The Enemy’s Sword

During our lifetimes we have all heard or read thousands of sayings, quotes, aphorisms, secrets and rules for how to improve ourselves and achieve success. After a while they all sound the same and seem to be the same ones repeated over and over. It would be easy to decide to not pay attention to motivational or inspirational things anymore. This would be a mistake. As long as we are alive we have to keep learning.

Over 50 years ago, I read: “To know what to do when the enemy’s sword descends is to die. To act is to live.”  This quote stuck with me and became part of my memory and subconscious. I had never defended myself from someone with a sword and I didn’t expect I would need to but for some reason, knowing there are times in life when muscle knowledge is needed more than intellectual understanding really sunk in. I didn’t know at the time my personal “enemy’s sword” would be an airplane.

Years later I went to Fairbanks Alaska as an insurance adjuster. I had never thought about becoming a pilot, but in Alaska small planes were almost as common as cars in the “lower 48”. Soon after arriving in Alaska the office manager where I worked got a real deal on a small plane from someone who was leaving and wanted to sell it. He already owned one airplane so someone suggested: “Let’s start a flying club.”

It was only a matter of days until I took my first flying lesson. I did the usual 20 hours of dual training and another 20 hours of solo practice. Three months later I scheduled the check ride to get my private pilot’s license. The owner of Yukon flying service, Tommy Olson, was the check pilot who gave me the flight test. He had me do takeoffs and landings, slow flight, steep turns, stall recoveries, dead stick landings and so forth. One of the maneuvers during the test is called a 720 degree steep turn. The object is to fly the plane in a small circle with the wings banked to about 45 degrees while not gaining or losing more than 50 feet of altitude. When an airplane is banked to 45 degrees, the amount of lift created by the wings is divided between opposing gravity and pulling the airplane in the circle. To maintain the same altitude requires perfect adjustments to the aileron, rudder, and power settings all at the same time. To say I messed the maneuver up is an understatement. I was convinced the gods and the weatherman were working against me causing updrafts and downdraft sending the airplane up and down way more than the 50 feet allowed. Tommy finally took the controls from me and flew two perfect circles without gaining or losing more than 10 or 15 feet of elevation. My heart sunk. I figured I had flunked. All he said was “Let’s go back”. I flew back to Metro Field, landed and taxied to his office. He went into his office and didn’t say a word until he came back out, handed me my private pilot license and said: “It’s a license to learn”. Those five words burrowed into my subconscious next to the saying about the enemy’s sword.

The private pilot’s license meant I could legally pilot an airplane while carrying passengers. Reports of pilots and passengers being killed in small plane crashes were in the newspaper regularly in Alaska. “It’s a license to learn” merged in my brain with enemy’s sword quote I had thought about and repeated hundreds of times. I don’t remember consciously connecting the two but my subconscious recognized gravity as an “enemy’s sword”.

Hardly a week went by during the next two year I didn’t either have an instructor teach me something new or spend as much time as I could, practicing over and over the maneuvers I had been taught. It had taken three months from my first flying lesson until I earned my private pilot’s license. Two years later I took the check ride and got my commercial pilots license and a week later another check ride for my certified flight instructor rating. My goal had never been to become an airline pilot. I just felt I had to keep learning and advancing.

When a car stalls the motor quits running but the car just sits there. When an airplane in flight stalls it means the wings quit holding it up and it falls straight down. Given enough altitude airplanes are designed so they gain speed while falling and become capable of flying again. One of the most deadly stalls is called a departure stall. These happen when the airplane has gained enough speed to lift off the runway or water and is gaining those first few hundred feet of altitude. If while climbing, the pilot pulls the nose up to steeply the plane loses too much forward speed and stalls violently. A departure stall occurring less than 300 feet above the ground is usually fatal for the pilot and passengers.

It is standard to practice stalls with plenty of altitude to recover without slamming into the earth.  I had slowed an airplane until it started falling out of the sky hundreds of times while demonstrating to students how to recover control. These demonstrations were always three or four thousand feet above the ground. The instructors rating let me practice while teaching. At a safe altitude I reenacted the mistakes that were killing other pilots over and over and demonstrated how to recover from them.

I took more training and became certified to fly and instruct in float planes. During these years of learning I had several close calls but I always had a plan B that avoided serious damage or injury. As I learned more and had more interesting experiences, my Plan B’s became more subconscious. Each time I had to react fast to avoid a disaster I was learning how to handle the enemy’s sword more and more automatically.

One warm summer day in Fairbanks my enemy’s sword fell and all my hours of practice and extra learning paid off. I had given a biannual check ride in a souped-up and converted Cessna 170 on floats owned by our flying club. The engine of this plane had been replaced with a larger engine and the wings had been modified for short field takeoffs. It was an Alaskan hot rod; the equivalent of putting a big Hemi engine in a small car. These modifications plus being on floats made it much more dangerous to fly than it was when it left the factory. The check ride was in the early morning when the air was cool and the pilot I was checking out was a veteran Alaskan bush pilot. I was impressed by the ease with which the plane lifted off the water and climbed rapidly into the sky.

Later that day I decided I would use this fun airplane to take my wife and some friends out to a nearby lake for a picnic. As result of how impressed I had been with the power and slow flight capabilities of the plane that morning, I didn’t double check all the variables I should have. We strapped ourselves in with our picnic gear behind the seats and I taxied out on the float pond and applied full power to take off. Although I felt okay about the additional weight we were taking off with I didn’t adequately consider the warmer air temperature in the middle of the day. Warmer air creates less lift when passing over the wings of an airplane so the plane won’t fly at the same slow speed as in cooler air. After applying full power I got the plane on the step of the floats and it lifted into the air flawlessly. We were climbing up sharply as the pilot had done that morning when suddenly between 50 and 200 feet above the surface of the float pond, the right wing quit flying. The plane stalled violently and with no warning we went from climbing in a level attitude to falling straight down with the right wing leading the way and the left wing pointing at the sky. We had two or three seconds until we were going to slam into the float pond right wing first.

I have no recollection of what I did in those two or three seconds. I can only describe what I did after analyzing what I had to have done. We hit the water of the float pond in a slightly nose up attitude with the wings level. The force of our falling pushed the floats far enough down into the water we popped up about 20 feet into the air still flying. Going from falling sideways to landing level with the nose slightly up required slamming full left rudder to increase the speed of the air flow over the right wing while at the same time neutralizing the ailerons and managing the nose up or down attitude by pushing or pulling the wheel forward or back. After popping back up into the air I was able to land properly on the pond without further problems.

There is a lot more to this story and it would take a book to explain to non-pilots why our survival was a miracle. I will never forget how close I came to death that day. What really gives me chills is, except for the miracle I would have killed four other people.

Consider the potential enemy swords in your life. Financial, business, emotional or physical disasters could be your enemy swords. Visualize me falling out of the sky and let the chill you feel remind you to keep learning.

When you pass a test, get a degree or certification or even a take on a new responsibility, remember “It’s only a license to learn”. How much learning is enough depends on the size and nature of the enemy’s swords you might encounter.  The force of gravity is a pretty big sword.

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“To know what to do when the enemy’s sword descends is to die. To act is to live.”