Twilight Delight

Aviation and spontaneity are a poor mix. Sure, you can go jump in your plane, fire it up, and roar off into the sunset. If you’re crazy. Because there are things you need to do on the ground before you get into the air that ensure you get back onto the ground again (in one piece).

Ya’ gotta check the oil. The fuel. Make sure there’s no water in your gas tanks and that no birds made nests in your air intakes. You need to check to make sure all your hinges and cables are intact on all the moving parts of the plane. Check the weather, look for temporarily closed airspace, and all the rest.

A good preflight ensures safe flight.

But that doesn’t mean that every flight needs to be planned days in advance, either. There’s room for controlled spontaneity. Take last night, for instance. We’d gone up to Vegas (the little one that you can’t see from space) to attend the 30th Anniversary of a friend’s art gallery, and as we were driving home I was admiring the sky.

OK, you got me. I wasn’t admiring the sky. I was lusting after it.

The afternoon was dead calm, nearly cloudless. The sun, although beginning to sink low, was still high above the desert horizon. Wow. It’s light sooooooo late, I thought to myself, this daylight savings time really rocks.

Maybe… Maybe… Maybe there’s time to slip in a twilight flight.

I started calculating. The sun has been setting around 7pm, so civil twilight—my legal wheels on the ground time flying Light Sport—would be not quite a half hour later. It was 5:30 and we were on the road coming home. We’d still need to unload the car, gather our flight gear, and then drive the 45 minutes down to the airport… Yeah. We could get in half an hour for sure. Maybe even 45 minutes. I ran the math in my head twice just to make sure, then glanced into the rear view mirror to catch Rio’s eye. I pointed to the sky and he nodded enthusiastically.

The sun was low on the horizon when we arrived at our hangar at the Route 66 Airport. The sky was golden yellow, the blue turning peach overhead. I pulled Tessie out into the dying light of the day, and we preflighted. Fuel and oil good. No water in the tanks, no bird nests in the vents. All the hinges moved as they should and all the cables were connected.

The weather I’m guilty of not checking, but we weren’t going far. Weren’t going anywhere, really.

Next to our hangar, inside the perimeter fence, is a mobile home where a police officer and his family live. Outside the fence is a gaggle of other mobile homes stretched out along Airport Road (along with an abandoned modular building with fading paint that says “Lupe’s Lounge”). All of these “neighbors” generally ignore us to the point where we might as well not exist. Well, at least up until tonight. About a week or so ago, an RV showed up parked next to one of these airport row houses. I don’t know if the guy is just visiting or has moved in, but he leaves his front door wide open and plays very loud rock and roll music. Loud enough that the volume is about right inside my hangar 75 yards away. Oh, well, at least his “play list” is pretty good.

Last night, however, as we were finishing up our preflight, he came running up to the fence, waving his hands and shouting, “I love you guys.”

Clearly, I thought to myself, the man is drunk. Just ignore the drunk, I told Rio and finished up our preflight without responding to our new neighbor. We climbed in, buckled in, slid the doors up over our heads, and fired up the engine. As we taxied out, the man ran along the fence line, happily waving. I finally caved in to his enthusiasm and waved back.

The bottom rim of the sun kissed the horizon as we back-taxied along runway 26, the Plane Tales Plane casting a wicked, long shadow ahead of her, revealing her inner predatory bird.

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Then (after a proper runup and setting the mixture control) we roared off into the gathering gloom. Already sunlight was gone from the face of the earth, but we rose from shadow and caught up to the golden rays.

What a wild character, back there by the hangar, I told Rio, must have been drunk off his gourd.

Rio’s voice crackled back through the intercom, “Or who knows, maybe he’s a Plane Tales fan.”

Oh dear. I felt my heart sink in my chest. Wouldn’t that be ironic? We meet a devoted fan of the blog for the first time and think he’s a drunk. So dear RV neighbor: If you’re a fan, please accept my apology for assuming you were just a drunk. And if your both drunk and a fan, that’s OK, too.

“But one thing’s for sure,” Rio continued, “he’s sure a fan of airplanes.”

Yeah, I said, you’re right about that. And fan of us, or fan of planes, I guess he’s earned a show. Passing through 300 feet I banked into a steep turn back towards the hangar. I leveled off at 500, flew half-way down the runway perpendicular to the one we lifted off from, took a sharp left above taxiway Foxtrot, and overflew the RV. I could see “our” fan jumping up and down and waving. We circled once, wagged our wings, and headed south to enjoy the sunset.

But as sunsets go, it was a bit lame.

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New Mexico sunsets tend to be a riot of colors. Tonight, instead, was mere soft pastels. But where the sky disappointed, the ground excelled. Like blooming flowers, lights came on one by one. Street lights. Porch lights. Headlights of cars illuminating their mysterious journeys. The pulsing red and blue orbs of an ambulance. The interstate became a glowing snake, slithering off to the horizon. I keyed the mike button on my yoke seven times and our two runways blazed to life, each a pair of long parallel lights. Carefully laid-out jewel necklaces ready for an elegant soiree.

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I kept one eye on the horizon and one eye on my watch. With ten minutes to spare I entered the pattern to land, the terrain below now in deep gloom. I knew there were power lines off the approach end of runway 26, but I couldn’t see them in the dusky grey light. I held high. Too high. I’m going around, I told Rio, advanced the throttle to the firewall, and gently lifted the nose. We roared over the runway and climbed back up into the pattern for another go at it.

Now it was getting seriously dim, the face of the earth losing its texture, the runway edge lights glowing like miniature bonfires.

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Down, down, down we came, using the chain of lights to judge our angle and altitude. As we swept over the threshold, our landing light illuminated the runway’s pavement. The center stripes glowed like ghosts in the artificial beam of moonlight stabbing out from beneath our left wing. I gently flared and dropped back onto mother earth.

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I looked at my watch. One minute and thirty seconds to spare.

We taxied back to our hangar and shut down. The rock n’ roll music was silent. The night was gathering strength. Jupiter shone like a solitary diamond in the evening sky. Rio pulled himself out of the cockpit, rested his arms on top of the canopy and took in the view.

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“We need to do this more often,” he said.

 

Fly Write

I, a 51-year-old aviator, and a veteran of more than three decades of wielding a pen professionally, have no excuse for not having not read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry earlier. He’s the quintessential aviation writer, renowned for his lyrical descriptions of the world a-wing. But somehow, I never made time to read him.

Then last month I was gifted a first-edition French copy of Pilote de Guerre, but despite my last name, I know only a word or two of the tongue of my ancestors. Still, the un-readable gift was a reminder of a duty undone, and it galvanized me to go to Amazon, where I scored a first edition, third printing hardcover of the English translation, entitled Flight to Arras (the same book with a very different title—the French translates to Pilot of War), for $14.95, and I’m reading it now.

St. Ex is famous in both literary and winged circles for his command of language and his ability to paint vivid pictures with words that speak to the souls of flyers and non-flyers alike. My French-reading mother assures me his command of French is unrivalled by any other author, and that every page sings.

Sometimes St. Ex waxes overly philosophical for my taste, but his prose does not disappoint. On page 79 I found the most marvelous description of a contrail I have ever read, and I just have to share it with you:

The German on the ground knows us by the pearly white scarf which every plane flying at high altitude trails behind like a bridal veil. The disturbance created by our meteoric flight crystallizes the water vapor in the atmosphere. We unwind behind us a cirrus of icicles. If the atmospheric conditions are favorable to the formation of clouds, our wake will thicken bit by bit and become an evening cloud over the countryside.

…like a bridal veil… meteoric flight… a cirrus of icicles… cloud over the countryside… Wow! Poetry and science. Science and poetry.

That man could sure write!

Sky Kings

Sometimes flying a light plane is like driving a Jeep over a bad mountain road: A bumpy, jarring, tooth-rattling, stomach-churing journey. The sky is not a calm place. It’s full of wind currents, updrafts, down drafts, strange unexpected eddies, and whirlpools. The true texture of the sky, that large jetliners are oblivious to, makes itself known to a thousand-pound two-seat airplane.

But this day the air was like glass. I’ve never felt it so smooth. We sailed through the sky like a canoe gliding over a tranquil pond at dawn. Above our open canopy a patchy layer of grey clouds slid by, below us the incredible New Mexico landscape unfolded–dry canyons, twisting arroyos, yellow rock and red earth. Off in the distance to our right ran a small rain storm, dragging its grey tendrils from cloud to earth; and to the left shafts of sunlight pierced the clouds to illuminate mesa tops and dance off green junipers and piñon pines.

Our destination today: Starvation Peak. Estimated time enroute: 33 minutes. Fuel required for round trip, plus legal reserve: 8.1 gallons. Direct Magnetic Course 298 degrees.

One local legend holds that the Colonial Spanish Militia pursued a band of Indian raiders to the very spot we are flying to, the Natives retreating to the high ground for safety. The cliff walls made a direct assault deadly, so the Spaniards surrounded the peak and waited, besieging the warriors on the top until they starved–to the last man.

Oh. Right. And then there’s another version of the Legend of Starvation Peak. And it’s that hostile Indians chased Spanish settlers up to the top of the peak and held them under siege until the settlers all starved–to the last woman and child.

You hear both stories equally. Most likely, nobody starved at Starvation Peak.

But it’s a beautiful, perfectly round, isolated mesa. One that just begs to be circumnavigated. As the peak grew in our windscreen, the sky got wilder, the shafts of sunlight speeding across the landscape like heavenly searchlights. The patchy clouds grew, becoming an upside down ocean above our heads, waves tossing, turning and twisting. And still, like magic, we flew through a be-stilled atmosphere.

And then we we arrive. I slide the throttle lever downwards, slowing the plane, and pitch the nose up a hair to keep from losing altitude. I’m eye to eye with the flat top of the butte, and I want to keep it that way.

Keeping my wings level I fly in close to the ringing wall of cliffs, the butte on Rio’s side of the plane. When it’s exactly off our right wingtip I begin our turn by gently tipping the yoke to the right. The left aileron rises, and the right drops, deflecting air, pushing the right wing down while the left rises. The interconnected twin rudders point right and the tail slides to the left. We enter a long, shallow, lazy bank as we chase the cliffs.

And around the peak we go.

Once.

Twice.

Thrice.

As we circle, Starvation Peak looks like the base of a giant Oscar trophy, minus the golden man.

The fourth time is the charm. Rio gives me the thumbs up and we turn for home. The storms part before us, shafts of sunlight like beacons to light our way.