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.

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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.





My new love Fred

11 05 2011

I have fallen in love, once again.

Yes, I think R. will tolerate this new love, if grudgingly. The object of my desire is just under two feet tall, weighs 40 pounds and is covered with shaggy black fur. He is seven years old and in order to protect his identity, I will call him Fred.

Fred: "Woof!"

Fred is a Portuguese Water Dog, and a distant older relative of the nation’s First Dog, Bo, who moved into the White House two years ago. And if you do the math: Fred was already around for a while before Bo and his kin became popular. Before the world had actually ever heard of the Portuguese Water Dog and that there even was such a thing.

Fred is the only dog in the world I have ever met who cozies up to an oversized yellow Sponge Bob cuddly toy. It’s the cutest thing you have ever seen.

I met my new true love in Connecticut, in the home of very old friends. They invited me to stay with them after I had spent two tense and sleepless nights at another friend’s house, desperately dodging two big, sinister orange cats, the air thick with their omnipresent dander. When I left, I had to pick cat hair off every piece of clothing that I had taken into their home. It was… distressing. Mainly because I am very allergic to cats.

Somewhere here on my blog I mentioned that I am a dog-person (married to a cat-person). And even if I was not allergic, I find dogs just so much friendlier, more accommodating, more loyal, more playful and simply more reliable than cats.

And according to the Chinese zodiac, I was born in the year of the dog so I share many of those (ahem, exceedingly positive) characteristics.

The Chinese probably had a really good reason or two not to have a year of the cat in their zodiac. Cats are infuriatingly aloof and mean, and so much less useful to society than, say, dogs, dragons, snakes, sheep, roosters and rabbits.

I just know that all you cat-lovers out there will tear me to shreds for this, with those vicious little claws of yours. Fine – bring it on. I will take a slobbering, juvenile-minded canine over a hissing, oh-so-sophisticated feline any day.

My love for Fred was sealed on the final day of my visit in Connecticut. We attended a sporting event about 90 minutes away by car. Of course there was no question about whether or not Fred would be part of the festivities. On the way home, after suffering through a miserably cold, wet and muddy day, we had a car full of people, and Fred, always the boss, was not going to be relegated to the trunk of the stationwagon.

I became his Sponge Bob as he climbed onto my lap in the front seat and nestled his head into the door’s armrest. There he slept, the whole hour and a half till we got home. 40 pounds of warm, snoozing, snoring dog, on my muddied jeans, through a wicked rainstorm down the highway as the day turned to dusk. I stretched the seat belt around him. When we pulled into his neighborhood, he instinctively knew he was close to home. He sat up, looked out the window and wagged his tail.

In thanks for the favor, I got a wet, sticky doggie kiss. And my heart was his.





True piloting and love letters

11 02 2011

On Monday I once again took a foray into the mysterious world of night flying. Two winters ago, I decided to get my qualification – under visual flight rules – just because, well, because it seemed like a cool thing to have.

Not that I would ever dare to go out there after sunset without an instructor safely belted into the right seat. You don’t actually SEE anything when you fly at night except lots of streetlights. And on this night the slim crescent moon provided zero additional illumination. So it just tends to be… really dark out there, and the biggest challenge is making sure you know where you are going. And avoiding terrain, of course.

Cool, huh?

We hit evening rush hour at Zurich International Airport, and despite having reserved a slot time in advance, the folks in the tower decided that our little Cessna 152 would be relegated to their lowest priority. HB-CFF is a trusty trainer, about my age, and, like me, a workhorse that loves to fly and hates to idle on the tarmac.

But as the one of the creatures lowest on the aviation food chain, she and her fellow 152s are also regularly subjected to a fair amount of abuse from aviation authorities (like air traffic controllers) and anyone who flies in anything with more than two seats.

Such as the insult of having to wait at the holding point as at least 15 heavies – commercial aircraft, behemoths of the sky – saunter past with the arrogance that giants tend to exude. They all know that our prop wash is peanuts against their jet blast, and they could knock us over in less time than it takes to say “Full power”.

Our view out the windshield is just about at the same level of their million-watt headlights. Thank you, gentlemen – that’s almost as much fun as enduring a laser attack on short final.

A full 23 minutes after an initial “Ready for Departure” call to Zurich Tower, I wondered aloud if Zurich Tower was going to let us sit there all night till we were completely blinded or till we ran out of fuel – whatever came second. A follow-up call had its desired effect: we were told to line up on the active runway 28. Only to wait some more as another three jets were cleared to cross on a taxiway in the distance.

Once (finally, FINALLY!) in the air, that familiar feeling of ultimate liberation returned and I once again wondered why it took me so long to come back. We flew into the deep orange stripe still highlighting the western horizon, chasing the sun that was long gone. Our destination was Basel, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of here, and finding the airport was a challenging mini-refresher in night navigation (sans GPS, folks).

Three smooth as silk touch-and-go’s on a runway lit up like a Christmas tree validated my confidence in my landing abilities. On the homeward leg, a clear starry sky stretched over us like a cloudless ink-black dome. Simply magical. It doesn’t get any better than this, I think. You just don’t get this feeling in an jet, no matter how hard you try.

Little birds like CFF are often mocked in places where tonnage and thrust play a leading role, but I maintain they are still the better way to fly. After all, what’s cooler? Actual piloting or systems management? It’s a philosophical discussion among aviators that’s been conducted ad nauseum since computers crept into the cockpit.

I guess that’s kind of like the debate between a ring binder full of paper and an I-pad. Of course the I-pad can do so much more than a stack of paper, but honestly – don’t you long for a handwritten love letter once in a while?

Yeah, me too.

 

(Thanks to the folks at Flying in Crosswinds for the ultra-cool night landing photo. And I sincerely apologize for not having given credit earlier.)





The pursuit of happiness

11 10 2010

I’m currently in the middle of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book “Committed”. You know the name – Gilbert is the author of that blockbuster of self-reflection: “Eat, Pray, Love” (now a major motion picture).

 

The Book.

 

If you are one of the three people on the planet who have managed to escape the EPL hype so far, the story is this: After a messy and very distressing divorce, Gilbert found peace in Italy – where she ate, India – where she prayed, and Indonesia – where she loved. (FYI, the movie’s OK but the book was better.)

“Committed” is an intellectual examination of the institution of marriage, and Gilbert lists the many reasons she never wanted to go near it again. Bad luck for her, the U.S. government intervened, basically damning her to wed her foreign lover, even though both were aghast at the idea. Initially, anyway.

It’s easy enough reading, and I’m entertained. Light vignettes, good storytelling, interesting facts about something that I never bothered to research the history of. I’m only about halfway through, so please nobody tell me how it turns out… I’d like to read for myself. (I assume she and Felipe get married in the end, but I’d like to know how they found their way there.)

In 2007, even though R. had already asked me to marry him (on a cloudy New York afternoon, at the bar in the Boathouse restaurant in Central Park), we never really seriously discussed it in detail. We were both modern, enlightened 21st century adults who didn’t need a piece of paper to certify our relationship. Kids weren’t on the horizon (“Are you getting married because you’re pregnant?” is a really rude first question, by the way – and you’d be amazed how many people ask precisely that question), neither of us needed a visa for the other’s home country (yet) and I wasn’t looking for a new identity that would come with a new name (I wasn’t running from the mafia or the law). So to us, there was no real requirement for it.

Until my father fell suddenly and seriously ill. On what turned out to be his deathbed, R. asked him for his permission to marry me. You know, the old fashioned way.

So, well, we did. And today happens to be our second wedding anniversary.

On October 11th, 2008, this is what we asked of and pledged to each other:

Please join me on a journey of discovery, adventure and celebration, so that together we may face whatever this life will bring us, as friends, partners and lovers. I promise to encourage you, inspire you, support you, comfort you, and respect you as an equal, in good days and in bad. I promise to give you the best I have to offer. I will hold you close, and remain faithful to you, for all the days to come.

It’s been two years since that glorious indian summer afternoon when R. and I officially legalized our love before God and the Commonwealth of Virginia, as well as friends and family, some of whom had flown in from halfway around the world to watch and to party with us. And it was absolutely fabulous.

 

The moment of truth on October 11th, 2008.

 

More fabulous yet is the everyday of being together. Our friendship and respect for each other has shifted, changed and grown and two years on our relationship is stronger than ever. We are definitely having way more fun together the longer we hang out with each other.

I finally feel like I belong somewhere. To someone. Who always welcomes me home.