Seconds after takeoff I realized controllability was an issue.
It was the first flight of a radio controlled, balsa wood and tissue paper covered P-47 model that I had spent months building. I was 13 years old and nearly every kid from my block was there for the event. I had gained popularity by crashing model airplanes. Before this flight I had assured my friends that things would go well this time.
The P47’s engine’s throttle had stuck wide open and it was leaving the earth at an alarming speed. The engine had come from an earlier model that I had crashed. It was oversized and powerful, making it a sort of guided missile.
The P-47 was my masterpiece. I had painstakingly installed features to compensate for the larger engine. I added more surface to the rudder, installed ailerons and adjusted the balance. I would rely on the engine’s throttle adjustment for controllability.
The wide open throttle had become a real problem.
As it climbed over the little ballpark, my friends were calmly commenting on its impressive speed unaware that I had my hands full. I was in shock.
It was departing the area quickly and getting hard to see. I managed to turn it back towards us but the left wing dropped. It began a dive, picked up more speed and refused to be controlled. I will never forget the screaming engine noise as it gained speed. It was coming straight towards us. I had not spoken a word since takeoff. My friends must have sensed my speechless hint and they scattered in all directions. I stood my ground in total concentration hoping to level it and pull out of the dive.
Lucky for me there was a chain link backstop fence between the missile and me. The custom built, high power P47 was strained by this fence. A confetti-like substance exploded on my side of the fence. The engine, gas tank, radio and landing gear were stuck in the fence. I stood dumbfounded, miscellaneous pieces scattered all around me. Then it began, belly laughing coming from all directions. The crash became the talk of the block. I had upheld my reputation. At least I was consistent.
Fast forward about 10 years and I was sitting in what resembled a lawn chair a thousand feet above the ground, realizing that landing was going to be an issue.
It was mid-1980s and I was working on a fish farm in the California desert, living and working in a little town called Niland about 60 mi. north of the Mexican border. I had not lost my passion for things with wings. On a trip to deliver fish in LA's Chinatown, I had picked up a used, partially constructed Epper MX ultra light aircraft kit. After handing over $3,000 and strapping it to the top of the fish delivery truck, the MX and I made our pilgrimage back to Niland. There were a whole lot of parts, cables, pulleys, bolts and tubing. Most importantly there was a construction manual. It was years before the internet reached Niland, so that's what I had to go on.
If there was any spare time in my 60-hour work week I would be sleeping, eating or assembling the MX. Weeks went by, then months. There was much confusion on its proper construction and I had lots of advice from my fish farming coworkers. While well meaning, this advice normally was obvious (that wing goes on the right) and distracting. Eventually I learned to stop assembly when "helpers" arrived and resume upon there departure. Excitement was growing at the farm, some uncertainty was growing in me.
George the farm owner had a keen interest in this contraption and offered to make me a landing strip in the furrowed farm field near our employee shacks.
He asked me how long I needed it. I consulted the manual and it said the MX could take off in 35ft. We decided 75ft. would be more than enough.
That was a too small, Big Mistake, decision.
How big our Sun is when compared to Pluto, how small I felt above the Earth. Looking down on that big Earth, things looked strangely tiny. There were little cars and ant-sized people below. Sitting in my lawn chair, wind in my hair, 1,000 ft. up with a motorcycle engine buzzing away behind me I began to ponder the predicament in which I was involved.
Damn! Am I supposed to land on that? The 75ft. landing strip looked like a speck. The crowd around it had grown big. Thirty people or so were there. Apparently there wasn't any better entertainment in Niland that day. Butt puckered, but up for the challenge, I began a series of landing attempts. What else could I do?
Relying on my vast knowledge of RC airplane crashes, I knew enough to abort and go around to try again If things weren't looking good. I was spending a lot of time going around. It wasn't so hard to touch the ground but a controlled stop on it was harder than I imagined. Lost was that dimension of my imagination.
The crowd seemed delighted with my landing attempts. I had performed for them a double landing bounce, the wing tip low one-wheel sideways slide, the nose wheel slammer and several high speed overshoots.
Once a little too far left I almost ended up in the field furrows, pulling up just before certain disaster. I then realized that the landing strip width is as important as its length. I was realizing that realizing all this stuff at this particular time was adding to my stress.
The flight had started out great but at this point it was like a scary dream. Unbeknownst to me, somehow between all the panic, worry and catastrophizing, I was forming a mental checklist of do's and don'ts on each failed attempt.
After many attempts, finally I was aligned center to the runway but over landing speed- good enough I decided. I planted the MX right at the tip of the runway. Hoping to stop, I applied the nose wheel brake and found it worked remarkably crappy on the loose dirt. About halfway down the runway I started employing the foot-dragging maneuver and held on for dear life. At the end of the runway it got real bouncy. I ended up stopping about four furrows into the field. I unbuckled my seat belt, rolled out and kissed the ground!
Within a few days, George the owner enlarged the runway and the MX was repaired.
I was recovered and ready for a second flight, but the wind was blowing and kept up for nearly a week. Once again excitement-anticipation was growing. Finally late one day, the wind ceased and vast blue and yellow skies beckoned.
After a smooth departure the MX and I climbed. The view became a comforting distraction to the uncertainties in my mind. The sun was reflecting it's golden light off the waters of the Salton Sea. That's where I headed, a welcome new horizon.