The 100th anniversary of powered flight was the date for our annual holiday gathering in the pilot's lounge at the virtual airport. It meant braving blowing snow and icy streets, but the goal was worth the effort. Everyone brought some food and some pretty good booze or wine and after an hour or so the atmosphere was as pleasant as it gets here all year. Sandy carried on our tradition of reading aloud aviation's unofficial Christmas story, "The Shepherd" by Frederick Forsyth, and even though we had heard it many times, we all shivered a little at the ending.
Pretty soon the families started making their excuses and departing for home, leaving maybe a dozen of us in the big, overstuffed chairs, talking. As we dissected the year just past, we reflected on the fact that the media hype surrounding the anniversary was almost completely positive and reached well beyond the aviation community, something that had been pretty rare the last several years. We toasted Orville and Wilbur and expressed our satisfaction that despite the lack of success of some of the various replicas, the important thing was that the real one flew a hundred years ago. We also heartily cursed Mayor Daley for showing his support for the momentous anniversary by turning into the country's first elected terrorist when he vandalized one of the prettiest airports on the planet and for bringing the Meigs Field Curse down on the city of Chicago. We decried his actions in imposing the Curse, which wrecked the good season the White Sox were having and kept the Cubs from making it to the World Series where they could have seen if they could shake the Billy Goat Curse (which doesn't even kick in until the Cubs get to the Series).
Talking about 2003 lead, little by little, into expressions of hope and potential plans for 2004. Eric, one of our more thoughtful pilots, and who has the wonderful good fortune of living on a residential airport, became an airplane owner for the first time a few months ago. He said he has always been frustrated by the period of time that passes between flights. He explained that he works like crazy to get current to a standard that he feels he needs for reasonable IFR abilities in a state on the downwind side of the Great Lakes. Then, this and that happens. He gets busy at work. There are family demands. Suddenly he finds himself way too rusty, and he has to go through the process again. He said his resolution for the New Year, already on his calendar, is to simply go fly on a regular basis, and make sure those flying appointments are ones that he will not cancel or postpone.
As I listened to Eric, I heard myself and others in his voice. He described some trips he wanted to make in the next year with his family: a Niagara Falls tour, a couple of weekends in cities with downtown airports and museums and other attractions that entice his family. He wants to use an airplane and his instrument rating to allow his family to see more of the wonders of this country than they could do in a car. He also told me that he expected to fly with me next month and get checked out on skis. That sounded just fine, as, at least in my experience, flying little airplanes on skis and landing on frozen lakes is one of the more fun things in life.
The final thing that he said to me was that he was determined to sit down and read, from cover to cover, the POH for the airplane in which he now had an interest. He'd read enough stuff on Old Wive's Tales that he wanted to see what the manufacturer had to say about many things, including leaning even when at low altitude, speeds to fly and performance. While he said he was aware of the articles on errors in POHs, he also knew that Cessna had a reputation for putting out some pretty accurate stuff in theirs, so he was going to see what it said before he made any comments.
The fact that Eric was willing to say what he wanted to do in the next year sort-of functioned as the proverbial pin in the balloon because everyone started talking and I started taking notes. I happened to think there were some excellent ideas; yet our resident curmudgeon, Old Hack, saw me writing stuff down, put down his glass of Scotch, pulled the Havana out of his mouth and muttered at me, "Why are you wasting your time with that garbage? You know full well that those lazy bums will break every resolution they make before January is out, and one or two of 'em will go terminally stupid and roll an airplane up into a ball no matter what they piously claim they are going to do next year."
On one level, I couldn't disagree with Hack, but he was drinking the very good single-malt that I had shelled out for, so I just glared at him. I knew he had been imbued with some manners at his mother's knee, so my practice was to bring the good stuff that he liked and shame him into keeping a civil tongue in his head, even though I always appreciate his pragmatic view of aeronautical live as a counterbalance to the sometimes overly sentimental remarks made by pilots in their cups during the Christmas season. On a higher level, I thought the resolutions were pretty good. Even if all of them wouldn't be kept, just keeping one would be a step in the right direction.
Despite Old Hack, I happen to feel that much as we as pilots take time to plan our flights, it's completely appropriate to take time to consider who we are, what our aeronautical goals are and how to achieve them, so I did take notes. A number of pilots repeated the same resolutions and several put priorities on their resolutions, so I'll try and outline things as I heard them stated in the order of importance.
Recurrent Training. Almost everyone put this high on the list. Some because they had read too many accident reports with dumb things done by pilots who hadn't kept their skills up to snuff and lost control of their airplane in situations that should not have been more than a moderate challenge. Others said that as they aged they became more realistic in evaluating their own abilities and were simply scared by how fast their skills deteriorated when they were not used regularly and therefore they were resolved to take dual every six moths. Those same folks also said that the very basic action of thinking about flying with some frequency on those days that they could not fly seemed to help them keep their reflexes in better shape. On hearing that comment, one of our resident instructors jumped into the conversation and unequivocally stated that she had seen that so often in her students, the ones who dreamed about flying, who talked about it and who thought about it between lessons tended to do much better than those who only brought it to mind when it was time to go to the airport and fly. She felt that just exercising those brain tissues associated with aviation, even if not going flying, paid big dividends on top of taking dual on a regular basis.
Instrument Rating. A few of the folks here said that their goal in the next year was to get an instrument rating. There is certainly a fair amount of controversy over the value of an instrument rating versus the cost in general aviation, however, at least east of the Mississippi, and in the Pacific Northwest, a person can't count on using an airplane for personal transportation, even if just for pleasure, without an instrument rating, particularly now that scud-running has become so horribly dangerous. Sure, the rating is not a panacea, but it is the intellectual end of aviation, the thinking rating, and if one looks at NTSB stats, a pilot is less likely to bend an airplane if instrument rated. Perhaps having gone through that next level of learning has a benefit beyond just being able to fly in the clouds.
Get Checked Out In Something New. This was a topic that was strongly supported by the younger pilots as well as the old heads. The newer pilots were eager for the snow to get a little deeper and the lakes to freeze so that they could get checked out on skis. The CFIs in the crowd smiled. They knew that the process of newer pilots checking out on skis, or in any new airplane or in a different category of aircraft, such as a seaplane or balloon or glider, always started out motivated by the adventure and enjoyment promised by the newness. If the CFI doing the checkout were careful, the adventure came with a very nicely gift wrapped skill upgrade included, no extra charge. The pilot not only got to try something new, he or she received training, insights and experiences that would translate into better being able to carry on the normal flying each one did. While the pilot getting the new experience did not always realize it on a conscious level, there were benefits that went far beyond the fun of making those landings and takeoffs in powder snow. They may or may not have realized that they picked up new skills such as flying an airplane very slowly as they came unstuck from the snow, or analyzing weather when they watched the winter sky or the simple stick and rudder skill upgrade they got when flying an airplane with a lot of adverse aileron yaw and which required that they actually figure out what those pedals on the floor did. Many times, when only intending to get a good checkout in a higher performance airplane, the CFI tied in the fairly minimal additional requirements of the FARs thus resulting in the pilot receiving an endorsement for successful completion of a flight review, in itself a good thing because the pilot got required recurrent training earlier than might otherwise have happened.
Crosswind Landings. I was interested to listen to several of the pilots express honestly that, in spite of a fair amount of experience, they were not comfortable with crosswind landings and were resolved to schedule some dual for just that purpose. In fact, one of them weaved out to the scheduling book at put himself down for some dual in early January. Old Hack watched for a moment, then took my pad, wrote a note that said the pilot was scheduled for dual on that date and time for crosswind landings, tore it off, walked over and stuck it in the guy's shirt pocket so he wouldn't forget. I guess I looked kind of surprised, because Hack growled at me, "If he's gonna make a resolution that makes sense, then I'm at least gonna remind him that he had an attack of the smarts, so maybe he'll actually keep it."
Made sense to me.
In fact, the idea of practicing crosswind landings made a lot of sense to me as well. The NTSB reports are full of those expensive "run off the runway" accidents tied to crosswinds which add so generously to our insurance premiums. We can go out to the airport any day and see very few pilots even positioning the ailerons on takeoff or landing rollout to handle existent crosswinds. I admired the guys who admitted they need the practice, I think we all do, but few of us admit it.
Weather Analysis. This proved to be an interesting topic when it was brought up. A few of the pilots said they just rely on the Weather Channel for background information and then use the computer to flight plan and file. Some said they try to second guess the forecasts and I know of one or two who are truly interested in the complexities of weather and, interestingly, rarely get fooled by unforecast weather. They are the ones who say the computer models are amazingly good, but not perfect. They are among those who fly very regularly and are personally interested in where the ice is, whether fog is going to form and where the thunderstorms are going to be, but they seem to do it better. I've noticed that, in winter, they collect a lot less ice on their airplanes that some of the other pilots, in summer they always seem to be able to avoid the bad turbulence, and they are also the ones who can go safely when others, not as attuned to the subtleties of weather, decide it's not flyable.
The discussion did it for me. I resolved to reread Robert Buck's excellent book, Weather Flying, because getting a better feeling for the big picture and my little airplane's part in it is all on the plus side of the ledger.
As the evening drew on, I heard promises to undertake the high performance aircraft checkout that a few had been procrastinating about; resolutions to get involved with groups restoring and operating historical aircraft; to undertake various skill or rating upgrades; to run a series of sample weight and balance calculations on the airplanes they usually fly so they have a more intuitive feel for what loading is acceptable and what is not; to order that first kit and get going on that homebuilt airplane they'd been dreaming about for years; to finish that homebuilt airplane that was 90% done but now languishing in the garage; to learn to fly ultralights; and to buy that introductory flying lesson certificate for the neighbor who seems so interested but so hesitant to take the first step.
Everything I heard was not only positive, but a reminder of just how vast our opportunities are in aviation, of how many wonderfully interesting niches there are that fit our interests and our wallets. I certainly couldn't imagine boredom being among a pilot's problems.
We have the chance to use our skills to help others with medical transport through the Air Care Alliance and environmental support organizations such as LightHawk and SouthWings. Here we can directly use airplanes to benefit individuals needing treatment, and communities threatened by poor conservation decisions, through the use of airplanes to document the threats.
Use your skills to benefit someone. The EAA has just finished the monumental task of introducing 1,000,000 young people to the sky in a 10-year period. Happily, already some have grown and have taken flying lessons and learned to fly. However, we as pilots cannot simply put the check in the box on the form and announce that the task is complete. The pilot community is aging; it is a tiny fraction of one percent of the population. One of our most important resolutions must be to continue to introduce young men and women to the joy and wonder of the world aloft through rides that are designed to be enjoyable, not terrifying, and through intelligent communication about the magic of the sky.
Perhaps we do get maudlin at times, but isn't that a part of who we are; we who spend our lives, our fortunes and our honor seeking the sky seeking to take yet another step in the human experience? We pilots see the cup as half full and work and sweat and try to add a few drops to it and in so doing, enrich our own lives. We seek to confirm that we are not just water beetles skimming on the surface of the planet. We seek meaning and find it in the sunsets we have viewed from aloft, in the remote mountain meadows seen only by us, in the joy of meeting an aviation friend that we did not know that we had known forever and who shares our passion for a life aloft.
We pilots make resolutions, for they are ways that we keep track of the goals we have, of the goals of reaching the sky and, someday, the stars -- for unless we dream, we and our descendants are doomed to the grey-browness of an overcrowded, increasingly disaffected, hostile, inhospitable, intolerant society. We reach above because we have seen the world from there and know its nearly indescribable beauty that we want to save for our children. We have the chance to share the sky with others who do not understand that there is more to life than existence on the surface.
As the year winds down and you take that quiet moment to think about what you want to do next year, I ask that you at least resolve to use the very unique abilities you have as a pilot to help make things a little better for those who are not as fortunate.
See you next month.