By Bill Buchanan
Earlier this week, OVN reporter Logan Hall and I were fortunate to take a helicopter flight around the Ojai Valley with local pilot Gil Vondriska. We flew over the town, Lake Casitas, the mountains and along the coast. Wow. Simply wow. I had flown once before in a helicopter, many years ago when an old girlfriend and I took a helicopter tour of St. Louis. But that flight could not compare with the beauty of the one Tuesday. The only thing better about the St. Louis flight was that my girlfriend was much cuter than either Logan or Gil.
In fact, Logan and I had such a good time Gil just about had to drag us out of the helicopter. A story about our flight and more about Gil can be found elsewhere in today’s edition. Thanks, Gil. It was a wonderful time.
The flight made me recall other flying experiences I have had, especially those in small planes. The company I used to work for owned two small aircraft — well, aircraft is probably not the right term as it implies something of considerable size. These were flying phone booths. But those years provided some wonderful and interesting flights. On a trip in northwest Arkansas, a rapidly moving weather system came up on us much faster than anticipated. We hurried to the airport to take off ahead of the system. Once aloft, you could see the system forming, strengthening and moving. Ahead of us was blue sky, but behind us was a weather system right out of “The Ten Commandments.” At any moment, you expected to see Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea down below. The weather system was beautiful and awe-inspiring. It was also something you didn’t mind being ahead of.
On a trip to South Dakota, we finished our business early, and had some time to kill. Since we were only 35 miles from Mount Rushmore, we called ahead and got permission to do a fly-by. When I lived in South Dakota I visited Rushmore 10 times or so. But it was really special to fly over the Black Hills and pass by the four presidents from the air, looking them almost right in the eye as we went by.
The gentlemen who owned the newspaper group I worked for a was great guy and a real character. Ben had logged thousands of hours as a pilot. One day we flew to Iowa for meeting. We finished our work, and were headed back home. It had been a very long day. We left early in the morning, and would be getting back late in the day We were both whipped. Shortly after we were airborne, Ben started unfolding maps and using them to cover up the windshield. He didn’t stop until his side was completely covered up, and left only a small “window” about the size of a rear view mirror on my side. I said, “Isn’t it a good idea to be able to see out of the windshield?” He replied offhandedly, “I’m tired, and I don’t want the sun in my eyes while I try to get some sleep.” He continued, “See this gauge? Turn this knob so this dial follows that gauge.” I looked at him in total disbelief. I had never flown a plane in my life. But he wasn’t kidding. Until that point, I had been tired, too, but I got a huge surge of energy (fear will often do that) and was suddenly saucer-eyed and wide awake. Ben put the plane on auto-pilot, then leaned back to get comfortable before offering his final piece of sage aviation advice, “Don’t hit anything.”
While we encountered some weather that bounced us around sometimes, we were always careful to avoid lines of thunderstorms. We did not take stupid chances where the weather was concerned. Our unofficial motto was, “I’d rather be down here (on the ground) wishing I was up there, than up there wishing I was down here.”
But I did have two close calls in small planes, times where I thought, “Well, it looks like I am going to die now.” One situation was due to carelessness, the other to unexpected weather conditions.
The reckless incident occurred on a flight when we were fully loaded, and the pilot did not take the time to do a weight and balance. A weight and balance is where you arrange passengers and luggage to make sure that the cargo’s weight is distributed properly so the plane can take off and land upright — always a good goal to shoot for. Even though I was not a seasoned pilot, I sensed something was amiss shortly after takeoff —- probably because the stall buzzer was going off like a rock concert in my ear. I also noticed that we were not gaining altitude. This was particularly troubling as we had a ridge on one side of us, and mountain on the other. Instead of climbing, we were going up and down and up and down. I learned later that this maneuver is called “porpoising” and is not generally recommended unless you are actually a porpoise. The pilot dives down to pick up speed, then pulls up to avoid hitting the ground, then repeats the move until you (hopefully) gain enough speed to climb. After several tense moments, we finally climbed high enough to make it over the ridge. That was our last takeoff without doing a proper weight and balance.
My other close call occurred on an otherwise a routine flight with my friend Phillip at the controls. We were on final approach and suddenly a strong wind came up. The pilot dipped his wings into the wind as you are supposed to do, and we descended toward the runway. Just as suddenly, the wind shifted directions and almost flipped the plane over. Again, it didn’t take a seasoned pilot to assess the situation. As I looked out the windshield, I thought, “Aren’t the wheels supposed to hit the runway instead of the wing?” Phillip did a great job of turning the plane back the other direction to right us. We landed safely, but the cross wind was so strong it almost blew us off the runway.
Phillip somehow managed to keep the plane on the runway, and brake us to a stop. We sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity. Phillip was the first to speak. He slapped my thigh, and said, “Whew, I don’t know about you, but I think I could use a drink!” I sat mute. Phillip looked over at me and asked, “Are you OK?”
I replied, “Yeah, but I may have to get this seat cushion surgically removed.”