Sunday, June 21, 2009

Back to the rub...

Flying in a plane alone for the first time like any other "life first" will remain an unforgettable experience. I think I've been background processing it for a while. When Shane initially informed me that I'd be soloing soon, I found myself carrying around a profound sense of excitement for days and days. Then, when the day actually came, I found myself getting a bit nervous. The perils of flying alone, without anyone to answer various questions about correct procedure and/or bail you out of you have a random muscle spasm with the flight controls, seemed to become all the more ominous once reality added its voice.

In order to even make an attempt, I needed to be cleared with another CFI (certified flight instructor) first. Dick Yates, the owner of the flight school, took me up and had me execute a few procedures. All went relatively smoothly. The winds were a bit squirrelly so he suggested I come back later in the day to make the actual flight.

That evening, Shane went back up with me to ensure I had the right stuff at that particular moment. Unfortunately, my first few landings were somewhat less than graceful. After three bouncy touchdowns he told me I had one final chance or else we'd have to try another day. I dug deep and brought out my A game, nailed a perfect landing, then dropped Shane off at the flight school, gave him my video camera, and proceeded to nail three more perfect takeoffs and landings. I don't think I've felt quite so cool since riding a bicycle without training wheels for the first time. As I few around the pattern, mother nature flexed her muscles with storms in the distance that seemed constantly threatening to ground me and thwart the effort. Thankfully the fates were kind and I snuck in under the radar, literally.

My subsequent lessons have involved getting cleared to solo beyond the confines of CHO airport. It's taken some practice to navigate flying to, finding, and safely landing at nearby Orange (OMH) and Lousia (KLU) airfields. But practice does make better, if not always perfect.

Today was to be my first flight solo from beginning to end. I'll confess I had a healthy combination of excitement and trepidation at taking up the plane on my own and flying around by my self. Nonetheless, I checked the weather this afternoon to see if it was kosher enough for me to fly in terms of cloud height, wind, and visibility. The METARS forecast seemed just fine. But when I got up to the flight school, the actual weather on the ground was a completely different story. The winds were way too strong for me to go it alone. So Shane volunteered to do some takeoffs and landings with me, practicing crosswind techniques. Easier said than done. It was pretty windy and bouncy today. So I struggled to keep things coordinated and elegant. Actually, forget elegant.

So I'm back in the thick of it trying to move up to the next level and be able to fly alone, safely, eventually getting ready to take my practical standards test for my private pilot's license. My next flight will be solo, start to finish. I hope mother nature cooperates.

There have been many beautiful planes parked on the ramp over the past few weeks. Similarly, the skies have been relatively clear and uniquely Virginia pretty. Flying remains a magical discipline for me. I've been spending more time with the books as well to combine my practice with the logical explanations for why everything does what it does and why we have the rules we have up in the sky. This time of year seems to have no shortage of white puffy clouds to keep me company.

Last week, there was a vintage WWII dive bomber parked in front of the flight school: an SBD Dauntless. It is one of two remaining in existence that still fly. Aviation grew by some of its greatest leaps and bounds as a direct result of WWII. Those leaps helped win the war. Combined with the USA's ability to rapidly produce aircraft and quickly innovate designs (I'm partial to the term Yankee Ingenuity) they also successfully insulated us all from having to learn Japanese and/or German as a native tongue.

Sometimes as I've pondered my occasional wrestling with the airplane, wind and weather I've often wondered what it must have been like dealing with all these things using fifty year old technology trying to hit a target in the air or on the ground (as this plane did) all the while with people shooting at you from above and below. As I'm learning, sometimes when you're dealt a rough hand up in the air you just have to deal with it, using everything you've got. I humbly salute all the brave men who brought their A (and I would guess B and C games too) to the task day after day and got the job done.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Solo landing video

Took me a while to polish this up. Shane was kind enough to shoot the video from the ramp, but it can be tough to do w/o a tripod. I also sped up certain sections to reduce viewer fatigue. If you listen really closely you can hear the "chirp" of the wheels as I touch down.

I figured I'd upload this sooner than later then prattle on about the experience afterward.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

O Sole Mio...

More to come later. My first solo flight was both a success and a completely amazing experience. Until then, this will have to be a quick post ... because something needs to be posted. The tradition after a first solo flight is to cut out the pilot's shirt worn and have it signed by the flight instructor:

I chose my t-shirt carefully this morning.
It used to be my favorite on European vacations.

Me with the rest on the cork board at CFC.

My first solo takeoff (cleaned up a bit).

I'd upload more, but that first video above took forever to process. It will have to suffice for now. Phase one complete. I have flown a plane, solo. Specifically, I took off and landed three times. When Shane stepped out of the plane initially I felt a surge of adrenaline. Odd when you're in a plane alone for the first time. On my second takeoff, however, I took a peak around and thought to myself, "Very cool, you're flying!"

Very cool indeed.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Wisdom of the ages ...

The push to solo continues. My latest project was getting an FAA medical exam, after which you receive a ticket that eventually becomes your license. So it's an important rite of passage on several levels. Like an American Express card, you can neither leave home nor solo fly without it. Not every doctor performs the exam so CFC gave me a list to choose from. As a result I had the honor of meeting Dr. Robert Soll last week. He was a lovely older gentleman who I could see right away had a keen, observant mind. As I stepped out of my car he asked me what kind it was. I told him it was a Saab. He then proceeded to tell me about the three or four Saabs he had owned over the years, one of which was one of the first cars to employ "free wheeling." At the same time, his current Chevy Lumina (with about 250,000 miles) was the best car he'd ever owned. I suggested he write in to GM as they might be needing stories like that right about now.

I should take a step back for a moment. There were two reasons I chose Dr. Soll. One was that he was able to see me the earliest. The other was that he (Dr. Soll) was on the way home from a somewhat unexpected trip I needed to make up to New Jersey last week. My old friend, Ray Ashley, lost his multi year battle with cancer on Thursday. Ray was an amazing individual. Apparently he had a very bad reaction to some experimental treatment from which his body was unable to recover. The entire experience of driving up North, picking up another old friend Jim, then riding together to Ray's wake offered potent time and opportunity to reflect. Ray was one year older than I am. He was very full of life and extremely smart. It never occurs to us that death comes for people like that. Or at least it's easy to forget that it does.

When we walked into the room with Ray's body (the family had chosen an open casket) I whispered to my friend Jim, "Are we in the right room?" I honestly didn't recognize the man in the casket. It was in fact, however, Ray. The treatments had definitely taken their toll. To see an old friend of your own age in the prime of life like that is sobering to say the least. I'm sure it will take me quite some time to fully process it.

My heart and mind were undoubtedly primed for meeting Dr. Soll in several ways. I couldn't help but feel like somebody was trying to tell me something. Precisely what I'm not sure. There seemed to be an air of ghosts of Christmas past, present and future blowing about the funeral home and the central Virginia back roads to Dr. Soll's house.

In any event, the medical exam proceeded more or less normally. Some local bar mates here in town warned me that I'd need a prostate exam and to chose a doctor with small hands. It's become a source of good bar stool humor. Naturally within ten minutes of meeting Dr. Soll I took a good long look at his fingers. They were huge, which made me increasingly nervous. Thankfully, it seems as though a prostate exam isn't required any longer for a class 3 license. So I dodged the bullet, literally.

My heart, nerves, eyes and reflexes are all in good shape. The exam itself took about forty five minutes. But my meeting with Dr. Soll lasted a couple of hours. He was, quite simply put, a very wise physician with both educational and interesting stories to tell. I respected his intuitive knowledge of how the body works and appreciated his advice on things like food allergies, cancer, piloting tips, and how to lose a couple of pounds. His wisdom, unlike much of what I experience these days in the medical field, was very analog. No CAT scans or MRIs here. Even his eye testing machine lacked any digital technology. For a moment, I felt like I was in a Norman Rockwell painting. The wisdom and experience he had to offer seemed that much more powerful somehow.

I'm the first to extol the virtues of digital technology and technology in general. But I guess what underlies any of that is a common sense of how things work and type of elegance in understanding old and building new things ... at least for me. If that involves CAD programs, great. If it makes use of nothing more than a hammer and chisel, that's great too.

So it wasn't necessarily the lack of high tech gadgets that made my Davey sense tingle. It was more the fact that it was tingling nonetheless. You see I've had more than my fair share of experience with doctors. As a result I've developed a keen ability to sense their problem solving and communication skills quite rapidly. Perhaps it's not just doctors. It may very well just be my heart and mind paying attention to other hearts and minds, both seeing and admiring those who seem to have a talent for observing the world, solving some of it's problems, and doing so all out of a genuine fascination of it all.

They say old people and children are quite alike. If by that they mean old folks regain a healthy sense of raw wonder about the world then I guess birthdays really are something to look forward to.