“Awww…you’re doin’ fine, kid.”
As I think back on my career in aviation, some of my fondest memories are from my first job as a line boy at the local airport in South Florida. It was an exciting place to work that was often different day-to-day as new planes and pilots and opportunities presented themselves to me and literally expanded my horizons.
Working the line offered lots of challenges and experiences—driving fuel trucks loaded with thousands of gallons of AVGAS and carefully maneuvering them around millions of dollars of airplanes, towing G-II’s and Falcons out of the executive hangar with inches to spare, changing lightbulbs along the runways, and even being the Fire Rescue crew with a “Squad 51” lookalike firetruck. But by far, the best part of the job was meeting pilots and getting unusual opportunities to fly in a variety of airplanes as they would learn that I was building hours and earning licenses.
I worked the line all during my time at Community College and then later, having attended school away from home, I would have a job during the breaks and during the summer. One summer having been away at school and on a whim during a slow period, I drove a golf cart over to the County Mosquito Control hangar and dropped off an application on their desk with the hopes of one day being able to fly one of their DC-3’s or Beech 18’s on their morning missions to spray mosquitos. (South Florida would be inhabitable without the ability to curb mosquitos!) Not really thinking that they’d be interested in having my 20 year old, barely experienced body sitting in the right seat, imagine my surprise when later in the day one of the pilots that I knew stopped by the FBO desk and plopped a poorly copied, ear leafed, beat up manual on the counter and said, “can you fly tomorrow?”
Is the Pope Catholic?, I thought?!
With great enthusiasm I said, “Heck yes!”
“Ok,” he said, “we’ll meet up and fly some, do a few landings, and put you on the schedule.”
I couldn’t believe it. My first legit flying job (although I didn’t think I was getting paid) was going to be flying a “Three.”
I spent all the time I could before the next day and read and re-read the manual asking my airline pilot Dad a ton of questions (he had flown the “three” early in his career) and barely slept that night in anticipation of flying the Douglas. The next day, eagerly and nervously walking up to the airplane that would be my ride for the morning, I was stunned at the size of the plane as the Captain showed me how to preflight the airplane and “fill the oil and check the gas.”
Soon we were aloft and I struggled through man-handling the 26,000 lbs of airplane around the pattern and learning how to spray for mosquitos. After an hour or so, he was convinced I wasn’t going to kill him and we came back and I waited to be added to the schedule. (These airplanes were being operated under the “Experimental” category…the right seat pilot qualifications were not too rigid—thankfully!)
That summer, as a part-time co-pilot, I flew many missions early in the morning never flying above 300 ft until we came in to land and climbed to pattern altitude. To say I learned a lot is an understatement…often flying in a multi-ship configuration, there would be three, sometimes four airplanes flying together to cover the county in mosquito fog. Flying with the windows open and taking off at first light with red cockpit lighting right from WWII, I couldn’t help but think what it was like for those in Europe starting out their mornings in 1943—not with mosquito repellent, but a cabin full of paratroopers ready to face the Third Reich. “Humbling” is a good word.
My first summer of flying the DC-3 ended and I headed back to school eagerly anticipating the next’s year’s flying. As soon as I returned home, I reached back out to the guys at the mosquito control and they put me back into the rotation.
I soon got a call about flying the next morning and I after a fitful night of sleep, way before sunrise, I arrived at the hangar, got my plane assignment, grabbed my flashlight, and headed out to preflight the bird. Assured the plane was airworthy, I walked back into the hangar where small talk ensued as coffee was flowing and the clock watched waiting for first light. The Chief Pilot silently indicated “it was time” and we all headed to our airplanes. Walking up the cabin into the cockpit past our huge tank of mosquito repellent, I quickly settled into the right seat, opened my window, and started my copilot duties. It wasn’t long before we began hearing other engines starting and we were then ready to count the blades as the mighty Pratt’s roared to life.
As we approached number one for takeoff, the Captain in the early morning darkness said to me, “Your take-off!”
I was stoked! It had been 9 months since flying the plane and I couldn’t wait.
Lining up on the centerline, I put my hands on the throttles and slowly but steadily pushed the throttles up to 45 inches of manifold pressure. Tapping my hand, the Captain then took over the throttles, pushing them up to 48 inches and I placed my left hand on the yoke. The airplane roared to life and, before the days of noice cancelling headsets, the sound was deafening!
The airplane began to rumble and bounce and roll down the runway and began drifting left as I pushed full right rudder to compensate. The airplane responded to my inputs and tracked back to the right. About the time that the airplane returned to centerline, I pushed forward on the yoke to raise the tailwheel. When that happened, “gyroscopic precession” kicked in and the airplane headed to the left again.
Adding right rudder again, what worked before was now too much! The rudder had become MUCH MORE effective and the airplane sailed over to the right side of the runway!
I was in trouble.
I added left rudder to bring it back to centerline, but as the airspeed was increasing, the rudder effectiveness was increasing exponentially and I shot back over to the left side of the runway.
Time was slowing down and I added right rudder to only have the airplane began oscillating with my control inputs and was now heading to the right side of the runway at break neck speed.
Pushing left rudder and correcting for the right drift, the airplane now was heading to the left side of the runway and there was no way to bring it back!
This was not going to be pretty.
With one eyeball on the airspeed indicator and the other on the (what seemed like) a 30 degree exit from the runway heading, I pulled back hard on the yoke when I saw 84 knots (the magic number where the airplane will fly with an engine failure) and the left edge runway lights go shooting by my right window!
Climbing out, returning to centerline, sweating and shaking and trying to get my wits about me, I turned to the Captain and shouted over the din of the airplane noise and said with much incredulity, “WHY DIDN’T YOU TAKE THE AIRPLANE?!!”
The Captain, a Vietnam veteran who flew Huey’s in the war who was looking bored and uninterested waved his hand and said,
“Awww—you’re doing fine, kid.”
Doing fine?! Doing fine?!!
It took a while for my body to settle down as I thought about what had just happened. I realized I had learned a lot that morning. I had learned all about “P-factor,” “Slipstream effect,” and “Gyroscopic Precession”—and I learned that an easy takeoff can sour quickly!
I also learned that flying with an experienced Captain who knows when and when not to take the controls can teach more in a moment than a stack of aviation books could ever do.
Thanks, Chuck, for the training. I hope I didn’t soil your pants.
About The Author
Jeff Collins is from SW Florida and is an Airline Captain flying the “big iron’ for a major airline. The son of an airline pilot, he learned to fly in high school, has spent his whole life in aviation, and loves to share the stories that have followed his career. When not in the air in the Flight Levels, he can be found in his SR22 flying to see his kids and grandkids and enjoying the view from down low.