In the last (first) installment of this diary, I wrote about the most memorable people I met in aviation. In this installment, I will tell a couple of stories about flying itself; about the pure joy of seeing the world from your own plane and the personal gratification of learning a skill that few possess.
I owned a quarter of it. It is now in Brazil doing flight training in Sao Paulo (with a new "tail number", PR-NOW).
But on to the stories:
Most stories by pilots involve some sort of emergency or tragedy. I think this is why a lot of people are afraid to fly, or more specifically, afraid to learn to fly. I flew for 20 years and logged more than 1,500 hours at the controls and I had precisely 3 emergencies that resulted in no bent aluminum, no injuries and no FAA sanctions or action. Declaring an emergency in an airplane is basically just letting everyrone know that you have an issue to deal with in your airplane and you need them to get out of your way while you try to sort it out and get on the ground. Two were mechanical problems and one was bone-headed decision-making on my part. I'll save those stories for another diary.
I learned to fly so I could visit my children (from my first marriage) who lived 950 miles away more often and more easily. That was my dream: to drive 15 minutes to the airport, get in an airplane and travel at 130 mph with no traffic or road construction and be at their home in just 7-1/2 hours, instead of 15 or 16.
Days after I got my Private Pilot's license, I joined a flying club and got checked out in all three of their airplanes. I then scheduled a Piper Warrior for the following weekend to go see my kids. I also went to see my instructor and told him of my plans in hopes he would give me a few tips on flying such a long "cross-country" flight. He looked at my proposed flight plan and grunted. "Wyckoff", he said, "You'll be lucky if this flight only takes two days and you don't get hopelessly lost". This was in the days before GPS, so I was relying on a series of 5 "charts" (aerial maps that unfold to be about 3 x 3 feet), a series of radio beacons and little else. He said, "If I were you, I'd abandon this flight plan, it's way too complicated. I'd figure out how far you can fly before you are going to need gas (about 3-1/2 hours, it turns out) and aim for it. When you think you are close, ask for help finding it and land. If the weather is good, you can then take off and steer a course South until you see the Ocean and Mobile Bay will be either to the right or the left...".
I was flying from Chicago's DuPage Airport to Fairhope, Alabama and the halfway mark was Memphis. I selected the West Memphis airport as my re-fueling point, studied the charts and figured I could see Memphis from several miles away and point my plane to the west of it and find the single-runway West Memphis airport by sight. Since I had only flown in the rain once during training, I decided I would only go if there was no predicted rain and no clouds below 3,000 feet between Chicago and Mobile (near Fairhope). I marked all my charts with grease pencil, which is no inconsiderable task when going that far and using 5 overlapping charts. I started checking weather reports several days ahead of my planned trip.
I learned several things about cross-country flying even before I left the ground. First, any 950 mile trip is going to encounter rain or clouds at least 3 out of 5 days. Second, weather forecasts are really only good about 12 hours in advance of the prediction, anything longer than that is pretty much a fairy tale.
After a heart-wrenching delay of two weeks for good weather conditions for the trip, I packed my bag and went to the airport, pre-flighted the plane and took off headed south. For the first hour, everything looked relatively familiar. This was, after all, an area that I had flown over during training. The second hour brought new sights.
I was flying at 3,500 feet, so things on the ground were quite visible, even down to how many cows were in the pastures and what color the cars on the road were. Terrified of getting lost (I had gotten lost on my first solo cross-country flight during training, and although I eventually figured it out, I didn't like the feeling) I spent most of my time checking my charts and looking out the windows for recognizable landmarks as well as triangulating VOR signals on my navigation radio to determine my position and looking for airports that I could land at if the need arose. Still, even with this workload, this was FUN! Clear weather, not much turbulence, great views - and I was going 130 mph to see my kids for the weekend.
About 2-3/4 hours into my flight, something on the instrument panel caught my eye. I had never, in 55 hours of flying, seen the gas gauges (there are two tanks) getting close to the 1/4 mark. I had never flown this far from home. In actuality, I had enough gas to fly another hour and still have 30 minutes of fuel in reserve, but it just felt wrong to me, so I started looking for an airport. I don't remember which airport it was, but it was small, I remember that. I also realized that I was still too far from Fairhope to make it all the way from wherever I was to Fairhope without stopping for gas again. Oh well, so what?
As I flew over Tennessee, I started to notice perfectly rectangular bodies of water laid out in a sort of pattern. Wanting to investigate and not having any restrictions, I simply descended to about 800 feet off the ground to have a closer look. Well from 800 feet, I could see that they were definitely man-made and had gravel roads that went up to each one, but still had no idea what they were. I made a mental note to try to find out later (it turned out that these are catfish farms). I climbed back up to 3,500 feet and continued on my way, feeling lucky to be a pilot.
Somewhere over central Alabama, after my second fuel stop (also not recorded in my logbook or remembered) I noticed I had picked up a tailwind (before GPS, this was not so easy to determine, but the landmarks were going by faster than expected), and I remembered being taught that a moderate tailwind down low usually meant a much greater tailwind up high. Once again, having (virtually) no restrictions on a VFR flight, I trimmed the plane to climb and took it all the way up to 9,500 feet. I had never been this high as a pilot before and it is exhilarating when the visibility is good. At this height, you swear you can see the curvature of the Earth (you can't) and the patterns on the ground look decidedly different. The view was spectacular. Unfortunately, unless your landmarks are HUGE (like rivers or cities) you can't see them very well from this high up.
I did, I think, get a nice push from the wind up at 9,500 and after 40 minutes, decided to come back down to a more familiar 3,500 feet and start preparing to find the Fairhope airport, which should be coming up in a half hour or so.
The Fairhope airport is only about a half mile from the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay and about a mile or so south of the town of Fairhope, so it is fairly easy to spot, even for a novice pilot. I found it, called on the radio my intention to land and taxied to the ramp. As I tied the Warrior down and walked toward my rental car, I felt accomplished, proud and very pilot-like. I enjoyed seeing my kids for the weekend and was blessed with the same benign weather for the return trip on Monday morning.
Over the next 20 years I made that trip about 25 more times. I learned to fly all the way to West Memphis and not worry about only having an hour and a half of gas left. I eventually got my instrument license and flew it many times without ever seeing the ground. I flew it alone, with my wife, and twice with my 3 kids (although the Warrior normally can only carry people in 3 of the 4 seats, if two of them are small enough, you can fill all 4). I flew it in rain. I flew it dodging thunderstorms. I flew it in the winter. Although there were exciting moments in many of these flights, none compared to that first landing in Fairhope, Alabama.