Ah, the New Year: bad hangovers and worse resolutions. Ideally, if you suffered the one, you haven’t vowed to eliminate the source of the other. Pain fades and hangar flying sessions are always fueled by adult beverages. Why add the guilt of breaking a resolution you can’t keep to your already overburdened psyche.
For pilots, New Year’s resolutions should include fun things – not things that you want to eliminate, reduce or suppress. “What fun things?” you ask. Well, hell, that’s the point of this post, isn’t it?
Achieving new ratings or certificates is always fun. Okay, a new rating or certificate involves time, money and effort – which some may see as the antithesis of fun – but we’re pilots; we love challenges, and time, money and effort are our favorite buzz words.
Isn’t it about time for that instrument rating you’ve been saying you were going to get since before dirt? Instrument flying is precision and requires a laser-like focus. The initial training can be boring and repetitive because, as you might remember from your primary training, it requires new habits and interpretive skills. Trying to keep those flight instruments aligned and behaving sometimes seems as difficult as a one-eyed cat watching six mouse holes – but, lordy, it’s rewarding. And, once you’ve succeeded and actually have to use those hard-won skills, the reward of finding the runway in front of you as you emerge from a cloud is indescribable.
Okay, here’s one near to my heart. Get your tail wheel endorsement. Sure, it requires skills that you never really developed in your primary training. I mean, really, did you ever fully understand crosswind landing techniques? But learning what your feet are for in an airplane will make you a far better and far more confident and competent pilot than the great unwashed group of tricycle gear folk. Tail wheel training teaches you that you will always and forevermore land with the longitudinal axis of the airplane pointed straight down the runway. It teaches you about that fickle witch, the WIND, which always toys with pilots. Once you learn about wind and how to deal with the witch (should always be spelled with a “b”), you will become a far more capable pilot – and isn’t that a goal for all of us.
An easier, and far less expensive, choice would be getting a high performance endorsement, or, its more expensive and time-consuming big brother, a complex endorsement. High performance airplanes have more than 200 hp. Complex airplanes have constant speed props, landing gear and flaps. Flying a high performance airplane comes with some ego gratification – the thrill of firing up an engine that sounds like an airplane engine should: meaty. The rumble from a 235 hp 182, the throb of a 300 hp Cherokee Six, strikes deep in our innards. It’s probably more of a “guy thing” – kind-a like the kick we get from our first muscle car. The check out is usually fairly simple and the kick derived from flying faster, heavier equipment is always worth the price.
The complex check out involves a whole lot more time and expense – our insurance companies demand it. You’ve heard the phrase, “There are those who have landed gear up; and those who will.” Well, it’s almost true. Thus far, knock wood (I’m rapping my head as I write this), I’ve yet to join the “those who have” group and hoping never to join the “those who will” huddle. Forgetting to extend the landing gear before coming into contact with the ground happens all too frequently and that’s why retractable gear airplanes have such bloody expensive insurance premiums. Along with remembering to ALWAYS lower the gear, the training involves understanding the inner workings of all the systems in the airplane, especially those involving the landing gear. It also involves lowering the gear manually when the system forgets how to do it. But the extra four or five knots you get from gear that retracts is a lotta fun, and, when you have someone sitting next to you, you can always play Captain and say, “Gear down,” in your best “Captain’s” voice. It almost makes you feel like you’re flying heavy iron. (If that someone sitting next to you is a significant other, you might wanna include the word, “Please” when you shout your Captain’s command. Else you may be landing gear up – or sleeping out back.)
Other fun flying New Year resolutions could include cross country flight to difficult airports. Here under SoCal Skies, we’ve got great destinations that require a bit of skill and, ideally, a training opportunity. Flying to BigBearAirport in the mountains east of LA is a real challenge for the inexperienced and having a flight instructor along on your first trip is a REALLY GOOD IDEA. Big Bear sits at 6752 feet above sea level in a wind tunnel of a valley with mountains north, west and south. Flying there in the winter often involves cold air – something with which we Southern Californians are unacquainted. Flying there in the summer involves serious density altitude considerations – not to say that density altitude is ever not a consideration flying to mountain airports.
Catalina is always calling Southern Californians and flying there is always better than puking for three hours on a rocking, rolling boat. Its “Airport in the Sky” sits atop a hill with drop offs on either end and a wind that usually comes in straight from the ocean, straight up the west slope, straight along the runway, and straight down the east slope – so you almost always have a nice bit of sink at the approach end. Sometimes the marine layer can cheat in quickly and, after enjoying your buffalo burger, you may emerge from the restaurant to find that you’re socked in. Another interesting facet of Catalina is that the runway slopes uphill to the southwest, crests, then slopes downhill for the last 900 feet or so. So, just as you start your flare, it seems like the end of the runway – and it’s serious drop-off – just got a thousand feet closer. As you taxi off the runway, take a look at all the serious tire skid marks left on the runway by pilots who thought they were running out of runway.
Desert borders us to the east in SoCal and desert flying might be a whole lot more fun if you take an instructor along on your first trip. Palm Springs can be bizzy. Thermal, er, sorry, Jacqueline Cochrane Regional Airport, is more relaxed. Chiriaco Summit was built in the 40’s to accommodate the training of George Patton’s North Africa invasion forces and the Patton Museum nearby is worth a visit. Agua Caliente is another desert location with terrain on three sides including a mountain at the departure end of the westerly runway. Desert locations involve wind that usually comes up in the afternoon and can become quite fickle and challenging. Heat is always an issue in summertime.
So, Mr. or Ms. Pilot, what resolutions will you make as the New Year unfolds? Make them interesting ones. Engage your inner-student and plan resolutions that will pay dividends for the rest of your flying career. They may be the best resolutions you’ve ever made – and the ones you’re most likely to keep.