Sunday, April 20, 2014
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Out & About • Patrick Lacombe | Flying solo

Man has always looked to the sky and wondered what it would be like to soar with the birds. I was 14 years old when I flew for the first time. I was a member of the Civil Air Patrol and our Officer in charge arranged a flight in a small four seat Cessna for those of us who had never flown. I didn’t know what to expect, and as we lifted off I became a little queasy. It was warm in the cabin until we reached an altitude of 2000 ft. I then began to settle down and enjoy the flight. It lasted twenty minutes and when we touched down, I couldn’t wait to fly again.
After I joined the Army, I flew to and from training, then across the Atlantic to my duty station in Germany and back. By then I was getting used to flying and never gave it another thought. I dreamed of taking flying lessons for years, but never could afford it and even if I did, I did not own a plane nor could I afford one. Then in 1986, I was introduced to the world of “Ultralight aircraft.”
My neighbor Bill, owned an ultralight. For those of you who aren’t familiar with ultralights, They are basically a lawn chair with wings and a motor. Bill had a nice one with an enclosed cockpit and double fabric wings.  He invited me to fly with him the following Saturday, so we went to a small grass strip where he kept his plane. He took me up and we flew around for about an hour before landing back at the strip. I fell in love with the idea of owning my own plane that was easy to maintain and cheap to run. I took lessons and got my certification to fly ultralights.


I then found an old plane for sale nearby and went to look at it. It had sat idle for two years in the owner’s barn and needed a little work, but the price was right and Bill said the repairs would cost less than a hundred dollars. I paid the man and we folded the wings and put it on a trailer for the short ride home. Over the course of the next two weeks, we took the small engine apart, cleaned it and adjusted the carburetor, put it back together and she was ready to fly. The wind was blowing hard that day so I decided to wait until the next morning to take her up.
We arrived at the small strip at seven, we did the preflight, and then I started it up. Ultralight planes use the same engines found on snowmobiles. They are small, powerful and loud. I taxied to the end of the strip, gave it full throttle and about a hundred feet later I was airborne. I circled the field twice and noticed a sputter in the engine, so I made my approach over a crawfish pond at one end of the runway. I was about twenty-five feet off the ground when the engine wheezed and died. My instructor had trained me in this very thing so I gently pushed the stick forward to keep up airspeed and I cleared the crawfish pond levee by about six feet and made a perfect landing. We took the plane to the shop and quickly found the problem, a clogged fuel line. Bill took it off and cleaned it out and my little plane fired back up.
The following Saturday, Bill and I went flying and we leveled off at 1500 feet. We had flown maybe ten miles when I heard a loud “zing!” I looked back to see my prop had quit turning. Turns out that the only part we failed to inspect was the prop bearing and it had frozen due to lack of lubrication. I shut the engine off and thought about my training. I circled around and around losing altitude and picked a spot in a sugarcane field to land. It was a short turn row but it seemed long enough to land. In the meantime, Bill circled back following me down. This was my first solo flight from that altitude. I overshot the edge of the turn row by about 20 yards, and the end of the row was coming up fast. To my horror, I saw a six-foot deep irrigation ditch ahead of me. My plane made it about half way across and it nosed into the opposite bank and crashed into the ditch. The little plane collapsed on top of me as it fell into the ditch with me still strapped into the seat. I quickly checked myself to see if I still had all my limbs, then unbuckled my safety straps and climbed out of the ditch. Bill made a safe landing and ran over to see if I was okay. I had one small cut on my forearm. I was shook up but considered myself blessed. From that day on, when I traveled long distances, I took the train.
God bless and have a great week!