Gear Up: A Pilot’s Best Flight

Sometimes it all comes together.

The flight is almost over now. You’re on that early portion of the downwind, that time when the power is pulled back, and the airplane is slowing in preparation for landing. The air is like a glass-topped coffee table: smooth and clear. This gliding feeling reminds you of ice sliding on a smooth surface. Through the coffee-table glass you can see the runway, the FBO, the trees and the cars circling the airport on the road that rings it, but you are just sliding along, frictionless, on the glass itself. The airplane has performed flawlessly. It almost seems to recognize that the time for flight is drawing down. She will give up altitude with grace.

You set the flaps to 15, and she slows a bit more. The air is still so smooth as to belie the notion of movement, much less flight. You are reluctant to turn base and put an end to this reverie. Gear down, three green.

On final now, flaps 35, slowing to Vref. The runway is splayed out in front of you, waiting. There’s that anticipated slight burble just short of the threshold. Power to idle, you float just a tad longer than you thought. That’s right, you are alone, and we’re light. You say “we” because it is you and the airplane—us. Soft touchdown and solid brakes, but you still allow the airplane to roll down most of the runway. No sense not to savor all this, and there is nobody behind you.

The takeoff? Well, that was harder to savor. What with getting the power set correctly, tracking the centerline and staying alert for any annunciator light or change in directional control, there just isn’t much time for reflection. After rotation, there’s the gear to retract, flaps to set, power to adjust and acceleration to monitor. Now you are given a new heading and a frequency change. No, this is no time for lengthy philosophical digression.

You must have talked to 15 controllers on this short 340-nautical-mile flight. The route from a small airport in the heart of New England to a smaller airport in rural Delaware is familiar to you. It is, among other things, a perfect general aviation route because it connects two relatively remote places, and even more important, it connects family.

It isn’t a very straight route, though. No crow would fly its hockey-stick path. Then again, the flight traverses some of the busiest airspace on the planet. The early instruction to descend from cruise altitude is no longer a surprise, though it is still an irritant. It has something to do with traffic into Philadelphia. Twice today, you were turned off course because you’re slower than some of the others. This is all expected.

After takeoff and cleanup, Boston Center had you in radar contact out of 3,000 feet. Stepwise and in sequence came the instructions to climb to Flight Level 320. The airplane performs well in the low 30s, you remind yourself. It burns more gas down here but is slightly faster. For a longer trip, an altitude of 36,000 or 38,000 feet would be in order.

Just shy of 21,000 feet, you entered a deck of cloud and were surprised by a splat of ice on the windshield. You already had the engine heats on, but now you switch on wing-and-engine anti-ice and watch with smug satisfaction as a thin layer of rime ice departs the wing like a wet dog shakes off after a swim. You remember many years and several airplanes ago when you owned a Beechcraft Musketeer with an ADF antenna that looked like it had been swiped off a ’62 Pontiac. The antenna was mounted on the cowling and would oscillate wildly at the first hint of ice accumulation, almost like a finger wagging admonishment.

Read More from Dick Karl: Gear Up

By the time you congratulate yourself for being right there, right then in such a capable machine, you burst out on top to be startled by how relentlessly bright the sun really is when not obscured by cloud or haze.

I never know if my re-flights are better than the actual flights. If there has been weather to negotiate, it is easier to enjoy after landing than it is picking your way through a gaggle of thunderstorms. Sometimes anxiety blocks satisfaction, but once concluded, the accomplishment augments the tactile sense of controlled flight.

Today’s flight has two additional delights. You are picking up your daughter, her husband and two exuberant grandsons. You will retrace the trip back to New England with a full boat, albeit in a different, slightly longer path unless you get some shortcuts. You usually do.

The boys both love airplanes, and thus they share the copilot seat. One gets the takeoff, the other the landing. The seat switch takes place in cruise. There is some discussion as to where the switch over should take place. Is it halfway there by time or by distance? Young men care about such things.

It is a beautiful day to fly. By the time you are back in the air, that cloud deck has disappeared. Soon, you’re talking to Boston Center again, which isn’t even physically in Massachusetts—it’s in New Hampshire.

New York’s Long Island stretches across the windshield. Down there, the rich and famous cavort in the Hamptons. The beaches appear pristine. Long Island Sound is a deep blue. You can identify airports in New Haven and Groton, Connecticut. The air at altitude is smooth.

Still 150 nautical miles from your destination, you are instructed to descend. You pull the power back and roll in a descent rate of 1,000 feet per minute and savor the view. Alas, this doesn’t cut it with Boston; they instruct you to expedite through 18,000, and so you pull more power back and roll in 2,200 fpm down.

It is early fall, and all of New England is sporting reds and yellows as the deciduous trees go down in a blaze of glory. Let’s get down low, take in the carpet of forest, and see if we can spot the airport before the center asks us to call the field in sight.

This is not easy. Even after decades of flying into this airport, it is hard to see because of the mountains. In fact, on the left downwind to Runway 25, the runway completely disappears from view behind a hill.

Today is an easy straight-in to Runway 36. The sun lights your growing shadow silhouette as you get closer to the ground. Another soft landing—a testimony to trailing-link landing gear. After you shut down, one boy opens the door and the other races to get the chocks. You listen as the engines spool down and make certain you’ve turned everything off. You unhook the battery and check the oils. The air is soft—a perfect temperature. You don’t want to leave, but dinner awaits. It is your birthday.

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