My first long-distance flight in a single-engine aircraft began exactly like every other mission we’ve ever flown: with my worrying about the weather and Dad squinting at the radar image on his iPad, assuring me that we would be fine as long as we got in the air within an hour.
I call our trips missions because we rarely fly without a purpose. I’m 15 now and am firmly convinced that the most memorable and defining occasions of my formative years have been our airborne quests. There was the Kern Valley expedition, in which we left the dry heat of the Mojave Desert seeking an escape in the beautiful waters of the Kern River and ended up navigating an ancient and incompliant airport car through the hairpin turns of the Sierra Nevadas. There was the San Luis Obispo trip, in which we took off in search of a seaside afternoon and a tasty ice cream cone and ended up, inexplicably, on a nudist beach. There was the Outback Steakhouse excursion, in which we courageously set out for a tasty birthday meal at Daddy’s favorite restaurant and found ourselves 15 minutes later looping around and around the runway in a vain attempt to coax our rental Cessna 182 to land in a gusty 40-knot Mojave Desert crosswind.
In the Adirondack Odyssey of 2014, our only objective was to arrive at Lake Placid, New York, sometime in the near future, happy and whole. Our itinerary was simple: Savannah, Georgia, to Hot Springs, Virginia; Hot Springs to Niagara, New York; Niagara, to Adirondack Regional Airport. Our aircraft was simple: our beloved 1952 Cessna 170B, lovingly nicknamed Blitz and, for some obscure and politically incorrect reason, assigned male pronouns. My mother, due to a baffling apprehension toward small planes, had chosen to follow us later on a commercial jet, leaving Daddy, my 14-year old sister, and my 12-year-old self to fend for ourselves during the three days between departure and arrival.
We pre-flighted Blitz, made a quick check of weight and balance, and took off uneventfully out of Savannah into a smooth morning sky, milky with stratus clouds. The dark buildup of convective activity in the west didn’t bother us, since we were cruising due north and would be out of its way by the time it moved in. We landed once to pick up some fuel in South Carolina, where Blitz’s classic build and eye-catching paint job attracted the attention of the airport locals and led to a few conversations and exchanges of airplane tales. Fifteen minutes later, we parted reluctantly with the regulars, traded seats to allow both Katie and me a turn at copilot’s duties, and spent the remainder of the flight intermittently listening to Pink Floyd’s “Learning to Fly” and drilling sets of climbs, turns, and descents under Dad’s close tutelage.
In Hot Springs, we circled the clifftop runway at Ingalls Field Airport for several minutes, admiring with some apprehension the sheer drops at either end of the strip. The voice on the intercom was vague and dreamy and answered our questions with an endearing lack of respect for standard control tower dialect. Dad received clearance to land, albeit with slight difficulty, and tackled the approach with no concern beyond a mild appreciation for the surrounding beauty of the mountains. Katie and I squeezed our eyes shut as we neared the cliff’s edge, even though we would trust Daddy with Air Force One. It was just a precaution.
We spent a hilariously memorable night in a grandiose spa resort by the springs, where we learned that sweaty airplane strangers are neither equipped in wardrobe nor prepared in poise for the social demands of such luxurious accommodations. We swam determinedly against the current in the lazy river, skulked dripping and towel-wrapped past the tuxedoed pianist in the huge lobby, and forewent the myriad of sit-down restaurant options in favor of begging the horrified staff for a microwave in which to heat the cans of soup we’d brought along for dinner.
We did, however, find a kindred spirit in the college-age lifeguard, whose father kept a small Cessna at Ingalls Field and who tolerated our splashing in exchange for a friendly conversation about aviation. Nevertheless, when we peered cautiously out of our room window, lukewarm bowls of soup in hand, and beheld a host of girls in white sundresses daintily tossing corn hole in the courtyard, we burst out laughing, gave up on any remaining illusion of venturing out of our sleeping quarters, and went to bed. In the morning, we downed power bars and were out and up to the airport by eight.
Morning at Ingalls Field found the runway obscured by a heavy blanket of fog and the wind sock whipping with a chilly 17-knot crosswind. We poured ourselves coffee and Swiss Miss hot chocolate from the FBO, pulled on hoodies, and proceeded to wait. The mist lay over the runway. The wind whistled. We shivered. The airport regulars shrugged philosophically and went on with their day. At 9:30 we gave up, preflighted Blitz, and taxied out to the runway, the wind buffeting the sides of the plane and making the wings creak. We obtained an IFR clearance and took off into the fog-shrouded mountains.
It was my first flight in the clouds and I spent the first 15 minutes fully convinced that the plane was performing slow barrel rolls through the whiteness. When at last it occurred to me to glance at the artificial horizon, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case. It took us half an hour to pop out of the fog into a golden world domed with a brilliant blue sky and floored with a blanket of fleecy pearl clouds punctured occasionally by mountaintops. I remember an entranced state of enthusiasm, squashing my nose up on the cold plastic of the window, squinting my eyes against the brilliance of the sun. There is no experience comparable to the elation of emerging from the clouds into the glorious sky.
We made a brief stopover in Blacksburg, Virginia, home to Dad’s beloved alma mater. Here Dad took our cousins for a brief spin in Blitz and thus acquired hero status in their eyes forever after. It was getting toward afternoon when we took off again for Niagara and made a smooth and uneventful flight north to the Empire State.
In New York, Blitz received unwarranted premium treatment at the Calspan hangar, complete with a large clean pan to accommodate the increasingly troublesome oil leak from the belly of the plane. We spent the night in similarly comfortable lodgings at the lakefront home of a gracious aviation acquaintance of Dad’s living nearby. We reluctantly departed the good company, toasty hot tub, and beautiful Lake Ontario views the next morning for a whirlwind tour of Niagara Falls, of which I remember little except standing by the railing at the cliff’s edge and vividly imagining myself tumbling off the precipice. We took leave of Cataract City, bought water bottles for the final leg, and headed to the airport to execute our now smoothly systematic preflight routine.
I conclude this account with the confident conviction that the sunset cruise into Adirondack Regional Airport was the most beautiful flight of my life. The sunlight hit the lakes like fire in the dusk, painting them red and gold and brilliant in the folds of the hazy mountains beneath us. The dissipating afternoon clouds hung in pale purples and dusty pinks beneath the deepening twilight. We had picked up our cousin from Albany for a ride into the family gathering waiting for us at Spitfire Lake, and the joy and excitement of introducing a new member into the world of recreational aviation was exhilarating. The sensation was one of calm and relaxation and peaceful friendship with our beloved airplane. We were playing “The Ocean Blue” in our headsets and the sun was sinking slowly behind the mountains. We were reluctant to bring the journey to a close.
But we couldn’t fly forever, so we sighed, high-fived, and began our descent for a full stop at Saranac Lake.
Several months later we learned that Blitz’s maintenance had been incorrectly performed in the years before we bought him and his ancient Continental O-300 was running on its last ounces of ability. The bolts securing all six connecting rods to the engine were on the cusp of falling out, among other inadequacies, and a complete overhaul was necessary. It was only by the grace of whatever airplane deities exist that the engine did not give out halfway between the Low Country and the Adirondack Mountains, abandoning us to any fate the circumstances prescribed.
Sometimes it seems to me that this adds a further element of significance and appreciation to the most wonderful flight I have ever experienced in our beautiful aircraft. Other times I just think it makes us ridiculously lucky and means we should thank the aforementioned airplane deities that Blitz is now in the shop receiving a full overhaul and an engine upgrade to boot. But even three years later, when I behold our lovely but engineless plane waiting in the hangar for a thousand factors to come together into a great moment of reassembly, my primary memory of the many flights we’ve shared is the glorious takeoff from Niagara Falls airport and the smooth twilight sail into Saranac Lake. A sensation of sheer relaxation and contentment. The feeling of returning to the welcoming and familiar sky, indescribably calm and relieving after the bustle of three cities and the hurried chaos of the waterfall tour.
It was one of the first times in my short life that I have felt more comfortable in the air than on the ground. But it will not, I am sure, be the last.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of our Young Pilots Writer’s Challenge, where we hear from young pilots about learning to fly and the joys of aviation. If you or a young pilot you know has a story to tell, email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org