Autumn in August

7 08 2011

First came the rain.

For what seems like weeks, the heavens have opened up and drenched us here in central Europe. It seems 2011 went straight from Spring to Autumn, skipping what we usually call “Summer.” We have had the choice of either temperatures far below normal, or torrential downpours, or both. Last night another thunderstorm passed overhead.

The view from here.

The weather had put a severe cramp in my flying schedule, making me wonder when (or even ..if?) I would be able to start in on those hours that I need as pilot-in-command to keep current. The fun flying window in these latitudes lasts about four months in total, unless you are lucky and get a oh-so-rare clear, crisp day sometime in January.

So I planned a weekend flight. An early Saturday morning check of the aviation weather forecast had me in a good mood for the first time in days. Blue sky and sunshine as far as the eye could see. Summer! And I’m going flying! Yay! The webcam at my home airfield, located atop a high plateau in north-central Switzerland, showed it bathed in warm morning light – it would be a beautiful day for my checkride. And maybe I’d even have some time to play.

On the 45-minute drive to the airfield across the rolling hills of the Swiss midlands, I passed through fog banks, thick and juicy as the pea soup we usually deal with from October to March. At times I could barely see a few hundred feet ahead of me.

But there was none of that at the field, the rolling clouds below seemed to be on their way to other climes, or dissipating, just like the forecast said.

Paperwork, briefings, a last look at the METARs and TAFs before heading out for the pre-flight check. The fickle weather had forced me to minimally re-think our route, but it looked like we were all set for a glorious morning airborne. Just a quick fuel top-up and we’d be off.

We pulled up to the gas station, the first customers of the day. And a glance around to our six-o’clock told the story.

The light easterly breeze pulled in – you guessed it – the fog that had followed me all the way from Zurich. Within minutes the field was shrouded in a milky grey mist, the grass strip completely invisible from my vantage point atop a stepladder near the right wing, stinky fuel pump in hand.

So I filled ‘er up and waited.

And then I waited some more.

After about an hour of waiting, the sun pushed through a hole in the misty veil for a brief moment – too little time to get sorted and get out. And there was a second question that would remain unanswered this morning – even if we did get out… how would we get back in? It’s tough looking for a grass strip hiding beneath a thick, tenacious layer of fog. Not to mention more or less illegal with my rating.

And then… it started raining again.

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Columbia, Challenger, Endeavor, Discovery, Atlantis and me.

22 07 2011

Though I thought I was kind of over getting emotional about big world events, I surprised even myself at how emotional I got as I watched the space shuttle Atlantis return to earth for the last time yesterday morning.

It was still night Florida – an hour before sunrise. A shadow in the dark, the workhorse of the U.S. space program for the past 30 years arrived back on earth as she had left it 12 days ago, and as 134 shuttle flights before her began and ended: with dignity and grace and mystery.

Isn't she beautiful?

Atlantis’ touchdown was the last shuttle landing, ever. And it was like saying goodbye to a friend I grew up with, who was just kind of always around, at some times closer than at others, but always somewhere near. You know… just… there.

I can’t think of a single person I have been friends with that long.

Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavor and Atlantis and I grew up together, and we experienced the ups and downs of every lifetime. We celebrated successes together – the awe-inspiring successes, and mourned the failures – the lives and confidence lost. And then we celebrated new successes – the confidence and spirit restored.

I always wanted to see a launch live and in person, but never had the opportunity. A few months ago I came closer than ever, but in the end it just didn’t work out.

The space program was and still is something to believe in and be proud of, at least for those of us whose inclination is aeronautical rather than terrestrial or aquatic. Something fantastic and fantasy-like, a way to also escape these bonds of mental gravity, while everything and everyone else is mired in reality here on earth.

In April 1981 as Columbia blasted off, I sat in my family’s basement, to where the television had been banned. I planned my career as an astronaut – a child with big dreams.

In July 2011 as Atlantis lands, I sit in an office at a desk in front of a computer, with a live-stream direct broadcast open in a window on the left hand side of my screen. I am an adult in my second career, neither of which have had even the slightest thing to do with astronauts.

And though this is an end, it should be another moment of celebration rather than mourning. The shuttles are done flying but they are far from on their way to being forgotten. They will be on display at museums across the country and will continue to feed the dream of space exploration.

So yesterday I’m glad I watched history happen, even if only virtually, and from so far away.

At 05:56 Eastern Daylight Time Atlantis glides out of the inky black into view. Main gear touchdown, chute, rotate nose gear, touchdown, roll out, full stop. As the sun rises over Florida, the shuttle Atlantis, resting on the tarmac, takes on form and color.

Job well done, America. Thanks for 30 years of friendship and inspiration.





Requiem for Pascale

18 07 2011

It was just another cold and rainy Sunday afternoon, one that passes for “summer” here in Zurich. I had gone out for a walk in the mud and some fresh air, and when I returned, the SMS message was waiting for me.

“Please call me,” from probably the last person on earth I expected to hear from on a Sunday. Something was up.

I called.

Gayle answered by saying my name: “Evelynn, Hi.”

“Hi, what’s going on?”

Silence.

“What happened?”

“Evelynn, I have to tell you…. I… something bad… ”

She couldn’t even say the words.

“What happened? Is it about Pascale? Did something happen to Pascale?” I had sent our mutual girlfriend several messages the days before and had received no response. That was not like her and I was starting to wonder.

“How do you know?”

“I DON’T know… Know WHAT? Tell me! What happened?”

“Evelynn… Pascale is… Pascale is dead.”

And then she told me about how she just found out that our friend went hiking alone in the southern Swiss canton of Ticino last Thursday, slipped, and fell off a mountain. How an emergency search & rescue helicopter later found her body among the rocks in a deep ravine.

She was 38 years old.

Full of life, with boundless energy, and ambitious plans. With a smile as wide as Montana.

Pascale was my nordic walking buddy. She lived in the next town over and we would often meet to gossip and stride through the rolling meadows and woods that straddle the two municipalities. In summer we enjoyed brilliant sunshine, in the company of cows, and savored the smell of the flowers and grasses in bloom. In winter we would meet after sunset, the short days making for frigid and sometimes treacherous going on icy paths.

That was our favorite time to walk and talk: in the dark, making tracks after a fresh, quiet snowfall.

Pascale was the co-snow-bunny I featured right here in my blog a few months ago. On skis she was mostly fearless, but she never let me take her flying.

Pascale and Gayle were colleagues at a previous employer, and the three of us remained friends even after she and I quit our jobs there. We all are just a few years apart, similar in physique and character: tall, with long, straight, dark blond hair, athletic, extroverted, loud and very demanding of ourselves and others. We always wanted so much more out of our lives and careers than the men we had to work with were willing to concede.

We got together for regular ladies’ lunches and dinners at swanky restaurants across this outrageously expensive city to have a fantastic meal, philosophize about life and celebrate ourselves.

Our last ladies’ lunch was just two weeks ago, also on a Thursday, at a hip Fusion-style restaurant just around the corner from the workplace where we first met almost exactly five years earlier. For dessert we ordered champagne, toasted each other and the great things that lay in all of our futures. We wondered how much fun it might be to start a business together.

I still see Pascale standing on Zurich’s busy main commercial avenue, Bahnhofstrasse, that afternoon. She was wearing a light blue blouse and slacks, and carried a large white handbag. The pearl bracelet on her wrist jingled as she checked her phone for messages. We said goodbye, kissed each other three times on alternating cheeks.

“Don’t be a stranger,” I said.

“I’ll call you,” she responded.

With a flick of her long blonde mane she turned away and melted into the crowd.

Pascale. March 4, 1973 - July 14, 2011.





Happy Birthday, EvelynnStarr.com!

10 07 2011

A year ago this week my blog was born. This is just a short note to say thanks to all my readers and commentators, to those who suffered with me and laughed with me,  and to those who did not take my cynicism, criticism and thinly veiled insults personally.

Thanks especially to those who continue to inspire me, and to those who believe in me. These fireworks are for you:

I started my blog for no other purpose than to get me writing again. In that I was hugely successful. I never promised high-falutin’ literature, and I’m glad there are so many of you out there who stuck around to read anyway.

When I put my mind to it a year ago, suddenly, I had more ideas than I knew what to do with, or time to write about. A year on, I am once again in a bit of a trough, due to circumstances beyond my control. But this too shall pass.

The next year will bring greater and better things, I am confident of it.

Hello World, Part 2. Stay tuned for more.





A fun travel-related spectator sport

6 05 2011

In an earlier post I complained about the misery of domestic air travel in the United States. Another chapter has been added to my book of grievances this week… an airline that will remain unnamed neglected to load my suitcase in Dallas as I made my way cross country, east to west. I had exactly 7 minutes to make the connection due to a late incoming flight and my suitcase, alas, didn’t get the message.

But there are a couple of things I do like about travelling across this vast and diverse land.

My favorite place & photo of all time: the Grand Canyon at sunset (May 2007).

Aside from gawking at the spectacular and ever-changing scenery (see above), I like to engage in a truly distinctive but not really widespread or well-known sport.

We are all familiar with planespotters, right? They are those weirdos (usually male) with telephoto lenses who stand at the airport perimeter fence, rain or shine, noses to the chain-link and ears to their radio receivers. When the plane paparazzi spot an aircraft they have never seen before, a cheer goes up and the cameras get to work. You would think Penelope Cruz had just landed from Mars.

Well my favorite activity is a variation on this theme. (No, it’s not imagining that George Clooney just dropped in.) It is the unique and exclusively geeky spectator sport of “airport spotting.”

Flying is such a way of life in this country that there is bound to be an airfield of some sort framed by my oval jetliner window, at any given time while I am airborne. (Pilots here have no idea how lucky they are to have all these places to go.) And my challenge – the sport – is to find it.

Not far from every megalopolis is, of course, a commercial airport or two. That one’s easy to find, it usually has numerous terminal buildings and multiple parallel runways. If you’re lucky there’s even a crosswind runway, for good measure, making the tarmac footprint look like a giant “Z”.

Amongst the baseball diamonds, elaborate cloverleaf intersections, reservoirs and neighborhoods of suburbia, there is also always a landing strip or two to be seen somewhere. Usually it’s between a golf course and a highway.

Even a forlorn, lost little town in the middle of the desert in West Texas will, somewhere near its periphery, have at least one runway.

And sometimes there is just an airstrip, and no town. These are the fun ones to try and spot. You wonder, who even goes there – and why? Bonus points if you can actually read the numbers on the asphalt.

Look! An aistrip in the middle of nowhere!

So think about this the next time you have a clear view out an airplane window at cruising altitude. It gives you a rare and wonderful new perspective on earth and makes the time pass more quickly.

One day, I want to pilot my way across the country in a single-engine airplane, visiting a few of these many, many small and friendly places that, from my current vantage point in seat 14A at 36,000 feet, remain anonymous, unidentified. But when planning to fly myself from coast to coast, I look forward to discovering their names and their personalities, and what makes each and every one of them special.





Endeavor… to dream.

30 04 2011

Thirty years and two weeks ago, a not-quite-11-year-old girl sat in front of her family’s television set, in the basement of a house overlooking a city in Britain’s west. She was transfixed. And in her, a dream was born.

The space shuttle Columbia – an experimental aircraft – had lifted off, orbited the earth and landed safely 2 days, 6 hours, 20 minutes, and 53 seconds later. It was the dawn of a new era in space travel. And this eleven-year-old had plans.

Columbia airborne.

She documented those two days in a diary which she still has today. In a child’s loopy handwriting, she proclaimed the technological supremacy of the western world over the Soviet one. It was the height of the Cold War, and countless nuclear warheads were pointed in both directions across the Iron Curtain. The race for space was at full throttle.

And at that moment, she decided to become an astronaut – long before Sally Ride punched through the atmosphere and NASA’s glass ceiling.

Too young to remember Apollo, the girl matured with the modern U.S. space program through the 1980’s, as the shuttle missions grew longer and more complex. She studied every detail of the aircraft’s cockpit, its flight capabilities and its many uses in exploration. She kept a detailed notebook, its columns filled with critical information about every flight. She collected the mission patches, watched as much television news coverage as possible and celebrated the program’s successes. And she promised herself that someday she would go to Cape Canaveral to experience a launch live. Preferably as a participant, and not merely as an observer.

On January 28, 1986, something sad and awful and unthinkable happened. Challenger had exploded just after lift off, killing its seven crewmembers. The girl was a teenager now, and for her it was the first of those moments in history where, years later, you turn to your lover or husband or friend and say: “I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard.”

The shuttle stopped flying for a while. And by the time the space program got back on track, she’d had to bury her childhood dream and build a new one. She took her ambition in a very different direction; far from Cape Canaveral, but close to its spirit of discovery.

Lightning struck the shuttle program a second time in February 2003. In the meantime the little girl was all grown up. She was a driven and moderately successful journalist, living a dream replaced.

It was evening as she sat on her bed on the top floor of a five-star hotel, in an island-nation on the other side of the world. She looked up at the television from the story she was writing, expecting to see Columbia’s landing. But the unthinkable had happened again. A surreal and sinking feeling gripped the young woman as the spacecraft – an old, close friend – disintegrated during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, taking all of her astronauts with her in flames.

So yesterday, a not-quite-41-year-old woman got into her car in South Florida, and started driving north. Cape Canaveral was just 160 miles (260 kilometers) away, and Endeavor was due to launch on its last mission at 3:47 p.m. It would be the next-to-last shuttle flight ever and probably her final chance to experience one live. She was so tantalizingly close, and could not possibly forgive herself if she didn’t try to get there.

It would be a pilgrimage, 30 years in the making; a kind of closure for the dream never realized.

Two hours and 120 miles later came the news no one wanted to hear: Endeavor’s launch was cancelled this day, due to a technical problem.

Endeavor, still here. (April 29, 2011)

In my sudden, crushing disappointment, I felt like the 11-year-old girl I was 30 years ago. I stopped the car and cried for something I wanted so much… but was just not meant to be.





Traveling with the kitchen sink (and a broken airplane)

23 04 2011

Domestic air travel in the U.S. is just not what it used to be. Of course, this is not news to many of you, but a recent flight once again highlighted the dangers and inconveniences of such a trip on a leading U.S. airline so I decided to write about it.

So beautiful outside. So dangerous inside.

My trip did not begin under an auspicious star. A faulty electric pump of some sort hindered engine start and grounded our airplane until the mechanics managed to man-handle it into submission. 150 captive and uninitiated passengers hoped the pump in question was not critical to the plane’s airworthiness, since it was obvious that the only way to get to where we were going was to stay seated. There was no replacement airplane anywhere in sight.

The “paperwork”, as the pilots called it, took an hour longer than the actual repair. So much for efficiency in air travel and my plans at my destination. The tear that ripped open the fuselage of a Southwest Airlines 737 over Arizona was still fresh in everyone’s minds, so I guess those responsible for maintenance and safety were a little more jumpy than usual.

All of us on the flight had gotten up before the crack of dawn to catch the plane, and it was infuriating to know that we could have stayed in bed a little longer after all.

Then other highlights of the flight included the standard-fare weirdo fellow passengers and parents with their unruly kids that make you just wish your limited personal space was enclosed in a germ-free, soundproof bubble.

The chips, crackers and snack boxes are for purchase only. And only available to credit-card holders. And they don’t even load lemon for my tea anymore.

But the most frustrating development in modern air travel in the last couple of years is the array of hand luggage that is schlepped into the aircraft at take-off time. Since airlines started charging real money to carry luggage down below, passengers have taken the initiative and are bringing everything with them into the plane. Including, it seems, the kitchen sink.

One unhealthily filled bin dangerously close to my head took two stewardesses and a big strong guy to close. One of four suitcases up there was a couple of square inches larger than the (official) permitted carry-on size, and the bin’s latch would not close, even after I slammed it three times with my fist. A method requiring some finesse – two people pushing on either side, while the third shoved the latch in – forced the desired result.

Passengers just boarding the plane, scoping out places to stow their bags, had to be deterred by a loud chorus of sharp warnings: “DON’T OPEN THAT BIN!!”

After that, the flight itself was uneventful. Arriving at my destination blew away the anger and the fatigue. And I managed to get out of the airplane safe, without major head or neck injury from flying luggage.

Whew. That was work.

Once at the gate, the carry-on luggage scrum begins.

PS. Upon arrival, I discovered that the US AIRline mentioned above wantonly broke the bag that I had checked in.  A series of exasperating conversations with three so-called “Customer Service” representatives yielded a clear and rather customer-unfriendly rebuff.