Saturday, August 20, 2005

Serious Fun

Scott opens the throttle all the way. Then he calls out numbers. Fifty. Sixty. Seventy. Eighty. Then I feel a bump and I know the wheels are up. He pulls up in a steep climb--as steep a climb as a Cessna 172 does. And I think, “This is fun.” But then I realize how little holds us in the air. A bit of aluminum, an engine that had sputtered to life after a few balky tries. I remember how diligently Scott had performed the pre-flight ritual. Yeah, this is riskier than sitting in front of the TV. And I think, “Serious fun.”

The flight is smooth as polished metal. On the ground, temperatures are just below freezing. The air is dense and quiet. I presume it’s dry enough that icing is no problem. We take off at sunset and fly to Lansing. The daylight’s last gleaming shows me the terrain around Riverview Airport.

Things look different from the air. You see lines and wonder, “Is that 28th street?” It is. And you see long rows of headlights tracing a serpentine path across town and know it’s a freeway. After dark, you see mercury vapor and sodium floodlights. The bigger and brighter clusters must be shopping malls and the like.

When Scott gets in the air, he starts talking to Grand Rapids air traffic control. They tell him frequencies to use. They say a lot of numbers and I’m not used to simultaneously holding several multi-digit numbers in my head: the airplane’s call sign, the radio frequencies, the transponder squawk code. Scott asks me to enter that. It’s the only thing I feel comfortable doing. Someday I will touch the controls, but not tonight.

Past Grand Rapids there is the business of navigating to Lansing. Scott shows me the VOR beacon and how we’ll follow a radial into Lansing. The Loran is something I have actually seen years back, but Scott is not familiar with it and I am clueless despite the fact that I really ought to know.

At the halfway point, Scott tweaks the heading indicator. He mutters something about precession. I remember forgotten gyroscope lore. Precession, nutation. Cool stuff. Scott mentions that the compass is fairly accurate and mentions the dipping angle--more forgotten lore recollected. I smile at the three-dimensionality of lines of magnetic force. Scott utters pilot jargon and I know the science it touches. Knowing obscure things puffs one up. Scott will do an instrument landing at Lansing and he shows me the glide path and all that. It all makes sense.

I start to grok the radio traffic: thinking like Scott is thinking and how Lansing control must be thinking. I remember bits of forgotten conversations with friends who worked air-traffic control or avionics systems. Everything is common sense if you think about it. I scan the horizon for the twinkling stars that are not stars. I scan the ground for the lights that blink every few seconds. Yard lights do not blink, but airport strobes do. Scott explains how north-south traffic owns one set of altitudes and east-west traffic owns another set of altitudes. It makes sense. Most of flight school must be learning the air traffic rules.

vectors us in a roundabout way so that we make our approach from the east. This business of lining up approaches to airstrips is a big deal. I could never get it right when I played with Flight Simulator. Scott tells me what a two-minute turn is. It makes sense.

is a sea of lights I have no clue where the airport is, but Scott finds it immediately. He mentions a rabbit chase and I see it. Big airports must be designed to accommodate dolts (like me) who need a big neon arrow pointing and saying Land Here. We make our descent into Lansing. Scott nails the glide slope, but he is a little off the centerline. No problem, Lansing’s runway is a mile wide. The tower asks Scott where he will to park. Scott names an FBO. What’s a FBO? A Fixed Base Operation is a rest stop for private pilots.

A guy comes out and chocks our wheels. We get out and he asks if we need gasoline. We don’t. We go inside and ask the girl where we can get the $100 hamburger that was the whole point of this trip. She directs us to the Airport Tavern. I wasn’t listening to directions, assuming Scott was. He assumed I was listening. No problem. The FBO lends us a nice car and we take a bunch of right turns and we’re on the main drag in front of the airport. I recognize the road. The last time I drove this road I was in grad school running some errand that took me to the north end of Lansing.
We pull into the Airport Tavern. It looks seedy as does the clientele. Not a problem. I briefly contemplate ordering a hamburger, but the special is Porterhouse steak. There’s no need to be too literal about his hundred-dollar-hamburger business. The steak is wonderful, cooked to perfection and tender and juicy. We eat steak and talk about airplanes and flying. It isn’t affected at all, it’s the most natural thing in the world. We finish and chat with the waitress. Nice lady, nice place. Well have to come back someday.

Back at the FBO we return the car and Scott’s return pre-flight is hurried and cursory. We’ve only been on the ground for an hour and the airplane is just wearing a skin of frost from sitting outside. Scott remembers to pull the chocks. It’s cold and we pile into the cockpit. The heater doesn’t work until we get in the air. Lansing is busy and we have to wait for a heavy to land and another light plane to take off ahead of us.

The Hobbs meter clicks off the same if we’re taxiing or if we’re flying. Note to self: future flights should go to smaller airports. Scott explains that a Hobbs meter is like a taxicab that clicks off time regardless of whether you’re sitting on the runway waiting to take off or flying. It’s a better deal if you’re billed according to the tachometer.

We’re back in the air and the flight home is as much fun as the flight out. There’s a deck of clouds at 3500 feet over Grand Rapids and we descend to 3200. When you fly, you don’t say hundred feet. You say 35 or 32 and the hundred feet are assumed. Scott could have filed an IFR flight-plan in Lansing, but there isn’t much to see inside the cloud.

We detour to the north and fly over my house. Scott circles while I call home on the cell phone. I can’t hear whether they pick up or not. I yell into the phone that we are circling overhead. Mary and the kids blink the yard lights for us. The rest of the flight goes over downtown and it is easy to pick out the landmarks.

We land at Riverview and Scott nails the centerline. The stall alarm squawks at the very moment the wheels touch down. It is perfect. It is serious fun.

No comments: