Wrong choices

Damn. This doesn’t look good. I’m to meet a newspaper reporter at the airport in Little Las Vegas (KLVS). Naturally, flying over is the plan. But it’s foggy outside my bedroom window. And According to my iPad, the current weather at my destination, a mere 45 air-minutes north, is bad news. A 300-foot overcast ceiling, plus mist.

Even the ravens aren’t flying this morning.

But a quick call on my antique phone to the automated weather system at our home airport KSXU reveals a lowish, but legal ceiling. The fog at Las Vegas will no doubt burn off as the sun rises. I have a specific meeting time, so I can’t push the flight back, plus if I wait too long to liftoff another problem lurks to bite me in the butt. Both Weather Underground and US Airnet—my two go-to weather sites on the net—are showing airplane unfriendly winds by noon.

DSC_1603

So the only question is: By the time I make the 45-minute drive from my house to my airport, get the Plane Tales Plane ready to fly, and make the 45 minute trip to Vegas, what will the weather look like then? It could be perfectly fine by the time I get there.

Or not, and I could be circling above a sea of grey while my trusty engine drinks my gas tanks dry.

Time for me to make the go/no-go decision. For non-pilots this is a no-brainer. If in doubt, stay on the ground. For pilots, it’s not so simple. All kinds of pressures and temptations abound that can affect our decision-making process, among them the fact that three-quarters of the time when you call off a flight it turns out you could have made it with no trouble.

I’m also grumpy because I’ve not flown in several weeks due to crappy weather and a busier than normal life schedule. But in the end, being a cautious pilot by nature, I cancel the flight and decide to drive.

On the first part of the drive the clouds are low and fog dances with the trees. I congratulate myself on my awesome ability to read weather forecasts and on my superior decision-making skills.

Then the frickin sun comes out. Well, hell. I’m momentarily annoyed with myself. I could’a made it. I should’a had more courage. I made the wrong call. Then, with some nice Bach playing on my Jeep’s radio, I reflect on what I knew, when I knew it, and the decision I made.

And I realize: Making the “wrong” choice to stay on the ground when you could have flown is a mistake you can make 10,000 times. Choosing to fly when you should have stayed on the ground is a mistake you only get to make once.

♫♩♬♪ Smoke on the prairie, fire from the sky ♫♪♫♩

As soon as I spotted the plume of smoke on the distant horizon I abandoned the science mission at hand, banked into a steep left hand turn, and then rolled out on course for the billowing pillar of white. “Hey, what’s up?” asked Lisa.

Smoke, I said, pointing forward.

DSC_0808 copy

I’m not sure if all pilots take the time investigate the unexpected, but I always do. It might be some subconscious sense of civic responsibility, but more likely it’s newshound DNA. My mother was a journalist when I was growing up, and I was a newspaper reporter myself back in the days of typewriters and Camel cigarettes. That kind of background changes you for life. It makes you more interested in (and more nosey about) all the things that happen around you.

“What do you think it is? I mean, beyond the obvious fact that it’s a fire?”

Until she asked, I hadn’t thought about it at all. I flew towards the smoke out of instinct, like a moth to flame. The plume of smoke rose like Greek temple column, straight up, hundreds of feet into the sky. A small, hot fire. As the miles spilled way beneath us I realized the fire must be right at the border of the Pecos MOA—the local military operations area. Suddenly a pit formed in my stomach. As I was behind the controls of a plane, it was only natural that a plane crash came to mind.

Just keep a sharp eye out for helicopters, I told her.

If it was a downed aircraft, I was hoping it would be one of the drones from Cannon Air Force Base. Of course, if it was a manned military aircraft that got into trouble, the crew probably hit the silk and was fine. Still, I couldn’t help but worry as we closed in on the smoke column. After all, there’s a brotherhood between all pilots. In aviation’s early decades flyers of all nations called themselves Civis Aerius Sum—Citizens of the Air.

Now the funny thing about flying at a hundred miles an hour is that sometimes it seems fast and sometimes it seems slow. In this case, the fire turned out to be about 20 miles away. It took us only 12 minutes to get there, but it felt like hours.

As we closed in we could see bright orange flames, black charred ground, and rivers of white smoke flowing along with currents of air blowing across the desert landscape. The fire was burning down an arroyo, a dry stream course common in the New Mexico highlands.

We had our “flight pad” and the GPS receiver with us so I was able to pinpoint my location in relation to the MOA. The fire was right on the border. It’s not illegal to fly into a MOA, just stupid. MOAs are where military aviators train, and generally their planes are bigger, faster, and more powerful that ours. Not a good mix and match. Flying the Plane Tales Plane into their playground would be like taking a jog on the Indy track on race day. I banked left to stay outside the military’s airspace while getting as close to the fire as possible. At the top end of the fire sat a ranch house with a cluster of outbuildings, all intact. A tough-looking truck with a flashing red light on top was parked near the edge of the smoke. Looked like the volunteer fire department was on the scene. But they were outmatched. This was too much fire for one truck to handle.

“Too bad we can’t drop some water on it,” said Lisa. I had a momentary fantasy of being a firefighting pilot, diving in low above the flames, fighting the turbulence from the rising waves of heat, pulling the lever at the last minute to send hundreds of gallons of water cascading down from on high into the heart of the inferno.

What a cool job that must be.

We flew down the public side of the arroyo scoping out the blaze. No mangled wreckage, thank goodness. It seemed to be a garden-variety grass fire, probably accidently set off at the ranch at the top of the burn pattern. I did a 360 at the end of the smoke column and came back around for a second look.

The flames were spreading out in a slow moving crescent, driven by the wind across the dry glasses. “How are they going to stop that?” asked Lisa.

They probably won’t, I replied, but there’s nothing downwind for a hundred miles. They’ll probably just let it burn out.

Back at the ranch end of the fire again, I did another 360, putting the blaze back on Lisa’s side of the plane. She raised her camera to her eye and started blazing away. “Hey, can you bank right, I want to get a better shot of those flames.”

Huh. Seems my scientist buddy has some of that newshound DNA, herself. Who knew?

I banked the plane to the right, and the snapping shutter of her camera, picked up by her headset’s mike, echoed in my ears like machinegun fire.

DSC_0830 copy

Then, with no water to drop, and the proper authorities on the scene, our curiosity  satisfied, there was nothing else for us to do. We turned our twin rudders to the fire and headed back the way we came, to resume our mission.

The best little hangar in Texas

If you ever find yourself in Amarillo (Hey, it could happen), you owe it to yourself to visit the Texas Air & Space Museum. Don’t let the name fool you; this is not a branch of the giant Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. In fact, Texas A&S might have the dubious distinction of being the smallest airplane museum in the nation. Certainly, it’s the smallest I’ve ever visited. The day I was there they had exactly seven airplanes to look at.

A waste of time, you say?

Hardly. You can’t judge a museum by the size of its collection. Instead, variety, condition, display, and access separates the men from the boys for me. Nothing irritates me more than a museum where all the planes sit behind ropes with signs saying, do not touch.

At Texas A&S, even though it’s guided tour-based, access is tremendous. I was free to climb on the wing of an Ercoupe, sit in the pilot’s seat of a space shuttle trainer (a modified Gulfstream jet that has space shuttle controls on the left side of the cockpit and standard airplane controls on the right side), and try my hand on the ceiling mounted throttle of a Viet Nam era Caribou.

DSC_1077

I had a blast!

The wee museum’s collection includes a bailing wire and duct tape ultra-light that looks like it fell right out of one of Leonardo da Vinci’s note books, a wood-rotor “M*A*S*H” chopper, and a home built miniature stagger-wing biplane that covered itself in glory at the Reno Air Races in the late 60s and early 70s.

Speaking of Reno, one fascinating plane at the museum is a highly modified Soviet Yak-11 that was built to kick butt at the famous annual race. The plane’s original empennage was replaced the tail feathers of a Lockheed T-33 jet fighter, the wings were shortened to mere stubs, and the cockpit was moved faaaaaaaaar aft in the style of the race planes of the 1930s. On the business end of the monster, the builders placed an 18-cylinder Wright Cyclone engine capable of churning out 4,000-horse power. Yes. That would be the engine from a DC-7 airliner. On a single-seat race plane.

DSC_1028

The plane, modestly named “Mr. Awesome” qualified, flying the course more than 400 mph, but unfortunately at her top speeds proved unstable. Instead of kicking butt at Reno, it had a tendency to kick its pilot’s butts instead. Mr. Awesome crashed and was rebuilt several times before being donated to the museum.

Texas A&S also has a lovely DC-3, but not just any DC-3. They have the only airplane that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and one of the few movable objects on the list, along with the cable cars in San Francisco.

DSC_1025

In addition to the seven airplanes, they have several interesting engines, cones from space rockets, and an impressive inventory of aviation memorabilia, including an extensive collection of wonderful airplane models, many of them hand-made out of paper.

DSC_1100

The Texas Air & Space Museum is small today, but they dream big in Texas. The Museum’s board has acquired a sprawling complex of abandoned industrial buildings just south of the international airport for their future home.

There’s no fee to tour the museum, but they ask for donations. I like people who dream big so I gave them fifty bucks.

They all nearly fainted.

Nature’s Bull’s-eye

The cool thing about flying… No wait. There’s too many cool things bout flying to even list, much less prioritize…

Let me start over.

One of the cool things about flying is that an angel’s eye view of the world changes your perspective both literally and figuratively. It lets you see everyday things in a new light, lets you see new things you’ve never seen before, and lets you see things that you never even suspected existed. And sometimes the high road lets you see nature’s plan and patterns in a way that’s simply impossible to appreciate from the ground.

A case in point, Debs and I took a late afternoon flight the other day as—not having pilot DNA in her family—she’s not a morning person. Sometimes afternoons can be bumpy as the dickens, but we got lucky. It had been a cloudy day, with a soft rain most of the afternoon that left the world clean-scrubbed and the sky smooth as silk when we took to the air.

As we headed out over the mesa country something odd caught my eye. In the distance at my ten o’clock was a large yellow circle on the ground. I banked left and flew over to investigate.

DSC_1449

Surrounding a receding stock pond was a yellow ring of wild flowers. These ponds grow in size spring through summer with the coming of the monsoon rains, then shrink again from fall through winter as the desert dries out. I flew back and forth across the pond to investigate. Below me a small splat of water remained in the center of its basin, a mere shadow of its late summer glory. Surrounding the pond was a band of green, and on the edge of the basin the ring of yellow flowers. A perfect pair of halos.

I have no idea why the flowers grew so far from the pond. Maybe any seeds closer to the water are drowned when the pond expands to its full potential. Maybe it’s some magic elixir of just damp enough soil that’s not too damp. But the result is a perfect pond-shaped band of bright yellow marking the yet-to-be-achieved high tide mark of the pond. A promise of water to come.

We flew in lazy circles taking in the sight, then spotted another in the distance. Then another. And yet another.

Nature placed bull’s-eyes around each of them, as if calling the rain to the ponds.

Storm chasers

Before the movie Twister I had never heard of storm chasers, and in the theatre it was instantly clear to me that I’d missed my calling in life. I could totally see my (younger) self chasing bad weather in the pursuit of science.

Just not in an airplane.

Because little airplanes are no match for really bad weather. A thunderstorm can actually tear the wings off a plane. When I was a young pilot we used to joke about the Cloud King, a sort of plane-hating demi-god whose palace was a cumulonimbus cloud—one of those towering summer skyscrapers that reach 60,000 feet up into the heavens and pack the energy punch of a nuclear bomb. You don’t eeff with the Cloud King.

storm

Lightning Tongue Sticker by Corey Davis

Still, while I won’t tangle with a big storm in the air, I love watching them on the ground. Their tall pearl-white sides deepening to wicked-grey gloom as they approach. The churning, writhing, turbulence whipping the clouds into a frenzy you can see. The wild electricity in the air. The gust-front that stings the eyes with dust and whips the hair back. The curtains of charcoal rain flowing out of the bottom of the storm cell. The primal wildness of it all.

But while I know better than to mix and match my passions, not all pilots are like me.

Rio and I were lying on our backs on the front porch the other day watching some of the most wicked turbulence I’ve even seen. The low green-black clouds were a churning, boiling mass, moving with the speed of river rapids over rocks. The storm breathed malice. I was loving every second of it, but like being face-to-face with a tiger at the zoo, this was one storm I would not want to meet on its own turf.

DSC_5793

Then, over the wailing wind I heard it. The turbine whine and whup-whup-whup of an approaching helicopter. Seriously? In this weather? I sat up and cast my eye towards the approaching sound, and sure enough, a bright red chopper—low and fast—was trying to do an end-run around the storm. As he swept over us towards Apache Mesa, clouds like claws reached down for his rotor blades. He ducked under the roiling mass but he was low. Too low. I held my breath and prayed for the fool as he barreled towards the yellow and red sandstone cliffs at the top of the mesa. It didn’t look like he was going to make it.

I jumped to my feet and watched in horror, waiting for the fireball.

Then, at the last second, he pulled up and scooted over the top of the mesa and disappeared from sight. What madness! He was in a dammed helicopter and could have landed anywhere and let the storm pass.

A.G. Lamplugh’s famous quote echoed in my ears: “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”

As we stood and stared at the narrowing gap between the unforgiving sky and the mesa top, my overly-wise 13-year-old said, “That guy is frickin’ crazy.”

I shook my head in disbelief. Reckless. Yet somehow admirably ballsy at the same time. I could almost feel the adrenaline in the cockpit. For about two seconds I wanted to be up in that angry sky taking on the elements. Chasing the storm.

Then I got over it.