So not surprisingly, when I earned my private pilot’s license in 1972, the next step was for my spouse to earn hers. Or at least to become proficient enough to get us back on the ground safely should something happen to me. But as I listen to her now, despite my wanting her to succeed, I didn’t make it easy.

She began her lessons on July 15, 1972 at the DeKalb-Peachtree Airport near Atlanta in a rented blue and white 1967 Cessna 150; tail number N7289S—a 100-HP two-place trainer. Her second lesson came in a slightly newer but similar model Cessna with the tail number N51347.

By lesson number three, I began trying to convince her that we should purchase our own airplane to eliminate the scheduling hassles and so we could more easily visit her parents in Florida. That argument struck a nerve, and a month or so later we bought a 1962 Cessna Skyhawk, tail number N1644Y, from a friend who was moving up to a larger aircraft. Compared to the trainers, the Skyhawk was huge and powerful—a roomy four-place aircraft that sported a 145-hp. six-cylinder Continental engine.

Now a 50% owner in the world's ugliest faded green airplane, my wife had her first lesson in the Skyhawk on September 11, 1972.

Since she stands about 5’ feet tall in her stocking feet, she found that to fly the Skyhawk she had to sit on a telephone book in order to reach the rudder pedals. And since the Skyhawk had manually-operated flaps, instead of the electrically-powered ones she’d grown accustomed to in the trainers, she also found she lacked the strength or the leverage to yank in more than the first notch.

Once airborne, getting the flaps retracted was an even bigger problem, so as she practiced touch ‘n’ go landings, she had to fly the entire pattern with ten degrees of flaps hanging out!

Now folks, I’m a good listener. I heard what her instructor said about how dangerous it was for her to have to sit on a telephone book, not to mention her being unable to properly use the flaps. So being a kind and considerate husband, as well as a generous soul, a few months later I traded the faded old Skyhawk for a shiny, nearly-new Cessna Cardinal—a sleek and beautiful machine with electric flaps, an adjustable left seat and an even more powerful 180-HP engine.

My wife’s first lesson in the Cardinal was on May 9, 1973. Although she still needed a pillow to see over the instrument panel, it was love at first site. Best of all, she let me back in the master bedroom!

Flying provided us a common interest we could share—and that was great—at least most of the time. However, as she progressed with her lessons, out of the corner of my eye I could often see her nodding approval as I adjusted the power, made a clearing turn or performed any of a dozen maneuvers or check list items taught us by our flight instructor.

One afternoon, I became so provoked at her nodding and patronizing, I reminded her that I was the one with the license—the “pilot in command”—and that I didn’t need her approval for how I flew the airplane. She replied, “Fine then,” a wifely response that means “stick it in your ear.”

A couple of weeks later we were awaiting take off clearance from Lovell Field in Chattanooga en route back to Atlanta. The controller said, “November-three-zero-four-one-five, cleared for immediate take off—caution: wake turbulence from departing DC9.” I looked, and sure ’nuff, the windshield in front of us was full of DC9. I looked back and there were a couple more pieces of big iron waiting impatiently for me to get out of their way. I swallowed hard, acknowledged our take-off clearance and pushed the throttle forward.

Now avoiding wake turbulence is tricky. Large aircraft with their mighty jet engines produce powerful wingtip vortices—mini-tornadoes that depending on the prevailing winds can travel hundreds of feet back down the runway. During flight training, I’d been told they were strong enough to flip a light aircraft on its back. So wanting to avoid such a calamity, I made sure that we lifted off well in advance of where the DC9 went airborne and that we flew well above the flight path of the larger airplane.

A little distracted and a bit rattled, as quickly as I could, I turned out of the flight path of the DC9 and headed to the Rome VOR, a navigational aid located—surprisingly enough—at Rome, Georgia. We climbed to 4500 feet and then leveled out. That was when a lower-than-normal reading on the airspeed indicator caught my eye.

I checked the power settings. I re-checked the airspeed indicator. I turned on the courtesy lights beneath the wings and checked for ice. I looked at the power setting again. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that my wife was leaning over, following my every move. Stumped, I turned to her and said, “I can’t figure out why we’re going so slow.” She pointed to the flap indicator and whispered in my ear. “Sweetheart, it might help if you retracted the flaps.”

It did. That little airplane flew a lot faster without fifteen degrees of take-off flaps hanging down! Later that evening, I admitted to her that I had been wrong to admonish her wise counsel, even if she was a lowly student pilot. Besides, what’s the point in having a crew of two if you don’t help each other?

A few months later, the wisdom of that night’s epiphany became even more apparent.

We had flown from Atlanta to Sedalia, Missouri—picked up some friends—and then over the next week with them in tow, it was on to Kansas City, later to St. Louis, and then back to Sedalia. In Kansas City, we visited the Playboy Club and clowned around at Twelfth Street and Vine. We ate strawberry waffles at midnight, then flew to St. Louis and spent most of the day at the St. Louis zoo before taking our friends back home to Sedalia. A little exhausted, on the way back, we decided to spend the night in Jefferson City before continuing on to Atlanta.

We got a late start out of Jefferson City, due mainly to some early morning ground fog, and later made a fuel stop at McKeller Field in Jackson, Tennessee—halfway between Memphis and Nashville. Then, since the weather south and east of Muscle Shoals was looking a bit “iffy,” due to afternoon thunderstorms, we decided to do another overnighter at the Hertz Sky Center at the Madison County Airport in Huntsville.

The next day after a leisurely brunch, a little before noon, central time, we were finally on our way. On the ground, the air was already stifling hot, so much so that after loading our bags and pre-flighting the airplane, everything I had on was wringing wet. Once we were off the ground, I climbed to 8500 feet where the air was some 25 degrees cooler. It felt great but it didn’t last long. Soon the afternoon build-ups were towering high above us while a lower deck of stratus clouds closed in below. With an inverted thumb, I motioned to my wife that we should head down and she nodded her approval.

Spiraling down through smaller and smaller holes in the broken layer, at 2500 feet we were beneath the clouds. I pushed the power back to cruise. Then it happened: the engine coughed and sputtered. Instead of showing a steady 2650 rpm, the tachometer swung wildly between 1400 and 1800 rpm. The instrument panel shook. I went through the checklist and applied carburetor heat in case the humid air and the long descent had produced a chunk of fuel-blocking carburetor ice. I tried to convince myself that carb heat had helped—it hadn’t. I checked the magnetos and leaned the mixture in an attempt to clean what may have been a fouled spark plug. I turned on the fuel boost pump. I switched fuel tanks. Finally, the engine seemed to smooth out, albeit at a much reduced power setting.

I handed the chart to my wife and said, “Give me a heading to the Rome airport and don’t mess up.” She called out 120 degrees and in a matter of minutes, our wheels touched down on the 6000-foot runway at Rome’s Richard B. Russell Memorial Airport.

We taxied to the maintenance hangar hoping to find a mechanic who could troubleshoot the problem. But it was Saturday and no one was available. I looked at my wife and she looked at me. We climbed back into the airplane, started the engine and did a full power run up. Smooth as silk. We taxied back out to runway 19. We did a full power static run down the runway without lifting off. Twice, three times. I shook my head in disbelief—whatever it was—whatever had caused the engine to run so rough earlier seemed now to be gone.

We faced what could be a life or death conundrum: stay in Rome until the engine could be thoroughly checked on Monday; or take a chance and head for home. We decided to head for home. We took off using most of the 6000-foot runway and circled the airport for fifteen minutes. I did some serious knob knocking and tried various power settings. No problem. Convinced the engine was now running okay, we turned southeast and returned to Atlanta without further incident. The following Monday, I had our local mechanic take a look at the problem. He checked all the systems and found nothing wrong.

A couple of days later, my wife, the student-pilot, was about to have another flying lesson. I took off work early and drove to the airport to see her off. I milled about as she and our instructor did their preflight, saying things like “It sure is a pretty day...I sure wish I could go flying. They say it’s going to start raining tomorrow and may rain the rest of the week. At least you guys are getting some good weather.”

Finally I made my point and they felt sorry for me. They agreed that if I would sit in the back seat, and keep quiet, I could ride along.

“YES!” I exclaimed and climbed in.

We taxied into position on runway 2-left at the DeKalb-Peachtree Airport. The tower gave us our clearance and by extending a flat palm, her instructor motioned “let’s go.” My wife opened the throttle and the little Cessna began its take-off roll.

A few hundred feet down the runway and at 70 knots indicated, my wife eased back on the yoke and the wheels left the tarmac. We began to climb. That’s when it happened—again—a lot like before, but worse. The engine backfired, coughed and sputtered; the instrument panel shook and the tachometer swung wildly between idle and about 1400 rpm. From my vantage point, it looked as though every screw in the top of the cowling was about to shake itself loose!

My wife turned to her instructor and said, “Your airplane; my radio.” He began going through the same checklist of items I’d run through a few days earlier. Nothing helped. Since I’d “been there, done that,” I began yelling “take one six—TAKE ONE SIX” (meaning turn left 220 degrees and land on runway 16, the closest safe haven).

After what seemed like an endless round of chatter between my wife and her instructor, she pressed the mike button on “her radio” and called the tower. With a voice that got higher in pitch with every syllable, she told them we’d lost power and were requesting runway 16. They cleared us to land any runway and began diverting other traffic away from our flight path.

We were at 200 feet, still inside the airport fence. Our instructor put in fifteen degrees of flap and lowered the nose below the horizon to avoid a stall. Then making the shallowest of turns, he gently turned the airplane around. Once landing was assured, he added more flap and touched down gently as you please on runway 16—safe and sound and in one piece.

My wife clapped. Her instructor folded his arms and sat there motionless. The tower said, “Cessna three-zero-four-one-five are you able to taxi?” The instructor turned to my wife and said, “I’ve just saved your butt, if the engine will start, you can taxi this thing to the ramp yourself.”

Back at the parking area, another Sunday pilot had been listening to the events on his aircraft radio. He climbed down and said, “Wow, Ron, I envy your invaluable experience.” I tossed him my keys and said “Jim, here ya go—have at it.”

Removal and teardown of the carburetor revealed that the bowl was full of silt and other nasty stuff from contaminated fuel, most likely from our refueling stop in Tennessee. There was also over an inch of crud in the bottom of the wing tanks. They had to be drained and the carburetor had to be rebuilt. Fortunately, a bore scope inspection revealed no internal damage to the engine.

All this took place during the summer of 1973, in the middle of a spotty nationwide fuel shortage when many airport operators were pumping fuel from near the bottom of their storage tanks. As a result of this incident and others like it, the FAA soon mandated there be filters on fuel trucks and on fuel-farms that pump from in-ground storage.

Me? After refueling, I became much more generous with the amount of fuel I checked for contamination before taking off.

After retirement from a career in advertising and marketing, Burch has authored a number of published essays and magazine articles, in addition to a full-length novel. He uses his Blog site-- make his popular "Op Eds" available to a growing list of visitors and subscribers.

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