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.

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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The vertical procedure turn

“What flying teaches you is to replace fear with knowledge.”
Oliver Smithies, biochemist and pilot, co-developer of the knock-out mouse.

It’s enormously pleasing to uncover hidden connections between seemingly unrelated observations, or problems for that matter. In biological research, this allows one to see the larger picture, very much like putting pieces of a puzzle together. Similarly, in aviation not one piece of skill and knowledge stands alone, but is interconnected in wondrous and complex ways, creating a tableau that becomes more and more vivid and beautiful as one continues to learn. The quest for knowledge through research and flying have this in common – the more one learns, the greater the magic and enchantment.

While barely scratching the surface of the enormously addictive activity that is flying aerobatics, it did give me a taste of precision flying that proved quite helpful for flying approaches successfully.

For one, using the whole flight envelope teaches the pilot sensitivity towards the plane’s limits. Stalls are perceived with all senses: there is the decreasing sound of the slip stream as the plane slows. The controls become light and reach less and less effectively into the diminuishing flow of air. The time to induce a spin by kicking the rudder has to be precisely timed. In the good-natured Decathlon, it is exactly the moment where the fabric at the wing root starts to flutter, indicating the beginning of the stall, when rudder forces are still quite effective. Nose-high, stall horn screaming, the plane dips one wing and rotates gracefully around it, surrendering to the effects of rudder-induced adverse yaw. Media luna in the sky, come dance with me.

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A side effect of practising spins is that one becomes much more sensitive to airspeed and particularly, the decay of it. On the one hand, a really good thing in the traffic pattern. On the other, a difference in the sound of the slip stream serves as a reminder to look up from the approach plates and pull out of the developing dive before the wings depart from the fuselage. Ok. That might be a tad bit over-dramatic. Especially since one should never look at approach plates in one’s lap in the first place, but lift them up. Not just to continue to keep an eye on the instruments, but also because moving one’s head promotes spatial disorientation in the clouds. Isn’t it amazing? I’m secretely jealous of birds, but they can’t fly in IMC.

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But there is more: the acuteness or presence of mind needed to time aerobatic maneouvres so they flow gracefully and precise is exactly the skill needed to fly an approach well. In my fevered aviation dreams I open my approach book and find that the procedure turn is drawn in Arresti notation.

Lady in Red

Super Decathlon flying carpet: eager to go on a Spring Sunday morning in Southern Germany…grass field, interesting weather…loops and rolls, whispers of clouds and rain showers moving by…what’s not to love (file this under aviation porn).

Summer flying

“Kaiserwetter” – “emperor’s weather” it’s called in Munich – when the air is fragrant and fresh with the green aroma of Spring. The splendid sunshine and warmth carry the promise of summer and the sky is clear and wide, decorated with a few breezy cumuli. With the alps close by, the clouds are rising high. The sky is calling.

Biking to my new work place through an expansive, lush meadow, I reflect on my last summer on the East Coast, the magical time when I learned to fly. First of all, there were the lovely early morning lessons: I fondly remember waking at dawn to the theme of Top Gun playing on my iphone. Sleepiness giving way to gleeful anticipation, while sipping hot coffee in the delicate, brisk morning air on the balcony. Situated between two Victor airways, my lookout was facing West in the direction of that loveliest of harbors – my airport.

Then there would be the drive out to the field, listening to some favorite music of the moment, enjoying to get out of the city and into open landscape.  The liberating sensation of being on the way to engage in a new and outrageous activity – flying lessons! Giddy and in high spirits, I would salute a large flock of indignantly clucking turkeys, who would often strut about on the grass strip next to the access road. But what could be more exciting than the sight of a flock of airplanes, sitting on the ramp, ready to fly? Gathering my coffee mug and flight bag I’d take a deep breath – inhaling the fragrance of avgas with a hint of jet fuel. The smell of adventure. 10 feet tall and light as a feather I’d swagger to the FBO.

I love to remember stepping out on the ramp to preflight my worn, flight school Cessna. Sharply outlined in the sunshine, her ailerons bent, paint peeling in places. Her controls heavy, her avionics most basic, but the engine in top condition and, after 3 generous, squeaky primes, starting up smooth and strong. I would put on my sunglasses and headset, ready to go. She was my LOL, my little old lady, and I would taxi her proudly to the active.

The smallest deviation from the centerline was to be paid to my flight instructor in beers. I was running quite a tab. The atmosphere in the small, hot cockpit was always friendly and supportive, yet intensely focused with an acute attention for detail. As it should be. Pulling up to the hold-short line and squinting into the bright, sun-filled approach end for arriving traffic, I always felt privileged to be taught by such a terrific aviator. He’d notice the large bird of prey circling frequently over the short final right away. One hawk spotting the other.

With permission for takeoff, my focus would entirely shift to the tasks at hand, flying the airplane. I’d scan the horizon for traffic, register the G forces during my steep turns and notice the change in control effectiveness during slow flight. But only on the way back to the field, after getting the weather update and announcing my intentions (Touch and Go’s!) I’d realize, with a start, that I was indeed up there in the gentle summer air, blue mountains stretching out over New Hampshire, a soft, green landscape dotted with lakes. Laid out in the distance, graceful and shimmering, the city of Boston and behind it, the Atlantic ocean, immense and calm. The E on my heading indicator pointing towards Europe. Light, air, land and ocean in harmony. I was learning to command a new medium, and while everything about learning to fly an airplane was new and strange, in moments like this, I felt completely at ease, home.

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

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.