How I Got My High School Nickname

In a flash, the left wing quit flying before the right wing did, dropping first, flipping me upside down, and putting the plane into a spin.

The youngest of three brothers, I loved all things aviation, though it wasn’t love at first flight. My father started taking flying lessons when I was 8 years old. Chuck McLean, my father’s flight instructor and a pilot for Pacific Southwest Airline, took me up for my first ride in the old Taylorcraft he was using to train my father. Not knowing what to expect I, with all the trust in the world, climbed into the tiny aircraft’s only passenger seat at dad’s prompting. Before closing the passenger door my father secured me into the seat with the single lap belt which had a great amount of slack owing to the fact that I, consistant with some of the childhood nicknames my middle brother used on me like spaghetti-neck, and pencil-arms, belonged in the lower percentiles of body weight for my height.

It was a good thing that I was so small, because from most adults’ point of view, the Taylorcraft looks like a winged shopping cart. But on that day I looked around the seemingly spacious cockpit and took in the dials, knobs, wheels, tubes, wires, and placards that brought to my mind scenes from newsreel footage of Mercury spacecraft interiors. The southern California sun had warmed the interior releasing odors of wiring insulation, seat fabric, tobacco smoke, and a faint whiff of gasoline. Chuck, already in the pilot’s seat, was busy going through his pre-flight checklist; flipping switches and turning knobs. 

“You ready to go co-pilot?”

“Yeah,” I answered through a forced smile.

“OK, let’s get this bird started and see if she hums!”  

Through an open window he cried, “clear” which is supposed to warn people near the propeller that they are about to become hamburger if they don’t move, and turned the key. The prop rotated a couple of times then coughed to life. Expecting something similar to a car I was surprised at how loud this humming bird was. Chuck spoke unintelligibly into his microphone and the tower responded with equally unintelligible plane talk. We taxied to a point just short of the runway where Chuck ran up the engine r.p.m.s and played with some switches then shouted, “We’re good to go!” Then more foreign language exchanged via the radio followed by taxiing onto the runway. Going to full power, we were quickly airborne.

After climbing a few hundred feet above the ground, Chuck turned the wheel to the right and stepped on the right rudder pedal resulting in me staring down to the earth with nothing preventing me from free-falling other than a flimsy door and a seatbelt. I pulled on the tubing supporting my seat with all my might, leaned as far into Chuck’s side as I could, and screamed louder than any engine noise was going to drown out, “Stop tilting and take me back!” As if by my command the plane leveled out. But there were still 3 more turns to make. 

Chuck patiently answered, “I’m sorry buddy, but the only way to turn this thing is by ‘tilting’ and we have to turn it to get back,” followed immediately by another turn to the right and more screaming, and again and again. 

I would not set foot in another aircraft until my father became a one-third partner in a Cessna 172 and then only because my mother, who disliked flying nearly as much as I, accompanied us. Before long the family was flying all over southern California visiting air shows and air museums. My dad would take me on surprise flights to see a comet in the pre-dawn sky, or to see migrating whales. I couldn’t get enough. 

Years later my older brother served as an Army forward observation pilot in Vietnam, and as a flight instructor after which he became a civilian instructor and I would be his first civilian student. Being a licensed pilot while still in high school was very attractive to a socially awkward teenager looking for something unique to hang my developing identity on. 

After 10 hours of instruction I made my first solo flight around the same traffic pattern that had terrified me a decade earlier. Following a few more hours of training, I  was cleared to make my first unsupervised solo for some skills practice. 

After driving to the airport I exited my car with my pilots’ briefcase swelling with satisfaction as I opened the Cherokee 140 knowing that I would fly it while my brother sat at home. I was a pilot! A student pilot, but still a pilot! Full of pride in doing something that no one in my school could do, I took off and departed the airport turning toward the foothills to the practice area about 7 miles to the east. 

The two maneuvers I would rehearse that day were recovery from a stall while departing an airport and while on approach. A “stall” does not refer to the engine quitting. It happens when the airspeed of a plane is so slow that the wings quit creating lift and the airplane falls. The “airport” I would depart from and approach was an imaginary one set at an altitude 1,000 feet above the ground I was flying over. 

While practicing with Glen, I didn’t like the feel of an approaching stall. As the plane slows obviously the airflow over the control surfaces is decreased so the pilot has to increase the amount of input to the controls. It’s like having to turn a faucet more when there is less water pressure in the plumbing. The plane feels sluggish and unresponsive. 

I first practiced a couple of departure stalls. One thousand feet above the ground I maxed the throttle and pulled the wheel back to start a steep climb. The plane slowed quickly, shuddered a bit and finally the plane quit climbing and started falling back to earth. Not a big deal. The plane was already at full throttle. So the thing to do is simply, though counterintuitively,  push the nose down so that it gains airspeed and starts flying again. 

Next came the approach stalls. For this exercise I flew a few hundred feet above my imaginary runway and pretended to turn to final approach after cutting power. I kept the nose up higher than normal in order to slow to stall speed. Once it stalled, I was supposed to go to full power, push the nose down to gain speed then recover to level flight. It didn’t go like that. 

Remember the bit about having to exaggerate control input when flying slow? Well, I was turning to the left and to get out of that turn you have to crank the wheel well to the right, but on my right thigh I had strapped a special pilot’s note pad given to me by a family friend, Commander Ben Cloud, who was a navy pilot. The surface of the pad was about 3 inches above my leg. As I tried to exit my turn onto final approach, all while losing airspeed, the wheel was prevented from turning enough to the right because it banged against the thigh pad. 

The result was that the plane entered the stall while banked too steeply to the left. In a flash, the left wing quit flying before the right wing did, dropping first, flipping me upside down, and putting the plane into a spin. Shit! The standard private pilot training no longer included practice recovering from spins. However, I did read about it in my ground school manual. Miraculously, I did everything according to the book.

I cut the throttle, pushed the nose hard down, neutralized the ailerons, and kicked the rudder hard in the opposite direction of the spin. After about 1 1/2 turns the plane stopped spinning and the nose quickly pitched up in response to the increased speed. Then I goosed the throttle. I was no longer staring down at my impending crash site.

Upon landing back at Gillespie field, I literally kissed the ground and did not get back on the “horse” for three weeks. And now we are closer to my high school nickname. 

Eventually I did pass my flight exam, barely. In the tradition of our family, my mother was my first civilian passenger, as she was for my father and brother. My second passenger was a friend from high school, Matt. On a hot sunny summer day we went to a church picnic and filled up on fried chicken and potato salad. We were close to the airport and he asked if we could go flying which I was willing to do if he paid for the rental. 

We departed and flew south because he wanted to circle his family home in Chula Vista. He bragged that he knew how to fly because his father did. He bragged about a lot of stuff. So, ok, I got us to the area then he took over the controls to circle his house to the right because he was in the right seat.  Matt steered the plane like he was in his crappy car. We banked to the right but instead of neutralizing the wheel once in the turn, he kept the wheel turned to the right which caused the plane to keep banking until we were at nearly 60 degrees. He was staring into the abyss like I did in my first ride.

“Oh shit, I’m losing it!”

I quickly righted us then he announced that he was going to be sick. Awesome. 

I made a beeline to Brown Field, just across the border from Tijuana International, hoping to land before he yacked in the cockpit. As I was about to request landing instructions, Matt said he was fine.

“How about we fly over Black’s Beach,” a popular surfing and nude swimming beach in northern San Diego. We did and imagined that we could see all kinds of naked women backstroking beyond the breakers. 

Then we turned inland and flew over the Wild Animal Park then south to go home. The route took us across the approach to Miramar Naval Air Station, home of the Top Gun school, now a Marine Corps air station. The rules required us to fly above or below that approach. Our airport was not far to the south of the Miramar pattern so it was more efficient to fly under that corridor and then be set up just right for landing at Gillespie.

As I mentioned, the day was hot causing a lot of thermal updrafts from the warm surface. So the ride south was very bumpy, made worse by our low altitude. I contacted the tower and announced myself to the controller who told me to sequence myself to land behind a larger plane on a long final approach five miles to the east. With no warning Matt pitched forward and hurled his lunch all over the instrument panel. Then, hand over mouth, he did it again shooting vomit at my right side.

“Gillespie tower, 08 Tango, my passenger just threw up all over the plane. I’m afraid I’m next. Requesting permission to turn short final ahead of the twin Cessna on 5-mile final.” 

“08 Tango, Gillespie tower, turn short final to 27 right, right hand traffic, cleared to land. Cessna 57 Whiskey, you’re now number two to land behind Cherokee with puking passenger turning final now.” 

So far so good, but I was still afraid of losing it myself, dooming us both. Lacking windows that can be opened, I flipped open the small “storm window” on the pilot’s side that can allow smoke to vent outward in case of a fire and stuck my nose out of it while doing my best to keep my eyes on the path ahead. The fresh air kept me from ralphing along with Matt. 

We exited the runway quickly to clear the runway for the Cessna behind us. As we taxied back to the parking spot, I could see the guys up in the tower scoping us with binoculars. Great. I sympathized with the guys who were scheduled to use the plane next when they saw us picking chicken out of the instruments. After that I always placed a barf bag on the lap of any passenger I took up. 

“Hey Tailspin, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anybody about this.” And there it was, my nickname was born. But bragging with nothing to back it up required a challenge, so I did not comply with his request.


Related links:

Landing at Gillespie Field

Taylorcraft taking off

Photographs by Commander Ben Cloud

How to recover from a spin

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