I never was much good at physics, so I've always considered an airplane in flight akin to a miracle.
The folks at the Lawrence Municipal Airport, however, assure me that it is not. Nelson Krueger — who has flown everything from 747s to the old two-seater, tail-dragging machines that sound more like a tractor than an aircraft — can go into great detail about forces such as gravity, lift, thrust, drag and other things that I can only assume have something to do with Newton and his apple.
Those forces are technically what make an airplane fly. But personally, I think a pilot comes in handy too. And when it comes to making a pilot, I found that there is a force required that isn't described in a physics book.
"It takes a lot of trust," said Krueger, who has been a longtime instructor for Lawrence-based Hetrick Air Services. "That pilot has to trust that when I say he is ready to go fly solo, that he really is."
There are two numbers that stick with me from the scenario of a pilot-trainee going up for his or her first solo flight: 10 and 2,000. Ten is the approximate number of hours a rookie pilot will have spent at the controls before he takes his first solo flight. Two thousand is the approximate number of feet he'll be in the air.
Unless you are a pilot, you don't know what it feels like to have your instructor take you by the arm and say it is time to fly alone. But you might be able to imagine.
"At first, it is like 'Oh boy,'" said Lawrence resident Scott Randall, who took instructions from Krueger eight years ago.
But then something happens. You start doing what you are trained to do, Randall said. An instinct, even if it is a young one, starts to kick in.
"I remember taking off and still being nervous," Randall said of his first solo flight. "But I also remember that Nelson was wearing a red shirt that day. A few minutes into the flight, I looked down and saw this red dot standing by the runway. That's when it hit me that I'm really doing this."
It hits people all the time at the Lawrence Municipal Airport. With some training and some trust, they can fly.
I don't know. I'm still leaning toward miracle.
All pilots remember the instructor who took their arm and sent them on their way. For Krueger, it was a steady pilot in a little Hays airport. His name was Kenny Woodruff, but Krueger simply called him "Pappy." And Woodruff called him "Pup."
Krueger, 66, began taking lessons at 14. Pappy and Pup would fly over Krueger's home, and his mother would come to the yard and wave a white dish towel to catch her son's attention. It may as well have been a surrender flag. Surely she had given up any thoughts of her son becoming anything other than a pilot.
"It has been a life of gold for me," Krueger said. "I can't get loose from it, and I don't want to. I bet I'm at this airport 300 days a year."
In that time, he's learned more than just how to take off and land. It is odd, he said, but going several hundred miles an hour in an aircraft is a great way to learn how to go slow.
"Nothing needs to be done quickly up here," Krueger said. "I tell my students that if you go slow, you get yourself in trouble slower."
And really, why would you want to do anything too quickly up here? Many pilots will tell you that the greatest joy of flying is taking the time to savor all the things you can do up here that you can't do down there.
"You get the big picture up there," Randall said. "Sometimes you will be flying over Lawrence, and then 15 minutes later you'll be driving on one of the city streets you just flew over. Then it hits you that there are 60,000 to 70,000 people down here and there are only a couple up there. It is a neat feeling."
Krueger said it has been his experience that some people will spend the $7,500 or so on flight lessons for practical reasons. It will make for a shorter trip to their cabin in the Ozarks or a quicker business trip, or whatever. But most people, he said, do it for the emotional reasons.
"The airplane can take you to places that others can only dream of," Krueger said.
There is a lot to remember when landing an aircraft. You have to fly into the wind to slow down your speed. Reduce that throttle to about 80 knots, or a mere 90 miles an hour or so. At about a half mile from the runway, you need to be at about 400 feet in the air and dropping. By the way, you also ought to check and make sure you are lined up with the runway. Hopefully, you've done that by the time you are at about 50 feet out from the landing strip. At that point, you've descended quite a bit. You should be locked into what pilots call "the slot," the proper angle of descent and glide path. It is time to execute the critical movement, the "flare," where you descend to a mere five feet above the ground. And then you must do what really can't be taught in a textbook, but rather only through experience: Pull back on the control wheel with just the right amount of force at the right moment in time so that you land, but not with a thud.
This is where the inner voices that constantly travel with a pilot are likely to speak up. They're apt to say any number of things. Krueger's frequently talks about a bird. Hold the control wheel like a young bird — firm enough that it won't fly away but gentle enough that you don't crush it.
The voices vary from pilot to pilot, but they all come from the same place: That person who once took you by the arm and said he trusted you. And you got in a plane by yourself and proved that you trusted that person.
And you still do. Krueger, you see, has never really flown alone. And he's flown a lot: About 600 crossings of the North Atlantic and about 100 crossings of the Pacific. That's a lot of landings, but every single one of them has come with Kenny Woodruff's voice talking to Krueger. Pappy telling Krueger to "pull it back, pull it back" at just the right moment before touchdown.
And Randall hears Krueger's voice on every flight too, so in a sense, Pappy speaks to him as well.
Think about that for a moment: Pappy — a man who departed this Earth years ago — still flies its skies nearly every day.
See, I told you it was a miracle.
— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at firstname.lastname@example.org.