“You steer with your feet.” We were taxiing on the tarmac on the way to runway two-zero. “Steer with the rudder pedals…try to keep the airplane lined up with the yellow stripe down the center…check for other aircraft, then turn right here on the main taxiway…keep one hand on the throttle with your finger pointing forward…push the throttle in slightly and bring the RPMs up to 1,000.” I finally realize that I am supposed to be flying (driving?). I had thought that I was along for the ride and just might get a chance to take the controls for a short period of straight and level flight. Not the case. The pre-flight routine should have given me a clue.
I arrived at Watsonville airport about 1:45…15 minutes early. I chatted with the secretary/receptionist/woman of all work at the Santa Cruz Flying Club office. I learned that there were 4 places where you could learn how to fly at the Watsonville airport. All were about the same price ($50 per hour for the airplane and $30 per hour for the instructor). It takes about 70 hours for the average person to get a private pilot’s license. It looked and sounded like there is only poverty in the aviation industry. You had to love it to work in it because you were going to eat beans most of the time. Instructors came and went depending upon where the students were and if they could afford to continue to instruct.
At 2:00, Craig came out of his little office. Craig is the Chief Instructor at the Flying Club…I have no idea what a “Chief Instructor” is or does. He was in his late 50’s-early 60’s and essentially spoke only when spoken to. I found out through intensive questioning that he obtained his instructor’s certificate in the 1960’s and had retired 4 years ago from A T & T.
As we walk out to November-one-eight-six-niner-seven, Craig hands me the keys. He tells me to go to the left side of the airplane and unlock the door. I do this then reach over and unlock his door from the inside. This is a 1974 Cessna 150. A tiny airplane. Two place. The paint and interior is a little shabby, but probably to be expected from a club airplane…sort of like a 26 year old rental car. Craig finds the laminated check list in a door pocket and hands it to me. “Put the keys on top of the dash where we can see them so we know the airplane can’t be started…Main electrical switches on…they’re the red ones over there (the dash lights up and the radio’s come on)…push the flap lever down until the flaps are fully extended…grab the fuel sample bottle and sample the left wing tank for possible water and correct fuel color (the fuel sample bottle has a little needle sticking out of the top that pushes a detent in the bottom of the wing fuel tank to allow some fuel to flow into the bottle).” Craig starts untying the airplane (both wings and the tail) and continues to recite the check list from memory. “Check the wing leading edges, flap fasteners, brake pad thickness, possible hydraulic leaks, tail surfaces, propeller for nicks and dings.” Craig opens the cowl and checks the oil and bleeds off a little fuel from the low spot in the fuel system just to make sure there is no water in it.
Craig grabs the propeller and pulls the airplane forward slightly and to the left. It moves surprisingly easily. He points at an open hanger about 50 yards behind six-niner-seven and tells me that when we start the airplane, we don’t want the prop wash blowing into the open hanger…it’s rude.
We climb into the airplane, fasten our seat and shoulder belts, put on the headsets, and plug them into the dash. Craig shows me how to adjust the attached microphone…it activates when you talk so you can have a fairly natural conversation, and the ear phones block most of the noise. Craig yells “clear” out the window and has me start the motor…just like a car…put the key in and turn it. He gets the current barometric pressure from the weather radio and sets the altimeter. Craig pushes in the throttle slightly and we’re rolling.
“You steer with your feet. The pedals control the rudder and while we’re on the ground it’s the way we turn”. I’m all over the place. Must have looked like a drunk pilot to observers. The throttle is counter-intuitive…push in to go faster. I’m weaving down the taxiway with the motor revving up and down as I try to figure out if I push or pull to go faster or is that slower. We reach the end of the taxiway and Craig pulls six-niner-seven into a sweeping left turn and parks in the run up area. He “toes” the brakes, takes the revs up to 2,500 and has me switch between the 2 magnetos to insure we don’t drop more than 75 RPMs. Craig checks that the mixture is set “rich”, carb heat is “on”, and probably 8 other things that I didn’t catch. We then do a “clearing turn” (full 360 to the left) to check the down wind and base legs for other traffic. Six-niner-seven turns just like the John Deere B on the ground. Stomp the left brake and push on some power and it pivots on the left tire. A tail dragger lands in front of us. Craig is satisfied that there is no one else in the pattern and takes the runway. “Watsonville traffic, Cessna six-niner-seven position and hold runway two-zero…Watsonville.” Craig lines up on two-zero waiting for the taildragger to roll out and clear the runway. “We don’t want to start our takeoff roll until he is clear of the runway just in case he has a problem.” The tail dragger turns left on an exiting taxiway. Craig releases the brakes…“Watsonville traffic, Cessna six-niner-seven rolling runway two-zero, straight out departure…Watsonville.” Craig tells me to push the throttle all the way in and “steer” the airplane straight down the runway. Somehow I succeed. In about 15 seconds Craig says “Airspeed 55 knots…rotate”. I pull back slightly on the yoke and the nose wheel comes off the ground. Three more seconds and we’re flying. The ground falls away. Craig tells me to hold an airspeed of about 75 knots by adjusting our rate of climb with the yoke. I’m also supposed to hold a little left rudder since the motor torque at full power is trying to turn us slightly to the right. We maintain the runway heading and climb to 1,500 feet out over Monterey Bay. Craig pulls back the power to 2,500 RPMs and the nose starts to drop toward the horizon. “Bring us level…too high…nose down just a little.” Craig rolls the elevator trim tab control and trims us to level flight. It’s smooth as silk up here. Smoother than being in a car. No bumps. Bright, clear day. You can see a long ways. The Moss landing power plant is to the left. “Turn left towards Moss Landing.” I turn the yoke and press the left pedal a little. Craig points out the turn coordinator instrument. The ball is off to the left. “Not enough rudder.” I kick in a little more rudder and the ball floats back into the middle. I hear the motor picking up speed. “Pull the nose up. You’ll need a little back pressure on the yoke in a turn. The airplane picks up some additional drag in a turn and will loose altitude without some up elevator.” I pull back on the yoke, keep one eye on the turn coordinator and the other on the horizon and make a fair turn for a rookie.
We cruise southeast at an airspeed of about 100 knots (115 MPH). Over Elkhorn slough (much bigger from the air), Castroville, the Pajaro River. Craig points out Salinas, Aromas, Mt Hamilton, Highway 101, etc, etc. Some of these landmarks look familiar, and some might as well be on Mars. We cover a lot of ground in a fairly short time. There is a very different relationship between time and distance in an airplane as compared with a car. I’m getting better at turns. It’s actually easier than turning in a car. Just coordinate the rudder and ailerons and maintain altitude. I’m trying not to fire too many questions at Craig, but since he doesn’t volunteer much, I probably sound like “Chatty Cathy” to him.
We head back towards the airport. There is another airplane slightly below us and to our right. The other airplane announces, “Watsonville traffic, Piper five-four-echo entering at the freeway bridge, Watsonville”. Craig shows me the Highway 1 bridge over the Pajaro that is the usual entry point for the landing pattern for two zero. Craig’s turn. “Watsonville traffic, Cessna six-niner-seven entering at the freeway bridge following five-four-echo, Watsonville”. Craig takes the controls for the first time (at least the first time that I am aware of), cuts power, descends to the pattern altitude of 1,200 feet, and announces his right turn to the down wind leg of our approach. Craig’s a little busy now, but not even as busy as driving down El Camino Real in a car. Carb heat on (any time the motor is below 2,000 RPM you want carb heat to prevent possible icing), mixture rich, 10 degree flaps, reduce to approach speed, watch for other traffic. Five-four-echo turns left base in front of us and announces it. Craig waits until five-four-echo is off our left wing and announces and makes his base leg turn.
We turn final as five-four-echo lands and exits taxi way alpha (just after the numbers…must have been short field landing practice. “Watsonville traffic, Cessna six-niner-seven, landing runway two zero, full stop, Watsonville”. Craig pulls off some power and adds more flaps just before the threshold. He chops the power about one fourth of the way down the runway, we slow to what seems like a fast walk, flare, and six-niner-seven touches down. Craig wants taxiway delta which is towards the far end of the runway but near where we park the plane. He brings the power back up for a fast taxi down two zero with the nose wheel off the ground. We turn left on delta and head for our tiedown.
I help Craig push the airplane in to its parking position and we tie it down. We walk back to the office and I shoot a few more questions to him on the way. We say a quick good by at the office and I’m out of there.
I really enjoyed the flight. It’s at least as easy as I thought it would be and maybe easier. Craig was not a talkative guy, but maybe talkative enough. He was patient and thorough and professional. I think it will be interesting choosing an instructor…looking for some sort of personality match since I will be spending 20+ hours with him, but also insuring I get a real pro so I can learn EVERYTHING as quickly as possible. This is going to be fun.