Return To Flight, Part One
Sport Pilot Allows ANN Staffer To Take To
The morning of January 24, 2007 was a cloudy
and cold one in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex... and I was concerned
with just how low those clouds were. Fortunately, despite some
ominous-looking wisps over my apartment in Addison, a call to the field
AWOS told me the ceiling was considerably higher over Grand Prairie
Municipal, 30 miles southwest... and that's all that mattered.
This was gonna happen. After 17 months stuck
on the ground, except for several airline flights and a few demo rides, I
was going to fly again.
Next up was a stop at Starbucks -- a
preflight ritual of mine, dating back several years -- before I drove
through rush hour to GPM, just south of DFW International. My heart was
going a mile-a-minute... much faster than traffic was slogging along the
Even with the traffic, I arrived at GPM a
full 30 minutes before my lesson was scheduled to begin. When I walked
into the office of Aviator Air, my instructor, Jay Hencken (below), was
waiting for me.
"Ready to go?"
"Absolutely," I said, trying to temper my
giddy enthusiasm and focus on the task at hand.
My chariot back into the skies is the
Evektor SportStar SE, the first aircraft to be certified under the FAA's
light-sport aircraft rules. The low-wing LSA follows the light sport
guidelines to the letter: two-seats, gross weight less than 1,320 lbs,
Rotax 100-hp engine.
From the beginning of my stop-and-start
flight training (darn economics) four years ago, the kind of flying
allowed under sport pilot rules has been the kind of flying I prefer. I'm
among the minority of ANN staffers who aren't concerned as much about the
destination, or how fast their plane can scoot through the skies.
Instead, I'm content with puttering through
the air, always reasonably close to an airport, just sitting back and
enjoying the simple fact that "hey, I'm flying." IFR training doesn't hold
very much appeal to me, at least for now, and nighttime is for sleep.
That puts me in a distinct minority among
the pilot community, and that's fine by me. Although for the moment I'm
relegated to sport pilot by default -- more on that later -- truth be
told, I've always been a sport pilot, even when I didn't know it. And it
appears I'm not the only one.
N676EV is but the first of two SportStars my
flight school is set to receive. Another one should be flying within a
couple months -- good thing, too, as 6EV is already booked at least one
week in advance. The school is one of only a few -- you can count them
on one hand -- in the entire DFW metroplex currently offering sport-pilot
training. Jay tells me all but one of his current students are working
towards their sport licenses. It's clear the market is there... it's just
waiting for more schools to offer the option.
Preflighting the Evektor is just a tad
different than preflighting a Skyhawk, but the basics are there. If you
follow the checklist, you'll be fine. I was taken aback a bit by the
all-in-one pitot/static tube on the underside of the SportStar's left
wingtip (above), as well as the need to check the engine coolant level
(below) on the Rotax powerplant.
I'd discovered at Sebring 2007, climbing
into the SportStar is fairly simple... a big consideration, as I'm not as
thin as I used to be. Once inside, I was again impressed with the amount
of room available. That big canopy also gives you plenty of shoulder
room... and the view out is incredible.
After a thorough review of the SportStar's
cockpit and controls, it was time to get underway. Jay instructed me to
flip the fuel tank selector to the left position, and crank the Rotax the
same as I would start my car -- be ready for a quick start, and keep the
throttle at idle. The lightweight powerplant turned over instantly.
Taxiing the SportStar was a nonevent. I was
awed by the fantastic view over the nose; the proximity to the ground
helped me line up on the centerline much easier than in the Cessna 172s I
have flown before.
The preflight run-up is pretty much the same
as the Skyhawk... except for the different control locations. The
split-flaps are controlled by a Johnson bar between the seats, not via a
panel-mounted electrical switch (on this plane, anyway; electric flaps are
an option). Carb heat is a (very) small, somewhat-flimsy lever on the
left side of the panel, not the center as in several other planes.
And speaking of that... the mixture knob? Not needed on the Rotax. A very
welcome absence, if you ask me.
Also on the subject of "missing"
equipment... where's the directional gyro? In keeping with 6EV's
strictly-VFR mission in life, heading information is provided solely by a
magnetic compass at the top of the panel. The only gee-whiz aspect in this
SportStar's cockpit is a Garmin 396, secured in a panel-mounted bracket at
With the runup complete, we taxied to the
end of runway 35 and scanned for traffic in the pattern. Grand Prairie
Muni is also home to American Eurocopter; one whirlybird was on downwind.
"What is our rotation speed?" I asked Jay
after we received clearance from the tower.
"For this takeoff, don't think about that,"
he replied. "Feel the plane tell you through the stick when it's ready to
For the record, that speed comes at 52
KIAS... but the plane felt ready and eager to fly well before that. With
only the slightest backpressure, 6EV lifted off the runway, with the
nose oriented with the horizon in the proper climb attitude. At 500' AGL,
we banked right, and departed to the south on the downwind. Despite the
SportStar's considerably lighter weight, the ride was just slightly
bumpier than I remember in the Skyhawk.
The practice area south of GPM is a busy
place. In addition to the big jets flying overhead on approach to DFW, one
must also keep an eye out for traffic from Arlington Airport, just seven
miles southwest of Grand Prairie.We also had a Chinook helicopter from a
nearby base cross underneath. I wish I'd brought my camera. But that would
have taken away from the purpose of this flight.
"Climb to 2,500 feet ... okay, make a left
turn to 090 down to 1,500 feet," Jay instructed me. "Take us back to 2,000
feet, and right to 270."
Compared to a Skyhawk, the SportStar is a
highly responsive aircraft. It feels much faster than its actual
speed belies, a sense heightened by the panoramic canopy. More
importantly, it is also an easy plane to fly reasonably well; from the
start of our maneuvers, the SportStar responded to my control inputs like
a faithful steed, going exactly where I pointed it.
Maybe there wasn't as much rust on my
negligible skills as I'd thought... or maybe, the SportStar tries its
darnedest to make its pilot look good. The only aspect I found slightly
difficult -- more of a nuisance, again given this plane's VFR-only mandate
-- is the lag from the plane's magnetic compass. Turning out to an exact
heading is less a science, more of an approximation.
Next up, Jay demonstrated power-off and
power-on stalls, and then had me fly a series. I've never liked stalls; in
fact, I flat-out hate them. Always have. The SportStar didn't change my
mind on this... but surprisingly, stalls in the SportStar didn't unnerve
me like they used to in the Skyhawk. In fact, they were almost... well,
not fun, but rather enjoyably challenging. I again surprised myself by
looking -- and feeling -- like I knew what I was doing.
With stalls completed, we headed back to the
airport. I'd lost track of the time (except for the half-hour mark ,when
we changed fuel tanks... another difference from the high-wing Skyhawk.)
The 95-knot trip back to the airport gave me ample time to go over the
flight in my mind.
Being in the air again felt like home. I
couldn't believe it had been so long since I'd last been at the controls
of an aircraft for an extended period of time... I had to pause to
remember my last solo flight was June 2005.
All in all, it was a much better day than it
had been exactly one year ago: January 24, 2006. A Tuesday... the first of
many I'd never look at the same way again.
"It looks like cancer," the radiologist
had told me that day, one year ago. "We're recommending surgery
They say time slows in moments like
that... and it does. But my mind raced. I was only 30, and had recently
started a "dream job" at Aero-News; in fact, my life had become something
of a storybook in the past three months, and I was more content than I
could remember being in quite some time.
One reason for that was I also looking
forward to resuming flight lessons; in fact, as I awaited the results of
the test, I had calmed myself by mentally flying the pattern at my local
Cancer. It wasn't fair... but then
again, what is?
The surgery was one week later, also on
a Tuesday. My mom drove down to stay with me. The days that followed would
bring more good news than bad. The tumor didn't look like it had spread...
and the doctor felt there was no reason to go through chemo. Monthly
observation checkups would tell us if we needed to alter that game plan.
I was -- I am -- lucky. The form of
cancer I was struck with, although voracious in its appetite, is also
relatively easy to kill. It depletes its energy in spreading... not with
sticking around. Others have shown -- quite successfully -- it was
possible to beat it back, and live not just normal lives... but highly
successful ones, as well.
For the moment, however... no
flying. And I cursed my luck for that one reason, above all others.
Fortunately, it wouldn't last.
As Jay and I flew over the marina on the
north edge of Joe Pool Lake -- conveniently inline with the end of the
runway at GPM -- we called the tower, and received clearance to fly a
straight-in approach to 35. The wind was straight down the runway.
Two notches of flaps (30 degrees) set us up
for a nominal descent. We crossed the threshold at 60 KIAS, and I set the
plane down in a smooth, albeit three-point landing.
"You'll have to get used to flaring higher
than you would in the Skyhawk," Jay told me, "but apart from that, nice
job!" I'd been at the controls the entire time, except when Jay
demonstrated the stalls.
During the post-flight briefing, Jay set out
a game-plan for earning my sport-pilot ticket. I already have the hours
required for a sport pilot license -- several times over, in fact, the
result of that stop-and-start training -- so the next few lessons would
continue to be "check-out" flights ahead of soloing. "You shouldn't take
very long," he told me, and I agreed. Everything on the first flight had
felt natural to me.
We set up the next lesson for the following
Tuesday, I paid my bill for the one hour flight($30 less than a comparable
lesson in a C172, I noted... hey, every little bit helps) and that was
As I walked back to my car, I could
feel my emotions starting to get the better of me. I had to make one phone
call before heading for home.
"Mom, your son is flying again," I said.
Next Week... Steep Turns, And
The Aviation World lives off of one inspirational miracle after another...
but of all the little miracles that I've ever been a part of, this "ANN
Thing" has been my favorite. This project has touched and involved more
people in more ways than I can possibly count and every new way that ANN
manifests itself as something cool or special in a flyer's life is truly
the delight of my life. And some more than others...
Rob's odyssey since coming
onboard at ANN is something we take great pleasure in. He has a "no
prisoners" attitude toward every task that is put before him, and when his
"Big C" scare came about, I really wasn't that worried for his
mortality... as he is not the kind of guy to be stopped by simple matters
of mere biology... not when there's flying to be done. I had every
confidence that he would beat that challenge and look forward to seeing
him earn his SP ticket in the not too distant future and joining the ranks
of aviators throughout the world... although, make no mistake about it,
the guy has been an aviator, with ticket or not, since the day I met
him... -- Jim Campbell, E-I-C