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Memory flight

Memories come in all flavors. From good to bad, and even the downright terrifying. But for me, as with most people, it’s the great ones that stick with me the longest: The day I got married, the day our son was born, the pride of walking across the stage to pick up my college diploma.

Aviation has its moments too in my ‘good memory file’. Three thick logbooks precisely define the 30+ years I have put into the world of flying planes, with time, location, aircraft number, passenger names and more listed in each line of each book. And of course with that many entries, it means there are lots of them that I might barely remember, if at all. But then… there are a few standouts. When I look through the books a line here or there will pop out in my mind with a clarity that belies the time that has passed since then. And there are a handful that don’t even need a glance through the logbooks to bring back warm memories – the small number of special flights that remind me of what I discussed in my last post: Why we fly.

By the last half of the 1990s I had already put in what occasionally felt like too much time and effort into becoming a commercial pilot. I’d been flying for over a decade, but bad timing on my part had gotten me ready for my career just as the first Gulf war hit, stagnating the industry, and by connection, the advancement of just about everyone already in it. The people who were occupying the lower rungs of seniority in the industry – flight instructors, cargo pilots, parachute jump pilots, etc. – were still occupying most of those same rungs five years after the war, preventing me from finding any kind of entry into an aviation career. But as it always does, patience won out. Airlines started hiring again, and all of us waiting for a break eventually found either a first job or get a better one. For me it was a part time flight instructor job (a story worth its own post in the future) and eventually a full-time position back at the same flight school I had first learned to fly at. Shortly after I was hired there the school changed owners, and all the other instructors who had been blocking my advancement for years earned their own chance at an airline job. Within a few months of starting I found myself as the senior instructor, with a new owner who wanted to grow the school. I loved that idea, not only because it meant more pay, but I had become a pilot to fly, not sit around the lobby of the flight school waiting for people to come in the door. As the school grew the owner added new planes, including a twin-engine trainer for people looking to move up to the airlines or just add a new rating to their license. The twin the school had was a bit old and worn out, so by the time I’d been teaching there for two years the owner found a newer one, located in Virginia, and sent me and two other instructors to go bring it back to Washington state.

Think about this a moment: I had spent the previous two years mostly going around and around the traffic pattern with new students learning how to takeoff and land, or going out to the local practice area to (mostly) go around in circles as my students learned how to precisely control the plane by making figure 8s or squares around various landmarks. The few cross countries I flew with my students were relatively short and filled with instruction – not the best way to enjoy the view of the countryside. Now the school’s owner was sending me all the way across the country to actually GO somewhere – to use the new plane as transportation, and bring it back to the Pacific Northwest. We’d see new sights, new airports, new… everything!

I had flown this new type of twin before, when I’d earned my multi-engine rating. None of the other instructors at the school (we’d hired several in the intervening years) had flown it before, so part of my job in addition to bringing it home was to train two of them, Josh and Shawn, in how this new machine worked. We flew commercially from Seattle to Greensboro North Carolina where the current owner of the plane met us. It was a late afternoon in April, and thunderstorms were popping up everywhere. Storms like that are rare in Seattle, but I’d read enough about them to know how dangerous they could be to aircraft. We piled into the twin and made the short flight to Danville, Virginia, the home of the plane for the past several years. After signing all the paperwork and making phone calls to the owner of my flight school ensuring that the plane was now his, I took the keys. The lateness of the evening and blossoming thunderstorms meant we’d wait until morning to begin the flight home. I told the flight school owner we should be back after two days of flying. He wished us luck

Early the next day, the three of us took a cab back to the airport and called the weather service to begin planning the flight home. The weather in Danville was decent, but to the west over the Appalachians and Ohio Valley was a slow moving mass of storms that precluded a direct westward flight. With the bulk of the storms slowly working up the mountain range, it seemed prudent to go southwest along the east side of the mountains until we could turn westward somewhere over Georgia. With the fuel tanks topped, paperwork signed, and bags in the back of the plane, we took off.

The plane, a Beechcraft Duchess, was a four-seat twin that can be used both as a trainer and as a nice personal aircraft. It was in good shape, but since I didn’t know the whole history of the plane I didn’t want to take it straight into the clouds and fly solely by reference to instruments until it had been through another inspection back at our home school. That meant we had to stay clear of the clouds, and were mostly on our own for navigation. This being the 1990s we didn’t have all the fancy navigation equipment that is much more common today, but we did bring along one of the first-generation GPS handheld units, with a small black & white screen on it. With this we could tell where we were, where we were going, and how long it would take to get there. I flew the first leg, then after that we figured we’d alternate between the three of us, while I did some training for Josh and Shawn on their legs.

With clouds keeping us within a few thousand feet of the ground, we got a good closeup view of the dark green eastern Appalachians. We kept west of Greensboro, flew over Hickory, North Carolina, and aimed for the outskirts of Atlanta where we could refuel and begin our westward journey. The forested hills rolled up into the clouds to our right, and the big cities of the eastern seaboard were on our left. The plane handled well and all the instruments seemed to be doing exactly what they were supposed to. It all went smoothly until I noticed Josh fidgeting more and more in the right front seat. Apparently the multiple cups of coffee he’d downed before we’d left Danville were urgently requesting his attention. Atlanta was still well over an hour away, so we consulted a thick book listing all the public airports in the U.S., and comparing that with our position on the GPS saw that the little airport in Toccoa, Georgia had the services we needed and was just 10 minutes ahead. The nice thing about flying private aircraft – just like cars – is that you can change your mind any time and go pretty much wherever you want to. Shortly after the decision was made our wheels squeaked down on the runway at Toccoa. It was still mid-morning so we borrowed the airport car from the FBO (fixed base operator – basically a combination flight school, fueler, and mechanics shop, just like my flight school back in Washington) and drove into Toccoa for breakfast in what had to be the most broken-down, worn-out clap-trap station wagon I’d ever seen. But it did its job, namely, getting us to the local diner where we enjoyed the southern delicacies of eggs, biscuits & grits all slathered in gravy rich enough to give us our first cases of angina. We probably should have refigured the weight and balance numbers after that meal.

Once both the removal and addition of fluids were accomplished and the weather checked, we took off westward over the northern parts of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. The low clouds followed us, and we always kept sight of the ground below us as we crossed south of Huntsville, but could see ahead that the ceilings lowered, and that we’d need to get an instrument flight plan into the air traffic control system in order to stay legal. To keep things safe we decided to stop and top off the tanks while checking the weather again from the ground. Looking at the GPS and airport book we saw Tupelo Mississippi ahead. All hail Elvis! This part of the south was as green as the rest of our trip had been, but much flatter than the mountainous region we’d left that morning. I had been in the plane long enough now that I trusted the instruments would work the way they were supposed to, and since the weather wasn’t that bad at Tupelo I felt it was okay to continue. We filed our flight plan from the air and checked the weather, and found that the conditions would improve greatly once we got further into Mississippi.

Since I had flown into Toccoa, Josh had the controls on the leg from Toccoa to Tupelo. We requested an instrument approach into the airport and Josh did a great job keeping us right on the path to the runway. Still suffering from an overdose of Southern Breakfast, there were no meals for us this time, just a fuel-up of the plane and a check of the weather which showed that the clearing to the west was actually happening as the forecasters had said. In fact, a check out the window showed patches of blue out that direction.

We piled into the plane and took off again, with Shawn getting his first chance to fly the Duchess. The clouds quickly parted and soon we flew over the Mississippi River, continued on across Arkansas just south of Little Rock, and toward McAlester Oklahoma. We chose McAlester as our next stop because there was an FAA weather facility at the airport, and it was just far enough west for us to begin the turn northwestward around the back side of all the nasty weather hitting the eastern half of the country.

It was a good thing the weather had cleared. As we passed Little Rock the Ozark Mountains rose up ahead of us, and we climbed up through the clearing sky to go over them. Sparkling green from the recent rainstorms and rolling up and down like big green pillows they were far different from the jagged green/gray/white peaks I’d grown up with in the Northwest, but just as beautiful. The sky had cleared to only a few high wispy cirrus clouds and we even had a bit of a tailwind to help us along. We tested out the plane’s rudimentary autopilot, and it worked pretty well, allowing us to take a break from the focused concentration of keeping the shiny side of the plane upright. This was turning into an amazing trip already, and we weren’t even halfway home yet. The air had been scrubbed by the passing storms, and the leaden gray skies of the east had broken open into wide vistas of hills, trees and towns. We moved along at more than twice freeway speed, in smooth air, with the plane purring around us. The three of us were happy for another reason too; multi-engine time is vitally important to have on your resume when you go to apply to an airline, yet it is difficult to come by for many aspiring pilots and very expensive to get on your own. We had the advantage of our flight school, which had purposely lowered the rental price of the twin trainers to make them the most competitive compared with all the other schools in the Seattle area. That benefited us as instructors, because a lot of pilots were beating a path to the school’s doors to rent the plane to build multi time, and we had to give all of them checkouts, as well as training those who wanted to add the multi-engine rating to their license. So this precious commodity – multi-engine flying – was being handed to us on a regular basis, and now we were enjoying it without actually having to teach. All we had to do was enjoy the trip.

And enjoy we did. After crossing past the green Ozarks we dropped into the McAlester Oklahoma airport and pulled to a stop in front of the FBO, engines tinking and plinking as they cooled down after we shut them off. A stroll to the FAA weather office confirmed our plans: we’d continue northwestward, aiming generally at western Montana. If we’d tried to go to California first then turn north we’d be stuck in a strong spring storm approaching the coast and may get stuck. The odds looked better for getting over the Rockies the further north we went, so after another fuel up, we left Oklahoma. It was mid-afternoon, and knew this would be the last leg of the day. Looking at the maps and books, we saw that once we passed Kansas there wouldn’t be much choice in where to land since the towns got much more scattered toward Nebraska and Wyoming. So the decision was made to stop for the night in Hutchinson Kansas. It was my turn to fly again, so off we went, just a little saddle sore, but certainly enjoying the wide-open views as we passed west of Tulsa and Wichita. Just around dinner time we put the wheels down for the final time that day in Hutchinson. We’d been to five airports that day, and simply flown across half the U.S. on our own, enjoying the scenery, and the view, that few people get to appreciate the way you can from a relatively slow-moving, low-altitude airplane. It was already a large file to put away in the memory banks, and there was a lot more to come too.

We found an inexpensive motel and shared a room; three guys who had had a long but fun day. Being a flight instructor means you get to experience things like this flight, but it also means a tight budget on just about everything else you do. That’s always the way things work: the hardest jobs pay the least.

The next morning we awoke to perfectly blue skies, cool air, and almost no breeze. Perfect. Based on our projected path we might not find food until much later in the day, so we bought granola bars and snacks after breakfast to tide us over until dinner. We took off from Hutchinson on the longest leg of our trip, a straight line to Newcastle Wyoming. Our little plane took us right up to 6000 feet over the prairie in perfectly smooth air. We turned on the autopilot and used it to guide us along the line the handheld GPS drew for us between the two airports. Over the plains of Kansas and the rolling hills of western Nebraska the ground slowly rose to meet our flight path. With each mile we seemed to get closer to the land below, but it was only an illusion as nature brought the ground to us. We flew right over the town of Chadron, Nebraska, probably startling the residents in this quiet corner of cattle country with a pass over the town only a couple thousand feet up. Still crystal clear and smooth we passed southwest of the Black Hills of South Dakota, a dark lump on the horizon. Soon Newcastle appeared ahead, and like we did at the small airports the previous day, dropped in and rumbled to a stop, the thirsty fuel tanks waiting to be filled. A call to the weather service did bring some concern. The storm system we’d avoided by not going to California was speeding up and racing us towards the western part of Montana. From the looks of the forecast, it might beat us. Our original plan had been to refuel in Helena, Montana, then aim for Spokane, Washington. The forecast for Helena wasn’t appealing though, so we altered course a bit to the east and went toward Great Falls.

Now we were in some serious mountain country compared to the low hills in the eastern part of the country. First we rounded the Big Horn Mountains near Sheridan Wyoming, then pressed on towards the Rockies. From our vantage point in the sky we saw the looming weather off to the west as it advanced towards us. Up we went, higher and higher to top the toothy peaks near Helena, then dropped down into the wide brown valley where the Missouri River cut through bedrock to create the ‘Great Falls’ mentioned in the Lewis & Clark journals. This was the first major airport we’d flown into on the trip, and we grinned a bit as we shut down and a red carpet was placed at the exit to our plane by the ramp workers at the huge FBO. We felt like high & mighty pilots there! Another call to the weather service confirmed that the bad weather had moved up the Rockies, effectively cutting us off from the west coast. Since it was still mid-afternoon we all agreed it wouldn’t hurt to go take a look, so we blasted out of Great Falls but as we approached the foothills that separated us from Missoula and Kalispell we found a wall of black rain laced with flashes of lightning. Now, I was probably 10 years older than Josh & Shawn, and I was afraid that their youthful exuberance would overcome rational though as they tried to keep pushing a little more, then a little more, then… oops. That is one of the most common routes to an airplane accident. But fortunately they saw the futility in trying to continue, so we turned around and landed back at Great Falls. The forecast called for better weather the next day, so I phoned our boss and gave him the news that we’d be a day late. Better that than a smoking hole in the ground, he said. I couldn’t agree more. We found another cheap motel then wandered further into town to a cowboy steak house and stuffed ourselves, no grits or biscuits in sight.

Our third day appeared better, even though layers of scattered clouds lay over the Rockies. But with an early start we climbed up to over 10,000 feet, and sailed in smooth air one more time over the still-snowy peaks of the Rockies. The three of us had gotten used to this machine and how smoothly it took us wherever we asked it to go, and as we took turns flying it we talked about how lucky we were. And we really meant it. Maybe there’s a tiny truth to the adage that fortunate people don’t know how lucky they are, but I don’t think it applies very often. And for us, after all our years of working towards the goal of being professional pilots here we were, soaring over some of the most beautiful scenery in the U.S., direction and altitude at our whim, and being paid to do so. We were tired from the minimalist sleeping accommodations of the last two nights, but we were happy to be where we were. The Rockies slid slowly downward over Idaho and we followed, turning to land in Spokane Washington. We were in the right state, just the wrong end of it. One more leg to go.

After a quick refuel and with more snacks onboard we took off directly westward toward our flight school in the town of Puyallup, just a little southeast of Tacoma. Mostly in silence now as we crossed the high dry plains of eastern Washington, we enjoyed the view of more familiar territory. We’d all taken students this far before, on the dual cross country trips before we could sign them off for solo trips or for their instrument license. Josh had done most of his flight training in this part of the state too, so it was a homecoming of many different flavors. A few buildups over the Cascades made us detour from the straight line on the GPS, but the clear skies over Puget Sound made our path easy to make out. We landed on the familiar asphalt of our little airport, surrounded by grass, housing developments and strip malls. We were home after covering almost all the continental U.S. corner to corner, southeast to northwest. We’d flown over fourteen states, landed at nine airports and seen weather from clear-blue smooth skies to violent and threatening thunderstorms. Dense cities, eastern forests, grass prairies and tall mountains had all passed under our wings during the three days we were making our way across the country. And all of that – the scenery, the friends I flew with, and most of all the friendly people I met along the way are rolled up into one amazing memory that I’ll cherish forever. It’s something that even now, as I have a career flying hundreds of people great distances from continent to continent, I look back on with fondness and even a little bit of envy. Being told what to do for your job takes a tiny sliver of the fun away, even when you enjoy your job as much as I do. The freedom of that trip will live with me forever as a memory for the ages.

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