Thursday, March 30, 2017

Flight Plans - A Short Story

Obscured by the thick cloud cover that rolls in from the Coastal states, the sun has disappeared into detention, penalized by being so bright on such an otherwise cold day. Rain stops, falls, starts, the air holding in moisture like a towel, draping over everything, softening sharp edges of landscape, a cold compress on what was to be a day of flying.

There is a reason all the big flight schools are in California, Arizona and Florida. Learning to fly in the mountains of the upper West was a challenge. Being a flight instructor there without starving to death was even more of a challenge.

It's the 80's. I was a college student. I was a flight instructor.

For some, flight instructing was about the only way one could build the flight time necessary to get a job flying something bigger, a right of passage that many pilots, in their turn, go through. For me it was a way to make $13.00 an hour to pay for tuition when minimum wage was little more than $3.00. So what if people tried to kill me on a daily basis, I could eat meat once in a while, and still stay in the University.

The downside? That $13.00 was when you were in the air or billing someone for formal ground training. You could spend 8 hours waiting, writing lesson plans, answering the phone, but if you had no students you made zip. On bad weather days, the instructors with wealthier parents didn't even come out. So on that rainy day, just two of us worked. And waited. Waited while we listened to our hair grow. Waited for that knock, nervous and peremptory on the door of the flight school. It wasn't likely to happen. Pilots are always in tune with the weather. We watch the weather channel even if staying home all day. We listen to it. Even sheltered inside, away from it, we can tell the smell and taste and strength of the wind, and today the sky tasted of ramen noodles for dinner again.
That school I taught in was little more than a cabin, out at a small country airport, where we had two two-seat Piper Tomahawks, (referred to as the traumahawk), a tailwheel Taylorcraft and a Cessna 172 to teach in. The runway was built during World War II and was long and wide enough for even the most bumbling of future sky kings. We got a surprising large number of students from the local logging communities. My most active students were the diesel truck mechanics that wandered over and fell in love with the mechanics of flight and then simply flight itself.

You'd first see the car, or more often than not, a truck enter the gravel drive. From it would exit a stranger in jeans, a Carhatt jacket and the prerequisite flannel shirt would get out, reading the sign for flight lessons and then hesitate, as if suddenly hung up on something that existed in the current of his own existence. We knew which ones then were the mechanics as they would first come in and stand in the hangar watching the mechanics, standing as if there were a sword held over their held fixed only by a hair, afraid to come in to a world that should seem so normal to them.  Shyly, they'd ask the mechanic a question or two, running their hands down the side of the craft as if it were a racehorse at rest, then they'd almost dash over to the little cabin to get a $10 introductory flight.

Those flight flights were fun, except the one where there was a "pop pop pop pop!" at 3500 feet and the engine quit. I called the Flight Service Station (the little weather station on the field back then) to get the wind to dead-stick in after yelling "mayday mayday mayday" and the chirppy specialist said, "and what are your intentions Miss" to which I responded. " I'm either going to land or I'm going to (insert FTC unapproved word here) crash!" We landed, I never saw the student again and that was $10 I was out of and dinner was going to be sparse.
But most days were sublime wonder, introducing someone to something they're either going to fall immediately in love with or simply check off an item on a bucket list and head to the nearest tavern. You could always tell the ones that were going to fall in love with it.  When they grasped the throttle for the first time their fingers would close on that object as it were glass, until the movement seemed so natural it was as if it were a symbol of all of those small journeys that bring us to home each day. When the engine roared to life, these men, masters of all kinds of machinery, would get this look on their face as if they'd just awakened a sleeping princess with a kiss, and I knew this was going to be a wonderful 30 minutes for us both.

I learned to fly at such a school. A Mom and Pop type place in my home town. I was only 16, I was already in college. Money for lessons, even at the bargain price back in those 39 cent a gallon days, was hard to come by, so I took a job at the airport in exchange for lessons. I pumped fuel, and washed airplanes. They could range from a small business jet, to an occasional float plane on wheels that would stop on the way to Seattle. I would have to climb on a ladder on top of the picnic table while dragging the big heavy hose all the way up there. OSHA poster material. It was often hard, cold, dirty work, not something I'm afraid of, but I longed for the day I could fly them, not fuel them.

After my work day was done I'd sit alone in the small building, the owners living upstairs, and study for my lessons. Computers weren't on every desk in that day and age, and the teaching aids were primitive compared to what there is now. The Cessna course consisted of these flip card books with diagrams, with a cassette tape to play along with it. When the tape beeped you would flip to the next chart. I would sit there until the week hours, "beep", drinking cup after cup of "beep" horrible black airport coffee, trying to get just one more page, before I had to go home and do all my other homework. It honed two things, my ability to concentrate and my appreciation for really good coffee.

I had two different instructors, basically which ever of them was available as I was sort of a "charity" student, since I worked with them. One was a carpenter by trade. This was his way to relax and earn a little money the wife would let him keep. He had seven boys and basically nothing I could do in the airplane would scare him. The other was young and hopeful, just building his hours to move on.

I soloed after 13 hours of lessons. The sky was still in the last vestiges of daylight, when the traffic pattern would be light with aircraft, the only sound a cricket prematurely erupting into song and the faint whoosh of traffic from the Interstate. After a few practice times around the pattern, N., of the 7 boys, crawled out of the airplane, gave me a little pat on the shoulder and said. "She's all yours". There I was, alone in an airplane that to me looked as vast and empty as a Boeing 747 cockpit. But it was time, and I gingerly taxied out to the runway to do my three takeoffs and landings by myself. We'd covered all the basics. landings and takeoffs, turns, stalls, an engine failure and deadsticking it in if there was engine trouble close to home, flying into a cloud by accident, and turning it around on instruments, and communications. I was ready. And with a the throttle pushed all the way in, my airplane and I hurtled down the runway into our future. The little Cessna leaped into the air with untamed triumph and the defiance of gravity, the prop singing a song of farewell, hoping in it's heart the flight would be endless, not just three bounces and go's.

A quick turn, back into the pattern, with a glance over at that seat which was so, so empty, I just forged on, flaps, trim, carb heat, taking note of the wind direction, that wind that washed out of my head and my blood all that I feared I could never do. It was one of the most liberating moments in my life, my destiny in my hands, nothing more than guts, aviation fuel and an utter faith in the buoyant and untried wings of shiny metal bring me back to roost.
One soft chirp on the pavement, carburetor heat in, flaps coming up, throttle advance, pull back the yoke and I was back, aloft again, and this time I had a little more confidence and looked down to see my instructor giving me a cheery wave, like I was one of his own kids. By the third takeoff, I could wave back.

The third and final landing, I was done. The sky was nearly dark as we made our way inside after tying the Cessna down and buttoning her up for the night, with a friendly pat on the nose, like a horse being put into it's stall. My instructor got out the scissors, for the ritual cutting of the shirt tail of the newly soloed. To hang on the wall, with my name and date, like a banner of freedom, a signal to the next generation of students that there are no limits, in the living and fluid world of the air. There are no young, or old, or rich or poor, there are just eyes raised to the heavens and a firm hand on the yoke.

Now just 3 years after that solo I was teaching others myself, trying to pass on what I know, each student, each hour, propelling me further up. Blue sky days were few and far between, but with instrument students, there was just enough coming in to keep a roof over my head and pay for tuition. I'd left the small country airport that didn't have the kind of services to attract instrument or commercial students, moving to the big city and working for a fancy fixed base operation where I had wear dress slacks and a blazer, not jeans, but the students had a lot more time and money to learn. Still, when the weather was really bad, there was the ever present ability to earn no money.
I remember one sodden day, the sky the color of a washed out dish cloth, a flock of seagulls hunkered down underneath the hangar eves, seeking shelter, white birds, lumped up like used tissue paper, sodden and unwelcome. I'd go chase them away so they don't poop on the airplanes, but it's just too cold. So we wait, like dogs waiting for their master - jumping, tail wagging with the sound of someone at the door. Could it be. . a student? Oh boy. Oh boy. Some rich banker wanting to write out a check for $2000 to get his license!? But, it's simply the Fed Ex guy, and we circle and circle, getting back comfortable again as we settle back down to wait in disappointment, tails between our legs.

But they will come, the students. The ones eager with the joy of what awaits, on their very young or very old faces, my best students often being someone that's decided to take that step in middle age. They were the best. Then there were the sons of wealthy pilots and businessmen (I'd say daughters but a female student in that day and age was beyond rare). A few were gifted, but most were doing it out of sense that they were expected to, and carrying in their expensive flight kit a degree of entitlement. They were never pleasant to teach, their correct, inherited, irritating position of being always right was not helpful when you were inverted, having run out of airspeed and ideas at the same time, their pigheadedness unchanged by drama or g-forces. As hungry as I was, that rainy day, if one of those students came in, I'd give them to the other instructor.
Sure, there was the satisfaction of teaching someone the nuts and bolts of being a pilot even if they were unpleasant. Of letting them go just far enough to learn, and to learn with the right amount of fear, but not bend the airplane. Watching them solo, watching them develop. But to me, the teaching was a gift. Not simply something I did to build time, or earn a pittance of a pay check, but a way of showing the way forward to those eager to make the journey. For there was something else, more satisfying for me, which is why I would turn down an unmotivated flyer with a trust fund for a 16 year old taking lessons paid with after school jobs, or a retired engineer fulfilling that dream. There was something magical in watching them discover that flying is nothing at all like riding in a car, even considering adding in another dimension to it.

Flying with one of those fledgling airmen was like those evenings when as a kid you would lay with a friend out in the backyard, on your back looking upwards, trying to name the stars, watching for satellites that moved through the clouds in a slow steady line. The deep relaxed breath of no worries and a quick glance of understanding between each other, that's what flight would be like with them. For they understand in their heart and they feel it in something that's always been inside of them. It's as if they just know, and are just waiting for you to show them how, that to frolic in the presence of the clouds, far enough above the earth is to get a sense of what it is to be blessed.
It is said that when Christ needed to center himself he did forty days in the wilderness. I think I get a taste of that when I get days in the air. It's a divine communion with the heavens, it's not about travel, it's about absolution. Absolution for past fears and mistakes and all the trappings and stress of life and society that is laid out on our step each morning, like an unwanted soggy newspaper. It's laying open the book of your humanity, as tears of your defenses fall to its pages, gathering into quiet spots of yourself for a few short minutes. It's grabbing a little transcendence from the clouded, salty waters of that earthbound life. It's falling in love again, when you thought that was all behind you.

And so, on that day so many years ago, as the rain drips from the eaves, I wait. Because soon the cold front will pass, the sun will break free and through that door will come someone with whom I can share. And when I hear the oft told tale, that "I've always wanted to do this -but was afraid it would take time and things away from my loved ones". I tell them what I've learned. It's the same as this, what I tell people now, 30 some years later.
For I still teach, but it's interns in my field, waiting breathlessly to pursue something that drives them, hanging on my words for some piece of sage advice in a world gone mad. And I tell them now, what I told those flight students all those years ago. I tell them that the journey will not be quick, as no journey that leads to our soul's longing ever is.  I tell them love does not exist just in one place and in one instant and in one body out of all the time you have, all the bright light and streaming sky of your life, it is there, waiting for you, with no price tag but your happiness.  I tell him or her that this often mundane and irrational  existence of ours at one point contains within it a command to be seized. They will know it when it calls to them.

When they do, look up, reach out and grab hold of it and never let go.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Ruffing It - An Abby Lab Rescue Memory

For me?

Abby Normal the Lab here.

In my previous life I didn't get to get up on the furniture and was outside in the cold a lot but after 5 months in a shelter while I was sick with heartworms, my new Mom Brigid let me up on the couch.  I kept getting down as I didn't think I was supposed to be up there, but she said it was OK and gave me pats.  It's so soft but I only sneak up there when Mom and Dad aren't on it.

I had my own little dog bed where Mom used to stay when she was working.  It was more comfy than the hard floor of a kennel, but it was cheap and thin and it wasn't not real poofy - nothing like "THE BED", but Mom keeps the bedroom door closed when she is at work as she has a fancy schmancy bedspread on there that is hard to clean.

Then one day shortly after she and Dad adopted me, a big box came to Mom's work crash pad.  Mom said it was from Orvis as they had a sale-- a BIG sale and she got something for almost half price. Barkley had an Orvis bed and just loved it and it lasted forever, but she wanted me to have one of my own.

It's the world's biggest softest dog bed! It's so fluffy, with really tight stitching and a durable, ultra-soft cover. When she took it out of the wrapping-- it expanded like a life raft.
Mom knows about that. Once she was flying an airplane (a little business jet) to India to be delivered from the aeroplane factory.   Three of the VERY young Indian pilots were on board.  They didn't have the experience yet to make that sort of trip so the owners arranged for the seller to deliver it with contract pilots (which was Mom and another pilot) and bring them home from plane school. Regulations required that for a flight across the ocean the plane had to have a rented life raft to be carried in the cabin to be pitched out of the plane and inflated if Mom had to pull a "Sully".

The young Indian pilots were QUITE excited about the flight and about just learning to fly their first jet so Mom and her copilot told them to just read and relax in the back and  "don't touch anything".

Halfway across the Atlantic there's this big  WHOOOSH sound from the cabin and one of them ran forward with -

"Captain B! Captain B!  Raft Veery BIG! Raft, Veery BIG.!"

Yup - they'd accidentally inflated the life raft and Mom had to kill it with a cheese knife from the galley so they could exit the airplane when they all landed to fuel.
MMMM Cheese.

So, it was sort of like that.  Bed very big!  Bed very big! Look - my tail has gone hypersonic!

My Orvis bed is SOOOO COMFY!

I can't believe it's still all mine all the time and I don't have to sleep on the Pita Bed from Walmart anymore.  I love my furever home.
I love my Mom.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Scotch and Chocolate - A Surprising Combination

Wine and food tastings have been around for a long time. One thing though, wine is not my drink of choice. I really like a good beer and I'll have a sip of wine with a meal, a red, Merlot perhaps, but honestly I'd just rather just skip the flirtation and cut right to the chase.

The after dinner Scotch whisky. 

Wine is someone showing up with flowers at the door.  A good scotch is tumbling under a blanket in front of the fire and "Barkley, bring back my socks!"

Wine is  often paired with cheese.  Scotch and cheese? Uh. . . no thanks.

But chocolate?

Scotch and chocolate pairings are not an invention of the Range but it's not something I'd tried, until a gal friend came back from the West Coast with some of the most incredible artisan chocolate,  TCHO - New American Chocolate and rumors of such late night hook ups.
 "bartender -the Titanic saw less ice, make it neat please"

I have admitted I am new to Scotch, only trying it well into adulthood.  At first I was a typical "I don't have a clue what I'm sipping or what I'm tasting" but with another novice pilot friend, we branched out in learning the various nuances of a dram.

Wilbur  - I detect an undertone of saddle leather
Ed - Perhaps, and a hint of straw.

Soon, I was hooked on the wonderful world of good Scotch. Pair that with the finest chocolate?  I'm game.

Not all pairings will work and single malts are definitely the way to go as they have very particular flavor profiles, as do single origin chocolates (chocolate that’s grown in a particular place for specific flavor qualities.) They can be herbal, grassy, fruity or smoky.

Adding to the confusion, whisky has not only  many different personalities, a single dram can have many distinct notes.  You start with the nose, then progress to the palate, and finally, the finish.  Chocolate too, is similar.  There's the snap as you break it, the subtle aroma under the nose and then the rich complexities of taste, fully released from the cacao butter as it melts, at perfect mouth temperature.
As a general rule, whisky opens up the taste of the chocolate well, and chocolate mitigates a bit of the alcohol burn.  But some chocolate is so intense it could clobber the subtleties of some whisky, some is so bland, the whisky will not let it get a word in edgewise. To truly work well, the aroma and flavor of both the Scotch and the chocolate need to complement one another, with the regional characteristics of both playing a key roll in the effectiveness of the pairing.

To truly get a combination you love, you need to learn your own palate, what you like and then experiment.  If you're just used to wine tastings, be prepared for a wonderful surprise.  Scotch has so much more of a greater mouth feel than wine, so get ready to grab your bits of fine chocolate and exploit the taste to its fullest potential.

Until then - I'll leave you with a few of my own findings  - quick HOTR primer on Whisky and Chocolate Pairings.

Cu Dhub (bastard offspring of Loch Du and WD40) and Hersheys (like eating a cocoa Yankee candle)

Edradour 10yo (burn a gummi bear with an acetylene torch) and Coconut M and M's (choco/sunblock)

Tullibardine 10yo (endorsed by soccer hooligans everywhere) and Nestle's Crunch (asphalt and gravel)

Tamnavulin 10yo (rated "OK" by drunken Australian Infantrymen) and Venchi Cuor di Cacao 85% (ever stick your tongue on a frozen metal girder?)

Cragganmore 12yo (gentlemen prefer blands) and Pralus Venezuela 75% (the dark roast deflowers any delicate flavorings this chocolate once had)

Must Try -

Bowmore 15 and Lindt A Touch of Sea Salt Dark Chocolate

Laphroaig 18
and Lindt Madagascar 65% Chocolate 

Ardbeg Uigeadail
and Picaro Salt and Nibs

Glengoyne 23 year
and L’Artisan du Chocolat: Madong 70%

Glenlivet Master Distillers Reserve
and TCHO Dark Chocolate with Subtle Nutty Notes. (Outstanding, coffee, a hint of nut, becoming sweeter as it melts)

You all enjoy.  I'll be in my bunk.

Friday, March 17, 2017

St. Patrick's Day in Black and White

Just some photos taken with the $100 travel point and shoot on a side trip (using some leave days) on an overseas assignment I didn't post "live", due to the nature of the trip.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

On Choice -

  My reports, so concise and specific
Written clearly, not one hieroglyphic
Blood and gore, unusually keen
makes readers queasy and green
So few like my prose scientific. 
 - Brigid

An acquaintance of mine asked me to speak to her oldest son about careers as he is interested in what I was trained to do. He's in his early 20's, out of college, living in that vast cul de sac of trying to decide whether to continue his education and take a job in something he loves which doesn't pay a lot to start or go into a trade that will pay well, but holds no interest for him. I'm not sure why I was chosen for this bit of mentoring. His Mom wasn't real keen on his career aspiration, hoping he'd chose more of an 8 to 5 job to further promote the home, wife, future grandchildren agenda, as soon as possible. She probably figured I'd tell him horror stories of how hard it is to make a career in the field, the regrets I had choosing the path I did.

She could have asked others, I'm not really sure why she asked me. Granted I'm over-educated, but I'm not particularly qualified by life choices to give good advice. It's well known in a small circle that I'm a good cook; that I knew several innovative ways to sneak up on bad guys. I can field strip an AR15, fly a jet and put on tap shoes and "RiverDance" (alcohol being involved). I can't golf or sing and the only time I tried to knit a sweater, it ended up as a tube top for a Barbi as that's the size of it when I gave up. But I can play several instruments and order a glass of Ale in Russian and bad French so everyone overlooks my golf game.  But I've made my share of career and personal mistakes over the years. I've hurt others and been hurt in return by said choices. Should I really be someone who is dispensing possibly life-altering advice?

But I did.

There was no visit to headquarters, no discussion of internships or education. I simply sat him down over coffee. In a little cafe frequented by those he emulates, I look into eyes darkened by his choices into a clear unfathomable green. And all I can tell him is this.

It's nothing like TV. 

It's not Gulfstream jets that whisk you everywhere. It's not nightclubs and beaches and $1200 suits. It's greed, it's stupidity. It's death. It's politics.  Few think about the consequences of their actions, the concept of mortality being too abstruse to think too deeply on. I tell him that whatever innocence he has now will be shed quietly, the shock of its departure exacerbated by the undiluted abundance of the carnage. Things aren't solved in an hour and when you go home you won't be able to talk about it with your spouse. For reasons that often have little to do with your shyness and more that there are things we just can't talk about.

I tell him he will see acts of man that have profound, adverse effects on others, those they are sworn to protect, and how the inability sometimes to prevent or sway is a heavy burden.   I tell him he will learn how certain forms of corruption are akin to madness, derived from acute arrogance inflamed by support, removing what is left of promise, even as they manage to draw further power from it.

I tell him it will cause him to examine everything in his life more closely and at one point he may not like what he sees, making changes in his life, how he lives it and with who, based on what he knows is the truth he can live with. It will be nights laying awake, long after the world is asleep, going over the puzzle again and again in your head, looking out onto rain murmured sky, still believing that anything within the capacity of an ardent mind is within the reach of an ardent hope.

I tell him he will learn to noticed the smallest things, be it evidence or intent, and scrutinize them carefully. I tell him he will worry about fate less, for sometimes you are simply the bug on the windshield by being at the wrong place at the right time. Fate needs no blessing and sweats no fire, it comes in silently and leaves only bones as it departs and sometimes no mortal flesh can stop it. But as I've said before, I've also found that a good portion of our misfortunes arise, not from fate or ill health or the vagrancies of the winds, but from human rancor, fueled by innate stupidity, and those ever present justifications of the same, hell bent idealism and proselytizing mania for the sake of religious or political effigies.

I tell him he will be required to be dispassionate and get into a routine. Empathy is a great quality in a person, but so is efficacy.
I tell him he will see things that make what's on TV look like a walk in the park. I tell him that he will not only see a lot, he will learn the hard way that there is danger and dangerous souls in the world and if he is smart he will not be one to shy away from it because maybe he can do something about it. It's not a glamorous job, but there is hope in it, there is order.

I've never had the sense of clockwork conspiracies, or some kind of imposing order of evil. There's simply a sense of things falling apart. That's my sense of how most bad things happen, that it's not usually some kind of calculated evil driven by karma, but simply control disintegrating. Most times, things fall apart and happen out of stupidity and carelessness, not any one's personal jihad. And he'll be there to either prevent it, or if he can't, to pick up the pieces.

I tell him it's a life that involves long, disjointed hours, coming home with unpleasant things not just sticking to your shoe, but to your brain, images that come back when you least expect them. For there will be ghosts that flit about your room, loudly breathing lost dreams like air, when all you wish is peace.  I tell him it's a life that can be difficult on a partner. You can go weeks without seeing one another, conversations are often late night and tinged with both longing and exhaustion. Like loving an airman, it requires a kind of understanding sacrifice in a partner that is either foolish or beautiful or a little of both. If you have that, it sustains you, like breath, if not, it's as scalding as a burn.

I tell him that there will be those that hate you simply for your service; those that don't understand that if the good don't try to change things from within, then there's no hope left for any of it. But you can't discuss it, for that is part of the oath, and you just take the barbs and the stings home with you to talk to yourself in the mirror with inflexible weariness.

And finally, as the remains of coffee cool in our mugs, I tell him this. When you come face to face with a decision to pursue a dream, take it. That, despite the ups and downs, bone weary exhaustion, student loans I will be paying until I am dead, blood and tears and long hours, I would do it all over. Without hesitation. But he will not see that looking forward, but only looking back.
He will see it in a courtroom, when justice is served, in part, with his words, the very evidence he has gathered.  He will see it on a cold metal table, when what's left of a life can be used to save another. He will see it in the eyes of a family that bears the news he will give them in that cold abode of despair and not hate him for it but simply say "please don't let this happen to someone else"--and he will not turn from it like some wretched thing that drove him from his sleep, but rather embrace it as his calling, not just his duty.

For one day, while he is in the field, gazing at everything with that profound look that sees further than what's in front of him, he would understand. In the sightless and streaming dark, among the hushed shouts of men which seem to linger in the thick streaming air until the next shout joins and blends in, he will know, as things lost are gathered together.

In that moment, as the rain starts to fall as if it had held off all day for this moment, he will understand what I can't articulate for him. That he had to have tried, for if he did not, he would have come to this place anyway, but with regret.
 - Brigid