After a flying hiatus, I insist on flying with a more experienced pilot in the right seat. That usually comes down to Don Becker or Michael Phillips, both of whom well exceed 15,000 hours of pilot-in-command (PIC) time. They both have been instructing since I had hair on my head, and both have shepherded me through the privilege of seeing the earth from new heights.
So last week I ran an errand from my home airport in Santa Paula to San Jose, a 2-hour flight in my small airplane, but a 5-hour drive if I were to have chosen a more grounded route. The 2-hour flight to San Jose would allow me to run my errand and get back before sunset, which is when my home airport, sans landing lights, officially “closes”. Don was free that day, so we were locked in.
The flight up and the landing at Reid-Hillview went very well. On the return flight, however, I was tired, and decided to see how Don felt about taking the last 20 minutes, including the landing in Santa Paula, as PIC. As usual, he jumped at the chance, and with the standard “you have the controls” the exchange occurred.
There was a predicted, rather dense marine layer over the ocean that was working its way slowly toward the airport that would have made it impossible to land had it crept a few more miles inland, necessitating a diversion to Van Nuys, a long delay getting home and then having to pick the airplane up on another day. Santa Paula is too small to have its own automated weather reporting, and we were out of cell phone range to get a direct report from someone on the ground, so the only reliable way of finding out if the marine layer was over the airport was to fly there and check it ourselves. Due to the fact that the airport is nestled among mountain ranges, you can’t easily see it until you get up close and personal.
I recommended to Don that we approach Santa Paula from the east, where we knew it was clear, but Don was PIC and he suggested flying to the nearby Saticoy bridge, west of the airport, above the marine layer, and get a birds-eye view from there. We discussed it briefly, and I yielded to his 40 or so years of experience, which turned out to be a good call. As we approached the bridge, it became clear that the marine layer hadn’t yet reached Santa Paula, although a slight mist had crept in. That still left Don the challenge of descending from our original altitude of 7500 feet to the pattern altitude of 850 feet in short space.
There are lots of ways to descend rapidly, and Don chose the method that arguably might be construed as the safest. He cut the engine to idle and flew to the airport just above the wing’s stall speed. This made it easy to get a good view of anything or anyone that might be flying in the neighborhood, and also allowed them to get a good view of us.
Like most pilots I know, I’m a fan of speed and like to get places as quickly as I can. Although I practice slow flight occasionally, it’s not one of my favorite things to do. Idling either the airplane’s engine or my own has always been a challenge, and life just above stall speed is something I admire but just can’t sidle up to. My heart rate has always been about 10 beats per minute over the average male’s, and perhaps beneath it all I am afraid that the closer I get to idling the more likely it will be that the engine will give out altogether.
The experience of a 15,000-hour pilot flying with the engine at idle was, to use one of Don’s favorite words, “awesome.” The Diamond’s long wings and glider heritage is the perfect platform; she floats rather gracefully and sweetly through the sky, and with the engine at idle and full flaps, flying becomes much quieter.
Slow flight is surely a skill more than a talent, although the sheer beauty of it, especially the coordinated turns and feathery approach to the asphalt, make it appear to be the work of an artist. In life as well, slow flight is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to my rather nervous system, but one that I struggle to master. Couch time in front of my treasured big screen TV and Masterpiece Theater or its equivalent is helpful, but inevitably feels like “wasted” time. Meditation is always good, but there’s bills to pay and phone calls to return. Reading is good, but there’s only so long one can sit still.
Slowly descending through the mist as the sun sets behind you, looking down at cars scurrying through traffic on the freeway below—these are the numinous voyages that comprise a life that is well-lived.