Saturday, April 18, 2009

For Better or Worse

The vows you make when you acquire an airplane are very similar to those you make when you get married, with the notable exception of the promise of faithfulness and monogamy. You can still fly other airplanes without having a detrimental effect on your relationship, although there are still issues that may arise with the Finance Dept. if you incur flying costs in addition to the expense of those already associated with your own airplane. But that monogamy thing aside, the vow that really cuts to the heart of the relationship with your airplane is the whole 'for better or worse' thing.

You see, the vows are not the only similarities between marriage and airplane ownership. Many of the challenges that go with marriage are also present in your relationship with your airplane. The biggest of those challenges is Winter. Every Winter, your airplane becomes cold and distant. The good times of the previous flying season are easily forgotten as you find yourself spending less and less quality time together. At times you wonder why you even bother any more. The expenses are always there, there is always work that needs to be done, and that work is often done in cold and uncomfortable conditions. You try to deal with all of that, but it seems that all you receive in return are brief and relatively rare conjugal visits on those rare occasions when the winter weather allows a fleeting (rather than the more common sleeting) opportunity to engage in the intimacy of flight that comes so easily in the better months of the year.

Just as you start to think it is well and truly over, that your differences are irreconcilable, that there is no love left in the relationship at all, Spring arrives. With Spring comes the better weather, the revitalization of the passion that formed the basis of your relationship in the first place. With Spring comes the realization that you two were made for each other, and that better times are right around the corner. With the arrival of Spring, the tribulations of the Winter are instantly forgotten. The 'Better' part has finally, at long last, arrived.

Spring arrived on Friday.

Well, to be honest, Spring actually arrived on Thursday, but I had mowing to do and the airplane had to wait. Just one more day, just one more day, just one more day...

For Friday, I had arranged for one of my favorite things to do with Papa: we were going to give a ride to a guest. Lynda, the founder of Girls With Wings and a Citation X pilot at one of my previous employers, was in town for training and we had arranged for her to have an RV ride. I love giving rides to everyone that expresses an interest, but there are a few categories of rider that I especially enjoy: kids, people that have never flown before, and professional pilots.

The first two of those are enjoyable for obvious reasons, but the last might not be quite as easily understood. The thing is, I've found that a lot of professional pilots have either forgotten or never really new the freedom of unencumbered flying in a sporty airplane. Often times their aviation background is in military flying or the very regimented training flying of a college aviation program. They have never experienced the combined joys of a responsive and eager airplane being flown without regard to destination, time, or demanding passengers/instructors.

Certainly a military fighter pilot knows the merits of a nimble aircraft quite well, but seldom are they offered the chance to just jump in and fly simply for the joy that's in it. Commercial pilots may periodically be released from the tight constraints of time and passenger demands while making ferry flights, but they are still strapped into a relatively sedate machine that is primarily operated via interaction with an autopilot and is still beholden to the restrictions and demands of Air Traffic Control. As such, their introduction to the RV grin can be every bit as gratifying to me as the one on the face of a person that has never experienced the awe of flight at all.

In Lynda's case, it seems that she became a pilot almost by accident. Rather than having had the burning passion to fly from a very young age that I had, she was introduced to flying when she was recruited into applying for an Army helicopter slot when she was in ROTC during her college years. That led to 400-some hours flying the venerable Huey helicopter, followed by a transition into the fixed-wing King Air. From there she progressed through various flying jobs, leading to her current position at NetJets. Her only experience in single-engine piston airplanes was 40 or so hours in Cessna 182s. An RV-6 is so foreign to any of those airplanes that to an appreciable degree, our flight would be like something she had never experienced before.

As much as I enjoy flights like these, they bring a different kind of tension to me. After all, these people usually have thousands of flight hours, making my 700+ look pretty low by comparison. They operate aircraft having the complexity of the space shuttle. They fly at altitudes and in weather that are inconceivable to those of us that ply the skies in nice weather and seldom over 10,000'. In Lynda's case, she also flies at .92 mach, making her one of the fastest non-military pilots in the world. It's simply the case that an amateur recreational pilot like would like to make a good impression on a professional, and failing that, at least not make a horribly negative impression. Don't get me wrong; I have never found a professional pilot that has flown with me to be judgmental in any way, shape, or form. It's just a subtle undercurrent of stress that I (needlessly and possibly unnecessarily) impose on myself for some reason. Call it foolish pride, if you must. It more than likely is exactly that. Which changes nothing: it is what it is.

As has always been the case, there was no reason at all to have had even the slightest worry about her not enjoying the flight. Papa showed off in his usual way by starting up with no reluctance whatsoever, the skies were crystal clear and the winds were simply non-existent. Basically, we had perfect conditions for a smooth, fun flight. I made the take off and climbed to about 3,000 feet before handing her the stick (metaphorically, of course, as there was already a stick over there on her side) and letting her fly for awhile. She adapted quickly to the light touch that is required for an RV, probably because her experience with helicopters had ingrained the need for small, precise inputs rather than larger, more abrupt movements. Having never flown a Huey, I'm just guessing about this, but it seems plausible.

Lynda described herself as a "timid" pilot but was willing (and trusting enough) to allow me to demonstrate some of the more advanced air work possible in an RV. I described and then performed a couple of maneuvers, which were then followed by a couple more at her request. During the second set she committed herself to actually keeping her eyes open, but I was unable to verify that she actually did. When we had finished those, I could tell that it was time to head back to base by the way she was adjusting the air vent to get more cool air blowing on her. That's nearly always a sign that there might be a little queasiness coming on, and that it might be best to head back to the airport as smoothly and as expeditiously as possible. Fortunately, the skies were very calm and provided us with a comfortable ride back.

And all of a sudden, there it was: the test that all pilots judge each other by. I'm speaking, of course, of the landing. As I've oft mentioned here before, if I am ever going to grease a landing, I want it to be with a witness aboard. And if I could grease one with a 5000+ hour professional pilot bearing witness? Well, all the better, right? Conditions were perfect, too. Very little wind and calm skies are the necessary ingredients for the type of landing that makes a passenger ask if we've touched down yet, and that's exactly what we had. Sadly enough, though, while the actual landing was just fine, it narrowly missed the perfection that I had been hoping for. Ah well, lost opportunity there, but by no means even the slightest blight on what had been a wonderful flight.

That cold, brutal, emotionally unsatisfying Winter? Immediately forgotten. My love for my airplane had blossomed again like Spring tulips. And as perfect as that was, it was even more perfect that I had had the chance to share it with someone else.

1 comment:

  1. Let it be known that I had a great time - I was a little queasy, which may have given the impression I was less that thrilled over my first opportunity to do loops and rolls. It took my stomach a few hours to get over it, and am not sure the mexican food for dinner helped or hindered my recovery! Plus, the company was wonderful; I enjoyed meeting Mrs PapaGolf, Egg and Kyle. Thank you very much for allowing me to ride along!