CESSNA Encounters B- 52

After being inducted into the ARMY, for a whole week we took aptitude tests to determine what ARMY job we might do best. On Friday afternoon when the tests were completed, the guy with the gold bar called me and two other guys to stay behind. I figured we were going to just sweep the floor and empty the trash cans.

He told us the ARMY was going to teach us to fly helicopters. I laughed out loud. He said, “What is so funny, trainee?” I said, “Lieutenant, I can’t spell helicopter pilot but you think I can fly one”? He said, “Face the facts, you are a draftee, you are going to Vietnam, when you get there do you want to walk in the mud or fly over it?”

After my nineteen-month tour flying helicopter gunships I returned to civilian life, but I was addicted to flying. I had become an “Air Pig.”  I enrolled at East Carolina University and joined the North Carolina ARMY National Guard, to supplement the GI Bill and get some more sky time. I had become a helpless, hopeless “rare air addict” and I loved to turn kerosene into noise.

One day about exactly 39 years ago I met a sweet little lady named Peggy. We both loved my red CJ 5 Jeep. I promised her half interest in the Jeep if she would marry me. We kept that Jeep for thirty years.

It was not long before I talked US into buying a Benson Gyro Copter, a flying machine sorta like a helicopter. It only had one seat so it could only kill one person at a time. I felt guilty about the one seat, so I talked US into buying a four-seat 1951 Cessna airplane. Being a naturally cautious person, she asked one question, “Is it safe to fly a thirty-year-old airplane”? I explained that each year every airplane must have a physical, called an annual inspection. Only a certified aircraft mechanic can perform the inspection. That satisfied her.

We had the airplane about three years when this incident happened, but I remember it like yesterday. Our bird was a turquoise and white C170A tail dragger (little wheel in the back). It had a 145 horse-power air cooled 6-cylinder Lycoming engine. We named her “Lady”.

The mechanic called to say the inspection was complete, he had only repacked the wheel bearings and installed twelve new spark plugs. The compression was good, the brakes were good, and the tires had plenty of tread, but next year he wanted to balance the prop.

I did a pre-flight inspection, filed a local VFR (visual flight rules) flight plan and took off for my home hanger. Suffolk was about 45 minutes to the east, so I decided to stay in the pattern at the Franklin Airport for a few patterns just to let her warm up and be sure all systems were ready to go the distance.

It was a pretty summer day and it appeared I had the sky to myself. The nearest big airport was Norfolk International, and it was two hours away. The gauges were in the green, temperature and oil pressure were where they were supposed to be….life was good. I pushed the throttle to the wall and began a steady climb. About 3000 feet I reset the throttle to maintain altitude and reached for the navigation radio to get some music.

Suddenly something flew by my head and hit the windshield, on the inside. Pilots do not like such up close surprises… suspicious introvert is another definition for a helicopter pilot… we like to control our environment at all times no matter what the vehicle. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Suddenly I did not feel in control, and that sick feeling in my gut began to gnaw, check and cross-check consumed me, what was that? Whatever the thing, it had disappeared into the defrost vent...suddenly it happened again! I was able to detect color this time, yellow and black and wings, they had wings….BINGO!

These were wasps, famous for their bad attitudes… several more joined them, now I knew the enemy, I was greatly out-numbered. I did a quick threat analysis and instantly reached for my pilot sunglasses, if they stung my eyes, I would be blinded and front-page news. I had on a short sleeve shirt (just have to live with that chink in my armor) I turned up and buttoned my collar… and pulled my leather gloves out of my flight bag. I began to smash them with my fist, often getting 2-3 at a time, bodies were everywhere. … every once in awhile I could hear my former flight instructor yell...”FLY THE AIRPLANE”..! Yes that is why I am here, not to kill wasps, I must keep this aluminum thing in the sky… wasps won’t kill but that sudden stop - into earth or trees will!

The war waged for the rest of the flight… not all were killed, many were just wounded but out of the fight. I always count stuff and so I began to do a body count of the mangled enemy and after 3 counts decided there were 51 of them on the dash … I smiled even though I did get a few stings, arms and legs… then around the corner of the dash ONE more! It began to march across the dash...back and forth...still had his stinger too, yelling something...I’m sure it was wasp bad words. I could tell he really wanted one of my “Baby Blues”, one last attempt to settle the score, I wanted the same opportunity.

Suffolk came into view, I keyed the microphone and told the manager what was going on. He agreed to talk me in if I became blinded, we both figured a crash landing at the airport was the best place to have one. Wasp-Bee 52 was armed and dangerous, I established an extra-long, extended shallow landing approach and throttled back to begin the landing phase. I had an inspiration, open the air scoop, and kick the airplane out of trim, it worked, knocked him off his feet, BAM! The tires screeched as I did a very pretty wheel landing keeping the tail in the air because I am a show-off, sometimes.

What did I learn from all of this? More thoughtful pre-flight, one of the other pilots found a snake in his bird, we only had wasps and a frog that almost made Peggy jump out on take-off once. We had a heart-to-heart talk about that after I buried my underwear.