Milking It: How to Extract Every Last Bit from Airplane and Pilot

The aircraft’s state of utility must be measured only once before a flight, but the aviator’s is a moving target.

FLYING contributor Ben Younger says a flight from New York to Birmingham, Alabama, is about the limit for his Beech Bonanza as far as nonstops go. [Courtesy: Ben Younger]

For my birthday this year my buddies transported my bike down to Alabama for a race weekend at Barber Motorsports Park. That’s Brooklyn to Birmingham. Pulling a trailer, it takes more than 17 hours. I know, as I’ve made the trip more than a few times myself. Drinking interstate coffee, eating caloric garbage, filling the tanks every 300 miles, sleeping fitfully at truck stops when fatigue finally overwhelms you. I chipped in for gas, but they did all the heavy lifting.

So, how did I get down there? I’m sure you can guess.

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New York to Birmingham is about the limit for my Beech Bonanza as far as nonstop flights go. At more than four hours, it’s also the limit for me. At that point, my brain and bladder are competing for who more urgently wants to land. The flight down was a breeze. Good weather, nary a bump. I actually did stop at Tazewell County (KJFZ) in Richlands, Virginia. I like the ForeFlight feature that allows you to find the cheapest fuel on your route. Cheap fuel usually corresponds closely with remoteness and level of services—the farther from a population center and the fewer amenities, the cheaper the gas.

In this case, it also seemed to tie in with the difficulty of the approach. The field rests on top of a plateau surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains with a steep drop-off on the approach side of Runway 25. Now add some gusty winds, and it’s a pay-attention approach even in CAVU conditions. As I descended and started to feel the effects of the wind passing over those mountains, I remembered that I had not been flying in more than five weeks. Not my usual M.O., but life got busy, and I did not have any time to fly all of September.

There are parts of flying that are akin to riding a bike, but generally it’s not a very useful analogy for aviation. The truth is, your skill set does diminish with time, and it’s usually in the most critical envelopes of flight. I narrowed my focus, watched my speeds, and landed firmly with only half flaps to counter the gusts with a little breathing room. I took fuel, chatted up a pleasant retiree from Maine, and departed for Birmingham. On departure I thought about how the approach caught me off guard in a way that I could not have prepared for by any method short of flying more. Noted.

While my friends brought my bike, I brought everything else down in the airplane. With the rear seats removed (yes, I have a separate weight and balance prepped for just this purpose), I was able to fit everything from spare tires to tools, a full-size tent, sleeping bag, gear bag, and bike stands. There is this utility scorecard that lives in my head for every flight I make. The more utility and efficiency I can pack into a flight, the better I feel about the decision to use the airplane, and more interestingly, myself.

Being able to utilize the Bo to its maximum ability combats the small voice in my head that still whispers barbs about the extravagance of owning an airplane. The same goes for the pilot, and this is where things get sticky. As far as the airplane goes, I will load it close to its maximum weight and balance. I extract every bit of convenience and performance I can from the Beechcraft. Approaching those limits is easy as they are written in stone and simple to obey. Finding those limits in myself is quite a different experience.

I spent the weekend on the track riding my Kramer, all the while watching a large weather system make its way north and east. I rode well, which helps me do everything else better, from tying my shoes to making espresso to flying an airplane. Racing fires every neuron you have. It sharpens you in a way nothing else can. One second of inattention can spell disaster. Even instrument flying in IMC gives you a greater margin than that.

I woke up on my birthday, the morning of October 7, to terrible news from Israel. Between the approaching storm and my family in Jerusalem, I decided to head home and not race. Everything went back in the airplane save for the spare tires whose sacrifice to my lap times meant they would retire in Alabama. Filed IFR for 10K and headed up into the clouds. I was slightly nervous about the flight but gave myself a pep talk: This is why you have an instrument rating. This is why you have enough Garmin glass to warrant an exhibit at the Corning factory. This is why you have a Bonanza. I mean, isn’t that the point of all this? It is, with one large caveat. You can only load and fly the airplane to its limits so long as everything is in working order. Same goes for the pilot.

These are unedited notes I pulled from my flight log, written the evening of the flight after driving home: 

That was an intense flight. Must’ve been in the soup for almost the entire four hour and 20 minute flight. No convective activity, but moderate to heavy rain most of the way, with some turbulence thrown in for good measure. Black hole approach into Sullivan with a tiny bit of oil on the windscreen doing a lot of harm to the visibility. Oil did not register during daylight portion of flight. ATC cleared me for the approach, and I intercepted the glide slope just fine, but I was unable to turn the runway lights on. I was seconds away from going missed when I realized I had not switched over from New York approach to the CTAF. I quickly clicked seven times, and the runway lit up and I landed. For how prepared I was and how much time I had the end was a little bit of a pig f---.

Unlike the airplane’s state of utility, which only need be measured once before the flight, the pilot’s is a moving target. Decidedly not static. Milking every last bit of efficiency/utility from myself is not as straightforward as the aircraft’s. We often talk about evaluating ourselves before a flight. We don’t always think about it in the middle of the action. Things change. Look alive up there.

Also, from what I understand, ATC does not love it when you key the mic 42 times in a row trying to turn on nonexistent runway lights inside its facility.

This column first appeared in the January-February 2024/Issue 945 of FLYING’s print edition.

Ben Younger is a TV and film writer/director, avid motorcyclist and surfer—but it’s being a pilot that he treats as a second profession. Find him on Instagram @thisisbenyounger.

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