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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On the step

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Reasons to go seaplane flying

1) Once you decide to go there’s no stopping. Prime. Untie the lines. Push off the dock, climb into the cockpit and then start the engine. If the engine doesn’t start – sail!
2) No brakes. Just drag. Makes run-up interesting.
3) No rotation. Just accelerate, push the stick forward, really get that racing boat feeling going and accelerate, until take-off seems to happen by itself.
4) Kick-ass high performance take-offs for confined spaces (don’t try this in a land plane): line up opposite in the direction you want to take off, accelerate to 30mph (there’s that racing boat feeling again), turn a screaming corner and go for it.
4) No runway, no problem. Just don’t scare the boats/kayakers/swimmers/whatever wildlife you’re sharing the lake with.
5) Have an item: “pull up water rudder” in the pre-takeoff checklist.
6) Fly really low and slow – it’s quite ok.
7) Land and enjoy the view…on the middle of a lake! Go fishing! Store fish in the compartments of your floats.
8) Genuine auto-landing function (aka glassy water landing): establish a 200ft/min descent and just wait until you hit the water.
9) Land and let the waves gently rock your plane.
10) No windsock…just waves and a breeze in the trees.
11) Land and take off…and circle like an eagle…and land again…however you please…get a taste of bush flying made easy.

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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Believe in yourself

Every student pilot comes across the notorious five hazardous attitudes, Resignation, Anti-Authority, Impulsivity, Invulnerability and Macho. Again and again, these hallmarks of poor aeronautical decision make sad appearances in accident reports, such as the superbly written compilation of “Aftermath” columns by Peter Garrison and J. Mac McClellan, published by the editors of Flying Magazine. This meticulously researched and often hair-raising treasure trove of situations to avoid should be a must-read for every pilot. Instead, it is out of print and it took all my will power not to steal it from my CFI. Continue reading

L’amour de voltige – the Hammerhead

This is a series on different aerobatic maneuvers, waxing poetic on their flow, delightful visuals, enticing G forces and what I find they teach about the flight envelope. A declaration of love and respect for continuous learning. Flown in the 8KCAB American Champion Super Decathlon with little experience and grace, but taught well. In the future, hopefully re-written with experience in the Pitts and XA41, in that order.

O, the vertical delight of the – Hammerhead


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First solo

“Right aileron, more left rudder, more….centerline..jo, what’s with the airspeed…look ahead, end of the runway…get it right, get it right…” my brain is working hard in the little Cessna 172M.

Given the fact I have more than one hundred landings under my belt, I could afford to relax a bit.

“Why are you breathing so heavily?” Marc, my instructor asks.
We are on the short final for runway 14 at KLWM. There is a slight crosswind from the right and my answer is instantaneous and heart-felt:
“Because flying scares the sh** out of me!”

Touchdown and subsequent takeoff are fine, but Marc wouldn’t know, he’s gasping for air and clapping his hands with delight. On the crosswind, he wipes away tears of laughter. “Ok, where are we?!”

I find this only partially funny. The time is high for my first solo. Nobody would guess what a high-anxiety activity flying is for me. At the same time, I’m completely intoxicated by the new world of aviation, loving every part of it right down to the smell of avgas.

So here I am, a slow, but determined, timid yet enthusiastic learner blessed with a wonderfully patient and supportive instructor. As I taxi toward the tower to drop him off, I positively fight the rising panic. This is indeed the scariest thing I have ever done. At the same time though, I know I’m ready and welcome the cool determination that comes with this realization.

“Have fun”, Marc hops out of the plane. I give him a thumbs-up and grin bravely.  When the tower clears me for takeoff, I take a deep breath and gingerly roll out onto the runway. My hands are so sweaty that I have trouble keeping the yoke steady. But not to go is simply not an option and I add full throttle. As I rotate, I notice that the plane is climbing more easily, with less weight. Flying solo is amazing and perfectly normal at the same time. My voice is steady as I announce myself on the downwind. The landing is not my best, but controlled.

As I taxi back to the hangar, Marc walks towards me, beaming, waving his arms and taking pictures. It is only then I realize that all I had done was to fly the plane. He had to watch from the ground and trust his decision making. It cannot have been easy, after my statement on how I feel about flying. But on that cloudy summer day, I safely soloed an airplane. And along with the little old Cessna, my heart and soul soared