The Pilot's Lounge #116: Getting Back More Than You Give

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The Pilot's Lounge

One of the most enjoyable things about frequenting the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport is getting to spend time with some very interesting people who are determined to live their lives fully; who are always reaching out to do things that enrich their existence and that of others. Part of the fascination of spending time with these folks is that some of the very best experiences have come about when least expected.

A couple of months ago I got an email from Kary Lucas asking if I would be willing to give rides to some visually impaired and blind kids. I'm pretty much willing to try anything once, but told her that this was a truly different sort of request -- I wasn't sure what the kids would get out of it, yet I was nevertheless intrigued and very curious as to the what lead up to her email.

Kary is a flight instructor who has a day job as an executive with one of the massive multinationals. She is a creative, energetic sort who has long been involved in volunteer efforts in support of aviation, flying and instructing for the CAP, speaking at FAA safety seminars and generally spreading the word about the joys of flying. She and her pilot husband, Lyle, own a 1954 Bonanza that they fly all over the country and she seems to get new ideas for teaching and inspiring prospective aviators every time the two of them make one of their extended trips.

Four-Senses Camp

Tuhsmeheta campers swarm the Bonanza.

It turns out that the catalyst that was added to her mixture of energy and determination and caused the chemical reaction that lead to her email was that her employer encourages its employees to donate time to charitable organizations. Because of that encouragement and support, Kary and her staff had spent time painting buildings at Camp Tuhsmeheta. Tuhsmeheta stands for four of the five senses: ToUcH, SMEll, HEaring and TAste. It is a camp near Greenville, Mich., that is dedicated to the proposition that given proper training in skills of blindness, each one of its blind and visually impaired campers can perform on an even level with their sighted peers.

During breaks while painting, Kary spoke with camp director J. J. Meddaugh and asked whether the kids might be interested in learning a bit about aviation and maybe getting an airplane ride. He asked the kids -- their response was a resounding yes.

Kary coordinated with Director Meddaugh and between the two of them it was arranged that Kary would give a one-hour introductory ground school to two groups of campers. For the session, Kary brought a box full of all things aviation: headsets, hand-held radios, model airplanes of different types, a mock up of an instrument panel, a book of Federal Aviation Regulations and a bunch of fairly large Styrofoam airplane models that could be assembled and flown. She planned to talk with the kids for about an hour and just give an introduction about how an airplane flies, a bit about radio communications, weather, the maintenance required for an airplane, what is on an instrument panel, safety around airplanes and a little about regulations. To her astonishment, each session went over an hour and a half as the kids asked bags of questions, spent a lot of time touching the various airplane models to discover the differences between single and multi-engine airplanes, feeling the gauges, knobs and switches on the panel and being amazed at how thick the book of regulations was. Kary told me that she did not have much of a concept of what would interest, bore or turn off a blind student, so she let the feedback she got guide her presentation.

The large, flyable model airplanes were a hit, as were the stickers that could be applied to each. Every child got one of those model airplanes to take home. As with kids anywhere, it was probably fortunate that they were made of Styrofoam and extremely light.

Kary's next challenge was arranging for an airplane ride for 40 blind or vision-impaired kids. She had given EAA Young Eagles rides before and decided that she would make the event a Young Eagles set of rides as the Young Eagles certainly didn't put any vision requirements on passengers. She then contacted other pilots to see if they could help.

Gathering of Planes, Pilots, and Passengers

A close inspection of the Bonanza's shape -- this plane can go fast!

The weather on the mid-July Saturday appointed as ride day initially looked questionable. Fortunately, by mid-morning the rain showers that had been lingering in the area moved out and stayed away. Kary and Lyle flew their Bonanza to the Greenville, Mich., Airport where the friendly folks at the FBO, Monarch Aviation, had agreed to welcome a herd of summer campers for the Young Eagles' flights. Kary got a checkout from Monarch so she could rent a Cessna 172 and fly that, while husband Lyle flew the Bonanza for rides. Lori Layne, a pilot who works at Sparta Aero, at the Sparta, Mich., Airport (where Kary instructs) and whose mother is vision impaired, agreed to help out as the ground marshal to get kids safely to and from airplanes. Greenville pilot Gerry Cox rolled out his beautifully restored Aeronca Sedan and prepared to give rides as well.

Donated buses brought 40 campers and their counselors to Monarch Aviation and the deluge began. Kary, Lyle and Gerry immediately loaded up their airplanes, explaining precisely what was going on as they did so, and taxied out with excited kids.

Arriving late (which I'll blame on weather), I recognized Kary's and Lyle's voices on Unicom as each took off, because they had already begun the flights.

After landing, I walked toward the terminal building carrying a massive load of ignorance regarding the world of the vision impaired. Spending a great deal of my life closely involved with aviation, where vision means so much, had not prepared me for what it means to be unable to see. My experience with vision impaired and blind people had been limited to time I spent with a blind friend over the course of a few years of college when we shared classes or socialized, and when I was a part-time bank teller and was trained in assisting blind customers to handle monetary transactions. That was it. I wanted each of my passengers to have a pleasant experience and learn as much as possible, but I wasn't sure how to go about it. I was somewhat intimidated as I reached out my hand to shake that of the young man who would be the first to fly with me. (I was limited to one passenger at a time in the great and powerful Cessna 150 I was flying.)

He was fired up about the prospect of flying and immediately started asking questions about the airplane and our flight. As we walked across the ramp, he kept a hand lightly on my elbow. Approaching the airplane I suddenly "saw" it as not just a vehicle of the air, but as a ramp hazard to one who could not see. There is not much in one's ordinary existence that presents a hazard to land navigation as does a wing that exists about five feet above the ground, other than the rapidly disappearing backyard clothesline. I stopped and told my tall, young friend about the wing and that it was about two feet in front of him and would probably hit him in the forehead if we kept walking. Together we found the trailing edge of the wing and we talked about how it connected to the fuselage as he traced along it with is hand until he found the fuselage. Then I found I had to warn about the presence of the landing gear leg that could hit him about mid-shin. To my surprise, he quickly felt around the open doorway and the right-hand seat, pivoted gracefully, sat in the seat, pulled up his feet, twisted around and was in the airplane. With a deft series of wrist flips he had folded up the long, white rod he used to help himself sort out where things were around him. I offered to stow it behind the seat and he accepted.

I wish I could get into an airplane as smoothly as he did.

Once inside, I found that we simply started to talk about what was going on but, for me, with a heightened perception for many of the things I had long taken for granted: how the seatbelt buckles were different from those of a car; where the rudder pedals were and how the control yoke functioned. It became much like giving a first flight lesson, with me explaining briefly what I was going to do with the emphasis on what my passenger would hear and feel as we progressed.

Together we taxied out. I had my friend put his feet on the rudder pedals so that he could feel how the airplane was steered on the ground. We went through the pretakeoff checks together; emphasizing that we wanted to make sure everything was working properly before we made the decision to leave the ground.

A New Feeling

Campers compare the various airplane models.

On takeoff, I found that I was letting myself feel the airplane more than I usually did, wanting to try and share what the young man in the right seat was experiencing as we accelerated down the runway and rose into the sky; how the slight bumps on the paved runway became closer and closer together as we got faster, how the airplane tilted gently upward and then how the very basic motion of the airplane changed from a frantic race on the wheels to the smooth swing beneath the supporting wings.

As we climbed, and turned and then leveled off, my passenger and I talked about what we were doing and what he was feeling. I tried rolling into and out of turns at different rates and found that he could tell we were rolling into or out of a turn most of the time, unless the rate was very slow -- which matched my preconceived notion on the subject. We talked about raising and lowering the nose to go up and down and how it felt to do so very slowly and a little more rapidly.

I had my new friend put his right hand on the control yoke and asked if he wanted to fly the airplane a bit. He said he did, so I let go of the controls and had him try some turns in each direction and then raise and lower the nose to see how the pressure he applied to the control yoke correlated to the feeling he had of increasing and decreasing G force. When he said he liked pushing on the yoke and feeling a little like he might be able to float upward, I asked if he'd like to experience zero G, like the astronauts experience. He was all for it, so we pitched up about 10 degrees and then together we pushed on the yoke until we were able to get about three seconds of more-or-less zero G. That was a huge hit and had to be repeated.

Neither of us wanted the ride to end; I had a seriously smiling passenger and I was fascinated by what I was feeling as the experience of moving through the sky became even more sensuous, for my senses were truly attuned to it as they had not been since I could recall.

As we returned and landed I described exactly what we were doing and why the engine noise was decreasing as was the volume of the sound made by the air rushing past the fuselage. (OK, OK -- the airframe rushing through the air.) Pure luck kicked in and I managed a smooth touchdown.

Taxiing in, I could not help but share the sense of happiness that surrounded my friend in the right seat. After we shut down he said that he had not wanted the flight to end. I've always felt that such a feeling is the ideal way to complete an introductory airplane ride and I felt lucky that I could be the one who was able to provide this experience for this thoughtful young man.

The Magic Continues

Tuhsmeheta campers and their pilots.

Almost immediately my next passenger was at the airplane and I found myself again describing the location of a wing, landing-gear leg and cabin door. And then again and again as the next passengers continued to be ready to fly. I talked about the whole process of the flight multiple times, but without ever having it lose its magic.

I found that I was disappointed when I landed after a flight and was told that there were no more folks waiting to ride. I wanted this experience to last longer. I wanted to continue to drink of this new nectar and more closely feel this assemblage of aluminum and steel and copper wire that I had been herding through the sky for so many years.

Fortunately, Kary and Lori found a way to prolong the moment with these young women and men. They had us park the four airplanes as closely together as possible. The kids were divided into four groups and each spent time with each different airplane, running their hands over the airframes and sitting in the cockpits as each pilot watched respectfully. Standing at the wingtip of the 150, adjacent to the tip tank of the Bonanza, I watched as two young men touched the Bonanza's tip tank, wing, fuselage and windshield and listened as one said to the other, "This airplane feels a lot faster than the other ones."

I'd always known that the Bonanza had a certain character and Úlan to it, but how did Beech manage to communicate that mystique even to someone who could not see?

After the buses returned and the campers had expressed their thank yous to us and departed, I could not help but feel that it was I who should have been saying thank you to them. In the few hours I spent with those young women and men they helped me experience the true essentials of flight and to enjoy the pure pleasure of movement in the sky more than I had imagined possible. I gave a little of my time and the rental cost of the airplane to those kids -- I got much more from them. I am truly grateful.

Aviation is a world of fascination and it provides a number of emotionally rewarding careers. And I know that at least one blind person has learned to fly and one recently made a pretty amazing flight in an ultralight; but, I've been wondering what aviation careers might be available to the vision impaired. I frankly don't know and if anyone does, I'd like to be able to pass along the information to those kids so that maybe a few of them can use the intelligence and thoughtfulness they possess to make a contribution to the world of flight.

See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.