Why am I still flying?


N972RD want to be in that sky

As Nell and I return to the east coast after escaping the single-digit temperature for a month, she flew on a large jet and I crossed in the little plane. Again. And when I was talking to her from Kansas City, where I had stopped for the night, she said, “Aren’t you lonely in the plane? What do you do?” I was momentarily stumped. What am I doing up there? JetBlue can get my butt to Boston a lot faster, I’ll have WiFi the whole time and if the goal is to be in Cambridge a little ahead of Nell, then it’s smarter to be in the big jet. There must be something else going on. Still going on, after a dozen years.

Science, freedom, beauty, adventure: What more could you ask of life?

– Charles Lindbergh

For a lot of the time, I am busy. Certainly within an hour of landing and for an hour after taking off, I am planning, talking, gathering information to increase my situational awareness (weather, runway lengths, FBO location, where are the airliners coming in from), and changing our course and altitude. So on a four hour leg I’ve got two hours to myself, interrupted with some regularity to talk to Air Traffic Control (I am always on frequency with someone, and they are watching me on the their radar screen) or to collect the usual information (has weather changed up ahead, how are the engines doing, what does the fuel range look like?). Continue reading

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Passing the Torch


Ilya and his 9 and 7 year olds

If you are here to learn about flying your DA40 Diamondstar (or similarly-sized and equipped airplane) across the country, you might be a little disappointed since we switched planes. But my friend Ilya has done it, and documented his experience, and I have a feeling that if you keep an eye on his blog you will be learning more about those adventures.

Continue reading

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Late Start


I love virga

Due to some maintenance issues, the plane was stuck in Long Beach while Nell needed to be in Stowe, Vermont to give a talk. I stayed in California to wait for the work to be completed. We really needed the plane on Thursday for Nell’s appearance out on Martha’s Vineyard, the other ways of getting out there seemed arduous. So I stayed while she headed across on the redeye. The part we were waiting on was meant to arrive on Friday, then it was pushed until Monday. On Monday after lunch I went down to Long Beach and just kicked dust around in the hangar until the work was complete. The idea was that if it was early enough in the afternoon I’d make one push and clip some flying hours off the fifteen or so necessary to make it across the country. Continue reading

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Stop flying!


There is a tricky moment when you are flying, or rather when you want to stop flying. I’ve mentioned it before with the best description I have heard: there is a moment when the airplane goes from being a truck to being a bird, and then when you are landing it goes from being a bird back into being a truck.

That moment is tense in both directions. I wrote about becoming a bird in The Three Scariest Flights, but this is about the other moment. Continue reading

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Didn’t Start the Engines, Almost Died

Bob Hoover in front of his twin

In case the link disappears from the web, that’s a story about the legendary airshow pilot Bob Hoover. He is, arguably, the best stick-and-rudder pilot to have ever flown an airplane. He could do things with a plane that no one else could and none have done since. He only died recently and I got to met him. A friend made a nice documentary about him. If you want to know about a great pilot, watch the film.

The important parts of the story are this: Bob climbed in his twin engine plane in San Diego after his usual pre-flight checks. He took off and at 300 feet both engines stopped turning. Being Bob Hoover, he glided to a spot that allowed him to put the plane back on solid ground. Like I said, he was an amazing pilot. He went back and smelled the gas in the tanks and realized that they had put JetA fuel in a plane that burns 110LL. The reason the story is famous is that Bob went back to the kid who had fueled the plane and said, “Mistakes happen. I’m pretty sure you’ll never make that particular mistake again. I want you to be the one fueling my plane tomorrow.” He was a nice guy, even through all the fame and adulation.

I’m not Bob Hoover. Continue reading

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Better to be Down Here

Better to be down here wishing you were up there,
than up there wishing you were down here.
– Old saw in aviation about the weather

Rudy’s fall break was approaching and it was getting colder. So I wanted to go up, get the condo in Friday Harbor ready for guests, and enjoy a week with Rudy. On Wednesday I hopped the plane to Long Beach where my mechanics did the hundred hour oil change, checked a few things and replaced a hose clamp on a cooling line.

Whenever they have the cowlings off and I am around I go over, trying hard to stay out of the way, and poke my nose into things and ask questions. “Why so many wire ties in here?” “Is the dripping onto this surface ever a problem?” “What does an adell clamp look like?” “If there is the sign of the coolant spray in here, from that earlier leak, should we check the coolant level?” I am sure I am a tremendous pain in the ass and they should probably have a separate hourly rate for teaching me about my plane.

Long Beach is one of the homes of Cheap Fuel in the Los Angeles Basin, so I topped off down there, flew home, and got the plane set up for the long trip on Friday.

Nell departed on a redeye Thursday night and at 7am on Friday I headed to the airport, grabbing my donuts, and had the engines turning a little before 8am. It was a crisp, gorgeous morning to climb into the air over Santa Monica, turning over the empty beach and talking to SoCal departures as I hummed over the Santa Monica Mountains toward the Gorman VOR. Continue reading

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Mistakes Were Made

Always record your mistakes.There are a few good reasons, but the primary one for me is that it might keep me from making the same one again. If I only make each mistake once, then I think I can make it to the end of my flying career without hurting anyone or getting hurt. (There’s also the chance someone else can learn from one of my mistakes which one be awesome. If I can save them from making one, we’ll all be flying a little safer. I think there’s an old saw about, “Learn from other people’s mistakes, you don’t have time to make them all yourself.”) Mistakes are also when I make new rules for my piloting habits, like the Three New Rules for Landing at Night.

I now have over four hundred hours in N972RD. I am just starting to get comfortable enough to do a short approach or short field takeoff. If The Killing Zone applies to each aircraft type separately, or even to each aircraft separately, I have now escaped it flying the DA42. Continue reading

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Returning from the North

Dexter spent eight weeks at the Friday Harbor Marine Laboratories, studying the mechanical properties of fish skin. At the end of the program he had a huge sleep debt and I flew him back home. We were meant to depart at 7am, but there was unforecast fog blanketing the island when I woke up.

“How’s the weather?”
“Birds are walking.” Continue reading

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Instrument Approaches

There is the old saw about getting your Private Pilot certificate, that it “is a ticket to learn,” meaning that you’ve just gotten the little slip of paper that lets you learn to be a better pilot. I totally buy that. I didn’t count on forgetting some of the things I learned, though.

To get my ticket to fly in the clouds I needed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the types of instrument approaches to bring the plane out of the clouds and onto the runway. In practice, in real life flying, there only seemed to be two that mattered: ILS and VOR approaches. There’s a VOR approach into Santa Monica and a lot of the larger airports I land at have an ILS. Let’s just look at these two types. Well, let’s just mention the least precise sort of approach, so that we have them all here. Continue reading

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The Clearance Test

It was the middle of May, which means the end of the school year. So it was time to pick Dexter up from Cambridge and ferry him home. The forecast for Saturday was rainy, which was killing my mood a little. While Dexter had his last 3hr final (Life Science) I was going to triage his room so that we knew what we were bringing home, what we would store and what we would toss. Walking around Cambridge in the rain did not feel like a good time. The day dawned and it was going to hold off until 5pm. Phew.

By 3:00pm we were merrily rolling along in our Lyft to the Bedford airport. My only real concern was that we might want to climb above weather and I wasn’t sure what the oxygen cylinder had left in it. Nell and I had just crossed the country and used it the whole time (for me, part of the time for her). Fortunately, there was more than half left. I got us all packed up, everything strapped in carefully in case there was turbulence (it makes it so much harder to fly IFR when you are being pounded on the head by your own luggage). Continue reading

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