The descent: enjoying the ride down

Recently I met with some investment bankers. I wanted to see how much my business was worth if I sold it now.

I’ve come to terms that my software company will never be Facebook or even what’s left of AOL. Still I am proud of what it has contributed to our industry.

The valuation, while less than expected, was enough to call it quits. We could live comfortably on the proceeds, and I could still fly as much as I wished. On the other hand, we are in a strong market position and there are many things I love about the job and there is more I would like to do.

It was a tough call and I was really struggling with it.

Returning to Chicago from Frankenmuth, Michigan, I made the decision as I eased back and came down nice and slow from 12,000 feet. The airplane had helped me find an answer.

descent into clouds
Enjoy the descent – it often offers the most rewarding moments.

You see, of all the phases of flying, I love the descent the most.

My pilot buddies and much of what I read tell of the virtues of the more dramatic times: thundering takeoffs, a perfectly executed crosswind landing, the intense concentration requirements of low approaches. And what about the beautiful vistas of landing on an island, flying the coastline, dancing with eagles, terns and recently a flock of cranes? I am tickled by each of these precious seconds. They prove real the clichés that in another context would provoke a blush or even a guffaw. “Life is not measured by the breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.” Or “It’s not the years of your life but the life in your years.”

Take a trip sometime in the right seat and then tell me you don’t believe me.

While I admit that each of those aspects have their charms, I am smitten beyond relief to the time when the altimeter is slowing unwinding, the controls at their most responsive, and the destination assured.

My romance with easing down started years ago, just months after my instrument rating, when on a flight from Atlanta’s Peachtree Dekalb (KPDK) to my home base just outside Chicago. My desire to please both my customers and my family made a January night IFR flight a necessity. I couldn’t get out of the office until 5 pm and we were planning to leave early the next morning for our annual pilgrimage to Colorado. While we were all anxious to settle into our winter home and hit the slopes, it was my nine-year old who supplied the E in “PAVE”: “We are leaving in the morning, right Daddy?”

The Pilot and the Aircraft were able and willing. I was well rested for the 3 hour and 15 minute trip and completely comfortable with night IFR; the 1979 Cessna Turbo Retractable 182 was in tip top shape and so well equipped it was far more capable than its 250-hour pilot.

The 48 hours I spent on analysis of the enVironment contained the only real questions. While the forecasts had been touch and go, the weather was definitely flyable when I arrived at the field. A slow moving warm front laying across Tennessee was throwing thick clouds in concentric rings from Nashville laced with sporadic showers. There was no threat of ice that evening and the ceiling was forecast to be well above minimums for my arrival, although it would close behind me shortly after I left, and there would be few places to stop short of Louisville. Escapes were possible to the west and to the northeast, so if it all closed up where I wanted to be, I could easily be somewhere else. The briefer warned of an airmet for moderate turbulence over the mountains, but isn’t there always? Pilot reports showed only light chop.

It wasn’t a close call: I was going to start, at least, and decide from there.

I launched to the northwest and was in cloud from 3,000 feet through layers all the way to 12,000, constantly adjusting the elevator with minute pressures to maintain a consistent airspeed, one hand on the throttle to keep the manifold pressure at the top of the green arc, eyes darting to the engine readings. My autopilot doesn’t work too well in the climb so I often hand fly ascents. It’s fun, but a lot of work, especially at night in the clouds.

Level at 16,000 feet, I barely had time to glance at an orange moon winking at me as it peeked above and leaked its color on the lower level. I struggled to adjust the cockpit lighting to see my charts, triple checked my fuel burn, and searched my printed weather looking for any hint of a way to get out of the continuous bumps over the hills of northern Georgia. An hour later the moon had changed unnoticed to bright white and was high in the eastern sky as I practiced with my ChartView and GPS to keep the nearest airport and approach plates ready in case the engine stumbled. I queried at each controller change to make sure no one was reporting ice in the clouds ahead and whether the bumps would ever stop. The answer was no to both until the chop mercifully subsided in central Indiana.

One last call to Indy Flight Watch released a thrill. Everything was coming together perfectly. The rain had cleared out and the ceilings were 3,500 and holding at reporting stations near Clow (1C5). The PIREPs remained negative for ice. A Bonanza on its way to DuPage (KDPA) was on the same route 40 miles in front of me providing the perfect preview of what was to come. I felt the tension drain as it became clear a diversion would be unnecessary. I would be right on time for a cold cocktail (or two!) before a well-earned rest.

Over the Boiler (BVT) VOR I asked for a slow descent into Peotone (EON) and then Joliet (JOT), the entrance pathway to Chicago Class B. At high airspeeds, the autopilot plays the TR182 like a maestro plays a Stradivarius. Tuning it for a 300 foot per minute let down, I coasted into the top of the mostly solid stratus layer and gravity insisted I hurry. As the speed needle flirted with the yellow line, I eased back on the power even more, closed the cowl flaps completely and the ride became silky smooth.

I was hooked.

For a solid 15 minutes, I flew like this, captured in that capsule with no sense of motion and little noise. Looking out the window, all I could see was a grinning reflection of me falling from the sky into a torrid romance with the most magical moment of aviation. With all my chores complete I could afford to click off the autopilot and found the Skylane as responsive as a Ferrari and far more fun to operate. Though cognizant of the dangers, I was atingle with the joy of living a real life impersonation of a video game while casting off the worries I had carried across the middle states.

Breaking out of the clouds, the twinkling lights of the suburbs cheerfully said hello as the visibility changed in an instant from 0 to forever. I could see the glow from downtown Chicago to my right, and the lights from my father’s birthplace to my left. Over this friendly territory talking to the familiar voices of Chicago Approach I was almost home, the best destination, always.

I could have gone visual from there but I requested and accepted vectors to final for the GPS-B approach. Since I had briefed it and thought about it for the last week, I owed it to myself. Executing the procedure I was surprised by how I felt.

I was sad the magic had ended. I felt dragged against my will back to the real world. It was an easy straight in, but the effort to slow down and run the checklist, the relative sluggishness of the controls, and the serious need to return to earth only on the runway wiped away with finality the dreamy stage I had left just minutes before.

Ever since that flight I have always savored the descent.

Of course, they are not always so extraordinary but they remain without challenge my favorite part. It’s hard to explain why, even though I have tried.

When people ask me what I love most about flying, I garner respect when I speak of the challenges and the rewards, the attempts for perfection.

If I sense insincerity in the questioner or I’d rather deflect the attention I often tell an ancillary, but perfunctory, truth: “I like to get where I’m going,” I’ll say.

When motivated to enthrall, I can share the marquee experiences – the takeoffs, the crosswind landings, the sublime views – with as much enthusiasm as any hangar-flying pilot or liar, but I repeat myself.

But on the rare occasions when I am inspired to reveal the unvarnished truth, I always lose the audience. They never seem to get it, and maybe you don’t either.

It would help to know that I see flying as the ultimate metaphor for life, that I have learned lessons in the cockpit I am convinced could never have been taught any other way.

Like life, every part has its own unique timbre, taste, and feeling.

The nervous anticipation of just starting out. The solemn vows at the run up, wondering if you are doing the right thing, double checking everything just to make sure. Bringing the effort to full power, committing to the journey and leaving the ground. Making the slow climb up the ladder to cruise, watching your every step, ready for anything always keeping a backup plan. Working hard to hold it steady on top, keeping your options open and commitments flexible in order to protect yourself, watching for things that bite, looking for opportunities to make it a smoother, richer experience for you and the people counting on you. The excitement of the arrival and the gratification of the gate closing safely on what brought you there, tucked in its vault; the silent thanks and the last looks you can’t resist before turning away.

Each of these moments are worthwhile, good, and true.

There comes a time in every flight, in every life, when you have gone as high and as far as you need to. Or as far as the energy and equipment you have can take you. Then it’s time to come down.

But there’s no hurry. Enjoy it! It can be the best time of all.

While I am not immune to the spells cast by other segments of the trip, it is the time of declination, when the final goal is in sight and not much stands in the way, where the decisions you have made and the actions you have taken have brought you to the peak of efficiency at the threshold of arrival procedures – those times bewitch me most.

That seemed a valuable metaphor for my business decision as I nudged the altimeter counter-clockwise after passing the Golden Dome of Notre Dame where my career took off 29 years ago.

Piloting this business for five years in the climb and 10 years of careful cruise, I have built up a high level of industry knowledge and good will. Like altitude, that’s money in the bank. Our staff is strong and if I work less and delegate some responsibilities, they will become more able, their control effectiveness increasing as the boss settles down. While anything is possible, it’s hard to see how the business will lose value if I wait awhile. My retirement destination seems assured.

I called the bankers and told them I didn’t want the golden parachute, at least not now. I just wasn’t ready to bail out. I told them why: I’m going to ease back and come down nice and slow.

I suspect I’ll love every bit of the descent.

15 Comments

  • What a beautifully written piece, Mark. Congratulations on such a wonderful bit of writing. Thank you for sharing it with us and for reflecting what so many of us feel in and about flight!

  • You put into words what I felt whenever I would fly into my old home town field. Thank you for taking me back there!

  • Beautifully told, Mark. I understand what you mean about your work. Upon retiring from a corporate job at 65, I consulted to that industry for 5 years, and now teach one day a week at an Indiana University professional school. The climb was great, cruise was long and rewarding, but the slow descent has also been a good part of life. See one of my earlier articles for the joys of one fine evening approach in a C-172 that also ended well.

  • Excellent read, Mark. You’ve got it so right. Thanks for helping me remember my favorite parts of flight along the way through your article. A truly great read.

  • Mark,

    Thanks for the great article.

    As I contemplate descent from my 35 year career for as a civilian with the Air Force, your metaphors have giving me a lot to reflect on.

    God Speed!

  • Mark;

    Your skill as a wordsmith added the perfect touch to your flight. As I read it I was once again in the cockpit of my 182 of long ago, tuned to a million memories this old pilot will never forget.

    Thanks

    Clark Weber

  • “There comes a time in every flight, in every life, when you have gone as high and as far as you need to. Or as far as the energy and equipment you have can take you. Then it’s time to come down.

    But there’s no hurry. Enjoy it! It can be the best time of all.”

    That’s some really nice insight expressed as only a pilot might. Mr. Fey’s poetic treatise recalls St. Exupery’s description of his own most treasured segment of the journey – the descent . . . the long fast glide and humming wires, the responsive controls and the purring engine somehow knowing, as a horse senses the warmth of the stall, the attention that waits on the ramp or in the hangar . . . the reward for yet another journey safely completed. I’ve just now looked and can’t find it but in one of his books (Wind, Sand and Stars?) St. Ex eloquently describes, as does Mr. Fey, the pleasure to be taken in the descent from altitude at journey’s end.

  • Hi Mark, this is the second time I have been moved to fire up the keyboard and comment on something you have written. And once again, my comment is a compliment. This is an absolutely beautifully written piece and I find I can relate to every word and sentiment. You have a magical way of expressing even simple things, like setting up a descent, that absolutely captivates the reader.
    If you have a book lurking somewhere in your future, Please put me on the waiting list now.
    Blue skies and happy descents – may you have many more.

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