Birdie on the Green

Why would a grandmother learn to fly anyway?

by Marjorie Johnson

“Cessna One Eight Echo, Cleared for takeoff.”

My twentieth solo hour. Time off, 9:54 a.m. Nose up, full power, right rudder. I am turning left. More right rudder. Still turning left, I’m not climbing. I’m going to clip someone’s tail!

The clock says 10:50 a.m. What am I doing here? I tried to sit up.

“Hold still please; just a few more stitches.”

Stitches? I feel okay, but I am strapped to a gurney. “Where is my airplane?”

“You set it down on the golf course. Just relax; you have had a good bump to the head.”

That’s right. Something happened to the plane, but what? Someone said that I crashed on the Palo Alto Golf Course. I remember that I set up a soft-field takeoff, and the tower cleared me. I couldn’t have crashed.

“We are from Channel 2. Can we interview you about the accident?”

“Sure, I guess.” I don’t remember any accident.

I made the television news, the crash on the golf course, me in the hospital bed. I was home in time for supper, but wearing a hospital gown, because the nurses cut my clothes off. My legs are stiff and bruised, my hip is hatching a purple duck egg, my head aches. A pretty good bump, just like they said.

Why would a grandmother learn to fly anyway?

I was afraid of every landing after my husband learned to fly. I took some flying lessons for safety; what would I do if the pilot passed out at 5000 feet? It took months for me to learn to land, mostly because the last fifty feet were just too close to the ground.

I could not give up now.

Three days after the accident, I went up with an instructor. The headset dug in and my head ached under the bandage. My heart pounded, my stomach knotted, and my palms perspired on the takeoff roll, but it was so beautiful over the coast that I remembered why I wanted to fly. If only these machines didn’t have to takeoff and land, I’d be in heaven.

I went to see One Eight Echo in the salvage yard, trying to remember the accident. The newspaper photo showed a Cessna 172 down on the green, with avid golfers in the background and the caption, “Crashed Birdie on the Course.”

But in real life, I saw that one wing had hit the ground, the landing gear was twisted, the propeller was bent outward at both tips, and all the windows were broken. The tail was okay, and maybe the radios. I could have died. Stunned, I had to sit down, right there in the dirt.

The FAA investigator said, “A stall/spin accident.” Uprooting the tree didn’t have much to do with it. “Have your instructor call me. I want you to fly ten hours of stall recovery practice before you solo again.”

In the plane with the instructor, every time I did a stall and recovery, my heart would pound and panic rose within my breast. After two logbook hours of the same three maneuvers, my teacher said, “I always hated stalls; I can’t do this anymore.” He quit.

The aerobatic instructor took me on. We did loops and rolls and spins in his Citabria. And of course, spin recovery, which was the purpose of the flight. Next came stalls and spins entered from every conceivable direction. The worst was stall recovery in inverted flight, even worse than hammerhead stalls.

It seemed that every one of these odd maneuvers turned into a spin. Thank goodness I never get airsick. I learned to love landings because it meant I could get out of that airplane and take off that unused parachute.

For my final stall training, we changed to stalls from every configuration possible for a small Cessna. The good news was no parachute; the bad news was weeks of leg cramps from holding right rudder.

I flew low airspeed landing patterns while the stall warning horn screamed in my ear. We stalled and did steep turns at 11,000 feet, as high as it would go, followed by spiraling down, down, down, with no engine, caused by turning the fuel to the off position. Around and around, watching the ground getting closer and closer, all the while wondering if the engine would start again.

Later, I survived stalls while wearing a hood that masked out everything but the instrument panel, the engine roaring in my ears while everything felt completely out of control. We stalled in turns, going up, going down, like a roller coaster in the air. My fear of landings was replaced by an unvoiced fear of taking off.

EPILOGUE: A bump on the head didn’t stop me. Six months later I got my private pilot’s license. That was many years ago, and all of that stall recovery practice made me a better pilot.

The important thing is not to never makes mistakes. The important thing is what you learn from them.

Now I have over 1000 hours and an instrument rating. Wth my husband, Frank Johnson, I have flown east to New York and Washington D.C, north to Calgary, south to the tip of Baja, and a 5000nm circuit in Australia.

Published with permission from the author.