After getting our seat belts fastened and getting comfortable with the cockpit layout in the Cessna, I looked over at Wayne and said, "Are you ready?"
He gave a thumbs up, and I turned the key in the ignition (yes, it starts just like a car). The four-cylinder Lycoming engine started right up, and I was soon taxiing a bit jerkily toward the runway at Huntsville. When taxiing in most light airplanes, steering on the ground is controlled through use of the rudder/brake pedals. In the large jets I had been flying, steering on the ground is done by using a small steering wheel, called a tiller, located on the forward left console near the captain's knee. For the first few minutes, my turns in the Cessna were a little late because I was instinctively reaching near my left knee for the nonexistent tiller when I wanted to make a turn. I quickly corrected the error, though, and I found myself taxiing straight and smoothly after that.
The takeoff was certainly different, as the little Cessna was ready to fly within seconds after throttling up to full power, and its takeoff speed was about a hundred knots slower than the 727's. We used only a few hundred feet for the takeoff roll, while I was accustomed to using the better part of a mile of runway in the big airplane.
After stabilizing in the climb, I was gratified and relieved that my sense of familiarity with this little airplane came rushing back. After all, I had flown almost a thousand hours in these light single-engine types many years ago before moving up to multiengine airplanes and jets, so the Cessna and I weren't really strangers. Wayne directed me to a sparsely populated area north of the airport, where I performed the customary maneuvers that I remembered from the past, including steep turns, slow flight and stalls. Perhaps because of all the time I had spent in my career flying solely by reference to instruments--necessary to attain the precise control of a high performance aircraft--my accomplishment of these maneuvers was nearly perfect. My confidence level was increasing rapidly, and Wayne soon advised me that I didn't need to spend any more time on this part of the check.
We flew back to the airport then to practice some landings with different flap settings, including zero flaps. (Flaps are movable panels attached to the trailing edge of the wings that can be extended into the slipstream by the pilot to increase lift and drag, allowing for a lower airspeed for approach and landing.)
My first landing was a bit unsteady because I found myself flaring the aircraft a bit too high above the runway. This was something I had sort of expected because the cockpit of an airliner is usually around 15 or more feet above the ground while the little Cessna's is less than three feet. The rest of the landings turned out fine, as I quickly made allowance for the discrepancy. For each landing, however, I purposefully reminded myself while crossing over the end of the runway about the need to concentrate on the new lower landing view perspective. I'm sure that will not be necessary as I do more flying.
As on takeoff, the approach to landing was performed about 100 knots slower than in the 727, plus the landing technique involved pulling the Cessna's engine power all the way to idle, allowing the airplane to settle slowly onto the runway. This was much different from a jet airliner, which requires carrying significant thrust from the engines until the moment of touchdown. The airplane is literally flown onto the runway under power at a precise pre-calculated speed, based on the weight of the aircraft and other performance factors. The little Cessna, by comparison, was more like a leaf slowly settling to the ground underneath a tree.
After several landings, we taxied back to the ramp and secured the airplane. As we were walking to the terminal, I asked Wayne if he thought I needed some more time with an instructor. He turned toward me with a feigned annoyed look and said, "Give me a break." Inside, he signed off my logbook and said, "I'll see you in a couple of years." I guess that answered my question.
And so it was over. It was, indeed, like riding a bike; I suppose you never forget. But just for good measure, I'll be doing a bit more flying before taking the grandsons along.
This was also a bit of a wistful time for me. So many memories came rushing back of an exciting and rewarding avocation. I found myself enjoying this new adventure but missing the satisfaction of exercising the skills carefully developed in mastering an awesome flying machine like an airliner. It's okay, though; the memories are good ones, but I wouldn't trade for this best time of my life.
More to come, y'all. Keep your seat belts fastened and your tray tables in the upright position.
Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; please forgive me if I don't appreciate it enough each day.