Checkpoints

The magic of flying.

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The author’s beautifully restored Stearman, along with the rest of the Stearman formation team.

A really neat thing happened a couple of weeks ago as I was returning from the Columbus Airshow with the Stearman formation team. We had performed our usual routine, and this time we managed to put together a 6-ship flight, and surprisingly looked pretty good despite the winter hiatus and lack of regular practice. It was while we were on the way home in loose trail formation that a shadow crossed over my plane very quickly, causing me to initially flinch and then figure out what it was. See, a couple of years ago, we had an RV-12 bust right through the tight formation while overhead of the airport and hit the lead aircraft, bending the rudder over 90 degrees. To this day I’ve never understood how no one got hurt, and even more so, how can you miss seeing a group of four Stearmans in tight formation! After that I now scan for traffic even while in formation, albeit quite rapidly.

Flying formation in the Stearman is a lot of fun. It’s a real close-up view of the “magic” in flying!

But back to the shadow. I never did see another aircraft, and a quick glance at the TIS traffic on a 496 in the Stearman didn’t show anything either. I finally figured out that I had flown through the shadow created by a contrail of a jet that was about 90 degrees to our direction of flight. What was even more fascinating was that I watched that shadow for the next 20 minutes and it out ran us. Yep. The winds at the jet’s altitude clearly were faster than the groundspeed of our Stearmans, which was about 85 knots. I’m sure we’ve all seen the cars and trucks on the roads sometimes going faster than us, especially if flying some of the trainers or light sport aircraft. But this was the first time I had seen evidence of the winds blowing faster!

As we continued to drone along, I started thinking about some of the other neat things we have seen over the years while flying. We always speak about the magic of flying, and sometimes in cruise we look down and jokingly wonder what the mortals are doing today. I’ve always tried to get newcomers to aviation excited about the magic. Kids are especially fun in this department.

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One Flight, Two Sunsets

When our youngest son was 10, he had a really good friend who lived across the street. While his parents weren’t interested in flying, his friend Trey really wanted to go for a ride. So, on a really nice calm and clear evening, I took my son and Trey flying. They were having a really good time and it was getting close to sunset. The stage was set. I told Trey to watch the sunset, as we always see two sunsets when we go flying. Once the sun dipped below the horizon, I quickly did a zoom climb and Trey saw the sun again, and he watched it set again, all bug-eyed. When we got home, I told Carol that I’m sure the phone will ring later, and I explained what I had done. Sure enough, about an hour later his mom called and said Trey was all excited about the flying, but seemed to be enhancing the story with a tale of two sunsets. I replied, “Just listen to the story, he’s right.” That kid talked about it forever!

Alaska

While we’ve certainly seen our share of gorgeous sunsets and other views from the airplane, there’ve been some other once-in-a-lifetime events that happen so quickly they are only indelibly etched in our heads instead of being captured by the camera.

The actual event happened so fast that we couldn’t get a picture. But we found a sculpture that keeps the memory alive. It was truly fascinating to see.

Alaska seems to be a place that presents the most opportunities. Last year, while we were cruising down the coast south of Yakutat at about 200 feet due to low ceilings, Carol was looking out toward the sea and I heard her shout, “Whale!” She had seen a whale spout, but by the time I turned to look, a huge humpback whale did a full vertical breach out of the water! It was absolutely breathtaking. It seemed like we could have hit it if we were a little closer. (Can you imagine that NTSB report—aircraft downed by jumping whale?) Our friend in his RV-8 behind us saw it, too, and asked if we got a picture. Are you kidding? At the right time of the year, we have seen the whales while flying the inland waterways in Alaska, but usually only glimpsing the spout or the tail splash. To see one in midair so close was astonishing.

The whale episode happened about as quickly as the grizzly bear we saw running right across our path the previous year while we were flying along the shoreline. That time I patted the instrument panel and said, “Lycoming, don’t fail us now!” as we would clearly be in the food chain. I wanted to circle and see what the bear was chasing, but seven airplanes tagging along behind me precluded that from happening. That bear was in a full-out run directly at the water, so for all I know, something was chasing it!

A few days earlier the event was a little more lighthearted. We were flying up a narrow canyon in Alaska on our way to see the Harding Icefield. We went right by a billy goat (actually a Dall sheep) on the side of the hill, and Carol and I laughed as we looked at the sheep and he at us, probably both wondering what the other one was doing up there, assuming a sheep can wonder at all.

We laughed as we went by, as we had never seen this before. Wonder what the sheep was thinking! Photo by National Park Service, Alaska Region (Uploaded by AlbertHerring) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

All pilots fear a midair, especially one with wildlife. Midairs with airplanes usually happen because someone isn’t paying attention. Well, we almost had one because the wildlife wasn’t paying attention, so to speak. It had to do with a trio of eagles in their mating ritual, just south of Northway, Alaska. And again it happened faster than we can tell the story. You’ve probably even seen this spectacle on one of the nature shows. In this case, we saw a trio of eagles as a rapidly approaching dot, two of which were locked together with their talons and falling. It turns out that they can become so engrossed that they have been seen actually cartwheeling all the way to the ground. It was really amazing to see for real what we had only seen in shows.

Submarine!

On another one of our trips to the Pacific Northwest, we had gone to Friday Harbor for lunch. If you ever get the chance, you should fly into Friday Harbor. It is a short walk to the docks, where there are wonderful restaurants and views of the harbor, along with the requisite tourist shops. You also need to pay attention while flying in that area as there are some restricted areas due to the naval submarine bases and other military activities. As we were returning from Friday Harbor to Olympia, Washington, something caught my eye in the water up ahead, and I realized it was a formation of ships. It got more interesting as we got closer, and when I finally made it out, I realized it was a formation of military ships with a nuclear submarine in the center, clearly heading out to sea. What a neat view. We circled for a bit and took some cool pictures, and then I came to my senses and left. For a few days I wondered if I would receive a phone call or visit from some dark-suited guys, but I never did. I had verified the MOAs weren’t active before we had departed, and the XM wasn’t showing any TFRs. It was still an uneasy feeling, but way cool!

This was another amazing event—seeing a nuclear submarine being escorted out to sea.

I’m sure many of you have seen amazing things from the air as well and have some memories that no earth-bound mortals can even dream about. Every time we go flying, I wonder what we might see on this particular trip that we haven’t seen before. I also wonder what might go by that we will miss because we happen to have our heads in the cockpit playing with all of the new toys. There are days when I want to just turn it all off and enjoy the magic. Don’t you?


Vic Syracuse is a Commercial Pilot and CFII with ASMEL/ASES ratings, an A&P, DAR, and EAA Technical Advisor and Flight Counselor. Passionately involved in aviation for over 36 years, he has built nine award-winning aircraft and has logged over 7500 hours in 69 different kinds of aircraft. Vic had a career in technology as a senior-level executive and volunteers as a Young Eagle pilot and Angel Flight pilot. He also has his own sport aviation business called Base Leg Aviation.

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