Wednesday

I FOUND THE BIRD


N204JP... a classic

“I’VE FOUND THE BIRD!”

Anyone who knows me can tell you that I freely admit that I am a Falcon Jet person. Some people have a thing for horses, or motorcycles, or pop tarts, or sailboats, or blonds or bridges… for 40 years I’ve had a thing for Falcon Jets… especially the classics.

When you attend any professional pilot’s school such as UND, or Embry-Riddle (which was my school) as you go through the program everyone seems to pick up a favorite aircraft that they dream of one day flying. Sometimes you’d make it to that cockpit and other times the eddies in the industry sweep you into a different direction. When I started ERAU I really didn’t have a specific bird that I wanted to fly- I just wanted to survive the place and graduate. Yet during that first year in Daytona Beach, we all had our sights set on Eastern Airlines who regularly flew in and out of Daytona International Airport (DAB). Of course during the decade that it took me to work my way through that place Eastern went from the place where you had it made, to the place to avoid at all costs. So too did the types of aircraft evolve. During my freshman year I had a friend who was totally enchanted with the DC-9-10 “baby 9” that EAL flew in once a day. He said it was like a little sports car. I don’t know if he ever made it to the cockpit of the baby 9 or not. “The Ultimate,” however, was always to be flying your dream aircraft into DAB someday, some way-  it was the freshman’s fantasy. By the end of my freshman year, I still hadn’t set my sights on a dream bird, I was just happy to have gotten through that first year… alive.

That summer break I got a job at MBS (Tri-City) Airport just a mile from my parents home in Freeland, Michigan. I had been given the prime bottom feeder position as a car-hiker for National Car Rental. It was a highly technical position where I had to get the cars coming in, clean them inside, wash them outside, gas them up and park them for customer pick-up. Hardly a brain cell was needed. I did that chore until June 30, 1978 when the owners gravity-challenged daughter screamed at me for losing a set of keys that I didn’t lose. That incident inspired me to walk across the airfield to Hangar 6 and the local FBO, a place called “Air Flite and Serv-A-Plane.” Their receptionist was my 11th grade girlfriend’s mom and so she knew me well. She introduced me to Tim Alexander the no-nonsense hangar ram-rod who supervised the aircraft maintenance department. Tim hired me on-the-spot to work in their parts department. This place was a certified Falcon Jet Service Center and it was there that I got to get up-close and personal with those fine flying machines for the very first time. Between 1978 and 1985 Tim would hire me three different times.

Air Flite wings


Compared to the nonsense of National Car rental, Air Flite was low pressure and a great place to work. There was plenty of opportunity for a budding professional pilot to stroll out into the hangar and visit the assorted aircraft, most of which were corporate jets, in various states of disassembly and inspection. It was there that the hangar’s A.I., Bill Crowler, introduced me to the Falcon Jet. Sure, I’d seen them fly over my house countless times- I lived right under the final approach path to Runway 5 and Dow Chemical, which was based at MBS, had two Falcon 20s and two 10s, plus Dow Corning had a 10. Considering that Hangar 6 was a service center, Falcon Jets from all over the nation came in for inspections. Yet, although I’d seen them, I’d never touched one. One day I was ogling Mrs. Dow’s Lear 35/36 when Bill and I started talking about other jets verses Falcon Jets.

“Le’me show ya’ something,” Bill led me over to the Lear Jet. Pointing at the top of the wing he instructed me to, “Knock yer’ knuckles on here.”

I did so, and heard a tin-like metallic echo.

“Ya’ hear that?” he asked instructively.

“Yeah,” I replied.

Then we turned and took a dozen steps to a Falcon 20.

“Do the same thing here,” he indicated to the top of the 20’s wing.

I knocked on the wing and it was like armor- the difference was night and day.

“Holy shit,” I heard myself sigh.

Bill just stood there and grinned having given me the first of countless lessons that he would pass along in the years to come.

“Which one would you rather fly when yer’ picken’ yer way across a line of thunderstorms at 35,000 feet?”

At that moment I’d found the bird.

A brief history of the Falcon 20 needs to be added here so this story can go beyond the “it’s cool and Wes likes it” phase.

On May 4th, 1962 Dassault (pronounced “duh-so” for those Americans  like me, who cannot speak a word of French) Aviation rolled out their Mystere 20 mock up. Just 11 months later on April 1st, 1963 the prototype of the aircraft was rolled out and made ready for its first flight.

Mystere 20


 That flight took place three days later in front of some very important spectators from Pan Am Airways. Pan Am was seeking to enter the business aircraft jet market and had been hunting for a suitable aircraft since 1960. Originally they had their eyes on the De Havilland DH125, but had come to Dassault to check out the Mystere 20. Chief among the Pan Am aviation delegation was world famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. He had been assigned, by Juan Trippe himself, the task of finding the exact right aircraft for the company’s biz-jet needs.

The Pan Am gang... Lindbergh is in the hat, Mr. Dassault is holding the model.

Following a detailed tour of the Mystere 20, the Pan Am delegation witnessed the aircraft’s maiden flight. Originally equipped with Pratt & Whitney JT-12 engines the prototype flew like a homesick angel. Once the flight was concluded, the numbers were reviewed and the test pilots debriefed, Lindbergh sent a telegram to Juan Trippe that read simply, “I’ve found the bird.” Pan Am requested that the engines be changed to the GE CF-700 and then on August 2nd they placed an order for 40 of the aircraft with a first option for 120. Marcel Dassault was very happy.

Interestingly, “Dassault” was not the name that Marcel had been given at birth. He was born Marcel Bloch in Paris on January 22, 1892. His entry into aviation came as an engineer doing design work during World War I. In 1930 he set up his own aviation company producing military and civil aircraft. When the Nazis occupied France in 1940 he refused to collaborate and was sent to the infamous Buchenvald concentration camp. With the end of the war he wanted to make a fresh start and with that changed his name. He adopted the nick-name Dassault given to his brother, General Paul Bloch- the French resistance fighter. The name was “char d’assault” which is a reference to the general’s preference for battle tanks.

Before going for U.S. certification a few minor changes beyond the CF-700 engines took place in the manufacture of the Mystere 20. The wing area was increased  from 1,271 square feet to 1,448 square feet and the fuselage was lengthened by 23.5 inches. It is sometimes said that the Mystere 20 has the same vertical stabilizer as the Mirage F-1 and Mirage G fighters. In fact the Mystere 20 was designed and constructed more than two years before the two fighters; so it is the fighters who have the 20’s vertical stabilizer and not the other way around. Certification came in both France and the U.S. on June 9th, 1965, but there was just one problem; customers in the U.S. had no idea what Mystere meant or how to pronounce it. It was a marketing stumbling block. An advertising executive in New York City, whose name is likely lost to history came up with the name “Falcon” and Pan Am’s director of Business Aviation Jim Taylor loved it! Marcel Dassault agreed and the Mystere (Mystery) 20 became the Falcon 20. Like it’s builder, it changed its name and went on to success.

At the same point in time that I was busy flunking the third grade, test pilot Jacqueline Auriol set a speed record in a Falcon 20- the date was June 10th, 1965. Over a 1,000 Km closed course she piloted the aircraft at 534.07 mph, (yeah- I know that’s mixing metric and English units, but it’s how Dassault published it) from Istres to Cazux and back to Istres, France. Five days later she broke the record for 2,000 Km closed course between the same cities flying at 508.98 mph. Both records were without payload. A year later Marion B. Burton set a record for speed over a recognized course on September 26th, 1966 by flying from Boston, MA to Gander, NF at 639.75 mph. That is an official Falcon Jet speed record that stands to this day!

Jacqueline Auriol after her record setting flight

When Embry-Riddle informed me that I would not be allowed to register for the Fall 1979 term because I owed them too much money I needed a job… in a hurry. I contacted Air Flite and Tim had me working there the following day. I was the “hangar rat” and my job was simple, “Mop the hangar floor, empty what’s filled, fill what’s empty and everything else paint yellow.” Of course I’m a worker bee and Tim knew it, so soon I was given the task of dropping panels on aircraft for inspections, removing seats and crawling into spaces that the other guys could not fit into. Additionally I took on washing aircraft and, since I lived so close to the airport, Dow Corning contracted the company to have me on call to turn around their aircraft when they needed a quick turn after business hours. That still wasn’t enough for me so when I heard that one of the mechanics who was in charge of doing the engine runs on the Falcons hated to talk on the radio, I volunteered to go with him and do the radio. It all added up to not only overtime, but a rapidly growing knowledge of the Falcon Jets. I even reworked the wood work on Dow Corning’s Falcon 10. By the time I went back to ERAU I was a raving Falcon Jet fan.

By the summer of 1985 I was on track to finally finish ERAU and my financial problems had been tamed, but I still had to work a summer job. Of course the first place that I went to was Hangar 6. Tim was no longer the ram rod there, so I found myself interviewing with Bob Handley. Bob knew me from way back, but said that he really didn’t need anyone right now. I asked if it was okay if went out in the hangar and said hello to the guys? He said that was okay and so I strolled out among the jets on the jacks. There at the far side of the hangar was Tim! He was working for Steelcase now and was in with their jet. It was great to see him and I casually said that I’d come in looking for a job, but Bob didn’t need anyone. We chatted, joked and he wished me the best. Getting on my bicycle I made a leisurely ride back to Mom and Dad’s house. When I got there my Mom told me that Bob from the airport had just called and I was supposed to call him back right away.

Answering the phone in his normal deadpan tone Bob said, “We’ve got this big “D” inspection coming up that’ll take all summer and Tim says I’m a dumb ass if I don’t hire you because you do the work of three of these guys- you start tomorrow at eight.” I was hired for the third time at Hangar 6 which was now owned and operated by Aero Services. This time I was a mechanic working under the shop certificate. Our big project was the first ever “D Inspection” of a Falcon 20!

Aero Services crowded Hangar 6 in May 1985. The blue and white Falcon 20 in the foreground is the bird that we would take completely apart for the first ever "D" inspection on a 20. A note about this photo... it appeared in an Aero Services pamphlet for the MBS station... I shot the photo! The company had contracted a professional photographer to shoot the busy hangar. He came and set up the lights and started to take photos. I went up on the deck and with my own camera took this shot. When the photos came back from the pro. I showed the boss my shot and he used the professional's images for all of the outside and people working shots, but liked my in-hangar shot better... so they used it.


The job involved nearly a complete disassembly and re-assembly of the aircraft. Everything came off and came out. Delicate and tedious tasks such as removing the wing bolts (which required dental tools to remove the hardened sealant that had been placed there during factory construction) was part of what I did. If we put the smallest scratch on one of the existing bolts it had to be replaced. We ended up replacing more than a dozen- most from corrosion. All the while the people from Dassault Falcon Jet watched over us and took notes. At one point all of the cockpit windows had to come out. They were sealed in so well that a mechanic with a 12 pound no-bounce sledge hammer had to stand on top of the cockpit and smack the windows repeatedly to get them to break free. We asked if Falcon Jet representative if that was a good method? He replied that he had no idea because as far as he knew, no one had ever done it before! The removed windows were thrown away. One of the mechanics, the guy with the no-bounce duty, asked if he could have one of the front windows? Hell, they were junk anyhow, so sure. He took it home and shot it at close range with a .357 magnum. The slug went half way in and just mushroomed! When the Falcon Jet representative saw that he asked if he could have it? He ended up taking it back to Dassault for study.

Toward the end of the inspection I was picked along with one other guy to re-seal the wing bolts. Dassault had engineered a better sealing method where a Styrofoam cover was pressed into the area surrounding the wing bolt after we had filled the space with something called Mastinox Compound. It was sort of liquid rubber paste that never hardened. We had to wear disposable cloths and once we started the job we could not stop, for anything, until it was finished. Weeks later I was back at college and still picking that yellow stuff out from under my fingernails.

After college, my pilot career later took me into the airlines rather than corporate flying where I really wanted to go, but fate played in my favor. One day my climb up the airline ladder came to sudden and unjust halt. I found myself without a job and doing the ignored resume thing. Eventually my wife decided that I needed to get out of the house and she took me to an airport were a youth event was being held on the corporate ramp. As she manned the table for the company that she represented I strolled around. Spotting a King Air 200 I asked the lady sitting at a card table under its wing what kind of time someone needed to fly that thing? She started giving me the standard new pilot line of, “Our new hires have to have 1,000 total time, 200 multi…” I stopped her and asked what kind of time do REAL pilots have to have? She asked what kind of time I had and when I told her she nearly jumped out of her seat. She told me that they also flew Falcon 10s and 20s and I told her I’d been a mechanic on Falcon Jets- she wanted a resume… right away! 

The "Corporate Bullet" the Falcon 10


Soon I sat with the owner of the company and after talking to him I got home and found a message on my machine asking me to come in on Saturday, fly the Falcon 10, do three take offs and landings to see how I did on it. The 10 was my old pal from way back in my hangar rat days when I used to sit in Corning's 10 and study the cockpit. We flew together like I'd been driving her for years.That afternoon I returned home to find a message on my machine asking me to come in the next day to fly the Falcon 20 and see how I did on it. By the time I got home from that flight there was a message on my machine to report the next morning at 0830… they had a trip for me. Just that easy, I was a corporate pilot flying my dream aircraft.

That first trip was as First Officer on 204JP the immaculate Falcon 20 that was the personal aircraft of MCI President John Porter. She was a beautiful and classic aircraft- finely adorned inside with gold metals and white leathers. 

Aboard N204JP

On the outside she was spotless clean- a far cry from filthy junk they had at TWA.  As I walked around giving 204JP my personal once-over I suddenly came face-to-face with Mrs. Porter. She wanted to know all about my qualifications and experience. After about three minutes she was satisfied that I’d be their new pilot. Just like the 10, this 20's seat was exactly the same shape as my ass. Even though I'd never been to "class" on this aircraft, I was totally at home aboard her. I knew every system and every switch... we were made for each other. 

N204JP


I loved every second of flying Mr. Porter and although many hated his guts after WorldCom went under because it swallowed MCI, he was always great to me. On one of our flights, after he bought into a NASCAR team, I got to do “the ultimate” flight.

It was speed week at Daytona Beach and we were flying into DAB so Mr. Porter could watch “his boy race.” Turning onto final for runway 25R there was ERAU out my window. As I contacted the tower and told him we were on final he surprisingly said,

“Does it feel good to be back again?”

Mr. Porter had never had his jet into DAB before- but I just went along with the conversation.

“Just like old times,” I quipped back and he cleared us to land.

My captain, who was the owner of the company, looked at me and asked, “Does he know you?”

“Aviation’s a small world babe,” I replied wanting to stretch out my boss’ misconception that everybody involved with ERAU knows everyone else, “and I was flyin’ out of here for a long time.”

We landed and when ground came up it was the same controller.

“You goin’ to the Riddle ramp today?” he asked half joking.

“Old habits die hard,” I replied, “but we’re goin’ to DBA today.”

“Cleared to DBA, and welcome back,” the controller retorted.

My boss spent the rest of the month in total amazement that we flew into my old stomping grounds and the controller appeared to recognize my voice. Actually it was probably just a good guess on the part of the controller. That day we went over to campus and I got a hold of my former director of flight ops. and had him come over and see 204JP. He was amazed that it had a skylight in the lavatory. For me that trip was full circle- I came back to Daytona piloting my dream jet.



Thus, I’ll always be a Falcon Jet guy- after all, I got to fly both of the classics- the “Mystere” 20 plus the “Corporate Bullet” 10- I loved it! I wound up my pilots career flying the Falcon Jets and I still keep buying the T-shirts… much to my wife’s dismay.

I’d found the bird and flew it back to my old nest.

If you enjoy my writing... try one of my books! Lots of airplanes in there.

Friday

POP! GOES THE FINAL EXAM



In the spring 1987 term at ERAU I suffered complications from an impacted wisdom tooth that I had surgically removed over Christmas break. Unfortunately, that secondary infection of the bone hit me just before final exams. In extreme pain I visited a local dentist, Dr. Holliday, that the school nurse recommended. He said that he could see nothing wrong and thus could do nothing to help me. Then he went as far as to imply that I had come to him just looking to get pain killers. Yeah, right, me the life-long non-drinker who never touched any recreational drugs; I was there trying to scam a couple of vicodin. When I got back to my house I called my folks back home and got the number of the oral surgeon who had removed the tooth. Dr. Spangler, whose office was up in Saginaw, Michigan, said he wanted me in his chair within 24 hours. I visited Dean Rockett’s office and explained my predicament and he said he’d have all of my final exams set aside until I got back to Daytona. My roommate Jose, who worked as a gate agent for a People Express Airlines feeder out of DAB, scammed me a free ticket and I was on my way up north that evening.

Anyone who had played hockey in the Junior levels or above knows too well what dental pain can be like, and this one was the worst of any kind I’d ever had right up until I had a kidney stone a quarter of a century later. Once in the oral surgeon’s chair he examined the area, took some X-rays and then thought a bit. The thinking part was the portion of the exam that the idiot in Daytona had failed to do. He asked if I’d had any pain leading up to this? I said that I had, but it always seemed to just ease off after several hours. I told him that within the past few weeks the pain was coming more often and was getting progressively worse. He said that what I had was an uncommon, yet clear case of an infection of the bone. The reason why it had come and gone, while getting a bit worse with each onset, was that my body had been able to fight it off until it just got too bad to vex. A bottle of antibiotics and I was as good as new in 48 hours. Yet, Dr. Spangler firmly insisted that I remain in town for at least five days so he could re-examine me just to make sure it had cleared up. He also equipped me with a letter from him to whatever dentist may need to treat me next explaining in medical terms exactly what my diagnosis was and also giving them a number to call him 24/7. I stayed on the antibiotic for the full 10 days as prescribed, but I flushed the pain killers down the toilet.

Although Dean Rockett had arranged for make-up exams when I got back there was, however, one exception and that was my aerodynamics class. The instructor, Mr. Blackwell, was gone on sabbatical to Mexico for 18 months and so there was no way I could make up his exam. I would be forced to take an “incomplete” for the class and repeat it later. That was actually fine with me. Frankly, sitting in his class was like sitting in an open grave. The guy lived out of “Aerodynamics For Naval Aviators” a text that although accurate in its theory and math, was probably as boring in the 1950s when it came out as it was in the late 1980s when we were forced to use it. To this day I believe they probably made Naval aviators read if for punishment. Thus, I was dragging bottom in his class and probably would have likely flunked it if I had taken his torturous final exam- several of my classmates were buried by it. So, why not take the “I” and repeat it with someone who knew how to make the subject less painful than my dental infection?

By the way- check out my latest book!

The following spring, April 1988, I had already walked across the stage for graduation and all I had left to do in my post-walk mop-up was two advanced flight courses, FA314 and FA315, and that aerodynamics course. Having pilots who had walked in graduation still needing to finish flight courses, especially those two, as well as a class or two was nothing new at ERAU. In fact at least 4 of my fellow classmates were in the same boat as me including one of my roommates. The university understood and allowed us the option to graduate… we just didn’t get a paper diploma until we’d completely finished. Now, a fill trimester after walking across the stage I’d already knocked off FA314 and was in the process of knocking off FA315 as I entered into that last class to finish aerodynamics.

I scored big by getting Mr. Kumpla for the aerodynamics course. He could teach a baked potato and have it completely understand aerodynamics. In fact, through all of my later years of flight instructing I used his class notes in order to teach the same material and used them again when I later adjunct professored in the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore’s short-lived aeronautics program.

Walking out to the GRW complex on at 2:10 pm on April 19th to take my aerodynamics final exam it suddenly struck me that this was it! It had been 128 months since I first stepped foot onto the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s campus and this was the last thing that I would do in a classroom. It was a strange feeling as I considered how far I had come. From that hockey psycho who stood there in his Bauer sneakers and received his orientation packet to a fully rated commercial pilot, with a Bachelor Of Science Degree in Aeronautical Science. On top of that I was the winner of the Student Leadership and Involvement Award, had been the Flight Team Chief Pilot, Avion newspaper’s editorial cartoonist, I was the founder of the first student-alumni association, buddies with J. Paul Riddle (the co-founder of the University,) I had been on a first name basis with two university presidents and I was now engaged to be married to the most amazing girl on campus. Man, I had come a very long way. ERAU had gone from being a place that made me homesick to a place that I considered to be home. The funny thing was; I had never, ever intended to accomplish anything like that. My singular, sole goal at ERAU was simply to finish- and nothing more.

Other than finishing that final exam, there had to be a way for me to, personally, mark that accomplishment. The exam itself had been piece of cake. Mr, Kumpla had done such an amazing job of teaching this material that even me, the guy with the huge phobia of multiple choice tests, was able to go through the entire exam with great confidence. It wasn’t as if the test was simple, it was in fact that the test made sense and was directly related to the material he had taught. Filling in the final dot on the answer sheet and re-checking my results, the way to mark the occasion suddenly popped into my brain. Nearly every student in that class, as well as Mr. Kumpla knew full well who I was, how long I’d been working at it and what I had accomplished. By the time you get to that level at ERAU, you pretty much know everyone else- it has become more like a family and friends than a cold university. That’s the advantage of, in 1988, having a student population of less than 5,000. Although the rest of the class were all busy completing the exam, I felt sure that no one would not mind one last exclamation point in my long story. I took the answer sheet and the exam up to Mr. Kumpla’s desk and turned it in- mine was one of the first. He looked up at me, I smiled and winked as if to say that I knew I did very well- then I returned to my seat. Reaching into my backpack I pulled out an “Embry-Riddle Alumni” bumper sticker that Tom Arnold, the director of Alumni Relations, had given me. Quietly I peeled off the backing, placed the sticker on the flat of my hand, wound up and slapped it onto the back of my class notes book just as hard as I could!

“POP!!”

The sound echoed across the silent classroom and every head looked up! Standing, I held the class notes book high above my head and turned to show my new alumni sticker to everyone in the room. Applause broke out as well as a few hoots and whistles. Even Mr. Kumpla was clapping as I paraded from the classroom. They all got it. They knew what my action meant and they also knew that their turn would soon come. Mine was 30 years ago, as of this writing.
This is the actual back cover to the class notes with the sticker right where I smacked it. In aviation there are some books that pilots keep- forever. Normally those are the ones from which you learned the most, or the ones you know you'll use again some day. Kumpla's notes are both.



If I could make it, if I could finish, so could anyone else who was willing to work hard, stay honest and never, never quit.

Tuesday

You never forget that first solo


Pilots tend to remember certain flights forever while most of the rest of their flights just fade into a blur. There are two that we especially have burned into our memory; 1) the flight where you almost got the most killed, 2) your first solo. To those of you who are not pilots- those two are almost never the same.

On March 20th, 1978- exactly 40 years ago as of this writing, I did my first solo flight. At the time I was a freshman in the flight program at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach Florida.




In later years, as a flight instructor, I personally certified and soloed a number of students. When a person solos there is the mythical tradition that either the new pilot’s shirt tail gets cut off, or they get a soaking. The legend which is most commonly told to students is that after the first flight of the Wright brothers, Orville, who made the flight, got out of the aircraft and as he did he snagged his shirt tail and ripped it and then stumbled into a mud puddle. Thus, when you solo you get your shirt tail cut off and or you get soaked with water in some way. My students always got the soaking because I didn’t want to have to replace an expensive shirt.

Normally the first solo is a big deal and it’s always best to not let your student know in advance that “tomorrow yer’ gonna solo,” because then they tend to worry about it and get the jitters. It’s always best to surprise them. I’d take mine on a few laps around the pattern and then as we taxied back for yet another takeoff I’d say, “Hold it, I need to check somethin’…” and I’d get out, look at them and say, “Go do three takeoffs and landings.” And you always had to add, “Yeah, yeah, yer’ ready.” All of my students had been told from the beginning that they would be far beyond ready before I’d let them solo. The long out-dated World War II military 12 hour solo is not only unsafe but it’s in violation of FAR 61.87 part B, D and especially P, subsection 3 which states that the student must demonstrate that they are “proficient” in the 15 maneuvers and activities in part D. Yes... FIFTEEN! There is no way a student pilot can gain true proficiency in all of those items in just 12 hours. Thus, when my students soloed in about 24 hours of total flight time- I knew they were both ready and fully in compliance with the regulations. So, while it was a surprise every time- they too felt honestly ready.

At ERAU the program was quite intense and professional. We had a book that showed each lesson step by step and then before soloing we went up with a check airman, or “prog. pilot” to ensure our proficiency and full compliance with FAR 61.87. In my case I did my prog. with Rick Hopewell who said I was fine with everything, but my landings needed some smoothing out. As a result I had to fly an extra 0.4 dual and do three more take offs and landings at Daytona with my instructor John Jaworsky. I then did a re-check with prog pilot Roger Kenny (the nicest person on the planet) and was thereby approved to solo- I had 18.4 hours.

At ERAU your solo was never a surprise. Like everything else in the flight department it was scheduled. I knew it was coming three days in advance.

March 20th was a great day to do that first supervised solo. The Florida weather was clear with light winds. John and I flew out to the Deland airport and after one practice dual landing he got out and gave me the go ahead. I hadn’t been worried about doing the solo. Instead my brain was focused on the procedures and I ran them over and over again in my mind. I’m a lip-biter and as I put the takeoff power in I was chomped down so hard on my lower lip it’s a wonder it wasn’t bleeding. At 55 knots I rotated the Cessna 172 “chickenhawk” and N77ER practically leaped off the ground! John hadn’t told me that without his extra weight onboard the increased performance would be that noticeable. Climbing out I flew over to the crosswind leg and then turned onto downwind leg and that’s when it dawned on me… I’m doin’ this all by myself!

About mid-field on the downwind a Moonie cut me off in the pattern. I just pulled off some power and let the faster Moonie slide well ahead of me. Gripping the yoke to the point where my fingerprints were likely to be ingrained in the plastic I watched for my throttle back point abeam of the runway. What I didn’t notice was John down on the ground waving me to go around as he thought I was too close to the Moonie.  Abeam the end of the runway I pulled the carb heat on and throttled back to 1,200 rpms and watched for the airspeed to hit the white arc. Meanwhile the Moonie made close traffic and was no longer a factor. Inside the arc I dropped 10 degrees of flaps and looked for my 45 to the runway in order to measure my base leg turn. It all came together as I went through the procedures and set up for the touchdown. Flairing I felt the mains touch and letting the nose down I hit the flaps to “up” carb heat off and crammed in full throttle.

I’d done it!

As I rotated into the second climb out I began to giggle… this was FUN! Coming back onto the downwind there was no other traffic in sight and just as I went into another giggle the biggest damned bird I’d ever seen dove past right in front of me- the thing was the size of a freaking pterodactyl! No more giggling for this pattern. Again, I set up just as I’d been instructed and made the approach and landing. John told me in the de-brief that he was motioning “OK” but I never looked at him- all I saw was the runway as I crammed on the power again. This time the climb giggles were replaced by loud maniacal laughter a rebel yells. It was like scoring a goal in a hockey game and my exuberance was only interrupted by the required radio calls. Even the fact that a second Moonie had cut me off in the pattern again didn’t shake me. Shook the hell out of John (who, unseen, was waving me off again,) but not me. After that landing I taxied over and John climbed back in. He asked if I’d seen him waving me off? I told him “No” I was too busy spacing with the traffic. I asked if he’s seen the pterodactyl on downwind and he said he hadn’t… so, we were even.




Arriving back at ERAU we went through the de-briefing and then John scheduled me for a second supervised solo that evening. That was it- I headed back to the RSI dorm. There was no shirt cutting or water soaking- nothing. It was all professional; another required unit completed as scheduled- period. Interestingly, the instructors at ERAU in those days seemed to have two standards for first solo ceremonies. The male students usually got the no frills treatment… the female students, however, got the works! Even when my soon-to-be wife soloed, her shirt got the whole freaking back cut off of it and a bunch of stuff written on that cloth. Other girls that I knew at school also got their shirts cut. Makes ya’ say “hummmmm.”

When I got back to the RSI many of the guys there knew it was my solo day. My pal Mark “Doc” Holliway, who had gotten his private pilot certificate before coming to ERAU and thus had soloed in the real world, dropped buy my room to congratulate me. He was a bit appalled that I’d gotten no shirt cut or water treatment. He left and returned shortly with a bunch of guys… who picked my ass up and threw me into the pool.

Professionalism is good… but so is tradition.

Twenty years later to-the-day I was flying a Falcon 20 down the Florida coast toward Fort Lauderdale. There, down below, was Deland airport. After looking down at it and remembering, I went to the back and pointed the airport out to Mr. Porter, the billionaire owner of the jet.

“Twenty years ago today,” I told him, “I did my first solo at that airport.”

He looked down and a huge grin of delight came to his face.

“And look where you are now,” he said.


Be sure to take a look at Wes' latest book... lots of WWII airplane stuff in it.

Friday

Orbital Klyde


Before you read this blog post...
read this!!


 It's one of his six book-series on spaceflight!

On December 8th, 2010 the second Falcon 9 rocket ever to fly boosted the first Orbital Dragon spacecraft from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 40. I was there to watch it fly. That spacecraft completed a two orbit test flight for Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX. Following splashdown and recovery of the Dragon, SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk proudly displayed the cargo that had been flown aboard the Dragon; a top secret wheel of cheese. At the time it was implied that the cheese was the only thing aboard the Dragon, but there was something more aboard the spacecraft as it flew into orbit that day. 

Aboard the first Dragon spacecraft was not only the cheese, but also a nine inch tall, plush Klyde Morris doll.



That fact, however, was not for public release at the time. It was a BIG secret.
How did Klyde get aboard the C1 Dragon you may ask? Well here’s the story…

Originally the Klyde doll was not supposed to fly. I sent it to my friend Brian Mosdell, who at that time was the director of operations for SpaceX at Cape Canaveral. Brian and I went to college together at Embry-Riddle and we both served on the Avion newspaper together. He was the sports editor and I was the cartoonist. In the summer of 2010, after the first Falcon 9 launch Brian and I were a part of a radio talk show panel and we got talking about Klyde. Brian said if I sent him a doll he would mount it in the flame trench and focus a high-speed camera on it for the next launch. I thought that would be fun, so I sent him the doll. 


But that’s not what happened.


On November 1st of that same year Brian sent me an e-mail asking me to write the most favorable SpaceX cartoon that I could. He said that he wanted to fly Klyde aboard the orbital Dragon and was going use the cartoon to help convince the powers that be to let him do that. I did the cartoon...


On November 17, 2010 I received an e-mail under Brian's SpaceX e-letterhead indicating that both  Gwynne Shotwell "our president" and "Elon" approved- and Klyde flew into orbit in December.

So, why was this a secret?


Simple.


Permission to fly the Klyde doll was granted by Gwynne Shotwell, the president of the company, but only on the condition that we would keep it to ourselves. You see, SpaceX had a score of sub-contractors as well as NASA folks who all wanted to have an artifact on that first flight and they were all turned down. The company felt that if it got out that Brian’s doll had been aboard it may upset their sub.s, or worse yet, NASA.


I wasn’t exactly ordered to “tell no one.” In fact I told Aero-News. net and some of my friends in the hardcore space press such as Robert Pearlman from collectSPACE dot com before I knew it was supposed to be a “secret-secret.” Then, after the flight, Brian said I could tell family and a few "friends." I said, “How about Miles O’Brien, he’s my friend?” Brian just groaned and said, “Give me a break.”

Gwynne Shotwell had, however, approved a Klyde SpaceX astronaut dream sequence cartoon idea for after the flight...



So, you may ask again, why are you going public now?


Well, Brian is no longer with SpaceX and so I asked if I could put the story out and he said that he now had no problem with that.


If you are wondering what happened to the Klyde doll that orbited the earth on that historic mission- the answer is again quite simple... 

Brian told me that the doll is very safe, it sits on his wife’s desk at work.

KLYDE'S FIRST DAY



February 15, 1978… a day which will live in infamy… okay, well… maybe not. Anyhow for your reading enjoyment, this is what the day that the first Klyde Morris cartoon appeared in public was like for me; the newborn cartoonist plus some immediate results and non-results.

Keep in mind that I was a second trimester freshman at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University where “The Avion” was the very popular student newspaper. Wednesday was always “Avion Day” and stacks of the newspapers were dumped at strategic locations all over campus at about lunch time. For the rest of the afternoon when you showed up for class EVERYONE had an Avion open and was reading it at their desk. It was not at all uncommon for the class instructor to be sitting there with an open Avion before class started. So, when you put an item into the Avion, everyone from the lowest freshman to the university president was going to see it. That was the environment into which I submitted my first cartoon strip.

The Avion staff had snuck that first cartoon strip into the paper because the idiot editor, the late Ray Katz, had ideas to make the cartoon what he wanted rather than what I created. It went to the printer on Monday night and after I waited all day Tuesday, it finally appeared on Wednesday the 15th.

Getting off the bus from our off-campus dorm (a motel out by the interstate called the Royal Scottish Inn, and in Riddle speak “The RSI”) I snapped up an Avion and headed off to my Nav. II class at the flight line complex. I took a moment to make sure the cartoon looked okay. After all, I’d hand drawn all of the frames and done the whole cartoon with a black Bic pen, so who knew what it would print up as. To my surprise it looked just fine. Now, however, came the real acid test- what would be the reaction… if any.

Strolling into the classroom I got my first taste of the best part of being a cartoonist… no one knows who you are! Since my last name is so hard for teachers to pronounce, on the first day of every class the instructors took one look at it and asked if they could just call me by my first name when they called roll. Of course my registered first name isn’t “Wes” so when the call went out for “Walter” I just said “here” and that was it. Thus, Wes Oleszewski never answered the roll in any of my early college classrooms. Now, I could sit in class with anonymity and watch the others as they opened their Avions with my cartoon strip at the bottom of page 2. There were no other cartoons residing in the Avion at that time.

As the guy in front of me opened to page 2 he looked right at the cartoon… and then went to the sports section without as much as a snicker. Nuts! Next over beside me another guy sat down, opened his Avion and then went directly to the fraternities page. Crap! The guy two rows up opened to page two, then folded his paper over to read page 3. Shit! Everyone that I watched seemed to just skim right past my cartoon. There wasn’t a single snicker or “Hey look at this,” or anything… no reaction what-so-ever. In my chemistry class that afternoon, it was the same exact nothing! I got back on the bus to the RSI and no one there seemed to notice my cartoon either. I dragged myself dejectedly to Room 182 and flopped into my bunk. I was sure that my cartoon had bombed. When my roommate got back he said that he hadn’t even looked at it. Gee, that helped. My other roommate just shrugged and said, “Yeah, I saw it.”

Ugh.

Late that afternoon we got a rain shower that moved through which added to my gloom as I boarded the bus back to campus to have dinner. As the bus stopped at the doors to the University Center, the bus doors opened and I saw a rain-soaked Avion resting in the gutter opened to my cartoon. The guy who got off the bus ahead of me stepped on the cartoon.

Cutting one’s wrists with a butter knife from the cafeteria was an option, but with my luck the paramedics would get there in time to save me. I considered that the food alone may just do me in. Then it dawned on me that in the strip I’d lampooned not only William Stafford, the director of admissions, but worst of all Jack Hunt the University President. Stafford probably couldn’t do me a lot of harm, but President Hunt could boot my smart ass right out of the school with little more than an afterthought. Now I’d put my college life and my whole future at risk over a bombed cartoon! I figured I was deader meat than the over-cooked cheese burger sitting in front of me.

The following day I went to the Avion office for their weekly meeting. I just knew that Katz was going to carve me up in front of everyone… but he wasn’t there. In fact no one was there but Keith Kollarik the assistant editor. He told me that there would be no paper this week because Monday was President’s Day. I mentioned that the first strip was a dud and he just turned and said, “It was fine, we’ll need another one for the next issue.”



Now I was puzzled.

What I would not actually realize until the following autumn was that I’d been judging the reaction through a keyhole. Where I was not looking, the reaction was that the strip was a major hit. So, I spent the rest of that spring 1978 trimester with my head down writing cartoons, turning them in and then running for cover. Meanwhile, the other students, the faculty, the staff, the administrators and most importantly President Hunt, loved the strips from the beginning.

I should have been tipped off when I got a message in my mailbox saying that Dr. Jeff Ledewitz, the VP of Student Affairs, wanted to see me in his office. I ignored that. Soon a memo came up to the Avion office telling me that Dr. Ledewitz wanted to see me. I vanished into the student body as best I could. Finally, Dr. Ledewitz’s secretary May, came walking into the Avion office and she had my photo in her hand! Looking around she spotted me. “You!” she pointed, “Come with me, Dr. Ledewitz wants to see you.” That was it… I was getting my butt kicked out of school. But all he wanted to do was tell me how much he loved the cartoons- especially the ones about him. Ooooook. (Many years later he told me that when we met I was not at all what he expected me to be. Instead of a wild and crazy cartoonist, I was this meek quiet guy. I told him that was because I was expecting him to kick my ass out of school.) As I left his office after that first meeting he had one final word of advice, “Oh, by the way, President Hunt’s looking for you.” A wave of doom swept over me.

About a week later I was coming down the staircase in the UC making my way from the Avion to the cafeteria when I looked up and saw President Hunt coming through the doors at the north end of the building! AKK! I knew that President Hunt knew every single student either by name, face, reputation or all of the above- so he’d know me in a heartbeat! When I got to the bottom of the stairs I ducked around the corner and pinned myself against the wall. I stood there hardly breathing until I was sure he’d passed, then I bee-boped out and headed to the cafeteria to fetch my morning tea. As I passed one of the pillars just outside the entrance, an arm reached out and nabbed me by the elbow! “GOTCHA!” Hunt barked. I probably could have paid off my tuition with the solid gold brick that I shit at that moment. But, just like Dr. Ledewitz, all President Hunt wanted to do was tell me how much he enjoyed my cartoons. He then offered me, “an open door” to his office to drop in and talk about anything. Yes, I often took him up on that. (A quarter of a century later, Dean Rockett told me that I was only one of two students that Hunt ever extended that privilege to. Hell, I thought he did it for every student.) Many times we disagreed on subjects, but when it came to “our” university we saw eye to eye. In one such visit in the early 1980s he said that I didn’t realize just how much power I had on campus. I scoffed big time- “ME… power… HA! I’m just a workin’ class Polack kid from the wrong side of Saginaw, Michigan who draws funny pictures that happen to show up in the school paper… I don’t even know what power means,” I told him. He’d always lean back in his chair when he went into teaching mode- and as he did that he said, “If you drew a cartoon that told everyone to break the windows out of the University Center, the next morning I’d get calls from campus security telling me there were windows broken.” I was shocked, “Good Lord,” I half gasped, “I’d NEVER do ANYTHING like that!” President Hunt smiled and said, “Exactly. That’s why you’re the right guy to be doing what you’re doing right now.” He went on to explain that our university was going through growing pains and would continue to do so for many years to come. As long I was lampooning him and the other characters and events on campus, the students would read it and say, “Yeah! That hits them where it counts,” rather than taking their frustration out on the property, the staff and the campus security. President Hunt gave me a wider view of our university and my cartoon strip, as well as my own, place in it.


From that point on, I saw Klyde Morris as something much more important than just a cartoon- plus I was more careful about where I aimed it.

Monday

WILL THE FALCON 9 HEAVY FLY?



For anyone who may not know it, I’m NOT a SpaceX fanboy, or an Elon Musk zealot- not by any stretch of the imagination.  The big Hollywood style Dragon 2.0 unveil and the testimony in front of the Congress with the launch dates that could never be kept, the crowd of cheerleaders at SpX headquarters for each launch and the Tesla payload publicity stunt didn’t impress me at all. So, you may ask, do I think the Falcon 9 Heavy will fly?

Yes.

There may be a few scrubs and perhaps a delay or even a rollback, but I think that the big bird will quite likely fly and may actually complete its planned profile. Normally, in modern times as rocketry has grown up, it is a pretty good bet that the first launch of a new vehicle will be successful. I’m sure that the staff at SpX has looked carefully at every little detail and they are highly confident that this new configuration will indeed fly successfully.

Keep in mind also that the catastrophic Falcon 9 failures of the past involved the second stage and not the first stage. Now SpX has taken 3 of those pretty reliable first stages and strapped them together. Additionally, even though there are a lot of engines burning at once- the vehicle is NOT the N-1. This one has been fired on a test stand which was a luxury that the Soviets never had with the N-1. Nearly all of the N-1’s shortcomings would have shown up in a static firing. This is also NOT a Saturn V. Comparing the Saturn V to the Falcon 9 Heavy, as some have tried to do, isn’t comparing apples to oranges… it’s comparing apples to a grape.


The time when the glitches turn into bitches comes not in the first flight, but in subsequent flights. It comes when corners are cut, schedule pressures get high, management over rules engineering and the faults of sub contractors find their way into tiny little parts. So the time to watch for the fireball that is three times larger than any that SpX has made before, probably won’t be tomorrow. 

If it is, however, let’s hope it’s far enough out to sea so that any of the pieces over about 8 pounds won’t make as far as the Saturn V Center where they can actually do some damage.

Wednesday

AN OLD PILOT'S LESSON IN LIFE No. 133:

 THE GYM


One day, while in the middle of a trip as a corporate pilot I found myself flying with a much younger captain. Just for anonymity, we’ll call him “Luke” as in Luke Skywalker- the original from the earliest scenes in the first Star Wars movie; young and a good pilot but far short on knowing what the big world of airlines was like, yet yearning to get into that first airliner cockpit as well as other things. Me, well I’d come into that corporate job with three airlines in my past, a bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Science and a master’s degree in Who Gives A Shit, but Luke and I flew very well together- he was a lot of fun.

On this trip, however, we came off of an overnight at DFW and got a notice that our trip had been changed. Now we were headed to San Francisco to RON and pick up another customer the following afternoon. Looking at the dispatch Luke got giddy. Indeed our cheap-assed management had forgone our usual nice hotel in SanFran and stuck us in a crew hotel across from the United facility.

“Look’it this,” he nearly giggled, “have you ever been to this hotel?”

“Yeah,” I groaned, “been there a few times.”

“This place is crawlin’ with babe flight attendants,” he went on having not heard me at all.

I rolled my eyes behind my sunglasses. Having the reputation as the most happily married man in aviation, I was far more interested in how many cable channels the room’s TV received- and from what I could recall- this hotel only had about 9. Yet as we went to the airport, got the aircraft and headed for SanFran Luke went on and on about the babes at the hotel. His zero knowledge of how airline crews actually work together and hotel together, plus having apparently seen a few too many movies led him to the fantasy that this was some sort of a meat market as opposed to a crummy crew hotel.

“The hotel gym is where they all hang out,” he began to school me where I didn’t need to be schooled, “ya’ just walk by the place and ya’ can see ‘em in there.”

I told him that he could do whatever he wanted, but I was gonna slam-latch tonight.

“No way pal,” he insisted, “yer’ goin’ with me to the gym, I don’t wanna be there alone, it’ll look like I’m just there for the chicks.”

“But you ARE just there for the ladies,” I scowled, “right?”

“Well it’ll just be cooler if yer’ there too,” he insisted, “this is an order, you’ve gotta be there, you’ve gotta do this.”

Now, anyone who really has known me for a long time will tell you that the last thing in the world that you want to ever say to me is any version of, “…you’ve GOT to do this.” The results will not be happy for the person saying it. In fact I actually take someone saying, “I’m gonna kill you,” better.

Yet all the way to SanFran and on the van ride to the hotel, Luke said it over and over. Then he gave me a time to meet him at the hotel gym.

Now, gyms and I do not get along. I have, in fact, so many old hockey bangs and dings that even the treadmill set on low makes me hurt. I’ve always said that if you ever see me running down the street you’ll know that the guy ahead of me just stole my wallet, and the only time I even enter a hotel gym is if the pool runs out of towels. So, up to my room I went- slam-latch!

At the appointed time I get a call from Luke; he’s in the gym and there are “babes” there. He wants me in there RIGHT NOW and he’s not kidding.

Okay…fine.

I took out an old pair of cotton running shorts that were at least a decade out of style and put them on. Then I took my black frame sunglasses and using my glasses tool, popped out the lenses than added a band aid wrapped around the nose bridge to give the proper nerd effect. I wore my uniform T-shirt and my black socks and black uniform shoes. Dressed like a total dweeb (which isn’t far from my normal look anyhow)- I walked to the gym… fortunately, it was on my floor, so no elevator ride was involved. Bursting through the door I gave Luke an oh-shit moment that he’ll never forget- but that was just the start.

Sticking out my chest like a rooster I gave a hello to the three young ladies in the gym as I strutted over to the free weights. I proceeded to perform a bit that I saw Michael Richards do on the old TV show “Fridays” where his dweeb character “Dick” shows up in the gym and tries to impress the locals.

“Hey there girls,” I crowed, “I’m Wes and Luke here is my captain. We’re corporate jet-jocks” I boastfully sighed aloud. “He told me that I just HAD to be here and check out the (winking clownishly) action.”

Grabbing a 10 pounder I struggled just to make it move as I grunted loudly.

“Oh yeah,” I groaned straightening up and leaving the weight behind, “that felt great.”

By this time Luke had his head in his hands mumbling something about “gonna kill” me.

Next I moved on to the treadmill and bumbled frantically as the three young ladies stood in the corner and giggled with delight. Then I moved to the water cooler, filled a cup and poured it all over my neck and shoulders.

“Whooo” I groaned, “workin’ up a real sweat.”

Just as Luke stood up to grab me and drag me out of there I nabbed a towel and wrapped it around my neck and asked if I should go to my room where I wanted to be, or if he wanted to pump some more iron with me? Hanging his head he said quietly that I could go now.

Pointing a pistol finger at the young ladies I winked some more and said, “I’d give ya’ my room number… but it’s unlisted,” and I swaggered away. 

They laughed and said “Bye, bye.”

Dinner that night was a fairly somber occasion as he said he never wanted to see me in the gym again. I said that was the idea in the first place. By the following morning he’d cooled down quite a bit as we sat in the lobby waiting for our van to the FBO. Crews were coming and going and suddenly from behind me stepped one of the three flight attendants who’d been in the gym. Luke just groaned. She was accompanied by another young lady FA as she addressed me,

“I was just telling Tammy here about your little show in the exercise room yesterday,” she snickered as she handed me her business card, “if you’re ever laid over in Denver, give me a call.” Her card had a phone number scrolled on the back. “Me too,” the other FA giggled as she handed me her card, also with a phone number on the back.

They both just giggled and headed out the door giving a flurty wave before getting on the UAL bus.

I thought Luke was gonna pass out. 

After their bus drove off I took both cards and stuck them into his shirt pocket.

“Lesson in life,” I told him, “humor beats macho… every time.”