Anyone’s Adventure

7 10 2010

There we were on a summer afternoon, an odd couple if there ever was one. Me, the pilot, in shorts and a t-shirt, riding left seat as usual, hands on the controls and concentrating on my cockpit. Snugly nestled into the seat at my right, my first-time passenger, in high-heeled wedge sandals and designer fashion, skeptically eyeing the dials on the instrument panel in front of her. On this day, she was a kind of virgin of the sky, on her first true aviation adventure.

I like taking up first-timers in light aircraft. Especially the veteran air travelers who have often used large airplanes to get from A to B, but never imagined doing this kind of thing for fun. These folks spend their lives at the back of the bus: herded like cattle from one terminal to the next, into long steel transportation tubes, the age of elegance in air travel long gone with the wind. (Unless you fly First Class on Emirates’ new A380. Which no normal person can afford anyway.)

They all have a decidedly lateral perspective on aviation.


Their view.


When they take a seat up front for the first time they gasp at the possibilities that unfold before them. Suddenly seeing the world out of the wide front windshield rather than out a porthole on the side is an entirely new experience that leaves many speechless. Due to anguish or excitement, I haven’t yet figured out.


My view.


In the past, the most complex tasks they had when flying were 1) to decide what they wanted for lunch and 2) figure out the entertainment system. (OK, that’s pretty complex…) When I give them the chance to drive the plane for a little while, they hang on to the yoke with a death grip. It’s funny – a few of them are naturals at flying straight and level. And others are hopeless. There is no in-between.

A first-timer asks fresh questions like: “Why does it feel like we are going so slow?” (As a tailwind propels us and the airspeed indicator shows a whopping 120 knots or 210 km/h.) Or they comment on things about which I have become blasé. “I’ve never seen the world like this before,” they say in awe as we cruise over landmarks they know only from the horizontal.

Those moments remind me how privileged I am.

Mountains are the great attraction of flying in Switzerland. I did my training in a region where the highest peak was maybe 1,500 feet (450 meters) above sea level. You could see the weather come for miles, and the words “downdraft,” “density altitude” and “paraglider” belonged to a foreign language. Exploring the Alps from above brought a new, thrilling dimension to my hobby, along with about a million more things to think about when at the controls of a single-engine piston aircraft.


Our view.


Even when earthbound, my thoughts are often airborne. Whenever my brain registers the hum of an engine overhead, I am programmed to look up. I always wonder what the view is like today from that cockpit. How are the weather conditions? Where is the pilot going and where did she come from? Is she up with first-timers? Or alone for a personal spin? Distancing herself from a worry, and trying to find a solution?

The fog that descends on Zurich for much of the autumn will probably keep me grounded for the next few weeks, but I look forward to taking off on a crisp, clear, sunny winter day when everything sparkles – the snow, the air outside the cockpit and my breath. And maybe I can convince another first-timer to come with me on a fairy-tale adventure like that, so that s/he can discover that other-worldly feeling of true freedom.

Swiss summer fun

28 07 2010

Summer brings everyone outdoors. It’s warm, beautiful and the days are long. But nowhere does summer entice the population to spend its time outdoors more than in Switzerland. The Swiss have perfected the art of being perfect – clean water, clean air and pristine landscapes – and as soon as it starts to smell and feel like summer outside, the Swiss are off gallivanting through their own personal playground: the Alps.

Now there are about a million crazy things you can do in the summer with the Alps as your backyard (and another million in the winter). I had never heard of most of these so-called “high risk sports” till I arrived here six years ago. Oh sure, usually harmless pastimes like hiking and mountain-biking are popular here, too, but please – only if the path hugging the side of the mountain has a 40% grade, is less than a foot wide and drops off into a deep ravine on one side.

Here’s a short list of stuff I’ve discovered that looks cool, is cool and inevitably ends up claiming a couple of lives every summer. The activities all involve moving vertically somehow, usually from higher ground to lower ground, in a more or less controlled fashion. A good reminder that gravity is a law and not an option.

Base Jumping – This is the craziest of all and the one that is probably responsible for the most casualties. Definition: Jumping from fixed objects. B=building, A=antenna (or tower), S=span (i.e. a bridge), E=earth (i.e. a mountain edge). You freefall and pull the chute just before going splat.

Look ma, no parachute!

Canyoning (known as canyoneering in the U.S.) entails hiking up a mountain and then traveling through its canyons using a variety of techniques that may include other outdoor activities such as walking, scrambling, climbing, jumping, abseiling, and/or swimming. I’ve done this and it’s incredibly fun. Canyoning combines agility, strength and a healthy love of heights – on land, in the air and in the water. Often though, there is only one way out – down. Some important safety information, found on the internet: “There is great potential for injury for the unlucky, the reckless or ill-prepared.”

Paragliding – Jumping off a mountain with a kind of sophisticated parachute (called a “paraglider”) open already. On a pleasant day, paragliders can fly for hours with only the thermal lift to carry them. Their colorful chutes often dot the summer sky across Switzerland and sometimes pose a hazard to low-flying aircraft. Getting one tangled in your propeller can be messy.

Spectacular view

Tobogganing – This is the summer version of the luge in winter. You sit in a plastic or metal tub and careen down a mountain in a metal canal. If you use the brakes you’re a sissy.

Via ferrata – Italian for “iron road” – a form of rock climbing that sends you on a mountain route equipped with fixed wire cables and artificial hand- and footholds. It allows non-climbers to try real mountaineering. One website reminds potential athletes that in order to actually enjoy your outing, you need to be “fearless”.

Rock climbing for beginners

Summer adventure, anyone?