Letting go

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My hand fingers the scratch in the fabric under the bottom wing. It feels rough, the paint gone, the fibres exposed. The wind will tear at this…baby’s bruised and will need a patch. The beautiful Pitts biplane, nose raised up prowdly in the manner of the taildragger, gives me an accusing look.

“Wow, was that you in that plane? Did you mean to take off like that?” The plane spotter gives me a wide-eyed look, excited, stupefied. “Yup, that’s how it’s done!” I reply dryly, reaching for my coffee with shaking hands. I take it onto the terrace of the restaurant, overlooking the small airstrip. Impossibly narrow, short and ingeniously located on a plateau with forest on one side. Shifty winds that always cross the runway.

Turning base, I reduce power, point the nose toward the runway and the Pitts drops from the sky like a sewer cap. The wind is screaming, everything is happening way too fast. I foolishly raise the nose and now my field of vision is filled with nothing but engine cowling. Where’s the runway treshold? Spastically, I push the rudder and establish a slip. The ground is rushing up, the sight picture looks completely wrong and, forgetting that you can always go around, I scream at my instructor in the front seat “YOUR CONTROL!” As an answer, he raises his hands and waves them merrily. The pavement meets us angrily and immediately we are deflected back into the air. It feels like trying to land on a trampoline.

“How about we brief this lesson and discuss landing strategies?” “Nah, you’re way too tight…what you need to do is relax and feel the plane.” In the backseat of the Pitts, all I see is a tiny sliver of pavement at the very edge of my strained vision. As we taxi to the end of the runway, I remind myself that the rudder is exquisitely sensitive and that I should do as little as possible with my hands and feet during the ground roll. “I’m calm, how hard can this be” is my last thought before I smoothly apply full throttle.
With a stupendous roar, we surge forward, launched from an invisible catapult. The right edge of the runway is widening in my limited field of vision. While the thought “feet dancing lightly on the rudder” races through my mind, I stomp on it like wishing to squish a bug. The result is instantaneous and could be likened to a maneouver we might call “quarter snap roll before takeoff”. The hangar next to the runway is suddenly looming extremely large in my field of vision before the controls are yanked out of my death grip and we become airborne, lopsided and too slow. Fortunately, the Pitts accelerates valiantly and finally we climb like a homesick angel. I’ve never been so relieved to return to the sky.

Opportunity must meet the right timing. But it’s easier to wait than being presented with a wonderful opportunity at the wrong time, in the wrong place. It’s hard to let go. Deep in my heart, I know this. Deep in my heart, I know the difference between pleasing the ego and pursuing a passion. One day, I will open the hangar and set my eyes on a stubby, tiny toy-plane, red with white stripes. I will push it out into the misty morning, ready to rock and roll the box. My Pitts is waiting for me somewhere, maybe a couple hundred hours of flying experience away.

Letting go is even harder when it comes to people. Some people leave us and rip a hole in our heart that seems to never heal. It’s ok. We let go of our desires, dreams and wishful thinking of the past and return to the present moment. We let go of the illusion that there would ever be enough time when it had already run out long ago. Only love is real. So we hold on to our love and let go.

The learning curve – part II

“Turn off the moving map, your NAV-II radio has failed, take the cross-radial to hold, 2 min turns, and here, your vacuum has failed, I’m going to cover up your attitude and heading indicator.” Under the hood that limits my view to the instrument panel, my brain is breaking into a sweat. Outside it’s getting dark and the little light for the whiskey compass is broken. Every time I need to check it after counting out my timed turns, I hold up a flashlight, frantically computing lead and lag times for my turns. At least, in the falling darkness, winds are calm. I switch radio frequencies and can’t believe the needle is coming in…it seems I’m actually back at my fix.
“You were 20 seconds late.”, the old B-52 navigator in the right seat huffs indignantly. I risk a glance and a half-smile, but quickly look away again. Wow. He seems personally offended by the oaf fumbling around in the left seat. After one and a half hours of demonstrating exactly where my limits are, I land feeling rather defeated. Once clear off the runway, I ask humbly when I may repeat my progress check. To my great surprise, I receive permission to continue on to the next phase of training for my instrument rating. I actually wonder, whether this seasoned aviator just does not want to fly with me again, trusting that my CFI will prevent me from downsizing the flight school’s fleet. Back on the ramp, my torturer swiftly hops out of the plane and disappears into the night, presumably to heed nature’s call.
I tie down the little Cessna and gather my stuff, fumbling around in the pitch-black cockpit with my flashlight. Reflecting on this high-anxiety flight, it finally dawns on me that it was probably not quite as terrible as I made it out to be. Sure enough, in the beginning, I was so nervous, I turned North when I was instructed to fly South. But after that, not once was I off course. And after all, the plane is still intact, ready to fly again. No, thinking about it all, I actually demonstrated that I had learned quite a bit. This makes me think of the young and introverted CFI, who prepared me for this show down with Mr. old grumpy-head. Aloof to the point of abrasiveness and frighteningly intense, it took me a while to understand that behind the rough exterior hides a passionate aviator with unwavering commitment to excellence in flying and teaching. Smiling to myself, I allow a small moment of contentedness and pat the warm engine cowling, before strolling back to the FBO. Like Richard Bach noted, a plane is nothing but a heap of metal, a cold machine. But we both agree, in moments like this, fully aware and calm, one senses the spirit of an airplane. I thank the graceful little Cessna for allowing me to learn the amazing feat of navigating in the clouds. I can’t wait to try my hands on an ILS approach, now that I have some basic idea about instrument flying and holding patterns.

A final scan of the instrument panel, and the approach is briefed. I take a deep breath and relax for a second. With the autopilot in heading mode, I follow radar vectors to join the localizer in due time. Then, I will hand-fly the approach. How much I love to center the needles, keeping them stock-still all the way down the glideslope to the decision altitude. The airplane and I one, acutely aware of every single degree off the course line, every foot of change in altitude and the smallest deviations from airspeed and attitude.
We’re about 10 miles from establishing the final approach course, so for now, I look up from the instrument panel and take in the view. City lights twinkling at dusk with the immense ocean stretching out behind them, dark and calm. Shades of green, blue and grey in soft twilight. The unbearable lightness of being for once quite bearable, actually in tune with the steady hum of the engine. There is a curious, yet faintly familiar sense of belonging. 3000 feet above our beautiful planet, the cockpit has never been cosier and I am free, my soul stretching along the horizon. I feel a hand on my shoulder, a delicate, gentle touch. We grin at each other happily. Before the next radio call, I’m back on scanning the instruments. The focus never broken in a fleeting moment where we were infinite.

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Winter Desert Flying

Fabulous 50’s is an uplifting, gorgeous photo blog and regularly brightens my day. It also inspired me to post more pictures to share the beauty of flying.

I also thought it would be nice to provide a soundtrack to go along with the visual impressions.

I will start with some winter desert cross-country trips we took in a rented Cessna 172SP/G1000 on a recent trip to Las Vegas, NV. The Mojave desert wants to be explored by air. That is when it shows itself in all its expansive, vast and empty beauty. Mountains and canyons are canvases on which the light plays in changing tones of colour and shades. The soft pastels of dusk and dawn, the shadow play of the afternoon, the rich tones of the setting sun.

Aviation history is in the air, the story of countless unnamed heroic test pilots is palpable when navigating between vast MOAs. A bittersweet melancholy permeates the many warbird museums, with the planes silent witnesses of past horrors and victories. Friendly and knowledgeable veterans relate war-time stories, themselves relics of history. May we never forget.

At sunset, colors slowly fade to grey, going through a brilliant spectrum just before it gets dark. Pitch-black dark. A strange feeling to land at night, descending into a valley, discerning mountains rising to the left and right only on the terrain display of the MFD. What a comforting feeling to be able to follow a road. The sight of the airport beacon a much welcome relief – home! Below: Black – Above: Black – Left and Right: Black. A Runway outline on a black background. Behind it, a sea of lights in all colours, the city of Las Vegas.

On the way from Palm Springs (KPSP) to Henderson (KHND). A tiny, slow-moving plane in an enormous landscape that never gets boring.

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The learning curve – part I

Ignotam animus dimittit in artes (lat.)

“(S)He turns her head to unknown arts” – Ovid

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My color vision will fade any minute now. Hypoxia. The trail is sloping uphill and I just can’t get enough air. With legs heavy as lead I press on, trying to hide my growing despair. Keeping one’s cool is hard to do while sweating profusely. We pass a group of runners, one of them struggling to keep up, falling behind. That one’s for the lions.

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Aviation and writing

We only perceive differentials. Only through acceleration or deceleration are we able to discern movement. Constant speed does not register. We need context, too, a single sense might betray us. Without visual reference, forward acceleration can be mistaken for a pitch-up movement. Thus, pilots have flown their airplane into the ground in 0/0 visibility takeoffs.

In writing, or art in general, we might strive to produce beauty by cutting away anything that appears ambiguous and ugly to us. In the attempt to even out the troughs, we don’t notice that the peaks shrink away as well. The intention was to produce an aggreable hit song. Fear set in to veer off, instead, into Klingon opera territory by allowing room for confusion, regret, fear and disappointment. The result will be the kind of bland elevator music that barely registers. A hollow lie, more depressing than the ugly truth.

Equally, hardly anything is black or white. Our brains are wired to reduce complex information to a simple message. However, an overall picture can be computed out of shades of grey. Occam’s razor, for instance, is a sharp tool: with two competing hypotheses, choose the one less reliant on assumptions. The left side of the brain finds order this way. The right side accepts the chaos and is comforted by fearless art illuminating the beauty and the struggle.

Dream on

Last night, I dreamt about her again. In gleaming sunshine, I took in her shiny splendor. Strong lines bearing a rich and long heritage. Sitting on the ramp elegantly, nose pointed skywards proudly . The wind in her struts whispering a promise of boundless freedom. In the wide expanse of the horizon, we were about to engage in a playful conversation with the physical forces of flight, rolling, looping, spiraling down and soaring up, catching a tiny fragment of infinity.

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None but the lonely heart

Grounded. Relenting to gravity. Gazing skywards, longing, aching for a grander perspective. Memories of the earth laid out, the horizon spanning end to end, mountain ranges, coast lines, rugged deserts. Cities sparkling in the twilight. Morning fog blanketing dark forest. Clouds illuminated by oblique rays, golden colors. Cars crawling like ants along the highway. Above it all, engine humming, voices of fellow cloud navigators fading in and out on the radio.

Turning the key, one hand on the mixture, the satisfying roar of the engine, tuned down to a steady grumble. The lovely craft, ready to go, vibrating in the slipstream of the propeller. Adjusting the squelch on the radio, quivering vacuum instruments, weather and clearance. Deliberation of preflight replaced by the hustle of departure.

Low overcast, dull and grey, tower light’s on. Into the air, into the clouds, water on the wind shield, surrounded by thick, wet darkness, eyes glued to the attitude indicator. Out on top into the brilliant sunshine, the earth hidden under a soft, white cover. The soul expands with the horizon, soars with the plane, the moment is clear and precious.  Liberated misfit, bold and free, flying forth, content and in their element.

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.

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First flight

Oh, I’ve been sitting in airplanes a lot, in small, bouncy ones with one engine and enormous 747s that haul you heavily across the Atlantic. But my first real flight took place on February 17, 2011.

That day, Timm checked out a Cessna 172 SP at McClellan-Palomar airport, north of San Diego to fly across the coastal mountains and through the desert to Las Vegas. Having arrived one day earlier from Boston, I sat outside the FBO in the shade, watching with a mix of nervous anticipation, genuine admiration and a giddy anxiety as Timm flew graceful touch and go’s in order to update his passenger carrying permit.

My sense of an awesome adventure awaiting us grew as he taxied back to the ramp to collect our luggage and me. As we walked to the plane, the sun blazing, the air fresh and breezy with a few scattered fluffy cumuli dotting the expansive sky, I saw a man I had not exactly known before, possessed by a daring confidence balanced with calm and deliberate skillfulness.

There was the spirit of an explorer, about to boldly take to the sky, embracing freedom. Clearly, this aviator, my good friend whom I was happily dating, was completely in the moment while taking fuel samples during the preflight inspection. My mind settled into a calm and serene mood, feeling safe and content. The stress and anxiety of the preceding days dissipated in the clear, mineral West Coast air.

Yet, as we lined up on the runway, nothing could have prepared me for the burst of happiness and wonder as we accelerated and lifted off towards the silver-coated Pacific, then made a climbing turn towards the coastal mountains, a cluster of small clouds clinging to their sides, decorating their peaks. A gift of wings, this was a shared sentiment for sure.