The Hotel California… In Phoenix?

Though the past month has had none of the debauchery found in the Eagles song, I am certainly living the line “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” On no less than six occasions, I’ve taken my keys to the front desk, heaved my bags into an Uber and set off in the morning thinking I’d seen the last of the Grand Canyon state. The first was a glorious week in Utah, and the last was a reassignment to California that was over in the time it took to get there.

Coming back from a week of routine maintenance, the word from on high was, “Finish up the two easy plans in Phoenix, then relocate to SoCal for reflys.”

So I did. For once, I was only a minor inconvenience to the fine controllers at Phoenix TRACON, who I’d been bothering daily to carve out an hour of access to the project. The automotive equivalent: running back and forth on the busiest downtown exit while semi-trucks, buses and Lamborghinis  buzzed by, giving your hair a tousle each time. These plans though, were out of the way enough that ATC wasn’t even required to call out the jets passing over and along side.

A few hours on station one afternoon wrapped it up, and the next morning I set off for an interstate adventure, Lana Del Rey (sorry, not sorry) cooing in my headset.

wind turbines under a mountain pass
The smoggy LA basin is anything but photogenic, so here’s Banning Pass.

Though the headwind stretched out the journey, the bumps didn’t reach my 8500 ft cruise altitude, and the moody autopilot decided to show up to work that day. Too soon, the travel was over and the work began. Clouds and smog obscured half the target area, so I wandered about seeking a slice of project that was free of clouds or air too dirty to see through.

With all but two lines complete, I landed for fuel in Riverside, and was surprised to run into some fellow contractors. I was warming up my gear for a second run when another Aztec pulled alongside and called over the disused radio frequency adopted by imaging pilots, “Who’s that in 43Y?” I let him know the new guy was in town, and we talked about meeting after the quick shoot that would wrap up the work my rig was capable of here. Behold though, as I was blasting through the last line, new orders arrived: Back to Phoenix. So much for meeting the legendary pilot known to friends as “Big Country”.

So here I am, working 3 hours a day, devouring Murakami and Hemingway at the Drury Inn, where you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. Hey, I’m not complaining.

A New Chariot

I’m in Salt Lake City now, having officially been assigned the  Piper Aztec. Flew over the grand canyon on my way from Arizona, landed to fuel up and cool the right engine, then popped up for some surveying near Park City. Today, the weather was forecast to be a bit windy, but perfectly VFR. I hopped up to 13000 feet with my oxygen cannula on and got kicked around by the 45 kt winds blowing over the mountains. There’s a limit to how fast we can be going while taking the pictures, so I was dragging around at 85 KIAS on the downwind photo lines using the landing gear as a brake since you can’t pull the engines too far back. Wind moving over mountains that fast creates some interesting dynamics, so constant jabs of rudder and power adjustments were required to meet the very strict tolerances for the survey work. I was truly earning my fee.

After shooting for a while, I pulled out of the mountains to see if there was another area of the project where the winds would be at my side instead of my back, which would make things substantially easier. It was fortunate that I took this little reprieve, because it allowed me to notice that an unforecast fog bank that was heading towards the airport I was basing at, moving at 30 mph.

I dove for the ground at the top of the green arc, trapped in the small wedge of open airspace between the mountains and the Salt Lake Class Bravo. Once low enough to duck under the shelf, I cranked over and zipped for the airport, arriving on the base leg only a minute ahead of the fog. The next challenge: the winds. Stronger and in a different direction than forecast, I would have to bring 5000 lbs of antique airplane to the earth while the wind gusted to 35 knots at a 40 degree angle to the runway. Did I mention this is my second day flying multi engine planes solo?

Airplanes on a cloudy day
Things cleared up to “Marginal VFR” pretty quickly, but I was glad I got down before the soup arrived.

Fortunately, my experience whisking the venerable Scarlett into the oft windy and tree covered airport back home served me well. Each wheel kissed the runway in succession, in the proper order for a right crosswind, and I guided her off the runway and parked. Before I could shut the engines down, the weather rolled over, leaving me unable to see one side of the airport from the other.

Exciting as the day was, there was never any need for concern. The plane had 5 more hours of fuel and a full suite of instruments for flying in the clouds. Though I have little experience in this type of plane, I’m quite adjusted to gusty crosswinds and never hesitate to abort a landing if it’s not clearly within my abilities. There were several airports with lovely weather at hand to the south that would have served if I couldn’t comfortably get down in time. Of course, sharing that makes the story a little less dramatic, but I wouldn’t want anyone thinking of me as a flying cowboy, would I?

Back to School

daytona international speedwayWell, I made it.

Pretty easily, considering there was supposed to be a hurricane bearing down on the airport I was connecting at. As always though, nature was fickle and the hurricane veered north, allowing me to arrive only 10 minutes later than originally scheduled. Lunch at the connection with the two other new hires on my flight was pleasant, and we spent the time between bites of perfectly-acceptable airport food discussing the regional airlines we hoped to be at and sharing the odd “war story” of our time in training.

The positive first impressions continued with our pickup at the airport. Brian, one of the lead pilots, arrived and was charismatic and affable as he whisked us to the motel. After some time to settle in and verify that the WiFi was indeed operative we rode down the street for a meal. The venerable Chicken Club was, as ever, a good choice. There were smiles all around the table and the atmosphere was electric. Each of us was there because they wanted to be, and the eyes of every pilot at the table were alight with visions of the year to come.

We spent the dinner peppering the three folks from management with questions: When will we ship out? How do you choose who gets the twin engine airplanes? What’s the best hotel rewards card?

This is where things began to get interesting. It was remarkable to hear the varied priorities around the table. Some were delving deep into how best to shave nanometers off each penny, while others worried mostly about ways to maximize their flight hours. Each of us though, had a magic number. This is the number of flight hours required to transition to the airlines. Mine is 1500. If I can have 1500 hours in my logbook at the end of the year, and I haven’t missed any loan payments, I’ll be happy man.

Before racking up any hours though, we have to train. Our first day was spent in the classroom, learning company procedures and some “classified” details about the imaging system we’d be using. Museum Interior

The venue: The Museum of Arts and Sciences. Rather than being cooped up in the side room in a office building for the 11 hours of training that day, the company sprung for this inviting environment, nicely appointed.

As the day went on, my excitement would only grow. Learning about the company and their expectations of us was a huge relief – we are expected to work hard, but are rewarded for it and never asked to compromise safety. While that may seem like a given, entry level pilot jobs are infamous for their disregard for the well being of the new aviators as they “pay their dues”.

All told, I can safely say this will be a good year.

Packing Up and Heading Out

Aerial photo of seaside village
The definition of “Small Town”

Most of us have a home, and mine has almost always been Langley, Washington. This preposterously charming seaside town is home to the coffee shops, bookstores and majestic natural views that have lit my life when I haven’t been busy earning money or spending it on airplanes.

For all its charm, it does have a few downsides – it’s expensive and time consuming to get to the city, and an irrationally passionate distaste for noise and merriment mean there is precious little going on after 6pm. Inevitably though, the combination of a satisfying job, cheap rent, and some pretty excellent cycling territory always put those thoughts to bed at an early hour. Suddenly though, as the prospect of leaving Langley and the island it sits on began to become real, the charms of my village home began to pop as though an emotional instagram filter had been applied to my life. The newly applied contrast made clear not only the visual blessings of being surrounded by whales, water and two magnificent mountain ranges, but just how incredible the people that fill my life are.

Motorcycle in front of airplane
My other car is an airplane and my other airplane is a motorcycle.

Now, I’m staring down the barrel of a dream come true – a year on the road, flying every day. For a year, no more popping in to Music for the Eyes each Saturday to talk flying with Fred. No more ripping into town on my motorcycle after work for an espresso and Perrier at Useless Bay Coffee Company. Goodbye to the privilege of serving on the board for our beautiful arts center and the Langley Main Street Association. Caution in choosing what you wish for is merited not for fear of getting it, but rather for what might have to be sacrificed in exchange.

That aside, I know this: this next year will be something to remember and cherish. I’ve been blessed with the chance to earn my living doing something I am good at and passionate about. I’m doing it in a time where I can stay connected to the many people back home I care about. Through this site, I hope to stay connected with all my old friends, and perhaps some new ones I make along the journey.

Fly Safe,