Friday, July 27, 2012

Roman Riding

Photo from Todd Miller's Blog on
I took my daughter to Cavalia the other day. I highly recommend that show to horse lovers and aviators. Why recommend a show with acrobatics, horses and music to aviators? It makes sense to me... galloping on horseback was probably man's first experience of the thrill that was later to become the thrill of flight. Think of it, where but on horseback was a human able to feel the wind ripping through their hair, against their face and body... the pounding thunder, rocking and speed of motion that is a horse in full gallop?

I digress, this little blog isn't about Cavalia and horseback riding and flight. No, I want to talk a bit about Roman Riding. Roman Riding is riding two horses by standing with one foot on one and one on the other. You use voice cues and the reigns to control the two horses. Add difficulty by adding another team of horses in front of the two you are on, even more difficulty by adding yet another team. Imagine controlling 6 horses from the backs of two as they gallop at full tilt around an arena and jumping obstacles in the process! Wow.

Cavalia was the first time I saw Roman Riding in action. Of course, being a pilot... the first thing I thought when they came out on stage was "multi-engine". Watching the rider coordinate the two horses of the team under her feet reminded me very much of the way you need to sync the engines on a multi-engine plane. "Three times as likely to kill you, too", I thought as I watched three riders with one pair of horses each race about the stage at a full gallop.

I was almost right. The three racers came around a corner and you can tell the woman on the lead pair was having a problem. It seems her pair crowded too close to the column in the center of the stage and she lost balance. She fell to the ground and rolled, right into the legs of the team behind her. The crowd gasped as she rolled into a ball. We were sitting close enough I could see her hold her breath and duck her head, ready to be trampled. But the horses of the second team stopped, and she was OK.

She got up and got back on her team for a little bit, but I could see the fear in her face and tension in her body. The show went on and I watched this one performer closely though the rest of the show. The next time she appeared there was still a tight tension in her face.. something none of the other performers had. Her posture was stiff and her horses were just a little more twitchy than the others as they sensed her tension.  She reminded me so much of me at that point, the tension, focus and little bit of fear. That's the way I flew from July through September of last year as I didn't deal with the scare I dealt myself on a particularly bad solo landing. I was so tense and afraid, my control of the plane suffered, the same way the rider's control of her horses suffered. I hoped she would find her center again and be able to ride again with the joy she had on her face at the start of the show.

The show broke for intermission and started up again. It was a while before I spotted that rider in the next few acts. Not that she wasn't there. No, she was there. It was because she had found her center and her joy. Her face was radiant, her body relaxed, horse and rider perfectly in tune. She didn't stand out from the others anymore because she was like them. One with her horse, one with her joy. It was  awesome to see her be able to make that transformation so quickly. That reminded me of me too. The way I was able to fly after I finally admitted my fear, worked with my CFI and got through it.

In a way it was good to see this sequence played out on stage in front of me, not part of a show, part of real life. It was good to have that reminder of the joy of flying by watching these performers and their horses, the fear of mortality, and joy in spite of that. You see, I've taken another fall recently... not in flying, but in life. Scarey, painful, but here I am. I have to dust myself off again, get past my fear and get back to my center, get back to my joy. So, that's what I shall do.

Saturday, July 7, 2012


"Just listen to the music!" my frustrated flight instructor told me one day as he tried, yet again, to help me demonstrate consistently the last few PTS maneuvers required for me to earn my private pilots license. He told me how I reminded him of a guy that was in a ballroom dancing class that he took. The guy kept asking the dance instructor just how to get this one move right. He kept trying to turn the dance into a series of procedures. The dance instructor got frustrated and told the guy, "Just listen to the music!" And that was what my CFI was telling me. He couldn't explain to me any more often how to do the procedure, I knew how to do the procedure. I could recite it by rote but I wasn't able to DO it.

In the end I think that frustrated exhortation by my CFI was a turning point for me in my journey to my PPL. I figured I could not do any worse than I was already doing the way I was doing it. So maybe I could relax, think a bit less, focus less on the prize (the procedure, the license, the checkride, whatever) and trust that it would happen. I had the training, I knew what to do. I just had to relax and do it. That was the hardest lesson of my pre-PPL training I think. To relax and let it flow without fixation on the result. To this day my CFI says I became a different person when I made that decision. I keep reminding myself of that decision to listen to the music, relax and let it flow, and embrace my mistakes as I go forward with my Instrument Training. I think it is working. Training is certainly a more enjoyable experience this way.

Flying, for me, has become as much of an art as it is a science. A joy as it is a task. It fulfills me on both a mental and emotional level that I cannot explain. I stumbled across a great quote today, I thought I would share it with you... enjoy and please don't forget to listen to the music.

By now you understand we are not merely speaking about flying. This is every high-performance challenge we have ever accepted, every limit we have ever dared and the thresholds we've yet to cross. This is mortal human reaching for that harmony found in perfection. It astonishes some people that we could build such magnificent machines and, having built them, that we could do such extraordinary things with them. As you watch this creature of the skies, it loses its mechanical identity. The plane is flying the pilot as much as he is flying it. Together, they reach for those limits for which we strive to touch with music, with dance, with painting, with sculpture . . .

This is an exercise in being alive!
— Frank Herbert

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Visit to Pinnacles

This morning the plan was to meet at 9:30 with my daughter's former science teacher and take the two of them for a sightseeing flight up down to the Pinnacles National Monument and then over to Monterey Bay and up the bay to Santa Cruz. Planned route, my normal one... RHV southeast to Hollister area, southwest to Salinas, and southeast towards King City. Pinnacles is an obvious outcrop of rocks and mountain, easy to spot from the Salinas Valley.

As per usual, the plan and the reality were two different things. Another low moved over the Bay Area and left a layer of MVFR and IFR clouds over the South Bay Area and Monterey Bay. The clouds were lower and thicker over Hollister and Salinas but predicted to clear by noon. A quick check of ASOS at Los Banos and other central valley locations indicated the skies were clear there. This was confirmed by a review of the satellite data. There was a small hole in the clouds southeast of RHV that seemed to be getting bigger as time went on.

We waited for an hour until the hole got big enough for me to be comfortable I wouldn't have to do anything out of the ordinary to fly through it. I also made sure the hole was obviously trending bigger so I would have a way back into RHV if the coast and Hollister area didn't clear up as predicted. New route, RHV to Los Banos Muni (LSN) in the central valley where the skies were clear. Then navigate back over the mountains towards Pinnacles from the east. If the skies were clear. If not, the flight would turn into a tour of the central valley and return to RHV through the hole.

Problem, Pinnacles is easy to identify from the Salinas. Not so easy to find via pilotage from the central valley. Which mountain peak to turn right at? There were a lot. I could spend the time to count peaks and valleys and figure out a route. Pinnacles isn't a GPS waypoint, though there were some GPS waypoints nearby I could use. I decided to have fun with VORs instead. I've become much more comfortable and competent navigating by VOR in the last few months. I planned to head towards Panoche VOR (PXN) and then use the 205 radial from PXN to navigate to the south end of the Pinnacles area. This would put my passengers on the Pinnacles side of the plane and allow an easy transition to flying in a big circle or two around the monument so we could check it out. I planned to do the circles at 6500 ft to stay clear of the California Condors that I would have loved to see.

We found Pinnacles very easily and circled the extinct volcano a little over 3000 ft AGL. There were rock outcrops and pinnacles and trails zig-zagging around the area. It looked like a really awesome place to hike and climb. We could see many cars at the visitors center. It was cool to have a chance to really look at that place. I've been wanting to fly around that location since my first solo cross country when I spotted the distinctive rocks on the way back from King City. Was that only a year ago?

By the time we were done flying around the monument, the clouds over Salinas were scattered and the weather at Hollister was reporting clear. I could see sections of the bay too. So we headed up the Salinas valley, towards Salinas and the Monterey Bay. We took a peak at Moss Beach and Watsonville under the clouds and flew in the clear air over the bay for a bit. Then my passenger announced he had a little too much coffee that morning and he needed to get on the ground soon. So much for sightseeing! I took a more direct route back to RHV over the remnants of the marine layer and landed at RHV in very little time.

Another great flight in the books - almost all flights with passengers who are just as excited about flying as I am are! And, I got to use some skills I'd been honing with my instrument training too.

In case you're interested our final route looked something like the picture below...