in over 50 years of flying he’d never had an accident. I asked him what he’d learned that had helped him fly successfully for so long. He gave me some profane denial about being any kind of an example for pilots and I dropped the subject. About a month later, when he gave me the scotch and the instructions for this wake, he also gave me a letter to read to you.”
With that, Karver again reached into the box, pulled out and unfolded piece of paper and started reading:
“Yeah you bums, I’m dead. With all of your collective bad habits, I’m surprised that you didn’t go first. Plus, if I did it right, my last check has bounced by now. I’m hoping that I ran out of money about the same time nature pulled the plug on me. So, none of you are getting a cent. This letter lets me be a cantankerous old coot from beyond the grave. Somehow it gives me comfort that being a curmudgeon—I think that’s what some of you used to call me—doesn’t have to expire when the person does.
“I started putting this letter together after Karver foolishly thought that because I’d been flying for a few years and had never bent any airplanes that I might tell you some of the things that I’d learned. I told him to get lost. Then, after he left, I thought about it.
“The first thing that came to mind was that the hardest lesson for me to learn, but probably the most important, was humility. Yeah, I always came across as an old loudmouth in public. You knew that was posturing and you were good enough to never call me on it. From the time I was a teenaged new pilot and was sure I knew everything; the sky would give me the back of its hand and let me know that I didn’t. It took me a long time to learn that as long as I flew, I had to keep my mind open because there was so much to learn and what I didn’t learn could kill me.
“I remember how astonished everyone was when I decided to get my instrument rating when I was over 70. I’d finally gotten it through my thick head that I had to keep learning and evolving as the world around me changed and that if I kept scud running, I’d get killed. There were getting to be too many towers out there and they weren’t easy to see when visibility went down. Getting that instrument rating was a tremendous learning process. It also gave me a lot of new things to enjoy about flying.
“I found out that the more I learned about flying, the more I enjoyed it.
“I don’t want this to come across as preaching. I get so tired of those knotheads that can’t stop talking about all of the hazards of flying and how you have to go through what sounds like a two-day risk analysis session before you can even go shoot touch-and-goes. I’ve sometimes wondered whether I could bang one of those types against one of those hold-my-beer-and-watch-this bozos and create two pilots who understood that flying is one hell of a lot of fun but that the price of admission to that enjoyment is a certain constant level of wariness. I’ve come to believe that for people who know how to be adults, flying is right near the top when it comes to purely enjoyable things to do.
“I also learned that I could learn from anybody—no matter what their level of experience and whether I liked them or not. Everyone I flew with or talked flying with had their ways of doing things—I did my best to listen and hang onto the good ideas.
“So, I’ll start with stuff before the flight. I’ve seen it in the hangars around here. You’ve all got brooms—store the things with the bristles up. I learned that from an old Army Air Force crew chief when I was a kid. If you store them with the bristles on the ground, they get bent and it takes twice as much effort to sweep out your hangar. That’s wasted time you could have been using to go flying.
Hand On The Towbar
“I’ve seen the results of too many pilots taking off with the towbar on the airplane. If the towbar is on the airplane, it’s also in your hand—always. If it’s not in your hand, don’t let it be attached to the airplane. That’s a pretty simple rule that kept me out of trouble.
“At least once a year, sit in the airplane and go through the emergency procedures section of the POH. It’ll do wonders for being able to remember the procedures if you ever need them. Oh, and by the way—you’re going to need them someday. I just can’t tell you which day. So, be ready. Real life aviating is a pass-fail test.
“Before you start the airplane, give yourself a minute or two of uninterrupted, quiet time where you get yourself fully focused on flying and on the speeds and systems of that specific airplane. I was lucky enough to spend some time with Randy Sohn who had been the chief check airman for the CAF and regularly flew everything from single-engine fighters through their B-29. He introduced me to that practice. I thought it was a great idea and still do.
“Seeing the world go from black-and-white into color during a dawn takeoff is worth the discomfort of getting up early.
“As you roll onto the runway, make a final check for traffic, check the killers again—fuel, flaps and trim—and cross-check the heading indicator against the runway heading. One of you in the Lounge here added the last part to my personal checklist. He told me about his friend who died on a night takeoff in a Hansa Jet when he went down the short runway instead of the long one.
“Follow NASA’s approach to a launch when you’re on takeoff: Everything is a ‘no’ until the airplane convinces you it’s a ‘yes.’ Manifold pressure and rpm where they should be? If no, abort. If yes, continue. Airspeed coming alive? If no, abort. If yes, continue. At runway midpoint do you have 71% of liftoff speed? If no, abort. If yes, continue. When you try to raise the nosewheel for takeoff, does it come off the ground? If no, abort. If yes, continue.
“Unless you’ve actually practiced it, you’ll be astonished at how hard and far you have to shove the nose down to maintain airspeed if the engine quits during climbout. If you haven’t practiced it, there’s a good chance that you’re going to stall the airplane.
“Lean the mixture anytime you’re in level flight. That’s the way the engine was designed to be run. There’s no magic minimum altitude. Good grief, I listen to a lot of you complain about the cost of fuel and then you waste it? I can’t figure you out.
“Especially when you’ve been forced down by low clouds and reduced visibility, the weather isn’t going to get better in five miles. It’s a nasty fact. Either turn around or make a precautionary landing, now.
“Most of you in the Lounge like airplane noise. Not everyone does. Be considerate and for crying out loud, don’t push the prop rpm up on downwind. Wait until base or final.
“Run the GUMP check at least three times before landing—downwind, base and final—and say it out loud while you touch the controls. Repetition helps prevent embarrassment.
“Know how to slip the damn airplane. There’s just no excuse for high and fast. And, no, slips with full flaps are probably not prohibited in your airplane—look at the POH.
“Going around is never the wrong thing to do unless you’re out of fuel. In fact, it is always the thing to do if you haven’t got things wired together and on speed on final. Practice making them well into the flare.
“It’s never OK to criticize a pilot who makes a go-around. That pilot is showing good judgment.
“Close the throttle before you flare. Don’t be a lazy bum—pull the nose up, burn off the speed and touch down slowly. Extra speed on touchdown is not your friend.
“Get into the sky any way and as many ways as you can. It’s worth it. Fly ultralights, take glider lessons, take a hot air balloon ride, skydive, do it all. Savor the experiences. Take it from me, you don’t want to be sitting in the geezer home, sucking on your gums and regretting the flying you didn’t do.
“OK, I know some of you saw me do it. I regularly thanked my airplane after a flight. It was my way for me to remind myself how grateful I was to be able to fly, for the system we have that allows us to fly little airplanes and for the amazing people who designed and built them. It also reminds me that other people helped me get to where I can fly an airplane and I need to pay that forward. My question is, why aren’t you thanking your airplane after a flight?
“I’ve said enough. I had a lot of good years around little airplanes. Now enjoy the evening. Tomorrow go do something worthwhile—go flying. And take someone along so they can enjoy it, too.”
Into the stillness in the room, Karver said a little more, “Old Hack did pretty much clean out his bank account not long before he died. He used what he had left to set up a scholarship fund for high school kids in the area who want to learn to fly. Our EAA chapter is administering the trust, so if you’ve got some candidates in mind, pass the word.”
As I sat there, I realized that Old Hack had always concentrated on the next hour of flight, not the last. He had just admonished us, his best friends, to focus on what we could add to our lives, not mourn what was gone. There are different airplanes to fly and new people to get to know. Hack wanted, more than anything, to keep general aviation alive and well—and his letter and Karver’s remarks were the knock upside the head telling me to get out of my funk and embrace the sky and tomorrow. I got up, walked over to the group of student pilots talking with Armando and joined the conversation with the future of aviation.
Old Hack is a combination of pilots I’ve known and respected over the years. One of them did buy a Super Cruiser almost new and flew it for decades. I learned an incredible amount from them—and a few times, what I learned from them meant I lived to fly another day. My local EAA chapter raises money to provide scholarships for young adults seeking pilot ratings. Helping out with that is hugely rewarding. I store my hangar broom with the bristles up—the knowledge of a World War II Army Air Force crew chief lives on.
Rick Durden is a CFI-I, holds an ATP with Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation type ratings and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2. Volume 3 will be out soon.