The Cessna, The Sky … and the Cartoonist: Chapters Sixteen, Seventeen, and Epilogue

Can he do it? Can the old dog be taught a new trick -- to land a plane all by himself? Find out in the final episode of the series by John Ewing, story-teller, former Disney animator, artist, and American now living (and flying) in New Zealand.

This is the eighth and last in a series of excerpts that began with Chapter One.

Chapter Sixteen: Circuits

Very much on my mind lately has been the fact that I am approaching the point where I may be turned loose at last for a solo flight. The landings have been reasonably well executed; to the point, in fact, where I began to no longer feel pleasantly surprised at surviving. Vaun, good old Vaun, on our last outing, said that perhaps it was time for me to fly with Andrew, who happens to be the Chief Flying Instructor, his point being that Andrew is one of the ones who can certify me for a solo flight.But when I booked my next flight Andrew was on holiday so I booked with Mike Hayman. When I turned up at the airfield two things happened: (1) Mike had transferred my booking to Andrew, who, it seems, had returned from his break (mad thoughts raced through my head), and (2) It rained in such a way that showers were too prevalent in our area and we couldn’t fly. So I went away.That was yesterday. Today was better. Still some showers around, and low cloud, but Andrew and I did our bit anyway.I was nervous, of course. Andrew is CFI, which, for the uninitiated, is Chief Flying Instructor [in New Zealand, anyway – Ed.]. I now know how actors feel when trying out for a role Sir Laurence Olivier covets.But I went through everything to the best of my limited abilities and made no more than the usual number of stupid mistakes. Too high on a couple of finals. Forgot the last 10 of flap on one. Delayed too long on one BUMFHW check. You know, the usual.Had a few “Low level” circuits. We stayed at 500′ to 600′ AGL because of the low clouds scudding around. I must say I liked it. It took me awhile to grasp just what Andrew was doing when he steered me under and to the side of the clouds. When he let me do a circuit on my own, with him more or less silent, I found it fun to drop down under a cloud, or veer away from one, all the while keeping the landing strip in view. That, in fact, is the main thing I must remember when I do circuits on my own: keep the landing strip in view. If the weather should start closing in fast it wouldn’t take a very big cloud to get me lost.Also the shorter circuits made for more interesting landings. In a sense we simply made a long lazy circle from crosswind leg right through to final, straightening out just in time for a landing.Andrew said my flying was good. I made the plane do what I wanted it to, and I kept altitude well, except for one lapse when I was doing BUMFHW and lost a hundred feet.But the landings were not too bad. Only one went astray; I got caught by a gust when I happened to have flared too soon so we ballooned up a bit and decided to go around. It wasn’t my idea, though; mustn’t take credit for something not of my doing. Andrew issued the orders and we went around.I managed the checks after landing, Andrew hopped out and let me take the plane down to the pumps for refuelling, which I also managed. Then I taxied and parked and secured the plane. I really felt good.Back at the counter Andrew asked if I had my medical clearance certificate. I said no. He looked exasperated and muttered something about kicking the bums of whoever failed to let me know that I should have had one by now. But it’s partly my fault. I should have asked. I had wondered about it, because I remember having read that a person would not be allowed to solo without the medical clearance. And I had felt that I must be nearing the point where I might be turned loose.But the remark that warmed my heart was when Andrew said, “Just as well it wasn’t a fine day then.” Is it possible he meant that if the day had been clear and fine he might have allowed me to solo? Boy, I’d sure like to think so.Tomorrow I make an appointment with an AMA and get my clearance.Then I ring up Andrew and make a date.

Chapter Seventeen: Again with the Circuits

Managed the physical OK; a Dr. Batt, in Parnell. Nice guy; doesn’t fly, but appears to be in sympathy with those who do. My right eye appears to be a bit weak.There were problems with the ECG over at Medlab. The electrodes didn’t want to register anything from my body. This struck me as most unfair. I can’t help the way I am built. The reader has by now learned from the drawings (good likenesses) that there is a certain ungainly look to us Ewings. But I like to think that what we lack in appearance we more than make up for in an aptness for the inept.

First, the girl couldn’t get the electrodes to stick to my chest; too much hair. Second, the electrodes refused to reveal what was going on in my heart. The girl shaved about six spots off my chest, then re-attached the electrodes several times but still couldn’t get a reading. In some agitation she finally called a more senior person who pointed out that the younger girl had the electrode clippers upside down.No clearer picture could be conjured of the relationship I have to my instructors than this example. That girl is to the medical profession what I am to the flying fraternity.But anyway, so what? I was passed physically fit for learning to fly, some 20 flying hours after starting to learn to fly.I tried to book with Andrew Buttle for last Friday, the 13th, what seemed to me to be the perfect day to solo, but he was tied up. Saturday I was tied up running the Waiheke Island 23 kilometre piece of sadism known as the Wharf to Wharf Run. So we settled for today, Monday.There had been showers in the area earlier, and flying seemed in doubt; but a short while later the weather improved. A very light shower or two but nothing to stop us from flying.I had a feeling of anticipation, fed, I’m sure, by the momentum that had built up over the past few flights. I was nervous, hoping that for once all the pieces might just click into place for me.

But honestly, I was never more clumsy or forgetful. Laurel and Hardy could not possibly, not even with the zaniest writers in all of Hollywood, have come up with more slapstick.I started to taxi off the pad but the plane wouldn’t move. I unparked the brakes a couple of times with no luck, then Andrew asked if the wheels were unchocked. Looking out my window I saw clearly that the wheel was indeed still chocked firmly.Great. What a start.I turned to starboard towards a familiar Run-Up spot but Andrew said, “The other way.” Too late, Andrew. But I tried to make the turn, with the result that I crimped the plane in a tight little knot and Andrew had to take over and get us straightened out, pointing out while doing so that I should get the plane moving before trying to turn it. I knew that, of course, and it didn’t help my confidence to be reminded.

All I had in mind was to do my run-up at the same point the previous plane had done theirs; Andrew, for whatever reason, chose a different spot, and caught me unprepared. It was then that I discovered that one highly useful ingredient for being instructed in flying is to be able to read the mind of the instructor.I felt completely disoriented at DVA. Andrew was talking to me and between trying to respond to him and remember my routine I became muddled, sure that I had forgotten something. Andrew was saying something and pointing to the mnemonics reminder stuck against the instrument panel. I have never bothered to follow them, which is wrong, I guess, because I relied more on remembering how my hands would move from one point to the next.But about the time I was ready to start over from the beginning Andrew would say, “Yep, you’re right,” so I would proceed even though not entirely sure about what I had just done.Well, we got aloft in spite of all that, but I needed constant reminding of everything. Doggone landing light once or twice, although Andrew didn’t seem to notice. Full flaps once. Carb heat once. I was an absolute mess.Engine Failure exercises, a couple; Andrew’s suggestion is to keep into the wind as much as possible if the engine fails. But I am never quite sure how to determine the wind direction with only a few seconds notice, unless I happen to be flying over a forest fire.Select a spot to land first of all; then perhaps think of such things as carb heat on, flaps, fuel off, ignition and master switches off, Mayday call, etc.If the failure occurs before I clear the ridge of East Coast Bays Road, says, Andrew, there isn’t much you can do except use the flaps and hope for the best. That suits me fine; if there is one thing I do really well it is hope.Andrew threw a surprise glide approach at me; that is, he closed the throttle on the downwind leg and said, “Glide approach.”I had learned a bit about Glide Approach, of course, and I had enjoyed it. But I wasn’t prepared for such a thing just at this point, and all that I had learned with Mike about Glide Approaches disappeared from my brain. In my flustered state I had no idea what to do other than carry on as I was with the thought of possibly landing somewhat earlier than usual because of the loss of power.”The landing strip is not straight ahead, it’s over there!” said Andrew, pointing over my left shoulder.”Uh, yeah?” says I.”You have to get there,” he says, pointing to the threshold of the runway, “Not there,” pointing to Whangaparaoa where I was headed.”Oh, yeah, sure,” I said and started a gentle turn.”You’ve got to make it a sharper turn,” said Andrew, getting slightly impatient, “You won’t be able to get back to the runway.”Oh, yeah, right,” I said.What a mess I was.Anyway I learned that as soon as the words “Glide Approach!” escaped Andrew’s lips I would make a much more severe turn and take the short-cut over to that threshold as quickly as possible.So on the next one I was actually still turning when I crossed over the threshold, yet landed in plenty of time. And, hey, I liked the feeling. It was more like the way ol’ Ace Drummond did it with his Spad against the Huns in the stories I read as a kid. More ‘hands on’, sorta.

On the last one I was quite high up and had to resort to what seemed to me to be an extreme nose dive straight towards the runway. I supposed Andrew would yell out in alarm and grab the controls, but his hands remained folded serenely in his lap. “He either has great control over his panic or has fallen asleep,” I thought.But he was awake. I followed his instructions and to my very real surprise we soon straightened out and levelled off with room to spare and landed quite nicely.I flared too soon a couple of times and would have really bounced us on one occasion had not Andrew pulled back on the controls sharply.You may be able to imagine the conversation we had during the ensuing climb out and crosswind leg, if a situation where one person did all the talking and the other chewed his lip can be called a conversation. But really, I had no answers. All I could manage was a phoney thoughtful look and a nod of the head now and then. A real mess. I couldn’t have been worse.Another time I flared OK but allowed too much wind under the wings and floated up and away. Andrew says that if the nose rises up above the horizon I should just apply power and go around; and if the nose is too low, lift it up. Sounds OK, and I would like to think I would have come to those conclusions myself. But today I was simply clumsy and uncoordinated. I longed simply to sit somewhere quietly and spend a quiet hour gathering my wits.

But of course that isn’t possible when you are landing an airplane. Your wits should have been gathered well before getting into the plane.We made a full stop after an hour of such mind-boggling nincompoopability, taxied to a stop, turned landing lights off, flaps up, etc. I supposed Andrew would tell me to refuel and he’d see me in the office, and I was wondering whether I had the nerve to ask for a booking later in the week for another try. But Andrew turned to me and said casually, “Not too bad. You want to do one on your own?”I couldn’t believe my ears! Surely Andrew didn’t say, “Want to do one on your own?” But in fact that is what he did say.”Yes,” I replied very quickly.The words I have been waiting months for! Could it be true? I was certain that I had just demonstrated once and for all how foolhardy it would be for North Shore Aero Club to ever let me get my hands on the controls of one of their airplanes again.

“Drop me off up at the pad,” said Andrew. “Do your regular circuit. Keep the airspeed up crossing the fence, and don’t flare too soon. Good luck,” and he left me.I was stunned for a moment, but quickly decided to get a move on before Andrew realized what he had done and came rushing back towards me waving his arms in panic.I did my DVAs, taxied down to the threshold and took off, climbed out easily, made my turn at 500′ AGL, levelled off at 800′ rather than 1000′ (because of a slight wisp of a cloud at 1000′), turned onto Downwind, 2300 RPM, did BUMFHW, headed for the rock quarry, made my call (in what I am sure was a steady, calm, rich baritone with just a trace of leftover Texas twang), onto Base leg, carb heat on, 1500 RPM, 20 of flap, onto Final, attitude looked good, landing light on, “November Sierra Charlie, Final, runway zero-three,” with not a tremor in the voice, kept the attitude right, powered back and forth as I felt was required, then cut the power, settled nicely down close to the runway, flared moderately, waited, flared a bit more, waited, the landing gear touched, I kept the controls back, the nose wheel up high, and let nature take it’s course.

The touch down was clean and reasonably smooth. I heard a muted protest from the tires, and the port wing may have been slightly low, but other than that it was a good landing.In my headphones came the words, “Well done, John. Nice one.”I pressed the button. “Thanks,” and I am glad that was all I had to say, for my heart was entirely too full to have uttered more than one or two syllables.I went down to the end, landing light off, flaps up, etc, taxied up to the pad, parked behind NSE, turned everything off and got out.Andrew was there to hand me a tiny, but extremely beautiful, pair of wings and shake my hand. And except for the propriety of the occasion I would have shaken my hand, too, I think.

It is highly safisfying to have managed the thing. Highly satisfying.There is much more to the affair than this, of course; if I had written everything that I considered noteworthy, or everything that caught my interest, I would still be writing. And see what you would have missed?So for now you will have to be satisfied with these few dozen pages. But cheer up; at a later date I may become serious about my subject, then you will have something more substantial to mull over.But as a matter of fact, you will get a real bargain if you buy this little booklet; heck, the drawings alone would bring about a dollar each.Boy, then my momma would be proud!


I went on to gain my Private Pilot’s License, and as for writing accounts of flying, I could write a whole book on the events of the single day of my flight test for PPL. What a day that was! I simply must say I have not had a more momentous day in my entire life. But imagine what a skilled writer could do with the things leading up to final flight test. Such things as the first cross-country flight. Or an hour on instruments. Or navigation, or getting lost, or finding various airstrips, or mountain flying, or convincing your wife that you are safe, or experiencing windshear, or turning in a tight valley, or folding charts, or any other of the multitude of things pilots must come to grips with.

0)]I have had immense pleasure in what surface scratching I have done so far. I don’t know how many more entries are to be made in my logbook, but I’m looking forward to every one of them. It is almost beyond belief what sheer joy there is in being up in a little airplane when you have planned everything well and the day comes up a boomer. It pretty well convinces me that my dear and much beloved sister Betty is wrong in insisting that she never wants to “be lower than potatoes, nor higher than corn.”

Editor’s Note: AVweb has serialized John Ewing’s book, “The Cessna, The Sky … and the Cartoonist,” starting with Chapter One. If you want to read the whole book, you can order it from John’s Web site.