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The Aviator's Checklist: A Reflection On Learning To Fly

Aeronca Champ airplane
wikimedia commons
Aviation commentator Dan Patterson learned to fly on an Aeronca Champ.

The basics of flying are a time tested routine that goes back to the Wright brothers. Aviation commentator Dan Patterson has some thoughts about that and his instructor.

My first flight instructor, Dr. Dick Garrison, died at the end of July. He was also a lifelong friend who I have known since Kindergarten, now 60 years ago.  We shared a love of aviation our entire lives.  At Colonel White High School, one of the teachers, Mr. Kistner formed a flight club that met after school. He also took us flying, and the die was cast.

Twenty years later at a reunion Dick pulled me aside and said, "You know, it's really time you stopped talking about flying and do it." 

He had taken those first lessons in 1971 and literally took off, now a flight instructor.  He had also been to medical school and was an emergency room physician.  I had spent the previous 20 years raising a family and building a career.  He was right, it was past due.

A week later, I met Dick at Moraine Airpark, and we started with the basics.  He opened the hangar door and introduced me to an Aeronca Champ, yellow and orange.  It was small two seat airplane with the student pilot in the front seat.

This is as basic an introduction to flying as there could be.  The cockpit is small but not cramped.  The fuel gauge is in front of the windscreen, a cork float and a wire to give you only an idea of the amount of fuel is in the tank. It is your job as the command pilot to know exactly how much fuel  you have used and how much remains.

The timeless procedure, begun by the Wright Brothers, is to walk around your aircraft and inspect the flying machine’s moving parts to assure yourself that this is a safe aircraft to fly.  The checklist defines the order of your inspection.  While I knew the terms and names of the controls and how they worked, this was the first time I was going to use them to fly.  That reality sharpens your attention.

The Champ has a tailwheel; the airplane sits back on that small wheel, and does not come level until you are already headed down the runway and you take off. The first lesson is all about learning to manage a tail wheeled flying machine well before getting into the air.  There will be no flying until you, the student, can prove you can actually steer a machine with your feet and rudder pedals, looking around the nose since you cannot really see straight ahead.  If you can’t manage to get to the runway, there isn’t much point in continuing.

The lesson evened out and the voice from the backseat was, "Okay, let’s taxi to the runway." 

I could always feel his hands and feet on the controls when I deviated from the proper direction, but also could tell when I had it right.  Dick said to follow his actions.  We reached the end of the runway, turned the Champ into the wind and ran up the 65HP motor, checking the RPMs, and the magneto, assuring ourselves that all was working properly.  If they do not, we do not fly.  Another command pilot job, it is up to you to decide if you can safely fly, not any other pilot.

We were ready, and the Champ centered on the runway. Dick talked me through the increase of the throttle, the dance on the rudder pedals to keep straight. The tail came up, the runway appeared over the nose and then the shadow of the Champ separated from the runway and we were flying.  I can close my eyes and feel it all over again.

Reflecting now on those lessons and Dick’s life, the aviator's checklist stands for a procedure for dealing with the challenges of any day.  The preflight is assuring yourself that you will be as safe as possible.  Then learning to steer anything with the movable wheel at the back of the vehicle, any vehicle, is an accomplishment and sharpens your skills.  As your flight approaches a conclusion, the before landing checklist also has good basic procedures like undercarriage down and locked. 

In the case of the Champ, the words were down and welded.

Dick’s personal checklist included a parting message, the song he requested be played at the end of the memorial,  “End of the Line” by the Traveling Wilbury’s. 

He left us smiling.

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com