“So how hard is it to fly an airplane?” my good friend Mike asked as he settled into the right seat. It was the first time he had been in a plane smaller than a regional jet and I sensed he was apprehensive.
“It’s simple, like riding a bike, especially on a day like this,” I replied, as I untangled the seat belt in my 1979 Cessna TR182. “And you’re going to have three hours and fifteen minutes to see for yourself.”
The trip was from Bolingbrook’s Clow International airport (1C5) near Chicago to Lincolnton, North Carolina (KIPJ), a 5500 foot strip just northwest of Charlotte. We were headed for a guy weekend at the vacation home of one of our buds on Lake Norman.
The Blockheads–my affectionate name for the poker group on our street–had been threatening to take this trip for two years and we had finally each gotten the hall pass from our wives and cleared our schedules.
Expecting to have all four seats filled, I was slightly offended when initially no one took me up on the offer to ride along.
Only by questioning the manhood of the posse was I able to lasso one brave cowboy. As we taxied past the gas pump toward the departure for 18, he looked like he was headed to the gallows instead of the heavens.
“My wife thinks I’m crazy,” he commented as we bumped toward the runway. “She made me increase my life insurance and she sprinkled holy water on me as I was leaving this morning.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said, glancing at his unusually serious face.
“Only about the holy water,” he replied without his trademark smile. “She wants us to call just before we take off and as soon as we land.”
The weather was cloudy in Chicago and looked like rain, the remnants of a cold front that had passed through the August night before leaving cooler temperatures and a needed ½ inch of precipitation. Our arrival forecast was picture perfect: scattered clouds at 7,000 and a slight 6 knot crosswind.
In between we would catch up to that front with a lot of low overcast and some pop up thunderstorms over the Smokies.
For departure 9 knots was coming nearly right down the runway helping make a routine takeoff roll even shorter. As I raised the gear and reached over to lift the flaps, I saw Mike’s hands tightly wrapped around the magazines and iPad he had on his lap.
I had warned Mike I would be busy and to just enjoy the ride until we got to altitude. The morning air was thankfully smooth, with not a single bump or gust and I could sense him relax ever so slightly as his head swiveled back and forth taking in those first precious moments of flight.
As we penetrated the overcast at 3,500 I settled in on my scan. Once the gauges were tamed, I glanced to my right to check the engine readings and noticed Mike staring intently at me. I grinned without a word and went back to my work.
Breaking out at 5,400, we were cleared to 10,000 and passed off to Chicago center. A high dense cloud cover that we would never approach blocked out the sun, and the top of the low overcast had ripples running through it like hundreds of river tributaries across a massive delta. It stretched in all directions as far as we could see. I saw Mike studying it and taking pictures with his iPhone.
Happily sandwiched in the two vertical miles between these layers we leveled off at 15,000 feet. I went through the cruise checklist: setting manifold pressure and RPM to 23 squared, leaning the engine, switching the tanks to left, setting up our oxygen cannulas, setting the GPS to show airports within our 22-mile glide distance, checking our ground speed and noting our ETA on my lapboard. I set an approach timer for 60 minutes to remind me to check our oxygen levels and switch the tanks back to both.
I also popped up the WSI weather on the multifunction display and panned it out just to make sure those pop up thunderstorms way ahead of us were staying widely spaced. They were, and as long as the airplane hung together, I knew it would be an easy flight.
“Everything OK?” Mike asked, his nerves still on edge.
“Oh for sure,” I said enthusiastically as I gave the mixture a tweak and set the MFD back to show our current position.
“For as simple as you say it is, you sure have been busy.”
“A blind monkey with a stick can follow a checklist,” I laughed as I handed the thick laminated booklet to him. As he studied the pages thoughtfully I poured some coffee and fished around for a pastry.
On Mike’s iPad were versions of his new favorite TV show. Prior to takeoff, I had connected it to the airplane so that he could hear the audio through his headset. I offered to throw the switch so he could enjoy his in-flight entertainment, but he shook his head, unplugged the device and put it on the back seat.
“I’m enjoying this way too much to watch TV!” he said with his first smile since he had strapped in. “Thank you so much, this is an amazing experience,” he continued.
I was very pleased and turned up the cockpit heat and positioned the superfluous sun visors out of the way.
“So, are we on autopilot now?” Mike asked. “I mean, I don’t see you studying the instruments like you were before.”
“Yep,” I responded, as I cycled through the engine monitor and noted the outside air temperature. “In cruise the autopilot flies better than me and I can just enjoy the ride and keep an eye on things.”
“There’s so much I want to ask you,” he continued. “I don’t know where to start.”
I took a sip of coffee and a generous final bite of the apple turnover. Wiping my hands, I motioned for him to ask away.
“Can you tell me about the instruments in the airplane and how you were able to fly through the clouds?” he asked.
“Sure, Mike,” I responded, happy to have an interested passenger.
I went through the instruments one by one.
“So you have six instruments you need to keep an eye on?”
“There are six primary instruments, but you have to keep up with every gauge in the panel.” I then pointed to and explained each of the other indicators.
“So, you juggle six primary instruments and throw in one of these other ones once in a while?”
I nodded in agreement and found myself impressed with the next series of probing follow up questions about instrument interpretation, aircraft control and engine management.
A frequency change to Indianapolis Center took me away from the conversation and Mike looked outside.
“Look over here!” he exclaimed excitedly after I finished with Indy. His finger was jabbing rapidly at 2 o’clock low. I leaned over to view a five-mile hole in the lower level allowing us to see all the way to the ground where a deep blue lake traced the opening.
“Wow,” I said with sincere appreciation. “I honestly don’t remember ever seeing anything like that before.”
“It’s like we are over the Grand Canyon!” he chortled. Just then we hit a mild bubble of air that gently eased us up 20 feet and oscillated a bit before we settled. “On a springboard!” he continued.
I laughed at his perfect description.
As we caught up to the cold front, we turned our attention to the weather that was spawning widely scattered thunderstorms 250 miles south of us in Tennessee. They were directly along our route but there was plenty of space in between them and the tops were below 25,000.
My passenger was fascinated. We reviewed the print outs I had brought and compared them to the WSI weather displays. I showed him the Stormscope and set the range for 50 miles. Then I contacted flight service to give a pilot report and gather any additional information they had. There was an Airmet for icing over the mountains, but otherwise it was a delightful day to cross a big chunk of the US in a light airplane.
With the weather questions answered for now, I saw Mike return his attention to the checklist with a specific focus on the items marked in red: the 12 emergency types listed for my aircraft.
“What are the odds we’ll need this today?” he asked, thumbing through the section.
“It’s small, Mike,” I said evenly. “The airplane just had a 100-hour inspection and the 182 is one of the safest, most forgiving in the air. We have plenty of gas and the weather is not a factor. We should be fine.”
“But you keep the checklist out all the time?”
“Every piece of mechanical equipment will fail at some point. Once you decide to fly you just have to accept that the risk can be managed, but it can’t be eliminated.”
Mike turned quiet as he turned every page. He looked up. “Don’t you worry that you just have one engine?”
As I started to launch into singles versus twins, we were interrupted by Indianapolis Center.
A military operation area (MOA) east of Columbus Indiana had just gone hot and we had to make a quick adjustment to our flight plan. The controller apologetically listed 3 waypoints that I dutifully wrote down. Once we settled in on that course Mike asked, “What the heck just happened?” I took a long swig on a small water bottle before I answered.
“This airspace in front of us is used by the military for practice. They must’ve just decided they wanted to send some people up because that was pretty short notice. They re-routed us out of their way.”
“How did you even know what he said? You were taking dictation from an auctioneer!”
Laughing out loud I unclipped the VFR sectional and IFR charts from my lapboard and showed where the MOA could be seen on the diagrams. I also pointed it out on the GPS. Then under his questioning I briefed one of the approach plates for Lincolnton.
“This looks like something out of ancient Egypt!” Mike chortled as he took the charts. “You have got to be kidding me! You for sure are speaking some kind of shorthand foreign language and flying by hieroglyphic maps!”
“It’s really not that complicated, once you know the secret code,” I said sarcastically.
“Is it really a secret?”
“Kind of and the secret is this: the federal government is responsible for all rules and regulations over flying. Sometimes things seem a lot more complicated than they need to be. Is it easy to do your federal taxes? No, and a lot of flying has that layer of complexity that a private company would make more customer friendly.”
We spent an enjoyable hour in cruise anticipating the weekend and savoring the unique vistas only we pilots and our front seat mates are privileged to enjoy. All too soon it was time to pick our route through the storms. Consulting with Center, a slight deviation left was all we needed.
After a moment in IMC, we were back in visual conditions between layers. Again the beauty of flight surprised us both.
As the windshield cleared, we could see that rising from the lower level overcast were dozens of stalagmites of cloud and it seemed we were in a cave. In the distance, shafts of sunlight colored these unusual formations with muted shades of gray, pink, red, orange and purple. We were suddenly in one of the fantasy paintings done by street artists near tourist sites.
“What about that?” Mike exclaimed.
“Whoa, no idea, Mike. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
We stared at this surreal image in silence until the high overcast gave way and we came out of the cave into the bright sunshine. The lower level became broken and then scattered before a controller change broke our reverie.
“It’s time to ask if we can start down,” I announced.
“But we’re still 34 minutes away,” my quick study stated, pointing to the ETA on the Garmin.
“Right, but we would like to be at 3,000 five minutes out. And, I would like to go down at about 400 feet a minute. So, using some simple algebra, 13 minus 3 is 10, divided by 400 is 25 minutes. Because we will pick up some speed in descent and it may take a few minutes to get the clearance, we’ll ask now to give us some extra time.”
We drifted down softly through a few mild mid-summer bumps gazing at the green peaks and valleys of the mountains of southern Tennessee. Once under the scattered layer, I requested the visual approach from Charlotte and cancelled IFR when the airport was in sight.
Mike made a video of the landing for his son so I was glad it was one of my better ones. The Cessna settled on the mains gently and the arrival of the nose wheel was imperceptible.
“Don’t forget to call Sue,” I said after we shut down on the ramp. The FBO pulled the rental car up to the plane and we emptied our luggage into the trunk.
As I made the 20-minute drive and completed a quick business call, I noticed Mike was furiously punching information into his iPad. I meant to ask him what he was doing because he seemed so intense. By the time I got off the phone he had finished and I had forgotten.
It wasn’t until we were relaxing by the lake that we all found out what he had written.
“So, how was the flight?” our buddies asked Mike and I. Mike nodded to me to go first.
“It was routine, uneventful, simple,” I said.
“I knew that’s what he would say,” Mike started in a voice that has launched a thousand business presentations. “Let me tell you: this is what this Blockhead,” he jerked his thumb my way, “thinks is simple.” He started reading.
Flying an airplane is as simple as riding a bike… Only you’re riding that bike on a springboard over the Grand Canyon while juggling six balls with a random seventh, eighth or ninth thrown in, doing your federal tax returns, taking dictation from an auctioneer, speaking a foreign language, interpreting several hieroglyphic maps, operating at least four computers, drinking a bottle of water, doing algebra in your head, and simultaneously conducting urgent experiments in navigation, critical thinking, meteorology, biology, psychology, chemical propulsion, thermodynamics, metallurgy and – of course–aerodynamics as you prepare to react to a dozen different emergency situations that could have life-threatening implications if you don’t do the right thing nearly immediately.
As my fellow Blockheads took it in first with gaping mouths and then with outrageous laughter they looked at me.
“Yeah,” I said, sipping on a Jack and Diet Coke. “I think he got that about right. It’s simple.”
“Simple?” Mike laughed incredulously. “So what do you think is more complicated?”
“Women,” I answered truthfully.