There is a decided difference between here and there. There, was all about the mission. The preparation and scripted routes of flight; so defined that you felt somewhat guilty just making a turn around something of interest. An odd thing since in the Balkans you really had nothing else to do during the day but fly and your real limitation was the amount of fuel in the bag behind you.
There was a sense of need to stick to the magenta line and fly the route. On the ABL, the Administrative Boundary Line, that divides the Province of Kosovo from its parent country, Serbia, navigation is more problematic and necessitates close adherence to that line. The ABL would seem to have been drawn by a heavily caffeinated cartographer on an amphetamine binge. It has nary a straight segment longer than a few hundred meters; which at cruise speed in a Blackhawk equates to perhaps a second or two of time. It is very easy to cross that line and in the process violate the operations mandate for peacekeeping forces in the Province.
The import in reality is a conversation between the NATO peacekeeping representatives and their Serbian counterparts and an analysis of ‘why’ the ABL was violated, but beyond that nothing much happens. Everybody knows that and if not crossed too often it is understood that in the true spirit of the confusion of the Balkans, occasionally people will stray over that line.
The decided impression a flyer gets in the Balkans is one of the distinct lack of aviation. Military aircraft are not so much flying machines as they are weapons or sensor platforms that operate in three dimensions. There is little ‘fun’ flying in military aviation because every mission is scripted for a specific purpose. People will ask me what it is like to fly a Blackhawk or an Apache and I always tell them that it is not as fun as flying a Kiowa. Kiowa’s exist really for one purpose and that is to ‘look around’ so for a civilian flyer who likes to look around it is really the only choice.
Imagine for a year, the only opportunity that I had to look around was during the every-other-month flight around the province in a -58. In that time I saw other traffic consisting of; two A-320s on approach to Pristina Airport, four 737s doing the same, one UN White Mi-8, five German UH-1s, four Italian UH-1s, eight Norwegian Air Force Bell 412s, a Flight check King Air 200, a Cessna Skymaster and five Swiss Super Pumas. That is it. I could go to Chicago and in an hour of flying see twice that number of airborne aircraft.
One of the parts of flying that is the most fun is knowing that you share the sky with other aviators. I have a particularly fond memory of the view I had from 3000 feet above a Dash-8 emerging from the clouds and slipping past the wing on my side of the Rockwell 690 I was flying at the time. We were between layers and for a few minutes we had heard the conversations between PIT approach and the -8. There was something very magical about suddenly seeing this airplane drift out of the clouds below and slowly move below us. We were not alone at all but in the clouds you would easily imagine that there were only two airplanes in the world.
The last flight I made out of the now extinct Meigs Field had me flying that same 690 out across the foggy expanse of Lake Michigan. I turned away from the instruments as I listened to the conversation between a Sabena Airbus and Departure. At that moment Departure advised us of traffic and slowely the large white machine materialized above us. It was a serene vision; two vessels plying the same air. I would imagine that mariners experience the same thing as they meet another ship after days of crossing the open ocean. It is the nature of the medium in which we work and it is truly one of the pleasures of flying.
So it was with this sense of nostalgia, the memory of such encounters very distant after a long time away from anything resembling commercial aviation, that I finished the walk-around of the PA-28 Archer sitting on the ramp at KUNI.
The Archer is a fine airplane. Fast in cruise with efficient fuel consumption. If it had two doors up front I would love to own one, but lacking two doors and a view below the wing, I will stick with Miss Pretty Pretty. Unfortunately MPP is still in annual and so my options for using her are not very promising. The Archer would do.
I started the same BFR some two weeks before with an oral review that ended because of weather. So it was time to finish the flying portion.
There used to be a time when I dreaded BFRs. Wanting to ‘know’ EVERYTHING and knowing that I never could I felt like I was being forced to confront my pride every time sat down and started reviewing the arcane aspects of airspace. I have long since accepted that I have a lot left to learn about aviation and always will have so the BFR is now an opportunity to fine tune the areas that I need to focus on more closely. “I do not know” is always an acceptable answer because it is always replied too with the information requested. That phrase has become my personal favorite.
I would make a mention of the fact that one of the reasons that I like to file and fly IFR is because airspace has always been a place where I just can’t keep things straight. IFR flying eliminates a lot of that confusion for me and simplifies everything. My space limited brain housing group likes the idea of having to know only one thing about airspace; stick to your clearance. It makes it a lot easier than 500 above 1000 below 2000 lateral…or was that 1 mile and clear of clouds, 3 miles…? See I can’t keep it straight but in the IFR environment I don’t have too. Well not most of the time.
Lest you think that I can bask in utter ignorance understand that I am actively engaged in finishing my instructor ratings so I doubt that the FSDO will accept my excuse that, “IFR handles that for you.”. UHGGG! I did make it through the oral review just fine as well. ;)
Like that feeling I described above of meeting another aircraft in the clouds or seeing it fly along on a similar track there is also the specifically unique experience of pre-flighting in the early morning, the air crisp and the skies clear and nary another person in sight. My favorite trips are always those launched at 5am, before sunrise. Walking around with a flashlight and experiencing the sunrise as the rest of the aviation world awakens and the radio becomes more active is really a magical thing that far too few people get to experience.
The Archer started with protest. More priming than I anticipated and a part of me wondered if that might have been an omen. I reminded my instructor that I had not flown a small airplane in a very long time. He replied that the Archer was always hard to start and would require a couple shots of prime as it was being cranked. The trick worked and presently the avionics were coming up and the GPS aligning.
The checklist was a ‘Checkmate’ card which I prefer because of its simplicity and ease of use. The reality is that unless the airplane has a constant speed prop and a gear lever it likely works the same way as every other single engine airplane with similar power and avionics. The exception with Pipers being that they have mysteriously hidden alternate static source controls and they prefer throttle levers over vernier controls (older models excepted). You also have to remember that they include fuel selectors that do not allow for a common feed setting like Cessnas and they have an electric fuel pump because gravity won’t work uphill.
After a while airplanes become airplanes and you just adjust your speed to account for greater complexity. In the Cub you can sort of clip along and be airborne in a matter of minutes. In MPP it takes a good 15 minutes to preflight and get the engine started. A King Air will be 20-30 minutes of walk around and start procedures. In the case of the Archer I was in no great hurry. I was eager to fly and spending a few more minutes warming up was perfectly fine to me because it was that much longer in the presence of the sounds and sensations that I spend a large chunk of my life pursuing.
We departed and headed for the practice area. Admittedly my Chandelle’s were sloppy but after a few they were beginning to gel again. The fact is that you don’t often do Chandelle’s in reality. They are a good demonstration of control coordination and airmanship but they have little application to reality. We ‘walked’ rudders and did slow speed flight and steep turns. The striking thing to me about all of the maneuvers was that it was not intimidating in any way. I have reached a point in flying where it was truly educational and my questions were of the variety, “How would you execute this differently or where are the weaknesses.” I knew how to do them all, and most of them were done with greater precision than I expected after so long away from airplanes. Smooth morning air does wonders for air work.
A practice engine failure yielded a consideration of a movie theater parking lot and a plowed field with the deciding factor going to the field due to length and absence of power lines and a further consideration of what it would mean at night when you could analyze neither. An entire thread could be considered related to single engine night flying over mountainous terrain but I think the point is clear.
I briefly deviated and pulled in some flaps, dropped down a couple thousand feet and flew the length of the field just to check it out from a closer perspective. After the helicopters this is instinctive but my instructor was a bit more comfortable higher up so I yielded to his request to climb and we returned to the arena of instruments.
Now I wish that I could say that I flew a good approach but frankly I did not. The request was to track the NDB and then enter and hold north of the NDB. In spite of the moving map GPS I was sloppy. Not sloppy enough to cause a problem or get into dangerous airspace but sloppy enough to grind at my desire to be precise and fly right over the top of the marker. We held and I adjusted for wind. Having no plate I followed the instructions, chased the localizer, flew the glide-slope too high and then completed a reasonably decent landing. The mulligan I take on this is that flying an approach without a plate to review is not a very common thing and not having altitudes in my face and knowing where a glide-slope intercept should be makes the approach that much more difficult. I got the plane safely on the ground and that is the point.
We taxied back and my logbook was endorsed. Arrangements were made to continue with the next step of instructor training. The bill was paid and I was on my way home.
I considered what I had just completed and that while the world was waking I had already been high above, climbing, turning, stalling, gliding and tracking (or tracking poorly) a localizer. Most people when they hear of such things cannot fathom that people actually do what I did as a matter of routine.
I drove home and a few hours later a friend that I was consulting for landed his Hughes 500 in the field across from my office and came in to chat. For a year I have been surrounded by helicopters of all stripes and the air was constantly filled with the sounds of turbines. For a “little bird” to land by my office is nothing new. I was watching the helicopter til it shut down and my friend got out. We started walking toward my office and one of the many people watching (a fairly ‘large’ small crowd had gathered at the hearing of such an odd sound) said, “Man Todd, I suppose now that you are home this is going to happen a lot more.”
I replied that I doubted it since I didn’t want to offend neighbors with noise.
“Well this is pretty exciting for all of us here.”
I casually replied that it was just a way to get to work and nothing special.
The same person smiled and said, “Well, for the rest of us it is really special.”
You know what? She is right. It IS really special and I am very glad to finally be back to a ‘normal’ where the first aircraft a kid sees is not an armed attack helicopter and a ‘chopper’ inspires wonder instead of fear.