Lessons Learned

By Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848

This piece originally ran in Vic’s Checkpoints column in the October 2021 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.

More than 10,000 hours of flying fixed-wing aircraft have taught me a few things. Fortunately, I recognize and use some of those lessons when presented with the opportunity. We’ll give maintenance a break this month and talk about some of those lessons.

By now, many of you know that I passed my commercial rotorwing checkride. As a matter of fact, I recently crossed 100 hours. I am enjoying it much more than when the process began. I keep reminding myself that I am still a student in the helicopter. Yes, I know the certificate says otherwise, but truth be told, I don’t feel like I am quite proficient enough to be commercially “helicoptering.” In reality, probably no one would trust me yet anyway, given insurance requirements these days. Quite honestly, all of those years of flying airplanes and riding motorcycles have created some muscle memory that doesn’t work well in helicopters.

As an example, the helicopter throttle is the exact opposite of a motorcycle throttle — twisting the grip “in” decreases power. I am constantly telling myself to think and do things deliberately when moving the throttle. Right now, one of my biggest fears is that I move that throttle too fast in the wrong direction when close to the ground. Another example is when performing “running” landings, in which the procedure is to touch down on the skids with forward motion. Normally, when in an airplane that close to the ground, I am moving the stick aft. But in the helicopter, it is really important to stay above “effective translational lift,” which is around 16 knots. I do that by using forward stick (cyclic) pressure and allowing the runway to come up and kiss the skids. For this pilot, it takes concentration. It does work — and it is fun — but it is so hard not to pull back and flare as we get close to the runway.

But flying techniques are not the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years. There’s one big one. I’m hoping by sharing it with you, especially those of you who are student pilots or taking people for a ride, you will take it to heart and examine your approach. As student pilots, we all have the same goal of passing the checkride so we can take friends and family flying. After all, that’s when the fun starts, right? Forty-four years ago, I was no different. I passed my private pilot checkride on October 29, and October 30 was my wife’s birthday. What a treat!

I took her flying for exactly 1.4 hours according to my logbook. In Tucson, Arizona. Can you say heat and bumps? I never stopped to think about it. I flew nonstop for two-plus months of training in August and September. I volunteered to work the midshift so I could fly during the days. I was used to it. Carol had never been in an airplane, let alone a C-152 in the Arizona heat during the middle of the day. As you may have guessed, she did not enjoy it. She got a very “blah” feeling, and I kept telling her, “Don’t worry, it should get better.” Pretty dumb, huh? Well, no one ever told me.

Unfortunately, it was a while before she flew again. I knew to pick a smooth early morning or evening flight for that next adventure. Luckily, it worked. She has continued to fly with me, and I do my best to make sure the flights are comfortable and free of weather hazards.

This time I made sure the first flight in the helicopter would be a pleasant experience for Carol.

After I got out of the Air Force and we went back to Ohio, I took some of the extended family flying. My mother-in-law especially loved flying and talked a lot about watching the National Air Races in Cleveland as she was growing up. My father-in-law was a different story. We were very close and I really wanted to take him flying, so it bothered me. It turns out that when he was in the Navy, a friend took him flying. We have since discerned from the stories that it was most likely a Stearman. The pilot, whom I have no respect for, ruined any chances of my father-in-law ever flying again. He did so many aerobatic maneuvers that my father-in-law got violently ill. He couldn’t even chase the pilot after they landed. That was probably the only good outcome, as I’m pretty sure if my father-in-law would have caught him, the pilot would not have had a good day.

We finally did get him to go flying once before he died. But it was only around the pattern and he was white-knuckled the whole time. Perhaps he had heard about my landings?!

Through the years, I have run across other pilots who feel the need to show their passengers a wild ride. I’ve never understood it. I guess it’s a macho thing (perhaps some female pilots are guilty, too, but I haven’t met one yet). To me, it is utterly senseless — and potentially dangerous. I often wonder how many potential pilots were lost due to some idiot’s antics during their first ride? I hope none of you are seeing yourself in this scenario right now.

Some pilots also put themselves and their passengers at risk unnecessarily, which really dampens the fun factor. Carol has a close friend whose husband was one of those pilots. She would relay to Carol how during multiple trips she was just staring at the fuel gauge, hoping it would bounce a little off the E. On other flights, the view of the weather out the front window was less than exciting. Her friend was relieved when her husband finally quit flying.

As I was getting close to taking my checkride this time, I started thinking back about Carol’s first ride with me. I was determined to not repeat it. I got home about 3 p.m. on a hot and muggy Atlanta summer afternoon. She wanted to go right when I landed. It happened to be our 44th wedding anniversary, and I had mentioned we would fly out to dinner at Barnstormer’s if the checkride went well. Guess how badly I wanted to do that? Guess how badly I didn’t want a repeat of that first airplane ride so many years ago? Georgia in June is just about the same as Arizona — hot, bumpy, and muggy. So, I recommended we go out to a nice sit-down dinner at a local restaurant and go flying after it cooled off and calmed down. We did just that and had two wonderful short evening flights to a friend’s grass strip, where she saw all of the deer in the woods as we were slowly landing. We eventually did go to Barnstormer’s and have gone back multiple times. She likes the helicopter even better than the Stearman, mainly due to the view.

So, the first ride was a success. I hope to keep the fun factor alive in it with her for a long time!

I had some more fun this past week with the Stearman as well. A bunch of us get together in Pensacola, Florida, for the Blue Angels’ Pensacola Beach air show, which some of us also fly in. We managed to get six “carded” pilots this year so we could fly in the waivered airspace. It’s quite an honor to fly in the same show with a team that I grew up watching and admiring. But the best part is we all fly World War II and Korean War veterans for two days before the show. That is a real honor, and hearing some of their remarkable stories are amazing and sometimes humorous. A few of us had dinner with one B-25 photo-ship pilot. He is 98 years old and had his girlfriend with him, whom he met online. Of course, he said he lied about his age, but it worked! I flew with a 103-year-old veteran named Frank Emond who is a Pearl Harbor survivor. I asked him if he flew during the war, and he replied that he played the French horn in Adm. Kimmel’s band. (Adm. Husband E. Kimmel was commander of the United States Pacific fleet.) Frank put in his pilot application but was told they needed a French horn player. Wow. I thought I got a bad deal from the fifth-grade nurse who sent me home to see the eye doctor, dashing my hopes of becoming a military pilot! Otis had me beat!

Flying the vets in the Stearman is always an honor. It’s wonderful to hear their stories, some of which are very humorous. A common theme I hear is that the war made men out of them.

It’s amazing how full of life these guys are, with most of them bordering on 100 years of age. Sadly, in the seven years we’ve been doing this, not all of them make it back from one year to the next. But thanks to Roy Kinsey, the orchestrator of this event, we should be doing this for many years. This year we had 11 Stearmans, plus two SNJ/T-6s and a T-34. In past years we have had as many as 13 Stearmans. It’s really neat talking to some of the vets who learned to fly in the Stearman at Naval Air Station Pensacola.

Of course, this time of year in the southeast we are presented with the usual weather challenges of thunderstorms and rain showers, especially in the afternoon. Luckily, weather information in the cockpit takes some of the stress out of the trip, given the storms are not fast-movers and we are traveling faster than them for the most part. Minimal diversions this time got me there and back without a fuel stop.

For those of you who really need the regular dose of maintenance, check out Base Leg Aviation’s weekly YouTube broadcast. Perhaps that will help.

Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848, is a commercial pilot, CFII, A&P/IA, DAR, and EAA flight advisor and technical counselor. He has built 11 aircraft and has logged more than 10,000 hours in 74 different types. Vic also founded Base Leg Aviation, volunteers as a Young Eagles pilot, and produces the Base Leg Aviation YouTube channel on amateur-built maintenance weekly. He has also written two books on amateur-built prebuys and maintenance issues.

What an honor to get to fly in the same air show as the Blue Angels, as well as meet and speak with some of them. Ten minutes before this picture, we were up on stage with the commander, but I didn’t get that picture.

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