Flying in the wind

wind sockI once went home to Nebraska on vacation and got checked out to fly a Cessna at Silverhawk Aviation at the Lincoln airport.  The instructor asked if I minded flying in the gusty conditions, I said it was fine, and he said, “Good, because if you don’t like flying in wind, you aren’t going to fly in Nebraska.”

We’ve had a summer of calm wind in the Greater Boston area, but Sunday afternoon was one blustery, gusty, old-school, New England fall kind of day.  I had hoped to take my first-grade son up for his first flight that afternoon.  His youth-sized David Clark headsets had arrived in the mail the day before, and he had spent a few minutes that afternoon walking around the living room wearing his new green headsets (he would have preferred purple) speaking into the microphone silly things like “Captain Daddy!  Captain Daddy!  All seat belts are fastened!” and assuring me that he would be able to hear me if I spoke directly into the plugs at the end of the headset cable.

But this was not the day for my son’s first flight. The wind was 40 degrees to the left of Runway 32 at 12 gusting to 22 knots.  A Gulfstream at Bedford had reported a 20 knot wind sheer at 500 feet on landing.  Turbulence and low-level wind sheer alerts were given for several locations in the area.  I sat in the plane at Lawrence for a minute feeling the wind bounce the plane on the ground wondering if I should fly.  I knew that the wind coming over the hill on the left of the final approach to Runway 32 would give me quite a ride over the buildings and wires butting up against the approach end of the runway.  I watched several higher-performance planes land.  And I decided to give it a try.

I took off and flew in the direction of Plum Island to practice commercial maneuvers.  Several very talented instructors have tried to help me get the commercial over the years, but something in me could just never get the big picture needed to fly the visual maneuvers that were described as “easy” by so many people, and I was beginning to feel the itch again to go for the commercial and instructor ratings.  I wondered before takeoff if there would be much training value to flying in such wild conditions, but the wind smoothed out beautifully passing through 2000 feet.  I tried steep turns, and they felt effortless.  I tried chandelles, and they worked!  I was so excited I did them again and again and again.  Months of going out with no intention but to become “one with the plane” and practicing private maneuvers over and over again, of choosing aiming points all over the runway to break myself of habits and get “the picture,” of yearning to become so at one with the machine that I could tell what the plane would do seconds (many seconds) before it happened.  And today it all fell into place.  It was amazing.  Maybe it was luck.

I flew back to Lawrence to practice landing in the wind.  I was instructed by the controller to follow an Arrow back to the airport, a plane flying so high approaching the airport that I would never have found him on my own and wondered if he would even be able to land from such heights.  And then I remembered my primary instructor’s advice to fly a steep approach to Runway 32 on windy days to reduce the time spent in the turbulence coming over the hill to the left on final approach.  I remembered him telling me one day that he had passed the point of teaching me to be safe and was now trying to teach me some technique.  I remembered my days in gliders being instructed to approach at best glide speed plus half the headwind to make good progress into the wind, plus the gust to protect against wind sheer on gusty days.  I remembered my dreams of being “Joe Pilot” and touching down just at the stall with the nose up and the wheels quietly chirping in the gentle sequence  upwind wheel, then downwind wheel, then nose wheel.  After a few perfectly decent landings, I flew the final approach at 70 knots instead of the usual 65, and ended with the left wing firmly down, the rudder full right, the nose high, the stall warning light burning, and the wheels touching down left wheel, right wheel, nose wheel.  I’m not saying I didn’t scare anyone in the control tower, but the controller’s voice never wavered from his usual calm and pleasant banter wafting over the air.

Amazing.  So much learned today.  This is why flying is not about getting somewhere, not about shooting approaches, not about mastering complicated machines, not about technology, not even about showing off to my son.  This is Zen and the Art of Flying.  This is the drug that has me hooked.  This is what flying is all about: Flying is all about flying.

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