Rich's Quest For Flight

My father was a pilot. He died doing what he loved to do. It has been a goal of my life to become a pilot. Now I have chance to do so. Follow me as I pursue my dream.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

High Desert

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It occurred to me on my trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico last month that there was a terrific opportunity to broaden my experience and get a taste of high altitude flying. So once the client took the option on the follow up visit, I made plans to do just that. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I found the flight school that is based at Santa Fe Municipal Airport (KSAF), an outfit called Sierra Aviation. The sparse website yielded the bare essentials. The planes they have, their staff, and a phone number. Looked good enough to me. I called on Friday (after my solo scrub) and reached Paul. He set me up for an appointment at 4:00 p.m. today. Fortunately today (compared to last month) Northwest Airlines kept their flights on schedule, and after checking in at the hotel, I headed over to the airport.

As it says on their site, the entrance was off the same parking lot as Million Air. And that was literally the case. Their whole operation was a single room with a desk, filing cabinet, a phone, and some tables and chairs. Suffice to say almost their entire capital was tied up in the planes. There wasn't even anybody in the office when I walked in. So I walked over to Million Air, got a cup of water, and headed back over. This time, a gentleman was behind the desk checking the messages on his machine. He motioned me in and I took a seat. When he finished, he stood up and introduced himself as Paul. He was probably a few years older than I and with thin hair. Most of you probably are aware of the "beach bum"; this guy was an aviation equivalent. His whole professional life was flying, and he appeared quite content with it.

Paul launched into a pre-flight briefing, going into considerable detail on how we need to lean the fuel mixture during ground operations, how the altitude affects the flight characteristics of the plane, and how the winds can be tricky. He also asked a few questions of me; I can imagine he needed to get a minimum level of comfort in a guy who just walked in off the street. Once finished with the briefing, we made for the plane.

The plane was a Cessna 172P, much the same as the 172N that I fly. Some minor differences included newer gauges, a vertical card compass, and flaps that only extended to 30 degrees instead of 40. Even though Paul said he preflighted the plane, I still had a quick look around just to be sure. I fiddled with the seat controls, trying to raise the seat, when Paul offered his first tip. Don't sit so high so that you have to duck to see under your wingtips. Don't worry about the cowl, it ain't going nowhere, use the top edge of the instrument panel as a horizon reference.

I started the plane up, and tuned to the ATIS for the latest conditions. Santa Fe is a towered airport, and up to this point all I had done at towered airports were touch-and-goes. Now I will be exercising my ground operations skills with the tower. I call for and receive taxi clearance to Runway 20. Then, after the pre-takeoff runup checks (during which we leaned the mixture for takeoff) clearance to take off. We are configured for a short field takeoff as we start the roll. And, as advertised, it takes almost 2000 feet to get off the ground. The climb rate is slow as well, although we're helped at times by thermals coming off the surface.

Slowly we climb, heading north toward the nearest mountain ridge. It didn't take long before noticing that the atmosphere is quite a bit active around mountains. Paul said that when you catch an updraft, expect a downdraft close behind. And he was right. There was no taking it easy once we reached our cruising altitude. But after I while, I noticed how you can tell what the plane is doing just by listening to it. When in an updraft, the engine runs faster, when in a downdraft, the engine slows down. The plane tells you what it is doing. We get to the foot of the mountain and Paul points out that you don't want to go closer to the mountain than the nearest flat piece of land, in case the engine fails. Always sound advice. And if you're going over the top, get all the altitude you can.

We next turn west, heading to Espanola. We've accomplished the orientation portion of the flight, now we're sightseeing. And what beautiful country it is. Hard to imagine I could land at all out here if I needed to, compared to the relatively flat farm fields in Wisconsin. The airport at Espanola was barely more than a runway, with a couple of out buildings. But an airport it was, and hopefully people will use it enough to keep it open. We turned and headed next toward Los Alamos, famous home of the atomic bomb. We turned to follow the Rio Grande river in order to avoid the restricted area located south of the town. It was striking terrain, a web of canyons that flowed into the river. From there we turned southeast and headed back to the airport for a couple of touch and goes. Paul offered me some great advice on how to turn the plane in the pattern and how to loosen my death grip on the yoke. I did well with the tower, even though the controller spoke quickly and said a lot.

We taxied back to the ramp after the third landing, secured the plane and debriefed. Paul paid myself and Adam some good compliments, and he said I will be a good pilot. Great stuff. And I took away some valuable lessons and a wonderful experience. This flying thing is pretty damn cool.

Next up are my solo cross country flights. I scheduled the short cross country for Saturday, and the long cross country for Monday. Let's hope the weather holds up. Thanks for allowing me to share my quest with you.


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