Editor’s note: This is the first article in a new series, where pilots share the single best hour of flying in their career. We hope to highlight the wide variety of experiences aviation has to offer, and hopefully send you rummaging through your logbooks to relive some fond memories. Want to share your best hour with us? Write an article and email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It was the best hour in my logbook.” So concluded a very experienced pilot I know, after telling the moving story of the last flight he took with his father, just weeks before his death. I thought it was a wonderful way to emphasize just how powerful this particular trip was: every hour has a story to tell, but some live forever in our memories.
I immediately began flipping through my own mental logbook to find my best hour. I haven’t been flying nearly as long as this pilot, but in 20 years of logbook entries there are plenty of memorable ones for me. It was easy to think of my 10 or 20 best hours, from great trips to Oshkosh to my first seaplane flight, but settling on just one proved surprisingly difficult.
That’s the point, though. There can only be one best – which flight is really above the rest? And why?
I finally settled on one of the shortest flights I’ve ever made – just 7 miles in fact. On a warm summer evening a few years ago, I took off from a small airport at Norris Lake, Tennessee (TN44), in a Robinson R44 helicopter. My passenger was my wife, a surprisingly rare treat, and we enjoyed a spectacular flight touring the rolling hills and mountain lakes of east Tennessee from 500 ft. Nothing can match the immersive experience of a low level helicopter flight; you truly feel like you’re out there in the air with the birds. To top off this great flight, we landed on a mountaintop helipad and enjoyed a spectacular dinner at a remote hotel.
You can watch a video clip from the flight below, but as usual, a GoPro doesn’t do it justice:
I won’t bore you with all the details of the flight, other than to say I have never felt so alive in my entire life. A truly memorable flight is like that – it’s an all-consuming, total body experience, where time seems to slow down and the rest of the world hardly exists. Concerns about work, the ever-present smartphone in my pocket, and even the weather fade away, whether you want them to or not. It’s intense, and yet relaxing.
Beyond the personal factors that made this flight such a wonderful memory for me, there were some common threads that make for a truly special flight. Anytime these come together in a single flight, it’s a great day to fly:
- It was shared with family. Aviation is simply too good not to share, so flying with a friend or family member is always more fun than flying alone. It’s also a validation of what we do as pilots when our family comes along. Who hasn’t swelled with pride (just a bit) when commanding a flight full of relatives? While I know how rewarding such family flying is, I don’t get to fly with my wife nearly as often as I’d like to. She’s a very happy co-pilot, but life simply gets in the way. On this day, though, we were flying with no time constraints and no “mission,” just the chance to have fun together. When flying brings people together, it’s a force for good.
- It offered absolute freedom. Any general aviation aircraft is a magic carpet, but in this case there was almost no other way to get where we wanted. Going from a relatively remote lakeside community to a mountaintop hotel was either a challenging two hour drive or a scenic three minute helicopter flight. Talk about freedom! It’s the same feeling you get when you touch down at a quiet island in the Bahamas, or you fly exactly the route you want on a clear VFR day. When flying unlocks new destinations, it invigorates us.
- It put me in touch with nature. You won’t see me leading the Earth Day Parade, but there is something incredibly powerful about Mother Nature in all her glory. It’s both humbling and awe-inspiring, a very powerful antidote to our overly digital lives. And the fact is, general aviation aircraft can show us nature like few other vehicles – certainly not an airliner at 36,000 feet. From hidden mountain lakes to rocky cliffs, this flight took me places I would likely never have seen otherwise. When flying refocuses our attention on the real world, it keeps our sense of wonder alive.
- It was a challenge. Most pilots aren’t adrenaline junkies, but we do like a good challenge, even if it’s just making a smooth crosswind landing. So many things in modern life have become easier, yet flying remains stubbornly difficult. We can either rise to that challenge or shrink from it; if we embrace it, the feeling of accomplishment makes the hard work worth it. On this flight, I was challenging myself with my first landing at a mountain heliport, and the reward was well worth it. When flying pushes us to learn new skills, it makes us stronger.
There are plenty of other factors that come into play, like the weather, where we’re going and the type of aircraft we fly, but we usually give these far too much credit. The actual logbook data blocks we fill out – total time, route of flight – do not define an epic flight. Who we share an experience with, and how it changes us, matters much more.
That suggests two things we can do to chase our next “best hour in my logbook” flight. First, we should all keep a pilot logbook that goes beyond the basic details. I now record everybody who was on board, including passengers, plus a brief narrative of what we did (restaurant reviews are a favorite). I also keep a photo or video from as many flights as I can, so there’s a visual reminder of the event. Using a logbook app on my iPad makes this easier.
More importantly, though, the pursuit of a new “best hour in my logbook” requires a change in mindset. Instead of focusing on what airplane we wish we were flying or what exotic location we wish we could fly to, we simply need to be open to new experiences. You can’t plan perfection and you can’t script special, but combining an open mind with a few of the elements above stacks the odds in your favor. In particular, I’m struck by how many memorable flights involve family or close friends.
So grab your spouse, son, daughter, father or uncle and go flying! Just remember to take pictures.
What’s your best hour? Write an article or add a comment below.