Preflight

Noon on a clear winter Sunday in New England. The air is brilliant with sunshine.  I walk out across the ramp towards the lady’s quarters in a corner of the airport, close to the business end of runway 05. A white-blue Pitts taxies into position with nonchalant speed, smoothly accelerating to full power, the engine roaring hungrily. I fix my eyes on her takeoff roll and yes, the pilot continues to pick up speed in ground effect, cruising down the runway at two feet, before suddenly pulling up into a steep, left-turning climb. I bet the tower enjoys the show. They often ask me whether I’d like a short approach.

I delight in the moment, my senses heightened by equal parts giddy anticipation and cool focus. Stepping into the hangar, the beautiful bird awaits me, plugged in, her engine nice and warm, a heavy blanket covering the cowling. I push her out and the bright light catches on her colorful fabric, blue and yellow with a star burst pattern on the wings and vertical stabilizer. Looking around, it’s quiet and peaceful, just me and N821EF, my foxy lady, a 2008 Super Decathlon.

She lured me with her siren call the day I visited my flight school for the first time. Sitting on the ramp amidst a bunch of Cessna 172s like a parrot among doves. Oh, what’s this airplane, I asked my future aerobatic instructor, who gave me a tour. Our aerobatic plane, he replied, I can teach you aerobatics in it. Nonsense, I thought, who does that? You just wait, the whispering wind replied, you’re in for it, you’ve already been seduced and there’s no way back. Real pilots fly taildraggers upside down.

The preflight, a ritual with deliberate pedantism, provides its own appeal. On the walk-around, I carefully examine the fabric skin for stress wrinkles, taking in the detail and the overall picture. Frowning, I touch a big dent in the right aileron. Baby! Who pushed you into the hangar not watching over your beautiful wings, so strong, yet so delicate. When I finally strap on the the parachute, swing myself into the front seat and tighten, really tighten the five-point harness, my heart rate picks up. Boy, am I ready to fly.

I look at the Arresti sequence card on the dashboard, rehearsing my plan for the day. Start with many slow rolls, left and right, warm up your feet on the rudder, fix your eyes on the majestic blue and grey horizon, pick your aiming point and roll around it. Wake up your visual referencing. Do some loops and half-cubans. Focus on hammerheads. Always so negative on the vertical upline. Get through the first half of the 2012 Sportsman sequence. Not particularly partial to them in high school, I discovered that gymnastics become a whole different ball game if played at 3,500 feet and 140 kts.

The lush growl of the 180hp, Lycoming AEIO-360-H1B engine coming to life is my Pavlovian cue for full-focus flying mode. Nothing else matters as I get the ATIS and taxi towards the active. To be honest, I’m generally not good at being alone, by myself. Unless I’m sitting in an airplane.