Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Why I Fly (chapter 2)

This installment begins with an admission. I am biased. I think my children are cuter and hold more potential than any other children. Oh, and smarter too. Now that I have that out of the way, my youngest son had a gymnastics meet in Portland Oregon.

The drive to Portland from my house takes three to four hours. The path down I-5 passes through pretty, but repetitive, landscape. (Hey, haven’t we driven past that fir-tree covered hill three times already?) It also takes us through the heart of the Seattle – Tacoma congestion.

Whenever I go to Portland, my preference is always the airplane. I joke that if I have to go south of Seattle and there’s no airport, then I’m not going. I have found the air routing for the Paine to Portland a bit odd, but still better than driving, much of it is spent sending traffic either to the east or west of the busy SEA-TAC airport airspace.

On this trip, it was overcast with forecast freezing in clouds and precipitation, but also clear above 7,000 feet with conditions improving through the day and to the next morning. I filed IFR out of Paine to ARPEE (a fix on the west side of Puget Sound) and then GPS direct to Hillsboro. My plot of the course showed me well clear of SEA-TAC, and then an easy straight line to my destination, climbing to 9,000 feet would put me above the dreary Northwest gray (“grey” for those of you reading from Great Brittan).

The gymnastics meet started at 5:00 P.M. so the forecast fit well into the situation. Go down day IFR in or over the clouds, and back night IFR but with visibility. We had a leisurely lunch, dropped the other three kids off at friends, and went to the airport with plenty of time to load up. Today was a day of not rushing.

Once in the plane, I radioed the tower to pick up my instrument flight clearance. Much to my disappointment, I was given the serpentine route around SEA-TAC, to the Olympia VOR, then on the airway with a peculiar bend in the middle, past my destination to Newburg VOR, and finally back to Hillsboro. Yuck. So much for that fancy moving map GPS in the plane.

I updated the flight plan in the GPS to the new routing, and initiated the communication for taxi and take off. Around 2,500 feet we were met by the overcast. The plane climbed through the clouds as I guided it on course towards ARPEE. At 7,000 we broke out of the clouds to a world of bright white.

To our left the white clouds extended as far as we could see, interrupted only by the mountains tops breaking the flat upper surface. To our right were scattered to broken clouds, giving us an intermittent view of the Olympic Mountains and forests stretching out to the Pacific Ocean.

Mercifully, after passing Olympia we were given direct routing to our destination. Our course carried us past Mt. Rainer, and Mt. St. Helens. Just the top of the crater's rim was peering above the clouds. As we approached the airport we were vectored down through the clouds to the airport, the cloud bases opened up around 3,000 feet so we were given a normal visual landing. Turning us to the left to enter the pattern for the runway landing to the northwest.

Our rental car was waiting for us, and surprisingly for only $20 a day on weekends. It was an easy drive over to the meet with a stop for a light meal. We wanted to make sure my son had enough food in him to get him through the meet, but not so much that he was uncomfortable. We got to the meet early.

The meet went well, and while there I met up with Kale, who lives on an airport, and who had also flown his son to the meet. Kale was in the process of buying a plane that is like ours, but newer and is turbo-charged.

We got back to the Hillsboro Airport and the car return was closed. There was a drop off for the keys, but it also meant my path through the fence back to the plane was blocked. Had I been paying attention, I could have read the code on the inside of the fence for opening the gate and getting back in. Instead I had my son climb the fence and open the gate so we could get back to the plane.

By now the sky had cleared up and with no moon, the stars were the main source of light above. We cruised home in still air watching the meandering line of headlights along I-5. Night flying is particularly beautiful; the predominate visible feature is blackness. The lights of population centers create bright spots on the ground, and then fade out as density decreases in to more suburban and rural areas, roads appear as streams of lights. Where population and water come together, a crisp line delineates the boundary. Rivers cut paths of dark through cities; bays can look like bites out of neighborhoods. Above, the stars appear more brilliant.

The air is usually calmer as well. There is no shaking of the plane, no bumps or burbles in the air, and at times it can seem like the plane is suspended above the ground on a string. The still air and the inky blackness create this sense of isolation. Like being alone, and yet all the rest of the world is visible but only remotely connected.

My routing home was much more favorable. I was cleared GPS direct to ARPEE, and then to Paine. At Bremerton, I was vectored direct to Paine, and I started my descent out of 8,000 feet.

By now the tower at Paine was closed and there was nobody in the landing pattern. I kept my speed up as I approached the airport, and crossed the end of the runway still going over 120 knots. I continued to let the speed dissipate down to landing speed as we floated along the 9,000 foot long surface, finally touching down and turning off about the middle.

That night we were back in the comfort of our own home.
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