Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I'm flying an airplane... not sure what type, it doesn't really matter. All I know is that I must land soon, and there's an airport straight ahead... though it's far from my position, just barely visible. Complicating matters is a fierce wind blowing -- stronger than I've ever flown in -- that's pushing me off course, forcing me to crab steeply into the wind to maintain my progress towards the runway.

As my airplane approaches the airport, I know I need to compensate for the wind. I bank the plane's wing into the wind -- it's blowing from the right, which for some reason I know is west in my dream, so I'm on a southerly heading -- and I use opposite (left) rudder to keep the plane's nose centered towards the runway.

This is a sideslip; all fixed wing pilots must know how to perform them before they solo, and most do it by instinct with enough practice landing in crosswinds.

I finally perfected slips during my time in the Gobosh earlier this year. I also became fairly comfortable with forward slips -- which use the same technique as a sideslip but less opposite rudder, to present a larger surface area against the wind. This serves to steepen the descent... a useful tactic when you're high on final, or need to clear a treeline and then land near the end of a short runway.

I'm on the correct glide path; no forward slip needed. I'm not sure whether that's relevant, just as I don't know why I know I'm landing to the south. I'm also keeping an eye on my airspeed; I know I need to stay flying fast enough to avoid an aerodynamic stall.

When flying in a slip, the airplane is cross-controlled. In normal (coordinated) flight, you bank into a turn with aileron input, and use the rudder to swing the plane's nose in the direction you're turning. When you're cross-controlled, though, you're applying opposite inputs -- left aileron, right rudder. You're essentially telling the airplane to fly in two different ways... a very useful skill, as long as you know what you're doing and you're flying at the proper airspeed.

Things are going fine on my imaginary approach... until I'm about a half-mile from the runway. I sense my "plane" starting to slow down. I apply more throttle, but I no longer have an engine; suddenly, I'm in a sailplane.

I fight the urge to raise the nose, which would only serve to lower my airspeed further and accelerate the stall I know is inevitable. Instead, I lower the nose to keep my speed up... but it seems like my plane is now flying in molasses, and the speed continues to plummet faster than I can compensate.

I feel the stall come on before I hear the warning horn. My plane falls out from under me... and since I still have control inputs for the slip in, the plane stalls in an uncoordinated, cross-controlled state. The wing whips over in a wide arc, flipping my plane over and sending me to my doom in a hopeless spiral.

Most everyone who reads this knows about the opportunity I recently passed up. They also know why I turned it down... and why I know that deep down I made the right decision. Or, "the wrong decision for the right reasons," as one of my close friends put it.

I'm not lamenting my decision. I am still trying to come to terms with it. For the past few weeks, I managed to do this by staying busy... keeping my speed up, as it were. Lots of things to do, preparations to make, no time to pause and consider What Might Have Been. This carried me through my recent trip to Orlando.

I've been home for a week now... and I've slowed down. For now, I'm keeping my speed in the white arc, safe from stalling... but I can sense the spiral coming on if I slow down much further.
Funny thing is... I've hardly given any thought to my cancer check-up next week.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Hummingbird Action Response Team, Go!

I awaken with a start. 5:45 am. I look bleary-eyed at my clock radio, which turned on at 5:30 am. The low tones of a morning news program on KKOB are coming from the speakers.

Did the radio wake me up, I wonder? No, it never does that... that duty is reserved for my cell phone alarm, which is set for an hour later. I lay quietly for the next few minutes, but though I feel tired, I know that I won't be able to fall back to sleep right away. Might as well get up.

I stumble out into the living room, and absentmindedly walk to the kitchen and the coffee maker. No, I decide, no coffee yet. You're cruising on four hours sleep -- you shouldn't have stayed up watching "The Daily Show's" take on McCain's convention speech -- and you'll probably want to go back to sleep within the hour.

It's a little stuffy in the apartment, so I open the door to the balcony... and that's when I see it. My hummingbird feeder is in two pieces... the glass bottle still hanging from its cap under the overhang, but the lightweight plastic base and its "flower" petals are lying on the deck, framed by a pool of sugar water.

What the..? I recover the broken pieces and unscrew the bottle from the hanger. The plastic attachment to the base is still screwed onto the bottom of the bottle; I try to fit the base back over its retainer ring, but it's loose and I know it would just fall again if I tried to jimmy it on there.

I must have heard it fall, I think. That's what woke me up. It was still in one piece last night... and besides, the pool of sugar water at my feet hadn't had time to completely evaporate, or even soak into the concrete.

One of the three black chin hummingbirds that frequent my feeder buzzes above the tree just off my balcony, looking at me as I hold its food source dumbly. "OK, what did you do?" I ask it. The bird remains nonplussed, hovering over the tree, probably wondering the same thing of me.

I carry the feeder remnants inside, and soon it becomes clear I won't be able to fix it. I refilled the feeder just yesterday, and had included my normal routine of soaking the pieces in hot water to clean them before refilling it. It appears the water may have been too hot; the base seems to have expanded just a hair bigger than the solid retainer ring. Nothing short of glue will fix it, and that would probably be only a short-term solution at best.

I look at the clock again. 5:55 am. I think of the hummingbird staring at me. Other people in my complex must have feeders, too... and, you know, there are also real flowers around. It's not like the little buggers would starve without my feeder for the day.

Then again, I sigh, there's a 24-hour Wal-Mart within a mile of the apartment, and it has a garden department.

So I throw on a t-shirt and jean shorts, toss my Gobosh cap over my messed-up hair, and have the presence of mind to recover my wallet before I stumble (lots of stumbling this morning) out the door and down the stairs to the car.

Mine is one of only a handful of cars on the road -- Albuquerque is still a sleepy town at 6 am on a weekend, unlike Dallas -- and it's a short trip to the Wal-Mart parking lot. Only a few other customers are inside the mammoth store; of course the only open exit door is the one on the opposite side from the garden department.

Will they even have feeders? It's not the season for them. Fortunately, there are two feeders identical to my old one on the shelf, looking like afterthoughts next to the winter stock of finch houses. I grab one and head back for the registers.

I go to the only "20 Items Or Less" checkout open. The woman ahead of me has a full shopping cart. To occupy my time, I conduct a quick mental count. 37 items. This irks me.

Then again, if you'd been more careful in cleaning the feeder, you wouldn't have to BE here at 6:10 am on a Saturday morning, Rob...

The checker gives me an odd look as I hand her my sole item to purchase. "Mine broke this morning," I explain.

She raises her eyebrow. "You know the hummingbirds are leaving in another month or so, right?" she asks.

That thought had occurred to me, too. "Yeah, I know... but what would they eat for that month?" I ask, allowing a slight trace of my you're an idiot tone into my voice, though I maintain my smile.

I admit; I feel protective of "my" little hummingbirds. Borderline paternal. I have no other pets... well, Abby of course, but she's my parents' dog and doesn't live with me. I adore the little buggers. They each have their own personalities, and even though they're wild creatures they also show little fear of me. One of the females, in particular, makes it a point of buzzing over to me every time I'm sitting outside on the balcony working, and hovers just out of reach... but she stays there for seconds at a time, watching.

This is why I'm in a Wal-Mart at 6:15 am to buy an $8 feeder. I sense the checker is someone who would never understand that; then again, few in Albuquerque probably know about hummingbird migratory patterns, so who knows. I give her the benefit of the doubt.

After pausing to consider a run to Starbucks -- no, Rob, you have coffee at home --

I fill the new feeder, and tug on the base to make sure it's secure. Outside I flip the assembly over, and screw the new feeder into the top of the old one, still hanging from the overhang.

It's all worth it less than 20 seconds after I close the door, when I see "my" female black chin buzz over and start drinking. The lone male soon joins her, and within another five seconds the second, smaller female. All three spend about 30 seconds at the feeder; they were apparently hungry.

I chuckle as I change out of my clothes and stumble (one last time) back into my bed. Sure enough, I'm tired now, and I know I'll be able to fall asleep soon.

But before that happens, a thought occurs to me. Between your closed bedroom door, the radio and the low whir of the ceiling fan... Rob, there's no way you could have heard that feeder fall.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Old Man Gloom

New Mexico is home to a bevy of odd traditions, most the result of the cultural melting pot borne of the state's Hispanic, Native American and Anglo populations. Some of those celebrations are amazing to behold (a pueblo fiesta) while others are hopelessly arcane and even cruel (cockfighting is rampant throughout the state; lawmakers finally got around to banning it last year.) And then there's the burning of "Old Man Gloom," known as Zozobra... which falls somewhere in the middle, with a healthy dose of the surreal thrown in for good measure.

Much like the stuccoed strip malls that line most Albuquerque streets today, Zozobra was the result of a white guy's interpretation of a centuries-old Indian tradition. From the official Zozobra Web site:
Local artist William Howard Shuster, Jr. - "Will" (1893-1969) conceived and created Zozobra in 1924 as the focus of a private fiesta at his home for artists and writers in the community. His inspiration for Zozobra came from the Holy Week celebrations of the Yaqui Indians of Mexico; an effigy of Judas, filled with firecrackers, was led around the village on a donkey and later burned. Shuster and E. Dana Johnson, a newspaper editor and friend of Shuster's came up with the name Zozobra, which was defined as "anguish, anxiety, gloom" or in Spanish for "the gloomy one."

The effigy is a giant animated wooden and cloth marionette that waves its arms and growls ominously at the approach of its fate. A major highlight of the pageant is the fire spirit dancer, dressed in a flowing red costume, who appears at the top of the stage to drive away the white-sheeted "glooms" from the base of the giant Zozobra.

Each year, Zozobra goes up in flames on Santa Fe's Fort Marcy Park during the first week after Labor Day. They even sell tickets now... and the hours leading up to Old Man Gloom's burning are filled with songs and dancing, and generally good-natured merriment.

Despite having lived in the state for 12 of the last 15 years, I've never been to a Zozobra burning. I so wanna, one of these days. But for several years now, my family has held our own private "Zozobra" burnings. I even took the tradition with me to Dallas.

For the actual burning of Zozobra, citizens are allowed to place scraps of paper -- on which they've written down their fears, anxieties, and disappointments -- in a large box located at the base of the 50-foot marionette. Some bring divorce papers, or copies of discouraging medical reports. These then go up in flames, right along with the rest of The Gloomy One... carrying those concerns away in the smoke and ash.

The Finfrock clan has always appreciated that tradition. So each year, we make our own 'Zozobras,' on sheets of paper filled with what scares us, and the troubles plaguing us and others we know. Over the years, those have grown to be pretty big sheets of paper.

This year has been a trying one for all of us, as it has been for many in this country and throughout the world. Perhaps our problems aren't as bad as those of a refugee in Darfur, or a poor farmer in Georgia (the state, and the former Soviet Republic.) But the past several months have still been very difficult for many of us... filled with uncertainty about the our health, job situations, and overall well-being, to name a few worries.

And absolutely, those concerns deserve to burn in a funeral pyre.

Below is my personal "Zozobra," which admittedly isn't as impressive as the real one. I put more time into listing all my fears and worries, than I did in its creation. And this year, like all the others, it was very satisfying to see them all go up in flames.

At least until my smoke detector went off. Another years-long tradition.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

You Know It's Coming

A good morning. I crashed out on my couch last night watching the Olympics, after having cheered on Phelps and the rest of the men's swim team on the 4x100m relay. And I awoke this morning to the unmistakable sound of burners whooshing overhead, as a hot air balloon seemed to barely clear the roof of my apartment building. It's getting to be that time of year again in Albuquerque.

A cup of coffee, a glance at the online headlines for the Dallas Morning News (I just can't stomach the local Journal) and absent-mindedly flipping between Fox News Sunday and a Sopranos repeat on A&E. I muse briefly that the two shows probably have more in common than Chris Matthews would care to admit.

Clouds hang low over the Sandias; the ceilings lie at least 1,500 feet or so beneath the 10,678 foot summit. From my perspective on Albuquerque's west side, the clouds seem lower than my balcony. They're not, of course, but that's how they look. There's not a trace of wind, either. A good-sized thunderstorm blew through last night, and this is the result. It was on a similar morning, four years and one month ago, that I soloed for the first time.

There's nothing big on my agenda this morning. It's a rare Sunday that I don't have to work, Jim's covering. Not much to do today, other than go up to spend the afternoon with my folks and Abby. I need to run to the store, too -- there was no milk for my coffee this morning, I had to resort to one of umpteen creamer packets I've copped over the years from a variety of motel rooms. Still, I have the rare luxury of time today... so I lay back on my couch, and watch TV.

9:00 am, This Week comes on ABC. Still a Sunday morning of tradition of mine, one that started four years ago in Dallas. The local affiliate finally moved the program to its rightful place in the morning; it had been on Sunday afternoons here, but KOAT moved it back to the morning shortly after Meet The Press host Tim Russert died... correctly assuming, I imagine, that with Russert's passing MTP would be more vulnerable in the local ratings. Such is life.

I only pay half-hearted attention to the commentators, discussing who will be chosen as Obama's and McCain's running mates. But I look up as I hear the familiar strains of the theme for "In Memoriam."

Issac Hayes. Jerry Wexler. The head of the Democratic Party in Arkansas, who was gunned down in his office this week by a crazed lunatic who had recently quit his job at a Target store, sigh.

Nine soldiers lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sigh, again.

Camera one, back on George. "We also lost a member of our ABC News family this week. Leroy Sievers..."

I stop cold, and stare mouth agape at the TV. I feel tears welling up, but wipe my eyes angrily before the torrent can begin.

God damn it...

Photo by Tyrone Turner

Friday, August 1, 2008

My Own Private Oshkosh

(I wrote this Wednesday morning, still trying to kick the OSH-Cold I'd managed to catch. Alas, I didn't have time to complete it and find pictures, so it's sat in the "Created" file on ANN's CMS the past three days... and gotten stale for the site. So, I'll post it here...)

I have to say, that so far this year's Oshkosh hasn't gone the way I'd hoped. That's certainly not the fault of the EAA, which has once again put on a dynamite show. Nor can I blame the weather -- so far as perfect as one could dare hope -- or the crowds, which have exceeded expectations to date and appear to be heading for a banner year.

No... it's because I'm typing this from ANN's "OSH House," sitting at the kitchen table in self-imposed exile for the second day in a row, loaded up on cold medicine and ibuprofen. Which means I've already missed such notable attractions as the first flight of the Martin Jetpack, the Dreamlifter's departure from Wittman Field Tuesday night, and the first public flight of the Rocket Racing League's prototype racer. At this rate, I'll probably miss the Cirrus SJ50's arrival Wednesday afternoon, too.

So, rats. And to add insult to injury, our house is close enough to the field that a steady stream of piston, turbine, and full-wail jet aircraft are making regular laps right overhead. Maybe the Cirrus jet will fly a REALLY wide pattern to land on 18, and I'll be able to snap a shot of its belly.

Even with my head feeling as if it's been placed in a vice, though, I know I can't really complain. How many readers would rather be under the weather, three miles from AirVenture, instead of being perfectly healthy and reading about the week's goings-on at Wittman Field from their office computer? There ya go. Rob, stop complaining.

I was also fortunate to arrive early this year... and by that, I mean EARLY, as in a full week before the show started. Thanks to the gang at Gobosh Aviation (who as regular readers know provided the light sport plane I earned my license on earlier this year) I was able to fly myself almost the entire way to Oshkosh, from Denver. Company vice-president Dave Graham invited me along for his flight, ferrying a new plane back from a trade event at Centennial Airport to Gobosh's headquarters in Moline, IL.

I suspect one motivation for his gracious offer was so that he could sit back and enjoy the trip for a change, and let someone else do the flying... which I happily did, logging a hair over six hours of brand-new, Pilot-In-Command cross-country time. And though I wasn't able to complete my planned goal, of flying myself into Wittman Field -- I had to "settle" for flying right seat in a pristine Beech Sundowner, as storms and low cloud cover along the route from MLI to OSH precluded a VFR trip -- I was still able to enjoy the sensation of being on final approach to land at one of the world's best-known and most highly-regarded airports. Not a bad tradeoff at all (and special thanks to Erik Skjerseth for a great flight.)

Arriving to Oshkosh a full week before AirVenture kicks off has some definite advantages. It's amazing to watch the field transformed from a sleepy Wisconsin airport (deceptively so... as OSH handles a significant amount of traffic in its own right, but those numbers are rated against the admittedly steep AirVenture curve) to the World's Busiest Airport.

Two years ago, Kevin O'Brien waxed poetic about that process in reverse... far more eloquently than I could hope to now, but I do better understand now what he was talking about. Even without all the tents, and the people and all the planes... there's an excitement present on the field. You just know something good's about to happen.

Even the workers on forklifts, those tasked with assembling the colorful displays and huge exhibit tents, seem to understand that. I had to be mindful of moving equipment as I walked around the slab of empty pavement last Tuesday, that in six days would become AeroShell Square and would host the Boeing 747-400 LCF Dreamlifter.

Instead of grumbling about the wide-eyed bystander intruding into their workzone, however... three different operators smiled and waved. I wholeheartedly returned the gestures. There's something about Oshkosh.

Arriving early, I was also able to enjoy a venue I'd never been to before, but for a quick walk-through last year en route to Cessna's SkyCatcher announcement. This time around, I wouldn't have to report on a trade event, or cover an early morning press conference. In fact, I was able to visit places far removed from show center, in both geography and ideology.

Last Wednesday, I was able to take in the EAA Museum and Pioneer Airport. For five hours, I walked around the exhibits, quietly taking each display in on my own time and my own (read, non-ANN-related) terms. And all I can say is, it was an illuminating experience.

I saw the SpaceShipOne mockup perform its tail-feathering dance, and watched the video presentation Alan and Dale Klapmeier gave in the mid-1980s about their VK30 experimental (love the hair, guys.) I sat on a nearby bench and contemplated the Wright Flyer; later I tried my hand at the various "kid's experiments" set up at the temporary NASA exhibit. I even spent time lolling through the gift shop... taking it all in, and buying a T-shirt for my mom.

It was... transcendent. For starters, it isn't every day you get to see a Ryan NXP on short final to a grass strip... but there it was, and the tram slowed down so everyone could grab their cameras. Yeah, it's only a replica... but how many replicas of the plane Charles Lindbergh first crossed the Atlantic in are still flying??

After arriving on the other side of the field, the tram deposited its load of families, a few older couples... and the wide-eyed Managing Editor, holding his camera.

I quickly walked ahead of the group. It's an annoying habit I have; when in a crowd, I always want to be first. But my rush to get ahead came to an abrupt end when I walked into the Aeronca hangar... and gazed upon the vintage airplanes contained within, under a veritable sea of wooden wing spars and period engines hung from the rafters. All sound from the outside seemed to vanish; I was now standing on holy ground, or so it seemed.

The families with their children eventually caught up, but even the youngsters quieted down somewhat as their parents stopped to read about the airplanes. The same was true as we walked through the other six hangars on the field; even the kids grew somber when we walked into the Wittman hangar, and read about Steve and Paula's last, fateful flight. As a group we paused to silently consider the propeller from their Wittman O&O, now hanging on the hangar wall.

After several moments, I walked back outside and watched as the EAA's Young Eagles GlaStar fired up, to take another young flyer around the patch for their very first time. It was an odd -- but appropriate, I think -- juxtaposition. While waiting for the tram back, I spent some time talking to Jake, also a first-time visitor to the museum, here with his wife from Scottsdale to spend the whole week at AirVenture.

Already in a reverential mindset, I opted to make one last stop on my own private Oshkosh journey. After retrieving the car, I drove back towards Aero-News press headquarters... but then turned left, heading towards the EAA Chapel and Compass Hill.

I'd only been in the chapel once before, during my first year at Oshkosh back in 2005 during an impromptu tour given by former ANN stringer Rose Dorcey, who now works for EAA. I'm not especially religious... but something drew me through the doors, and I sat for several moments in one of the empty pews, considering the events that had brought me to this point in time.

Next I walked behind the chapel, to the EAA Memorial Wall. Once again, I paused to reflect... this time on the names engraved in brass plates set upon the bricks. Some I recognized, mostly through reporting on their deaths. Most were foreign to my eyes... but I tried to take them all in. I considered taking a picture, but it seemed inappropriate.

It's on their shoulders, that we all reach for the heavens...

My last stop was Compass Hill... a fitting end to what had turned out to be my day to consider the celebrations and sacrifices of flight. I stood among the four lifesized bronze statues depicting a family watching planes at the airport -- "Directions," by sculptor Larry Anderson -- and marvelled in their realistic expressions of wonderment and awe. It didn't take much effort to imagine they were real... another group of wide-eyed enthusiasts, taking in another beautiful day at Pioneer Airport.

I can't describe the emotions I felt in my heart as I walked back to the car, sitting forlornly in the chapel parking lot. This would probably be the last day that lot would be empty, at least for another week or so. I was grateful to experience such a place "by myself."

There's something magical about being among 600,000 of your closest friends during AirVenture. But it's quite another to have Oshkosh all to yourself, at least for a little while. I'm glad I had the chance... it's those memories that keep me going until this darned cold subsides, and I can visit the field again.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Sure Is 'Purty'

It's "officially-official," just got this in the mail today!

Bowing is allowed.

Friday, June 27, 2008


One year... officially. As of July 1, I'll have been in New Mexico one year. A lot has happened over that time, but not much has changed in the grand scheme of things. Case in point, here's a photo from last summer:

And now a more recent one:

See what I mean? Only the computer has changed. Even the beer has stayed the same.
Of course, there ARE differences. I'm now a pilot, officially, for real. That said, I've yet to fly since I got back from Florida, because there are no LSAs to rent around here... but something's in the works that might give me the chance to fly soon. I hope so. I'm getting twitchy here, stuck on the ground.

I'm also probably more comfortable with being back in New Mexico now, than I was when I first got back here. Back then, I had to look hard to see the benefits, outside of mountains and family. I no longer feel like such a Stranger in a Strange Land as I drive down the road... though I still miss Dallas. I had a dream the other night where I was grocery shopping at the Kroger near my old apartment. Very strange. I had the old Grand Am in the dream, too.

I think a change is gonna come. The exact nature of the change I'm not really certain of... but the air seems more volatile around me than it did a year ago at this time, if that makes sense. I can't deny there are aspects of my life that I badly need to rearrange... I just need to make sure I dictate the changes, and not the other way around.

Time will tell. For now, I take comfort in sitting on my balcony in the evening, watching the sun set against the Sandias (or more recently, the clouds hang over them) and making the effort to enjoy this moment in my life, knowing that the clock is ticking and this precise moment in time will never come again.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Good Son

If you haven't read the book "Big Russ And Me," please put it on your library list. Its author, NBC commentator and "Meet The Press" host Tim Russert -- one of the most hard-hitting, yet completely fair, journalists of the modern era -- passed away Friday from apparent heart failure. He was 58.

I read Russert's 2004 homage to his father -- as well as its 2006 follow-up, "Wisdom Of Our Fathers" -- when I was out in Dallas. Both are quiet, reflective works by a man known more for his strong-willed, and sometimes brash, persona on the television screen.

The first book showed Russert's unabashed love and respect for his father, "Big Russ." Russert stood to the side in his second book... instead sharing letters from "Big Russ" readers, telling Tim their stories about their fathers.

It is both poetic and cruel that Big Russ -- still kicking at 85, though in assisted living -- will mourn for his son this Sunday... Father's Day. Fathers shouldn't outlive their sons, it's as simple as that.

I first heard the news of Tim Russert's passing on my way home this afternoon. I've been watching CNN's respectful coverage all afternoon. To their credit, the network -- a competitor to NBC -- has given equal time to Russert's strong ties to his family (he had one son, who graduated from Boston College just days ago) and to his acumen as a political pundit and reporter. That is as it should be.

It's an odd feeling... to mourn the passing of someone you'd never met, but still felt you "knew" through watching them on TV and reading their books. I've been in mourning all afternoon... and I plan to hug my Dad extra hard this Sunday.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Earlier this month, it was announced that after years of abandoned neglect, the Bella Vista restaurant in Cedar Crest, NM would soon be torn down. As you can see in the pics, the work has already begun.

Bella Vista was my first-ever paying job. I started as a busser in late-June 1993… almost 15 years ago, less one month. I was promoted to carrier exactly one month later, when the three other food carriers failed to come in to work on a busy Friday. I worked at Bella for about 20 months; I left in February 1995 -- I think… wow, your brain DOES fuzz out over the years -- to go to work at another restaurant, started by one of the waiters from Bella.

(Incidentally, what once was the Nob Hill Diner and Bakery is now a tattoo parlor; make of that whatever you will.)

Bella –- screaming Italian owners and all -- was a great first job. I met my first serious girlfriend there, as well as my best friend.

Destroyed so far is the North dining room – home to buffet lunches, and holiday banquets – and most of the 10,000 sq-ft kitchen area (I swear to God, I could STILL smell the all-you-can-eat chicken and fish… no doubt the result of ages of accumulated grease!) The rest of it is due to come down in the coming weeks.



Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Newest Reality

"You are never given a wish without being given the power to make it true.
You may have to work for it, however." -- Richard Bach, "The Messiah's Handbook"

The Wish began far earlier than I realized at the time: age 8, or thereabouts. The scene was an air show at Offutt AFB in Omaha. I was startled by an A-4 Skyhawk II of the Navy's Blue Angels, that suddenly screamed over the crowd at 500 mph. My eyes teared up... not from fear, though. In fact, I didn't know why. But I'm fairly certain I watched the rest of the team's performance, like a pupil enthralled by the words of his teacher.

Despite that early signal, though -- and a family history with some interesting roots in aviation, especially on my Mom's side -- I never really, seriously thought about learning to fly. I did like planes... building Lego models (that were quite good, I might add) and the like, and I enjoyed being around airports.

A few years after that show at Offutt, my Dad and I were watching planes at Millard Airport, when a pilot walked over and offered to take us for a ride. I protested when my Dad said no, of course... but not necessarily out of a strong desire to fly in an airplane. I just wanted to do something "different," and see the pilot's airplane -- I think it was a Beech Bonanza -- up close. The Wish remained silent.

In fact, I was 17 before I finally flew in an airplane. My Mom and I took a United 737 from Albuquerque to Denver Stapleton, and then a 727 on to Omaha to visit my grandparents over the summer of 1993. I did like the feeling of power, of being pushed back in my seat as the engines throttled up, sending the airliner down the runway... and I handled the sensations of flight well enough, including an encounter with an "air pocket" (that I now know was actually mountain wave turbulence) as we turned final to land back in Albuquerque.

But still, I didn't hear The Wish -- that sense of purpose, and that I'd finally found What I Was Meant To Do. I guess 17 would have been too early for that, anyway -- as was 24, when my friend Lee offered to take me up during one of his dual lessons, free-of-charge. Still I said no. 

Most of you reading this blog know the story of when I finally "heard" The Wish: August 2002, when I caught a ride on a Cessna 310 freight hauler to cover a DMC route in Farmington. I had approached that flight with a mix of excitement and trepidation... but when the wheels lifted off runway 3, I knew. My rudderless existence up to that point at last had direction. I was supposed to fly. That later led me to Aero-News... which, in turn, led me to this moment.

Nearly six years after that flight in N591DM, I'm a licensed pilot. I add the qualifier because of something my boss, Jim, told me during dinner celebrating my newly-minted ticket. "You've always been a pilot. Now the FAA finally agrees."

There are those within the aviation community who might quibble over the qualifications of being "only" a sport pilot. It is a fairly-new category, barely three years old. The standards are, admittedly, less-restrictive than those needed to obtain a full-on private or commercial pilot rating. I can only fly certain aircraft, for example... alas, none of which are currently available to rent in the Albuquerque area. I can't fly at night, or in instrument conditions. I can only carry one other person with me. 

Nevertheless, I am a pilot. My instructor, checkride examiner, and the FAA all say so. The rest is only a matter of receiving the needed endorsements... and I do intend to pursue the required ratings to be able to do all those things, and more. In fact, I had to promise the examiner, Wayne, I'd do exactly that. "You'll be doing yourself and aviation a disservice if you don't go farther," he told me. "And I don't say that to just anyone."

It has been an arduous road to this point. Finances derailed the journey twice, cancer once. There were times I gave up on becoming a pilot... saying it would be too hard, too expensive, too heartbreaking to come close to realizing The Wish, only to see it flit out of my hands yet again.

That didn't happen this time. Almost one month later, I still can't believe it. And the full impact of the words "I'm a pilot" still hasn't hit me. My eyes did well up when I shut the engine down after the checkride, after successfully managing to avoid turning myself and Wayne "into a lawn dart" (his words) during my checkride. I choked up a bit when I called my parents later that evening, awkwardly asking them both to get on the line at the same time, so I could tell them at the same time "your son is a pilot."

"When you have come to the edge of all the light you have 
And step into the darkness of the unknown
Believe that one of the two will happen to you
Either you'll find something solid to stand on
Or you'll be taught how to fly!"

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Still A Pilot, Still OK

Hi all... Sorry for the lack of recent updates, but I've been busy re-adjusting to life in New Mexico (where's the ocean????) and facing down the New Reality, going through the latest round of scans, blood work and doctor visits. Everything is fine, of course... As everyone but me knew already.

Anyway, now I may officially enjoy the benefits of being a licensed sport-pilot... who, alas, is going to have to scramble to find a plane to fly, as the only LSA advertised for rental in all of New Mexico is, curiously, unavailable. So, hmmm.

That's OK, though. In fact, it's all good, because of this (soon to be replaced by a real, not "temporary," license):

P.S. My Aero-News series on the training process begins the week of April 28, and will run every other day or so through the middle of May. (Yes, I've changed the dates, as I wasn't able to write this weekend as much as I'd planned.) Check it out!

Friday, April 11, 2008

I'm A Pilot

The title says it all. A LOT more coming, when I have a moment to post an update. Amen.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

0.6 To Go And Counting

Hello from rainy northern Florida... where we've been socked in for most of the weekend under a low cloud layer with ever present rain and intermittent thunderstorms. Fortunately, it hasn't been as bad as it could have been.

I actually was able to get up in the Gobosh late Saturday morning, skirting under a low, but constant, 2,000' cloud ceiling to perform some of the required maneuvers ahead of my checkride. After landing at Palatka for fuel, I headed back north to practice steep turns, "S" turns and turns about a point -- all maneuvers I've had some difficulty with performing.
Adding further challenges was the wind, which was blowing up to 20 knots on the ground and was equally turbulent between 1,000' and 1,500 above ground level. This was actually a plus, though, as it gave me yet another challenge to work against... and with some practice, I was able to hold the required steep angles and altitude during each maneuver, fighting with the wind at every step.

That took about a half-hour or so... leaving me with a decision to make. To qualify for my checkride, I needed to rack up 2.3 hours more solo time in the Gobosh -- and so far, I'd only done .7 of that. Part of me wanted to land back at Haller right then, as it was rather bumpy at altitude (winds again) and the low cloud deck made me a little nervous (one of my biggest in-flight fears is losing visibility, or reference to the ground)... but given the task at hand, I turned and headed southeast across the St. Johns River, to eat up some more flight time.

That turned out to be a good decision... as the air smoothed out considerably across the river, allowing me to relax a bit, not having to fight the flight controls. I lazed across the sky for another .6 hours, occasionally practicing more steep turns, but generally flying level and snapping more pictures.

By 12:15 pm, the Hobbs meter showed I'd been flying for 1.3 hours... and, truth be known, I was now kind of bored, as I'd accomplished everything I set out to do on my checklist (except for stalls, due to the low clouds that kept me from climbing to the required 3,000 feet AGL.) I was also a little thirsty, so I decided to head back towards Palatka, land, and grab a bottled water.

I was glad I did... as it provided me with two more good lessons. The first one came to be as I was over the treeline, on short final to land on runway 17. I was fighting a stiff headwind, but it was more-or-less straight down the runway so I didn't need much of a crab angle to stay on track. Though my airspeed was pegged at 60 kts, as required, my ground speed was a lot slower. It felt like I was crawling along the ground, fighting my way to the runway.

And then, suddenly, I wasn't. I looked down, and my airspeed had dropped to under 50. Wind shear! I jabbed in the throttle slightly, and recovered the needed knots before the plane began to drop further. I think I caught it about as quick as I could have, but it still didn't seem fast enough; had I not been paying attention, the plane would have possibly come close to stalling, a scenario that has downed a number of aircraft at the absolute worse time -- within about 150 feet of the ground.

Things smoothed out after that. The 20-knot headwind helped me make a fine short-field landing, and I taxied over to the small terminal/FBO on the field. I'd already gassed up once, so I didn't need fuel. After tying a wing down, I walked in, greeted the counterperson on duty, and made a beeline for the Coke machine for a Dasani.

"In from Haller?" the staffer, Dave, asked me. Over the past two weeks, Jim and I have been regular customers, after all.

"Yep, burning off solo time," I replied. "I passed my oral exam Thursday."

We chatted a little more, then Dave asked "have you seen the latest weather?"

I replied in the negative; I hadn't been near a computer or a phone in nearly two hours. I had been keeping an eye on the clouds, of course, and nothing too threatening had popped up.
Dave's eyebrows perked up, and he motioned over to the weather terminal. "Check it out. There's a major cell over Gainesville right now."

I looked. Sure enough, a line of green -- with some ominous fingers of orange -- was forming directly over Gainesville, about 30 miles west of Palatka. It seemed to be moving relatively slowly towards the east; the last echo was recorded 10 minutes before, according to the time stamp on the image.

Decision time. I'd planned to burn off at least another 45 minutes in the air before I returned to base... but the weather forecast altered that plan. Conversely, the weather was still far enough away that I didn't need to wait it out at Palatka; if I took off in the next 10 minutes or so, the 20-minute flight would put me on the ground in plenty of time before the clouds moved in.

Not to mention the winds, already strong, would only get worse throughout the rest of the day.
"I'd better head out," I told Dave. "Better safe than sorry."

He nodded. "Good luck on your checkride!"

Though there wasn't a real reason for me to rush things -- the skies to the west were still clear -- I still worked through the checklist in record time, not missing a single item. There was only one other plane in the pattern at Palatka, practicing crosswind landings; the Gobosh's wheels were off the runway within seven minutes after I started the engine.

It was a bumpy ride back to Haller, from the moment I turned downwind to exit the pattern to the north. And sure enough, the clouds appeared darker to the west once I climbed up to 1,500 feet... but they were well off in the distance, and I was moving at least three times faster than they were. I would have much preferred clear, calm skies... but everything was well within limits, the clouds over my head were at least 1,500 feet above me, and I still had easily 12 miles visibility in the haze.

Still, the winds were on my mind as I entered the pattern at Haller. From downwind, I could see the windsock sticking straight out, favoring landing to the south, as expected. In fact, the wind seemed to be blowing straight down the runway. Poy-fect.

For as much bumping around that was going on as I descended -- wind currents blowing off the trees were causing updrafts -- the approach was very calm, and routine. I'd planned for some burbles over the trees at the end of the runway, and I figured things would calm down after I was below the treeline. Which is exactly how it played out; in fact, it was one of my best landings to date.

The showers started 45 minutes after I landed, about the time I'd expected them to. They haven't let up since; no matter, since the plane is now down south in Punta Gorda, anyway -- Jim flew it home for the weekend -- and I won't see it again until Sun 'N Fun starts Tuesday.

Due to cutting things short for weather, I'm still .6 hours short of the five-hours solo requirement. I'll have to go up and burn off that time at South Lakeland, where the plane will be stationed throughout the show. And then comes the checkride.

If all goes to plan -- and I don't screw up royally, and bust the checkride -- by this time next week, I should be a licensed sport pilot.

Stay tuned.