The following story, GOD..., THAT WAS GREAT!, was originally written for the Aviation community, and also simply as an expression of a never ending passion that I feel after almost every Aerobatic flight. I told myself I should write it for years, and I finally did. It was published in the December 2007 issue of Sport Aerobatics magazine. Although written primarily for the Pilot community, there are lessons that can be applied to many other activities and aspects of life.
GOD…, THAT WAS GREAT!
By: Flying Wildcat Steven F. Groce
Copyright: October 7, 2007, Steven F. Groce
All Rights Reserved.
There is one expression, an utterance of pure joy and satisfaction, that escapes my lips, time after time, after flying the Pitts, virtually without exception. Flight after flight, year after year, the feeling is the same.
Few things in life can compare to zooming through the sky in a Pitts Special, or any other capable Aerobatic plane. It is a joyous freedom to be able to fly above the natural bounds of earth. I liken it to the leaps, pirouettes and power of a ballerina pouring the heart and passion of her soul into a dance through the air, with the combined wings of an Eagle and a Hummingbird, powering the dance through dimensions never possible before. It is a privileged freedom that all should have; but only a lucky and determined few will ever know.
There is also something special in the soul and spirit of those who choose this dance. Most terra bound Earthlings wish to stay grounded; and lack not only the desire to experience such freedom, but also even the comprehension of those few who do. And, for those of us who do engage in the dance, remember back to your early days. It was not just that you were lucky. There was likely some serious brave determination going on just to venture into this realm of flight, coming from virtually every facet of your life. New skill levels that you would need to survive it, financial demands, not to mention some pretty bold self confidence, etc. The determination to accomplish all of this came from an inner passion, that for some reason, each one of us has. That passion is just part of who we are. As fundamental as a certain DNA sequence. Some people have it, and some don’t.
It is like being transformed into an entirely new spiritual creature. In an Airplane like a Pitts, it is sometimes said, you don’t just get in it. Rather, you strap it on. You become part of it, and perhaps in a very real sense, you become a different being altogether. The agility of a Wildcat that sees through the jungle with it’s senses, who also has the spirit and wings of an Eagle. The mystical Flying Wildcat, that I feel disguised within, is no myth.
In the sky, I am focused, sometimes intense, careful yet adventurous, vigilant yet relaxed. A consciousness of risk is always present, surfacing to different degrees of awareness, depending on the moment, or my thoughts. I have achieved a level of calmness and confidence, that I remind myself not to mistake for complacency. My father told me long ago, (based on his experiences as a Naval Aviator, several of which experiences almost prevented my being here to write this story), that I was engaging in a very un-forgiving activity; and that if I made a major mistake, I would die. He left that message for me on my home voice mail one day, October 1, 1995, to be exact. It was back in the days when answering machines used tapes. I don’t know why, but something about it really grabbed me. I pulled the micro cassette tape out of the machine and saved it. My father died in May of 2006, and afterwards I remembered the tape that I had put away in a box. I get it out from time to time and listen to it. That, and one other cassette tape are the only recordings of his voice that I have. His words are also a part of my conscious awareness.
In flying, as in life, we learn different things from different people. My first Aerobatic ride was given to me in a Decathlon by Tim Scroggins, at 3DW in Springfield, MO. The morning he made the offer, I dropped everything, cancelled all my appointments, and he could not have reneged on that offer even if had wanted to. It confirmed exactly what I already knew and felt inside. I had a passion for Aerobatic flying. That DNA sequence was part of me, and there was nothing that I could do about it. My first real instructor was former U.S. Aerobatic Team coach, John Morrissey. I only had a few lessons with John in his Pitts S2-A; but there was one phrase that I still remember and find myself saying to myself at certain times in flight. GIWIT. It is a phrase in reference to control inputs, and John Morrissey’s translation of it was simply: “GIVE IT WHAT IT TAKES.” My next instructor, and also a mentor for many of us, was former U.S. Aerobatic team member Bill Thomas. Bill not only taught me basic Aerobatics, in his red Pitts S2-B; but he also taught me how to land a Pitts, and landing meant survival! I learned many things from Bill; but again there was one phrase that he would always repeat, which I think about on flare out to this day, “HOLD IT OFF… HOLD IT OFF.”
As the years have gone by, at least for the most part, the control inputs in virtually any attitude, other than straight and level, seem second nature. I worry more about an engine or structural failure or even a mid-air collision. I truly see what we do in Aerobatics as an artistic expression. It requires precise control inputs, and a thorough understanding and feel for what I just call Energy Management. A whole separate story could be written about this; but Energy Management is, in my view, the single most important key to flying well, in every phase of flight. It is as fundamental to learning to fly Aerobatic sequences well, and within your Airplanes G limits, as it is to a good landing.
Other people believe that what we do is Stunt flying. Some people even think that I, and other pilots like me, are Dare Devils. For some pilots, with an obvious lack of respect for safety, and the wrong attitude, they may be Dare Devils, and they may also be flying Stunts. Unfortunately, pilots, even those with great experience, who fly without respect, usually don’t live too long. Air show pilot, after Air show pilot, has bought the farm, after pan caking their steed into the earth after a simple maneuver such as a loop, just because they did not have sense enough to do it up higher. There is an old saying that, altitude is like money in the bank. The saying usually continues with: It’s nice to have it when you need it. I think what we ought to say is: If you don’t have it when you need it, it’s not just going to be a bad day…, but very likely your last day! Of course, this is only one example. We have all read the reports, seen the videos or witnessed the tragedies personally. Even altitude won’t save you, or your friends and fellow pilots, from other forms of plain recklessness in the air. On the other hand, knowledge, wisdom and respect, as with many things, will at least give you a pretty good chance of being able to come back and do it again another day.
And with that, we come full circle to where I started with this story.
Every time I land, taxi up to the hanger and pull the mixture, I pop open the canopy and just sit there in silence for a moment or two . . . , in awe over the surrealism of it all, where I started, where I’ve been and where I am. I think about how lucky and fortunate I am to be able to do this, and that I want to do it again. I also think about how lucky I am to live in America where I can do this, and I say to myself:
GOD, THAT WAS GREAT!
Remember, no matter what kind of pilot you are, competitor, Air show pilot or one that just likes to fly straight and level, fly in a way that will allow you to come back and do it again another day.