Guillermo and I spent the night in a La Quinta in Madison and met the next morning for its complimentary breakfast before heading out for the FlyQuest shop over at Hunstville International. I was looking forward to meeting Russell Lewey for the first time as we plugged in the destination into the iPhone and started toward the airport. The iPhone GPS decided that the shortest route was one that took us into a cargo gate; we were staring at a TSA shack we knew we weren’t going to get past when we figured it out. I turned us around and headed us toward the main gate to the airport when Russell called, and he confirmed I was now headed the right way and told us how to get there. A few minutes later, we had wound our way past the main terminal and found the FlyQuest shop, which was collocated with a new flight school, Revolution Aviation.
Inside the door, we met Russell and the manager of the flight school, Chris Burns. Russell led us back to the simulator. It is a 6 degree of freedom motion base simulator by Precision Flight. Russell told us they had acquired it as a prototype, even though the company now had them in production. Saying it was ready go, he opened the rear door and we stepped up into the cab. Guillermo went first; he was going to fly left seat as the pilot in command. I dropped into the right seat to find that only the left had the controls; but since the worst that could happen was we could crash the sim, I was okay with it. Russell was at the instructor’s station which was outside the cab; we talked back and forth via headset. We were sitting on the long runway, i.e., the twelve thousand feet of runway 36 Left in a simulated Cessna 172. Since Guillermo had only flown airplanes with a Rotax engine, I talked him through the start up sequence. The engine sprang to life. No takeoff checks necessary; we pushed the throttle forward and the airplane followed. We rotated at about 50 knots, and we were off!
We continued pressing north, climbing to 6500. Once there, we leveled off and then I told Guillermo to hold his altitude and pull the throttle to idle. We got slower, and slower, and slower, creeping up on a stall.
“Keep it going….keep it going!” I urged. “All the way into the stall!”
The stall horn started going off. We felt the airplane shudder.
“Keep the stick back. NOW! FULL LEFT RUDDER!”
The nose dropped, the airplane rolled and whipped to the left, corkscrewing the nose straight down. I noted what the ground looked like and what was directly “up” as we twiseted left and around.
“One…two….three! Neutral stick! Right rudder!”
The airplane came to an abrupt stop, fishtailing a little back and forth as Guillermo figured out how much rudder he needed.
“Look at your airspeed! We’re really FAST; start pulling back on the stick but NOT TOO FAST!”
The nose came up fairly quickly. Guillermo stopped it at the horizon.
“Power back on,” I said. “Take us to cruise!”
“Nice job, “ I continued.
“Let’s do that again!” Guillermo exclaimed.
And we did! Spin after spin, some right, some left; and one that started left, went flat, bobbed, and broke right as Guillermo danced on the rudders, reversing them to see what it would do.
With only a few minutes to go, I broke off the spin training and Russell reset us into the pattern for Cullman, a small airport south of HSV. We made three practice runs, working to get consistent stabilized approaches and, hopefully, a simulated landing. Unfortunately, we didn’t get there; Guillermo had a tendency to hang high so getting to a landing could only be done if one was a Kamikaze. That was something we were going to have to fix in the real world. The hour of time we had paid for was up.
We chatted for a few minutes about the session, confirmed the schedule for the rest of the day, and then left while Russell took a young man back to the simulator. Guillermo went back to our rental car, made our way out of the airport to I-565 East, flying down the highway to Exit 15, the exit to the US Space and Rocket Center. At the top of the exit, I turned right toward the Center and immediately left to take us down to Aviation Challenge. Left turn, right turn, and one hill and down another until the road was intersected by a fence separating us from the sharp, finned form of the F-14 Tomcat standing beyond.
After parking the car, we made our way through the gate at the sidewalk, and I walked Guillermo around my F-14 as he photographed her using his phone.
A picture of the F-14 as she sits at Aviation Challenge.
When I had known the Tomcat in our youth, she had been the Navy’s premiere fighter/interceptor, launching off carrier decks, intercepting real bogies inbound toward the task force as it sailed over the world’s oceans; shooting missiles at drones; rolling in for simulated kills against everything from A-4’s to F-4’s, F-5’s, other F-14’s and even Omani Jaguar’s; and jinking away from simulated missiles. She was quiet now, standing there kneeled for the catapult with her wings swept back, something you’d never really see. She looked in really good shape. Very little dirt covered her paint still shiny from the refresh we had given her a year before. I didn’t think she would look that good. The only thing I noticed untoward was a single bird’s nest stuffed into a wheel well. You had to admire a bird that could pull that off since we had closed up most of the Tomcat’s landing gear doors to try to keep the critters out. It was just another lesson on how resilient and resourceful life really is.
To see the rest of Aviation Challenge, Guillermo and I walked around the building used for classes, simulations, and bunk rooms to the stands, hoists, and aircraft hulls positioned in the water egress training area. I explained the purpose of the the “helo dunker” (a helicopter version of the Dilbert Dunker) and the water slide (parachute harness egress training) before taking him to a nearby F-4 whose history included a MIG kill during the Vietnam War. Next we visited a Navy A-7, an Air Force F-111 and F-16, a Navy Seasprite helicopter, a T-38, and a MIG-17 before making our way back past the F-14, said goodbye, and returned to our car in the parking lot.
After a lunch at Chick-Fil-A, we returned to our hotel for a break and to get ready for the afternoon. I was really looking forward to delivering a presentation on Aircraft Systems to FlyQuest students from Mae Jemison High School. Afterwards, we were going to let the kids go out to the CTSW to see and touch an actual aircraft, though you gotta’ be careful they don’t touch too much…!
For a little “show”, I put on what I call my “Fancy Bag”, a royal blue and Navy blue flight suit styled somewhat like a uniform from Star Trek: The Next Generation. It sports a set of gold NFO wings on the left chest, a Flight Design CTSW patch I designed and had made on the right one, a 1000 Hour Tomcat patch on the left shoulder, and another CTSW-centric patch on the right. I combined that with a black and red “VF-51 Tomcat Project” ball cap whose logo I also designed, and then met Guillermo downstairs in the La Quinta where we were staying before driving back out to Huntsville Executive. When we arrived, Russell was already there with his wife Diane and set up in the airport’s conference room. After we all met each other, Russell and I chatted about how I was going to present; I had brought a MacBook Pro I was going to use if needed but Russell had one ready. I practiced with the pointer/slide controller, making sure I knew how to make my slideshow work as we heard the school bus containing my audience pull up in front of the building.
The kids and their advisers piled out of the bus and into the room, filling it with noise and activity. Russell had mentioned it was an unusual class in that the students were mostly female. They were also mostly African-American and from Mae Jemison High Schoo. Many if not all of its members were from the Air Force Junior Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC) there. While I was ex-Navy, I had been in Army JROTC while at Opelika High School few hundred miles south; in addition to an interest in aviation, I had some Alabama high school experiences in common with them.
Russell had a big bag of candy at the top of the table, motivation to keep the young crowd engaged and motivated. I sat down in chairs along the side of the long table that formed the center of the room as the kids filled it in on all sides except for the very front where Russell stood. Russell reminded them what we were her to cover and tossed candy to the students who successfully answered his questions. He introduced me and I moved to the front of the room, told the kids a little bit about myself, and then proceeded into the presentation.
Edward Tufte makes his living talking about how using PowerPoint makes people stupid; and though I had practiced with the material, I quickly learned that when you are talking to kids, that’s close to the truth. A more accurate description of what happens is the kids find it BORING, no matter how enthusiastic the presenter is. And I was. Russell jumped in to rescue me with candy and a Jeopardy game show approach that kept things alive until we had covered the parts of an airplane and what they do. Then, the adult advisors and Russell led the group outside onto the ramp, stressing how important it was to both stay together and pay attention to taxiing airplanes.
Out at the CTSW, we split the kids into two groups with Russell taking one and me the other.
Russell Lewey and his kids at the CTSW.
We opened the aircraft’s doors to let the kids see inside the cockpit, and I started at the nose of the aircraft showing the kids the aircraft systems we had just discussed, going down the aircraft’s left side as Russell and his group started at the tail and went up the right.
Yours truly with my group of kids at the front of the aircraft;
The kids were surprised the airplane was so small and to learn that it had an emergency parachute that lower could it to the ground. Even as small as it was, I pointed out, Guillermo and I could take off from KMDQ and be in Houston only 6 hours later while costing only 30 gallons of gas.
For many of these kids, it was the first time they had been that close to any airplane. One young woman was shocked to discover she didn’t need an academic degree to become a civilian pilot; it just took learning the skills and passing written and flight tests. I could see her wheels turning as she pondered the possibilities she might not have known were there.
One of the students looking into the cockpit of the CTSW.
After a little over a half hour out at the airplane, we gathered as a group just outside the FBO and Russell’s and the teachers took photos of us all. Then, we returned into the building while the kids piled back onto their bus.
I spent a few minutes thanking Russell for rescuing me and discussing how to approach kids in that age group. Russell felt I had done fine, though I wasn’t sure of that since I had seen a kid or two nodding off. Nothing like coming in from out of town and leaving with a reputation intact. I usually put at least twice that many adults asleep….
That evening, Guillermo, Russell, Matt Zwack, and I met at a local restaurant Russell had suggested named “1892 East”. (See http://www.1892east.com.). It was a great little place with good food and ambiance. Matt was a friend of mine, a fellow volunteer on the Tomcat Project as well as a fellow pilot and aerospace engineer, and a colleague in manned space flight. We all listened as Russell shared with us many of his experiences as an Air Force B-52 and instructor pilot. We talked about Flyquest since Matt was coming to talk to the same kids in a few weeks to share his experiences as an aerospace engineer. We were joined briefly by Ed Steward, the Director of Exhibits at USSRC, who couldn’t join us for dinner but take a few minutes to say “hello” and let us talk about the Tomcat as well as the other space related projects I was curious about. For dinner, I had a pan roasted North Carolina stuffed trout, with fingerling potatoes, and broccoli. Nothing like a good dinner to top off the evening talking with good men and fellow pilots. A great way to top off a very satisfying day.