SI Vault
Percy Knauth
September 12, 1960
On the crowded airways of modern flight, the romance of the Lindbergh age seems almost forgotten. Yet despite the prevalence of jets and rocket ships, the small plane still flies, and many men and women are rediscovering in it a dream of youth: the challenging beauty of the skies. What it is like to enter this world as a fledgling pilot is told in this chapter from a new and lyrical book (Doubleday & Co., $3.95). The photographs were taken especially for this article by W. Eugene Smith.
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September 12, 1960

Wind On My Wings

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The runway, in the days that followed, became the central fact of my existence. On the ground it stretched before me like a clipped grass avenue, by turns inviting, by turns a grim challenge, leading off and away toward the beach and the open sea. My feelings toward it fluctuated with my nascent flying skill, but even when I hated it for a perverse arena in which all my shortcomings were mercilessly exposed, I never lost the background feeling of exhilaration that came with this effortless leap into the air. Down the open, unencumbered springboard of turf the Tri-Pacer moved as smoothly and assuredly as any automobile; at around 60 miles an hour it simply moved from the ground into the air. A third of the way along the runway there was a slight depression; at this point I usually became airborne, the grass falling away beneath my wheels, the plane lifting free. And the runway, a brown blur, grew smaller, turned into a dune, a beach, and then I was climbing over the marbled sea.

By the time I had climbed out, turned left in the standard rectangular pattern and headed on a tangential course toward the beach again, everything was different. At 800 to 1,000 feet all ties to the earth were already severed, and the plane floated alone, remote, a creature in its element. Motion ceased; instead of the headlong plunge of the take-off and initial climb, we seemed to drift now, almost languidly, over blue sea, white beach, deep green of the alfalfa field bordering the airport. The engine, throttled back to cruising speed, had lost its urgency (I later found that its steady drone would grow so familiar that I stopped hearing it entirely; only a miss in the regular beat, a sudden silence, would be deafening). I rode in a world of purity and clarity that tuned and challenged all my senses; I felt the surge of unseen currents, a rising and falling of irresistible and invisible waves, and gradually there came to me a feeling of enormous, gravityless power in which a tiny movement of my hand or foot could cause the earth to wheel or rise while the airplane, as though hung on gimbals, seemed to remain steady in the sky.

And then there came the feeling of aloneness. Up here no sound from earth could reach me unless I chose to let it—no man's cry, no intrusive voice commanding haste lest time be wasted, trains be missed, work be left undone. I could speak to the world by radio, but the world, if I decided to ignore it, could not speak to me. And on the best of days, when the plane droned along on air as smooth as limpid water, there was peace of a kind I had never felt before—the peace of utter solitude, when life and the world fade into the misty distance of infinity and the infinite becomes tangible through the communication of the soul. The sky took on a grandeur then; the little plane was touched with a celestial magic; it was no longer a mechanical contrivance that stayed aloft in accordance with well-known aerodynamic laws but the creation of unearthly hands, a vehicle born of dreams in which I was privileged to enter into an unpeopled sphere reserved for me alone.

But life is not all magic, even in the sky. There is work to be done aloft, and it centers ultimately on the runway, the beginning and end of every airborne journey. And as free, as untrammeled, as limitless as the sky may be, it too, around the runway, must be circumscribed by a man-established pattern, and that pattern, a disciplined path designed to handle all the traffic in and out of any airport, in the weeks that followed became the pattern of my flying hours.

This is how it goes: take off, climb to 500 feet above the runway, turn left 90�, climb to 800 feet, turn left 90� and cruise parallel to the runway on the downwind leg; turn left 90� onto the base leg, slow to 100 miles per hour, apply first flaps, throttle back to idling speed; turn left 90� heading into the runway on the final approach, apply full flaps, come down and land. Invariable and inviolate, except by special instruction, this pattern is universally established so that the increasing number of aircraft in the sky will always know what to expect of each other when leaving or approaching the ground.

In the pattern time seems crowded to the fledgling flyer. I would get up to 500 feet, the point of my first leftward turn, in not much more than half a minute. In that short time I had to establish a good climbing attitude (90 miles per hour at 2,350 rpm is reasonable), start correcting for possible wind drift, throttle back, take off flaps, look around for other aircraft and start my first, climbing turn. By the time I was out of that turn I was at 800 feet, the pattern height, or better; I had now to level off, trim ship to cruise attitude, throttle back to cruising speed (115 miles per hour, 2,150 rpm), check my position in regard to the runway, check the sky again for other aircraft and start my second leftward turn into the downwind leg.

Now came a moment of brief respite. All things being reasonably well done, I was proceeding straight and level, parallel to the runway, with the landmarks that counted in plain sight and all instruments behaving. I could uncurl fingers and toes from wheel and rudder pedals and relax. I might find myself drifting a bit if the wind was off the runway, and turn slightly, crabbing in toward it. It might be jouncy up there; I learned the quick reflex movements which bring up a tipped wing or correct for a sideways swerve. And then it was time for base leg and the final approach.

Here, 800 feet high and still an improbable distance from the runway, is where a landing begins. It is a pattern of actions and movements, reasonably timed, reasonably precise, beautifully logical, harmonious with the plane, the air and the distance, and if all of its parts add up to a perfect whole, the aircraft will touch the ground at the instant it loses its flying speed and at the spot where the pilot wants to be. Like bringing a canoe to the dock, or coasting a car down the street, into the driveway and precisely into the garage, it is a matter of perception, judgment and practice, and if the end result is good, it is one of the most satisfying things in the world.

Turning into my base leg, I would pull on the carburetor heat, the first step in cutting the power. The act becomes automatic after a while—which is as it should be, for carburetor heat is a vital adjunct to an aircraft engine: it prevents ice from forming in the carburetor jets and intake manifold, which might cause the engine to choke and die if the throttle were suddenly advanced. With the heat on, the engine slowed, I could now throttle back, and at 100 mph put on first flaps. Off to my left, the runway gradually swam into view. It was time to start closing the throttle. As the engine noise died away, the nose dropped, and I could hear the wind whistle past struts and wings outside. Now came the turn into the final approach, the ground pivoting below. I eased on full flaps and lined up with the runway. We were coming down fast now. Pushing the wheel against the lifting, slowing force of the flaps, I held the air speed to 85 miles an hour, pointing toward the field. Below, the green alfalfa flowed past in a swift blur; I saw it only as a sort of backdrop of color; my eyes were fixed on the runway ahead.

This was the picture, these were the sensations that I carried right into my dreams. Close to the ground the air caught and pulled at my wings; often it seemed that the plane itself did not want to land. The ground seemed strange and foreign, an alien element onto which I was forcing myself out of the friendly sky. Where I was floating before, I seemed to be rushing now with geometrically increasing speed. It is a trick which the runway always plays on the neophyte: by instinct he stares straight ahead, over the nose of the plane, eyes fixed on the ground, which comes up at a sharp angle. It is difficult to realize, because it seems contrary to reason that by looking off to one side, not at the runway but far down it, things can be made to slow down and assume their proper perspective. Then the runway will gradually flatten out, tilting, as it were, to meet the plane, which at the proper instant, by easing the wheel completely back, can be flared out a foot or so high until it loses all its flying speed, and touches down.

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