Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (Episode 1): You Only Live Twice – Part One

Preamble

I am so torn over this segment of Why Fly.

On the one hand, I’ve been privileged to enjoy an extraordinary number of aerial adventures in my lifetime (and people are always after me to write them down). On the other hand, I am painfully aware that many of my early flying tales were pretty irresponsible. Before the May 5th, 1981 crash—the “wake-up call” that almost took my life—I really didn’t worry about this. But after getting a second chance at life (which actually feels more like getting a second life), I’ve been a lot more circumspect about my actions. Not overly cautious (which can be just as dangerous), but a lot more vigilant.

The bottom line is, I should be dead … I should be dead.

But I’m not. I’m still here, an incredible 28 years later, still Living On Stolen Time. And I am so aware that every dawn marks another new day I’m really not entitled to, (which means every day is a precious gift that must be valued and lived to its fullest).

Please note then that I’m not condoning the more reckless tales you’ll read in “Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear”—far from it. I’ve lost way too many friends who weren’t as “lucky” as me. But I can’t ignore the fact that these were different times, that I lived through these adventures (barely) and became the person I am today because of them. 

These are the stories of my life … of my love affair with the sky. And as with any love affair, at times you are ruled more by passion than by reason. Passion has always been, and still is, one of the main reasons Why I Fly. Yet even passion is no excuse for irresponsibility.

So enjoy these stories for what they are—tales from another time. But please, please, please, “Don’t try this at home.” Believe me when I tell you, as adventurous as these stories may sound, there was a lot of abject terror involved. And when something finally did go horribly wrong, I had to face the worst moment of my life … the acceptance of my own death—and the knowledge that I had caused it.

I wouldn’t wish that awful sensation on anyone.

And it’s “a miracle” I’m still here.

When I asked my Why Fly partners how I should go about telling the stories from my early flying days, their response was unanimous … and a little surprising. As “Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear” effectively came to a finish with my crash, Hal, Mike and—most importantly—Michelle all suggested I start at the end, then go back to the beginning and let my stories explain how I got there.

I didn’t understand at first … but the more I thought about it, the more I realized they were right.

So, here then is Episode #1” of “Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.”

Glenn Norman

 

You Only Live Twice – Part One

May 5th, 1981

Whenever I think back on this morning, I wonder if the sense of foreboding I felt was in any way responsible for the events that followed. It wasn’t that I was filled with a sense of dread, I truly wasn’t. But from the moment my eyes opened, I seemed to know this was the day when I would finally have to make up my mind about the Easy Riser—that terrifyingly wonderful, very-first-foot-launched Ultralight, that I’d built with my own hands.

It was early when I first awoke, very early. And even though I could see, just lying there, that the sky was a solid grey overcast, I immediately noticed the early spring leaves on the tree outside our bedroom window were hanging perfectly still.

It was a good morning to fly.

I crawled out of bed as quietly as possible, then stopped and looked at Widgie’s sleeping form, the same way I have every morning for the past forty one years.

There hasn’t been a day since I met Michelle when her beauty hasn’t amazed me. But she is never more gorgeous than in that hour before she wakes, when the nightlong sleep has eased the furrows in her brow and restored the hint of an upturned smile to the edge of her lips.

No matter what crisis we’ve had to deal with, I’ve always taken those few seconds in the morning to remind myself how truly lucky I am.

I smiled at Widgie’s restful beauty then, turned and left the room.

How strange to think this could have been the last time I would ever see her.

 

I dressed warmly while the tea brewed. 1981 had officially entered spring more than six weeks earlier, but Canadian skies are always the last to know.

I crossed to the barn, slid open the big doors, then watched as the grey light illuminated the big pair of biplane wings sitting at a crazy angle on the hay-strewn floor.

As long as the Easy was out of the wind, it was easier to leave it, wingtip-down, on its two-wheeled transporter. Then all I had to do was untie the machine from its concrete anchors, grab a wingtip, and start pushing towards the door.

Out in the muted sunlight, the Easy was a pretty sad-looking flying machine. The winter-long storage had left the wings covered with a light coating of dust, churned up from the floor of the old cow barn. I tried brushing off the worst as I wheeled the winged beast down the laneway to the field, the transporter wheels squeaking and complaining from the heavy load.

As I unstrapped the wings from the transporter, I suddenly became aware of rustling leaves. Glancing up, I was surprised to see the wind was coming from the South West instead of the North.

“Damn. That means I’ll have to come in for a landing over our neighbour’s house,” I thought. Not that the Dalmeir’s would complain, but it was early and I really didn’t want to disturb them with the Easy’s screaming, two-cycle engine.

I decided to stay a little higher than usual for the landing—wait until I was past their house before descending. Once I cut the engine and lowered my legs, the Easy would come down fairly fast with all that drag.

I strapped on my harness, snugged it tight, then checked that the Easy was ready for flight.

As I reached for the starter cord, I reminded myself to be especially careful this morning. Though I already had 78 “Easy” ascents in my log book, this would be my first flight of the year. And it would be a while before flying this machine felt normal again … if flying this crazy contraption could ever remotely approach “normal.”

And that, in a nutshell, was the problem.

After all, the last entry in my logbook, from my final flight the previous fall, clearly stated, “Get rid of this thing before it kills you.”

But over the winter I couldn’t remember what I had found so awful. So I knew I’d have to fly at least one more time to make up my mind.

At least, I thought I did …

I stared indecisively at the Easy for a few more moments before the voice inside said:

“Enough. Commit to the flight or go back home. I don’t care which, just make up your mind.”

I thought of Widgie lying peacefully in our warm bed and almost decided to forget it. But I had to know if I was going to keep this thing, and the only way to find that out was to fly.

“Yup. That’s what I have to do,” I thought. “So, let’s go.”

I pulled sharply on the starter cord and the engine burst to life on the first try.

Stepping between the wings, I crouched down and turned the mixture wheel until the engine went from an uneven lurch to its familiar low scream.

I fastened my helmet strap, clicked the harness into the overhead attach points, then pulled out a long cord next to the throttle. I put the “kill switch” in my mouth, then bit down firmly. I turned the three-way magneto lever from “on” to “kill,” then eased up on my jaw pressure to make sure the engine would quit if needed. The engine blipped nicely then settled back to its scream as I bit down hard again.

The time had come to fly, and though I was excited as always about leaving the ground, the voice in the back of my head was clearly saying, “God, I hate this thing.”

Enough.

Commit.

Right then …

My hand reached for the tiny throttle and slowly pushed it open.

The engine’s scream built rapidly to its banshee howl and I only needed to adjust the mixture wheel about a quarter turn before it smoothed into its 12,000 rpm maximum.

The front spar of the Easy was still resting on the ground, which meant the bird wasn’t going anywhere until I picked it up and raised the nose.

This transition—from crouching to standing—was always tricky. Not only did I have to lift the wings evenly, I also had to lean against the thrust so the engine wouldn’t drive me into the ground.

I stood, leaned hard, felt the rear spar press against the small of my back, then let the nose raise just a hair above the horizon.

That’s what I wanted. Everything was where it’s supposed to be. But you can only keep this perfect balance for a few seconds, so one last check then off you go.

Quickly then.

Eyes to the Exhaust Gas Temperature Gauge—in the green.

Eyes to the three way switch—on “Kill.”

Eyes to the windsock—wind is on the nose.

… I feel the left wing try to settle.

Can’t wait any longer.

Must do it now.

COMMIT!

I stop straining against the engine and allow the thrust to start moving me forward.

This first moment is always a crucial one. Move too slowly, the leading edge will rise too high to gather speed, and I’ll mush along till I trip and thump into the ground. Move too fast and the engine will push me down into the dirt before the wings have time to develop lift. It’s a very fine balance, these first moments, but as I let the engine do the work and slowly lower the front of the wing I can feel the air begin to take its share of the load.

My mind works hard, processing the progress of the take off, as I transition from a fast walk to a slow run. Okay. Everything still feels good. The wings are level, the nose angle looks right and the engine sounds strong.

I want to double check the exhaust temperature to make sure the engine is running as it should, but several bad falls and more than one set of scuffed knees have taught me to concentrate on my wings at this point in the take off.

The Easy is accelerating faster now. Both hang tubes are resting beneath my armpits and though I’m still holding up the wings, I can feel them getting lighter with every step.

Going faster now—much faster. And I get the same feeling I have every time I hit this moment: “I’m running as fast as I can but I’m not flying yet so I have to run faster but how can I run faster when I’m running as fast as I can?”

I’m trying to force my legs to move just a little quicker when I feel my toe stub the ground, and—DAMN—my body pitches forward as I start to stumble.

I watch the ground rise up and brace for the impact … but as my legs go out from under me, the wings grab air and I find myself falling up … into the sky.

 

MAGIC!

 

The Easy lifts me skywards and I watch with a mixture of awe and terror as I soar over the uppermost limbs of our farm’s tallest tree.

My God, this is incredible.

This … this is real flying.

There is no proper way to express what an extraordinary sensation it is to run along the ground on your own two legs then suddenly feel yourself lifted free, up into the sky.

Talk about defying gravity.

This must truly be how a bird feels.

The rush of the moment makes me forget that the hardest part of my flight is still to come. But as I look down the length of my body and watch the land slide by beneath my feet, the upward tug of the leading edge reminds me that it’s time to swing up my feet.

And, God, how I hate this.

I’m still hanging by my armpits—dangling from a pair of parallel bars several hundred feet over nothing but air. Until I can swing my legs up onto the front spar and get the machine balanced, the Easy is far too tail heavy—and my arm muscles tremble from the effort of holding down the nose.

As I get ready to swing up my legs, I remember how I almost lost control of the beast the first time I tried a stall … which reminds me why I was going to get rid of this thing.

Enough talk.

COMMIT!

I make sure the hang bars are securely under my armpits, then prepare to swing my legs up onto the front spar.

The Easy twitches nervously as I shift my weight back … then forwards … and my heart is in my mouth when it seems my feet won’t swing high enough.

I strain to pull them higher … then watch … to see … if …

YES!

My right heel catches the head of the centre section attach bolt, which gives me just enough purchase to pull my left foot up into place.

 

God, that was close.

 

I hang there—by my armpits and heels—waiting for the Easy (and my heart) to settle down before reaching up to adjust the harness straps.

I touch the right strap, go to snug it—then check.

To snug or not to snug—now there is a question.

If I pull the straps tight enough to take my weight, the Easy is a lot simpler to control. But as there’s no way to loosen the straps—short of completely unhooking the harness—when the time comes to swing my legs back down I’ll end up dangling about a foot above the hang bars.

I came close to crashing the first time I tried landing like that and while it’s damn near mandatory to snug the straps for any long flight, all I want this morning is one quick circuit while I decide whether to keep or sell my wings.

I opt to leave the straps where they are, then concentrate on getting this flight over with, because—God, this thing is a death trap.

 

And as that thought pops into my terrified mind, I realize I have my answer.

 

From the day I first flew, I’ve wanted to know what it was like to fly like a bird—but I’ve done that now.

And while I’m glad—very glad—to have had this extraordinary experience, I’m more than aware of the tremendous sense of relief I feel at the end of every flight.

Let’s face it—hanging by your armpits and heels a thousand feet above the ground can only be described as terrifying.

It’s great that I’ve faced my lifelong fear of heights, but I have to realize—I haven’t beaten it. In truth, I am now more petrified than ever. And I can’t imagine a day when flying like this will ever seem anything but deadly.

So as I bank over our house, look down and think of The Widge sleeping peacefully below, I realize the Easy has given me what I needed—but now it’s time for my wings to go.

I’m glad the verdict has been reached and decide to enjoy, what I now know will be, my last flight in this machine.

(And how prophetic a thought that was.)

I bank the Easy through a few mild turns—let it climb a little higher for one last panoramic view, then turn until I’m pointed into the wind and have my field nicely lined up, ahead and below.

I remember to stay high, so as not to disturb the neighbours—let the Easy come down till the altimeter reads 600 feet AGL, then level off and keep it right there.

Good—that should do it.

Okay—time to “lower the landing gear.” I grin at the thought of my legs as “landing gear,” let my armpits take the weight of my body, then hike my feet up into the air and prepare to lower the nose as my weight comes back.

My feet swing up, then swing down—but though my left foot drops freely, I’m horrified to see the heel of my right boot catch on the head of that same centre-section bolt.

I immediately realize I am in serious trouble.

My left leg has swung down below me but my right foot is still hung up on the spar. And with my weight shifting all over the place, the Easy is twitching in a terrifyingly erratic manner.

“YOU MUST GET YOUR RIGHT LEG DOWN,” my brain screams out.

“I KNOW,” I answer.

I put every ounce of weight I can stand on my armpits, force my right foot into the air then watch in relief as my leg swings down and back.

For half a second, my brain screams out, “SAFE!”

But the momentum of my legs continues to swing them backwards—and the farther back my weight moves, the higher the nose gets …

And I suddenly realize what is about to happen.

The nose goes as high as it’s going … and in that moment I feel one of the most sickening sensations of my entire life.

For the Easy simply stops flying … and falls.

 

NO!

 

It is an appalling sensation. One moment, the wings are holding me, the next moment, I am holding them. Except these are no longer wings, they are four slabs on concrete intent on pulling me down through the sky and smashing me to bits on the ground below.

“DON’T PANIC. ALL YOU’VE DONE IS STALL,” says the voice inside.

“I KNOW,” I scream back.

“OKAY. THEN JUST PUT THE NOSE DOWN, LET THE SPEED BUILD UP AND—”

“SHUT UP,” I cry. “I KNOW WHAT TO DO.”

The part of me that’s been flying for fourteen years does calmly let the nose fall until the airspeed’s moving again, then waits patiently until the time has come to pull out of the shallow dive.

So all I have to do now is just lean back and …

The Easy gives a shudder—the same strange, horrible shudder I felt the first time I stalled.

But this time, the shudder doesn’t go away.

This time the Easy majestically pitches over—into a perfectly smooth, vertical dive.

And as it does, time begins to slow.

 
“CHRIST! WHAT’S HAPPENING?”

“I DON’T KNOW.”

“WHAT THE HELL IS IT DOING?”

“I DON’T KNOW.”

“WHY WON’T IT COME OUT OF THE DIVE?”

“I DON’T KNOW.”

“SPIT OUT THE KILL SWITCH.”

Right. Yes. That’s the thing to do. That will kill the engine and—

“NO, WAIT!”

“WHAT?”

“DON’T DO IT. LOOK AT THE AIRSPEED.”

The airspeed is pegged at its top end. There is no question I’ve already gone past the wings’ “never exceed” speed.

“YOU CAN’T KILL THE ENGINE. IF YOU DO, THE SUDDEN PITCH-UP WILL BE SO VIOLENT IT’LL TEAR THIS THING IN TWO. YOU HAVE TO LEAVE THE ENGINE RUNNING SO IT CAN PUSH YOU OUT OF THE DIVE.”

Does that make sense? How can that make sense? It’s the engine that’s driving me towards the ground. But as the memory of the violent pitch-ups I’d experienced at lower air speeds flood into my mind, I realize the Easy will disintegrate if I kill the engine now.

No. Concentrate on getting out of this dive. That’s the only answer.

“I KNOW THAT, BUT IT WON’T COME OUT.”

“GET YOUR WEIGHT FARTHER BACK.”

“I’M BACK AS FAR AS I CAN GO. THE REAR SPAR’S DIGGING INTO ME.”

“TRY TURNING THE TWIST GRIPS.”

I turn the grip and see the ground below rotate through 90 degrees.

“NO GOOD. IT’S STILL GOING DOWN.”

“WELL WHAT THEN?”

Yes. What else can I try? What else can I do ……. ?

As I desperately search for that answer, my eyes flash to the ground racing up so fast—and yet so slow—and I suddenly come to the horrific realization that I am now too low to pull out.

At the speed I’m going, even if the Easy starts to recover immediately, there won’t be enough height to pull out.

So, the answer to my question is … there is nothing else I can do.

Which means …

 

I am about to die.

 

“What?” I gasp in horror. “I’m going to die?”

“Yes. I’m afraid there’s no way out,” says the voice within.

My mind races through one last desperate assessment of the situation then realizes I am absolutely right.

 

There is nothing left to try.

 

So, a few seconds from now … I will be dead.

 

To be continued in Episode 2 of “Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.”

 

About the Author

Glenn Norman  is a Co-Founder and the Editor of Why Fly. Learn more.

2 Comments

  1. Glenn,
    Excellent “beginning”… I’m looking forward to sharing a very similar ultralight “incident” with you that took place in May 1982.

  2. What a great piece of writing! I was with you all the white knuckled way. I know you came out of it “safely” cause you’re still here but it must be acknowledged that you really stuck your neck out just as I did flying a Tiger Moth without any previous training. Please continue with the story!

Leave a Reply