Take Back the Skies      


A campaign for Americans to
regain their birthright to fly

Essays on Flying

 

De-Rusting My Wings
(December 30, 2002)

Sunday morning dawned differently; it wasnít just the lighter shade of pale that rain-filled clouds had painted for days and weeks on end. Instead, the sun rose in a timely manner, climbing into a blue sky, now dotted with clouds rather than covered by them. Not only were the rains gone, albeit temporarily, but so were the gusty winds, which had calmed themselves into a constant 12 knot blow.

Thinking that maybe the weather geeks had gotten their forecast right, I had booked a plane for the late morning so that I could shake the rust off my pilotís wings. It had been nearly six weeks since Iíd flown, which was three times what I considered a decent interval to remain stuck on the ground. It didnít count that I had flown with the airlines; this was about my need to take off and land without straining my memory, both thinking and physical.

Airline pilots with tens of thousands of flying hours report that they feel rusty after going on vacation for two weeks. I have three hundred hours, so my cellular memory is considerably more shallow, and the need for freshening concomitantly deeper. Indeed, if I donít go up every week, Iím particularly suspicious of my flying mind; there is little room for Oops, I forgot to....

Which is why we have checklists. In the planes that I rent, there are laminated dog-earred cards that take the diligent pilot from the pre-flight through the shut down, and everything in between. You want to make sure everything is in working order, that there are no rivets missing or stressed cables. Getting proper maintenance and following checklists is why so many small planes are flying after thirty and more years; the people involved in general aviation recognize that there is little tolerance for error.

The last time Iíd flown it had been a good fifteen degrees warmer; now the mercury was sitting in the low fifties. This meant that the air was more dense, which meant the prop had more to chew on, which meant the aircraft jumped off the runway when I gently pulled back on the yoke. I pulled a 180 over the Sacramento River and headed south on the downwind, quickly climbing to 4500 feet, making some lazy turns to the right and the left as I reached for altitude. In the process, I regained a feel for the plane, like awakening muscles after getting outta bed in the morning.

I turned around again and headed north, flying toward Shasta Lake, and u-turning again over our house, I headed for Redding Municipal. Itís got a 7000-foot runway, unlike the 2300 feet at the Benton Airpark where I rent. That length allows for touch-ín-goís, where I can land, reconfigure the aircraft, and take off again, without having to taxi back to the beginning of the runway. TaGís are also more complicated because you are thinking about a reverse process as you are completing a first, and you have to make sure you donít confuse the two. For instance, on a complex aircraft, you want to make sure you donít try to retract the landing gear instead of flaps.

The first landing was a little bouncy, maybe a B-. Considering I hadnít flown this type of plane --a high-wing Cessna -- in a coupla months, it wasnít bad, but it wasnít satisfactory either. I rose into the sky again, and turned back into the pattern, this time approaching the runway from the left instead of the right, to accommodate incoming traffic from the northeast. Landing number two was a B+, as was number three, and Iím being modest. I returned to Benton and closed out the day with an A-.

Landings are the trickiest part of flying, at least for me, and making good ones is a serious thrill. Especially when they are the result of deliberate, attentive efforts, instead of taking advantage of luck on the air currents. My first flight instructor said the course of learning is rote, understanding, application, and correlation. After this dayís flying, I felt I was moving toward the other side of application.

As I have found with other endeavors, when I come back to a practice after being away for a while, I often discover an increased alacrity of talents. Something about ideas and practice fermenting in inaction. Itís how Iíve scaled to the next plateau of learning. With other activities, Iíve often slipped into a cockiness, at least briefly, in my excitement over my newly-appeared abilities. With flying, however, there is no cockiness; just exhilaration with the extraordinary nature of flight and my humble role in it. There are no old bold pilots.

And thatís SetonnoteS...Iím Tony Seton.

 

 

Flying Off the Rust
(September 2, 2002)

The musing drone of a small plane some ten miles away seemed natural in the clear still skies of a Sunday morning. It might have been someone taking a lesson, or perhaps it was just a pilot peeling some rust off of his wings. People who fly for pleasure and/or the occasional business trip often will go up for no reason at all but to stay familiar with the controls. There are a lot of them. Not only do you have to know what that wall of instruments is saying, but more important, you have to maintain a cellular feel for the aircraft. All the book-learnin' and lessons are fine, but if you don't get up in the air every now and then, you lose your feel for the controls.

Even pilots with the airlines report that they begin to lose an edge if they're not flying for a week or two, and they fly many hours at a time, for days in a row. Yours truly recently logged his 300th hour in the cockpit, and a quarter of that time, before I received my private pilot's certificate, someone else was Pilot-in-Command. I'm reporting my junior status. I'm not trying to accumulate hours, as are so many who get their license on their way to a front seat in an airliner. Those people need lots of hours, and they try to rack them up on someone else's dime, mostly by giving flight instruction.

Flying commercial can be very lucrative, with senior pilots making upwards of $150,000 a year for a part-time gig; they are only allowed to fly so many hours a day, so many days a month. But there aren't a lot of those jobs, and because they look so desirable, there are a lot of jobs below them, many of them like co-piloting a prop plane for a commuter line paying less than $20,000.

As much as I enjoy flying, and sharing the pleasure in conversations with people who seem truly interested, I'm not one to teach people how to fly. First, because I don't need to log time, and second because I'm working hard enough at flying better myself to be able to concentrate on instructing someone else. I make it a purpose to fly for at least an hour every two weeks, just to maintain a foundational degree of efficiency.

Most general aviation fatalities happen when a student or private pilot has 50-350 hours; instrument-rated pilots suffer the worst having logged 250-550 hours. Those statistics from a recent book on the subject called The Killing Zone. Also, insurance industry statistics suggest that pilots who reach levels of 300, 500, and 1000 hours exhibit a certain amount of cockiness. At this point, I can't imagine ever feeling cocky about flying, though I do appreciate a sense of increased grounding -- perhaps a bad choice of words -- in my accumulation of experience.

This past week, I made two flights. One was a trip on my own to Santa Rosa, which takes four hours to reach by car and one by plane. The second was a flight to Marin to connect with a lawyer from Wisconsin who wanted to meet with Linda. We were back and forth in less than three hours of flying time; driving would have taken eight. Both trips were for business in IRS terms; both were a pleasure to fly. Gotta stay proficient.

And that's SetonnoteS...I'm Tony Seton.

 

Shelter Cove
(September 2, 2002)

There are plenty of reasons to learn how to fly, and one of them I only discovered this summer. It is the approach to runway 12 -- we pilots pronounce that one-two -- at Shelter Cove. The airfield there sits on a delicious green plateau that noses into the Pacific, roughly half-way between Mendocino and Eureka. The 3400-foot runway is surrounded by a nine-hole golf course and a handful of bed-'n-breakfasts, motels, and food-eries. It is the perfect escape, especially for people who live in the Northern Sacramento Valley, where summer temperatures climb past a 110.

As many parts of the nation baked under unseasonably hot and dry conditions, the Redding area saw the mercury climb towards the century mark during the last week of May. That was fifteen degrees over the normal high, and one mighta hoped that Ole Sol was just venting some of the impending oven clime, that maybe it wouldn't be so hot this summer, but that wasn't the way it turned out, alas. We've visited triple digits into the first week of September. A couple strange cold spells averaged out the obscene highs and the summer was normal, and awful.

Shelter Cove is one of those places described as you-can't-get there-from-here. Highway One, which marks most of the California coast from Mexico to Canada, turns inland a ways south of Shelter Cove. The map indicates the coastal town is tied to civilization via a narrow windy road over the coastal hills, through the forests, over bridges, to Garberville, where it links with Highway 101, a larger two-lane road that stretches the length of The Golden State. Or you can reach Shelter Cove by boat, or by air.

According to Mapquest, the drive from Redding is only 246 miles, but it would take six-plus hours. The flight was only 50 minutes. This is why I learned to fly. Also, when I left Redding shortly before nine in the morning, the temperature was already in the eighties; at the ocean, it rarely approaches such ridiculous heights. Plus there's always a breeze. Indeed, as I cleared the last coastal ridge at five thousand feet, I descended through a flurry of disparate winds that tossed my plane about like fresh-popping corn.

I flew above the airstrip and out over the Pacific, lowering to the traffic pattern altitude a thousand feet over the water. The air down beneath the ridge line was much smoother. I flew the downwind, parallel to the runway, and then turned to fly the perpendicular base leg until I lined up on runway one-two. Flying final approach toward the end of the runway, descending to 69 feet, took me over the ragged shoreline, with waves pounding against the rocks, spuming rainbows into the air beneath me.

After a bounce-free landing, I toodled down to the end of the runway, and returned to the north end via the meandering taxi-way. The flight to Shelter Cove was a circuitous way to fly down to the Bay Area, and my appointment in San Francisco launched me into the air again without a chance to soak in the sights and smells. But I as I took off, I knew I wouldn't need to leave breadcrumbs to find my way back.

On the way south, about twenty minute, I flew a touch-'n-go at the Little River Airport. That's the mile-long strip that serves Mendocino. Mendocino is where we want to live some day, probably, so I had been thinkin' that I should have the experience of finding and landing at the Mendocino airport. I think we'll be fine there. There's something about that north Pacific Coast of California that makes everything all right.

And that's SetonnoteS...I'm Tony Seton.

 

The More I Love Flying
(July 22, 2000)

The more I fly, the more I love flying. And the more I don't fly, the more I love flying. This past weekend found me driving instead of flying to the Bay Area. I had even reserved a plane, but canceled the reservation and made it a road trip. One of the reasons was that I needed to get around to various places, which meant I would have to rent ground transportation if I flew. Another was that I would have to pay for an extra three hours of plane rental if I stayed a full second day, and that made it kinda pricey. It also reinforced my hunger to own a plane, but we won't go into those economics here.

So Friday morning, I headed south on my 3Ĺ hour trek to San Francisco. There wasn't much traffic. I had a cooler loaded with bottles of water and some cherries. The CD selection included Lorraine Hunt singing Handel. I set the cruise control for 78, which was two notches below ten over the speed limit. I find driving to be relaxing, and hadn't been on a road trip for a while. On this familiar route, I didn't expect to start second-guessing my decision to drive for a while.

But I was only at the outskirts of Redding when the pang to be airborne hit me. I watched a small plane descending on the approach to the northbound runway at the municipal airport. As it crossed about the highway, it was a little over four miles from touching down. Sigh. Twenty miles further, I passed the sign noting the turn-off for the Red Bluff airport. Red Bluff is a familiar training airport for Reddingites. It doesn't have a tower, and there isn't a lot of traffic there. Red Bluff is also where I completed my instrument test flight successfully, so it has a special place in my flying heart.

Fifty miles more to the south, and I watched a plane heading to Willows airport. This is another field that is close to the freeway. It was where I made several night landings to qualify for my private pilot's license. The landing light on the plane I was flying at the time was quirky, which means that it often didn't work at night. That's okay -- indeed, one trains without the light -- because you can use the lighting on the runway. Usually. In my case, as we taxied around for take-off, my instructor stuck his arm out the window and shined a flashlight on the tarmac to help me to see where we were going.

The junction with Route 80 west is in Vacaville, another town with an airstrip located near the highway. Called Nut Tree after a popular local road stop, now closed, the airstrip was the site of another flying first in my training. I had to figure out the approach myself, and put myself in the pattern properly, without overflying a nearby housing development. As I approached the end of the strip in the car, a small plane had just taken off and was climbing over the traffic.

It was a good road trip to San Francisco, and the return wasn't bad Saturday evening. Most people were off the highways, and there were few interruptions in the asphalt reverie. As I drove past Willows on the return, it was dark, and another small plane was coming in for a landing. I watched from the highway its smooth descent, almost to touchdown, and sighed again.

Flying to the Bay Area takes about 90 minutes, or less than half the time. Not only do I cut off 65 miles by flying directly, but I'm flying about 45 mph faster. Also, I don't have to contend with obnoxious truckers and speeding teens. With my own plane, road trips would lose their waning appeal. Honey, my birthday's coming....

And that's SetonnoteS...I'm Tony Seton.

 

Flying Is Learning
(May 15,2000)


They say that becoming a private pilot is getting a license to learn, and if you pay attention, you will learn on every flight. Especially when you have as little flying experience as I do -- fewer than 300 hours -- but the learning is a true joy. Not only the assimilation of knowledge, but the deepening sense of security that comes from a growing familiarity with the plane in particular and flying in general. The more familiar I become with the two ó without losing my humility ó the more the lessons become lore.

Last week I flew Linda down to Sacramento to catch a commercial airliner to the southland. The flight to the Smurf -- the airport code is SMF -- is a little over an hour, depending on the winds. The latest forecast said to expect a quartering headwind of nine knots. Quartering humph; right in our face. But when we got to SMF, there was a 13-knot wind coming straight up the runway, which should make landing easier.

One lesson in this flight was a favorite: stay ahead of the plane. I let my attention wander to the considerable traffic ó on the radio and in the skies ó and let the plane get ahead of me. My landing, which was more like a stone skipping over water, was not rough but thoroughly inelegant. Linda kindly noted that she had suffered worse.

I taxied to the general aviation terminal, and two minutes after I had turned off the engine, Linda was getting into a van to be driven the five minutes over to the main terminal. Back in the plane, I was off on the return trip, vowing to do better. The wind was still blowing firmly from the south. Using a fraction of the mile-and-a-half runway, I climbed quickly and u-turned toward Redding.

It was fun having a tailwind coming home. Twenty miles out, I tuned the radio to the latest automated weather conditions at Redding Municipal Airport. Muni is five miles across the valley from Benton Airpark, which I use, but Benton doesn't have a weather service. The recording from Muni said planes were landing to the south, directly into a twelve-knot wind.

But when I checked by radio with a live person at Benton, I learned that the wind was from the north. I flew over the airpark to make sure. Indeed, the winds were swirling; I could feel them moving the aircraft, and see similar results on the ground. By the time I came around to land from the south, the wind socks were perpendicular to the runway.

Crosswind landings are the trickiest part of flying small planes. When the gusts get over 15 knots, there is an unpleasant risk of flipping the aircraft. But this time I knew the challenge and didn't fall behind the plane. I extended my hands and feet through the controls to feel fluctuations of the wind. I brought the Skyhawk in for a by-the-book landing. Too bad I could only tell Linda about it.

And that's SetonnoteS...I'm Tony Seton.

 

Sunday Morning Skies
(April 24, 2002)


It was one of those gorgeous spring days, when the flags of the United States and the State of California drooped languidly down the pole in deference to gravity, undisturbed by even the notion of a breeze. The mercury, or whatever is that red stuff that rises to heated occasion, was climbing past eighty...only a hint of things to come. It's hard to imagine but true, that mid-summer will add another thirty, altogether-unpleasant degrees. But today was comfortable to the point of delightful.

We were at the Benton Airpark to fly Linda's son Trent to shoot some photographs from above the site of a new development that he is managing. With us was Linda and grandson, Connor; they were strapped in the back seat. Trent sat right seat so he could shoot his shots. Not having flown with so many people before ó even though Connor is small ó I ask Trent his weight. And Linda, too, 'cause we'd had a real fine dinner the night before. All added up, it turned out we were well within weight limits, despite the second helping of Linda's delicious from-scratch German chocolate cake.

One of the mechanics pointed out what appeared to be not serious damage to the nose wheel assembly. The lady who had just finished a short flight in the plane said she hadn't had any problem with it, but the person before her had apparently landed on the nosewheel, an event for which they are not built. Since I was just gonna be flying in the area, and landing only once ó presumably on the main wheels as you're supposed to ó it was reasonably decided that I could take the plane aloft.

Because the weight issue was in the back of my mind, and because Benton's runway lasts only 2,420 feet, I pushed open the throttle but held the plane to build up power. It was no problem lifting off the runway with plenty of asphalt to spare, but it was clear that the plane was not in a hurry to climb. A small aircraft like the Cessna Skyhawk weighs 1,400 pounds empty and doesn't have a large carrying capacity; in this case about 900 pounds. But the fuel tanks accounted for 240 of those pounds, and with three-and-a-half people aboard, it can take a while to reach altitude.

In our case, first stop was 2,500 feet, which we reached in the few minutes it took us to arrive at the spot where Trent wanted to shoot. The air at that altitude was asleep. I found my groove, and instead of tilting the wings which mighta gotten into the shot, I simply stepped on the rudder a tad and kept us in a smooth circle. Later we climbed to 4,000 and then 7,500 feet for some wider perspectives.

I kept an ear tuned to both Redding airport frequencies, just to make sure no one was coming in our direction. There were a lotta people out on this delightful Sunday, and I could hear radio traffic from airports more than a hundred miles away. Perfect pilot weather; any excuse to take a ride.

Up for a little over an hour, we descended and returned to Benton. I brought us in with a smooth landing ó on the main wheels ó and pulled into a tie-down slot. Driving home, I thought how much I enjoyed that little bit of simple flying. I'm probably too old to start flying professionally. Probably.

And that's SetonnoteS...I'm Tony Seton.

 

Squeak-Squeak
(January 17, 2002)

It was one of those special moments in life. Robert Scott, the man who taught me how to fly a plane, needed a ride to pick up his truck. Robert teaches folks to fly instruments and other special facets of piloting through intensive ten-day type courses, so it requires him to be here and there, and one of those there's was Santa Rosa, 125 miles as the Piper Cherokee flies, almost due south, over some of eastern coastal range, its snow-covered tops climbing over 7,000 feet. I was delighted that Robert asked me. I hadn't flown with him since I'd gotten my private pilot's license more than two years earlier.

I booked the Piper because it has a GPS navigation system, because forecasts threatened clouds here and there, and satellites make finding places a lot easier than the less-equipped Cessna Skyhawks that I rent. I had flown only eight hours in the Piper, but it was a plane in which I wanted to develop a feeling of comfort. We climbed to 10,000 feet and caught a 45-knot tailwind; our groundspeed registered 165.

Flying over hills can get mighty bumpy, as the wind below bounces into the rising land and zooms upward, making for what are called mountain waves. The day before, another pilot friend reported being tossed about at 45-degree angles by the same weather pattern. Robert showed me a trick for smoothing out the flight. I slowed my airspeed ten knots so I could lower my flaps. Though the groundspeed dropped 30 knots ó we weren't in a hurry ó we continued to fly the wind, and the ride got a lot softer. Once we cleared the hills and descended into the valley, I raised the flaps and opened the throttle again.

Sonoma County Airport, as it is officially called, has a tower and two angled runways. That means someone is taking note of you and the other traffic, which is always a good thing, and you will be brought in on a runway that has you mostly facing into the wind. Airports with a single runway can be inaccessible when there is a crosswind that exceeds an aircraft's capabilities.

There was still a considerable breeze at ground level ó a 15-knot wind with gusts to 22 ó coming out of 330 degrees, and we were landing on runway 32 and only a nine-degree angle. Had it been a right-angle crosswind, at that velocity it would have pushed the proverbial envelope, but facing into it was good thing, since it helped slow down the aircraft, providing more control.

We blew past the runway on the downwind and 180'd onto final approach. There were no indicator lights on this runway to show a pilot whether he's too low or too high, but the skies were perfectly clear and the sun behind us. I lowered my speed, and brought the Piper in for a landing.

And that's when it happened. It was what Robert in an earlier interview had referred to as a squeak-squeak landing. When you hear the tires touch the tarmac one right after the other, before you feel contact with the ground. Very nice, he said, as I was still realizing that we had already touched down; he was clearly pleased.

You don't get touchdowns like that all the time, at least not this 250-hour pilot, and it is one I will never forgot. I had plenty of time to savor it going back, flying into that same 40+ knot headwind on the return trip. I'm really getting to like this piloting thang.

And that's SetonnoteS...I'm Tony Seton.

 

Don't Pick on Pilots
(January 10, 2002)

As California leaders watch the ungodly premature March 5th primary looming just over the grey horizon, they are unable to restrain themselves from trying to make political hay out of the September terrorist attacks, by proposing and supporting new laws that will produce headlines but little security. Led by Gray Davis, a phalanx of Republican and Democratic legislators will ride the bandwagon of faux safety to higher deficits and less action in areas where it is truly needed. Shame on them, and they don't care. The esteemed Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters thinks that California voters are brighter than to be buffaloed by this expensive political prancing and they will punish the pol-perps at the polls.

One of the areas where I have concern that zeal will overwhelm intellect is in general aviation. What with the hijacking of the jetliners, and this past weekend, the suicide plane crash of a 15-year-old student pilot in Tampa, it's easy for politicians to jump up and down, creating heat but little light. The problem is that there is little that can be done to control general aviation, that wouldn't be stultifying, and there is less of a reason to limit it.

There are 350,000 private and students pilots, and some 200,000 general aviation aircraft at 18,000 airports in our country. Most of the airports are little more than runways. But for all their potential vulnerability, there is little crime involving general aviation. Last year, all of 15 planes were reported stolen, and only 11 the year before. Mostly, criminal activity with small planes is tied in with drug smuggling, but with our impossibly porous borders, restricting general aviation ain't gonna stop a thing.

Take the case of the boy in Tampa who flew a Cessna 172 into the Bank of America Building. According to his parents, teacher, and flight instructor, his actions were unpredictable, which is typical of that age, but underscores the futile nature of new regulations. (He may have been driven to kill himself by Accutane, an acne medicine with a history of suicides.) If he didn't know how to fly a plane, and was bent on killing himself, a car would have been a likely alternative vehicle. Similarly, a man in Petaluma, California who flew a rental plane into a hillside, apparently short-circuiting a police investigation to his relations with a 14-year-old. Had he not known how to fly, he surely would have been able to figure another way to go.

Cheap-shotting is a favorite sport of politicians, who generally choose targets which are small in number or voting power. They may be making a mistake if they pick on private pilots, because while we are not a large group, we are not push-overs. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country, because the members have money and they vote. They are also backed by manufacturers, maintenance operations, fuel suppliers, and flight schools, among others.

The best guess ó personal interests aside - is that the pols will make a lotta noise, maybe nudge the FAA to form yet another investigatory commission, but in the end, they will again take advantage of the public's short attention span and jump on the next frothing steed for their fresh blast of attention.

And that's SetonnoteS...I'm Tony Seton.

 

The High of Flight
(December 12, 2001)


It's difficult to describe the thrill of flying at the controls of a small plane. I make that qualification about pilots because there are some veteran airline jockeys who are probably bored out of their minds, at least most of the time. Indeed, my aviation guru lady ó lady should probably come first ó describes flying as hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. Audrey means the take-offs and landings. But she doesn't mean it about the boredom part. That girl, who claims to have taught Orville and Wilbur how to fly, would be happy to be in flight most of her waking hours.

Late Tuesday afternoon, I returned from a flight to Marin to pick up a box of videotapes of my newly-completed and now dubbed television program on child-rearing. It would have been much less costly to have FedEx do the lifting, but it was a reason to get into a plane and loosen the rust flakes from my wings. I asked Audrey if she wanted to go with me, and normally ó were this not the Christmas season ó she would have said yes, but she said no, and told me to file a flight plan. I was going to anyway.

It was my first IFR flight plan. It said I would take-off and fly to Gnoss Field in Novato according to a particular itinerary of direction, speed, and altitude, and use GPS to find my way to the airport. That's what I'd studied and tested for, to get my Instrument Flight Rating; even though the weather was fine for VFR (Visual Flight Rules) if I went down the valley. But I'd done all of that work so I could fly direct, and so I booked the Piper Cherokee Archer with the Garmin 430 GPS and had my videographer-pal Richard deliver the tapes to the airport.

I did feel rusty, and particularly because I've only logged a half-dozen trips, mostly local, in the Piper. It's a low-wing aircraft, a little faster, and with a different configuration of switches and dials. I also fly it better than I do the high-wing Skyhawks, even though I'd spent the vast bulk of my limited hours in them. Audrey said I was made for low-wing, and she should know.

I pulled the Piper out of the hangar, pre-flighted, and secured my clearance from the control tower of the municipal airport. When I took off, it was knowing everything was fine, but not being entirely sure that I had remembered everything that wasn't critical, even though I'd gone over the check list. Climbing to 9,000 feet, I cleared the eastern peaks in the coastal range, already snow-capped, on a nearly due south track. To the west, a huge dark cloud bank stretched from out of sight to the north behind me down into the valleys, and obscuring the mountains toward the coast. My path looked clear ó indeed, I only went through a corner of a cloud before I broke into partially scattered clouds.

The afternoon sun shot through here and there and then doused the deliciously-lime green valley in luscious brilliance, but the forecast and the growing clouds foretold more rain. I made a clean approach to Novato, closed my flight plan on final approach, and brought the Piper in smoothly. In ten minutes, I had picked up the tapes and was back at the controls.

The 24-knot tailwind that had poured me south at 140 knots now was going to hold me up, perhaps to after dark. I had never flown the Piper at night; I hadn't flown at night for going on two years. I flew slightly easterly, pushing the time that I would clear the hills and could fly behind them up the valley. From a 85-knot ground speed at 7,500 feet, I managed to duck beneath the brunt of it at 4,500 feet, where the GPS said I was tearing along at 100 knots. I was also sideslipping in a significant crosswind that had me crabbing ten degrees to the west.

It could have taken hours longer than the one-forty-five, and the trip would still have been grand. The sun was setting, and the pyrotechnical dance with the clouds created colors probably not seen but from the air. Good thing I was alone up there, and could spend the time looking out the window. Comfortably, once I calculated that I would be landing fifteen minutes before the ink fell on the page. As it turned out, I made a well-turned, reasonably-gentle landing a half-hour after dusk. The runway lights were on, and useful, but I didn't need them. I taxied to the hangar, retrieved my car from inside, and maneuvered the Piper back into its shelter.

There are simpler challenges in the world than pushing a 1500 pound aircraft into a tight area with a tow-bar, especially for someone who at 51 still finds parallel parking a challenge. Look left, think right, or something vice versa. Driving home, not a long time later ó I got the plane in on the third try ó I could imagine sitting in a lawn chair across from the hangar, studying the geometry with a drink in hand, and associates with whom to discuss the matter.

And as I drove home, I thought, what a really neat thang, to have flown this afternoon, three months to the day after that craven insult to flight, to life, to the appreciation of what is possible. I felt pride of my heritage, to be a citizen of a great nation that has pioneered so much. Not only flight, but women pilots. It's exhilarating to imagine what more is possible.

And that's SetonnoteS...I'm Tony Seton.

 

Back in the Air
(September 20, 2001)


When I saw the notice in the morning paper that said general aviation was getting back off the ground, I didn't believe it of course. But it checked out on the web, and Hillside Aviation said, Sure, come out 'n fly. There are still restrictions; you can't fly into the area of a large airport without filing an instrument flight plan. The FAA is also refusing to allow further flight instruction for the time being, though why, is not entirely clear. They also won't open Washington National Airport. It doesn't seem like they appreciate that there is little they can do to stop what happened on Tuesday, regardless of their desire and authority.

But this not about our government, it's about flying. Those malefactors slandered flying with their actions last week. It was a kind of cheating. Like using nerve gas. And we don't want to speculate how that line might be crossed.

On the day of the bombing, all aircraft were ordered to land immediately. The Cessna Skyhawk in which I had earned my instrument rating had been grounded the nine days since. The windshield was dusty, and the battery needed a boost to turn the prop. This I discovered after a longer than usual pre-flight check of the aircraft. There was no evidence that it had suffered during the hiatus. No bird's nest under the cowling, which happens sometimes, just over night.

I performed the run-up check of the engine. It sounded strong and confident. The gauges also said appropriate things, and another plane was waiting behind me to take-off. Still, I quickly scanned my take-off checklist a second time, and then I eased my aircraft onto the runway. A final survey of the instruments as I opened the throttle and we spurred down the runway. At 65 knots, I pulled back slightly on the yoke, and in only a second or two, the nosewheel was off the tarmac, followed by the rest of us.

I didn't know where I was going until I was airborne. Usually a pilot announces which way he his headed after take-off, but not having decided, there was no intention to declare. I might have gone down to Red Bluff or over to Redding Municipal for a couple of landings. I might have headed to the coast, but I didn't know the status of the coastal fog. But as I was rising above the runway, I knew my direction and kept us pointed to the north.

I put the plane into a slow climb. Pouring through the haze that clouded this northern end of the Sacramento Valley, we crossed the first line of hills at the south end of Lake Shasta at 4,000 feet. A persistent drought has dropped the lake levels by almost a hundred feet. Between the tree line and the water line is a wide girdle of red-orange soil; in some places, fresh bright green grass has started to sprout. And in some parts of the lake, old dead trees are poking through the surface by several feet. Kinda curious, these stark sentinels of a drowning some sixty years ago, when the dam was finished.

I make for Mount Shasta, poking it's nose out of the Cascade Range at 14,162 above sea level. Only a few hundred feet shorter than Mt. Whitney. Interstate Five weaves its way from Redding to Mount Shasta, back and forth through the gorges hewn by the Sacramento River at the base of 6,000-foot peaks; it probably adds another eight miles to the journey. But I'm above it all. I level out at 9,500 and fly over Shastina, a 6,500-foot mountain-ette, relative to and west of the mystical Shasta.

I suddenly realize that the demons are exorcized. I can head back. I flick on my turn signal, figuratively, and circle around the upper cone of Mount Shasta. There's still some snow toward the top, even on the south face, and most of it will likely remain until it is buried in the winter offering.

It's deliciously cool up here. Not enough for a jacket, but enough to close an air vent. To the east, the sun is still climbing over distant mountains. In the foreground, layering themselves out toward the horizon are ridge after ridge of smaller hills, greyed in shadowy pastels. They're much like views you see in California posters, which look like graphics, but are actually photographs.

I would like to have practiced some touch-'n-go landings at"Muni", but the FAA says that looks like flight instruction which isn't allowed so I can't. Instead I land, then taxi back to the head of the runway and take off. Returning to my home field six miles away, I bring the aircraft in with a B-plus landing, and taxi to a tie-down spot. Again, closing out my flight, I watch myself focus more attention on what until last week had been cursory procedures. A small silver lining.

They can never take away what we know. Let's let the wisdom shine.

And that's SetonnoteS...I'm Tony Seton.

 

Now Through the Clouds
(June 25, 2001)


If youíve ever climbed off a smallish boat onto terra firma, you are probably aware of the experience of sea legs. You feel kinda wobbly, as your legs try to adjust to a stable, non-rolling environment. Same thing happens when you climb off a trampoline. And for me, it can be hours since I flew, but when Iím sitting at my desk, one of us is gently rocking back and forth. I think itís pilot. Itís not really uncomfortable, just attention getting. When the clackiní starts, the awareness of the rolling disappears.

Today, Iím wearing my office-bound ride like a badge. I flew 3.7 hours this morning, and in the course of my flying earned what those in the trade call my Instrument Ticket. That means that someone who knows a whole lot more about flying flew around to see if client-student knows how to fly by instruments, as if s/he were up in the clouds and the clouds were down towards the deck. You are allowed to land by instruments at some airports with clouds only a coupla hundred feet above the ground.

Thatís not my immediate plan. Iíll first try it with the clouds maybe at a coupla thousand feet. Yes, I know how to read the instruments and fly the plane, but this license I earned is only a ticket to learn how to fly well. Practice and experience will make me proficient, and as I gain confidence, Iíll lower my own minimum visibility and height requirements. To what purpose? you might ask; well might you ask. Mainly itís to be able to get to places faster. Especially living in Redding, which is a four-hour drive to the coast, and less than an hour by small plane.

I struggled a lot with taking this test. First because I went out without being certain about tracking certain radio signals. I thought I knew how to do it, and Iíd done it, but it was mostly by intuition and proficient guess work. I didnít have the synapses legibly channeled in my skull, which is important when one is being tested. Not only do you need to know the information, you have to be able to access on demand. I wasnít there the first time.

Part of the exercise for me was more personal. I knew that I could learn everything I needed to know, eventually, and pass the test, eventually. And I would never let eventually get too far down the road. What I needed more than passing this test was to force myself to assimilate the information and train the body to respond without having to think so much about what I was doing. Of course, that takes practice, and at $77 an hour ó which is not a lot of money for such valuable training ó itís still not a place to dawdle.

More important still, was I needed to gain control over parts of my mind that would get frazzled during the test. Frazzle doesnít work when youíre more than a coupla feet off the ground. Perhaps it is my exuberantly-creative mind ó blessing and curse that it is ó which would conjure up all sorts of excitement and confusion and leave me wondering who was in charge. It reminded me of Woody Allen in Annie Hall, when he was upset by driving in Los Angeles, bumped into a bunch of cars trying to back out of a parking lot, and when confronted by a police officer, mumbled and tore up his driverís license.

Well of course it never got that bad. We werenít in a parking lot. And no cops. And if it feels slightly anti-climatic, completing this one maneuver to finish the test, most of which I flew two weeks ago, there is a deliciously deepening feeling of satisfaction at the completion. Iíve had plenty of challenges as an adult; I rose and fell depending on the occasion. As I sit here, enjoying the gentle rocking from side to side inside, Iím glad to be done with the studying and testing. Now the real flight training begins.

And thatís SetonnoteS...Iím Tony Seton.

 

Up, Up and Nearly Away
(June 11, 2001)


Over the several days before I took my instrument flight check ride, I checked the various weather charts. Now as someone who has less than little faith in the meteorological prognosticators, it was mostly an exercise in the hypothetical. One forecast called for cloudy conditions, which is not a common condition this time of year. Of more concern was the 24-hour "prog" chart as itís called, which said to expect moderate turbulence in the region to 15,000 feet. The planes I fly generally stay below 10,000 feet, performing best around 7500 feet, which means Iíd be in the middle of it. Another forecast said to expect winds to 30 mph over the mountains where I was to fly to pick up my examiner.

My first thought was oops. High winds make it difficult to hold heading, and much of the instrument work on which I was to be test meant flying racetrack holding patterns and narrow course lines and set altitudes. My second thought was, Well, if there is a wind, it will give me a better test. As it turned out, the windsocks were limp, most everywhere we went, though on the way back over the mountains from Quincy, where resides my examiner, headwinds slowed me down to 46 knots. Now donít get all haughty; there arenít any roads below.

Johnny Moore had given me my private pilotís test ride. A pilotís pilot, he knew planes as well as I know my feet, if you get my wind drift. And he knew whether the person with whom he was sitting right seat ó that is, instructing or testing ó knew flying well enough to get his license. He was right to give me my private pilot license. Even though I made some mistakes, he saw that they were testing nerves rather than sheer incompetence, as might have been inferred by a less talented observer.

I was glad to be with Johnny again, in part because of my respect for his awesome ability to fly, and because I wanted to show him that heíd been right to pass me the first time. It also counted that I thought heíd let the little stuff go, if it wasnít important. As we were flying back to the Sacramento Valley where we would do most of the exercises, Johnny said he flunked about 10% of his applicants, which is about normal, he said, and he only passed one person he shouldnít have.

I messed up an approach, and was allowed to re-fly it, even though Johnny had a schedule after our ride. On the way back over the mountains, I said to him, I think Iím in that 10%. It wasnít a question. Johnny offered to have me try one final approach maneuver, saying that if I ran into trouble sometime on the road, this would show him that he wouldnít have to worry about my being able to handle the situation. I got some of it right, but not nearly enough, by my standards either.

I landed the plane and we walked to his office. I zipped through the questions for the oral part of the exam, to our mutual pleasure, like Iíd been flyiní heavy iron (big jets) for years. The angst of not getting my license that day passed remarkably quickly. The piece of flying that I had never nailed down, so to speak, had broken apart. I would have to retest this particular tracking maneuver again. Johnny gave me my pink slip, which gives me sixty days to prove myself in this one area, and I headed home.

I always knew that if I didnít pass this test the first time, there was a reason. I donít think it was humility ó Lord knows, I wear that every flight ó but I do know that I want to have this bit of knowledge working for me should I find us in the clouds needing to be sure.

And thatís SetonnoteS...Iím Tony Seton.

Under the Hood
(May 28, 2001)


After my lesson this morning, I wondered how anyone has ever earned an instrument rating. My flying today, after nearly fifty hours of training for instrument certification, was sloppy toward inept. Not dangerous by any means, but by every measure, I was earning a failing grade. Off course, too high, too low. Ick, pew, I stunk. And my test is scheduled for next week.

I started my instrument training in late October. Audrey, who says she trained Orville and Wilbur, only flies Monday through Wednesday Ďcauses she knows there are more important things than flying. And together with too much wind or ceilings that nestled too close to the floor, plus holidays and vacations, weíre still chugging along and itís almost June. You can take intensive courses and cram everything into a week, which is the other extreme.

To be fair to myself, people have taken longer to get their instrument rating, but it canít have been easier for them. My problem is that I havenít been flying enough and consistently to get comfortable; Iím still letting the plane fly me. What Audrey doesnít understand is how I used to do all of this so well when I first started. She was ready to test me after ten hours, almost.

It is a concern for me because I have always been able to start strong. I think it is that I rely on my intuitive, and it serves me very well. After some study and practice, my cognitive brain is in charge, and at the moment, it isnít flying the plane very well.

I also donít test well, or at least I didnít fly my private pilot test very well. I probably shouldnít have passed, but the examiner had the sense to realize that I knew how to fly, even if I didnít fly the test properly. I know that I would be a lot better off if I banished the notion that I donít test well. Hey, we didnít crash.

An instrument rating requires 40 hours of flying "under the hood", that is, wearing a "view-limiting device" that prevents me from looking outside the cabin. Which makes sense, since Iím learning how to fly by instruments, as if most of my flying would be in the clouds. Itís intense; I need to know how to fly as though there were no visibility until I am virtually at the threshold of the runway, 200 feet above the ground. There is room for error, but not much, and though I donít expect to fly in such conditions ó often, if ever ó I should know how to, and with certainty.

Curiously, I know I know how to fly by instruments; Iím just not "wearing" the plane yet. Itís the experience of merge mind, body and aircraft, so that when the voiceless command is given, it reaches into the very air around me. As Michael Murphy said in "Golf in the Kingdom", I need to become one with the ball, or in this case, the plane.

Of course, I could just blow it all off and say maybe Iíll come back to it after a year, and in the meantime just stay out of the clouds. But Iíve invested hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars into this endeavor -- as well as a good bit of soul -- and a little self-flagellating incompetence is not going to shoot me down at this point. Poor choice of words. I fly again tomorrow.

And thatís SetonnoteS...Iím Tony Seton.

Flying Thang
(October 20, 2000)


This flying thang is a significant part of my life. It was one thing to take on such a large learning project just shy of fifty years old, but it was bigger than that. There was the matter of climbing into the sky on the bet that a 160-horsepower engine in a twenty-year old plane would carry me safely on my journey wherever. A lot of people don't consider that a safe ó or even sane wager. Indeed, an associate whom we refer to as General Grant, is forever repeating a line from my "From the Ground Up" radio series "...you can't pull over to the side of the road at 5,000 feet." Love the kid.

Last Sunday, Linda and I headed down to Monterey to work with partner and best friend Peter in producing a live hour-long call-in show on a statewide radio network for Senate candidate Tom Campbell. We had planned to have my pal Robert, who was also my flight instructor, fly down with us, to get us on the ground and up again the next morning should the weather be inclement. With my private pilot's license, I need a thousand feet of ceiling and 3 miles visibility to land and take off, but Robert is instrument rated, which means he can fly through the fog which is common to the Monterey Bay area.

As it turned out, Robert bowed out at the last moment, and Linda and I were on our own. Which was okay, probably, we thought, since the fog usually blew out by the time we were planning to arrive, a little after noon. And if we had to delay our departure the next morning, tough for us. When I went to pre-flight the plane, however, I discovered fuel had been dripping from the wing down the side of the fuselage. The plane had just received a major check-up, and it turned out later that a fuel seal had been damaged.

Luckily, there was another plane available, and all its pieces were properly in order. We flew south through beautiful weather, but the fog hadn't cleared from Monterey Airport when we reached the area. Salinas was also reporting low ceilings, so we landed in Watsonville, 25 miles up the coast, and drove down. Before we checked into our hotel, we went down to our favorite beach south of Carmel for a delicious ocean walk.

When we got to the hotel, there was a message from Peter. He had driven down and on the way had called a television station to invite them to cover the radio broadcast. He was informed that they wouldn't be sending a crew because they were covering the crash of a small plane into Monterey Bay, with two people on board. The crash had occurred about the time that we had planned to arrive. Peter went to the airport, and convinced a policeman to give him the tail number of the missing plane. He then called Redding and learned that we had flown down in a different tail number.

It turned out a couple of senior women pilots lost their lives that day. That's about the average number of fatalities in small plane crashes in our country every day. Rather distressing if you hear about it, especially if you have a connection with those who died. When you get your license, you acquire a connection.

The cause of the crash is under investigation. As I had earlier scheduled, I took my first instrument flight lesson on Tuesday morning.

And that's SetonnoteS...I'm Tony Seton.

Centurion
(July 2, 2000)


I finished my second hour in the two-ten, which probably doesnít mean a thing to most people and means something entirely unrelated to the myriad others who have a different reference. The two-ten (or more actually 210) is a Cessna Centurion model 210. Itís the second type of plane that Iím learning to fly, after the Cessna Skyhawk, which is also referred to by its model number, 172. The Skyhawk is a fairly simple plane, and therefore a common trainer. The Centurion is whatís called a complex aircraft, and though it doesnít have the huge panel of instruments youíd find in a large ó or even a small ó jet, it is significantly more complex than the plane I learned to fly.

For one thing, the 210 has retractable landing gear. That might not seem like a big deal, but it is for several reasons. First, being able to tuck in the wheels means that you can reduce the drag and fly faster. Second, the landing gear requires a separate system, in this case hydraulics, to control its position. If you lose hydraulic power when you are in the air, you have to try to manually pump life into the system to lower the wheels to a landing position.

Another reason the Centurion is considered a complex aircraft is that is has a constant speed propeller. The Skyhawk has a fixed pitch prop, which means that when you open the throttle, the propeller turns faster and you increase your speed. With a constant speed propeller, you can instead change the angle of the blades, which creates more of a bite into the air. You want the prop digging hard into the air when you are taking off, but when you are cruising, the engine runs more efficiently with a flatter prop pitch. When you are landing, you will change the pitch back to a more angled configuration, in case you need sudden extra power to abort and climb back up into the sky.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover how similar was the flying of the complex Centurion to the basic Skyhawk. There is much to learn, of course, but most of it would require experience rather than study. Probably about twenty hours of flying with my instructor, practicing slow flight, stalls, steep turns and landings.

One of the critical differences with the Centurion is that it flies much faster than the Skyhawk; the 210 cruises at 180 while the 172's cruise speed is about 105. With the Skyhawk, when it was time to come in for a landing, I would cut back on the power, the plane would slow, and I would shed the necessary altitude. With the Centurion, you have to plan your descent to allow the engine to cool as you are lowering your speed and reducing altitude.

The Centurion also carries more than twice the amount of fuel, travels 50% further and carries twice as many passengers as the Skyhawk. Interesting new features and concepts. Complex, but not complicated.

And thatís SetonnoteS...Iím Tony Seton.

The Solo Adventure
(published in the May 2000 issue of "Flight Training")


[Itís really neat how they have this all figured out, the best way to organize the skies for pilots safely. Thereís actually a simple plan for the airspace surrounding an airport. Imagine a rectangle placed over the airport, with one of the long sides running the length of the runway. (The rectangle usually has the runway as the right side, but often itís the left side.) You take off into the wind along one side of the rectangle, and when youíve been climbing about a minute, you turn 90 degrees onto the crosswind leg, perpendicular to the take-off path, along one of the short sides of the rectangle. About a minute later, you make another right turn onto what is called the downwind leg which extends south of the runway by a half-mile or so; it is the other long side of the rectangle. At which point you turn another 90 degrees onto the base leg, where you descend to the runway flight path. Thatís where you turn the final corner of the rectangle and head for the runway. Neat, huh?]

My flight instructor is a big man. Robert Scott tips the altimeter at something like six-four, and has a ramp weight of over 260 pounds. So when I took off without him in the second seat for the first time, I noticed some pleasant differences. The Cessna 172 Skyhawk took off more quickly, the handling was easier, and without my over-sized instructor sitting beside me, more sunshine came in, and I was provided with a much fuller field of vision.

Yes, Captain Scott was back on the ground, watching me in my first solo. With the less weight in the aircraft, I reached the point to turn into the crosswind leg more quickly, and found that I was climbing faster to the pattern altitude. I pulled back on the power and in a few seconds began my turn into the downwind leg. I was a-mile-and-a-half from and parallel to Runway three-four.

I called the tower to tell them where I was and my plan to stop-ín-go, i.e., to land the plane bringing it to a full stop on the centerline of the runway, and then to take off again. The tower knew already and was watching; Captain Scott had informed the tower that I was a student on my first solo.

If I had thought about the fact that this was my first solo -- that I was 1500 feet above the ground alone, with no one to help if I got into trouble ó I might have alarmed myself a little bit. But I truly wasnít worried, and I eased the thought out of my mind. I focused on the flying.

Crossing even with the threshold of the runway, I pulled on the carburetor heat, pulled back on the throttle, and lowered the flaps ten degrees. When I was ready to turn onto my base leg, I looked back easily through the unblocked right window to see that I was indeed at a 45-degree angle to the runway. It was the first time Iíd ever had such a view.

I lowered the flaps to 20-degrees, and banked toward the approach, dipping the nose as I entered the base leg. Again I was aware of the thought about this being my first solo, this thought trying to gain my attention, but I smiled it away as I checked my altimeter and airspeed.

As I write this account, I can remember how foreign it all seemed to me just a few months ago. There was so much information, so many gauges to watch, power, pitch, and attitude to control, all the while checking for other planes. I didnít have an understanding of what I was doing, let alone was I comfortable with instruments and functions.

But I had gotten comfortable, finally and suddenly, a week earlier. It was when I had taken control of the aircraft. So when I had finished my pre-flight that morning and climbed into the pilotís seat, I was engaging the plane rather than being just being a student passenger.

I didnít know when I arrived at the airport that morning that I would be soloing that day. My instructor and I had talked about it. But there was a considerable breeze ó fifteen knots with gusts to twenty ó and neither he nor I was going to put me up in the plane alone without us both being sure. And I certainly didnít have to ask him, since he wouldnít take a chance with either me or the aircraft.

So Captain Scott and I had taken off and done five stop-ín-goís. After the last one, he told me to drop him off at the terminal. I taxied out to the point just shy of the runway where we would turn into the wind and do our run-up. Not having shut off the engine when my instructor got out, I didnít think that I had to go through the procedure of revving up the engine and checking out the gauges again, but not sure, I did it anyway.

Then clearance from the tower and I was on my own. I taxied onto the runway, and without stopping, turned onto the center line and accelerated. I kept the left aileron up slightly for the wind coming across the runway, and using the pedals and the rudder, kept the nose on the center line. I watched the airspeed climb. At 50 knots, I raised the nose into the air. Seconds later, as the airspeed climbed past 65, the rest of the plane followed.

I had always liked take-offs, and had taken to executing them well months before I got the landing concept into my head and body. I donít know that learning to land took longer than it should to learn; it took the time it took. Now I was going to make a landing alone for the first time. There would be no one sitting there shouting out corrections to my attitude and altitude, speed and angle.

On the base leg, it took significant crabbing to hold position against the twenty knots of wind a thousand feet above the ground. I took advantage of the currents and dropped six hundred feet closer to the field. While my left hand gently but firmly controlled the wheel, my right hand was pushing in the throttle to add speed to the final leg.

With my airspeed below 85 knots, I lowered the flaps to their full 30-degrees. Seeing the two red-two white lights of the indicators, I knew what I already knew from my position above the ground, that I was right on glide path. I needed more power heading into the wind; I slid the throttle in smoothly.

My instructor said that I would notice his absence on both take-off and landing, and he was right. The plane wanted to fly more, but like a well-trained colt it responded impeccably to my touch.

I checked my nerves but couldnít find a glimmer of concern. Where there might have been trepidation was a sense of grounded excitement. The feeling inside of knowing that I had what I needed to pass this test. The confident reaching forward, not to attain a goal, but to rise through a doorway to a limitless future.

As I crossed the threshold twenty feet above the runway, I felt a crosswind push me off the centerline just as I was closing the throttle. I had time to do a go-round; I knew the plane would respond if I pushed in the throttle again. But I didnít need to. I had the 70 knots I needed.

I tweaked the ailerons and pushed on the right rudder pedal. The plane drifted back to centerline, then across, then back again. Just as I flared toward landing position, a buffet of air lifted us up from the descent. I eased back slowly on the yoke to control the glide back down. Seconds later the wheels hit the tarmac. Firm, I think would be a fair description, and probably a three-foot bounce.

But only one. I let the nose come down, keeping it on the center line, and brought the plane to a stop. In went the carb heat, up went the flaps, and then I pushed in the throttle; moments later I was airborne again. The second go-round was flown without any major observable errors, this time by a pilot who had already soloed.

On the downwind leg, I told the tower I was coming in for a full stop. That was fine with them, but they did want me to extend my downwind just a shade to accommodate a Brasilia that was making a scheduled landing. Oh, and watch out for ground turbulence when I came in.

Watching where the Brasilia landed so I could calculate my touchdown point, I extended the downwind leg less than a mile before turning into the base leg. Then a comfortable turn to final approach, with a little extra time to watch the glide slope indicators show two white and two red. It wasnít as though I had to wait for the runway, but suddenly this window in time opened up, and I owned what I had done. What I could do.

Another little windy bounce on landing, and then I taxied back to the terminal. There I saw my instructor standing outside waiting for me, both arms raised, giving me two thumbs up. And with him were my wife and radio partner. I hadnít known they were coming, and was pleased and honored by their attendance. They had watched the whole morning, and had hidden when I brought my instructor back.

I shut down the plane and climbed out. A long hug for my instructor, and one for my wife. There was a bottle of champagne to be opened, and crystal glasses to celebrate this accomplishment, right there by the taxiway. And photos with the plane. But first, rather suddenly, I felt my shirt being pulled out of the back of my jeans and then ripped. No, I hadnít known about this custom. Soon a piece of autographed cranberry broadcloth will be on the wall of my study.

Before imbibing, we put the Skyhawk back in the hanger. I knew I would be with her again soon. There was much yet to learn, including flying at night. And I was looking forward to the hours that would mean being in that plane again, flying away from the ground, to reach up, and as John Gillespie Magee put it, to touch the face of God.

Why I Fly
(May 29, 2000)


Iím not one of those people who always wanted to fly. The heavens never really called for me the way they do to so many people, especially young men. I was not a teen who slept in the hangar at night just to be close to the plane. My view of knowing how to fly was to provide myself with the ability to get from one place to another.

Usually the one place was Mendocino, a hundred miles north of San Francisco on the northern California coast, and three hours by car if you didnít hit traffic. There is a mile-long airstrip about three miles from town, and though fog was a frequent visitor, I would likely be able to fly out at some point during the day or night if I had to get somewhere.

Since I hadnít moved yet to Mendocino, nor had the resources to obtain flight instruction, and since it was practicality not passion that was driving this train, the issue was not pressing heavily on my mind. Until, for reasons of marriage, I moved to Redding. Located at the northern end of the Sacramento Valley, Redding is two-and-a-half hours from the nearest cosmopolitan area, which is Sacramento, and at least another hour from San Francisco.

Itís isolation is one reason why a lot of people who live in the North State learn how to fly. Also, the commercial service to Redding is limited ó they donít fly jets up here any more ó and often delayed. But Redding is a great place to learn how to fly. Not only because itís out of the way and that means less air traffic, but also because there are mountains on three sides, which helps if you are prone to getting lost.

I worked at a radio station, delivering commentary and interviewing business and civic leaders on my Newsmaker program. Most of my compensation came in the form of commercial time, which I could then sell to businesses not already on the air. One interviewee was the owner of a local FBO, or fixed-base operator. His firm provided airplane charter service, aircraft maintenance, fuel, and flight instruction. Hey, I said, why donít I give you commercial time and you can teach me to fly.

And not only will I give you the air time, but Iíll write reports on what itís like learning how to fly.

That works, said the man. So I wrote and reported 30 two-minute reports on learning to fly "From the Ground Up". I laid music underneath, and played them twice a day at the same time every day for six weeks. The results were impressive. The company booked charters and signed up new students for flight instruction. Even more important, the owner told me, the series had created an all-important buzz in town, which augured well for his business.

One of the reasons why the series was such a success was because it wasnít trying to sell anything. The reports told how I learned to fly, not only the technical aspect of the lessons, but also described the thought process of assimilating the information, and what it meant on a deeper, spiritual basis. And so it attracted not only people who unlike myself had always dreamed of flying, but it also drew in people who had never thought of flying but suddenly realized its appeal.

Even a year after the series first went off the air, people would talk about what theyíd heard. One man said heíd always been afraid of flying, but after listening to me on the radio decided to see if he could learn himself.

The very notion of knowing how to fly has broad appeal ó both for those who will go out and take lessons, as well as those who will appreciate the concept from the ground. Thereís a certain magic to lifting off the ground into the sky. And itís much more than the risk to life and limb. Rather, by learning to fly, you join a special fraternity of people who have heard a certain call and were up to the challenge.

Learning to fly is not about fulfilling a dream. Itís about studying and practicing, and coming to the point of understanding about how a plane flies and when and where the conditions are conducive to a safe flight. Itís about gaining the confidence to take off in search of an airport youíve never approached by air, knowing that you can skew the plane against a crosswind, and be ready in case the runway lights go out as you are approaching touchdown. Itís knowing that the fuel gauges are correct only twice, when they read full and when they ready empty.

John King of the King Schools talks about learning to fly and the "sweated shirt". Anyone who has taken flying lessons knows the feeling of sticking to the seat through your shirt. Part of the process of learning how to fly is meeting fear and moving forward. Maybe thatís why when you fly your first solo, your instructor cuts out the back of your shirt.

When you earn your private pilotís license, the wags say you have gotten a license to learn. Indeed; learning to fly is a humbling experience. Beyond all of the work it requires, the time and the concentration, there is also that singular agreement to meet your own mortality. To push the edge of the envelope inside a cockpit of know-how. Thatís the thrill of flying.

Flight to Fancy
(April 10, 2000)

Iím a bachelor for the next seventeen days. As I write this, Linda is in the air for a vacation in Holland and Belgium. She and another attorney-friend are headed over to visit tulip land. The friend lives across The Bay from San Francisco airport, out of which they departed for Europe this morning, so I flew Linda down last night to Hayward Executive Airport, near to where the friend lives. My co-pilot was a new friend, who was also a client of Lindaís. Bud flew for the commercial airlines for over thirty years, and before that was a pilot for the Navy and landed on aircraft carriers.

I was glad to have Bud with me, since Iím a fairly inexperienced pilot with just over a hundred hours. Further, I had charted us through a crease in the closely-controlled San Francisco airspace, and we were flying into an airport that was new to me. More of an issue, as it turned out, was that weíd been making our approach into Hayward directly into the setting sun.

We took off from Redding with a slow climb. The late afternoon air was still warm, and with Bud and me, Linda and her luggage and full tanks of fuel, the plane rose slowly to our selected altitude of 7500 feet. But as the plane climbed, I felt the grit and constraints of a very long day slip away behind me to the ground. I adjusted the trim and the plane began to fly itself. Indeed, I didnít have to touch the controls for a hundred miles.

Bud was right about coming in from the East at sunset. Magnifying the glare in the Bay Area is a ubiquitous haze; once just moisture from the ocean and The Bay, it is today compounded into a purplish seethe by automobile pollution. We followed the instruments straight into the sun, found the airport in front of us with five miles to go and made a comfortable landing down the middle of the runway.

In less than a minute, I was taxiing up to a spot beneath the tower where her driver was waiting, and soon Lindaís luggage was sitting in the trunk of the car. I kissed her, walked back and kissed her again, and again, so that she would always know how much she meant to me. When I decided that I had I made myself clear, I let her go. She got into the car and drove off for her adventure. I got in the plane, my own adventure, and flew home.

It was good to be busy with the flying, and to have Bud along. I had deliberately avoided thinking about Linda leaving for so long. I decided Iíd rather miss her only while she was away than to think about it in advance. Linda and I have been together for two years, and the longest time sheís been away from me was five days in Southern California; relatively accessible. Tonight she is 5,400 miles and a whole bunch of time zones away.

We will talk on the phone every coupla days, and that will be good. Iím delighted that sheís on this trip ó she so enjoys traveling ó and pleased that she can go without me. We are indeed on a most fulfilling journey together.

And thatís SetonnoteS...Iím Tony Seton.

Into the Wind
(March 28, 2000)


A long-time and important friend called and left a message. She was in Chico, seeing to the post-operative care of her mother. She wondered if I might drive down for lunch. No, I said, but I would fly down. She was delighted to learn that I had taken flying lessons, and surprised further that I had earned my private pilotís license.

Susan and I had met almost twenty years ago. We quickly discovered that our relationship was going to be conducted standing up and sitting down. Years later, we shared a house together, comfortable in our platonic-ness. We had ups and downs in our friendship, but we never stopped caring for each other. I hadnít seen her in two years.

As it turned out, the Cessna Skyhawk ó I call it my plane because itís the one in which I learned to fly, and the only plane in the company that I know how to fly ó was available. I left my office at 10:30 for the airport and was on the runway 32 minutes later. It was a very windy day, and as the choice is to take off and land into the wind, I headed down the runway into a 20+ knot wind. It took a while rolling down the tarmac to build up the power I wanted to lift off. The crosswind was insistent, and there was some challenge in keeping the nosewheel on the centerline. But without the time for another thought, I pulled back on the yoke and climbed into the sky.

Landing was a pip. I had to pour on the coals as I made my final approach into the same wind at the Chico Municipal Airport fifty miles to the southeast. It had made for a very short trip, and then to a lovely luncheon with a grand old friend. Susan and I have made very different journeys, struggling to overcome the programming of our childhoods and the habits incurred through adolescence, to be where we are today. Neither of us would redeem the cost or pain.

I thought about her as I flew back north into a stiff headwind, how our different demons kept us from being together, but how the relationship we have now is worth more than what might have been. I saw in her today a woman who has been emerging from behind a powerful shield against fear.

I saw a dear friend who is living her life smartly and well. She has discovered that she can trust herself, and life -- that grand if unknowable force that moves us along our individual paths. We participate fully, Susan noted. And she might have added that we seem to be thriving now that we finally recognize ourselves to be, by choice, on the same page with life.

I flew home feeling that I was riding on top of the wind.

And thatís SetonnoteS...Iím Tony Seton.

License to Learn
(January 10, 2000)

When I received my pilotís license, more than one person commented to me that it was a license to learn. I got some more learning on Sunday.

On Saturday, and Linda and I had headed for Monterey for the annual ladies night dinner of the Diogenes Club, a Sherlock Holmes society to which Iíve belonged for more than a dozen years. The weather behaved, which meant that we could fly down in the Cessna Skyhawk, the plane in which I had learned to fly . Thatís why I learned to fly...to turn a 12-hour car trip into four-plus hours in the air.

The trip down was delicious. A twelve-knot tail wind shoved us along the 250-mile route is less than two hours. It was only the second time Linda had flown with me. Though we didnít know it at the time, she was getting her own case of the ubiquitous flu around the time of the first flight, so it wasnít entirely enjoyable.

The trip to Monterey was smooth air all the way. As we arrived, we were vectored out to the coast, to follow the surf twenty miles to the airport. As happens in winter on the California coast, there are often clouds or fog which can appear or disappear in a moment. There were clouds by the airport, thought not at the runway level so as we got clearance to land. I did have to ask where exactly I would find runway 28-right. They told us to follow another plane, and indeed, the runway appeared quickly thereafter.

Leaving Sunday was a little more complicated. The clouds and fog appeared, disappeared, and appeared again. At departure time, it was well below even instrument flight minimums. But in an hour, the sun burned off much of the problem. I checked by phone to make sure that the rest of the route was weather-safe and we took off.

But about 90 miles from Redding, a floor of clouds developed. I checked by radio, and they was still reporting enough visibility for us to fly in without instruments. As it turned out, the reports werenít quite correct. I had to drop us down through the overcast to only 1500 feet above the ground before we could see it. And I couldnít see the runway until we 1.7 miles out.

It wasnít dangerous. We always had enough fuel to fly back over the clouds to another airport. But I knew the home territory, and as it turned out, when the runway lights did appear, I was already headed straight in on the numbers.

Though there was no danger, it was challenging. And Linda was confident every moment. The whole trip in fact brought us closer together. The ease of the flight down, and the success of the new pilot in the new circumstances. It was a neat thang.

And thatís SetonnoteS...Iím Tony Seton.

Check-Ride
(October 11, 1999)

Johnny Moore has given over 450 check-rides as an FAA examiner. The check-ride is what the FAA has a student pilot fly to see if heís ready to be a real pilot. Johnny Moore is a real pilot...born to the stick, as they say. Both his parents were pilots; both died in plane crashes by the time Johnny was four. Which may explain why he wrote a book called "I Must Fly!" His stories about crop-dusting could give a reader emphysema. And how he walked away from some of his landings attests to his skill, and probably something more.

Accompanied by my flight instructor, Robert Scott, I flew out of Redding at dawn, heading for the small town of Quincy where Johnny Moore lives, because it was time for me to take my check-ride. My approach and landing at Quincy was nearly perfect, and clearly pleased Robert.

Johnny first had me show that I could take off from a short field, over trees, and land under the same conditions. I accomplished those all right. Then we had a soft-field take off and landing, simulating flying off a landing strip that is muddy or snow-covered or maybe grass.

Then we flew off up into the wild blue where the real test was. I had to fly the plane in a steep turn while maintaining altitude and speed. The first try was a mess. Try number two was okay. And on the third, Johnny covered up some of instruments, forcing me to reckon from the landscape. I had never tried it without instruments before, and ironically, this circle was the best I ever flew.

After some slow flight maneuvers, and stall and spin recoveries, Johnny had me fly ground reference maneuvers, where I did S-turns and circles and rectangles in relation to points below. And finally, we did a simulated engine failure, where I had to bring the plane in without power. I wish I could say it was perfect, but it wasnít.

We landed, and Johnny sat me down with Robert to go over the check-ride. Then he had me answer some questions about cross-country planning, airport regulations, and emergencies. I did about as well with my answers as I had in the air...somewhere between a C and B+ on everything. I also understood that I was at an early stage in the learning process.

Ultimately, Johnny was comfortable enough with what I had done and what I knew to declare me a pilot. Was I exhilarated? No, more relieved. I had known that I knew how to fly, but I didnít know if I knew how to test. Now I know. Iím a pilot.

And thatís SetonnoteS...Iím Tony Seton.

 

 

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