'Flying Companions' Learn Some Plane Truths

What happens if you're along as a passenger in a small plane and you're needed to do more than enjoy the view? Could you work the radio? Watch for other air traffic? Plot a course? Or, God forbid, get the airplane safely to the ground?

"What if Elvin can't land?" asked Carol Hurst, 52, of Rancho Palos Verdes, who flies regularly with her husband, Elvin, 55. "It is foolish to be involved with something that you don't have control over."

Hurst and about 60 other women gathered last week for a Flying Companions Seminar at North Valley Occupational Center in Van Nuys. The seminar is sponsored twice a year, in April and October, by the San Fernando Valley Chapter of the 99's, a national organization of women pilots devoted to aviation-safety education and the involvement of women in aviation.

Nobel Merriett, 27, of Eagle Rock said she took the all-day class because she found that she was frightened on flights she took with her boyfriend, a newly licensed pilot. Things appeared "surrealistic--everything looked unreal," she said.

Thelma Harbison, 54, of Castaic said she wanted to be "more comfortable and helpful" in the cockpit when flying with her husband, Jim, 56.

Interest in the course, which costs $35, has grown over the years, said Bertie Duffy, its coordinator. Some women even go on to become pilots, as she herself did after taking what she called "a pinch-hitter class like this one." Since then, she has earned her private license, instrument rating and a commercial-pilot certificate.

Among the topics at the seminar were how the rudder and other controls work, how to read aviation charts, when and where to be on the lookout for other air traffic and, most important, how to work the radios in an emergency.

The seminars are supported by the Federal Aviation Administration, which provided some of the instruction materials.

Vince Brophy, an accident-prevention specialist with the FAA in Van Nuys, who has been a seminar instructor in the past, said interest in flight-safety programs has risen since the Cerritos air disaster last August, which claimed 82 lives.

The accident occurred when an Aero-Mexico flight collided with a small plane that had wandered into an area reserved for commercial flights landing at Los Angeles International Airport.

Brophy recommended that flying companions be taught how to fly the airplane on a straight course and at a steady altitude, as well as how to approach a landing field. "If they crash-land the plane level, they stand a better chance," Brophy said.

At the seminar, each student was given a plastic knapsack filled with tip sheets, aviation charts, a course plotter and a flight computer, which is similar to a slide rule and is used to calculate air speeds and expected times of arrival.

Ceci Stratford, a certified flight instructor covering basic aerodynamics for the seminar, explained what makes an airplane fly and what happens to the plane when the engine dies.

"If the engine quits in an airplane, then the plane acts like a glider," Stratford said. "You adjust for the best glide speed and glide the plane down."

During the morning, the class moved out onto the Tarmac for a while. Participants observed a preflight inspection of a small plane, learning what to look for to make sure it is safe to fly, from looking at the level of the fuel tanks to checking all the controls to make sure they move freely and properly.

Student Janet Mayers said such basic instruction helps to quell her "fear of the unknown" every time she flies in a small plane.

The seminar's instructors "talk simply and do not use a lot of airplane-ese," Mayers said. "Pilot talk is too advanced. But listening to the ladies speak here today makes it easier to understand. Woman-to-woman communication is important."

Duffy said most of the instructors are women because it helps destroy the myth that only men become pilots.

According to the latest figures from the FAA, 6% of the country's 700,000 pilots are women.

"It's not that women can't fly," Duffy said. "A lot of women have been convinced by other pilots they can't fly."

On hand at the seminar was a registered nurse, Bunny Newman, who told flying companions they should always check the condition of their pilot. "Are they alert and ready to go?" she asked.

Newman underscored the importance of never drinking before flying and of never using drugs, even nasal decongestants, which may cause drowsiness, or weight-loss pills, which are a stimulant. Any of these could color a pilot's judgment, she said.

If your pilot has even had a bad day, one should seriously think twice about getting into an airplane, Newman said.

Flying companions also were taught about their main line of communication in an emergency: the radio. The frequencies of important ground facilities were given, and it was made clear that frequencies should not be tied up with chatter.

Monie Pease, 44, a former chairwoman of the 99's Valley chapter and an experienced pilot, reviewed survival techniques should the plane be forced to land in rugged territory.

Pease urged flying companions always to take enough supplies to last two people five days in the wilderness. Survival packages can be purchased at most pilot supply stores for about $50, she said.

Pease advised wearing "no high heels or skirts" when flying. "Pants and comfortable shoes are better," she said.

She told the class that one of the simplest things anyone can do is take a plastic garbage bag along. "Most people die in the wilderness because of exposure. With a garbage bag, you can cut out holes for your head and then wear it to protect yourself from the elements," she said.

But many of the women were more concerned about having to make an emergency landing if their pilots become incapacitated.

"If something happened, I'm the one left holding the controls," Thelma Harbison said.

Janet Mayers, echoing Harbison, said she is now considering learning how to land a plane "to keep cool and get us down," although she said she has no interest in becoming a licensed pilot.

As participants picked up their class-completion certificates, student Nobel Merriett said the explanation on turbulence alleviated her fear of bumpy rides. She said she will feel calmer the next time she goes flying because she will know "God is not torturing me."

Another student, Nancy Sarno, 34, of Sherman Oaks said, "I don't know if I'm any less scared, but I am more interested."

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