On the 8th of April, 2019, a light sport aircraft crashed at Santa Fe Airport. It had been flying touch-and-goes. The two persons aboard were killed. One of them was my first flight instructor, Larry Haight.
Image from the Santa Fe New Mexican
This isn't a request for sympathy. Despite spending lots – and lots – of hours rubbing shoulders with him in a 172, I never really knew Larry well.
I am sad that he's gone. I do still have a bit of the acid despair that welled up when I read the first news of the crash and realized I might know one of the souls on board. But the people who need sympathy are his closest friends and associates.
Instead, this is an expression of gratitude. Well into my thirties, the idea that I could become a private pilot was just an idle dream. Larry helped make that dream a reality for me, just as he did for a lot of other people.
Over the course of my training, I think I tried Larry's patience. It took me forever to climb the flying proficiency curve. I still remember his tight smile masking mild irritation, and his reedy voice explaining what I was doing wrong and how I could do it better.
But, mainly, I remember some wonderful experiences.
My first training flight was with Larry. Nearly twenty years I still have clear memories of that ride.
It was a typical northern New Mexico morning, with bright blue sky, tan earth, and little wind. If you've ever taken a "discovery" flight, you can guess why the whole experience was exhilarating: the student flies the plane, from the start of the takeoff roll right through to landing.
After we took off we headed out to one of the two practice areas used for flight instruction at Santa Fe airport. Once there, Larry started showing me how to perform basic flight maneuvers. He explained how to do clearing turns, and how to execute a 90-degree turn without looking at the instruments. He gave me a couple of easy challenges. ("Which direction do you think the airport is from here?" When you have the Sandias and the Sangres for landmarks, it isn't hard to guess.) And then we headed back.
The most vivid memory of that first flight is the first approach to landing. Descent in a small airplane is a lot different than in an airliner. There's a big windscreen in front of you, and as you pitch slightly down toward the runway, your field of view fills with Mother Earth.
Night Cross Country
Larry guided me through my first night cross-country. It was a crystal clear, black winter night. We lifted off from SAF, and as soon as we left the pattern I could see the airport beacon of Moriarty, more than 40 miles away.
We flew down to Belen, south of Albuquerque. I have a vague memory of Larry recommending to make a low pass before night landings at small airports, to scare livestock off the runway.
Returning north from Belen, we flew to Albuquerque Sunport. This was my first time operating in Class C airspace. We were arriving late at night, and that was intentional: things were a lot less busy than during the day.
Earlier I had learned how hard it could be to spot an airport among the lights of a city. But the Sunport, with its approach lights flashing in a sequence towards the runway, was as easy to pick out as a Las Vegas hotel.
Cross Country to Las Vegas (New Mexico)
Larry was there for my first long day cross-country, to Santa Rosa, then Las Vegas, then back to SAF. I was so amped up from the flight into Santa Rosa that I was visibly buzzing as we walked into the FBO shack. The man behind the desk looked at me with a worried frown and said, "Son, calm down."
Larry wasn't so concerned as he was amused. By now he was used to his high-strung student.
The real treat on that flight was the second leg. Climbing out of Santa Rosa north-northwest toward Las Vegas, the air was so clear that we could make out remnants of a ghost town on the high desert floor. It lay at the base of an impressively high plateau, directly ahead of us. Beyond stood the eastern slopes of the Sangre de Cristos, capped in brilliant white snow beneath a deep blue sky.
I also remember a day that seemed a long time coming: the morning when we taxied in from touch-and-goes, pulled off to the side of the taxiway and stopped, engine still running. Larry climbed out and sent me off on my first solo.
My favorite ride with Larry came after I got my license. Shortly after I'd completed my check ride he made an offer that he extended to all of his students who became pilots: an aerobatic flight in his Decathlon. He said he didn't get too many takers, but I wasn't going to miss this.
What a fun day that was. A parachute! I'd never had to wear one of those before (or since). And I wasn't a passenger. He was letting me fly a taildragger – his taildragger – from the front seat.
We went out over Cochiti Lake and executed steep turns, wingovers, a spin. He talked me through how to perform a loop, emphasizing the need for light pressure on the stick when leveling off. The whole time I was thinking of a book my dad had bought me when I was a kid, with its reproductions of WW I training illustrations.
From "Aircraft: Fighters and Bombers in Action" by Christopher Chant
"I can pretty much guarantee you'll stall out of the bottom," said Larry. He was describing an accelerated stall, caused by pulling too hard on the stick, to a high angle of attack. "Almost everybody does."
He was right.
It was all exciting and fun, and not nauseating as I had expected. The one maneuver that made me queasy was what had sounded like the gentlest of them all: a slow roll. As we went inverted and hung upside down for just a moment, -1G brought on a sudden clammy feeling.
Before the flight Larry had encouraged me to tell him if I started feeling ill. We'd call it quits at that point. This was good for both of us: for me, no shame in tapping out, and for him, no need to hose down the plane. "OK," I said into the intercomm, "now I feel sick."
We turned back to the airport. My only regret from that flight was that I didn't quite believe him when he offered to let me land his taildragger. As it was, I had fun following through on the pedals as we touched down and slowed, Larry making continuous rudder adjustments, first left and then right, keeping us from whipping around in a ground loop.
I had several fun flying experiences with Larry, and I was just one student. Given the lot of us, he must have had a whole lot of adventures.
I did get to hear about one that took place not long after I got my license, in the plane I'd used to finish my check ride: N75616, a Cessna 172N.
In addition to being a flight instructor, Larry was an A&P mechanic. He helped maintain all of Zia Aviation's aircraft. If I remember correctly, Larry said that not long before this particular event he had done some engine maintenance on ‘616.
Larry was flying with a student near the southeast practice area when the engine started running rough. Then it started losing power. They turned back toward the airport, but it soon became clear that they would be landing a few miles short.
Larry called out a mayday. He and his student quickly picked out a place to land. Once his student had established a stable approach, Larry got back on the radio to detail their location. Then he returned his attention to the off-field landing.
I wish I could remember his account verbatim. It went something like this. "When I got done with the radio, I looked out the windscreen and realized my student didn't have things quite as much under control as I'd thought. We were headed for some rough ground." Larry took the controls and did his best to salvage the landing. But they hit a ditch. The nose gear came off. As the plane slowed almost to a stop its nose caught, and it flipped up, leaving Larry and his student hanging in their straps.
The accident report said the magneto driveshaft oil seal had failed, flooding the magneto with oil.
One day, well after I had earned my license, and after I'd gone all-in and bought my own plane, I walked into the FBO. There, elbows resting on the front desk, was Carter Dubois, the aircraft broker who had sold me the Viking. Larry was there, too, standing behind the counter. Each was wearing an ace bandage, Carter's around his elbow and Larry's around his wrist.
I asked what had happened. Their stories were similar, starting with a mundane activity and ending with a bad sprain. Larry paused after his tale, looking thoughtful. Then he said, "If you're over fifty and it isn't hurting, it probably isn't working right."
I'm 54 now. It turns out he was serious.
And So It Goes
The last time I saw Larry was a little over a year ago, when I took my god-daughter Aiga for her own first discovery flight. We rode with another instructor, but Larry was there. Bobi – Aiga's mom – and I got to chat with him. He was nearly as quiet as ever, but business was good, he was flying all the time, and he was happy and smiling.
The Santa Fe New Mexican recently interviewed a woman who was well known in the community. She was dying of cancer. They quoted her as saying, "It isn't easy coming into the world, and it isn't easy going out."
If a baby's first cries are any indication, coming into the world is indeed painful. It's a kind of grace that we don't remember our births.
I hope the same is true of death, that there is no shame in crying out when there is pain and that – whatever happens next – we lose the memory of the experience.
And I hope, stupidly but sincerely, that on Monday Larry and his fellow pilot hit hard and with little warning. I hope they were gone with no time for regrets or pain.
Larry was an experienced, skillful pilot. He logged more than 10,000 hours in his 72 years. He spent many of those years helping others discover the challenges and joys of flight. Like many others, I will long be grateful that he did.