NOTICES OF AN AIRWOMAN
By Eleanor Horner
I took up aviation at age 28, when I was working in a psychiatric hospital. I
had a job counseling mentally ill adults there. Daily, I got glimpses of abuse, neglect
and dysfunction, and unknowingly became immune to its effect. For a year I lived
in denial, and became a depressed blob. It took the cumulative effect of time and
experience to feel the full weight of what was pulling me down. The sink was subtle.
A patient there told me she heard voices telling her to cut herself because she wanted
to release the cobra living in her stomach. I needed some sort of hobby to escape
the manic disparities, during the week it was lunatics, weekends it was the boredom
of grocery stores and matinees.
I craved a new experience to challenge my mind, senses and routine. The idea of flying
airplanes had been knocking around my head since high school. Every Saturday for
six weeks I went to ground school taught by Suhas, a handsome airman. I realized
that first day in the classroom, during a discussion on engines, physics, and mechanics,
that I was at a disadvantage from my four male classmates. They had flown in small
airplanes and knew about compasses, horizontal stabilizers, magnetic headings, and
density altitude. I couldn't remember basic physics or geography. While I took diligent
notes about the difference between yaw and pitch, I longed for a more personal understanding
As you go through ground school and the Private Pilot manual, you come across "A
Notice to Airmen." It's about changes in the flight environment--changes like
a taxi way that's closed, or construction near the runway. Important facts, but it
occurred to me that it is equally important for men--and women--to be forewarned
about the internal environment. The essence of flying requires not only memorizing
chart symbols and calculations but having mental jujitsu. Here, then, are my Notices
of an Airman.
1. Understanding the Forces
What drives you forward in a plane is the thrust created by the engine. The air flow
over the wings that creates the actual lift of the aircraft. More velocity and less
pressure under the wing is the magic of this principle of physics. With anything
that moves forward, an imposing force will occur. The quicker you climb in the sky,
the greater the by-product, which is drag.
2. Navigation - How to Tell Where You're Going
Moving about the sky senselessly like the wind, I enjoyed not having a destination
during my first accompanied flights. After take off, I would notify the tower I was
taking a northeast departure. I was managing the mechanics of safe flight and only
concerned with the present. My instructor, Suhas, handed me the map and asked me
to report our position. He told me he had a male student who was flying north to
a small town nestled between red cliffs and plateaus and overshot his mark by over
100 miles This baffled me. I thought, "How could he miss a distinctive change
in mountain elevation and shouldn't he have known, based on his flight plan?"
This young pilot chose a single landmark along his route which he never found. So
entwined in his rigid thinking, he didn't stop to ask for help. I began to realize
that it's not as important to know where you're going and how long it'll take to
get there as it is to have more than one point along the way to measure your progress.
3. Learning What the Instruments Tell You
Traveling in 3D subjects a pilot to spatial and visual illusions. The objective information
of the flight instruments becomes crucially important. The paradox is your life relies
upon them but they cannot always be relied upon. I liken these instruments to my
circle of family and friends who give me feedback about where I'm going and how I'm
doing. The altimeter tells you how far off the ground you are. My sister does this.
She warns me during critical times when I have fallen madly in love, tugging me down
to reality, telling me, "Hey, he's just a guy...Get over it." The compass
is the only direction-seeking instrument , you'll encounter while flying, like my
parents, who made it clear my path was straight to college. No deviating from that
course. The attitude indicator compares you to the artificial horizon. Once, I had
a boss who measured us with behavioral profiles to determine inner/career traits.
Instruments and people are necessary for survival and reassurance.
4. Practice Landings
The most complicated task in learning to fly is the landing. The only way to overcome
the surreal sensation of the ground rising up to flatten you in a fiery blaze is
to practice. Initially, the only way I ever seemed to fly my final approach was much
too high. There are visual glideslope indicators, sets of lights on either side of
the runway, that tell you whether the angle of your entry is safe.
Aviation is full of clever memory aides, one that haunts you is, "Red over red,
you're dead.". I chose to spend all of my time in the flight pattern, sweating,
swearing, and practicing my landings until I could get "Red over white, just
right." Hard work kept me humble and grounded.
Foremost in the flight environment is understanding the atmosphere and reading the
sky. Wind, temperature, humidity and clouds, represent the unpredictable, powerful
and sometimes annoying emotions of the Earth.
I once challenged my own intuition and common sense by flying on a pre-hurricane
gusty day. I live in the desert and rationalized the media forecasts of a hurricane
were overblown by El Nino mania. The winds weren't unreasonable at 15 knots and I
couldn't deny myself a day of flying in a traffic-free sky. I climbed to a comfortable
place and lazily practiced maneuvers. As I came in for my final approach, the gusts
had matured and shifted to a severe crossword. I crabbed the plane in ( full rudder,
one wing down) and was still off the centerline. I considered going around but knew
at some point my gas would run out and I'd have to land. I accepted the idea surprisingly
easily that I may not survive. The phrase "She bought the farm" flashed
through my cerebrum just before I clumsily bounced down the runway. Taxiing to my
hangar, I promised never to ignore my gut or the shaking heads of the palm trees.
I was reluctant to talk to the tower on the radio, intimidated by the fast exchange
of requests and instructions. If I spoke to them, I could be identified, singled
out and humiliated. I imagined the unknown faces in their air conditioned office,
rolling their eyes and drawing rabbit cartoons.
When you communicate with the tower, there is no fluff. Concise, direct abbreviated
conversations, no adverbs or adjectives please. Who you are: The type of plane and
the number, "Cherokee 2399 Tango". Where you are "Mesa Air Center."
What you want to do, "Taxi to runway 22." And finally, The code word so
that they know you get it "With Whiskey," tells them you listened to the
tower's hourly recording about the runways, winds, hazards, etc. Eventually, I came
to savor it for its simplicity. It could save mental strain and guesswork if everyone
had conversations that way. And finally, a cardinal rule in aviation: You must repeat
back what you've been told. No misunderstandings.
6. Perception - Surveying Your Surroundings
When preparing for touchdown, you must shift your line of vision from the beginning
of the runway to the last third just before the wheels hit. Fixating on what is in
front of you and not in the distance doesn't sound too serious but you tend to slam
down onto the runway. With so many variables and tasks to attend to the flight environment,
there isn't enough time to complicate matters with tunnel vision. If you fixate on
the turn coordinator, admiring your perfect 45 degrees of bank without scanning outside
every so often, you may not notice traffic off your wing or that you've lost five
hundred feet in altitude. You can't focus on one instrument for too long.
7. Hazardous Habits
The tendency to repeat the same mistake comes naturally and frequently. There's a
threshold of trial and error we must experience before we learn better. Same with
flying. Once you notice that you are using power instead of pitch to decelerate on
landing, you must train yourself to stop. When you finally overcome that hazardous
habit, you will find two more that will need to be corrected. The greatest challenge
is not becoming overwhelmed by what you've done wrong, but what you've done correctly.
8. Flying Solo
With over 100 landings, I was still insecure about flying alone. I wasn't afraid
that I would crash, but I would make an awful mistake by doing something stupid like
taxiing into a parked car. The summer was blazing along and I was practicing landings
at the airport with the extra long runways. Suhas told me I had better landings than
most seasoned pilots and the time had come to solo. I politely told him "No"
until he informed me he already entered the solo flight in the log book as he was
taking off his seat belt. Before I had the chance to weasel out, he left the plane
and crossed the tarmac to the air conditioned lounge for an iced tea. I was broiling
in the heat and my fear.
After several chaotic minutes of trying to dial the radio to get ground control,
I got clearance to taxi to the runway. I followed the striped lines, and in brief
flash of confusion, crossed the double lined threshold of the runway that no pilot
dare enter without clearance. I barreled through the left runway and held short of
the next one. Since there is no reverse in a plane I knew I could not cover up my
error. Mistakes that occur in an instant seem horribly magnified. But, no fire or
fatality. The male voice from the tower asked me what I was doing. I screwed up.
Mistakes are inevitable. Just hope in life and aviation you are able to learn from
On my next solo flight as I inspected the wings, tires and struts of my Cherokee,
I apologized for the beatings and jokes about breaking her wings and popping her
tires. I followed through with the pre-flight checklists and confidently spoke to
the tower. No delays. I was one of two planes practicing landings in the flight pattern.
On the jittery climb out, the sky was moving too quickly and the engine was running
too fast. On the first turn, my airspeed indicated I was at max cruising speed and
by the second turn I was hunkering down on the Cessna in front of me. I reduced the
throttle and regained my pace, remembering my instructor's words, "Don't let
the plane fly you, you fly the plane."
Copyright 1999 Moxie Magazine All Rights Reserved