The Pilot's Lounge #111: The Door to Adventure

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The Pilot's Lounge

On the first warm day in weeks I had gone out to the virtual airport to see if I could get an airplane started that had been tied down outside for over a month. I suspected that the siege of cold weather would have left the battery with a questionable level of oomph. (Don't you love technical terms?) At best I figured it would turn the prop through about three compression strokes; at worst it wouldn't spin the gyro in the turn coordinator and I'd have to arrange to charge the battery.

I was fortunate and lucky. After a preflight, four preparatory shots of prime and leaving the primer out, snapping on the master switch and then engaging the starter, the prop turned grudgingly, yet the engine fired on the second blade. The last shot of prime kept it running at less than 1,000 rpm as the oil pressure came up. The airplane and I celebrated our success with a half an hour of landings from a very tight pattern, so we got in more landings than the number of tenths that were recorded on the Hobbs meter. That in itself was a pleasant accomplishment. The landings had started out workmanlike and progressed to pretty good; enough so that after I had tied the airplane down and walked away, I found I was whistling. I looked back at the airplane and saw that it wasn't hiding its head in shame over having been seen with me. The entire undertaking left me in a very good mood.

I stopped into the Pilot's Lounge to see who might be swilling the lousy coffee and found that it was populated by only the male, gray-hair set, something that I see more and more as I travel around to little airports. Not surprisingly, their conversation was of the horrible things going on in general aviation: the staggeringly high price of fuel and aircraft rentals, a government that seemed determined to handicap anyone who wished to fly little airplanes and that the darn kids just want to play video games instead of flying a real airplane.

Don't Spoil the Mood


I turned around and left. I figured something would sour my good mood soon enough. I didn't need the same old laments to fracture the pleasant feeling before I had a chance to savor it a little while.

Later, I went flying with my daughter. She passed her glider private pilot checkride at the end of last summer, but then school and sports and band and what-have-you got in her way. She hadn't been flying much at all since her checkride. Nevertheless, when we split up the flying chores and she made the takeoff, she nailed the centerline, climb speed and cruise altitude as if she'd just flown a day ago. En route, we got to talking and she said that she was applying for a summer job at a few places and she hoped she could get her private pilot power rating this summer. I got to thinking about how wages have not come close to keeping up with the cost of flying and the cost of college and hoped that she would have the propitious combination of the determination, time and resources to meet her goal.

We talked more about her plans as we flew. Before long we were closing on our destination and conversation ceased during the descent as we each concentrated on watching for other airplanes and making sure that all was done correctly in preparation for returning to the planet.

During the evening flight home by myself, I got to thinking about the diminishing number of pilots (we have never made up more than about one tenth of one percent of the population of the U.S.) and of the increasing pressures on general aviation as the overall population continues to grow almost exponentially. I thought of those who are consciously or unconsciously afraid of the heavens -- unwilling to accept the idea of reaching out to the skies, to explore our human potential -- who lead their myopic, sheltered lives, busily glued to the surface of the earth and who seem so determined to ground and punish every one of those people who do seek to go a little further, to ascend into the heights in aircraft they themselves control. I wondered if the constant fight to keep flying was worth it. Whether it would be better to simply give up and do as the vast majority wish, to shut off my mind and my curiosity and my sense of awe and exist in a world of television and vicarious experiences via video games.

Am I The Pilot?

Cessna 150

As if to rise up and combat such a hideous concept, I suddenly thought of my sixteenth birthday, when my folks bought me an hour of dual instruction. I had been working weekends and paying for lessons, a half hour at a time, in a Beechcraft Musketeer. The single door in that airplane meant I got in from the right side and slid across to the left seat. On the day my parents bought me a lesson, we went to a different airport, one where the flight school used the less-expensive-to-operate Cessna 150. I followed my new instructor, Everett Benson, around the airplane as he showed me its intimate areas and taught me what to look for to make sure all was well.

When we finished the walk around, I noticed the door on the left side of the airplane had been left open. Yet, at that moment, the opening became impassable. It was not for me, I could not go through it. I had been in the left seat of an airplane before, for a whole three and one half hours. Somehow, that experience did not matter right now, because the left-hand door in front of me, creating what seemed to be a gigantic opening, was exclusively for the pilot of the airplane. It was not the one through which the passengers and other unwashed, such as student pilots, were to pass; it was for the pilot. While I wanted to be a pilot more than anything in the world, I wasn't one. Not yet. I could not defile that passage to the left seat. I thought that I should go around and enter through the right side door, where lesser mortals boarded airplanes.

In the time I had been there, just standing and looking at that open door, Everett had walked all the way around the tail of the airplane and was approaching the right side door. He saw that I had made no move to get in. I have no idea whether he was aware of my hesitancy to board the airplane through the pilot side door. He simply stopped walking, looked at me calmly and said, "Go ahead and get in."

That was all it took. It was OK for me to get into the pilot's seat, through the pilot's door. I had received permission from a flight instructor, one of the gods of flight. The hesitation I had felt instantly evaporated. I walked straight toward the portal, suddenly certain it was the door to adventure.

Long Cross-Country


It truly proved to be the door to adventure. I thought of a flight I had made with a friend the summer after I graduated from high school. The two of us took a rather haggard Citabria, bereft of even a working radio, to fly a few hundred miles in response to an invitation to stay with the family of a mutual friend at a cabin they were renting on a lake in Arkansas. It was one of those flights that was memorable because it was so right: the preflight and loading of the airplane before dawn as the dew dripping from the trailing edges of the wings wet our shirt backs; the coincidence and glory of leaving the ground just as the sun rose above the horizon and gave brilliant color to the world and the flight itself (which presented the challenge of navigating with a sectional chart and magnetic compass); and the two of us hawkeyed for landmarks, calling out as we found the next one to stay on course.

Then we shared the excitement of seeing the lake that was our destination and then landing the tailwheel airplane on the narrow, short, grass strip by the shore and dock where we met our friend and his sister, who had come in a small motorboat to get us.

And then the feeling of exultation, of being 18 and having made a long flight with fingers on charts, across land neither of us had ever seen before, crossing miles of gradually changing landscape of Iowa and Missouri and northern Arkansas. And we had celebrated by waterskiing the length of the lake to the cabin.

Rocky Mountain High

Salt Lake City

The blue of that Arkansas lake in my mind transformed into the majesty of the range of mountains just east of Salt Lake City as I crossed them, westbound, in a Cessna 172 at 12,500 feet. They gradually lowered to reveal the magnificence of the Great Salt Lake and the city itself. For a teenager from the rolling fields of Iowa, the spectacle was utterly stunning. Through my life, even having taken a train trip through these same mountains, I had had no idea, no concept that such a vista existed, much less that all it took to experience it was to be able to fly a small airplane to the right place in the sky. I was learning that adventure did not require that I be rich or "old," but just a pilot.

Back in "now," as I continued on toward home after dropping off my daughter, handling the routine of cruising flight and only vaguely aware of the changing colors being displayed as the sun descended toward the horizon, my mind kept bringing me images of years of viewing the world from aloft, each experience and adventure more colorful and richer than the last.

Caribbean Jaunt

Grand Bahama

The western tip of Grand Bahama Island slowly emerged from the humid haze of the Atlantic. Its tropical lushness filled my eyes as my brother, our friend and I watched from the rented Cessna 182 we were flying on spring break during my senior year of college. The sight put an end to many long minutes of wondering what in the world I, a land-locked sort, was doing in a single-engine airplane out of sight of land. But then, exactly as predicted in the carefully written out flight log, there was land, green with palm trees and water of shades of blue I had never seen defining the shallows on the north side of the island, as I realized that only from above could such beauty be truly appreciated and how very lucky the three of us were to be seeing it.

I remembered how the flight across half of the United States to visit this foreign country had gone so amazingly smoothly and how, when we landed, the Bahamian Customs' agents were so polite. The nice lady at the car rental agency had rented us a beat up little car because one of us had a credit card and she figured that even if we weren't really quite old enough, the fact that someone had rented an airplane to us meant something.

We had even had found a place in the interior of the island where we could camp because we were spending all of our money on the airplane and avgas and cheap places to eat. And I thought of the friendly people we met at little airports on our trip who had let us unroll our sleeping bags under the wing of the airplane and spent time talking with us about our adventure. The skein of adventures and experiences on that trip helped make up an integral part of who I became.

Lightning Far and Near

St. Elmo's Fire

Suddenly I was back in the "barrel chair," the seat in the Model 24B Learjet right behind the copilot arranged so that the occupant could face either aft or sideways and look over the copilot's shoulder. I was on my first flight with my new employer, observing one trip before I would sit in that copilot seat. We were at 45,000 feet, or as I was learning to say, "Flight Level Four Five Oh," above the moonlit, nighttime planet, over an existence of otherworldly shapes and forms made of the whitest cotton imaginable.

Everywhere inside that puffy phantasm below us someone was randomly turning thousands of little lightbulbs on and off with great rapidity. I had never seen airmass thunderstorms from above. My experience with them had been either to make a last check of the tiedown ropes on the airplane before running inside the airport office as the first torrent of rain fell, or, on far more unpleasant occasions, to be tossed violently about when I had not had the good sense to land. From above, the intense violence of the storms was hidden; we were viewing a living work of art, a light show giving no notice of the forces within.

Moments later my awed survey of a nearby promontory of flashing gauze was interrupted by an apparition my mind initially refused to accept. The airplane, a vehicle of the upper reaches of the sky, had become, of all things, a squid. From nowhere, it had sprouted a multitude of 40-foot long, purple tentacles, each was attached to either the radome just a few short feet ahead of the cockpit or the very nose of either tip tank and writhing and twisting out ahead of us into the night.

Stupefied and initially mute, I wondered why such a spectacle was not utterly terrifying. Had I not been so completely mesmerized, I might have already unbuckled my seat belt and scuttled to the aft bulkhead to hide under the cargo net and behind the boxes of freight we were carrying. The reality was that the effect was not so much frightening as magical.

For nearly 10 minutes the ethereal creatures remained affixed to our craft as the captain told us, that unlike airplanes with propellers, where the static electrical discharge that is St. Elmo's fire manifests itself as purple flames on the outer portion of the propeller disk, on a jet it appears as long arms or snakes. After we landed we stepped out and the captain said, "Let's see if St. Elmo left his mark." He took us to the front of the nearer tip tank. Much of the paint was gone, as it also proved to be from the radome and the nose of the other tip tank.

Aerial Sunset


The vision of scoured aluminum faded as I checked the instruments to see that I was still holding the altitude I had selected for the trip home, remained on heading and that oil pressure and temperature were as they should be, and then started the next scan for other airplanes. I looked to my right and saw that the sun was just touching the surface of Lake Michigan, creating a path of red gold from the shore to where it seemed to be sinking into the water.

I initially dismissed the sight as one I had seen dozens of times and started to turn my head back to the left to continue my watch for other airplanes. In that moment I realized that what I was taking for granted was the sort of dramatic imagery that sometimes wins the picture of the week contest here on AVweb and how few humans ever get to see the sunset from this perspective. Because I was in an airplane, by merely climbing or descending I had the power to either hasten or prolong my enjoyment of this glorious event of nature. Good grief, right now, at this very moment, there are people who have driven some distance to park along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan to watch this sunset, yet they don't have a fraction of the magnitude of the view I have here from this little airplane floating in the sky and they haven't a clue as to what they are missing.

I reminded myself to drink in this moment, savor it, treasure it. Treasure it as another magical experience in the sky. Commit it to memory to pull out and enjoy again one of those days when I can't fly because the weather is bad or the airplane is broken or general aviation flying has been legislated out of existence.

I thought again of my daughter and her desire to fly. I thought of the recent news my wife and I received that her son and his wife are expecting a child and that I will be a step-grandparent. Life continues. I want that little person to have the chance to decide whether to learn to fly one of these sky machines. It's worth the fight against user fees, for airports, against the moles and nay-sayers of the world; it's worth the fight to fly. I want that child to have the opportunity to step through the door to adventure.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.