Category Archives: Aviation

Objects On Earth Are Closer Than They Appear

“We all live beneath the great Big Dipper.”

So goes a line in a song I once heard the great Tony Brown sing. As I near the completion of my private pilot’s training, I’ve had more and more opportunities to literally see the wisdom in those words. Here’s a story of one of them.

Night

“A shining beacon in space — all alone in the night.”

– Babylon 5

A night cross-country flight, my first, taking off from a country airport. The plane lifts into the dark sky. The bright white lights of the runway get smaller, and disappear as I pass the edge of the airport. Directly below me, it looks like a dark sky; pitch black except for little pinpoints of light at farmhouses and the occasional car. But seconds later, an expanse of light unfolds, from a city it takes nearly an hour to reach by car. Already it is in sight, and as I look off to other directions, other cities even farther away are visible, too. The ground shows a square grid, the streets of the city visible for miles.

There are no highway signs in the sky. There are no wheels to keep my plane pointed straight. Even if I point the plane due south, if there is an east wind, I will actually be flying southwest. I use my eyes, enhanced by technology like a compass, GPS, and VHF radio beacons, to find my way. Before ever getting into the airplane, I have carefully planned my route, selecting both visual and technological waypoints along the way to provide many ways to ensure I am on course and make sure I don’t get lost.

Soon I see a flash repeating every few seconds in the distance — an airport beacon. Then another, and another. Little pinpoints of light nestled in the square orange grid. Wichita has many airports, each with its beacon, and one of them will be my first visual checkpoint of the night. I make a few clicks in the cockpit, and soon the radio-controlled lights at one of the airports spring to life, illuminating my first checkpoint. More than a mile of white lights there to welcome any plane that lands, and to show a point on the path of any plane that passes.

I continue my flight, sometimes turning on lights at airports, other times pointing my plane at lights from antenna towers (that are thousands of feet below me), sometimes keeping a tiny needle on my panel centered on a radio beacon. I land at a tiny, deserted airport, and then a few minutes later at a large commercial airport.

On my way back home, I fly solely by reference to the ground — directly over a freeway. I have other tools at my disposal, but don’t need them; the steady stream of red and white lights beneath me are all I need.

From my plane, there is just red and white. One after another, passing beneath me as I fly over them at 115 MPH. There is no citizen or undocumented immigrant, no rich or poor, no atheist or Christian or Muslim, no Democrat or Replubican, no American or Mexican, no adult or child, no rich or poor, no Porsche or Kia. Just red and white points of light, each one the same as the one before and the one after, stretching as far as I can see into the distance. All alike in the night.

You only need to get a hundred feet off the ground before you realize how little state lines, national borders, and the machinery of politics and exclusion really mean. From the sky, the difference between a field of corn and a field of wheat is far more significant than the difference between Kansas and Missouri.

This should be a comforting reminder to us. We are all unique, and beautiful in our uniqueness, but we are all human, each as valuable as the next.

Up in the sky, even though my instructor was with me, during quiet times it is easy to feel all alone in the night. But I know it is not the case. Only a few thousand feet separate my plane from those cars. My plane, too, has red and white lights.

How often at night, when the heavens were bright,
With the light of the twinkling stars
Have I stood here amazed, and asked as I gazed,
If their glory exceed that of ours.

– John A. Lomax

The Time Machine of Durango

“The airplane may be the closest thing we have to a time machine.”

– Brian J. Terwilliger

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There is something about that moment. Hiking in the mountains near Durango, Colorado, with Laura and the boys, we found a beautiful spot with a view of the valley. We paused to admire, and then –

The sound of a steam locomotive whistle from down below, sounding loud all the way up there, then echoing back and forth through the valley. Then the quieter, seemingly more distant sound of the steam engine heading across the valley, chugging and clacking as it goes. More whistles, the sight of smoke and then of the train full of people, looking like a beautiful model train from our vantage point.

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I’ve heard that sound on a few rare recordings, but never experienced it. I’ve been on steam trains a few times, but never spent time in a town where they still run all day, every day. It is a different sort of feeling to spend a week in a place where Jacob and Oliver would jump up several times a day and rush to the nearest window in an attempt to catch sight of the train.

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Airplanes really can be a time machine in a sense — what a wondrous time to be alive, when things so ancient are within the reach of so many. I have been transported to L├╝beck and felt the uneven 700-year-old stones of the Marienkirche underneath my feet, feeling a connection to the people that walked those floors for centuries. I felt the same in Prague, in St. George’s Basilica, built in 1142, and at the Acropolis of Lindos, with its ancient Greek temple ruins. In Kansas, I feel that when in the middle of the Flint Hills — rolling green hills underneath the pure blue sky with billowing white clouds, the sounds of crickets, frogs, and cicadas in my ears; the sights and sounds are pretty much as they’ve been for tens of thousands of years. And, of course, in Durango, arriving on a plane but seeing the steam train a few minutes later.

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It was fitting that we were in Durango with Laura’s parents to celebrate their 50th anniversary. As we looked forward to riding the train, we heard their stories of visits to Durango years ago, of their memories of days when steam trains were common. We enjoyed thinking about what our lives would be like should we live long enough to celebrate 50 years of marriage. Perhaps we would still be in good enough health to be able to ride a steam train in Durango, telling about that time when we rode the train, which by then will have been pretty much the same for 183 years. Or perhaps we would take them to our creek, enjoying a meal at the campfire like I’ve done since I was a child.

Each time has its unique character. I am grateful for the cameras and airplanes and air conditioning we have today. But I am also thankful for those things that connect us with each other trough time, those rocks that are the same every year, those places that remind us how close we really are to those that came before.

True Things About Learning to Fly

I’ve been pretty quiet for the last few months because I’m learning to fly. I want to start with a few quotes about aviation. I have heard things like these from many people and can vouch for their accuracy:

Anyone can learn to fly.

Learning to fly is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do.

It is totally worth it. Being a pilot will give you a new outlook on life.

You’ll be amazed at what radios do a 3000ft. Have you ever had an 3000-foot antenna tower?

The world is glorious at 1000ft up.

Share your enthusiasm with those around you. You have a perspective very few ever see, except for a few seconds on the way to 35,000ft.

Earlier this month, I flew solo for the first time — the biggest milestone on the way to getting the pilot’s license. Here’s a photo my flight instructor took as I was coming in to land that day.

landing

Today I took my first flight to another airport. It wasn’t far — about 20 miles away — but it was still a thrill. I flew about 1500ft above the ground, roughly above a freeway that happened to be my route. From that height, things still look three-dimensional. The grain elevator that marked out the one small town, the manufacturing plant at another, the college at the third. Bales of hay dotting the fields, the occasional tractor creeping along a road, churches sticking up above the trees. These are places I’ve known for decades, and now, suddenly, they are all new.

What a time to be alive! I am glad that our world is still so full of wonder and beauty.

Today I FLEW A PLANE

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“For once you have tasted flight,
You will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward;
For there you have been,
And there you long to return.”

– Leonardo da Vinci

There is something of a magic to flight, to piloting. I remember the first flight I ever took, after years of dreaming of flying in a plane: my grandma had bought me a plane ticket. In one of the early morning flights, I witnessed a sunrise above cumulus clouds. Although I was just 10 or so at the time, that still is a most beautiful image seared into my memory.

I have become “meh” about commercial flight over the years. The drive to the airport, the security lines, the lack of scenery at 35,000 feet. And yet, there is much more to flight than that. When I purchased what was essentially a flying camera, I saw a whole new dimension of the earth’s amazing beauty. All the photos in this post, in fact, are ones I took. I then got a RC airplane, because flying the quadcopter was really way too easy.

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“It’s wonderful to climb the liquid mountains of the sky.
Behind me and before me is God, and I have no fears.”

– Helen Keller

Start talking to pilots, and you notice a remarkable thing: this group of people that tends to be cool and logical, methodical and precise, suddenly finds themselves using language almost spiritual. Many have told me that being a pilot brings home how much all humans have in common, the unifying fact of sharing this beautiful planet together. Many volunteer with organizations such as Angel Flight. And having been up in small planes a few times, I start to glimpse this. Flying over my home at 1000′ up, or from lake to lake in Seattle with a better view than the Space Needle, seeing places familiar and new, but from a new perspective, drives home again and again the beauty of our world, the sheer goodness of it, and the wonderful color of the humanity that inhabits it.

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“The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious.

And why shouldn’t it be?

It is the same the angels breathe.”

– Mark Twain

The view from 1000 feet, or 3000, is often so much more spectacular than the view from 35,000 ft as you get on a commercial flight. The flexibility is too; there are airports all over the country that smaller planes can use which the airlines never touch.

Here is one incredible video from a guy that is slightly crazy but does ground-skimming, flying just a few feet off the ground: (try skipping to 9:36)

So what comes next is something I blame slightly on my dad and younger brother. My dad helped get me interested in photography as a child, and that interest has stuck. It’s what caused me to get into quadcopters (“a flying camera for less than the price of a nice lens!”). And my younger brother started mentioning airplanes to me last year for some reason, as if he was just trying to get me interested. Eventually, it worked. I started talking to the pilots I know (I know quite a few; there seems to be a substantial overlap between amateur radio and pilots). I started researching planes, flight, and especially safety — the most important factor.

And eventually I decided I wanted to be a pilot. I’ve been studying feverishly, carrying around textbooks and notebooks in the car, around the house, and even on a plane. There is a lot to learn.

And today, I took my first flight with a flight instructor. Today I actually flew a plane for awhile. Wow! There is nothing quite like that experience. Seeing a part of the world I am familiar with from a new perspective, and then actually controlling this amazing machine — I really fail to find the words to describe it. I have put in many hours of study already, and there will be many more studying and flying, but it is absolutely worth it.

Here is one final video about one of the most unique places you can fly to in Kansas.

And a blog with lots of photos of a flight to Beaumont called “Horse on the runway”.