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John D. Odegard

Excerpt from Flight of the Odegard

People will say about Odegard that when he walked into a room he instantly became the dominating presence. In a space as confined as a cockpit, that same mix of reputation and charisma could easily intimidate a student. One former student who knows that first hand is Diane Odegard, who took flying lessons from John and even accumulated some hours.

“He was the teacher, and I did not do well,” she says. “You should never have your husband teach you to fly. We had a little tiff about something after we landed the plane one day, and I didn’t take any more lessons.”

Flying wasn’t really important to her anyway, she says. Not so for Jerry Murray. One day, he took his special closeness with his neighbor a little too lightly. He’d been flying with Odegard and was tasked to land their small plane at Grand Forks Airport.

On another occasion, Odegard took Murray up in a Cessna 150 fitted out with a special airframe so it could withstand aerobatic maneuvers. He performed every twist and loop in the book—literally. They were all tricks he had taught himself as a young man by taking a plane up, strapping a book of maneuvers to his thigh, and following the diagrams as he went through each one.

“It was obvious that flying was the best part of his day,” he says. “He was a completely different person in the cockpit than he was in class or the office. When you fly, you block everything out and concentrate on what you’re doing. You have to. John was at his most serious when he was flying. Complete concentration on what he was doing. He was very proficient at it. He was everything I thought he would be as a pilot.”

In the air, Odegard never stopped being an instructor. Many of his students who’d already earned their pilot’s license and advanced certifications, tell stories of piloting a plane with Odegard. He would take pieces of paper and cover up various dials on the instrument panel. He would then ask a series of rapid fired questions about what actions would be taken if this or that happened.

“He could be disconcerting to fly with,” says Bob Muhs, the former student and now Northwest executive. “It was always a check ride. You didn’t want to screw up. The minute you got in the plane you just had to be ready, because he wanted you to be ready.”

Classic was the time Odegard, Muhs and two other students took a V-tail Bonanza to Denver for a conference. Odegard placed Muhs in the left seat. From the moment they were all aboard, he began asking Muhs questions about the fight plan. “It was just non-stop talking,” says Muhs.

As they approached Denver, Odegard asked Muhs a question about the weight balance in the V-tail—a plane none of the students had flown before: Is the center of gravity going to be aft or forward?

“And I’m thinking,” says Muhs. “I said we’re going to burn aft. Which was right. It was a lucky guess. He said, ‘We’re real heavy, so when you land with an aft center of gravity the plane is going to porpoise to the right. You want to come in a little bit and don’t flare as much as you normally would with less weight.” But as Muhs brought the plane in, he flared normally, “which was much too much, and we did the porpoise to the right and got onto the ground.”

Odegard said, “See? You gotta carry a little more speed and make just a slight correction.”

Three days later when they left Denver, Odegard picked up the instructor’s role again, putting Muhs back into the pilot’s seat. As they taxied onto the runway they fell in behind a 737. “John said, ‘See how when he taxies he does a little sideways kilter there on the taxiway? That means you’re too close.” Muhs nodded and dropped back.

Moments later, as they prepared to take off from the Mile High City, Odegard took Muhs through a density altitude drill, emphasizing the airplane’s weight and their 5,280 feet above sea level. “You’re going to take a lot of runway,” he said.

“So we take off,” says Muhs, “and we get off the ground, but just. We were getting no climb at all. He’s over there in the right seat sucking it up. Finally, we get a positive rate, the gear is up, and we’re just slowly climbing. It takes us forever to get to altitude. We were trying to make it back to Grand Forks non-stop. He says, ‘Do we have enough fuel to make it non-stop? Where would we stop if we needed to get fuel?’”

Muhs thought about it. Odegard said, “Well? Can we make it nonstop or not?” Muhs nodded, “Yeah, we can.” Odegard smiled and Muhs realized once more that he’d given the right answer.

But the lesson wasn’t yet over.

“We were cruising along,” says Muhs, “and Odegard brought up the center of gravity issue again. ‘I want to show you something,’ he said, turning to include those in back. ‘Everyone sit still. Bobby, take your hands off the wheel, foot off the rudder.’”

Muhs did so, noting that the plane didn’t have an auto pilot.

“When I tell you to lean forward,” said Odegard, “lean forward. Okay, lean forward.”

Everybody leaned forward and the plane pitched over in a steep nose down attitude.

“All right,” said Odegard, “everyone lean back.”

They did it, and the plane righted itself. They repeated the exercise several times. Muhs was surprised that they never lost much altitude.

“So now,” said Odegard, “you got the feel of what this plane will do with heavy weight and the airplane burning aft. Remember what happened in Denver. When we land in Grand Forks you now know how sensitive this plane is. You’ve got to have a small input. If you carry a lot of speed and make those small corrections you don’t have to worry about the oscillation. How much speed do you think we need?”

He reminded everyone that the normal approach of 90 knots wouldn’t be enough given the weight-to-CG issue. “You’re going to want to carry about 30 extra knots of speed.”

As they came in, the wind was stiff.

“He’s sitting there,” remembers Muhs, “the classic instructor. So I land. I’m coming in about 125 miles hour, making these small corrections. We land, and of course we’re going fast for a Beech. The runway is going by fast, and we get the brakes on. He says, ‘Yeah! That’s what you need to do!’ And we were done for the day, and I was soaking wet.”

But a more confident soaking wet. As Jerry Murray puts it, “You do gain a lot of confidence in everything you do in life after you’ve learned how to fly. You’ve mastered something very few others do. You learn also that if you’re going to be any good at it you’ve got to be serious about it. John told me, when I started flying jets, you’ve got to start thinking 500 miles an hour. You have to think ahead of the airplane, about how fast you’re moving across the ground. You have to accelerate your thought process. Your judgment and decision making has to be in synch with the plane.”

Much harder, though, was bringing that 500 mile-an-hour thinking into synch with the plane of the earth. Odegard’s expectations for perfectionism on the ground in North Dakota were thought by some to be unreasonable. Yet in his mind he had already achieved it in the air, where perfectionism wasn’t simply possible, it was as important as breathing.
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