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.

Advertisements




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.





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.





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.





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.





Challenges of the English language

10 03 2011

The other twilight I decided to wade into the darkness over South Florida and try a night flight through some of the busiest airspace in the world. But I discovered quickly that darkness is relative. Though the sun dropped behind the Everglades as it does every day, the southeastern tip of the country is far from dark. A sea of light illuminating the ground beneath our Cessna Skyhawk (as well as the clouds above it) was burning enough energy to power a small developing country. For a year or maybe two.

The lights end abruptly in a straight line though, north to south, and the black abyss of the Atlantic Ocean takes over.

Downtown Miami at night. Gorgeous, isnt it?

One of the great challenges of flying (day or night) in my home country is, I’ve discovered, that I have to actually relearn my own native language in order to figure out what’s going on on the aviation transmission frequencies.

You see, in Europe, where almost everyone speaks English as their first, second, third or fourth foreign language, the pace on the radio is slower and more deliberate. The directions given by the the air traffic controllers have a distinctly European flavor. (And still, I feel sooooo superior with my native English language skills and the “Level Six – English proficient” notation on my pilots’ license.)

But here in the land of the free and the home of the verbally challenged, I am quite simply, erm… a bit lost. That evening when I contacted what is called “Clearance” at my home airport, I gave them my call sign – N5213R – and my intentions – “shoreline south” – this is what I heard back:

“Five-two-one-three-romeo, shwewlypdkjahjhsadoifhniowneknrlkmkdnn. Blurph.”

Ummm… say what?

My response: “Five-two-one-three-romeo, say again slowly, please?”

“One-three-romeo, aslhfkjjkdsopnvoewsdfkljipelous. Opuwernx.”

I looked to the instructor sitting next to me.

“Don’t look at me, I didn’t understand him either,” he said.

A second “say again” call brought clarity, I was cleared to taxi and prepare for takeoff.

Not understanding what is going on is all fine and good when stationary on the ground. There is time to pause and think and breathe and stay out of everyone’s way. There is no pressure, no airspace to watch out for, no altitude or speed to maintain and no reason to worry that something bad just might happen the next second.

Once airborne, however, is when the real fun starts. Especially in, as previously mentioned, one of the busiest aviation centers in the entire country.

A sightseeing flight down to Miami and Key Biscayne crosses the airspace of two busy international airports, where the last thing they want to see is a single-engine gnat getting in the way. Being sucked into the air intake of a passenger jet headed for Europe would create a bad day for everyone.

So therefore little itty bitty aircraft like ours are asked (told) to keep low enough over the shoreline so that we can practically dip our toes into the ocean below, and wave to residents on the 43rd floor of the beachside apartment towers just west of us.  We are almost close enough to see what they are watching on TV. The big boys thunder overhead as they depart from or approach MIA or FLL.

And so the garbled radio transmissions continued this night. I asked the various stations to “say again s-l-o-w-l-y” no less than seven times. I’m sure they threw a party when N5213R landed safely at her home airport.

Damn foreigners.





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.)