Thursday, December 2, 2010

Circle (Part Four)

"I always knew if you had the chance, you'd want to learn to fly. You have so much of your grandfather in you..."

I'd approached the subject cautiously. I'd flown to Farmington twice in the past two days, and was due to fly up there again Monday. Those flights were like nothing I'd experienced before, and I wanted to learn more. And -- though I planned to pursue lessons even if Mom had expressed reservations -- I was greatly relieved to have her blessing to do it.

Serendipity played a role in what followed. The pilot I'd flown up to Farmington with had a friend who'd just earned his flight instructor certification, and was looking for a student. A friend graciously loaned me some money to get started. Soon, under his tutelage, I was plying the skies in a variety of Cessna Skyhawks, some lessons learned more quickly than others.

I soloed for the first time in N62507 at Belen Alexander Airport (E80) on July 24, 2004. One week later, I drove a U-Haul moving van with all my earthly belongings to Dallas. Eleven months before I'd left DMC to take a customer service position at a building materials company called American Gypsum. That company was now relocating its home office from Albuquerque to North Texas. The fat moving stipend I received kept me in the air, and I soloed a second time from Collin County Regional Airport (TKI) the following November.

If the path I was on had been fortuitous up to that point, the road that followed was nothing short of a miracle. One day in May 2005, I was browsing aviation headlines on a website called Aero-News Network, and came across an article about the search for unpaid "stringers" to help cover the annual AirVenture gathering in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. On a lark I submitted some writings of mine. One in particular caught their attention, and soon I was off to Wittman Field to learn how to be an aviation writer.

I was a quick study. Within two months I was writing for ANN on weekends... and on October 28, I left American Gypsum to pursue a full-time career as an aviation journalist.

Aero-News opened new horizons for me, and was a welcome and earnest distraction from my fears throughout a bout with testicular cancer. The job allowed me to earn my Sport Pilot license, in April 2008. Alas, good things don't always last, and within a year -- thanks in equal part to the economy, and the need for health insurance -- I was back where I started.

Back at DMC. And, really... that's about right, isn't it?

It seems like I've been here before;
I can't remember when;
But I have this funny feeling;
That we'll all be together again.

No straight lines make up my life;
And all my roads have bends;
There's no clear-cut beginnings;
And so far no dead-ends.
-Harry Chapin

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Circle (Part Three)

"You don't have to be so gingerly on the controls. The plane can handle more -- see?"

I distinctly recall yelping as the pilot on my August 2002 flight to Farmington pitched the little Cessna 310 into a quick 50 degree bank, then just as quickly returned us to level flight. That was accompanied by a death grip on both the seat armrests.

Up to that point, I'd done a passable job of holding N591DM on-course towards Four Corners Regional Airport, and at our assigned altitude of 8,500 feet. Denver Center hadn't peeped since our handoff from Albuquerque, which meant I'd managed to abide by the rules under VFR flight following.

Maintaining straight-and-level flight is among the most difficult tasks for a student pilot, but it suited me fine. Steep banking, on the other hand...

"Can we not do that again, please?" I asked.

The pilot chuckled. "Your airplane." Despite this formal "handoff" of the controls, I noticed his attention never wavered from what I was doing.

After a few more minutes, I was happy to turn the controls back over, and watch outside the window as we descended over the San Juan River, south of the airport. Four Corners Regional sits on a plateau overlooking the city of Farmington; on this crystal-clear morning, it was hard to miss.

I listened intently as the pilot described his actions prior to landing. "Tower cleared us onto the downwind for Runway 5, which you can see over there. We're flying parallel to it. Now I'm dropping the gear... three green, all good. Next we'll turn base leg... time for GUMPS. Gas, check, both fuel valves are open and clear. Undercarriage down. Mixture set. Props at correct pitch for landing. Seatbelts fastened --"

"Chartran 104, cleared to land Runway Five, winds zero-four-zero at seven."

The pilot clicked the radio button at the top of the yoke. "Cleared to land on five, Chartran 104... Okay, there's a very slight crosswind from left, not much of a factor," the pilot explained. "I want our wheels to touch down right on those white bars you see on the runway. And... there we go! Rollout, no brakes yet -- let the plane slow down on its own -- and, here comes the nosewheel."

Under the pilot's expert guidance, November-five-niner-one-delta-mike gracefully turned off the runway, and made its way over to the freight ramp at fast taxi speed. As we settled to a stop, I remembered why I was there -- to cover a route. I tried to push my mind back into "work" mode.

That lasted all of three seconds. "See you later!" the pilot grinned. I knew at that moment that I was hooked. I had to learn how to do this flying thing myself.


I flew to Farmington three more times after that. I took the controls a couple of times, but mostly I focused on what I could see. I realized what a wonderful experience flying could be when you're able to see what's in front of you, versus out of a tiny side window in a cramped passenger cabin.

After the second day, I had to make an admission to my parents -- particularly to my mom. I never knew her father, my Grandpa Darmody, but those who knew him said I reminded them of him. I shared his passion for building models of cars, and airplanes... and, now, of flying.

Even though I was 27, and well past the age of seeking my parents' permission... I still had to find a way to tell Mom that. She lost her father to a midair collision over Nevada in April 1958... and now, I had to tell her that her only son wanted to follow him into the sky.