Down and Locked

Posted by on 24 February 2013

When flying a retract, one always checks to ensure the landing gear are down and locked; failure to do so may result in undesired effects.

The expression carries over, though.

We also use the expression to describe fixation: “he had his head down and locked,” which means he was concentrating completely on one thing (usually the instruments) to the exclusion of all others.

We were privileged to learn from perhaps the finest flight instructor in the business: Dale Byrom.  A master of stick and rudder, to be sure, but he understands far more: he knows why we fly.  When we flew with him, he occasionally stopped the technical instruction to turn the airplane around, look at the sunset, and remind us that flying is magic, and we need to always remember that.

So: down and locked.  In our formative hours (yes, a pilot’s life is measured in hours, not years), we spent way too much time looking at the instruments, sometimes to the exclusion of the outside world.  Dale taught us to look out the window.  As an instrument-rated commercial pilot (and instructor, and instrument instructor), we can land an airplane by little more than what is in the cockpit: airspeed, altitude, CDI (“Course Deviation Indicator,” to keep us on the centerline).  We can not only do it, we’ve taught it, and it’s an important skill.  It’s like landing with a blindfold on, but it can be done, and it is, every day.

It also misses the point.

If the purpose is to get from Point A to Point B, sure, it’s relevant; in fact, it’s the bit that matters most, because it allows us to complete the trip.  If the purpose is in the destination, then arrival is the only measure of success, and it’s a Boolean question: did we get there or not?

But Dale taught us something different.  It isn’t about the destination; it’s about the journey.  Flying is fun, and one is never to forget that.  It’s not for everybody, granted, but permit us to extend the metaphor: life is fun.  It’s not about where you end–we’ll all end in the same place, eating our salads from the roots, but about how you get there, the route you take, the fun you have.

We were privileged to have as our first airplane a Champ.  A 1946 Aeronca 7AC Champ, even older than we are.  Instruments, hell; it didn’t even have an electrical system.  Starting the thing meant us holding the brakes while Dale swung the prop by hand.  (An awful lot of trust in that, by-the-by; as we’ve seen personally, a prop is really just a meat cleaver looking for a place to happen.  One of the first thing we learned was how to hand-prop an airplane, and it was a regular duty of ours  when we worked at that airport; still, we trust.)  Even with limited instrumentation, though, we tried to look at the gauges.

Dale said “look out the window.”  Every flight, he reminded us that there is a world outside the cockpit.  Flying is magic, but not in a vacuum.  Keep your head down and locked and you’re not flying; you’re operating.  You’re a slave to the machine, doing what it tells you to do.  Look out the window, and it becomes your plaything, a source of unimaginable joy.  You become one with it, a tremendous meld of mind and machine, and you can truly dance, stepping gently upon the most delicate of clouds.

To this day, were you to put us in a Champ and cover the instrument panel with paper, we could land the thing.  The sound of the engine would set the power; the bottom of the wing parallel to the ground would define attitude.  We could bring her safely to Earth with no inside reference, no referral at all to inside the airplane; we could do it looking solely outside.

Some people spend their whole lives with their heads down and locked.  Instruments are useful when there’s nothing to see outside, but they’re meant to be guidance, not commanders.  We use the term “navaid:” navigational aid.  They’re supposed to give us an idea of where we are so we can figure out how to get where we want to be; they’re not meant to tell us where to go, and they certainly don’t give orders.

We love to fly–it’s one of our deepest-held passions–but it matters far more than just stick-and-rudder.  We learned about ourself–about life— in an airplane.  We learned to appreciate the beauty of the world from the left (or front) seat, and we learned that the beauty isn’t in what we’re doing, where we’re going, but in where we’re living.

Down and locked is no way to go through the world.

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