Fifteen hundred feet isn’t much altitude, but it momentarily seemed Olympian as our formation turned onto the downwind leg of our traffic pattern, with the airfield looking like a precisely detailed model on our right. Another banked turn onto base leg, then onto final approach for a low-altitude flyby. We came level at about 30 feet, roaring past the showline – I was momentarily sorry I couldn’t be down there and up here simultaneously!
My relationship to aircraft and flying is somewhat of a paradox. On the one hand, I’ve been fascinated by planes, airports and flying since childhood. I’ve been using flight simulators for nearly 25 years, and today I’m even earning part of my money with that. On the other hand, my first real flight happened only ten years ago, and, honestly, it was a bit terrifying back then.
Impressive mountains were quite near on both sides, and I noticed that there were at least two separate layers of stratus above me. I could see that the lower level shrouded the glacier ahead, obscuring most of it. I could also see that, if I continued beneath the lowest level, I would soon fly into the face of that glacier right at its moraine. Did I mention that I had only 30 hours under a seat belt at that time?
After the winds have been tamed, after the distance traveled; after you have set aside the weather maps and navigational charts and flying’s fears. After you have arrived… it’s a moment so sublime, there is no other feeling like it. Joy and pride and relief and excitement drenched in the smell of hot oil and the sound of happy strangers and friends who know exactly how you feel – because they have felt it, too.
I rolled the airplane out onto the runway after checking that the final approach course was clear and began slowing to a stop. I was praying that the controller would catch his mistake himself and issue us a cancellation of our takeoff clearance. But he did not do so. Knowing that I would probably create some very big waves, I transmitted over the tower frequency a quite simple sentence.
I remembered we had boarded 40 pre-adolescents in Dallas, bound for a summer camp near Denver. While several adults had seen to their boarding, and more were to meet them in Denver, there was no adult accompanying them. Apparently my company felt that four flight attendants were more than enough to handle 40 rowdy kids and the 30 or so other paying passengers on our B-727.
Suddenly the King Air started to move. But it wasn’t turning left, it was slewing to the right. I mashed both brake pedals as hard as I could, but the airplane kept sliding toward the Falcon and the FBO office building. The lineman started running backward as fast as he could on the icy surface.
I could feel the Pawnee yaw slightly left as the glider got airborne, off to the right side as briefed. But as the Pawnee’s tail came up, suddenly, the Cessna began to climb out of the ditch and out onto the runway! I thought, “Certainly he’s going to stop!” But in fact, I saw his prop spin up faster.
“What kind of a fuel system needs 13 sumps?” I asked myself. Years ago, the Cessna 172 I flew had one in each wing and a t-handle under the belly that shot a stream of fuel onto the pavement when I pulled it. It turns out that this was just the one of many changes that had slipped by me since I last preflighted an airplane.
Today, in formation, we climb out of Annecy and make for the Alps through the Col des Aravis. This kind of flying is like a jam session, a music of angles and relative positions. You know your buddy knows… It’s a kind of magic made possible by experience and trust. The rocks below glide by as though in deep slow motion.
I think part of the reason we hadn’t shared a flight before is is simply a lack of communication and misunderstandings. I won’t nag him, or anyone, to come flying and he won’t pester me to take him flying. So, outwardly it looks like I’m not too keen and that he’s not too interested; neither of which are true.
Occasionally there are some events earning support of multiple formations for the flyover. Election years are one of those times. My own experience was in 1993 when multi-service participation was in order for the military salute to President George Herbert Walker Bush and the pre-inauguration celebration for the incoming Clinton administration.
Falcon Heavy was advertised as the most powerful liquid fuel rocket since the Saturn V. I bought close-in viewing tickets as soon as they went on sale. Public interest was high: all 3,000 tickets sold out in 24 hours. This was going to be big.
By the time I received my official Drone Ground School accreditation I was well and truly hooked on aviation again. I figured that I already had half the work done so I immediately signed up to do my full private pilot ground school and I booked my first training flights in a real airplane with an instructor. Little did I realize at that time how much more work was involved in becoming a real pilot…
Who hasn’t wanted to be that “go to” person with our fellow pilots? I’ll bet more of us want to be the one helping than want to be the one asking for help. That’s normal but pilots, copilots, instructors, and yes, students too, have to know when the situation demands real honesty and humility instead of, “Sure, no problem.”
After liftoff, and initial climb out, everything was still performing as expected. We entered the clouds about the time of gear retraction. As soon as the gear was up, the number one engine started surging and the number two engine started backfiring. I briefed that we would continue straight ahead to the ADF and return for landing. I looked down at the ADF indicator and it was rotating continuously.
A few days after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston (September 2017), I got an email from the Colorado Pilots Association looking for pilots to fly badly needed supplies (diapers, formula, toiletries and sleeping bags) to either Rockport or Houston, Texas. The request came from Operation Airdrop, working closely with The Salvation Army.
In the early afternoon I noticed some clouds building and suggested that we should begin our journey to the airport and home to Salt Lake City. By the time we got to the airport, storms were coming in from the west over the Tetons. I looked at our options and it seemed we could get out to the South and cut through the canyon over to Alpine. My co-pilot agreed.
We were met by airport security at the FBO, picked up our next passenger and called for our clearance. Clearance Delivery replied: “Buddy, you can do any altitude and any route you would like tonight.” I knew that I would probably not hear such words from ATC again for the remainder of my flying career.
We knew we needed to start an approach to become established and allow us to descend further, but were not authorized to conduct the approach at night. We also knew that well before reaching a final approach fix we would be in VFR conditions. Is it conducting the approach if you are VFR before establishing on any final segment of the approach?