The summer is half gone already. It’s been almost five months since COVID hit the news and sent all of our lives into what seems like an unrecoverable spin. The aviation industry has been especially hard hit. We’ve all seen the photos of hundreds of grounded airliners packed like sardines on the ramps at major airports. Many of our friends who are airline pilots or flight attendants were furloughed or unceremoniously forced into early retirement. Student pilots from all over the country have called us looking for a place to continue their training because their hometown flight school either shut down indefinitely or went out of business. Every week I get calls from unemployed or recently minted flight instructors desperately looking for work. Some of our students who had their sights set on an airline career are now looking at alternative paths, at least in the short term. Some students lost their jobs and had to put flight training on hold indefinitely. Others have simply chosen to avoid any unnecessary human contact until this all blows over someday.
And that’s just what’s going on at the airport. Never mind the sheer insanity that has consumed nearly every aspect of daily life. The so-called “new normal” is not normal in any way, shape or form: “social distancing” to keep people separated from one another; government mandated face masks blanking out basic human expression; impersonal elbow bumps instead of handshakes and hugs; nonsensical dots and arrows on the grocery store floor; lighted signs on the side of the road reminding drivers to “be safe” as if we’re all driving drunk or living in a war zone (are we?); plexiglas barriers erected between the school room desks of innocent young children. We’re being led to believe that everything and everyone is a target of interest, a threat. No, this is not normal. Not in my United States of America.
To me, the daily barrage of media induced panic and fear is somewhat reminiscent of the days following 9/11, except this has lasted for months. Frankly, though, most of this makes me feel like I’m living in The Twilight Zone, or even more so, in 1984.
Eyes without a face, got no human grace, you’re eyes without a face…
— Billy Idol
Let me digress for a moment to state some positive news. Our doors are open, our airplanes are flying, and by and large everyone we know is healthy and going about their daily routines. The Holladay Aviation fleet has logged just over 1,000 hours of flight time since we reopened on May 1 (after being shut down for the month of April per the Florida governor’s order), which actually represents a 25 percent net increase over the same period in 2019. Our instructors are paying their bills. Students are making progress. Pilots are bringing their families out to fly just for fun.
I’ve watched most of this activity from the sidelines over the last few months. I’m grateful to be able to support our family business by working from home while Dana and our team of amazing instructors handle the bulk of the flying. Like many working parents, I had to make professional sacrifices in order to properly care for our child when schools closed their doors early this spring. My personal flight time is down by more than 50 percent so far this year. My instrument currency lapsed this month, so last week I flew with our senior instructor, Fred Litwin, to complete an IPC and get recurrent. I could have maintained currency on our Elite sim, but I really wanted to go fly. Since Dana was working when Fred was available, my mother stayed with our daughter, as she does occasionally when I need to get some work done. It was a fun flight, and I was generally pleased with my performance, but as soon as the wheels touched the ground back at Craig I felt the undercurrent of stress surge through me. It is something I’ve felt constantly, every day since this all started, and I know my story is not unique. You may be feeling the same way, too.
Dana and I often talk about how it’s so important today, and always, to find a way to turn off the noise, to find an escape from the stresses of daily life. Flying is one way we as pilots can do that. Occasionally he and I will go up for a short flight in the Cub, which I always enjoy. I call it my “aerial yoga machine.” Dana is an amazing flight instructor and an incredible friend and husband, and I am eternally grateful for his love and support. Still, I’ve found that many days in recent months, my worry has been stronger than my desire to escape the bonds of earth in an airplane. I now avoid going to Walmart and Publix with our daughter because I don’t want her seeing everyone wearing masks, and I’m tired of explaining to her what all the new signs are for. I order our groceries online for curbside pickup, but key items are often unavailable, or only available in limited quantities. So I bought us a vacuum sealer on Amazon and am starting to squirrel away food like a doomsday prepper.
My daughter and I used to love going to the public library to explore and read on a hot afternoon, but that simple quiet pleasure has been ruined for us. Our local library branch remains closed, and those that reopened now require temperature checks and masks. Many things that were once relaxing and fun just aren’t anymore. We try our best to find ways to have fun and learn at home, but I’m constantly reminded that things are just not right. The beaches were closed for a while, but now that they’re open, I occasionally find a dirty mask in the sand. The playground is open, but to get there you have to drive past one of the county’s COVID testing centers, and a dozen temporary signs staked in the ground letting you know that it’s there. We were planning to attend AirVenture this year to celebrate the 10th anniversary of our engagement, but then EAA canceled the event. So instead we are planning a road trip to the middle of nowhere, which will involve driving past yet more road signs reminding us to watch out for COVID.
I’ve wanted to fly more often, I truly have, but stress has held me back. Inasmuch as flying gives me great pleasure, as a pilot I must also be cognizant of my available bandwidth to handle the additional stresses that flying can impose — whether it’s a weather diversion, or an in-flight emergency. We as pilots are required to self-assess our mental and physical health before each flight, and opt out if we are not up to the task at that moment.
Courage is knowing what not to fear. — Plato
I’m writing this now to say, I’ve had enough! I’m done with the sadness, the anxiety, and the fear. It’s time for me, and many others around me, to turn this plane around. To recover from this seemingly uncontrollable spin. To live our lives. To be free. But how?
I’d like to try to relate this to flying. An aerodynamic spin is in most cases completely recoverable, and more importantly, completely avoidable. We as flight instructors teach anxious students that a spin can only occur as a result of an uncoordinated stall, and a stall can only occur if the pilot allows the airplane to stall. Airplanes just don’t spontaneously stall and spin out of control. This is a pilot induced event. The pilot in command has total control of whether or not the airplane enters a stall, and has total control of whether or not that stall develops into a spin.
According to the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook, “The purpose of the rudder in a turn is to coordinate the turn. As lift increases, so does drag. When the pilot deflects the ailerons to bank the airplane, both lift and drag are increased on the rising wing and, simultaneously, lift and drag are decreased on the lowering wing. This increased drag on the rising wing and decreased drag on the lowering wing results in the airplane yawing opposite to the direction of turn.” If the pilot enters a stall in uncoordinated flight, and attempts to level the wings with aileron alone, the adverse yaw will cause the airplane to begin rotating, which can lead to a spin.
To me, this is sort of like what’s happening on the ground right now. No matter which side of the fence you’re on, it’s hard to deny that the two key components of our local, state and federal government’s responses to COVID to date — lockdowns and face mask mandates — have caused substantial collateral damage — adverse yaw — at all levels of our society.
Recognition and Recovery
The procedure for recovering from an aerodynamic spin is:
- Reduce power to IDLE.
- NEUTRALIZE aileron inputs.
- Apply full opposite rudder input to STOP THE ROTATION.
- Apply positive, brisk, and straight forward elevator (forward of neutral) to BREAK THE STALL.
- NEUTRALIZE rudder input after the rotation has stopped.
- Apply back elevator pressure to RETURN TO LEVEL FLIGHT.
We as a nation, and me as an individual, have allowed ourselves to get into this spin, and we need to own up to that. We also need to embrace and exercise our power to recover from it. I can’t control what other people do, but I can control my own life and how I live it. As a pilot, I’ve learned that no matter what happens, you have to fly the airplane.
Here’s my personal stress recovery checklist, which may help you as well:
Take a few moments every day to reflect on what I’m thankful for, on the good in life. (Power to idle.)
Stop watching the news. Like Dana told me recently, if anything really important happens that’s going to affect us, we’ll find out about it soon enough. (Neutralize inputs.)
Make plans to do fun things (like flying!) and enjoy looking forward to doing those things. (Stop the rotation.)
Exercise daily, even if it’s just a short, brisk walk. (Break the stall.)
Smile, love and be kind, always. (Recover from the dive.)