When I walk into Dirk Van Dam’s office and sit down, he tells me, “Jim, I want you to work on cross-country a bit and then we’ll ride again.” In other words, I’ve flunked the cross-country flight check. I taste the bitter fruit of failure. I’ll have only one more chance before they cull me, wash me out.
I need to practice for Van Dam’s recheck, so the next week I lay out the Chicago sectional chart on the ready room table and draw a bright red line from our little grass airport, Moody-Wood Dale, to Dixon. It should be a 50-minute flight, but with the forecast headwind, I add five more minutes. To check my groundspeed, I draw little cross-hatches every twenty miles or so at prominent landmarks.
I takeoff and try to follow the red line drawn on the chart. The northwest wind will try to blow me south , so I correct five degrees to the north. I identify landmarks and write down passing times—-railroads, major roads and rivers, high tension wires, tall radio towers, tiny towns with their water towers. All these help me stay on the red line. Airports work best as checkpoints, because you can fix your location precisely, and they’re good to spot in case of an emergency.
I stray three or four miles to the right, then overcorrect back left, zigzagging across the invisible red line. And sometimes my checkpoint times are off by two or three minutes.
I’ve never landed at Dixon. The chart says it sits at 785 feet above sea level, and the east-west runway is 3900 feet long. No control tower, so I fly across it at 2500 feet to check the windsock and look for other aircraft. The windsock indicates a landing to the west. I smell the plane’s burnt exhaust. I descend, then line up with the narrow, gravel runway, approaching with a lowered right wing against the northwesterly wind, plopping down on the strip and rolling to a stop. I get out briefly to feel the cool breeze.
The flight back to Moody-Wood Dale goes well. But will I be ready for Van Dam?
The next week, Leo, my fight instructor, tells me, “Plan a flight to Joliet; we’ll leave in thirty minutes.” Under the whining ready room fan, I draw a straight red line across the chart to Joliet, then check the weather—good visibility, but low overcast.
Leo Lance, faintly smelling of cologne, climbs into the Cessna 150 cockpit beside me. The tiny plane creaks as we taxi over the rough sod toward the runway.
After takeoff I circle, then get on the red-lined course. I tell Leo, “I can’t climb because of this low overcast, so it’s hard to see very far ahead.”
“Yeah,” he says, “Just try to identify everything you pass on the ground.”
I look down at the map, out through the windshield, down at the map again, my sweaty left finger pressed against the red line. After about ten minutes I look down at a railroad track diverging from our heading, and several small towns.
Leo says, “Can you find those towns on the chart?”
“Here’s the railroad track, but I’m not sure which towns those are.”
“Just hold the heading you planned on and soon you’ll see something you recognize.”
We cross a major road at an angle. Is that the Interstate or just some other divided highway? I identify a small airport and determine we’ve drifted about three miles left of the red line. Is there that much wind or did I just choose the wrong heading?
I make a ten-degree correction to the right, but five minutes later we’re right of course, so I correct back left five degrees.
Then we pass a town off to our left. Is that Bolingbrook? If so, we’re about three minutes slower than I calculated. Did I allow enough extra time for takeoff and climb? Headwind? Maybe it’s not Bolingbrook….
Mr. Lance reads the entrails of the squally dark clouds ahead. “We won’t land at Joliet,” Leo says. Let’s turn around and navigate back to Wood Dale.”
We turn around and head back home. After we land Leo sits closed-lipped. I’m surprised when he sends me back to Van Dam for a recheck.
The day of the recheck arrives, with visibility only five miles. Weak light leaks through the haze. I’m worried. Van Dam says, “I want you to plan a flight to Des Moines. We won’t actually fly there, but we’ll start out on that route.” So I check weather, draw a long red line on the chart, and plan a heading to compensate for a forecast ten-knot wind from the south. We walk out into the breeze.
Mr. Van Dam (no one calls him Dirk) folds his 6’4” frame into the tiny Cessna 150 alongside me. With his tightly-curled, grey-flecked hair and sharply-chiseled face, he’s as serious as the county morgue. We call him the Great Stone Face behind his back. He holds the power to wash me out of the program.
We hurtle down the grass airstrip and bounce into the air. Van Dam watches, but doesn’t talk. After we find the red line, he says, “Let’s try some instrument flying.”
The plastic instrument hood forces me to fly by instruments, only. “Just keep the VOR needle centered,” he says. Simple enough. The VOR allows me to follow an electronic signal to the VOR station. After about ten minutes he takes the hood off and says, “Okay; where are we?”
I realize I’ve lost track of where we are on the chart! I stare down through the haze at the roads, tiny towns, and cow-flecked fields rolling backward under our wings. Have I gone farther than I think? I try to estimate how many miles we’ve flown since I put the hood on. Has the wind blown me off course? I wipe my sweaty hands on my pants and peer out the windshield at a small circle of landscape surrounded by haze. Nothing seems familiar, nothing I can correlate with the chart.
Then, a miracle. Looming out of the haze just ahead, I see the two high-tension transmission lines crossing. I put my finger on the chart and point to the thin, black lines crossing. “We’re right here.” Mr. Van Dam nods and says nothing.
We land, then walk back to the admin building in silence so dense you could top it with whipped cream. But his silence is good. I’ve passed the cross-country stage check!
Exiting out into the bright, hazy sun, I sit with the other guys on the lawn chairs along the flight line. I bite into my sandwich, smelling the bread, and the freshly-cut grass, and listening to Paul Harvey on the radio. On this fall day in 1961, I somehow feel clean, blessed that I remain a member of this coterie of brothers. And thankful.