An Aching Winter Desire to Fly

It was a windy Sunday in March. I didn't fly and I wasn't happy about it. I could have flown if I had really wanted to, but I just didn't get to go.

My oldest daughter, Alix, was here for a weekend in Florida with her very likeable husband, Rob, and we'd been busy with other things. They were game about going flying yesterday, but the day slipped away from us and we never went. I had wanted to fly from Tampa to Bartow, to see master mechanic Bill Turley, so as to get a new left main tire. The left main was looking a little threadbare, and we had a couple of nice trips planned over the next few weekends, so I was eager to have everything perfect on our Cheyenne. The maintenance flight to Bartow has been an important form of psychotherapy for me for many years in a Cessna 210, then a 340 and now the turboprop.

I was looking forward to taking Alix and Rob over to see Bill. He's known Alix since she was 10. She was dragged over to Bartow on countless occasions as a child, starting 20 years ago. In those days she tolerated these assignments to accompany Dad with a certain air of resignation. After all, airplanes were my interest, not hers. It is not by accident that she grew up to become a lawyer, not an airline pilot. I was eager for Bill to see how good she looks, how well she's done and how well she's married. But the weather yesterday was beautiful and we ended up going out on a boat because Alix and Rob live in Delaware, and they were eager for some sun. I just couldn't see commandeering them into another trip to the airport.

So I called Bill and told him we weren't coming and then I drove out to the airport to tell the line guys that I wasn't going anywhere and to please put the airplane back in the hangar. At least I got a chance to look at the airplane.

I talked to contributing editor Les Abend on the phone around midday yesterday. He was in New York, getting ready to fly his 757 down to Miami. He told me of his travails on the flight from Miami to New York the night before. Seems he noticed something amiss on the tail during his walk-around and had had maintenance called to investigate. Of course, the tail of a 757 is up there, and no scissor truck could reach the area in question for inspection, so a cherry picker had to be found in Miami, an airport not accustomed to deicing airplanes and therefore not replete with an armada of cherry pickers. When things were finally sorted out, they got off almost three hours late. Once arrived at La Guardia, he told me, the towbar broke going into a gate that requires a tug. All in all, the usually ebullient Abend sounded like a very frustrated flier himself.

Sort of like me on that gusty March Sunday. The kids left that morning, and they were replaced by a cold front, low ceilings, thunderstorms and wind out of the northwest at 18 gusting to 30. If Turley had still been at work on Sunday afternoon, I'd have gone. I talked to him just after putting the kids on the airlines. Although he was already at his shop, he "tries to get out of here by noon on Sunday." How could you ask a guy who goes to work seven days a week to stay later on a Sunday for an elective tire change? So there I was, grounded. It is hard to explain to a non-flier why it is so important to get up in the air. I do know that there is something in the soul that cannot be replenished on the ground. Only a flight will make me whole.

As this Sunday wound down, I went to the airport for some minor cleaning. I took the dog, polished some windows, talked to a few guys who were going to fly, one in a Cessna 210 and another in a Piper Lance. The latter was headed to central Georgia through what was certain to be very choppy weather. The rain had moved to the east of his route, but the wind was still gusting and the sky was still dark. The ceiling was 1,200 feet, but almost certainly a trip to Georgia would be in the clouds most of the way. I didn't get as far as checking the weather and the winds aloft, but I guessed they'll be right on the nose for the Lance. While the pilot did his preflight in a golf shirt and shorts, his wife huddled in the lee of a fuel truck, waiting patiently. I concluded that the couple had spent a nice weekend in Florida and that one or both of them had to be back at work in the morning. She has done this before, by the look of her freezing in the wind.

The 210 pilot was an inexcusably handsome captain for United Airlines named Hart Kelley, who had just come in on his company 757 and was commuting down to a beautiful island south of Tampa. His 210 was a beauty, a 1983 model. He had installed an Apollo MFD and had a gorgeous handmade instrument panel made of dark and shiny wood. While we were chatting his wife called on a cell phone. "I'm okay, I'm on the ground in Tampa, just about to fire up and come home," he said. He admonished her not to take the ferry to their home. "I'll pick you up in the boat; the ferry will be way too rough in this weather." It sounded like a pretty good life to me. I hung around until he took off, wings rocking, with that purposeful buzz that 210s make.

After the minimal and, to tell the truth, not too satisfying cleaning and oil level checking, I walked around the hangar, looking carefully at a Citation I, a CJ and at a couple King Airs. I didn't want to leave. Just being out at the field lifted my spirits a little, though. I felt like a wistful teenager; kind of goofy, just polishing and not flying, impotent. Two weekend days and no flight left me uneasy and restless. I could have flown. I knew that these other pilots were flying today. But they had somewhere to go, and with no hope of a tire change, I didn't.

Later that blustery Sunday, I filed some Jepessen charts, updated my log, filled out my experience record for the insurance broker, pasted my FlightSafety sticker in the log, and generally just ached to be in the air. I also spent some time in self-absorbed reflection about all the times I've not gone flying.

Years ago, when I was a very infrequent renter of a tired 172 at Teterboro Airport just west of New York City, money and weather conspired to cancel more flights than anything else. I'd save up for a weekend rental, plan the flight, review the airspace, dream about the view out the cockpit window, then wake up on the day of anticipation only to find the whole northeastern United States solid IFR.

Later, when I owned a Musketeer and then an Arrow, it was time and weather that did me in. I'd want desperately to get to the field and get to the airplane that I had paid for and had insured and had carefully tied down, only to have something come up at work that precluded any chance of a trip to the airport. When I contrived to be relieved of all work duty, the weather wouldn't cooperate.

Nowadays, with a very competent turboprop in the hangar in Florida where the weather is good and an instrument ticket in my pocket, it is time and time alone that holds me back. Weather rarely does us in. If we need to go anywhere, I mean really need to go, there is very little in the way of weather that can stop us. We might have to wait for a line of thunderstorms to go by or, if we're up north, for the ceilings to lift enough for us to get back down the ILS should a problem develop, but delay, not cancellation, is as bad as it gets. But time from work seems harder and harder to come by. It is not that I've got some onerous boss who chains me to a desk; it is me, really. I have a set of job responsibilities that I just can't seem to comfortably foist off onto somebody else. I worry sometimes that I might be flattering myself with an unrealistic self importance, but I still end up at work and not at the airport or, even more to the point, in the air.

It is funny, but a turboprop makes you think twice about "just going up for a few touch-and-goes." The engines have a momentary temperature spike on start-up, and I don't start them unless I've really got somewhere to go. This is a price for the "upgrade" that I had anticipated. Nonetheless, it is still very real. Fuel costs are another disincentive. Just a few minutes in the airplane can burn 30 gallons of jet-A, and that can cost a hundred dollars. These airplanes are meant to get up, get high and get cruising, so airwork down low is reserved for training and repositioning.

What is it about getting up into the air that has us all so viscerally hooked? I know that I often daydream about flights during work. I imagine landings and turns, mostly. Sometimes when I walk down a flight of stairs, I'll position my hands inconspicuously at my sides as if they were ailerons; my left hand deflected up and my right one down so as to get a coordinated left turn out of a stairwell. In meetings, I'll imagine the conference table as a runway and shoot a few approaches through the coffee cups. In my distracted mind I can see the last flight I made, remember each navigational fix and how the sky looked. This is especially enjoyable if the last landing was a good one. These dreams and images are almost athletic in nature. They are not, however, adequate substitutes for the real thing, nor do they make me a very good conference participant.

I guess all pilots know this vaguely uncomfortable Sunday night feeling. A long week at work looms ahead, the weekend has evaporated, and you haven't been in the air. I remember that March night because I went back out to the field one last time after dinner. Things were quiet at the FBO, and I just sat there staring into the middle distance, listening in the wind, watching the airliners depart. Then a strident noise in the gloom. A King Air taxied in and shut down. A solitary figure, a woman, got out and walked off without luggage or glance over her shoulder. A big black town car fired up and she got in it. The pilots put their C-90 to bed, affixing pitot tube covers and prop stops in the glare of the FBO's floodlights. A King Air at night under bright lights is a magnificent thing to see. I felt immediately better.

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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