Ginger Skybird – SFC’s latest recruit and female aviatrix

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In the latest Sydney Flyer instalment we are delighted to share an article written by SFC team member Michelle Packwood.

Do you consider yourself an aviation enthusiast? Do you consider yourself a wordsmith? Have you been on an amazing adventure lately? Been to a fantastic airshow? Flew a new plane? Passed a test or a significant endorsement? Have you had a close call and want to share with the world what you’ve learned? Are you planning a fly-away? Or perhaps wanting to share some aviation history or fascinating facts?  If so, we want to hear from you!

Currently seeking story submissions for our e-newsletter, website and Facebook.

Submit your stories to Michelle for consideration.

Ask a Pilot why they fly and you will hear a love story… Meet Michelle Louise, an East Coast Aussie who chased her dreams of flying in the desert of Arizona.

I’ll be honest. When I set my mind to do something, 9/10 times I make it happen. Goal orientated Capricorn. Like a little goat scaling a mountain, making my way to the top, even if my little hooves are clinging to the edge of the cliff.

Before we get started though, this story isn’t about a young girl with a life long dream to be a pilot. Aviation chose me. I’ll spare you the whimsical and romantic version of this story that details the endless amounts of serendipity that led me to this point. It’s a great story but I don’t have enough space for that version here and it’d be much more entertaining if we were in person with each other drinking a beer.

Let’s skip to me making the decision to move myself to Arizona to become a pilot. Why Arizona? A few reasons. Again, serendipity found me in Arizona multiple times and a close (pilot) friend suggested I speak with the school he had done some time building with after his PPL. Chandler Air Service. So I did. I liked them. We liked each other. It felt right from the get go. A big draw card is the weather in Arizona in the winter is supremely beautiful, the skies are clear and the weather stable. Well mostly, but we’ll get to that.

I was encouraged to fly in the USA due to the high quality training available here and the affordability. Though with the exchange rate at this time we could debate that. Either way I figured it would be a great adventure and Arizona had found a special place in my heart. So I packed my bags and I moved myself to the desert to become a pilot.

November 1st 2018 I began full time training, flying twice daily plus ground school In between. Steep learning curve much!? It was like trying to drink from a fire hose. I would arrive at the airport at 7.30am and leave around 5:30pm. I’d sneak in a nap after lunch in the pilots lounge of the FBO if I could. When I got home, I’d study. Often passing out with books open on my bed by 7.30pm. No one warned me of the adrenal fatigue. As you all know flying is exhilarating and I was having adrenaline for breakfast.

Half way through week two I did my first solo flight in the pattern. No warning from my instructor, he just asked me to taxi back to base as per usual. As we approached the hanger he got me to pull over in a waiting bay and he got out. He looked at me with a smile and said, “you’re now going to go do exactly what you just did, but on your own. You’ve got this.” I just stared at him. I’m sure my eyes didn’t even blink. “You’re f*cking kidding me.” I blurted out shocked. He laughed and closed the door.

I called ATC and told them it was my first solo and they gave me taxi and run way instructions. I sat in the run up area for a good few minutes and caught my breath. I looked at the empty seat beside me. I’d been abandoned. Baby bird pushed from the nest. Everyone always told me this was a big moment and that once I’d done this everything would be different. They weren’t wrong.

I lined up and waited for ATC to clear my takeoff. “Four four Papa, two two right cleared for takeoff.” I pushed the throttle to full power. Speed was alive. I had three in the green. At 65 I rotated and I took off into the skies. Alone. “Holy sh*t!”

The plane felt different on my own. Lighter. Lopped sided even. Two touch and go take offs and then a full stop.

When it came time for my full stop, I had my down wind extended. Approaching traffic. I held my altitude and slowed the plane down… I waited. Waited. Waited some more. My mind raced “have they forgotten about me!” I finally got cleared to land and turned base and came in to land. It wasn’t a perfect landing but it wasn’t terrible either. I’d done it. Breathe.

I taxied off the runway and went through my after landing checklist. ATC called through to transfer me over to ground control and they gave me a huge congratulations. They watch us newbies from day one. They are invested in our safety and progress and boy are they forgiving when we are screwing up our radio calls. Now looking back I can’t believe how terrified I was initially of talking to them on the radio. It seems so silly now.

I went out for another flight that afternoon with my instructor to go over some cross wind landing techniques. When we landed and had taxied off the runway, ATC called assumably to tell me to change frequencies and contact ground but I got – “four four papa, ma’am we have to ask, we hear you everyday multiple times a day. We’re wondering where your accent is from. We love the sound of your voice.”

I laughed and gave them an unusually thick Aussie, “g’day maaaate, I’m from down under.”

They laughed and said “she’s an auuuusssie,” in their strong south western drawl.

“G’day ma’am you have a nice day now, you’re making great progress! Taxi to the ramp via Alpha.”

From that day forward, the tower would always give me a g’day when they heard me call through. I had made friends with these invisible people that at first terrified me, and now their voices, I had developed a sense of connection with.

During my time I acquired the nickname from the lines workers, as “the rain maker,” as Arizona experienced some of the most unusual weather patterns during my training. My solo cross country got postponed twice due to extreme weather. Which was appropriate considering I was study the weather. Sleepless nights with anxiety prior to my scheduled departure, a waste of time. The third time it was scheduled I’d already wasted my anxiety and found an unusual calm.

I had to fly to Tucson international do a touch and go and then do a full stop at Ryan airfield and then return to Chandler.

I wasn’t nervous. I was terrified! At least deep inside. Outside I pretended to be totally cool. I had planned thoroughly and looked over it a thousand times. I had even written a flow chart of procedures and radio calls. I was organised. It’s just, Phoenix to Tucson Arizona, is very busy airspace. High density of aviation training, including military. Sky divers, glider ports as well as the soup of general aviators buzzing around.

Tucson has the largest military aviation operations in the US. As I approached Tucson, which is a scary approach anyway due to the mountains you skim on final, and got my clearance from ATC. I then heard my call sign again. “Archer four four Papa you have two incoming F -16 for touch and go on adjacent runway, caution wake turbulence.” Before she had finished speaking there was two jets either side of me, I was pinned. Like two cats and a tiny little mouse… they flew right on my wing tips as we approached the airport and then the one on my right manoeuvred over head to join the one on my left and they took off at what seemed light speed comparatively to me, to touch down. They had taken off and were no where to be seen by the time I was on short final. I managed to avoid any wake turbulence but I feel like I aged a few years experiencing that. I landed my full stop at Ryan airfield and took a much needed break and checked my flight plans for my return journey.

As I approached Chandler’s Airspace I called for clearance. “Chandler tower, Archer four four Papa, 6 miles south with information bravo for a full stop.” Hearing my call sign back “four four Papa make right traffic, two two right cleared to land,” was the sweetest sound. The familiar sound of their voices was like coming home to a warm hug. I made it. I survived. I did it. Am I pilot now..?

When I hit the ground and got directions to exit the runway “right on Hotel and contact ground,” I stopped the plane and gave a huge deep sigh. I hadn’t realised although it was a cold day that I was sweating profusely. I went through my after landing checklist and contacted ground to taxi back to home base. Ground control welcomed me home with a huge congratulations and taxi instructions and then gave me g’day as I taxied off. I didn’t have the heart to tell them it’s a greeting and not a good bye either way I appreciated the sentiments. I taxied back to the hanger with a grin from ear to ear.

There are too many moments I would love to share. Like learning short and soft field techniques and me somehow running off the runway, and no there wasn’t a cross wind. Although I wish for my ego there was. No one and nothing was damaged and all I can say is “MORE RIGHT RUDDER!” I won’t forget that one.

On December 17th 2018 I completed my checkride. It too had been pushed back due to weather. The DPE shook my hand and officially called me a pilot. It was a momentous day. One I truly earned, with hard work and perseverance. I can tell you the beer that day had never been so delicious. It was magic. This day to the date was also the 115th year anniversary that Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first powered flight. So the feelings were more than a little auspicious.

Over Christmas and New Years I had a much deserved break but after flying everyday twice a day for the past 5 weeks I was having serious withdrawals. I was dreaming about it in my sleep. Squarking codes for emergencies and waking up having done landing after landing. So what next?

I’ve long had a desire to fly bush planes. I just love the low and slow adventure possibilities. I see videos online and I’m captivated. What is it about tailwheels!? Chandler Air specialises in tailwheel and aerobatics training so naturally I returned to my aviation family in Arizona and asked them to teach me how to fly the Super Cub before I head home. Going from flying Piper Archers to a Super Cub is like going from riding a docile pony to a wild brumby. I was up for the challenge. I’d been encouraged by my mentors with them saying it will make me a proficient pilot, “You have to really fly this thing.”

After getting used to the wild nature of the cub and learning to land it over and over, my instructor took me out into the desert to practice wheel landings on a dirt strip. Flying low and slow tracking a dry river bed. Now we were talking. This is flying. I wish I had my camera that day as actual wild horses cantered bellow us.

You know you are falling in love when you get butterflies before seeing someone and you can’t stop that goofy grin afterwards. That’s how I feel about the Super Cub. I have excited nerves before I greet her in the morning and after we’ve flown I have this stupid grin on my face that has people asking me what’s going on. “I’m in love,” I respond. “Completely head over heals.”

I’ve developed a true respect for this aircraft. The simplicity of its design mixed with the skill you need to fly it well, makes for an interesting time in the sky, and on the ground to be fair. Then there is the weather. The air pressure. The temperature. Every time I head out I’m nervous and excited. Anything could happen. I pray I’ve improved my handling capabilities and that my muscle memory is improving. Flying it every day has helped my progress but then I get a cross wind or different air density, thermals off the desert mixed with my fatigue and I’m just not nailing it like I was in my previous lesson. It’s hard not to let this knock you around. Though this is the nature of the beast. It’s responsive and you need to absolutely wrangle it.

Each cub has its own personality. We have three here at Chandler Air Service which I’m learning in. Each one unique to its own, with it’s own quirks and it’s own set of traits that I need to bond with each time I fly, practicing the manoeuvres I need to be proficient. I love that about them.

These aircraft want to fly. The smallest amount of wind and speed and it lifts. If your wings aren’t level you’re off in the wrong direction. If you don’t have the stick all the way back when you finally come to land and hit the ground you have no directional control. You will squirrel down the runway and potentially ground loop. No one wants that! You have to be aggressive to keep it under control and sometimes you need to be so light and gentle that your feet are like fairies and sometimes both of these are happening the same time. It’s a dance. The super cub dance. Hands and feet, stick and rudder all working in unison to dance coordinated and make it back to the ground safely.

As an aviator everyday is different. This is what I love most. The challenge of flying is why we’ve stepped up. It’s not for everyone but for those of us that it is, it’s a feeling that is addictive. Only a pilot knows the feeling. When I’m not flying I’m thinking about flying.

I’m unsure exactly where this aviator life will take me. I’ve already met so many incredible people and done things I never imagined doing. I never set out for some grand career in aviation I just knew I would never regret going for my private license. This is my life now though. I’m happiest when I’m flying and learning and I want to continue to do so for as long as I can. I look forward to where this will take me, the adventures I will have and the other passionate aviators I will meet.

As I write this I’m finishing up my tailwheel endorsement and it’s soon time for me to say goodbye to my aviation family at Chandler Air Service, and this desert dream and return to my homeland on the east coast of Australia. I say family because every single person at this school invested their time into moulding me into a pilot. They encouraged me through the hard times and gave me high fives through the good. Even the lines workers who would see me doing my preflight, would go out of their way to assist me to make sure my plane was ready and give me thumbs up when they’d see me taxi back after my flights. I honestly cannot thank them all enough. I wouldn’t be telling this story without them.

It’s Valentine’s Day as I write this and I may not have a Valentine but I have fallen deeply in love. In love with the art of flying, and with the science of the sky. It’s a beautiful thing that I will continue to fall in love with over and over.

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