Initially published in the DURHAM NEWS on 10/5/2016


“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, … and done a hundred things you’ve not dreamed of–wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence … put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”                                                                              (excerpted from “High Flight” by John Gillespie McGhee Jr.)


If flying is a metaphor for life, have you ever done a dead-stick landing? A dead-stick landing is one in which the aircraft has lost all its propulsive power and the pilot is forced to land. “Dead-stick” does not refer to the flight controls. It refers to the propeller, which if moving through air without engine power, will just “windmill.”

And in the old days, propellers were “wooden sticks.” After seeing the inspiring movie “Sully,” I went home to search for my Pilot’s Logbook and other memorabilia of my flying days. I first soloed Oct. 23, 1980, in a 4-place Beech Sundowner named N2077C.

My instructor taught me such techniques and maneuvers as “slipping” the aircraft down into a short-field over trees or power lines, or short-field take-offs, or “turns around a point.” In ground school I learned the specs and V-speeds for my aircraft–including the speeds I’d be happy to know in the event of engine failure.

But a student pilot was never forewarned on what day he’d be required to perform a dead-stick landing. One day in the air my instructor clicked the keys left and pulled them out. OK fine; this is the long-expected day when I have to demonstrate a dead-stick landing. And glider pilots do it every time. I figured if we got into trouble, the keys could be reinserted and the engine restarted.

But the instructor threw the keys up on the dashboard. And as I watched them slide down into the air vents, I knew we were really going to do a dead-stick landing.

Earlier that day, in my pre-flight check, I’d lifted off the gas caps and peered into the iridescent, rainbow-colored, greasy-smelling fuel tanks. I’d circled the plane inspecting each item and checking it off the pre-flight list. Then in the cockpit, I’d “stood on the brakes,” and run up the engine to its max, causing the plane to quiver like a dead, beautiful butterfly on a moving windshield.

Then I’d slowly shoved the throttle into the firewall causing the plane to joyously skip down the runway and leap into the air, embracing the wind with wings out-stretched.

Some of us, due to life’s exigencies, know what it is to be forced out of a straight and level flight path of life. We know what it is to have just minutes to assess life’s total engine failure, safely ditch our aircraft and land our life in an unknown field.

First thing one must do in a dead-stick landing is pull up the nose to bleed off airspeed, slowing the airplane to best glide speed. This is so non-intuitive that the inexperienced pilot must force himself to do it. What?! I’ve just lost all engine power, and you’re telling me to pull up the nose to what feels precipitously close to stall speed?! Yes, you must – and quickly!

Then in the next few moments one must select a field. We look for possible hidden ravines. We stay far away from power lines. And we hope for the best.

And if we’ve really been paying attention to life, we instinctively know which way the wind is blowing, and correctly land the aircraft into the wind.

After pulling up the nose, I trimmed it off to best glide speed. Then I spotted my field and contrived a mental image of an airport traffic pattern above it. Then I gently spiraled down to traffic pattern altitude of 1200 feet.

I entered my “traffic pattern” on the crosswind leg, then dipped left entering downwind leg, imagining a hangar to my left. Turning left again, the left aileron up, I banked onto base leg.

Constantly watching my airspeed and gaging the seat of my pants with respect to the ground; I put “flaps all down” and turned final approach, centering the nose down an imaginary runway.

With slow airspeed, the controls felt mushy in my hands, making the plane difficult to maneuver. Things got busy in the cockpit; I heard crashing cymbals, blasting trumpets and banging drums. Approaching the ground, the plane felt dangerously fast and clumsy. I braced for impact; and we hit the ground with a thud, while horsing up the nose for all I was worth.

Now dear reader; as the left-seat, 4-stripe pilot of my life, now for 64 trips around the sun, I tell you this: When take-offs equal landings, and you are alive to tell of it – that’s a good day – and a life with which you should be at peace.