Friday, February 18, 2005


Sharing the Sky

Every pilot knows the incomparable exhilaration of solo flight. From a solo student's first unsteady trips around the pattern to the epic voyage of a Lindbergh, nothing can match the experience of setting forth alone into the strange uncharted world above the ground.

A pilot alone in his aircraft experiences an intimacy with nature that can be experienced in no other way. To be separated from all human comforts, yet joined in fellowship with the distant citizens of the sky, the wind and clouds and invisible layers of air, is to know a paradoxical solitude that is both lonely and socially fulfilling. The feel of the controls, the "seat of the pants" sensations, and the sound of the wind and the engine tell a pilot things that no human companion could convey.

And yet the solo pilot is never really alone in the human sense, for he is borne upwards on the shoulders of the many pioneers who have taken to the air before him, and every upward step that he takes is an extension of their legacy, whether it be a test pilot's exploration of the furthest reaches of his craft's capabilities or a student pilot's exploration of the fundamentals of aerodynamics.

We all share together in the miracle of flight, even when flying solo, and we all share in the privilege of introducing others to the miracle. So, it was with much anticipation that I called Good Buddy Peter on a slow Sunday afternoon and asked him if he would like to go aloft in the Yellowbird. Pete had talked knowingly of aviation, particularly his son's early attempts at taking flying lessons, so I was astonished to find out that he had never been up in a small plane before. He was eager for the experience, and I was delighted to present the opportunity.

We met at the terminal at 3:30. I had already preflighted Yellowbird and warmed her engine so we wouldn't waste any daylight. The winds had died down somewhat from the gusty condition earlier in the afternoon, so I wasn't too concerned about the prospect of turbulence. The skies were clear, and conditions promised a good late afternoon's flight.

Passenger BreifingWe began with a passenger briefing, similar to what one would get on an airline flight, but with a few items unique to the experience of sitting in the right seat of a light plane. I carefully demonstrated the range of control motions, cautioning Peter about where not to put his hands and feet in order to avoid blocking any control inputs. I also briefed him on his responsibilities as unofficial crew member, particularly the need to keep an eye out for any other traffic in the area.

We departed with a slight crosswind from the Echo intersection of runway 02, and headed north. As we climbed, I pointed out familiar landmarks, including Westover ARB to the east, Mt. Greylock to the west, and Monadnock to the northeast. Peter proved to be an excellent navigator, and he was able to identify these and other landmarks as we explored the Pioneer Valley. From Northampton we headed east to Amherst, taking time for a few steep turns over UMass. With each maneuver, I explained how the controls worked, demonstrating the various changes in attitude that accompanied each input. Once I felt that Peter had a basic understanding, I let him take the yoke.

Lt. Peter strafes the enemy fleet at anchor in the Quabbin ReservoirPeter must have inherited something from his father, a USN pilot during World War II, for he showed himself as capable at piloting as he was at navigating. By the time we reached Turners Falls, I was comfortable letting him have the controls to himself. He took us eastwards again to the northern reaches of the Quabbin Reservoir, and then down its western shoreline. I was happy for the rare opportunity to play passenger for a time, but as we neared the southern end of the Reservoir, I took control and turned us back to the west. We did some more sightseeing over Amherst, Hadley, and Sunderland, and then to make our flight a bit more "purposeful", I tuned the Chester VOR and headed west to do some visual holding patterns.

It had been a while since I had flown holding patterns, and the steady northwesterly wind at altitude kept me busy as I adjusted timings and headings to compensate for drift. After a half a dozen trips around the course, we called the tower and headed for home. Yellowbird gave us a pleasant landing, despite the crosswind, and as the evening chill turned the muddy ground solid and our fingers numb, we rolled her back into her tiedown and buttoned her up for the night.

For me, it was a rare pleasure to give a friend a taste of something that he had long known of but never experienced. And Peter was more than grateful: his comments.


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