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Master of the Air
By Charles Swenson
The yellow Beechcraft Bonanza sat alone in the sunshine on the apron in front of its hangar. The pilot opened a small storm window in the cockpit. “Clear!” he shouted. He paused, then turned the ignition switch.
Although he has an instrument panel filled with electronics and an iPad to back it up, Doug Decker still does things the old way. And he does them by the book. “You have to build some discipline,” Decker said.
Last month, he received the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the FAA. It’s the agency’s top award for “professionalism, skill and aviation expertise.” It is given to pilots who have over 50 years of flying experience based on their record and recommendations from their peers. Of more than 3,500 awards that have been issued, only 37 are for pilots in South Carolina. Among those who have received the award are Neil Armstrong and Arnold Palmer.
Decker’s plane rolled to the taxiway at the Georgetown County Airport last week for a flight to Southport, N.C. He was giving a lift to a fellow pilot, Charles Braddock, whose Cessna Skylane was having work done at the Cape Fear Regional Jetport. It’s a two hour trip by car; a little over 40 minutes by plane traveling at 150 knots or a little over 170 mph. But unlike a car trip, the flight isn’t only measured by the time in the air.
Even for the most routine of flights, Decker, 76, started by checking the weather and creating a flight plan. The route up the coast crossed the airspace of Myrtle Beach International and Wilmington International airports so they needed to approve the plan. With a software program Decker keeps on his iPad, it took only a few minutes to file the plan and get approval.
Decker arrived at the airport from his home in Heritage Plantation half an hour before takeoff. The 1996 Bonanza A-36 is stored in one of the airport’s new hangars. It’s the first plane Decker has owned outright. He has chocks on the nose wheel of the tricycle landing gear. “I don’t know why I still do that,” he said.
He connected the front wheel to a machine the size of a small garden tiller that towed the plane onto the apron. It’s easier than pushing the plane, which weighs about 2,200 pounds empty.
Decker walked around the plane to inspect it. He opened the caps on the fuel tanks to make sure he could see the 100-octane fuel. He took a sample from the bottom of each wing tank to make sure there was no water in the fuel. He opened the cowling and checked the oil on the six-cylinder turbocharged Continental engine. He looked around. “You never know,” Decker said. He once had mice nest inside a plane when a passenger left food behind.
With Braddock and another passenger on board, Decker followed a printed checklist with dozens of items from seatbelt adjustments to gauges and instrument lights. He taxied the Bonanza to runway 23, pulling over to allow a larger, twin-engined King Air to takeoff first. Decker wanted to run-up his engine before takeoff.
A few more checklist items completed, Decker pushed the throttle forward. At 75 knots, he pulled back the yoke and the plane was airborne.
“I was an engineering-nerd kind of a kid,” Decker said. He always wanted to fly, but couldn’t afford to. After graduating from the University of Denver with a degree in engineering and business, he went to work in Salt Lake City, Utah, for Johnson Controls. At 24, he started taking lessons at Salt Lake Municipal 2, a former Army air field.
His instructor wasn’t much older than he was. He flew a Cessna 172.
“One day my instructor said, ‘Today is the day you’re going to solo,’ ” Decker recalled. “He stepped out of the plane and said, ‘The plane is yours.’ ”
He made three practice takeoffs and landings. That was Aug. 5, 1964.
“It’s exciting. It’s stimulating. Everyone who’s a pilot can remember it,” Decker said.
He logged some more time with the instructor before making a cross-country flight on his own. It had to be over 200 miles to qualify Decker for a student pilot’s license.
The student license allowed Decker to fly during the day in good weather. He couldn’t take passengers. One day he flew himself on a business trip rather than drive. “That kind of lit me up,” he said.
He earned a private pilot’s license six months later so he could take passengers. That helped in his career as a sales engineer when clients and colleagues found they were saving hours of travel time. Decker joined a flying club that gave him access to a Cessna 182.
“Flying is really simple,” Decker said. The takeoffs and landings are trickier. “You learn it a baby step at a time. I don’t take it for granted.”
He earned an instrument rating, a commercial pilot’s license and a multi-engine rating. “Johnson liked it,” he said. He moved to the corporate headquarters in Wisconsin and the company sent him to get an airline transport pilot license
“It was all about the 727,” Decker said. “I flunked the test the first time I took it.”
But he passed the second time around. There was also an oral exam that involved planning a flight and a flight test where he could only use his instruments. The flight test was in a Bonanza, not a 727. He had been flying nearly 15 years.
“Some people said, ‘Why bother?’” Decker said. “It’s learning, like a Ph.D.”
It took 1,600 hours of flight time to qualify for the transport license. Decker said he has now logged over 3,000 hours.
Not all of those hours were peaceful.
Before moving to the Pawleys Island area, Decker and his wife Judy would fly from Wisconsin to visit her parents in Georgetown. One time they were at 12,500 feet over the controlled airspace around Chicago. The engine in their Bonanza lost power. He radioed the air traffic control that he was in trouble. They gave him directions to a nearby airport.
“I could see Kanakee” just south of Chicago, Decker said. He was already in line with the runway. “I just glided in.”
The engine hadn’t quit, so he taxied off the runway. Judy went to the luggage compartment. She was upset. “You could have killed the cat,” she told Decker.
A mechanic checked the plane and found nothing wrong. They took off and lost power again. Decker discovered that the control that adjusted the pitch of the propeller blade wouldn’t work on automatic. He switched to manual and continued the trip.
Two weeks later someone called from the Federal Aviation Administration. “Do you know how many airplanes we diverted around you?” the caller asked.
The agency looked at his log and suspected Decker had run out of fuel, a pilot error rather than a mechanical problem. The airport and mechanic’s records backed him up.
“I’m safer flying than I am driving to the airport,” Decker said.
On his recent flight to Southport, Decker barely touched the controls. The Bonanza was on autopilot. But he was on the radio with Myrtle Beach and Wilmington, adjusting his altitude and course on their direction. He used the short flight to make sure the navigation system in the plane and the backup system on his iPad were in sync. They get their data from separate GPS and radio systems.
The software on the iPad, called ForeFlight, not only shows his course, but provides weather information along the route and alternative destinations if he can’t reach his intended destination. It also operates independently of the aircraft systems.
While he is enthusiastic about the technology, Decker said it’s also possible to have too many distractions in the cockpit. And he said technology can’t replace sound judgement.
He recalled driving home in a borrowed car from a flight to Camden to have his plane serviced. A line of thunderstorms between Camden and the coast was too dangerous to fly through, he said.
Although he is licensed to fly under all conditions, he won’t take off if he can’t see the airport from an altitude that allows him to circle the field. “Every once in a while, I don’t fly,” he said.
Decker estimates that a third of private pilot accidents come from “get-home-itis.” Another danger is what he calls the “big wallet.” That’s where a pilot can afford a plane that exceeds his skill.
Decker has owned shares of planes, but his A-36 is his alone. Its flight to Southport was the first from the new hangar. It’s equipped with oxygen and a de-icing system. With only 1,300 hours in the air, “it’s like a new plane,” he said.
Decker flies for the Mercy Flight and Angel Flight nonprofit medical services. He is also part of the Young Eagles program that introduces children to fly. The oldest of his two sons started taking the controls of Decker’s plane as a young child, soloed at 16 and is now a commercial pilot for Netjets.
Decker and his wife fly to Fort Myers, Fla., to visit grandchildren. It’s safer than spending 11 hours on the interstate, he said. He’s flown across the U.S. and to the Bahamas. The thrill of seeing the world from the sky hasn’t dimmed. “Look how beautiful it was,” he said after returning from Southport on a day with almost unlimited visibility.
Even as a master pilot, he will continue to learn. “I think it keeps me young,” Decker said.
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