The magic of a sunrise

12 08 2015

When stuck in the grip of jet-lag, I often wonder if humans are really fit for transcontinental air travel. Sitting in a large shiny metal tube for up to 10 or 12 or 15 hours, moving at close to the speed of sound, traversing vast distances at 6 miles above the earth’s surface with no regard for the landscapes, peoples and cultures below. I suppose it’s the most efficient way of getting from point A to point B, when point B happens to be about 5,000 miles away. But it’s tough on the body and the soul.

There are days and trips when jet-lag has no power over me. Exhausted by the emotions and the anticipation of the trip alone, I arrive home, sink into my own bed, thankful for the peace and quiet of not having a carpet of noise produced by four CFM56-5C4/P engines thrusting the metal tube across the sky. I sleep the sleep of the dead.

This morning, though, I didn’t do so well. Shifting one’s internal clock by nine time zones is truly brutal. My night was over at 430am and my brain went into overdrive, as it usually does when I have about 5 million things on my never-ending to-do list.  It was still dark outside, but a light sheen was starting to illuminate the sky just above the hills beyond my back terrace. And so after about an hour of lying in bed, tormenting myself with problems that need immediate solving, I thought I’d go outside and watch the sun rise.

Night turns into day.

Night turns into day.

There is no sense of urgency at 545am. Mist slowly rises from the meadows below and the crisp, fresh air sits still as time creeps from indigo to light. The slightest crescent of a moon climbs into the sky before disappearing as the sun prepares to burst over the horizon. I sit on my back terrace in the half-light, my cup of tea cools before I can drink it all. A curious grey fox trots up to the fence that separates me from the wilderness, we look at each other for a moment before he loses interest, turns around and trots away.

A solitary single-engine aircraft crosses the clear light blue canvas above me from east to west. Its pilot is probably thinking the same thing that I am or she wouldn’t have made the effort to get up in the middle of the night, prep her airplane and take off at dawn to watch the night turn into day. (Or maybe she has jet-lag too.)

Jet-lag is a tedious by-product of travel. But a sunrise is simply magic.

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First Flight

26 07 2015

In the event of am earthquake, the safest place to be is… in the air. (Right?)

So, it’s about time I went flying again.

A first flight in a new place is always really special. The anticipation of going somewhere you have never been, figuring out airspace particulars (for one’s own safety and to keep the authorities at bay) and to experience what aviators native to this corner of the world also experience. Every place is a little different. The procedures are basically the same wherever you go, but the details are what make flying in a new location a challenging, learning and thrilling experience.

The pledge I made to myself when I earned my pilot’s license 14 years ago was this:

  • I will always fly for fun, and fun only.
  • I will not fly if it is work, or requires more risk-assessment, concentration and thought than chopping an onion.
  • I will only fly for pleasure, and in good weather.
  • I will only fly when the conditions promise something so spectacular that I forget how to describe it in words.

Since then, I have operated small aircraft as pilot-in-command in seven countries. Within the United States I have flown in the Northeast and in Florida. This week I played in the sky on the west coast for the first time.

And whenever I get back into the cockpit after a few weeks away, the tower clears me for takeoff and I line up on the runway, the great big numbers and a clear blue sky in front of me… I always wonder… “What took me so long?”

Bay Bridge.

Bay Bridge.

xxxxx

Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands.

The Golden Gate Bridge in the afternoon.

Golden Gate Bridge with a view to the City.

Financial District up close.

Financial District.

The City between spinning propeller blades.

Mission accomplished, pledge fulfilled, again.





Sunday over Boston

24 03 2014

If anyone is wondering, it IS still winter in New England – even though the calendar says something else. A Nor’easter is set to barrel through this week, and on Saturday what seemed like its precursors had already reached us. The wind whipped around corners and gusted to about 35-40 miles per hour, roughing up any light aircraft that took to the sky. A private-pilot colleague who went up on Saturday, I am told, fought hard to keep from retching into her air-sick baggie.

Sunday was a different day entirely, and I decided to go fly.

Me and my ride.

Me and my ride.

A work colleague had agreed to be the guinea pig on my virgin solo into Boston Class B airspace, taking his life into his hands, and mine. It was an cloudy morning, but the winds had died down at least, exponentially increasing the physical and spiritual enjoyment of such a venture.

Once airborne, we headed southeast, towards the city about 20 miles distant. Flying into restricted airspace isn’t really more complicated than flying elsewhere, you just need to pay a little more attention to the chatter on the radio and follow instructions carefully.

The air traffic controller at Logan International Airport was in a good mood, underworked and indulgent, offering us access to airspace that we little folks rarely get to cross. He basically gave us free rein to do whatever we wanted over the city. “You are cleared as requested. I have nothing going on here, so you picked a great time to come. Go crazy. But please don’t get too close to the buildings.” We circled downtown, passed eye-to-eye with the tops of the iconic John Hancock Tower and the Prudential, sailed over Fenway Park, Harvard University and MIT, and watched the rowers do their laps on the surely still frigid Charles River. We flew a ways down the south shore, and after turning back towards the city we watched as a handful of passenger jets took off from Logan, below our right wingtip. “Feel free to fly around the inner harbor if you want, just don’t turn right, okay?”

Downtown Boston.

Downtown Boston.

Though the grass is still many weeks from green, and the overcast sky allowed only a diffuse grey light onto the city, I am still always fascinated by the perspective I gain from traveling at 1,600 feet above the ground. Every time I go fly, I marvel at the miracle, deeply appreciate the camaraderie and surprise myself with my skill. (Hey – I can still do this!) And after almost 14 years, I still know exactly why I do.

In the afternoon, I sent around a few photos to friends. They told me: “You look sooo happy!”

I am happy. Here, I am happy.





Screaming kids on airplanes

27 04 2012

So just because I love jetlag so much, I decided to go back to the States five days after I had just returned to Europe. Chicago last week, New York this week. But more about NYC another time, maybe.

Today I want to talk about children (again).

There is nothing on earth that brings the sociopath out in everyone than screeching, red-faced midgets on a transatlantic overnight flight.

I thought that my JFK-ZRH flight would be a good opportunity to get at least a few hours of shut-eye. Oh how wrong I was. Within the five rows around me there were seven kids ranging in age from about six months to 3 years.

Children in front of me, children to the right of me, children behind me.  There were no kids to the left of me because there was only a window, and beyond that, an airplane wing. And if you ask me, I would have put them all there rather than in the cabin with the rest of us.

The best place for kids: Outdoors!

Yes, attached to these children were also parents, all of whom seemed incapable and overwhelmed with the stress of parenting.

It’s bad enough when one child screams incessantly in a closed space with a captive audience of 200. But on this flight, they all screamed. Throughout the night. In a coordinated attempt to drive all the rest of us to commit extremely violent crimes.

Jethro Tull on the inflight entertainment system, at top volume, could not drown out these pint-sized terrorists.

My martyrdom (and that of my child-free co-passengers) lasted seven hours, thanks to a strong tailwind that got us to our destination faster than usual, plus 45 minutes of taxiing at both ends.

What can be done? I have three solutions:

  1. Completely child-free flights. Malaysia Airlines has the right idea, having banned infants from its First Class cabins and implementing a child-free upper deck on its new A380 aircraft from July 1. This is an idea whose time is way overdue. Folks like me who have to go from the gate to the office after an overnight flight will not stand for this kind of noise pollution much longer.
  2. An “objectionable noise surcharge,” kind of like the fuel surcharge all of us have gotten used to paying. The younger the child, the higher the tax. This would automatically disqualify families traveling with multiple infants because they would likely no longer be able to afford it.
  3. A sound-proof cabin at the back of the plane. Like a playpen, or a time-out box. Or just seal off the last five or six rows from the rest of the cabin with sound-proof glass. They used to put smokers at the back of the plane, and now we can just put kids there. Screaming (like smoking) is harmful to the environment and the health of all those individuals not currently engaged in it.

OK, time for all you parents with young kids to come at me with a machete. But you know darn well that I am right.  You have to deal with your own screaming kids all the time. You can’t escape them. (And don’t you wish you could?)

But ask yourselves this: Why must babies travel to other continents before they even know who they are? Why do you people drag them across oceans and time zones when they won’t remember any of it when they grow up? Why do you expose them to foreign germs and the misery of jetlag before their first day of school?

A suggestion that could keep all of us happy, the child-rich and the child-free: Show your kids your own country or region or continent when they are really small. There is so much to see in Europe, or North America, or Asia, alone. Then, when they turn six, or seven, or eight, when they are old enough to appreciate what you are offering them – that’s when you begin to show them the world.





Something this girl has just got to do

18 11 2011

There are some days when a girl’s just gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

Like today, for example. Today, I just had to go fly.

Not because I had to get from point A to point B, and not because I had to quickly get some more flight time under my belt (or in my logbook) because my license or my rating expires next week. None of that. I just had to go fly, well, for the love of flying.

A little snippet of heaven.

The ocean of fog that envelops Zurich for most of every autumn lifted briefly this morning, and for the first time in what seems like a month, crystal-clear blue skies dominated from horizon to horizon. Wow! The sun! It’s still up there! Let’s go touch it, why don’t we?

I decided to trek up to the airfield for probably the last time this year, before the first winter storm puts the grass strip under 2 meters (6 feet) of snow.

HB-CFF is a trusty old bird who has accompanied me across this country and back already. She’s small and snug, has just two seats and is about the same age as I am, but handles like she just came off the Cessna production line. I wasn’t planning on going far, I just wanted to test my landing skills… I wanted to train, to practice, alone. To be aware of every rote task I perform in the cockpit as if I had never done it before – but with the self-assurance of a pilot who has done it a million times already. I would fly a few circuits around the airport and the region while enjoying the sunset and the Alps in the distance.

My ride had enough fuel and oil on board to take me over the mountains to Italy if I had wanted her to.

I took off to the north, and as I climbed into the open sky, I saw in the distance a fresh wall of fog, getting ready to roll back in my direction. The sun perched precariously on the peaks to the west, as color slowly bled out of the scenery below me. The blue hour was approaching fast.

The special thing about today’s flight was that there was absolutely nothing special about it – except for the spectacular view. It was routine, uneventful and safe. There was no weather or crosswind to speak of, just one or two others using the runway, and the visibility stretched clear across the central Swiss lowlands. It was simply magical.

Every time I fly I am reminded that there is no place I would rather be than in the cockpit, looking at the world from above.

After five gentle touch-and-gos, my confidence in my landings reinforced, I taxied back to the hangars and shut her down. It was quiet up at the field, already completely in shadow, with only the deep clanging of cow’s bells echoing across the valley. Six aircraft, finished with their duty for the day, were lined up in two neat rows.

Waiting for tomorrow’s adventures.





Welcome to… a different world.

11 09 2011

The second Tuesday in September started innocuous enough. I was in the British countryside, west of London, along with about 20 colleagues, attending a course on working in hostile environments and battlefield first aid. Too many newspeople had perished while covering wars past, and the company I worked for thought it a wise investment to train its journalists in basic survival so that in the future more would come home from those environments unscathed.

Just in case.

Because the next war was bound to break out, sometime, somewhere.

An excerpt from the list of topics to be covered.

We learned things like: What kind of damage automatic weapons can do to cars, oil drums and humans; How to spot a sniper, and a tripwire; How to make a water filter using only materials found in nature; What an armed ambush feels like, and how to survive a kidnapping; Why a camera lens can sometimes look like a shoulder-held rocket-propelled-grenade at distance.

The course was a week long and I had decided to tack on a vacation to New York City and points north immediately thereafter. So I booked my flight from Heathrow to JFK on United Airlines for the following Saturday.

On that week’s Tuesday afternoon we were out in the woods, standing in mud up to our ankles. The assigned task was to practice negotiation skills. Our teachers had dressed up as hostile natives hell-bent on hindering our work at least, or murdering us for our expensive equipment. The overcast sky broke to a fine English drizzle and during a pause in the action a few of us took shelter in one of the vehicles. That was when the first SMS came from New York.

It was so absurd that we thought it was some kind of joke.

“What a brilliant idea,” one of my colleagues said. “But impossible.”

Four filthy, cynical journalists sitting in a Land Rover in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere, 3,000 miles from New York City, could not believe the audacity of flying a plane into the World Trade Center.

While calmly picking clumps of mud out of the treads of my hiking boots with a twig, I scoffed that no aviation routes even go anywhere near Manhattan… so that must have been some dumb pilot. Or just a tragic accident.

We turned on the car’s radio to see if the BBC had the story, and heard that a second airliner had just slammed into the second building.

Ah. No accident. No dumb pilot.

And suddenly our hostile environment training did not seem so theoretical anymore.

Four days later, I sat in one of the first aircraft permitted to re-enter U.S. airspace from abroad. Upon landing at JFK, a flight attendant announced our arrival over the intercom. Ten years later, I still get a lump in throat and my eyes tear up when I think of it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to….. The United States of America.”

The entire cabin erupted in cheers and tears. We were on home soil, and we were safe.

As the plane taxied off the runway to its parking position, a white plume of smoke continued to rise from Ground Zero into the cobalt blue sky. Lower Manhattan was still burning.

It was September 15th, 2001 –  and the world as we knew it was history.

**********

A cloud of smoke where the towers used to be.

A piece of a steel skeleton.

The destruction through the window of a city bus.

Guard duty at Ground Zero.

The impromptu memorial at Union Square.

NOTE: All photos are my own, taken on September 16th and 17th, 2001.





For the love of landings

2 09 2011

Let’s talk about landings.

We learn early that whatever goes up must come down. That gravity is a law and not an option.

So logic goes that all aircraft that leave the earth must also return to it, somehow.

What it's supposed to look like. (Passenger's perspective.)

The landing is the most difficult phase of flight. Returning the aircraft and its human cargo to the planet safely was probably the toughest thing I ever had to learn. And it took me a long, long, long time. Way longer than I thought it would – other pilots make it look so easy. And when my flight instructor sent me off on my first solo flight (that would end up including three landings) on a crisp November morning 11 years ago, I’m sure he was silently evoking the power of every higher authority that ever existed.

I lived to tell the tale.

So what’s it take? What’s so hard about a landing?

Well, all of us have experienced them many times, while sitting in the back of the bus, right? On your way to a vacation hotspot or from a business trip. There are four categories:

1) A rotten landing rattles your fillings, herniates your discs and has you later inspecting the runway for stray screws or other aircraft bits.

2) A good landing is one you can walk away from and use the airplane again.

3) A great landing is one you (and the airplane) didn’t even feel.

4) And for a phenomenal landing – the mother of all landings – read this.

Setting your aircraft on back on terra firma (or as in the above-mentioned example – taking it for a swim) requires copious amounts of instinct and skill to get it just right. “It’s a controlled crash with the earth,” someone once said. And you always hope your wheels point downwards for that crash, at least. During the final approach, speed, altitude and distance are in constant flux, and the play between the three is integral to a safe touchdown and happy passengers (as well as aircraft maintenance technicians, rental companies, their insurance agents and aviation authorities).

This past week I went flying with friends who had never experienced flight in a small airplane before. Their eyes grew wide as they assessed the instruments in the cockpit, and their endless curiosity was refreshing.

Lucky for them, I seriously greased every single landing. I even received a round of applause for one.

But it wasn’t always like this. In these past 11 years of flying I’ve had a few miserable episodes that shook my confidence to the core. During one phase after a particularly terrifying experience, I grounded myself for nine long months, afraid I had lost my fragile grip on the skill. It was a rough road back, paved with tears, frustration and agony. This was one thing I just didn’t want to fail at.

Older and wiser now, and with almost 200 hours and 350 solo landings to my name, I know that every single one of them poses a brand new challenge, in brand new conditions. And that no pilot (not even the ones who get paid to do this) can ever take anything about a landing for granted. I crave the thrill of it every time.