Monday, August 30, 2004

Stranger to the Ground

Feeling my age tonight - turns out that flying is hard work, if you do enough of it. It was a busy weekend, that actually started Thursday. I had three new cadets to fly with after work, all three were 12-13 years old and first time flyers. The weather was summer-hazy and pretty cloudy, but I managed to sneak over to another airport 30 miles off and back with them. All three had a great time, though the visibility was terrible. One was very serious and polite, one only slightly reserved and the third noisy and rambunctious. (Have to work on him.)

Friday night I flew down to the Allentown area to get in a last-minute checkride, to renew my mission pilot status. This weekend was the Pennsylvania Wing search-and-rescue exercise (SAR-Ex) and I had to be current to participate. First we had to ferry a Cessna with an electrical problem over to Jersey, then we flew a thorough checkride for two hours until dusk. (The check pilot was properly hard on me; we practiced aerial searches of every kind, including a few wrinkles I had never heard of.) I flew back in dark and haze (the weather is in summer reruns, apparently) with a fat yellow moon for company. Managed to find Mount Pocono in the murk and land.

Then suddenly it's Saturday morning at 7:30, and I'm back at the airport. I had three squadron mates with me, filling all four seats in the plane. We took off into the morning fog, soon to become the daily haze (it's August... "summer crud" is the norm.) Our inbound practice mission was a route search that took us south and then to Harrisburg, where the weather was even hotter and muggier. We checked in and soon headed out on another practice search towards Pittsburgh; we knew from the weather radar that storms were coming, and as expected we encountered them over Altoona. We were running out of room between clouds and mountain tops, and my crew was hot and uncomfortable bumping along low and slow; so we turned around and headed back to the mission base.

Now the weather was developing into afternoon thunderstorms, such as Floridians are so familiar with. We declined another search mission (hey, we're volunteers) and I filed for an instrument flight that would take us into higher (hopefully cooler) air. Now with all four of us back in the plane, we boiled on the taxiway for ten minutes while ATC worked out our routing and cleared us. Note that there is absolutely no air conditioning in a Cessna 172, and little ventilation unless it's moving - so the cabin was around 115 degrees. We were debating flying home in our underwear when we were finally released, and I blasted off.

Slowly. The plane was loaded to capacity, full of fuel, and the day was extremely hot, which limits performance. We climbed rather slowly to 7,000 feet, watching the oil temp linger near the high end of the gauge. Finally we got some speed up, and ATC routed us around the worst of the storms. We still managed to fly through a few downpours, including a few dark and bumpy ones, but the plane rode the turbulence well with its heavy load. Finally we got our final vectors for the approach into Mount Pocono, and landed in light rain. It was still hot, but much better in the Poconos than it had been down south.

So, all told I logged ten hours in three days. It doesn't seem like much in airline terms, but it was all low-level hand flying - no autopilot. Some of it blind-flying, and all of it over rugged terrain. I was dog-tired after the last leg, so I gratefully accepted when one of my crew invited me out for beer and barbecue and a swim in the lake. Man, that felt good - floating in the water and watching the thunderstorms that we had outraced, rolling in from the west. Can't hurt us now...

Today I left my own plane in the hangar, and enjoyed the mundanity of laundry and yardwork. I do love flying. But there's a lot to be said for sitting on the front porch, looking over my newly-squared-off shrubbery, with a beer and a dozing cat and a few free hours. It doesn't happen much.