Friday, December 7, 2012

Head In The Clouds

One time, I was out flying a solo flight.  It was supposed to be an easy up-and-back to Batavia, NY from my home airport of Wellsville.  Forty-five minutes to get there, land, take back off, and come home.  I had it all planned out, plotted on my sectional chart (that's the fancy aviatin' word for map).  I had my flight plan all written.  I had charted the distance and fuel and time to the top of my climb, and how long it would take me to fly between visual checkpoints.  I had all my radio frequencies written and ready to be dialed in as I needed to change them on the way up and back.

The weather briefer said I had about enough time to get to Batavia if I left soon after I got off the phone with him, but I needed to be advised that there was some weather coming in off Lake Ontario.  It was three days after Christmas, and the "weather" he was talking about was clouds and snow.

No problem!  I was flying in the airport's Tomahawk.  It's a little airplane. Simple.  Preflights didn't have to take that long, unless I was really stalling and trying to milk the pre-flight.  I wouldn't that day.  I wanted to get my first solo cross-country out of the way.  I'm nervous about things.  Really nervous about them, until I get one or two cracks at it under my belt.

In the case of flying the airplane, I never really got over the nervousness.  Let's be clear about that.

So, pre-flight was done, my instructor gave me his pep-talk that he always gave me before I'd fly, with or without him, and he sent me off to the plane.  I was always good at talking on the radio, and my radio-check went off without a hitch.  I taxied to the departure end of good ol' Runway 2-8, set the brake, did my run-up, and called that I was departing.

It was a cold day, with dense air, and just me in the plane, so that bird popped up into the sky like nobody's business.  Boy, didn't I feel like a big cheese (a scared, shaking big block of scardey-cheese, but a big cheese nonetheless!), flying over our practice area (the lands between the edge of Wellsville on one end and the Allegany County Jail on the other).  There was the windmill farm up near Houghton, NY.  There was Silver Lake, shaped like a hockey stick, easy to see on the chart AND in person.  Batavia was getting closer!  Yaaaaaaaaaaay me!

Except, I didn't see the airport when I thought I should.  This was bad.  Where was the airport?  I looked at my chart.  I looked outside.  Everything was covered in a Frosted-Mini-Wheat coating of snow.  It looked different from any other time I'd been flying up there with my instructor.  And honestly, I was lousy at finding airports.  I could spot another plane seven, eight miles away.  I could spot birds that could pose a threat to our flights.  But seeing any airport but my own, which sits alone atop a high hill, head and shoulders above the rest of Wellsville, I was absolutely worthless at.  It led the chief instructor at the airport to yell once "For God's sake, April!  Look for the short, fat road with numbers on either end!!!" when we were out flying, and I wasn't seeing Danville's airport fast enough for him.  So of COURSE I'd mess this up and not see my airport in Batavia, which is sort of in the middle of things on the edge of that town.

I was getting around my VOR triangulation to figure out where I was.  On the ground, I was BRILLIANT at using different VORs, theoretically, to find my position.  I prided myself on it.  My instructor prided me on it.  I was good at finding out where I was, with my ass firmly in a seat at the airport, a chair with all four legs on the floor, no engine noise, no having to keep one hand on the yoke to keep from nosing into the ground.  Bloody brilliant at figuring out where I was when I wasn't lost!

Just as I was dialing in the frequency for the VOR in Geneseo to get the missing reading, I really looked out my windscreen.  Opaque whiteness, and little beads of water were flitting all over the plexiglass.  My mouth went dry and all my muscles clenched.  I looked out the side window.  In the milky distance, I could see the ground enough to see it was still under me and not over me.

What a moron.  This is why women shouldn't be allowed to fly airplanes by themselves.  They do stupid stuff like get lost and then fly right into a goddamn snow cloud!  And what if the FAA found out I'd flown right into a goddamn snow cloud?  That was a total violation of the 1000 feet above, 500 feet below, 2000 feet laterally away from clouds rule!

My eyes snapped to my instruments.  This can be attributed to my instructor making me spend so much time under the "Foggles," special goggles that block out everything except the instrument panel while you fly, that I nearly threw up on him a couple of times, and also What To Do In A Cloud had been embedded in my reptilian brain, so thankfully, I didn't have to think about it much.  Thankfully, because my human-higher-order thinking brain had shut down and was slamming herself in the forehead in a corner of the cockpit repeating "stupid, stupid, stupid" and frankly, that wasn't helping anything.

When you fly into a cloud, the trick is to keep your airplane level.  Keep your flight coordinated.  There's an instrument called a "turn-slip indicator" that's shaped like a smile, with ball that floats inside.  If your flight's coordinated, meaning ailerons and rudder in balance, that ball rides in the center, at the bottom of the smile.  If you're out of whack one way or the other, you add in rudder, a little at a time, on the side where the ball's hanging out.  They call it "stepping on the ball."  So, using that, and the heading indicator (like a compass, but not exactly a compass), the artificial horizon, and the gauge that tells you how fast you're climbing or descending or staying level, is what keeps you flying when you fly into a cloud.  You can't trust your eyes or your head because it plays tricks on you when there's white everywhere.  You can feel like you're level, when in reality, you're climbing, losing speed, and are headed for a stall, which is bad news in a cloud!  Or you think you're flying straight, but you're really turning ever so gradually, which can also cause you to lose speed and descend.

In a cloud, you have to trust your instruments, and that's one of the hardest things to do.  But, as I didn't have much choice that day, I kept my eyes glued to the panel and slowly, slowly, slowly got myself turned back around whence I came, where there wasn't a giant stupid snow cloud rolling in from stupid Lake Ontario.

You know that feeling when you have a cold, and your nose is hopelessly plugged up, and you think you're never going to breath right again, and then all of a sudden, you feel a kind of "thunk" in your sinuses, and you can BREATHE again?  That's what it was like for me that day when I flew back out of that cloud.  While I was in the cloud, I'd resigned myself to just calling it a day and going home, and not landing at Batavia.  I'd have to tell my instructor what happened, and he'd be disappointed but he'd understand.  Polar opposites, my instructor and me, he wasn't much of a yeller.  Very easy-going, very mellow.  He'd be cool with me taking another stab at this solo cross-country thing another day, when there was NO SNOW forecast to be shipping in on giant clouds.

But I decided to take a hot-lap around Batavia, and as I made my turn, there it was:  Batavia's short, fat road with the numbers on either end, for God's sake!!!  I called my position, set up my approach and held my breath through my landing.  Holding my breath on landings is a bad habit I got into early on, and it's a tough one to break.  Also, letting go of the rudder too early, but a wonky trip down the runway with the chief instructor one day (that ended in me being in tears) sort of broke me of the letting go of the rudder too early.  I also sort of hold my breath on the take-off, which also isn't too good, but I couldn't help it.  Take-offs can be kind of an intense thing.  You always have to be on the lookout for a place you can land off the end of the runway, In Case.  You never turn back around and try to make the runway.

Well, that was done!  I'd found Batavia, landed, and taken back off!  Now all I'd have to do is get back home, and I could totally do that, because I'd gotten there mostly okay, if you discounted that whole not finding the airport and flying into a cloud whilst looking for it thing.  Nobody had to know about that debacle.

And, ha!  Wasn't Batavia airport kind of like Platform Nine and Three-Quarters in Harry Potter?  You had to do some magic mumbo-jumbo to find it!  Haha!  That's clever!  I would have to remember that bit of cleverness borne out of sheer terror, because the terror was over!

And there was Silver Lake, still shaped like a hockey-stick!  There were the windmills on the farm near Houghton!  And not long after the windmills is when I went wrong again.  It was a few minutes before I realized I didn't recognize anything.  Crap!  How could I get lost twice in the same flight?  Especially since I'd already been over this terrain once!  The snow shouldn't have been stymieing me!  I'd seen this stuff!  Except, I hadn't seen this stuff, because I was now flying over things I hadn't flown over before.  Frack!  Frackety-frackety-frack! FRAAAAAAAAAAAACK!!!

 I knew I must have been within Wellsville's frequency, so I switched back to 123.0 on my radio just as my instructor was hailing me.  He didn't sound so mellow and easy-going as he asked if 9284Tango was on the frequency.

"Ummmm, 9284Tango here," I replied.  "I think I'm lost."

"How lost?" he said.

"Shit, there's Alfred University," I said.  "Alfred Goddamn University."

"What are you doing over Alfred?"

"If I knew, I'd tell you," I said.  "I'll be home in a few minutes."

I could have just followed Andover Road back into Wellsville, but I wanted to at least salvage some of the route home I'd planned.  I flew over Hornell, noted its damn airport- sure, NOW I'm good at spotting damn short, fat roads with numbers on either end!  Universe!  Whatiswrongwithyou?!!!  I got back to Belmont, and noted the little waterfall.  I saw the jail- from the sky, it's shaped like a Christmas tree.  Did you know that?  And after the flight I'd had, it was the most beautiful penal building I could ever imagine seeing!  I could see Dresser-Rand and the train tracks, and my airport!  I called mid-field and set up my approach for Runway 1-0.  In the time I'd been gone, the wind had shifted.  The snowstorm was coming in.  I called final approach and held my breath through the landing.

From out of the blue terminal building, I could see a figure burst out of the door and pretty much march-run to where the taxiway connector met up with the ramp.  I knew who it was.  The question was, how much trouble was I in?  Must be a lot of trouble, since my instructor motioned for me to stay put and got IN the plane before I taxied to the hangar.

This was it, I figured.  He was going to take my logbook, set it on fire, take my student certificate and shred it and also set it on fire, and then tell me to go take a basketweaving class or something.

"So," he said, a nervous grimace on his face.  "What took you so long?"

I told him all about getting lost and flying into the cloud and then not being able to find the airport and then finding it, and then getting lost again.  He listened.

"You sound like you want to bawl," he said.

"Yeah, I do," I said.

"Well, when you get back to the hangar, you can fall apart.  But you've got to get back to the hangar first. 'Kay?"


It was a quiet trip for the short distance to the hangar.  We pushed the plane back into its spot, chocked the gear, and closed up the big door.

"I was worried that you'd crashed or something," he finally said.

"I was worried I was going to," I said.

"So you flew into the cloud, then?"

"Yeah, and then I flew back out of it.  I'll never bitch about the Foggles again, I promise."

"Well, good.  I wasn't mad on the radio.  I was just worried.  I'd been trying to call you on the radio for twenty minutes.  I tried your cell phone.  I was back here, freaking out."

"I was up there, freaking out."  I got my cell phone out of my bag. There were three missed calls from his cell phone, all in the space of five minutes.  "Yep, there you are!" I said cheerfully, showing him the screen of my phone.

"Yep," he said.  "Well, you flew into a cloud and flew back out of it without crashing, and you got lost on the way home and didn't run out of fuel and crash, so I'd say your first solo trip was some good flying."

I laughed out loud.

"Thank you," I said.  "It was an utter disaster, but thank you."

"Hey," he said, grinning.  "You didn't crash."

I didn't crash.

So what they say in the books is true.  When you find yourself in a cloud, keep yourself stable, stay calm, trust the tools that are there to help you, and slowly and steadily turn yourself around to go back to where you came from to regroup.  And don't forget to breathe.  That's not in the books, but I seem to forget to do that when things start getting intense.  Breathe, breathe, breathe.  Because it's funny just how much you can find yourself grappling about in the clouds, even when your feet are solidly on the ground.

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