The Hours that Count

It was supposed to be such an easy flight. Oh, there was some weather that was supposed to move in that evening, but I'd called Flight Service five minutes before leaving for the airport, and they'd told me it was clear below 12,000 feet, with 10 miles visibility all along my route. And forecast to stay that way the rest of the afternoon.

So, okay. The Livermore Airport, where the Cheetah is living at the moment, is a 45-minute drive away from my house. And I needed fuel, so it was probably another half hour after that before I was wheels up. And the Salinas Valley, which I was following on my way down to Santa Ynez, is probably another half hour's flight from Livermore. So as much as a couple of hours could have transpired from when I talked to Flight Service and the point when I decided that their forecast must have applied to a parallel universe in some other, more benign, weather dimension.

As I headed south from Salinas, I couldn't help but notice some really dark, nasty-looking gray stuff ahead that looked an awful lot like a ragged ceiling … a whole lot lower than 12,000 feet. To be exact, the clouds were lingering at about half that altitude-or about 500 feet over my canopy. In order for the "clear" part of the forecast to be accurate, you'd have to make a judge's ruling that clear rain, falling on the canopy, still fits under that category. As for the 10 miles … well, heck. Ten … four … What's a few miles between friends?

If I knew this particular set of ridgelines and valleys well, it might not have been a big deal. But I'd never actually flown this route before, and I had to thread my way through a couple of different valleys to make my way down to Santa Ynez at that altitude. I had my GPS dialed in, and I backed up my confidence about my exact location and distance from the ridges surrounding me with a finger plunked firmly down on the sectional spread out across my knees. I peered into the gray skies ahead, wondering if that dark patch lurking around my altitude a few miles down the road was a cloud or ridge, even as a piece of my brain recognized that "Is that a cloud or a ridge?" isn't really a question you want to be asking in your airplane.

ATC called me out as traffic to a Cessna 210 descending through 7,000 feet, only to have the 210 pilot reply in a curt tone of voice that they were in the clouds and couldn't see anything. Another pilot a handful of miles behind me called up right after that asking for weather conditions down the road, because both the visibility and ceiling were deteriorating where he was. Center asked if he wanted to file an instrument flight plan. "I'm VFR only," came the tense reply.

I shook my head as I scanned the clouds for the descending 210 that was supposed to pop out at any time now. Apparently nobody was having a good day out there today.

Nevertheless, an hour and a half later I'd found my way beneath the clouds and through the mist, rain and a couple of valleys down to Santa Ynez, where I parked the airplane and headed for the nearest bar. As I recounted my flight to a friend, he smiled and said, "Well, Lane, that kind of flight builds character, you know."

Among the unhelpful comments of the world, "Well, that kind of thing builds character" rates right up there with "Well, other people have it a lot worse," and the perennial favorite, "I told you so."

"You know," I answered with a slight edge, "I've had a ton of character-building hours in that airplane. I don't think I really need any more."

Unruffled, my friend just laughed. "Ah, now there's the hours they should really track in our logbooks," he said with a grin. "Wonder why nobody's ever thought of that."

Why, indeed? I have a very nice, new logbook that has columns for flight training hours, solo or pilot-in-command hours, cross-country hours, instrument hours, simulated instrument hours, night hours, single engine, multiengine and "other" type of aircraft hours. But my friend was right. What it really needs is a column that would tally the flight time that's really taught me the most and made the biggest difference in my flying skills-those memorable, adrenaline-packed and wildly uncomfortable but instructive "character building" hours.

Of course, since every second seems like an eternity in the midst of any character-building flying experience, I think each minute should count as an hour. After all, I've certainly learned more in 20 character-building minutes than I have in 20 hours of calm, uneventful, straight-and-level flying.

There was, for example, a recent flight with my friend Jeff back from Redmond, Oregon, where I'd dropped the Cheetah off for its annual. We were in a rented Arrow, returning to Livermore Airport on a beautiful, cloudless, spring afternoon. We diverted slightly to fly over Crater Lake, which was stunning in its snow-rimmed serenity, the late afternoon sunlight sparkling off its deep and crystal waters. We then happily wound our way down past Mount Shasta and the northern California ridgelines in the golden evening light before crossing the Sacramento River Basin just as dusk darkened the hillsides east of Mount Diablo. All was good and right with the world, and the GPS put us a mere seven and a half minutes out from Livermore. In 15 minutes, we would be on the ground, airplane tied down, and headed to a good dinner.

Then Jeff glanced down and saw the oil pressure gauge dropping precipitously from the middle of the green arc to the very bottom of the red arc. The oil temperature wasn't climbing-at least not yet-but for all we knew, we could have a circulation problem with the oil that could make the engine seize without showing a noticeable increase in oil temp. Seven and a half minutes away from safety. But we were over hostile, hilly terrain, and we couldn't even make out the hilltops and valleys clearly in the deepening dusk. That seven and a half minutes might be five minutes too many if our problem was something more serious than a gauge malfunction.

What to do? We'd been about to start our descent for the airport, but after a quick discussion, we decided to keep our 5,500 feet, keep the throttle exactly where it was and abandon the straight path to the airport, which would take us over dark and rough terrain, for a more square approach that would take a few minutes longer but would let us fly over flatter terrain, where we'd at least have a road underneath us. Jeff called the tower and asked for priority handling as we crossed our fingers and headed for the airport, anxious eyes alternating between the engine gauges and peering into the dusk for possible landing sites all along the way.

Fortunately, the engine kept running, and the oil pressure even came up a bit on short final, as Jeff gunned the engine a little to compensate for some unexpected sink. We tied the airplane down and headed for that long-anticipated dinner, but dinner conversation was focused on an intense debrief of those last seven minutes of flight and what we'd learned for next time. It was clear that we'd benefited from each other's presence, because Jeff hadn't thought about leaving the throttle at cruise power until the field was made, and I hadn't thought about taking the longer course to the runway in order to stay above better landing sites. But neither one of us will ever forget those tips if we find ourselves in that kind of situation again. We were also highly motivated, in the days that followed, to learn more than we ever otherwise would have about the potential causes of a dropping oil pressure gauge.

Definitely worth at least seven character-building hours in the logbook.

Then there was the time I allowed myself to get bullied by a Pensacola, Florida, controller into going three miles out to sea, in three-mile visibility, with a lowering ceiling that eventually drove me down to 600 feet above the ocean to stay out of the clouds. I explained my situation to the controller and asked twice for permission to come closer to shore, where the ceiling was higher. But the controller curtly denied me both times, saying he had F-14s to worry about, even though he allowed a Beech Duke to transition along the same shoreline route that I was requesting permission to follow.

Those interminable minutes over the ocean until I was finally allowed to contact a more cooperative Eglin AFB controller were certainly character-building. And I won't soon forget the lessons they taught me. What was I thinking, allowing a ground-bound controller to put me in such a spot? At the time, I decided that 500 feet was going to be my bottom line. If I had to go any lower, I was going to declare an emergency and just head to shore. But if I had to do it over again, I wouldn't have waited that long. I would've informed the Pensacola controller in a similarly curt tone of voice that I was unable to continue safely three miles offshore, and that he could either allow me to come closer to shore, or I'd declare an emergency and just head there on my own and we could sort it all out on the ground.

I also remember realizing at the time that much of my anxiety was stemming not from where I was, but from what I was afraid might happen a few miles into the future. As I constantly evaluated my less-than-ideal situation over the ocean, I kept asking myself, "Are you okay right now?" I considered the fact that I was clear of clouds, under control, wings level, in a perfectly working airplane, over an ocean I could see clearly with no obstructions, with both GPS and VOR and at least the faint outline of a shoreline for guidance. Not good, but not an immediate emergency, either. I just had to watch carefully to see how things progressed and be ready to make an immediate change if necessary.

In retrospect, I learned more about weather, assertiveness and staying calm in a challenging flight situation in those 15 or 20 minutes over the ocean than in weeks or months of easy, local flying time. So I could probably chalk up at least 20 character-building hours for that one.

In a perfect world, of course, we'd all learn all our lessons the first time around, or from a nice, neat textbook or instructor. We wouldn't allow ourselves to get bullied by an irritated controller, reduce power on a potentially ailing engine before the field was made, or stray further into worsening weather than, in retrospect, we probably should have. We'd also develop all the wisdom and character we need to lead truly happy, grounded, fulfilling lives without making any mistakes in our relationship choices or walking two miles down a career or life path before realizing it wasn't the one we really should have taken.

Unfortunately, few of us are that perfect. And so much of our important learning ends up occurring through the painful but effective school of experience-of doubling back, trying different paths, and muddling through the worst parts as best we can. It's a lot messier that way, of course. But I think sometimes it's by working our way through the more challenging and imperfect situations of our lives-in the air or on the ground-that we find ourselves learning the most. Assuming, of course, that we're open to the learning. But that's a different topic.

Meanwhile, I think the logbook companies should seriously consider revamping their designs to include space on the pages for those all-important "character-building" hours we all experience. For no matter how many chronological flight hours we accumulate, it's the character-building ones that really stretch us, challenge us, give us unforgettable gifts of experience and knowledge and, in the end, teach us as much about ourselves as they do about flying.


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