By Jimmy Ewing
“More right rudder!” my flight instructor bellowed into the radio. “More right rudder, more right rudder, more right rudder. Prop torque always turns the plane to the left. If it’s not turning the plane to the left, you better be looking for somewhere to land!” he continued, working himself into a lather by repeating the mantra I would hear for the next nine months.
We landed and took off again. “More right rudder! More right rudder! If you don’t, we are going to hit the tower and we’ll both die.”
I have dreams, even today, where I wake myself up shouting “More right rudder!”
In 2018 I went to work for one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known. The father of a childhood friend, he built an enormous multi-national commercial concern based on business savvy buoyed by sheer force of will and a penchant for the finer things in life. A powerhouse bantam of a man moving through the day on the balls of his feet as if perpetually poised to break into a run; he displays an appetite for life that is entirely unchecked and there appears no limit to his ability to succeed. Fortunately for me, one of the “finer things” he discovered is private aviation.
I took my first private flight that same year on one of his lustrous aircraft, flown by him, grinning the entire time at the controls and I thought, this is for me. We landed in New Jersey, pulled right past the busy public terminal with its cattle gates and rumpled attendants, and up to a tiny little terminal building you may not have even noticed. The gleaming doors opened, I walked down the airstairs, directly through the looking-glass.
Inside, there were beautiful women with tiny dogs in purses, famous people drinking free Starbucks coffee, leather armchairs containing scions of the business world everywhere you looked, and the faint aura of mahogany, Westin Hotels, and sex without consequences. There was free food and staff everywhere to make sure you were happy and comfortable and they appeared to be dedicated to serving … me. In that moment I thought I have found my people.
My boss flew his own aircraft because there appeared to be nothing he couldn’t do, and if he didn’t fly his own jets, that would have been harder to prove. I can appreciate that kind of naked aggression, so I went home and signed up for flight lessons, booking three flights a week, in advance, for six months with the crustiest, oldest, best flight instructor who would agree to fly with me.
That is how, several weeks later, I found myself leaving the ground, mostly sideways, in a 2,000-pound tin can with a lawnmower engine strapped to the front of it and a 75-year-old stranger pressed up against me shouting: “More right rudder!” repeatedly, arms crossed, flatly refusing having anything to do with the situation. This was not a private jet and, if we landed at all, there would be no beautiful women to serve me danishes.
Later, he shouted over the radio, “Have you ever stalled an airplane?” To me, that sounded bad.
I said “no,” which was true.
“Are you ready to try it?” he asked, looking directly at me for the first time. Growing up Baptist, I know what being judged feels like, and I said “yes,” which was a lie, and not allowed for Baptists.
I thought that when an airplane “stalled” it had something to do with the engine and you floated gently back down to the ground on a feathery column of air, like a magical flying unicorn. That is not true, and there is no such thing as magic, or unicorns. When an airplane “stalls” it has nothing to do with the engine, it means the wing loses its lift and just “quits flying.”
Now, if you are paying attention, that may sound bad. You are right. When a wing just “quits flying,” so does the airplane it’s attached to and, unfortunately, connected to the no-longer-flying wing is a cabin and in that cabin is your humble servant, frozen stock-still at the controls in a rigor of fear and calamity, staring at a city below which is both rapidly-advancing and beginning to spin >>> thataway. I soon discovered the high pitched “Eeeeeeeeek!” sound overwhelming the headset was coming from me.
From a practical perspective, what happens is this: The whole riveted-together sumbitch just falls straight out of the sky like a 2,000-pound oak leaf blown off God’s front lawn. At some point, if unchecked, the progression is, everything starts to come apart in a fairly well-understood order of parts and pieces, beginning with the parts and pieces that allow you to control things. Not so long after that, everybody dies.
I quickly did a few things, almost entirely by accident, that prevented the unfortunate parts of that progression from unfolding. Then, we did it again. And again. Later, we did it with our eyes closed and in other terrifying and confounding variations intended to quickly uncover just how much quit I had in me and/or make me cry, which is apparently a thing that happens.
Back on the ground, he asked “Will I see you Wednesday?” and looked at me directly for the second time that day, this time kind of hard, perhaps to see if I had been crying. Now familiar with that look, I heard my mouth say “Yes’ which proves several things about me, only some of which are good.
I did not cry, but I was still a little sweaty and shaky when I got home, so I sat outside contemplating eternity for a few moments before going into the house. My wife, a generally not-at-all stealthy person, said out of nowhere, “Why are you sitting on the lawn by yourself? Did you know it’s wet? How did everything go? Was it great? Did you love it?!” and, with the receipt for six months of flight lessons clutched tightly in my sweaty fist, for the second time that day, I lied.