“If this is a dream, please, oh please, don’t let me wake up yet!”
That was my mantra the morning of Thursday, April 19. It was the morning that a dream I’ve had since childhood came true. It was the dream of flying a DC-3.
I was the left-seat pilot that morning for a flight involving the Herpa Model’s DC-3, a gaggle of Yaks and a photo airplane.
“I told you I was going to get you in this airplane and that I was going to get you in the left seat,” said Dan Gryder, the owner of the airplane. When he is not participating in events like Sun ‘n Fun, he provides flight training in the grand old bird.
He knew it was a special treat for me because when I am not being a reporter, I am a CFI and I rarely get to fly from the left seat. “It’s going to be you in front of all those people. Are you nervous?” he asked as we prepared for engine start.
“Not with you next to me,” I said.
I met Gryder a year ago at Sun ‘n Fun the first time he brought the Herpa DC-3 to the show. At the time I was getting ready to begin training for my multiengine commercial rating. Getting to that point had been a long haul, saving the money up twice and running into unforeseen expenses. I finally was able to pay for the ticket due to the good graces of The Ninety-Nines, the international organization of women pilots. I won the Amelia Earhart award last year from the organization and another $600 or so from a local chapter in Washington State.
We had planned that I would fly the DC-3 during EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh last summer, but a martial arts accident put my left arm in a sling and rendered me unairworthy. In February I finally earned the coveted ticket. Gryder was one of the first people I shared the news with. He promised that at Sun ‘n Fun he’d get me in the air in the left seat of the DC-3.
He is a man of his word.
What is it like to fly a DC-3? The sight picture from the cockpit took some getting used to on taxi. Gryder was hanging out the window on the right side, I was learning out the window on the left making sure we had wing tip clearance as we lumbered down the ramp for takeoff. Gryder cautioned me that when we hit liftoff speed it was up to me to keep her flying because when we lifted off and achieved positive rate of climb, his job was going to be to get the gear up, so if something happened I could not “give up” and hand him the airplane.
“I don’t give up,” I said, thinking about a certain CFI who routinely compared me to a wolf because of my tenacity. “I will be flying this airplane.”
We discussed the positive exchange of control procedure. He talked me through the takeoff, then placed his hand over mine on the throttles.
The tower cleared us for departure.
“Your heels are on the floor, that’s your flying position,” he said. “What do you say, Meg?”
“Let’s take off,” I said and moved the throttles forward slowly. I had not flown a taildragger in nearly two years, but I knew enough to push the yoke forward as the tail came up. The speed increased. At 80 we lifted off the runway.
I felt the wheels break free from the ground.
“Aim for the tops of those trees, keep it coming up,” said Gryder, leaning down to do the flaps.
There were clouds at the end of the runway. Instinctively I pulled up.
“Watch your airspeed,” he cautioned. “Don’t let it get any slower than 110.”
I pushed the nose down and gave it some trim. I had both hands on the yoke.
“You’re overcontrolling it, not so much on the aileron,” he cautioned. “Gentle on the yoke.”
I eased up my grip. I marveled that it took a lighter touch than the Senecas I am used to flying. It was also slower to respond to inputs. Patience, I thought to myself, patience.
Gryder handled the radios. We had a gaggle of Yaks forming up on us. He told them what we were going to do, when we were going to do it, and then told me to do it, such as a 360° turn to the left, or straight and level. We held an airspeed of 120 knots.
“Hold her steady here, Meg, they’re all around you,” he said. “No abrupt movements, a little more rudder, less aileron. That’s more like it.”
I have to admit it was a special thrill to be VFR on top, watch the AeroShell team off to my left practicing and have a gaggle of Yaks hanging off my wings.
“Give us a left turn Meg, nice and gentle. Not so much bank, there you go,” he coached. I started to get in the groove. We made two low passes over the runway. The Yaks had their smoke on. It was glorious.
As we taxied back to our parking position, we both hung out our windows to make sure we were clear of obstacles. It amazed me how people lined up and took photos. A few people saluted me. I returned the salute.
I still haven’t wakened yet.