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.

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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.





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.





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.





Waiting for the sky to fall

23 08 2011

About two years ago a friend told me her husband was suffering from anxiety attacks. I had no idea why. He has a great personality, a fantastic super-dynamo of a wife, a beautiful home and two very cool kids. What on earth, I thought, is he anxious about? There was no logical reason… at least none that I could see.

Now I know what it feels like. And am hoping no one else notices the state I’m in.

It's like waiting for the sky to fall.

I had made an appointment to see my doctor 2 weeks ago, on the recommendation of a friend. She was concerned about my chronic insomnia and the way it was affecting my personality: I snapped at my colleagues without thinking, my boss’s phone calls sent me into a cold sweat, and my impatience with my own feelings was growing.

Sleep has never been my forte. If I wake in the middle of the night, my sleep cycle is over… it’s like I lose my way to unconsciousness, and I don’t know why. Only in the grey of morning do I sometimes find the key to slumber on my own, just minutes before my alarm clock screams at me to get going – another day has dawned, and I have to darn well make the best of it. And the moments between sleep and awake are tortuous. How will I get through it? I don’t know. I just can’t. But I must. I must get up now. No excuses.

My mother’s voice echoes in the recesses of my brain. No excuses. No excuses. Get up.

I went, thinking my doctor could maybe just prescribe me something to relax.

By asking me a few pointed, probing questions, he touched an exposed nerve that sent me into a physical panic. Suddenly, I saw no way out. It would never get better. I was hyperventilating and blocked. As if a dark wooden plank had been shoved in front of my forehead. I had no words, I saw nothing but black.

I. Cant. Take. It. Anymore.

I can’t do it. I can’t. I can’t.

He diagnosed an acute burnout, with depressive tendencies and the aforementioned anxiety attacks.

And I was like, “Huh? Me? Can’t be. I never get sick. Everything functions. It works. I make it work. And if it doesn’t then I’m a failure. I’ll make it work again. I can. I must.”

And he told me, “Stop. That. Right. Now.”

Pull the rip cord.

Grab the emergency brake.

Get some air.

Stop your world.

Now.

Once I stopped wailing, he asked me the usual questions about suicidal tendencies and thoughts of harming others. He gave me a sick note for two weeks and told me to do things that make me happy: meet friends for coffee, get out into nature, go skate, go fly. He himself is a private pilot and I hadn’t even known it. He said I must take advantage of the healing effects of escaping the burdens of earth for a little while. And gravity.

I don’t know why this is happening to me. I don’t understand the forces that have taken me here. But I accept that going into the cockpit might just help me find a way back.





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.





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.