Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Speed of Time

It feels both trivial and impossible to talk about time without some mention of paradox. Science fiction movies have been eternally milking the subject down to the last tachyon. In my particular case, I find myself often trapped in a temporal loop of perpetually preparing for my private pilot checkride. I do think, however, that there's light at the end of this particular runway. All the CFI's I've been flying with keep telling me I'm ready, to which I reply that I still haven't even reviewed the textbook material ... and the cycle repeats.

For reasons that I can't completely fathom, my ability to sit and read the material from a textbook has all but vanished. Instead I've been trying to enlist the support of 21st century technologies in order to help me learn a bit more interactively. Either that or I just really, really, really like using Paypal. I've now purchased an entire private pilot's video course (King Schools), all the Gleim textbooks as well as their written test software, Dauntless Software's checkride prep software and just this morning both an e- and audio book series reviewing all the material for the checkride. I was surprised at how well the latter went along with driving six hours from VA to NJ.

Some of it is finally starting to sink in. I'm also enjoying the multiple facets of flight once again. The data set is pretty well defined and the topics of weather, aerodynamics, FAA regulations and the rest are starting to carve out permanent niches in my synaptic pathways.

It's amazing to think how long I've been at this. Yet if I take a step back and look at the process it doesn't really surprise me that it unfolded somewhat differently than I may have initially envisioned. This was, after all, a bit of a new adventure for me. It seems to make sense now that I have more than 100hrs in the cockpit (the minimum is 40). Taking the slow road to the sky has and continues to involve learning other things about both aviation and myself.

Plane ownership is a door I didn't even expect, let alone one that I would have anticipated opening for me. It's been extremely rewarding. I genuinely enjoy keeping the plane in good shape. This past week I had a secondary GPS device installed that receives satellite weather. It's a bit of a different world when you "hitch a ride" with some other pilots dropping off another plane at the same shop. Despite calling shotgun, I sat in the back seat as Shane and Tom flew an older (1959) Piper Apache over to KLKU for some check ups by the excellent crew at Meridian Air.

Flight remains magical. A currently popular comedian, Louis CK, had some wonderful perspectives on flying during an interview with former Late Night host Conan O'Brien. I had the treat of being able to reflect similarly last week while flying on an absolutely perfect, calm, warm Spring day. When not preoccupied with scanning instruments or properly implementing a maneuver with the correct combination of control technique, flying is nothing short of sublime.

I shot the following clip on my way back to Charlottesville (in the foreground) while coming back from what we call "the Southeast practice area."

I can't help but wonder what it must be like to do it at ten times my current velocity. Ok, that might be a slight exaggeration. I think these military trainers only fly at about five or six times my Cessna's maximum speed.

In any case, I hope the learning process for jet engine certification won't take me proportionately as long.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Flock of Red, White ... and Blue

Celebrity if nothing else sometimes forces us to think. Exactly what we might be inspired to think about is of course totally subjective. But every so often the rarity intrinsic to fame itself can lead our thoughts to coalesce and focus. Today was that kind of day for me.

I've been trying to get on the flight schedule at least twice per week these days. If I'm lucky that means I get to fly once per week. This week I was very lucky, especially today. The windwas particularly strong this afternoon gusting to 20 kts. That's a bit too blustery for me to fly solo in. But it was perfect for me to practice crosswind technique with an instructor. Lately I relish the opportunity to practice flying in tricky situations. It both helps condition me against panic and improves my ability as a pilot on many levels.

Before going up this afternoon my instructor (Fax) pointed out that we had a famous guest visiting the airport. A very large Boeing 757 was doing touch-and-go's around the runway. What's so famous about a 757? Well there's one particular jet of this line that's about as famous as you can get. It was Air Force Two! Apparently they come down here to CHO to practice every so often.

It was a majestic site to see such a large aircraft going around the traffic pattern. It also posed an additional challenge for me: wake turbulence. All the better. Practice is good and more practice is even better. Plus I felt privileged to be chasing and following Mr. Vice President's private plane.

It was a bouncy practice session. There's basically no way to be graceful when mother nature is tossing you around like a feather. But it's reassuring to know that you can actually fly in windy conditions. I'm learning that the trick is not to worry so much about which way the plane is pointed at any given moment. Easier said (mind) than done (nerves).

Wrestling with the wind proved somewhat exhausting. So after a big lunch and some strong coffee I went about the rest of my day; the back of my mind processing my flight instruction this morning, and over the last couple of weeks. There has been a distinctly "American" theme lately. In all likelihood, CHO's proximity to several air bases is the main reason I've been seeing so many military aircraft. Yet, I've been flying for more than a year and I can safely say that I've seen more in the past couple of weeks than ever before.

I've been flying with a few different instructors lately too. So I'm feeling very much like an adolescent child in some type of ancient tribe preparing for a rite of passage. As I think more on this notion of "tribe" it occurs to me that this is a special one indeed. I would even go so far as to say it's a distinctly American one. We did after all invent flight and thanks to our European cousins starting WWII we refined it to an amazingly fine point likely undreamed of by our ancestors.

I've waxed on about my national pride before. Too bad it's somewhat of a sensitive subject these days. I do not bear blind allegiance to the flag. Like some, I'm keenly aware of our shortcomings, vices, even our sins. It often makes me uncomfortable that I spend more money each month on cable internet (or flight lessons) than some families in the world do on food for a year. In some sense the dream for me is that one day those with good fortune can and will share it with everyone else.

I love the notion of the global village. People talk about the transcendent experience of viewing earth from space. There's even an institute dedicated to the idea. But like it or not we haven't gotten there yet. Nationhood seems to both consistently and regularly stand in the way of a planetary family.

So until then I take some joy in being part of a somewhat smaller tribe. Or more appropriately perhaps I should say a flock.

I managed to get my iPhone out just as these geese flew overhead the other day. Let's hope they bring warmer weather in their wake.