Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Favorite Aviation Moments

The air up there

THE WORLD ABOVE. Contributing writer Marc C. Lee flies at first sunrise on New Year’s Day.
The other day, I made one of those “out in the morning/back in the afternoon drives” to Los Angeles for lunch with my daughter. It was 800 miles of automotive contradiction: hundreds of miles of serene desert solitude separated by two endless streams of car brake lights. When you’re cruising through the predawn desert, your mind can’t help but wander. Besides the ever-present “wish I were in my airplane” thoughts, which immediately were followed by “sure glad I don’t have to fly into L.A. airspace,” I found myself clicking through some classic aviation moments.

The sudden sunrise of an early morning takeoff: You’re at the airport and preflighting by flashlight, your collar pulled up against the chill. As you line up on the runway, the horizon is threatening to turn a deep blue-gold. The throttle goes in, and for a short period, you’re concentrating on the art of turning 2,000 pounds of inanimate junk into a finely tuned, breathing being. Without warning, you climb into an instant sunrise as the cockpit is flooded with liquid gold. You look down at the dark homes below, keenly aware that the sun of a new day won’t enter their lives for many minutes.

The joy of center line: You come through the middle marker right on altitude, the localizer dead stable, the glideslope forming a perfect cross on the panel. But the windshield is a dark and murky gray, and you’re watching the altimeter unwind to a number you don’t want to think about. It’s a firm rule that you don’t bust minimums: Too many loved ones are waiting at home for you to do that. But it’s not looking good. Just as you’re about to hit the power and do a missed approach, there’s a flash in the windshield. You glance up to see the runway centerline stripe painted brightly on the windshield. You’re home free!

The relief of solid earth: It was a great trip—until the engine quit. Then you got busy quickly, and the sweaty spots on your palms grew bigger (even faster than the power poles separating you from the runway, which providence placed within gliding distance). The last pole disappears under the wing, scant feet from you. The touchdown is blissfully smooth, the speed dissipates and the airplane rolls to a stop in the throat of a taxiway. You sit for a few seconds, your nerves doing an adrenaline-fueled dance; the silence is so thick you can slice it. You release the breath you took many minutes ago. You’re down. You’re safe. And the relief robs you of every ounce of strength you had.

Grass makes it worth it: The little yellow airplane isn’t fast, but with the bottom half of the door folded down, your view of the dying day is unobstructed. In fact, in your mind, the airplane ceases to exist. As you slip around the corner of an abbreviated approach and settle into ground effect, you toy with the ground, not wanting to give up flight until the last moment. Just as the bottom half of the door starts to float up, signaling that the airplane is almost done flying, you hear, as much as you feel, the tires whispering through the tops of the grass. The airplane gives an audible sigh and settles back to earth. Such landings are so clean, you can smell them.

Coming back to the real world: You’ve been VFR-on-top for more than an hour. The untouched sanctity of the solid deck under you is perfect, and a little frightening. The radio says cloud cover at your destination is still broken, so you relax and enjoy the ride—almost. As holes appear beneath your wings, you select a particularly big one and drop through, acutely aware of leaving a beautiful, clean, bright world for the gloomy reality of life on earth. But you love the fact that you know the bright world above exists. And you can visit it at will.


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