Friday, May 29, 2009

Life at 135 miles an hour

Monday was a beautiful, warm, sunny day - the kind where it's just cool enough that there's not that much convective turbulence, and all the puffy clouds are small, sky bright blue, mountains flush with green at their bases and starting to only have runs and streaks of ice left near their tops. The trees are in leaf, the ground carpeted in green, and we are so far into spring that things are even starting to bloom.

(I remember, in the lower 48, flowers came first and then leaves came later. Here, as soon as it's warm enough, everything in the plant kingdom immediately burst fully into leaf, soaking up every photon of our short summer's sunshine for growth and food. Flowers come later.)

Flying Buddy, the beagle, and I took the 180 over to Wolf Lake, where we took the measure of the last attached pieces of hardware from the wheelpants. He wanted to remove everything - not just to clean up the landing gear, but also so he could trade the mud, tundra, and weed collectors to someone who flies off asphalt all the time and wants the teardrop-shaped metal pieces that clean up drag and let a plane go faster for less fuel. The beagle promptly started rolling on her back and tearing around the property, baying happily. Flying buddy and I jacked up the airplane, dragged the right toolbox over, and started by pulling a cotter pin and taking off the right brake pad. After checking its depth and wear pattern, we undid no few bolts, and carefully worked the wheel off. Then we managed to take off the plate between wheel and landing gear that supports the wheelpants. Then came the fun of putting everything back on with a different axle nut, and fishing a cotter pin blindly through the wheel. (Why is it things are always easier to take apart than put together?)

We detoured briefly to wander down a few hangars away, admire two beautiful C-123's, one with some busty nose art proclaiming her "Large Marge" (if you've watched "Con Air" with Nicholas Cage, you've seen her before, but she's back to being a working freight-hauler again), and borrow an inch-and-a-half socket for the axle nut that refused to thread in. One of the joys of aviation often observed but rarely stated is this: If you are not fundamentally honest with yourself, when flying, you will die. Fundamental honesty with yourself often leads to fundamental honesty with others, making this vocation of aviation a place where a person's word is a solid bond. Combined with a shared love for airplanes, it leads to easy honesty and sharing - whether large, expensive, odd tools or someone's plane or car - among equals.

After a few hours wrestling with the plane, we had everything put back together, tools returned or put away, and a shopping list (new brakes) for the next paycheck. It was eight in the afternoon, and there were still three hours til sunset to play. As soon as we had retracted flaps and were climbing out, Flying Buddy asked with a grin in his voice, "Want to fly her?"

I did, as I almost always do. And I looked around the Matanuska Valley, and picked the one way I hadn't been yet. "What's up there?"
"The Matanuska Glacier." He replied, and was silent a moment. "That's the way to Tazlina, too."
"Sounds good to me." I turned and headed toward it. What better reason is needed when you have full fuel, good wings, and sunshine?

I pointed the nose, and headed that way. I still don't have dealing with a manifold pressure and prop control down as second nature, and we talked about it, chatted about work, pointed out airstrips, eyed gravel bars on the river, and made our way up the rising terrain. I could not trim that plane out to level - she has too much horsepower for a mild turn or two of the trim wheel to suffice - and I didn't mind, as our climb kept pace with the terrain.

The Cessna 180 has six cylinders, which runs so much smoother and doesn't hurt my damaged knee near as much as the four-banger PA-12. It also runs much faster - while I'm used to life cruising at 90 and playing around at 50 to 80 miles an hour, the airspeed and groundspeed agreed - we were picking our way through the mountains, threading along at 135. Given a thousand extra feet from the surface more than usual, (it's unfamiliar terrain, and altitude is time to make decisions, where time is life), the surface didn't seem to move that much faster - but we were screaming along.

Even the extra height could not diminish the glacier-carved grandeur below, with sheer cliffs tumbling down, high hanging valleys, deep-carved crevasses and creeks and the gravel-braided river deep in its channel, swathes of bright green birch, dark green spruce, grey-brown beetle-kill, and stark spires and walls of naked rock thrown high with only the ragged remnants of winter and wisps of clouds failing to soften their ragged jagged triumph.

We land at Eureka/Skelton, next to the highway, after two low passes. The sinkhole was hard to spot, despite being a foot and a half deep - someone had painted a ring around it and an X through it with white paint some time back, but now the low scrub on the runway hid the faded paint remains. (Last time Flying Buddy was here, he landed on the highway, as the snow in the strip was rotten.) He had the plane - I'm used to life at 40mph on short final; 80 on final is far too fast for me to be fumbling through the extra steps of a controllable-pitch propeller. We came down and touched a bit hard, one light bounce before planting the plane firmly. Eureka Lodge's cafe was already closed for the evening (it was a little past 9), so we headed back to the plane, had some bottled water, let the dog out to go water a bush. The lake on the other side of the highway still had a thick coating of ice, and only a little open water at the edge - summer comes from sea-level up, and we were at four thousand feet, not far from tundra.

Taking off, I flew back to Birchwood, and we drove home as the sun finally set below the mountains. Less than a month til solstice, the sky would not grow dark for hours yet, but the warmth was rapidly leaving the air. It was a good day.

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