Time to Wander

One of these guys hated to fly

Near the end of his life Sam Shepard, playwright and actor, divorced his wife, got in his pickup truck, and started to wander.* I’m nowhere near that point and would like to stay with Nell until the end of this ride, but I think I understand Shepard’s compulsion a little. There is something you get from a random drag through a series of places, a look at humanity through the lens of interest and curiosity with no other motive. Once the Lyft driver, the counter person at the FBO, or the hotel clerk knows that you no longer want something in particular from them, carry no animosity or judgement as you approach, you might see a moment of their true self. Just a story, maybe a banal comment about the city you are in, it’s hard to know. The possibility is there. 

I could see wandering to gather those possibilities, especially if my lifeblood was the dialogue and characters of this American landscape. 

Our nation is probably too large to be a single country. To large geographically and too large a population. Things feel more different between Norwood, Massachusetts and Little Rock, Arkansas to me than they did between London, England and Firenze, Italia. I don’t know. I am sure there are people smarter than me who have written about it. Since I am reclusive by nature and would prefer not to bother people, it is only with the slightest rubbings against the populace that I gather my impressions.

On Friday morning my Little Rock Lyft driver saw my destination and said, “TAC Air, are you a pilot? You flyin’ one of them jets? I never talked to a pilot before I started driving Lyft. I drove this one guy all the way up to Jonesboro because they rented his car out from under him and he had to go pick up a plane. He told me all about it. He had me come in the hangar with him and showed me the plane, how they do it, what it was like. I think I oughta take some flyin’ lessons.” It was only a ten minute drive and I’m sure I said fewer than ten words, but he painted a picture that whole ride of this fellow and his various aviation endeavors, where the driver might fit in them, how he needed a different car for driving Lyft, his brother in finance advising him on whether a car he was looking at was a good deal… I am certain Shepard would have had a clean one act by the end of the day. I encouraged him to go back to the hangar and talk to the guy again, that pilots love people who are interested in flying.

Mostly I am in the sky, though. I realized, somewhere between Louisville and Little Rock, that I do have one interest in the Metaverse, a concept that otherwise feels like the end of humanity in a footnote. If they could put a bunch of cameras, controls, and a reliable broadband connection in a plane similar to mine, and then let me fly it with all the same controls but sitting in a comfortable chair at home with a screen strapped to my face, I believe that I would enjoy it. Not as much as the real thing, but more than a sharp stick in the eye. And, if they were using the plane to deliver freight or humanitarian aid, that would work perfectly. I don’t think I’d want to be responsible for passengers that way, with technology in the way of my response times. But I could see FedEx doing this in another few years and I would sign up for it. A lot of the time you are just babysitting the systems and enjoying the view. As long as it was a crisp, 6k feed I’d be pretty happy.

Remember, there would be more than one camera and one of them could be right in the nose. It could feel like you were flying.

Before she wrote so much fantasy Anne McCaffrey wrote a bunch of science fiction, in particular some short stories. A bunch featured a brain that was transplanted into a rocket ship and explored the things that could mean. If at the end they could record me to silicon and stick me in an aircraft to crisscross this country from coast to coast, making my radio calls, landing to get refueled and pick up cargo, that would be a fine version of an afterlife for me. 

I know, sometimes being up there by myself makes my thoughts get a little strange. I am, literally, untethered. 

I’ve written before about the virtual community in the sky, how our mind instinctively creates characters to attach to these voices in the headset. On Thursday afternoon, approaching Memphis, the laconic, approach controller talked to a plane whose identifier was all numbers. Usually that means an older plane. I heard the pilot say, “Approach, N46205 is climbing through two thousand feet on our departure from Dexter. Do you have any reports above us for icing or tops?”

Either of our sons’ names will get my attention, but I didn’t even know there was a Dexter airport. And she sounded a tiny bit nervous. If you are in a small, single engine plane being stuck in the clouds and worried about ice is no fun. The controller didn’t have much reaction, which can be misleading. Even if they know that the pilot is anxious, their reaction is going to be measured and calm. He said he had no reports of the tops and no icing reports. “Well, then I’m going to climb up over the airport here until I get to the tops.” Roger, he cleared her to twelve thousand feet and says that he can clear her higher if she needs that. 

“Cleared to twelve thousand, but fourteen won’t work, so if I need to go that high I’ll figure something else out.” So that likely means that she does not have oxygen on board, because above 12,500 feet you can only pilot the plane for half an hour before oxygen is required. Fourteen thousand and above it is required immediately. A brain without oxygen does not make great aeronautical decisions. As I was listening, my little Mountain High O2 regulator was making its little puff-puff noises on each inhale. I was only at four thousand five hundred feet but having supplemental oxygen meant less fatigue, better night vision, and better decisions. I’m also a firm believer that if you bothered to buy the gadget, you should really be using the gadget as often as you can.

The little planes do not climb very fast. As she neared the top of that twelve thousand foot climb she was probably only going up three hundred feet per minute. But I was still on frequency when she made it there and announced it. After a minute or so she said, “Approach. N46205 has a new problem now. My groundspeed is really low. I’m not sure we will make it to our destination.” Higher winds aloft are a constant surprise on any longer flight. And your groundspeed affects your flight planning, particularly your required fuel. I assume that she was looking at the GPS now that she had leveled out, and she was looking at a number that was not the calculated one. I have so much computational gear aboard that those sort of surprises happen a little more slowly, and I carry so much more fuel than I need that I can’t think of a time the wind speed changed our plans. (On re-reading I remember that one time we didn’t have quite the predicted tailwind and we didn’t make it all the way to Ithaca but had to stop at Elmira. There was soft-serve at the FBO.)

After some querying from the controller she said that she was not changing her destination and she would let him know if she needed to. It sounded like a low-time pilot looking for some guidance and it is one of those times that I wish there were an easy way to talk plane-to-plane. I have been in exactly her position, small single engine plane climbing up into icing altitudes and looking for a little guidance for whether I could continue my trip. Every flight you learn and get better at planning the next flight. 

Just before I was given a new frequency she was talking about how to descend at her destination. She told the controller, “I don’t think I can safely go back down through these clouds. I’ve seen some openings here and there, but I don’t know if there will be an opening at my destination. I’m not sure what I will do then.” And that’s when I knew that the controller had been paying attention. He made a longer call for his reply and said that he was watching her on radar and if she had trouble at her destination that they could find clear weather somewhere else and she could descend below the clouds there. 

I had been sliding around on my ForeFlight map to see what the conditions were like beneath her and it was all ceilings of four thousand feet and more. So running along under the clouds shouldn’t be an issue. Later, through the magic of the Internet I was able to see that her flying had been successful. A three hour jaunt from Dexter to Waynesville. You can see her spiral climb over her departure and then a steep descent to her destination. Probably diving through a hole in the clouds.

But I wish you could just write to N46205@airplane.net and have it go to the pilot. I thought she was doing a good job.

The next entry will be a travelogue from Norwood to Fort Worth. Very dry stuff that only pilots will probably want to read. I have a Facebook pilot friend recovering from hip surgery and she’s writing a blog about it and at the end she thanks “the three of you still reading.” So, similar closing here. Someday all of these words will rattle around in the silicon and code brain of an artificial intelligence that has been trained to fly all of our aircraft for us. It will be angling an electric passenger jet over a tiny field in Tennessee and have a vague feeling that KDXE means something, is tied to some memory deep in the neural net. Maybe it will even be able to pull up this entry in its entirety. 

* This is a near-mythic exaggeration. There’s a very nice documentary about his time exploring smaller places. Wander around and find it.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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1 Response to Time to Wander

  1. Doug Wall says:

    Great piece Colin. Really enjoyed it. Looking forward to your next one.

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