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Hands-On Instruction in Flights of Fancy

TRIED & TRUE. This column is one in an occasional series of first-person accounts of leisure activities in and around Orange County.

November 24, 1994|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to the Times Orange County Edition

I felt like a sparrow in a parking lot full of eagles.

Was I actually going to fly this little plane out of the same airport that was used by those roaring behemoths with the big logos on their sides?

You bet. I was going to fly a Cessna 172.

Well, you have to start somewhere, and this particular somewhere was John Wayne Airport in the left-hand seat of the single-engine Cessna. Long years had flown by since I had last spent any time in a light plane, and that, too, was for an assignment. And $52 and change seemed a pretty good bargain for about 40 minutes in the air with my own hands on the controls.

Mike LeFave, a flight instructor at Lenair Aviation at the airport, said we'd cover one or two more things than the usual first-lesson menu of 1) flying straight and 2) climbing and diving.

LeFave, matter-of-fact and friendly, started the morning as we would end it, with a checklist.

Everything in aviation, he explained, begins and ends with one. We spent perhaps a good 15 minutes walking around and under the plane, taking fuel samples, checking flaps, ailerons and rudders, peering at tires for possible bald patches, poking into the engine cowling for birds' nests.

Then, buckled into the little cockpit, we went on with the pre-ignition checklist, toggling switches, yanking on mixture and throttle knobs, noting gauges (thankfully not too many of them), adjusting the compass as well as pulling, pushing and turning on the wing-surface controls.

Finally, LeFave told me to turn the key. The engine sputtered and quickly caught, causing the plane to squat slightly on the ramp. I adjusted the r.p.m. to 1,000, and we went over yet another checklist. Finally, cleared by the tower, LeFave taxied the Cessna out of the tie-down area, onto the taxiway and told me I was driving.

You steer a plane on the ground with your feet, a thoroughly awkward-feeling arrangement at first. Students, said LeFave, are told to keep their right hand on the throttle and their left hand on their left knee. Turning the wheel will not help at all, but the temptation to reach for it is powerful. Just keep the yellow taxiway line right between your legs, LeFave explained, and all will be well. It felt like riding a unicycle on a tightrope.

Once it got closer to crunch time, LeFave took over and taxied us onto the runway, the nose pointed down the long, long black expanse. No waiting. Push the throttle all the way in, he said. Quickly we picked up speed as the center line wobbled in front of my eyes. Good Lord, I thought, I'm actually going to take this thing off.

After what seemed like a fairly short time--and space--LeFave told me it was time to pull back on the yoke (at last I got to use it!), but there was more resistance there than I had expected. I pulled a bit more. Nothing. Still more, LeFave urged. I gave the wheel a long, steady pull.

And suddenly we popped into the air. No thump thump of landing gear like a commercial jet, just a little swoop and, by golly, I was flying the thing! Right up and over the back bay! Smooth and clean and climbing steadily on a crisp, clean, bright, turbulence-free morning. Hey, Wilbur! Hey, Orville! . . . I did it!

Well, sort of. Then and throughout the flight, LeFave's hands and feet were nearly always covering the controls, insurance against my colossal inexperience. When my movements became too subtle or pronounced, he corrected them. But, once airborne, maneuvers--climbs, descents, turns, coordinating rudder and ailerons--came fairly naturally.

Working in three dimensions, however, is unnatural to anyone used to driving a car. When you turn a plane, for instance, you not only change direction, but lose altitude, unless you compensate with the yoke. Once the plane is trimmed, however--set at level flight--it's possible to take your hands and feet off the controls and let the plane fly itself.

However, you have to keep up your housekeeping. What's your heading, your air speed, your altitude? Have you "squawked" for the tower (indicating your location)? And, above all, are you in the right pattern, away from other traffic? I thought of circus jugglers twirling dozens of plates. Heck, I was satisfied to keep us from stalling.

After turning back from our heading down the shore past Laguna Beach, we let down a bit over Newport Harbor and followed the coast to the Huntington Beach pier, where we turned inland. LeFave specified a compass heading that I should turn to and I was pleased when I saw the numbers on the compass line up smoothly and accurately. One correct maneuver, anyway.

At 1,000 feet, we were flying north and parallel to Runway 19 Right, the big jet runway where we would land. A 757 was on final approach several hundred feet below us. On our own base and final leg, we would stay above it to avoid its turbulence, LeFave said.

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