Objects at Rest


In retrospect, I don't know why it took Sir Isaac Newton so long to figure it out. Long before Newton published his groundbreaking first law of motion in 1687, I have to believe that cottage-wives and at least a few Middle Age parents had learned full well - through firsthand experimentation and experience - that a family member on the medieval couch tended to remain firmly entrenched in that position unless acted upon by a very determined outside force. All Newton did was describe the syndrome in slightly more scientific terms.

Three-hundred-twenty years and a number of scientific revolutions later, much has changed in our understanding of the physical world. But the power of inertia remains every bit as strong as it ever was, and its influence on an airplane's ability to fly goes far beyond the mechanical equations involved. In order for an airplane to lift off from a runway, you see, it needs more than just enough power to overcome its resistance to acceleration. It needs a pilot capable of applying that power. And if that pilot is, like most of us, a busy, working adult with other demands besides flying in his or her life, the force required to get to the airport and into an airplane may feel greater, at times, than the force required to actually lift that airplane into the sky. Especially if it's been a bit since he or she has accelerated in that direction.

I'm also not sure that Newton's law tells the whole story about the effects of inertia - at least with regard to objects of the human kind. Because if the "body at rest" in question is my own, the amount of force required to change that state of affairs also seems to increase the longer I'm out of any habit or activity. If it's only been a day or two since I've been to the gym, for example, it's not a big deal to throw on workout clothes, grab the keys and head out the door. If five days or more have passed, however, a workout becomes a more jarring intrusion to my day. I'm not in the rhythm of it anymore, and the default - even in that short period of time - becomes not going, instead of going. If more than two weeks have passed, the effort required to simply put on some shorts and sneakers, stretch, and drive the five minutes to the gym becomes akin to hoisting a 200-pound barbell.

It's silly, it makes no logical sense, and yet, the phenomenon is absolutely real. It's only discipline, a conscience that knows I'll feel better once I go, and the knowledge that it's only going to get worse the longer I wait, that gives me the acceleration power to get my body back in exercise motion. Resistance to gym workouts, of course, is a common phenomenon. The profitability of many gyms depends on it, in fact. But that resistance is at least partly due to the fact that nobody I know ranks 100 decline sit-ups, 45 bench presses or a half-hour sweating on a treadmill on their list of "incredibly fun things to do with an afternoon." We do it because it's good for us, and we like the results.

Flying, on the other hand, is fun. If it weren't, we'd all be certifiable for undertaking all the expense, effort, time and risk it entails. And yet, in the course of a busy life, the energy required to switch gears and get back out to the airport can still climb mysteriously higher with the passage of time. Whenever I've been in the midst of a long cross-country journey where I'm flying every day, getting my flight gear together and getting out the door to the airport takes almost no mental effort at all. Going flying is the default, and all the other areas of my life take a back seat to that priority. But if I've been busy with other things for a while, those other life activities and demands slowly become the default pattern and priority. The idea of going flying begins to loom as a huge, slightly irresponsible side-trip that will take me away from my productivity and set me even further back in my list of other "must dos."

It's silly, it makes no logical sense, and yet, the phenomenon is absolutely real. To be fair, flying does require effort, just as physical exercise does. Flying may not be an aerobic workout, but it is a physical and mechanical undertaking, requiring a different alignment of mental gears than art or office work. That's one of its appeals, of course, but it also means that it's not always an easy segue from the creative world I inhabit as a writer to the pragmatic, task-oriented world I inhabit as a pilot.

This is where a good flying buddy, like a good running or workout partner, comes in handy. For Newton was also right about what it takes to get objects at rest moving again. Overcoming the inertia of inactivity is far easier with the help of an outside force. It's also far more fun.

So when I decided I needed to motivate out to the airport for a little post-New Year's flying practice, I called my buddy Jeff to see if he'd be willing to ride shotgun. Between the Cheetah's annual, a trip to Ecuador and the holidays, it'd been altogether too long since I'd taken my airplane out for a spin, even if all I did was stay in the airport traffic pattern. I also knew that once I got to the airport and into the air, I'd be really glad that I had. But I only had four post-holiday workdays to get caught up on a month's worth of deadlines before leaving town again, and my mind was pretty firmly set in office mode. Knowing that Jeff would be standing by the airplane waiting for me at 2:00 somehow made it easier to break off my writing, collect my gear and get out the door.

My mental flying muscles are always a bit stiff when I climb into my plane after a number of weeks, just like the rest of my body is at the start of the first workout back after time off from the gym. I have to consciously think through a normally memorized checklist, dig through a mental file or two for the right frequencies, and double-check actions that will become fluid, almost instinctive movements once I'm back in the groove again. But at least I can laugh with Jeff about it. He's been there, too.

The ATIS reports northeast winds at 15 mph, as opposed to the normal afternoon westerlies, which means I'll get a little crosswind practice in the bargain. The recording also ends with one of those well-meaning but curiously unhelpful "Notices to Airmen," announcing that I should use caution for "small arms fire four miles northwest of the field." The caution refers to an army practice area just north of the traffic pattern, and the ATIS includes this notice anytime the area is "hot." But today, Jeff shoots me a deadpan look as the tinny, recorded voice wraps up its incongruous warning.

"Do you ever wonder how, exactly, they expect us to do that?" he asks. "Ooh! Look out! There's a bullet!" he says jerking his body left and right, dodging imaginary tracers. "Ooh! There's another! Watch out!"

His demonstration is comic enough that I have tears in the corners of my eyes by the time we both stop laughing. Already, the flight feels lighter, easier and more fun because of Jeff's presence, and we haven't even left our parking spot yet. Indeed, I suspect there are some powerful parallels between the sparking of laughter and sparking of movement in a body at rest - even if Newton didn't directly address that issue in his work.

We take off into a breezy January afternoon over hills blooming with green stalks of grass. In most parts of the country, January offers somewhat bleak and bland-looking landscapes. Spring is when the fields turn green again. But in most of California, the winter brings rain, not snow. So January is the month of rebirth, when the hills finally get enough moisture to turn green. By spring they will have surrendered to thirst again, fading into a more familiar shade of brown. So in some ways, winter is the most scenic time of year here. I've lived in California for 12 years now, and green fields in January still catch me pleasantly off-guard.

I circle around onto downwind and do a couple of warm-up touch-and-goes, just to stretch my muscles again. Then I tell Jeff I'm going to try a power-off spot landing. I float way past the mark. Hmmm. I go around again.

Before I took the Cheetah across the country for the first time, a friend who's an excellent Super Cub pilot came down and drilled me in power-off landings for two days. His reasoning was that the landing that counted most was the one I would face on the day when I found myself without an engine to help me out. It was, I thought, a point well taken. So anytime I do pattern work, I spend a fair amount of time practicing power-off spot landings. Jeff - who is an experienced pilot in his own right - quickly got into the spirit of things and began to play personal trainer, giving me goals to shoot for on each circuit. "Okay, try this one with no flaps." "Okay, this time, shoot for the first big set of painted marks, but don't put any flaps in until you're established on short final." "See what difference keeping only 10 degrees of flaps makes." "Try this one at 75 knots." "Try this one at 65 knots." "Try cutting the power on this one at midfield."

It's a little bit like an aerial game of "Mother May I," but it's fun. Traffic considerations and tower requests also end up giving me practice on switching from the long runway to the short runway at the very last moment, doing approaches to the left runway from a right pattern, landing on the right runway from the left pattern, extending upwind, extending downwind, making short approaches and even executing S-turns on final. By the time an hour and a half have gone by, I feel limbered up again, with my muscle memory reawakened and the forces of inertia working firmly in the "motion" direction.

The afternoon is waning by the time we land and I start the 45-minute drive home. I should be tired. I've been concentrating hard, and even sweating a little, for an hour and a half. But strangely enough, I feel energized, just like I do after a good gym workout. What would Sir Newton have to say about that? I don't really expect him to have an answer, but when I get home I go online anyway, just to see. And there, right in front of my eyes, is a surprising answer. Newton's second and third laws of motion, it turns out, focus on the reciprocal nature of force and change. A change in velocity generates a force, just as a force can generate a change in velocity. And acting on an object creates an equal reaction in return. So … in other words, in the process of getting my airplane back in motion, one could say (granting only a tad of creative license here) that a force inside me gets recharged, as well. And at the same time as I'm having an impact on my airplane, my airplane is having an impact on me. I may be the only living, breathing object in this particular equation, but Newton was right. The Cheetah and I are still inextricably connected when we fly. And the actions of each of us most certainly impact the other - in more ways than one.

That Newton managed to figure all this out 216 years before the airplane was even invented is pretty amazing, of course. But then again, Newton was a pretty smart guy.