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Why I Love Flying

Back in the 90s I was quite active in an online single parents support group which had an area set aside for "off topic" conversations, an area that was the primary attraction for me and, judging by the number of participants and posts, was for many others as well. At some point, the topic of flying came up, and when I confessed to being a pilot, one young lady who obviously had a flight phobia piped up and said:

In a message dated 96-10-12 06:48:48 EDT, Lindy wrote:

Ohhhhhh, why do you dooo that?????


So, in my usual concise manner, I told her:

Because it's FUN, Lindy! There's nothing quite like it! Getting up there and looking down on the world gives you a whole new perspective! When you come back down, you have a new, "clean" feeling inside.

I especially enjoy going somewhere in the daytime, flying over several hundred miles of terrain that I've driven over and through many times, marveling at how the huge obstacles that block my path down there are rather insignificant from up here, yet still recognizing the landmarks and features that I'm so familiar with. I relish zipping across the little towns that slow me so on the ground, laughing at the creeping congestion down there as I pass by freely above at two miles a minute. I love looking the white puffy clouds in the eye intstead of gazing up at them from below. I love to fly at the same altitude as the scattered cumulus so I have to weave in and out to stay the required distance away from them, banking this way and that like riding a motorcycle through the esses. Flying by a few hundred yards away, they look solid and substantial, but you know you can penetrate them as easily as the clear air, if you dared. During the spring and fall you find yourself overtaking, meeting, or intersecting flocks of ducks and geese. In my experience, the ducks tend to take evasive action long before you get close so you don't see them as often, but the geese just soldier on, paying the plane little heed. As long as you don't fly directly into them, it's no different than passing oncoming, or slow, traffic on the highway. (Just don't fly under the critters - they tend to dive when spooked.)

Takeoff is a busy time, climbout a little less so, and cruising is fairly laid back. My favorite part of flying is the arrival at the destination. Suddenly the low activity level becomes more hurried. You have to get the latest weather information from ATIS, reset the altimeter, talk to approach, reset the transponder, look for called traffic, (can you tell I'm VFR only?) and start your descent.

Ah! The descent! The best part of flying! The landing! Now you're close to the ground - it's no longer far below and in miniature, but it's right there and all around as well, full-sized, menacing with its higher features, and moving so FAST! That little runway is sometimes hard to find amid the urban clutter, and when you do pick it out it seems almost inaccessible and way too small. But, true to your training, you make your turns at the correct times and altitudes, and find your little airplane crossing the threshold of the runway mere yards off the ground. With a little finesse, you lightly kiss the tires onto the pavement with a chirp, pull the remaining power and dump the flaps, and you are rolling, ground-bound once more.

Taxiing to the parking apron, you see dozens of people standing around waiting on arriving flyers, and you smugly smile to yourself - you are one of the annointed, the few, while they are either insanely jealous, or they are among the inhibited fearful-of-flying who view entering the aluminum cocoon as certain death. Either way, you have it all over them, and you know it.

Oh, what a feeling!

The return trip departure comes late in the afternoon. A crowd of onlookers is still there, although certainly made up of different folks. (The unwashed masses spend as little time at an airport as possible, either to reduce the suffering from their jealousy or to put their abject fear as far from mind as possible.) You carefully check out your little craft, looking at the exposed nuts and bolts, the tiny sample of fuel, the dollop of oil, as if to say that these few parts of the whole represent the entire assemblage, and you pronounce it fit to fly. You get in, strap yourself to the seat again, position your flight paraphenalia to be within easy reach, check to verify your flashlights are throwing a beam, and dial up ATIS (unless you used the increasingly common facilities inside the FBO). With your clearance jotted down, you go through the startup procedure - the little airframe shakes like a wet dog as the engine stutters to life, then smooths out. Ground clears you to taxi, and you wend your way through parked aircraft, steering with your feet and monitoring the pressures and temperatures on the panel with quick glances, reserving 99% of your attention for what's going on outside the aircraft. Parked at the end of the taxiway, you set the brakes and run the engine up to 2,000 rpm and make sure the mags both work, the pressures and temps look good, the suction devices are working. You manipulate the controls through all their axes, craning your neck to see the tailfeathers and alierons and verifying that the control movements result in the desired deflection of those surfaces.

You announce to the tower that you are ready to leave and they clear you to roll onto the runway. The moment of truth has arrived - You stare obliquely into the soon-to-be setting sun, flip the transponder from "Standby" to "On", apply full throttle, and concentrate on keeping the little airplane pointed straight down the runway by maintaining pressure on the right rudder with your right foot, waiting as the speed builds, then giving a little tug on the yoke as you reach 70. The plane's nose lifts slightly, and suddenly the roll and rumble of the tires on the pavement abruptly goes quiet and in your periphrial vision you see the ground fall away! You're airborne again! Tap the brakes with your toes to stop the wheels' spinning, keep the wings level with the ground with the yoke and adjust for the wind with your feet to stay on the centerline of the runway. As you pass through six or seven hundred feet, the tower tells you to switch to departure and bids you "Good Day". You tell departure your altitude and the one you're headed for, and turn onto the pre-assigned course. Everything is happening in reverse order of the landing - the ground is falling away rapidly, the taller obstacles claw at you and then recede from view, conceeding that you have, once again, defeated them. You are moving slowly across the ground because of your upward path, nose in the air, wind in your face, propeller throwing great chunks of air behind it, but you are winning the war with gravity and the earth is gradually returning to its miniature state below.

At altitude and on course, you settle back into the en route routine, trimming the plane for optimum cruise speed at a steady rpm. Once it's settled in, you can take your hands off the controls completely, making tiny inputs with your feet as needed, only touching the yoke occasionally as the inherent instability of the craft causes it to start to bank.

The sun is still above the horizon and you are in full sunlight, but already the ground is in solid shadow - a faint darkness at first, but lights are coming on everywhere, in buildings, in houses, streetlights along roadways and the headlights of cars. This is a magical time when you can still make out the features on the ground but everything is surrealistically enhanced by all the lights - in bright daylight the lights are indistinguishable, but now they are prominent and bright and it gives everything a wonderful holiday appearance. Gradually the darkness deepens down there, and the sun slips away behind the horizon. You feel as if you are suspended in a bowl of light above a sparkling carpet below.

As you leave the city and traverse less populated areas, the carpet below darkens and shows only occasional pockets of lights with the odd solitary one sprinkled here and there. Farther out, in the really remote areas, it's almost totally dark. Now is when a VFR pilot becomes more of an instrument pilot. You still have the horizon, a line where the dark ground meets the slightly lighter sky (except on the absolute darkest of nights when there's an overcast above you or it's very hazy and the moon is unavaliable). That horizon becomes your primary instrument, but you must be careful to compare it to the artificial horizon in the cockpit to make certain you aren't staring at a sloping landscape and putting your plane in a banking turn while "staying level". (Brighter nights, especially when the moon is full, is a whole 'nuther experience, deserving of a discussion all its own.)

Inside the cockpit you keep the lighting to a minimum, with a faint red light illuminating your instruments being the only one you really want. This is to preserve your night vision - you need to be able to see as well as you possibly can outside the plane. You learn to pick out those winking lights that are other aircraft off in the distance, and not to stare at any fixed point of light - if you do, they tend to play tricks on you and start to "move", which can be very disorienting. You have planned your route carefully in advance and have your radios set on the proper frequencies (although us VFR types don't have to talk to anyone out here in the boonies) and you have your navigation frequencies set and you watch the VOR carefully, working to stay on a straight course.

Up there in the darkness on a clear, smooth night, it seems as if you aren't even moving. There's nothing directly below or in front to impart a sense of motion - the lights in the distance are almost stationary most of the time. You can see forever, or so it seems. I remember crossing I-55 between Jacksonville, MS and Memphis, TN one night, flying at about 10,500 feet, and being able to see the lights of Little Rock quite clearly. Often you feel you are right on top of a town, but it still takes half an hour or more to get there, even at 110 knots.

Flying at night underscores how much you must rely on the machinery. In the daytime you feel a little more like you are part of it, that YOU are actually flying along. But at night you realize that you are riding in a machine, and your life hangs on so many different parts and systems. You monitor the altimeter constantly - altitude is always your ally in flight, but especially in the dark, and you must keep plenty of it between you and the high spots below. You monitor the engine instruments constantly - it's the one thing that keeps you suspended up there. You fret over every little degree of temperature variation, every rpm change, every little sound. You search below for a runway, just in case. Rarely do you see one - you see the flash of their rotating beacons in the distance, but they are made to be seen from a distance and at lower altitudes, and disappear as you get closer. Airports are usually cloaked in darkness - most of the smaller ones are set to shut down when not in use and the lights go off. You can tune your radio to 122.8 and click the mike a specified number of times and will often be rewarded by a fully lighted runway appearing below or in front of you, as if by magic.

You drone along in the dark, feeling almost motionless, everything working perfectly, and finally you see the cluster of lights that you know is Home, directly ahead where you want it to be. And this begins the most wonderful part of flying - for me, anyway. You come cruising in at altitude as your speed begins to become evident through the accelerating approach of lights forward and below. You go through all the preliminary preparations as you did in the daylight approach segment, but the ground is still invisible below in the darkness. Then you pull the throttle back several hundred rpm, point the nose down, let the speed build a bit. The talking is done, the radios are set, the lights are growing and expanding in front of you. It's a huge, sparkling carpet of glowing, twinkling, shimmering, flashing lights out there, and you are coming in and coming down.

At first it seems you are still suspended motionless up there in the darkness, but with the lighted area gradually growing and spreading out in front of you. Suddenly the sense of movement returns full-force as you realize you are skimming over the outlying lights at a high rate of speed and a much lower altitude. Crossing the edge of the city instantly takes you from the darkness of the countryside into the fully-lighted brilliance of town. You really have trouble finding the airport in all this light - remember that at night it is usually a little darker than the surrounding area. And, if you thought the runway looked small in the daytime, look at it now! A veritable postage stamp of a target! (My first passenger at night, shortly after I got my license, was my WATT - as we turned final and she saw that minuscle strip of pavement down there, she exclaimed, "You've got to try to land on THAT?" I replied, "No, trying isn't good enough. I MUST do it.") But, as most pilots will attest, landing at night is actually easier than in the daytime. Having that lighted target amidst the darkness (in rural areas) or the darker strip amongst the lights (in cities) is great for focus. You can ignore the distractions. You rely on your altimeter, and on the VASI lights beside the runway, for assurance that you are high enough, and the rest of your attention goes to managing the throttle and pitch control to keep you that way. With practice you get good enough that you don't have to change much of anything - you set up properly to start with, and the runway just comes to you.

As you float in over the threshold, you arrest the sink rate with a little back pressure on the yoke, gently pull back the power to let the airplane softly touch down with that reassuring "chirp", which instantly starts the rolling rumble of the tires again. Pull power, dump flaps to kill lift, and another wonderful, successful flight is done! But, as any pilot will tell you, it isn't quite over yet - depending on the complexity of the airport, taxing to the parking place can sometimes be the hardest part. It's easy to get lost in the maze of taxiways on big airports even in the daytime - at night it's worse. But, soon you are parked, the engine shut down, the airplane secured to the eye-bolts in the asphalt with thick ropes knotted in a couple of half-hitches. The flight becomes another entry in the logbook... and an indelible memory that will remain with you for the rest of time.

Oh, what a feeling! Somebody open me a beer!


Disclaimer: The above represents the feelings and experience of the author. Circumstances and conditions described were of optimum weather, equipment, personal preparedness, training, and ability. Aircraft depicted is four-passenger single engine fixed-gear high-wing monoplane. Your experience may vary. Operation of aircraft with an operating weight exceeding 254 lbs (excluding payload) without the appropriate FAA licenses, training, and currency requirements is illegal and unsafe, and could lead to serious injury or death. Always check weather and related information pertinent to your flight before departure. Kissing the ground upon arrival is frowned upon and unnecessary. However, it is permissible to grin broadly and remark to jealous onlookers, "Cheated death once again!", especially if they appear to be afraid of flying. Kids, don't try this at home. Actual experience of flying is far better than related above, and can't really be described in words or pictures. You gotta try it to fully comprehend.

Yee haw!

Who says you can't go