Sunday, August 30, 2009

Why I Fly (Chapter 13)

I just finished a week of vacation with my family. We had a camping trip cut short by bees, followed by a leaky kitchen faucet that I had to replace, and then a bicycle ride on the burke-gillman trail that involved more sibling bickering than riding. So for my last day of vacation, I wanted to take myself out for an airplane ride.

When I awoke this morning the view from my window was of fog. Dang. That’s not what the weather man forecast. Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I know that late summer and early fall is a common time to be greeted my morning fog, and that is usually is short lived. So I grabbed my flying gear and headed for the airport, via Starbucks.

At the airport I found blue sky and a couple of flight instructors participating in a well honed skill of sitting on the couch. Their earlier students canceled due to the fog. It seems every FBO has a well worn couch. And having spent over a decade hanging out at the airport, I understand why. Pilots always seem to be waiting for someone or something: A passenger, a student, a cargo, or maybe just a break in the weather. These were waiting for students.

I was waiting for my coffee to be gone. I downed the rest of my coffee and walked out to the plane. After a preflight, getting taxi clearance, and take-off clearance, I pushed the throttle forward and accelerated north towards lift off speed.

I think I have mentioned before that Paine Field is the highest point on the west side of the Puget Sound. At 600 and some odd feet, today it was above the fog that blanketed the water to the west and north. Lifting off the runway brought into view the tops of the fog bank that covered the water and reached up onto the shore. I climbed over the fog that was spread across Port Gardner Bay as I set my course north to the shoreline where the bay arced back out. About 8 miles from the airport I dropped back down and flew 500 feet above the fluffy white fog. To my left was a field of cotton white, and to my right the terrain pushed its way through, exposing coat of evergreen trees that covered the hills.

I continued north and veered inland to avoid the airspace controlled by Naval Air Station Whidbey, and found the Skagit River valley to follow further inland. The valley took me east to the town of Concrete. The airport at Concrete is aligned east-west with the valley, and is a nice place to introduce mountain flying. The valley floor is about 200 feet above sea-level and two miles to the south the hills begin their climb to 5000 feet. To the north a dam holds back Lake Shannon, which is bounded by more steep hills. To the east a mountain rises 5500 feet. It looks intimidating, but there is plenty of space to maneuver.

I over-flew the airport to determine the flow of the winds, spotted a small red biplane landing to the west, so I circled in behind it and landed. I hopped out of the plane and walked to the hangar where the biplane was now parking.

The biplane was decorated to resemble a World War I era fighter, including a mock machine gun mounted to the top wing. The owner was a kind elderly gentleman named Ward, who seemed to own 3 other older planes. Ward and I discussed his planes and he asked about mine. As we walked over to my plane he lit up. In his youth, he had flown a plane like mine out to Michigan and on to Ohio. Ward regaled me with his adventure as he and his flight instructor traveled to Ohio. At the end of the tale, I offered him a ride up the valley and he eagerly accepted.

We departed west into the wind, and soon turned back east and followed the Skagit River as it wrapped south around the mountain and then back east. I gave the controls to Ward, and at the junction of the Skagit and Sauk River we turned south again and followed the Suak towards Darrington, and split again as we encountered the Suattle River. There Ward turned the plane back towards the west and let me have the controls back.

The valley floor below had several open fields, yet the walls of the valley rise so abruptly that it seems you are able to both fly over smooth ground, while flying with one wingtip just feet away from the trees of the cliff face next to you as you guide the plane down the valley.

Back at the airport Ward and I parted, and I made a wonderful discovery. There at the Concrete Airport are three hangars chock-full of carefully restored aircraft on display. I wandered through the planes for about 30 minutes in awe that they were all sitting there to be admired.

I departed the airport for a second time that day, and headed back up the same canyon that Ward and I had just flown. This time with an eye for higher altitudes and maybe a glimpse as Lake Chelan and the Stehekin airstrip. I climbed through the valley and over ridges discovering the alpine lakes along the way. Alpine lakes are amazing. Nearly all are a vivid teal blue ringed by steep mountains and trees. The terrain is rugged, and intimidating. At regular intervals I planned my glide path back into the valleys if the engine fails. But it does not. Instead, it pulls me further into the mountains, over ridges, towards glaciers, and exposing new valleys below.

I love this part of the State. Rugged, harsh, unforgiving, and beautiful.

As I approached Dome Peak, the aroma of a forest fire was becoming more intense – even at 7,000 feet. There were no forest fire restrictions when I left, but I’d not want to wander into one that has come up since I last checked. So I set the GPS to guide me home, and head back toward Paine in a shallow descent. In less than 25 minutes, I’m back on the ground.