September is my “base month” for recurrent training in our Cessna Citation CJ1. Traditionally, I’ve trained at SimCom in Orlando, Florida. The facility is within driving distance of my home in Tampa, the people are great, and my insurance company approves the training. I was disappointed but not surprised when I called to hear that no course dates were available this year in September. The resurgence of general aviation flying had put a premium on those slots.
I called LOFT Aero in California and arranged for “recurrent,” or a “61.58” in FAA speak. This provided an excuse to fly from my summer digs in New Hampshire to the West Coast, with some intriguing stops in Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico. How much fun is that?
Little did I know how basically “philosophical” this itinerary would be. There were several themes that presented themselves over the nine days away from home, including luck, expectation, privilege, and a sense of gathering clouds, both real and existential. There is something about the serenity of smooth, level flight that begets rumination.
The first stop was to visit my brother, Steve, and his wife, Rhonda, in Big Sky, Montana. Steve’s a retired pediatric surgeon who has morphed into a ski patroller on a fabulous mountain. Rhonda is a retired NICU nurse who teaches yoga in several mountain resorts. It is the Rockies, for sure.
Our first stop was for fuel in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Our direct route took us into Canadian airspace. Is it my imagination, or do Canadian controllers sound more like American ATC folks now? Premier Jet Center at Flying Cloud (KFCM) whisked us along with a top off. All stops on this trip were planned to use CAA (Corporate Aircraft Association) fuel prices. This group is for Part 91 turbine operations and almost always has the best fuel prices around.
The next leg, to Bozeman, Montana, was 30 minutes shorter but promised some thunderstorm activity upon arrival. That wasn’t the only challenging weather on this leg. My wife, Cathy, has been a super supporter of spending money on this dream jet of mine. The only trouble is, she’s a fearful flyer. Always has been, always will be. She’s afraid the airplane will come apart. Here’s the rub: She doesn’t want to be left behind and insists on flying with me, only to be terrified while in flight. The banging we got on arrival into Bozeman only certified her worry. We got shellacked. The airport got turned around, runway-wise, when we were on the downwind, so several course changes in punishing chop were necessary to land safely. I’ll admit, if I hadn’t had Part 135 flying experience, I would have been frightened too. But those days taught me what a pilot and machine can do. My brother met us with a big smile, but it took Cathy awhile to enter the conversation.
After a terrific visit, we set out for Colorado Springs, Colorado (KCOS), where the Garden of the Gods and the Peppertree Restaurant didn’t disappoint. This leg featured a tailwind. While we were lucky to see ground speeds of 340 knots on the way west, eastbound on this leg featured lots of 430-plus-knot sightings. The weather was again great, and soon Runway 26R was in my sights. The CJ1 lands like a dream, thanks to trailing link landing gear—another gift from the engineering geniuses at Cessna. Colorado looked vibrant. Lots of ads for marijuana, which is legal there. Maybe that’s why the people looked happy, and the bars were full.
KCOS to KCRQ (Carlsbad) in Southern California is just over two hours with good weather at both ends. The only trouble was the line of cumulus that forms over the Sierra Nevada Mountains that guarded our arrival. This picket fence of cloud meant more turbulence and another dinner conversation about keeping the jet.
LOFT Aero was a pleasant surprise. The simulator is really nice and the instructors were very experienced and informative. My classmates were great also. Often, I learn as much from them as I do from the instructors. With my “61.58” in hand, we headed to Santa Fe, NewMexico, to visit an old friend.
Now, gifted with tailwinds and another good flying day, my thoughts turned to fortune. I’ve known Ellyn since 1970, when I met her and her husband, Rob, during our surgical internship. We became fast friends and, despite never living in the same town together again, we stayed that way. Rob was a talented neurosurgeon and a widely read intelligent man who liked to fly fish, climb mountains, and play squash. He was always in better shape than me, but he died over a year ago of a form of dementia. Physical fitness can’t beat some conditions.
Ellyn’s brave resolve and unfailing Santa Fe generosity lifted our spirits and on the next morning, we set out for home, KLEB, in Lebanon, New Hampshire, some 1,700 nm distant. There was just one cloud over the entire route, the weather everywhere else was pristine. As we rolled around the TAFOY2 departure designed to gain altitude before heading over theSangre de Cristo Mountains, I could sense a slump in my feeling of well-being.
Our insurance on the airplane gets renewed in October, and I know that my age is likely to make single pilot operations untenable. Though I’m unaware of any actuarial evidence that a 77-year-old, single-engine pilot with an ATP certificate, type ratings, and 7,000 flight hours—2,000 in jets—is more dangerous than the crew that flew a race car driver’s Cessna Latitude into the ground, I can hear the hoofbeats of curtailment approaching quickly.
In addition to insurance worries, there is always the FAA. Though my single-eye glaucoma has been treated with a surgical drain, such that I don’t need drops anymore, Oklahoma City has maintained that I need to provide lots of ophthalmology evidence every year. My Class II certificate says “not good after June 30, 2023.”
Level at 370, doing a nice 420 knots over the ground, I asked for 5 degrees right to avoid that one cloud. It was a tall one, over 45,000 feet and best left alone. Musings came naturally. How can I convince the FAA to leave me alone? What’s next for me in life and in the air?
As I watched the farms of Kansas slide by, I thought about our trip. I thought about how lucky I have been to have flown Part 135 and learned about jets. How privileged I am to be able to afford this beauty I was sitting in. Why am I alive in the flight levels when some of my hardworking, honest, fit friends are already gone?
I’ve been unforgivably lucky. Two great professions, many great friends, and a fabulous family. The clouds I’m fearing are the sign that some or all of this will be ending. Maybe not now, but someday. God, I will miss this.
As my friend Larry says, “You’ve been blessed and highly favored.”
This article was originally published in the December 2022/January 2023 Issue 933 of FLYING.