An Open Mind

Rear cockpit.

With nothing between you and the sky, an open cockpit offers an immediacy not found in the usual chicken coupes. Here a post-cold-front winter sky offers its compelling combination of sparkling visibility and a god’s playground of clouds.

Normalcy had evolved in a fair way. Overcast and cool in the morning, the afternoon had opened to a moderate haze punctuated by a few straggling bits of fluffy scud near the coast. Given the mid-spring date, the solar heating penetrated with surprising efficiency and we were reminded that behind us, to the east, the deserts were warming and sending their air up—while to the west, the Pacific was obligated to fill the resulting void with its limitless supply of chilled air. So above us the atmosphere was giving and taking, massing and moving in its mainly invisible way. Down at the ground, at least in the narrow strip between the mountains and the coast, temperature, light and humidity were right in the middle, as if the weather god was shooting nothing but bull’s-eyes. Predictably, the chamber of commerce has been trumpeting this good news for a hundred years meaning the traffic and taxes flow prodigiously, and the airspace crowds with admirers.

But if spring and society was again on the move, I wasn’t. There had been real work lately with its late nights and problem-solving days and I wasn’t feeling the rejuvenation, which was too bad. It was hangar day when the partner was on hand and the biplanes sat ready. There were no excuses about annuals or oil leaks, cold fronts or rain. It was a great time to fly, not a day for a mind numb as cotton candy the day after the circus left town and a body that wanted the recliners in the back of the hangar more than anything else.

Apparently feeling the same, the partner and I piddled at little chores and eventually surrendered to the comfy chairs. We lamented our age and laziness and lightly cursed the summer heat foreshadowed by the day’s T-shirt temps. And, as always, the guilt grew. Guilt that somehow I could waste such a pleasant day, amazingly and in a personal affront to every once-upon-a-time futurist who dreamed of flight or was then laboring over his 9000th rivet, that we couldn’t muster the energy to pull the airplanes out of the hangar and find a reason to fly them. They didn’t even need gas.

“We should fly.”

“Yeah. But I don’t know…where would we go?”

“We haven’t cruised the coast in a while; we could make a beach patrol. I’m not up for anything too energetic, but a simple cruise up and down the beach could be alright.”

“Hmm. Guess we should pull the planes out.” No one moved.

Propelled by some unconscious inner force, I pulled the handle back on the recliner and set it upright. Step one to flying was to take off my work boots and slip on my old racing shoes as there is no way I can fly a sport biplane in lugged soles. As soon as I took off my boots, I realized just how baking hot my feet had been and how delightfully light and thin the racing shoes were. We pushed the planes out, did the walkarounds, confirmed to each other we had the necessary fuel, slipped on the leather jackets and got the engines warming.

Takeoff was the usual taut fury, and it was only seconds into the climb that any fantasies about smooth air were shredded by the atmospheric mixing at low altitude. There was enough sun to have warmed the earth, tumbling the ride into nuisance thermals near the ground. That was a first since last summer and a reminder that winter may be chilly, but it’s nearly always smooth. Then the strangest thing happened after leveling off at a bare 2000 feet and pointing the nose at the immensity of the wide, flat western horizon. I got comfortable. A mile from the beach the air went from auto rough to flying-carpet smooth, and thanks to my open cockpit, I could instantly tell the ocean controlled the air that first inland mile. A hint of humidity was palpable, yet the air wasn’t wet or dry; it was just nice air. And it suddenly dawned on my dulled mind how much cooler and refreshed I was by the natural air conditioning washing over my face and making the heavy sleeves of my jacket slap in the slipstream.

Imagine that. I was more comfortable in an open cockpit that I had been on the ground. That had to be a first in the 700 plus hours I have sat in this cockpit. I often say my Starduster offers two levels of discomfort: either too cold or too hot, occasionally both at the same time (feet on fire, head in an ice chest). But this time it was absolutely perfect, the engine heat keeping my lower body warm, the sun ensuring my head and shoulders didn’t chill in the breeze and that wind made certain I didn’t overheat. And with that I was refreshed. Topping it all, there were the few little clouds to slip under on our way down to the beach inspection level. Glancing downward showed the sunlight shafting into the green water and the seagulls wheeling aside. This was going to be a good afternoon after all.

Cozying—or Shivering From—Nature

I once read the editor’s column in a boating magazine where the learned one opined the attraction to boating was, in its purest form, a return to nature. That struck me incongruously at first, but I soon realized he had a point. Flying, at least the sport flying I practice, is probably the same instinctual return to our native selves, but done a little higher and faster. Conducting that journey from an open cockpit is simply my most intimate way of cozying—or shivering from—nature. Yes, it often dishes out the fish sticks freeze dryer treatment, but it also means there is often nothing between your orbs and the towering cumulus. Pitch over at the top of a mad climb with the power pulled back and it gets eerily quiet; keep pushing hard to get the top wing below the horizon, and for a fleeting second it’s like sitting atop a mile-high flagpole. The wind and engine noise gone; just you way up in the sky with a 360° horizon and nothing in between.

In fact, the sitting outside offers the unimpeded sky no matter where you go. Get low over the ocean and you can smell the sea; fly high over a feedlot and it smells like something else altogether. Smell pine trees and it’s past time to pull up. Thermoclines need no more instrumentation than your face sensing the sudden change in temperature and sunsets are sublime.

Open cockpits are rare these days, but my hangar mate and I have a pair of them at our disposal. And even though my friend has a canopy for his plane, he’s yet to put it on. I completely understand.

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Tom Wilson
Pumping avgas and waxing flight school airplanes got Tom into general aviation in 1973, but the lure of racing cars and motorcycles sent him down a motor journalism career heavy on engines and racing. Today he still writes for peanuts and flies for fun.


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