Thursday, August 10, 2017


     The oral phase of the test was surprisingly simple. Despite all the facts and figures I memorized, I was given little chance to display my virtuosity. Mr. Heefner asked me what instruments were required on an instrument flight; I told him; he pointed out uncritically that I had omitted the radios (a rather large omission), and that wrapped up phase one.
     Mr. Heefner wasn’t an ogre after all, I decided, relaxing. He was a very nice man.
     “And now,” he mused, regarding the chart on his blotter, “I’d like you to plan a little trip. Let’s see, we’ll make it direct to Natick, Victor 875 to Millbury, Victor 151 to Woonsocket, and Victor 16 back to Norwood where we’ll wind up with an ADF approach.”
     At first I assumed that this was to be a theoretical trip in which I would demonstrate my flight-planning ability, but when he got to that business about the ADF approach I wasn't so confident. Surely I would to be allowed, as Ed was, to choose my own route of flight, namely the Providence round robin I had practiced until I knew it by heart. Surely Mr. Heefner wasn’t suggesting I find my way to these unheard of airways and intersections in the actual flight test. It developed that this was exactly what he was suggesting. Requiring, even.
     “That’s right, Mrs. Malley,” Mr. Heefner says, promptly turning into an ogre again as he gives the wrong answer to my question. “After you do your paper work in the examination room, bring your flight plan back for me to look over, then we’ll go down to the plane and get ready for takeoff.”
     I walk to the execution block—I mean the examination room—get out my pencil and slide rule, and receive a new shock when I can’t find my low altitude area chart. This is comparable in efficiency to misplacing the plane. I blushingly borrow one from a passing instructor, then find mine in the pocket of my flight folder where it most definitely had not been before. But there it is, I’d know it anywhere by the bright orange line so cleverly and fore-sightedly marking my round robin to Providence. Now, where the devil was Natick?
     Twenty minutes later, my flight plan apparently satisfactory if not a thing of pristine, unerased beauty, Mr. Heefner and I climbed into the Comanche.
     “Don’t laugh,” I say, as I slip over my head a loop of string with a pencil attached, “but this is one way I know I’ll always have a pencil when I need it.”
     “Do anything you like,” says he. “I’m just along for the ride.”
     At that moment, the bow at the back of my neck becomes untied and I have to grab for the pencil. To avoid another such mishap I tie the ends together in a tight double knot, then discover the string is now too short to connect the pencil to the pad on my knee. This could be bothersome when it’s time to copy my clearance. I will have a choice between keeping my eyes on the instruments and half garroting myself as I write, or bending my neck down to a more comfortable level and trusting the instruments to carry on without me. Oh, for eyes in the top of my head. Or better yet, a brain.
     I had one once, but where is it now when I need it most. AWOL. There is no other way to account for my next piece of brainlessness. I’m taxiing from the ramp and have reached a point where either a right or a left turn is in order. Do I look at the wind tee? Do I observe the plane taking off in front of me? Do I give a thought to the north wind on which my estimated ground speed calculations are based? No.
     I woke up midway through a turn to the left. “Oops,” I said, coming to a tooth-jarring stop and swinging back to the right. My face crimson, I wondered if a pilot had ever been known to flunk his flight test before he was even airborne or if this distinction would be mine alone.
     Mr. Heefner gave me an understanding smile and said, “Testing out your brakes, eh?”
     All right, you goofed, now pull yourself together and forget it, I tell myself. Shortly after my takeoff, Mr. Heefner hands me my Alice-in-Wonderland spectacles, and my world shrinks to the wheel in my left hand, the controls in my right, and before me the array of instruments whose indications are my only clue to the plane’s airspeed, altitude, attitude, heading, and general performance. In order to write down clearances, hold the mike as I read back my scrawled notations, study the chart, make computations, and meanwhile hold the Comanche in a climb, turn, or whatever she happens to be doing when the clearance comes through, I will need six more hands.
     The examiner, Ed had warned me, will not so much as pick up a dropped pencil but will sit with his arms folded while I make like an octopus.
     Mr. Heefner asks me to do a couple of holding patterns over the beacon, then call Boston for my clearance.
     Victor 875 to Millbury is not just any old airway but is a Standard Instrument Departure, which means the jets are gonna get me if I don’t watch out. Departure Control radar vectors me from one heading to another for several minutes, then mumbles something about Natick intersection and tells me I can resume my own navigation. Thanks, fella, I think, feeling like a freshman hazee who has been blindfolded, turned around three times, and left in the middle of nowhere. Even Charlie agrees that radar vectors are a great thing but have one drawback: When the service abruptly terminates and your guide says bye-bye, it isn’t always easy to determine in what particular spot of sky he has chosen to abandon you.
     With the help of my DME and omni radio, I establish that I am 18 miles west of Boston, en route to Millbury. From then on I rely on my instructor’s “one jump ahead” principle to keep Mr. Heefner thinking positively. It is doubtful that he will regard me with favor if I go barreling past a reporting point without reporting, overlook a turn to a new airway, or neglect to apprise Air Traffic Control when leaving one altitude for another.
     My ADF approach to Norwood gives me no trouble since I’ve done dozens exactly like it; all I have to do is follow my old wheel tracks. Now we go out to the practice area for the final order of the day, airwork. I botch up my timed turns, becoming confused when Mr. Heefner reaches over and cages my gyro compass instead of covering it with a piece of paper the way Charlie does. My steep turns seem to please him, however.
     “Okay, take off your glasses, Mrs. Malley, the airport’s right over there.”
     “You mean it’s over? And I . . .? ??”
     “You did all right,” the ex-ogre says tolerantly. “Your altitude slipped now and then, but that will improve with practice.”
     When he gives me my hard-won certificate, Mr. Heefner says, “I think you will find this the most valuable rating you can have.”
     I kiss the certificate and I kiss Charlie, but I still can’t believe I am truly an instrument rated pilot. Neither can Ed. He walks in the front door that night, a sympathetic expression on his face and his consolation speech at the ready.
     “Well, that’s a relief!” he says when I tell him I passed, “but how come you didn’t call me so I could stop worrying?”
     “Because I knew you’d gone to that Massachusetts Aeronautical meeting. Why didn’t you call me?”
“I didn’t dare!”
Ed claims that the news of my rating is being publicized up and down the east coast in a special Sigmet, but he’s obviously misinformed. Anyone knows that Sigmet advisories cover phenomena like tornadoes, thunderstorms, hail, turbulence, and icing; what, may I ask, do such hazards have to do with me?

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