Tag Archives: flying

WINGSPREAD Ezine for April 2023

Spreading your wings in a perplexing world

April 2023                                                    James P. Hurd

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  • Blessed Unbeliever published!
  • Writer’s Corner
  • New story
  • This month’s puzzler
  • Wingspread Ezine subscription information
  • Wisdom

BLESSED UNBELIEVER is on the shelves!

In Blessed Unbeliever, Sean McIntosh lives in a California world of Fundamentalist certainty—until that world unravels. Now he’s shaken by contradictions in the Bible. Plus he’s trying to make sense of losing his girlfriend and losing his dream of becoming a missionary pilot. His despair leads him to commit a blasphemous act while at Torrey Bible Institute, Chicago. But, despite his honest attempt at atheism, grace pursues.

Blessed Unbeliever (paper or Kindle version) can be found at Wipf and Stock Publishers, Amazon https://a.co/d/9su5F3o or wherever good books are sold.

Writer’s Corner

Word of the Month: TYPESET or GALLEY version. The book is laid out, formatted and returned to the author for final corrections. (I found 100 errors in the typeset version of Blessed Unbeliever!)

Tip of the month: It’s helpful to sketch out your whole book. For each chapter or section, briefly list major scenes, major characters and major events, and maybe even the weather! This allows you to see the whole topography of your chronology and plot. Even Charles Dickens did this.

Author of the month: CHARLES DICKENS

Born in Portsmouth in 1812, Dickens saw his whole family sent to debtors’ prison while he himself was apprenticed to hard labor with a bootblack. His difficult life informed several of his novels (Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, Hard Times, Bleak House).  The epitaph at his tomb in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey reads: “. . . He was a sympathiser with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England’s greatest writers is lost to the world.”

Book of the month: Dickens based David Copperfield partly on the struggles in his own life. Here, he created one of his most infamous characters: the “‘umble” Uriah Heep.

Your turn: Who is the most interesting character you’ve ever read about, biographical or fictional? Why? (I’ll list some of these in the next ezine.)

New story: Muleticos: A graceful disaster

In Thee we trust, whate’er befall;
Thy sea is great, our boats are small.

—Henry van Dyke, from “O Maker of the Mighty Deep”

I see Muleticos airstrip appear from behind a hill—my last stop for the day. I test the brake pedals—they’re firm. Here in northwest Colombia the tiny grass airstrips dotting the landscape appear more like pastures than runways. Airstrips that most pilots would eschew. Turns out I should have eschewed Muleticos that day.

To read more, click here: Muleticos: A graceful disaster | Wingspread (jimhurd.com)    

(Leave a comment on the website and share with others. Thanks.)

This month’s puzzler: Ralph on a Jet Plane

Adapted from Car Talk Puzzler archives

Ralph, an auto mechanic, has to catch a flight late on a Friday night after a long workday but he’s forgotten to bring his change of clothes. So he changes into a crisp new mechanics uniform that he finds in the shop.

When he walks through security the metal detector alarm sounds. So the guard goes, “Excuse me, sir, would you kindly empty the contents of your pockets?”

So, Ralph empties his pockets. Puts all his stuff in the little tray. Wallet, keys,  everything. He tries to walk through again, but the alarm goes off again. So they ask him to remove any jewelry he has or his belt and try to walk through again. He does that and then walks through a third time. And the alarm goes off, for the third time. 

So finally, the guard looks at him and says, “What do you do for a living?”

And Ralph says, “I’m a mechanic, I fix cars.”

The guard smiles and says, “Oh; that explains it.”

So, what’s happening here? Hint: it wasn’t just auto repair mechanics that were having this issue. And remember, this was a long time ago, so this issue never happens now. But it happened then.

(Answer in next month’s Wingspread ezine.)

Last month’s puzzler. Recall the three candidates for a detective job. The head detective gives them a test, with a clue in one of the town’s libraries “stuck inside a book between pages 165 and 166.” Two of the candidates rushed out the door. The third just sat there—and he got the job. Why?

Answer: Everyone knows this, but not many people think about it. There is nothing between pages 165 and 166, just as there’s nothing between pages one and two of the book. Page one is the right-hand page and page two is printed on the back of that page.

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Football Wisdom

“Football is NOT a contact sport, it is a collision sport. Dancing IS a contact sport.” 
– Duffy Daugherty / Michigan State 

After USC lost 51-0 to Notre Dame, the coach’s post-game message to his
team was: “All those who need showers, take them.” 
– John McKay / USC 

 If lessons are learned in defeat, our team is getting a great education.” 
– Murray Warmath / Minnesota 

“The only qualifications for a lineman are to be big and dumb. To be a back, you only have to be dumb.” 
– Knute Rockne / Notre Dame

“We live one day at a time and scratch where it itches.” 
– Darrell Royal / Texas 

“We didn’t tackle well today, but we made up for it by not blocking.” 
– John McKay / USC 

“I’ve found that prayers work best when you have big players.” 
– Knute Rockne / Notre Dame

Why do Auburn fans wear orange? So they can dress that way for the game on Saturday, go hunting on Sunday, and pick up trash on Monday. 

Mary brings good News to Eve

Muleticos: A graceful disaster

In Thee we trust, whate’er befall;
Thy sea is great, our boats are small.

—Henry van Dyke, from “O Maker of the Mighty Deep”

I see Muleticos airstrip appear from behind a hill—my last stop for the day. I test the brake pedals—they’re firm. Here in northwest Colombia the tiny grass airstrips dotting the landscape appear more like pastures than runways. Airstrips most pilots would eschew. Turns out, I should have eschewed Muleticos that day.

I remember Barbara and I and our three-year-old Kimberly flying into Barranquilla, Colombia where our new coworkers, Bill and Carole Clapp, meet us at the airport. On the long bus ride down to our new home in Monterìa, the blacktop undulates in the heat. I’m fatigued, pensive and plagued with doubts. Have we made the right decision to come to Colombia?

Bill, the great pilot and genius mechanic. He’s been with Mission Aviation Fellowship for several years. Some swim; he walks on water. Thirtyish, he’s slightly built with sandy hair and comes equipped with a can-do attitude. In his orientation, I don’t learn much from him about the people, culture or the long-standing Colombian civil war. He focuses on the machine we fly and the tiny airstrips we service. It is as if we live in our own mechanical world, insulated from everything around us. When he checks the oil, he wipes the dipstick off in the crook of his knee and says, “Just don’t let your wife catch you doing that.” He reminds me, “Bush flying isn’t safe, it’s dangerous—you gotta constantly manage the risks. Once a kid rammed a stick in my elevator hinges. Another time a drunk climbed up on the back of the fuselage just as I was about to take off.”

Knowing these risks, MAF fields some of the best bush pilots in the world. Some fly on skis in the snows of Nepal; others fly over the jungles of Brazil. In its first twenty-five years, MAF flew thousands of missions around the world with no fatal accidents. I began my flying knowing all men are mortal, but I somehow assumed we MAF pilots were an exception. And yet, shortly after I started my Mexico tour, George Raney crashed in New Guinea. A year later, Don Roberson crashed in Venezuela after an in-flight fire. Paul, my chief pilot and good friend in Honduras, ran into a mountain. So much for immortality. As I would fly over the vast jungles sustained only by a thin aluminum wing and a single propeller, I realized that I faced the same risks that had overwhelmed each of my friends.

Here in sparsely populated Northwest Colombia, no electronic navigation aids guide you so we fly mainly by compass and clock, trying to identify farmsteads, dirt roads and low hills. Crude homemade windsocks at some of the strips signal the wind’s direction and velocity. Bill says, “Always fly over first and check for people, animals, tools or debris on the airstrip.” After several orientation flights, he releases me on my own.

Today, like every day, I strap the airplane to my back and begin to-ing and fro-ing between Betania, San Pedro, Tierra Alta, Saiza and Nazaret, each flight taking less than thirty minutes. I notice that I’m flying the approaches just a tad faster than I did in my previous tour in Venezuela, touching down a little later and burning up a bit more strip before stopping—the price of taking two years off of flying. It’s late afternoon. I’m tired, sweaty and ready to be done for the day. I head for Muleticos with three people aboard including Adalberto, the hacienda owner. After Muleticos I can return home.

I circle over the 350-meter strip; it’s seems clear. Adalberto maintains the airstrip for the village because it connects him to the outside world where the paved road begins. Bill had told me, “Look how the strip here is fenced in. But those holes in the fence allow people and animals to cross. Always circle first and gun the engine. People will hear the plane and keep clear. You’ve got lots of room, but you can’t takeoff to the west. You would splat against that little hill, which would be counterproductive. You’ve got to land west and takeoff east.”

We bank to land to the west, steadily losing altitude. There’s not much wind. I’m glad that our Cessna 180 has a Robertson conversion—drooping ailerons and specially modified wings that give it a lower stalling speed and shorter landing roll.

I peg the airspeed at 55 mph and watch the boundary fence grow larger. I’m in the groove, staring at my touchdown point—a single tuft of grass. If the tuft moves up the windshield, I add power; if it moves down, I throttle back.

When we’re a thousand feet out, I notice the airstrip weeds standing as high as the top of the plane’s wheels. Too low now for a go-around—we’re committed to land.

I cross the fence and am flaring when out of the corner of my eye I see two black pigs running across the foot trail. The left landing gear shudders when it rips one pig in half, then the other—thunk, thunk!

I jam on the brakes. The right brake grabs, but the left brake pedal sinks to the floor. The collision must have severed the brake line! In tailwheel planes like this Cessna 180, if you swerve too much, the nose and tail will switch places. When we lurch right, I release the brake and the plane straightens, but the far fence looms large in the windshield and I’m alarmed to see several people hanging over it. I brake again and the plane again swerves right. I release the brake and the plane straightens. We’re running out of strip but still going 30 mph. I brake again, hard. The plane pivots right. I’ve lost all control now and I feel like I’m watching a slow-motion movie. We crash through the side fence and plow into a six-inch tree trunk.

As we slide to a stop, I yell, “Salgan todos ya!” (Everybody out now!) My passengers scramble out of the plane. I’m surprised at my first thought—Good; I won’t have to make any more flights today. I realize I’m completely drained.

We inspect the plane. It rests inert on its crippled left wing like a wounded insect. I smell aviation fuel, and ask someone to put a bucket under the dripping tank vent. The left landing gear lies curled back under the fuselage, tethered only by the brake line. The crash has severed the left wing strut. The dogs have carried the dead pigs away.

Curious campesinos gather around. “Hermano, will the plane fly tomorrow?”


I’m barely able to communicate by HF radio with the distant control tower in Montería—”We’ve crashed here in Muleticos. Please phone my wife and tell her we’re all right. I’ll come out overland tomorrow.”

The local Christian brothers feed me a supper of rice and beans. It lies tasteless in my mouth. I feel weak, despondent. How will we ever repair the plane? I sink exhausted into my hammock and immediately fall asleep.

The next morning I sit astride a mule on the long, enervating trip home, my head down, one hand on the reins and the other balancing the plane’s battery on the mule’s neck. It hasn’t rained, and I choke on the dust swirling around my face. The mule’s sweat smells and the saddle chafes. Finally, we reach a waiting Land Rover and continue our journey over dirt roads that pass through many corral gates.

Long after dark I arrive home in Monterìa unshaven, covered with sweat and dirt, teared up and penitential. Barbara gives me a great hug at our door. I tell her, “I broke the airplane!” She reminds me of the many things I should be thankful for. The plane, completely out of control, miraculously avoided the people lining the fence. No one was injured. The plane is repairable. But how little gratitude I feel at that moment!

The next day I tell Bill. “The left strut’s severed; it’s useless. And the left landing gear’s broken off.”

Bill has restored whole airplanes in his home basement. Several times MAF has sent him to the other side of the world to help rebuild crashed airplanes. He decides we should go back immediately and patch the plane together, assuring me, “We’ll order a new strut down from the States.”

After another Land Rover and muleback journey we arrive at the airstrip where Bill casts an eye on the damaged plane. He minimizes the fact that the rear wing spar has two right-angle bends in it and enlists several men to help us lift the crippled left wing and shove a wooden rice-pounding mortar under the belly to support the plane. A donkey with half-closed eyes scratches his behind against one of the airstrip markers and dumps a brown dollop on the grass. I think, He never has to worry about broken machinery.

We work two days. Bill hacksaws off the damaged part of the strut and asks one of the campesinos to go find a good hardwood tree. The man soon returns with a block of hardwood and using his machete, deftly fashions it to fit inside the severed strut stub. Bill’s tools seem a natural extension of his arms and fingers—he expertly attaches the wood splint with big PK screws. The broken landing gearbox presents the most complex problem. Bill says, “We need an electric drill to remove the large, severed rivets.” But no electricity.

Adalberto says, “I’ll bring my light plant over from the hacienda to run your drill.” Soon a donkey shows up with the light plant balanced on his back. We drill out the rivets in the landing gear attach bracket and install large bolts.

After much patching up of the airplane, we finally start the engine. At 1800 rpm the whole airplane shakes. The bent prop is an inch out of track! We use a wooden prybar to attempt to pull the blade back into alignment, but it doesn’t budge. And yet Bill, ever the can-do optimist, says, “It’ll push air fine. We just won’t fly it at 1800 rpm.”

The airplane now stands on its own two feet, the lower part of the left wing strut an unpainted hardwood stub. Large bolts secure the damaged landing gear to the fuselage. A mass of PK screws and duct tape strengthens the wrinkled aluminum at the end of the left wing. The controls seem to work fine.

Meanwhile, Aeronautica Civil has helicoptered in to inspect the crash. They give us permission to sacar la avioneta (take the airplane out). That means we can dislodge the plane from the bush and set it upright on the airstrip. But Bill employs a more liberal interpretation—“sacar la avioneta”means we can fly it to Bogotá! (He follows the dictum, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.”) When he runs the engine up it seems fine. So he advances the throttle, hurtles down the strip, and soon disappears over the hill. I feel lonely, abandoned. All that remains is another day-long muleback and Land Rover trip home to Montería.

A few days after returning home, I fall ill with a rising, burning fever. When the fever breaks I’m covered with sweat, shivering with shuddering chills. Barbara piles on blankets, but they don’t warm. Then the fever rises again and the cycle repeats. I think, I have malaria. But after some blood tests the doctor declares, “You’ve got typhoid fever.”

I take antibiotics and lie in bed for one month, weak as a flaccid noodle, rehearsing the accident a thousand times. Should I have intentionally ground-looped? Pumped the brake more? It will be two months before the airplane returns to service. Yet I’m perversely cheered that my typhoid provides an excellent excuse not to help Bill with the airplane repairs in Bogotá. I eventually recover and we finish the repairs together.

Our months in Colombia stretch into three years. We suffer eight robberies. The bank forecloses on the owner of our rented house. We launch an abortive communal living experiment. A school bus backs into our Land Rover and then a loaded dump truck crashes into it with Barbara driving. Were we wrong to insist on going to Colombia instead of Nicaragua, where MAF assigned us? Was it a bad decision to land at Muleticos in the one-foot-high grass? Should I have tried to ground-loop the airplane?

Yet Colombia provides us many treasures. We encounter many memorable people—Mario, the pastor of the local church; Andrés, the agriculturalist who helps improve the campesinos’ cacao crops; Gregorio, the faithful pastor who carries in his pocket two letters of reference: one to the army and the other to the guerillas.

I eventually stop asking why the accident happened and start asking, “God, what do you have for me in this? How should I respond?” I realize that life is fecund, full of God-surprises. I’m thankful for Barbara’s faithful support and thankful for all the rare and wonderful experiences in Colombia. That’s why grace is called grace. Every curse becomes a blessing. No one was injured in the accident, I survived typhoid fever, and while in Montería we adopted two more precious children—Tim and Jennifer.

Colombia, I embrace you. You’re a contradiction, a harsh teacher. But you’re also a vehicle of grace. I love the slightly-modified bumper sticker I’ve seen —“Grace Happens.”

Why Do I Make Stupid Mistakes?

I do stupid things. I know; everyone does. But I’ve elevated it to an art form. I turn on the wrong stove burner, miss doctor’s appointments, forget to put the car in park. I’ve locked my padlock key in the gym locker, forgotten to close the garage door for the night, forgotten to lock the house doors, showed up for a wedding, and later a funeral, on the wrong day, turned into the wrong side of a divided highway, backed into a light pole guywire.

Take when I crashed my 2011 Toyota Prius. The hybrid Prius is easy to get used to. But being a hybrid, the car runs on an engine plus an electric motor, and the car can be “on” even when the engine is stopped.

This day I pull up to our mailbox and put the four-way flashers on. When I jump out, the car begins rolling forward until I jump back in and slam on the brake.

Another time I’m waiting in line for gas and get out to see how many cars are ahead of me. The car starts rolling. I jump in and brake just before I slam into the car in front of me.

I tell myself, “I’ll never do that again.” But  I do, and the next time I pay for it.

I pull into my garage and sit there with my foot still on the brake, listening to MPR on the radio. The engine has stopped. After five minutes I turn the radio off and get out. The car then runs ahead into my workbench and damages the bumper ($700). Once again I’d forgotten to put the car in park and also forgotten to turn the car off.

Why did this happen? For starters, I was stopping the car for long periods of time keeping my foot on the brake without putting the car in park. Then I was taking my foot off the brake without checking that the car was in park or turned off.

Then there was the time I ran a red light. We are leaving my friend’s medical appointment in an unfamiliar part of the city. I’m talking animatedly about his procedure, our families, church. I approach an intersection, carefully look both ways—and then roll through a red light! I was focused on our conversation instead of focusing on my driving.

Worse when people do stupid stuff in the air. I flew a twin engine Cessna 310 to Amarillo, Texas, and offered to take three friends up for a ride. After we take off and climb to 4000 feet, I switch from using the main fuel tanks to the auxiliary tanks. Then I decide to practice flying single engine, so I shut down and feather the right engine. All goes well, but when I try to restart the engine it won’t start. I’m slowly losing altitude. I add full power on the good engine and frantically try to restart the dead engine. Nothing. Still losing altitude.

I decide we’ll have to land on a single engine, so I enter the Amarillo traffic pattern. We’re sinking lower and lower and I worry we won’t make the runway. I am so obsessed trying to restart the engine that I fail to check other systems.

I start my prelanding checklist and almost too late, I realize three things. I should never have practiced engine shutdown with a full load of passengers. The extended landing gear is creating more drag and causing our rapid descent.

Plus, I notice I’m still running on the aux fuel tanks. I switch the tanks back to mains and the engine immediately starts. Turns out that only the main fuel tanks have a boost pump to push the gas up to the engines. So you always need to start the engines on the main tank.

So how do I avoid doing stupid stuff? Problem is, there are different kinds of stupid mistakes. We can divide them into mistakes of knowledge, of skill, and of judgment.

First, mistakes of knowledge.  When I ran the red light, I didn’t know the streets and intersections well; first time I’d been in that area of town. In the Cessna 310 case, I did not know the fuel valve had to be on the main tank for starting.

Once I worked three hours trying to fix the brakes on my car. Then I checked out a YouTube video and was able to finish the job in twenty minutes. I needed more knowledge.

Flight instructing at Orange County Airport (now John Wayne Airport), my boss told me to test-fly a repaired plane. I jumped into the little Ercoupe (“so simple anyone can fly it”) and took off. When I came back to land in a roaring crosswind, I just about wrapped it up in a little aluminum ball. I should have known that the landing gear swivels so that the airplane can land with its nose cocked into the wind. I hadn’t even glanced at the owner’s manual. Lack of knowledge almost killed me.

Preplanning builds knowledge. Once we were driving with some friends to a small-town event in Wisconsin and ended up driving one hour north instead of south. We missed the event. If I would have studied  a map, we would have arrived in time.

Renting a car? Speeding away from the rental office at night, in the rain, in an unfamiliar car, in an unfamiliar city makes for some interesting (and dangerous) gymnastics in the first ten minutes. Always take the time to check out mirror-adjusts, emergency brake, headlights, four-ways, instrument panel, windshield wipers before moving.

A planning calendar, consulted weekly or even daily, means fewer missed appointments. In aviation, many (fatal) accidents could have been avoided if the pilot had checked the weather conditions beforehand. In flying, as in driving, you cannot do too much preplanning before you go.

Second, mistakes of skill. With my Prius, I had the knowledge; I knew how the hybrid system worked. But I had not practiced driving the car in various scenarios. I hadn’t developed good skills, such as never stopping without putting the car in park, or never removing my foot from the brake without checking to see if the car begins rolling.

In aviation, instructors talk about “overlearning”—continued practicing after you have learned a maneuver. Many states restrict driving privileges at night until the driver has practiced during the daytime.

My flight instructor would tell me, “Report incidents; prevent accidents.” Pay attention to incidents. An incident means you need more practice.

In aviation we practice emergency landings, flying with instrument failures, flying in unexpected weather. One should also (safely) practice emergencies in driving a car—loss of brakes, loss of steering, uncontrolled skids. Practice makes perfect.

Checklists build skill. With the Cessna 310, I failed to use the emergency checklist that would have reminded me to switch to main tanks for startup. Even in a car, it’s good to have a checklist. Checklists reduce the chance of missing something.

Be intentional. Do not rely on “muscle memory”—those automatic movements you are familiar with. Once my friend was flying, coming in to land. We were talking. He automatically reached down to pull on the carburetor heat but pulled the mixture instead. The engine stopped until I yelled, “mixture!”

A friend was transitioning to a new airplane. He landed, then reached over to raise the flaps—and pulled the landing gear up underneath him! In this new airplane, the landing gear lever was in the same location as the flaps lever in the previous plane.

Distractions. Managing distractions is a learned skill. After running the red light, I realized I needed to stop talking and concentrate on my driving in an unfamiliar environment. Other distractions: trying to talk to someone sitting in the back seat, juggling a soft drink and a sandwich while fiddling with the heater and the GPS. Answering your cellphone. Many pilots have the rule of a “sterile cockpit”: no talking or other distractions five minutes before takeoff or five minutes before landing. I try to have the rule of no distractions when driving through an intersection or even when driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood. For instance, I turn the radio off.

But mistakes of judgment are the most dangerous.

Risk factors. Years ago I drove through a construction zone at high speed—at night, in the rain, tired. I saw fast-moving bright lights, swerved, and barely missed a huge rumbling earthmover. I had underestimated the multiple risk factors: Night. Windy. Unfamiliar road. Construction zone. Exhausted driver. Any one of these is manageable but when they pile up, you’re in danger. For instance, you may be safe driving at night, but if it’s windy and the roads are icy, you’ve multiplied your risk factors. You must be conscious of how many risk factors you’re dealing with. Three strikes and you’re out.Good judgment demands assessing the risk factors.

Overconfidence. I ran the red light not only because I was distracted; I was also overconfident. Most people assume they’re better drivers than other people. We tend to overestimate our abilities—think about the sixteen-year-old boy who drives confidently at 100 mph in a residential neighborhood. The greatest judgment mistake is overconfidence.

So, how to avoid doing stupid things? Here’s a starter list:

  • Read the instructions (written or digital)
  • Plan carefully before executing a complex task
  • Consider a written checklist and follow it
  • Practice emergencies before you experience them
  • Take “incidents” very seriously, and change your behavior
  • Be intentional; don’t rely on muscle memory
  • Reduce distractions
  • Remember that multiple danger factors multiply risk
  • Avoid the trap of overconfidence

We all need to learn more, practice more, and use better judgment. I still do stupid things—just not quite as often.

Here’s to your increased safety!