Perhaps my most memorable flight came in the Czech Republic in September 2006. I traveled to Europe to participate in a friend’s wedding. After a memorable stay in Prague, we moved on to our final destination, the city of Karlovy Vary, or Karlsbad, located in western Bohemia. Karlsbad is a major tourist destination and it is served by a nicely outfitted general aviation airport perfectly capable of handling airline traffic.
The day I visited it was very quiet. The hangars had an assortment of molting Cessnas and Pipers. By prior arrangement, I was directed to a flying club on the edge of the field. This was a step up. There was a comfortable office and a couple of beautifully maintained Zlin aircraft available for dual instruction and rides. I was introduced to the chief pilot which was a bit awkward as it was made clear that his English skills were very limited. And while I have some affinity for languages, I never came close to mastering Czech.
What we had in common was the airplane. It was a modern, four-seater – a low wing monoplane with excellent visibility. And as I was about to find out, the most beautifully harmonized controls of any airplane I have ever flown. I observed the preflight and we were ready to go. It had been made clear that I was a pilot, but I was unsure exactly how far my new companion was prepared to let me go. After all, there was the language barrier, the unfamiliar aircraft, etc. As it turned out, the answer was pretty far.
The pilot indicated with hand gestures that I should taxi out. I held the brakes while we ran a pre-takeoff checklist. Checklist completed, the pilot indicated that I should proceed with the takeoff. After checking for traffic I rolled out on the runway centerline and applied full power and soon we were airborne. When flying from an unfamiliar airport for the first time, I always looked around for a landmark to find my way back. In this case, the landmark turned out to be the ruins of a twelfth century castle on an adjoining hilltop, something never to be encountered in the U.S. The day was perfect and the scenery beyond description. Now and then, the pilot tapped an instrument or, with the mildest of gestures, pointed out a moment where I wandered. The airplane gets a lot of the credit. I have never had a more pleasant encounter with a new aircraft.
The country side was gorgeous. We followed the path of a river, crossing a castle at Elboggen, and eventually flying over Karlsbad itself. Across another river lay a broad valley with mountains in the distance. This was Germany and with an exchange of nods, I was cleared into German airspace. At the end of WWII there was a running fight between 8th AF P-51s and Fw-190s right here. I was flying over an old battlefield.
Finally the pilot pointed back in the direction we came from. It was time to return to the airport. Without another airplane to be seen, we entered the traffic pattern. I halfway expected my companion to take over and land. Having trusted me this far he was prepared to allow me to proceed. There were two women from my party in the back seat. I made my best landing ever. When the airplane touched down they didn’t even realize it. That led to applause from my passengers which is the only time that has ever happened to me!
I taxied the airplane to parking and shut down. The pilot and I stood by the nose as the others drifted away. I wanted to thank him for such a memorable flight but wasn’t quite sure how to go about that given the language barrier. He took my hand in a firm lingering handshake and said, “We pilots, we understand each other, yes ?” It was a declaration more than a question and I found myself in complete agreement.