A Year with the Tiger

Five years ago tomorrow I had my first flying lesson. In the four years following, I had a grand total of 120 hours in my logbook, and half of them were the first year. For those of you who might be wondering, that’s really not a lot. It wasn’t exactly by choice- given the opportunity I’d rather be in the air. But having no place to go and no airplane of my own (not one that was fully assembled, anyway), I rarely took the time to strap on some wings and start an engine.

Then something happened last fall. I had a meeting I needed to attend in Tennessee with our company president. Because the commute in a Cessna is infinitely more fun than the commute in a Ford Escape, I decided to take a club plane over the hills to the meeting.

He met me at the airport. Maybe it was my cool Top Gun glasses, or maybe just my inability to contain my smile over what I’d just done. Maybe it was the noticeably short travel time from North Carolina that day, but something made him ask, “If we got a plane for the company to use, could you fly it?”

In my grand eloquence I responded, “yup.”

We spent the next few weeks trying to figure out what airplane to get. I knew enough to define the “mission” first. What’s the mission? Fly a couple of us executives to our many meetings and maybe have a little fun while we’re at it with safety and flexibility at the top of the list. Sounds like it should make the choice easy, right?

I wanted a Cirrus. One afternoon I had picked one out in Michigan. A beautiful metallic blue 2015 SR22 Turbo with a Black Leather interior. I started to make arrangements to go out and look at it.

Later that evening Mr President sends me a text message with a link to a listing for a twin engine, pressurized Baron. A twin engine pressurized Baron that was painted like a bengal tiger.

“Haha, pretty neat. Can you even imagine taking that crazy thing places?” I replied.

“I want this one,” was his reply.

I wanted a newish Cirrus, something a 120 hour VFR pilot could actually fly and he wanted a turbo pressurized twin painted like a bengal tiger.

I lost.

We set out to try and acquire the Tiger Baron. The first time I saw it was the day after last Christmas. It was half assembled in the middle of an annual inspection out in Petaluma California. Not a terrible mess, but it hadn’t flown much in the previous 10 years. This is a problem for mechanical things. Some use actually keeps them in better condition than just sitting outside.

If you’ve ever bought a plane before you know what the next step is. Some sort of buying process drama. It’s the same for boats and houses. It took months but eventually we got the “keys” to the Tiger.

I had recruited a local flight instructor, Dr Bill, to help me ferry it home. Dr Bill is a royal pain in the ass kind of instructor, the kind you need to keep yourself from dying while learning to fly a multi-engined airplane. Bill is gentle man with a handlebar mustache, leather boots, and more personality than fits in your average hangar. He was certainly not shy about making his students do it the right way. Every time. No exceptions.

I’ll admit, the airplane scared me in the beginning. It’s heavy, and fast. It’s powerful to a fault and will do its best get away from you if you let it. Landings are the hardest part of all flights and the one you’re judged on by your passengers. I was too fast or too slow and just couldn’t grasp the 120 knot approach speed. Twice as fast as I was used to. I felt like I was trying to ride an elephant covered in butter that had just seen a mouse.

Is that elephant and mouse thing even a thing? Whatever.

I managed my instrument rating in April and went to Baron school the same month. If you’ve never attended, Baron school is where they put you in a simulator and invent new ways to kill you in it. It’s a blast. Remember that Miracle on the Hudson flight where Sully put the Airbus down the Hudson River? Yeah, we simulated that in a Baron.

Dr Bill and I kept at it. We clashed sometimes, and worked together well others. It was challenging for me and he knew it. He never let up, and never ever let me get away with anything but perfect.

At some point around the 25 hour mark, flying the Baron just clicked. I realized that more or less an airplane is an airplane and I should just fly the thing and stop being so overwhelmed by it. I wish I could tell you what triggered that, but one day I was wrestling it, and the next it all just came together. It’s as close to an epiphany as I can remember having in a long time.

After that I started to appreciate it for the opportunity to man such an incredible machine that it is.

One of the insurance requirements was that I log 100 hours in the Tiger with someone more experienced than me before I could fly it alone. 100 hours seemed like a lot. Just a reminder: I had been flying 25 hours A YEAR up until then.

Did I mention that the Tiger is FAST? Flying a fast airplane when you’re trying to accumulate fight time in your logbook brings up an interesting problem. It just doesn’t take that long to get anywhere.

I was off in search for ways to accumulate flight time that didn’t involve doing donuts in the sky and it happened that my buddy Greig got his Flight Instructor certificate renewed in August. So while Dr Bill was helping me prep for the multi engine rating, Greig and I went off to some more distant destinations to log some more flight time. We had a blast.

By the time my multi engine test was scheduled, I was very ready. Much more than the average person is before they attempt the test. As for the exam itself, I found it rather easy. I can only credit Dr Bill for this. He is a taskmaster of an instructor and I was WAY over prepared. More than ready. The examiner was relaxed and at times he seemed… well, kinda bored. When you’re doing one of these flight tests, an unexcited examiner is a good thing.

Multi engine rating in hand, I still needed quite a few more hours to get to that magic 100 hour mark. Through a weird set of circumstances, I stumbled into an opportunity that I’ll never forget.

Peter Tippett and I met through a mutual friend. Peter is a bazillion hour pilot and flight instructor. He helped invent the computer antivirus and has a mind that is always going a million miles a minute.

Peter’s Uncle Bob happens to be a WWII B-17 Pilot, and at 98 years old, still attends reunions with his air wing buddies.

In October, we picked up Bob and his Daughter Linda in Battle Creek Michigan and flew them to Colorado Springs for the “Bloody 100th” reunion. Imagine piloting a plane while a 98 year old man sitting in the back tells you stories of his bomber runs over Germany 75 years ago. During periods of turbulence on the flight out there we joked that we were headed through a wall of flack, and he quipped, “I’ll man the waist guns!”.

I spent an entire weekend at the Air Force Academy with a group of Centrenarians who were as spry and lively as they were humble and gracious. I highly recommend spending quality time with people from that greatest generation. And hurry, because the opportunity to do it at all is almost over.

We returned Bob and his daughter safely home and turned the plane towards Peter’s house.

Peter unpacked his things and we said our goodbyes and I left. That ride home was my first 20,000 feet above the ground in the Baron alone. It took 9 months to get to that moment and it felt like a dream.

Since then we’ve been all over the US in it. It took 9 months to get that first 100 hours and now I’ve logged a second 100 hours in just 90 days.

The Tiger Baron attracts attention wherever we go. Tower controllers often assign us an unofficial call sign, “Tiger Baron 8VJ, turn right at Alpha 6. We’ve never seen a paint job quite like that”.

And so my adventures continue. I’m flying often in the flight levels now, in a comfortable pressurized sports car in the sky.

I started the year as a casual 125 hour VFR Pilot and ended is as a 500 hour Multi Engine Instrument Pilot a few weeks away from a commercial rating.

Quite. The. Ride.

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