Up in the Air Again, and Down

Another entry in the Mad Jubilado series.

I had not flown in almost four years. I recalled retired folks telling me that when I retire I would find myself with too much to do. I didn’t pay much attention. Not having to work sounded like not having much to do at all. Well, they were right. It’s hard to find time to do everything you want to do if you are interested in everything and have the time to choose more than time allows.

You Can’t Do Everything, but You can Try

I’ have nearly completed final revisions for my book, “At the Edge of Illusion.” Writing does take a lot of time. I had enjoyed the time I spent writing a blog, Diary of a Mad Jubilado, on aparallelworld.org, a site designed by Alan Hoffman to bring together environmentally conscientious consumers with vendors of products with small carbon footprints. The site went down after bots and trolls destroyed its fundraising efforts. The techs thought the bots and trolls were Russian. Who knows?

Solar.Wind_ShutterstockWorking with GotSol to bring greater awareness and adoption of renewable energy in New Mexico took a lot of time too; it was personally satisfying work. We established the annual “Renewable Energy Day” at the state capitol. Woodworking takes as much time as you put into it. So does flying. After a couple of cataract surgeries, travel to Scotland, Alaska, and Mexico, and the financial drain they caused, I found I was not flying much. Oh, I’d stopped altogether!

Up in the Air Again

After my flying hiatus,  I completed the annual inspection required by the FAA for all non-commercial aircraft (commercial aircraft must be inspected every 100 hours of flight). I was shocked to realize that it had been four years since I had flown. Flying had been a passion of mine my whole life; how could I have let so much time pass without it? Mad Jubilados can get very busy…and broke, very easily. Flying ain’t cheap.

All pilots must complete a Biennial Flight Review every two years with an FAA authorized examiner. who enters an endorsement in the pilot’s logbook if demonstrated skills in the air are satisfactory. In an hour and a half or so, he signed me off, authorizing me to fly. I did so for several days straight, practicing “slow flight” (the configuration used in approaches to landing), power-on and power-off stalls, and of course, takeoffs and landings. As they say, “Every landing you walk away from is a good one.” My standards are higher than that. With consistent practice, my skills improved rapidly. I felt good.

Down Again, by Diversion

However, I was getting intermittent erratic readings on the fuel pressure indicator. Sometimes, on starting the engine, it would surge into the ‘red,’ as high as 50 psi (normal is 25 or 26), but it usually returned to the normal range. Sometimes it would surge during normal flight. I checked with my mechanic, who had no answer.

Two more flights and the ‘anomaly’ did not reappear. The next day, we packed up and began our flight to a small airstrip in the Gila National Forest for a weekend of “airplane camping” in the beautiful mountain wilderness of southern New Mexico with a dozen or so members of the New Mexico Pilots Association, their families and friends.

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TCS from the air

Within a few miles of our remote destination, I made an abrupt left turn, direct to Truth or Consequences, NM, Municipal Airport, TCS, where I made the emergency landing. The indicated fuel pressure had risen to over 100 psi. I believed that the reading was due to a defective sensor, but in mission-critical situations certainty is a necessity. Maybe the fuel pump was over-pressuring the lines. A blown fuel line in the engine compartment would have produced a fiery end to more than one flight. That was certain.

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The Answer was mounted on the Firewall.

The ‘inadvertent adventure’ continued after a safe landing at TCS, the nearest airport when I determined that an immediate landing was necessary. Finding a mechanic at this small-town airport was not easy, and was followed by several days of technical and organizational struggles, punctuated by a little recreation.

The complexity of resolving logistical problems of parts acquisition in a remote location became very apparent and required a lot of waiting time. I began to think of the relationship of “get-there-itis” to not only aviation safety but to the headlong rush of industrial society to the modernist dream of a utopian destiny fueled by impossibly endless economic growth, a future that will surely disappear in flames before we ever get there.

Craftsmanship, Flying and Boredom

Craftsmanship is the opposite of boredom.  One does not usually think of digging a ditch as a matter of craftsmanship. But when I dug that ditch at age 15 as precisely as possible to avoid boredom, I had no idea that I was becoming ‘craftsman-like,’ but I was. If you do anything with craftsmanship, striving to do it well is a positive experience. Doing something well is not the same as being a “perfectionist,” which is simply taking precision beyond reason, into compulsion. We all know from high school geometry that a perfect circle does not exist outside the mind of Euclid, or a perfectionist. But in engineering drawing or architectural drawing we need to convey technical-spatial matters without ambiguity.  Achieving a circle that appears to be perfect to the user’s eye is rather enough.

I was quite proud of myself when I landed my little Piper PA-28 at San Luis Obispo airport after an instrument approach “to minimums” – about 220 feet above ground I think it was. That “Minimum Descent Altitude” is a “decision point,” the split second when you have to either have made visual contact with the runway or immediately execute a “missed approach.” At that point a pilot must decide whether to try again or to divert to an alternate airport with better weather.

That night the sky was crowded; several planes were trying to get into SBP. The controller put me in a holding pattern for probably 20 minutes. It seemed like an hour. piper_warrior2_panelAs each aircraft attempts the approach, those waiting fly the holding pattern, a rectangle with rounded corners, each at a different assigned altitude. When one aircraft lands, the next begins the approach and the rest descend to the next lower altitude, waiting their turn at the approach. It is tedious, very stressful, and definitely not boring. Lucky for me, I had just finished my instrument training and my flying skills were probably at their peak. I landed after spotting the runway just seconds from having to call a missed approach.

It was 1980, and in a way it was the culmination of a dream I’d had since early childhood. There are many challenges in flying. But an instrument approach, at night, in clouds when the airport is only visible the very last second – or not –is probably the epitome of flying challenges, except, I suppose, for aerial combat. I had been accepted into the Air Force Aviation Cadet officer training program after a year of college. But then they decided that they had too many pilots and cancelled further classes. That was not long before the Vietnam war ramped up. Maybe that was just not my time to fly. Anyway, I never got around to learning to fly until several years after grad school.

Some skills, like flying, require constant practice.  Some are “mission critical,” like an instrument approach to an airport runway, when choosing to land or execute a “missed approach” involves a split-second survival decision that requires polished skills. Others, IMG_1112like fitting a part so that it will look just right in a piece of custom furniture you are making, can be much more leisurely in execution.  Neither is boring.  Craftsmanship is never boring. I don’t do instrument approaches anymore. It takes so much practice and I do not have to be there before the storm clears – I’m retired. Now, I practice woodworking at a more leisurely pace, and fly mostly for fun, without the pressures of having to get there “on time.” Besides, I have so much to do and all the time I want to take. None of it is boring.