The Cessna, The Sky … and the Cartoonist: Chapter One — Introductory Flight

All pilots once were student pilots, a situation rife for guffaws around the flight club. John Ewing is a story-teller, former Disney animator, artist, and American now living in New Zealand. John documented his flight training in words and cartoons, and this month AVweb brings you the first chapter in his book.



A friend suggested to me that if I compiled the notes I made while learning to fly an airplane and throw in a few drawings to distract the more discerning readers, I could make a fortune. This friend was often given to flights of fancy, being a pilot, and I would have dismissed the thought, except … except what if he was right?In all modesty I must admit that although I am a professional cartoonist and get many requests to make funny drawings for garage sales, I am equally as good as a pilot-trainee, as you are about to discover for yourself.But that is not to say that my path to pilotdom has been free of blips. Let’s face it: everyone wants to fly, but not everyone is willing to undergo the discipline, not to mention trauma, necessary in learning to fly. If I am totally honest with myself, which I almost never am, I will admit that had I known what was facing me, I might have backed out; for there were times of total frustration and foreboding and dread. But another day, another flight, and I would have scorned those thoughts, such is the lure of being up in an airplane.Furthermore, if you listed the attributes a good pilot should have, you would find that I lack most of them. In fact I would be disqualified on all counts bar one, that one being a love for the whole idea.However, you will be disappointed if you expect great dollops of technical knowledge in this booklet; I have barely scratched the surface on learning some of the jargon, and although I have ferreted out which is the tail of the airplane and which is the nose, I still need a bit of time to frame an answer to more than that.It occurs to me that as you read these pages you will find yourself from time to time asking such questions as, “How did this guy ever get a license?” And, “Who allowed this nincompoop to slip through the cracks?”Sorta scarey, isn’t it?

Chapter 1

It was twelve o’clock noon out in the gently rolling countryside of Dairy Flat, some twenty miles north of Auckland, when I walked through the doorway of the North Shore Aero Club. I entered the waiting-room area somewhat warily, trying to look cool, as if this were the sort of thing I did all the time.There was a fair amount of hustle-bustle in the place; everyone seemed to be occupied with something or other. It occurred to me that I should keep to the outer edges of the activity, for there were obviously some very important matters being discussed. I heard the words, “… first solo … see you in the bar tonight …” and I didn’t want to disrupt official business. I side slipped over against the wall, wishing not to interfere, but also wishing that someone in authority would take control and tell me what I was to do next, since I had absolutely no idea.Still, it seemed a good idea that I take some sort of action — after all, pilots are supposed to be men of action — so I checked all the options available to me and decided to clear my throat. A nice resonant throat clear can be very impressive if done properly. But I would keep it pretty subtle lest anyone behind that imposing counter think I was being pushy.I’m sure the throat clearing would have worked nine times out of ten, but I caught the guys on the tenth occasion, I guess; there were no discernible results. So, after a generous pause, I “ahemmed” again, with more resonance, and threw in for good measure a musical little cough. This attracted the attention of the lovely young lady behind the counter. “Ah,” thought I, “results at last!”

“You want to borrow a handkerchief?” she asked.I explained my mission and things began to happen.I introduced myself, dropping the name of the person who had conned — no, no; encouraged — me to take up flying. The handsome young fellow who shook my hand was Alastair someone and we immediately got down to business.This was to be an introductory flight, he told me, after which it would be up to me whether to continue with lessons.I paid strict attention to all that Alastair said and did because I wanted to quote him casually at the dinner table that night. Besides, I assumed the things he said and did were of more than passing importance, all things considered.We walked out to the aircraft, something called a Cessna 152. She had ‘NSC’ painted in blue on her side and I liked her at first sight; I couldn’t have sketched a more impudent and saucy-looking craft. She appeared eager to please someone, and I swear she wagged her tail the moment she saw me. Alastair said later that this was not possible, but I know what I saw.

Much of what follows is technical terminology, so you will feel dumb. Don’t worry about it; I didn’t. Still don’t. It is called pilotese and I thought you should be aware of the difference between pilotese and normal talk.We started by looking at some blue leatherette books in the pockets behind the seats. Alastair mentioned “Certificate of Airworthiness”, or something that sounded like that; there was some other information, too, concerning radios I think, but I didn’t catch what it was. It probably isn’t important.We took the control lock off, a pin-like arrangement sticking down through the control column. I thought it looked a bit puny to hold all the controls in place, but I didn’t mention this to Alastair. I didn’t want to appear critical on the very first day.The master switch was then turned on long enough to, I think, lower something — the flaps, I think — then was switched off.We now began checking the outside of the aircraft, starting just aft of the wing on the port side, looking for such things as rivets with flaked paint, or bumps, etc. I considered counting the rivets, just to demonstrate my dedication, but I could see that I’d get ‘way behind Alastair if I did that; besides, he wasn’t counting the rivets, so I relied on simply running my hand over them like he was doing.We had now reached the port elevator, back at the tail, which we checked for free movement, loose bolts and/or nuts; Alastair wiggled — actually, I’m not positive that “wiggled” is a technical term; it may occasionally be used in other non-technical contexts — anyway, he wiggled the elevator and had me watch the wheel in the cabin move correspondingly; this was a surprise to me. I didn’t know they would do that.Then a wiggle of the rudder, saw the foot-pedals in the cabin move also; checked the rods, bolts, etc; starboard elevator, the same; the trim tab was given a look.

Alastair said something to the effect that the trim tab is used in such a way as to make the pilot’s work easier. That is, it enhances the work of the elevator. I’m a little suspicious of this. I doubt such a modest looking little metal flap can do all that Alastair says it does. I think he’s pulling my leg.On around the starboard side of the fuselage, again looking at rivets, etc; then the radio antenna; then the door. I can’t recall what it was we checked the door for, but obviously it is a good thing if the doors stay closed while you are flying.We again wiggled the wing flaps, noting about one-inch of up-and-down slop in the movement. More than one-inch is not allowed. Scrutinized carefully the push rods, bolts/nuts, etc. that operated the flaps; moved on out to the aileron, for free movement, rivets, bolts, etc.Checked the oil. Must have at least four quarts.Looked the propeller over for tightness and for any damage to the blades.There is an air intake screen down below the nose that needs to be kept clear, and the landing light, also below the nose.The nose wheel, for, I suppose, any loose nuts or pistons, or whatever.

Around to the port side again, the air-pressure gauge intake hole, the stall-warning intake hole (which was taped over; I don’t know why, except that maybe some pilots are allergic to the sound of the stall warning), the airspeed indicator gauge hole.Around the wing, untying the other ground rope, taking away the chocks, checking the ailerons, the flaps, the wheels, and Alastair said, “And we’re right back where we started.”Right,” I said, “I thought that rivet looked familiar.”

Getting into the airplane calls for moves that a contortionist would be proud of. And once in you had better be pretty good friends with the guy next to you; or be prepared to make friends quickly, because you are going to be knee-to-knee for prolonged periods.

Now we were inside the plane, adjusting the seat, putting on the seat-belt/harness arrangement. Hey, those straps would have kept an elephant in place. A big elephant. In addition to the extremely heavy seat belt there were two canvas straps coming from back of the seat, over each shoulder, which looped over a metal finger of the left-hand section of the seat belt, and which you then click securely to the right-hand section (similar to the pelican hook holding the anchor-chain on the destroyer I served on). Then you draw both sections tight and discover that you can’t move.At that point you remember that you have to reach behind you to get your headphones.Alastair sees you squirming futilely, like an upside-down turtle, and loosens you up a bit.

We put our headphones on and Alastair made sure I could hear him and he me. He then went over the instrument panel, section by section. I grasped the fundamentals of the cabin heat knob, because I like to stay warm, but the others failed to make much sense. I don’t know if they are important.I’m a little hazy about exactly what happened next. In fact many things happened next. We turned on the master switch again, I believe, and some ignition switches.We primed the engine with a choke-like plunger-thing (technical term).I think it was the engine we primed, but it may have been the flaps; we primed something, I’m sure of it.Alastair was now talking constantly, explaining this and that. I dislike boasting, but I think it is safe to say that I absorbed at least 7 or 8 percent of what he said.I remember there was a list of things to check. Seemed like dozens of them.I wondered why so many things had to be attended to for only one little airplane.I was allowed to start the engine, and as I turned the key I thought that perhaps this was a defining moment, the moment for which all my life had been a-building.

I idled the engine at 1000 rpms until time to go, then by pushing the left pedal, with my left foot to go left, and the right pedal with my right foot to go right (I saw the logic of it almost immediately), we zigzagged our way back and forth down the taxiway.The objective, as I recall, was to see how far I could go on the taxiway without one wheel or the other getting into the grass. Success rate: just over 23%.It takes a pretty firm touch on those pedals, and it was clumsy for me to keep “heels to the floor,” because when my heels were to the floor my toes were curled skyward in a painful and unnatural attitude; my shins cramped.And I was far too timid, too tentative, in using the pedals. I am the same way when feeding a parakeet. I must learn to play both feet actively, lightly, but firmly, intrepidly, across the pedals.My method, admittedly primitive at this early stage, was to make quick stabbing, kicking, motions on the pedals, Alastair’s head whipping back and forth in rhythm with my kicks, so that his words popped out involuntarily, small bits at a time.

As he manipulated his neck back into place he suggested that I should massage the pedals smoothly, not quite so much kicking. Seems reasonable in view of the fuss he made of it.The brakes also need a firm touch, but not too firm, and I must remember that a toe action is needed rather than the full foot. The danger, Alastair pointed out, is that you may think you are using the rudder pedals, when in fact you could be applying brake. At high speed this can be catastrophic, as any fool can see.I see.I seem to recall something referred to as a “run-up,” and something else called “lining-up,” but it was mostly noise and vibration and confusion for me. I must have followed a hundred instructions from Alastair, not one of which I could recall later, except perhaps the best one: He said, “Don’t even try to get all this in one go. Just let it wash over you, and see what sticks.”We careened onto the runway and turned left, then right, then left again, veered right, lurched left, and finally right again, taxiing up to the very end of the runway. Did a tight little spin and suddenly the perky little nose of NSC, which Alastair called Charlie, was now pointing down the runway.

Why Alastair called the little plane “Charlie” I don’t know, but pilots are full of good humor and “in” jokes; this was an offshoot, probably, from some previous adventure he experienced in this particular plane.We locked the brakes on and, I think, revved the engine. I don’t recall how many rpms Alastair said to do. He went over another checklist, said goodbye over the radio to someone, and we started down the runway.Steering down the runway was very strange, especially at this speed. I tried using the pedals as I had been doing earlier but that only accentuated the zigzagging. Poor Charlie was really all over the runway now.I felt Alastair’s feet quickly and firmly overriding mine to keep us from plowing through the North Shore Aero Club office, and recall observing how deeply ingrained is the instinct for self-preservation in instructors.The throttle had been pushed forward pretty quickly, more quickly than I would have thought normal, and we whizzed along for, heck, less than 6 seconds it seemed, and suddenly we floated up off the ground. Again, I felt Alastair’s hands on the controls correcting my clumsiness.

I don’t recall encountering any turbulence during this time, except in my brain, which was terribly busy, bordering on overload. I could have been upside down and not realized it.We went along for several minutes, I suppose, although it could have been an hour, and reached an altitude of, I think, 1500 feet. I was concentrating so closely on the horizon (that was my only way of hanging on to reality) that I missed almost all of what Alastair was doing and talking about.He was busy doing such things as adjusting the speed at those times when I would lose it by tilting Charlie up too much; at other times he would point to something displayed on the instrument panel. I felt that he wanted me to have a look at what he was pointing at, and I would have loved to look, but didn’t dare take my eyes off the horizon for fear I wouldn’t be able to find it again.Alastair also “trimmed” the plane, balancing it, he said, just nicely so that it would “fly itself.” That’s his story. I think it’s baloney; I was flying the plane and I’ve got the white knuckles to prove it.We made lazy turns to the left, then flew straight, then to the right, then straight again. Great fun.I learned to hold back slightly on the wheel to keep my height when turning, because the plane tends to lose speed when doing so. I learned to estimate the angle of my turn by comparing the horizon to the rim of the instrument panel. Some of this stuff was beginning to make a certain amount of sense.Then it was time to go back to NSAC. Time to try a landing.In landing, the plane is made to come down with the throttle, not the controls. I think that is what I learned. We keep the attitude of the plane correct with the control column and wings, and maybe some other stuff, and simply slow the plane down by starving it of the fuel it needs for power. Yes, that sounds right.

We also put something else down — either some flaps or the cabin heat knob — at the appropriate time, whenever that time was, and that was supposed to slow us down even more, I think, and enable us to fly at a slower speed. Again, I was too busy staring at the tiny little ribbon of a runway rising to meet us to notice our speed or altitude.This seemed to be a different runway from the one we had left, and was tiny. I was convinced that Alastair had got us lost and we were landing on a much smaller field, probably in another province.Aside from that my main concern was that the plane was veering and yawing all over the skies and I couldn’t straighten it out. Every move I made with the controls just made the situation worse. I was definitely going to be the first pilot at North Shore Aero Club to land an airplane sideways, possibly even upside down.

It seemed inescapable that a large measure of stigma would be attached to such an event, and might be difficult to explain.I didn’t want to cast a pall on Alastair’s enjoyment by asking questions, however; he seemed blissfully unaware of how ridiculously I was making Charlie behave. In reviewing the situation, I now recall that Alastair was quietly humming a little tune to himself, ignoring completely the imminent scattering of Charlie and occupants the length of the runway in full view of innocent spectators.I had the fleeting hope that the women and children had been shepherded out of view of what was about to happen.I had no time to give the matter serious thought, however, for the runway was suddenly right below us and we were dropping onto it. But now I once again felt Alastair’s hands overriding and correcting my moves on his set of controls, a thing that I not only didn’t mind but welcomed. The current of self-preservation runs equally as swiftly in the veins of student pilots as it does in the veins of instructors.There was a lurch and a lunge as the plane straightened itself upon touchdown, and with me kicking the plane right and left with the pedals, as much as Alastair’s governing feet would allow, we simply skittered along for some distance, slowed right down, then turned into the parking area.There were then things to adjust, things to turn off, but turned off in such a way as to leave the engine all correct for the next takeoff, etc., then the stroll back to the office, with Alastair speaking such words of encouragement as that I had “done quite well for the first effort,” some “things to remember for next time,” etc. These murmured words say more about Alastair’s courage and blind optimism than for my prospects in learning to fly.

I do not recall specifically how I felt, only that it was very high. Not much that had transpired in my life before could equal that certain exhilaration that comes hard on the heels of not killing yourself landing an airplane.(The story continues in Chapters 2 and 3 …)

Editor’s Note: AVweb will serialize several sections of John Ewing’s book, “The Cessna, The Sky … and the Cartoonist” over the next few months. If you want to read the whole book, you can order it from John’s Web site.Bonus: Read what the reviewers have to say about this book!