Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Pilot's Backyard

If you are waiting anxiously for the result of my Instrument Check Ride, I'll reduce the suspense ..  I passed the oral and haven't taken the flight portion yet. I'll write more about the actual ride soon. This is what was on my mind instead.

I don't remember the context of the conversation anymore but I remember one day my CFI was talking about his flying. He said something about all of Northern California or perhaps it was the state of California is his backyard. That phrase stuck in my head back then. I didn't quite relate to it, but I remembered it. I had an awkward moment over a week ago when I realized I had come to consider all of Northern California to be my backyard too.

Since earning my PPL almost a year ago I've done quite a bit of cross-country flying. In part to ensure I'd get enough cross-country time for my instrument rating, but mostly because, that's why I love to fly. I love to experience the journey and excitement of going to new airports and communities, watching the land roll by underneath my wings with the sun and clouds as my companions, talking to different controllers - who have become welcome and even familiar voices, and even, on occasion, experiencing different problems and scaring myself.

I've become accustomed to flying to Willows, CA for pie or to race, or to Santa Rosa Charles M. Shultz Airport to see the Snoopy statues and enjoy sushi at the SkyLounge restaurant in the terminal. To say I fly the Bay Tour (a flight up and around San Francisco Bay Area's most iconic sights - the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Angel Island, Sausolito and Tiberon, just to name a few) often is an understatement. My husband and I fly to Harris Ranch in the central valley for steak. I've been able to fly down to Oceano Dunes to camp under the stars at that airport and to San Lois Obispo to visit another friend at another. A quick trip to Auburn for breakfast makes total sense. All of these trips I consider day trips from my south bay base at Reid-Hillview Airport, sometimes just an afternoon jaunt over a long lunch break.

Distance becomes somewhat warped when you're a pilot. You think of trips in terms of time. An hour here, an hour and a half there. Three hours is a bit long but certainly doable. We joke about our range being limited more by bladder than fuel capacity. When you run marathons often, you don't think of 10 or 15 miles as far, but if you take the time to walk those miles or look at them on a map, you realize it is far. When you are a pilot, even of a relatively slow plane like I fly, you don't think of an hour flight as far… that's right around the corner. But if you look at a map, an hour flight is quite far. Especially if you compare that hour flight time to the driving time it takes to travel the same distance. That's where I had the awkward realization about my new backyard.

I was driving up to Healdsburg, CA to meet my good friends for dinner before a planned half marathon in Santa Rosa. That same weekend we were going to be at an auto racing event at Sonoma Raceway (aka Sears Point) which was near Novato, CA. All of these locations are in the North Bay, Healdsburg the furthest north of all. We race at Sonoma Raceway often, so I had internalized the distance there and, while far, it wasn't that bad. I go to Santa Rosa all the time for sushi and I'd popped over to the Healdsburg airport once, just because. So none of these locations seemed far to me.

After leaving Novato and sitting in Friday afternoon traffic for 45 minutes, making all of 20 miles progress and not even getting close to the "not far" airport of Santa Rosa, it hit me. I had become so used to flying to these places and points further, I'd internalized all of these locations as part of my own, personal, backyard. Just like my CFI had described. I realized I'd better think of my mode of transportation before I announce a location as "not far" again! The traffic cleared up eventually and an hour or so later I made it to Healdsburg. It would have taken me an hour and a half less to do that trip door to door in a plane (including driving from my home 45 minutes to the airport, prepping the plane and flying to Healdsburg).

Now I have a real appreciation for how large my backyard has become, thanks to the time, struggle and joy of learning to fly. When I started on this journey I didn't have in mind as a goal to make my state my backyard. I was caught up in the joy of flight. I still am. Now I get to add to that joy the incredible expansion of my horizons far beyond a comfortable (or uncomfortable) road trip.

This morning I logged my 250th hour of flight time. My husband and I rented two planes and flew with two pilot friends (one a private pilot and one a student pilot) to Sacramento Executive Airport for brunch. Just a quick hop and fun brunch with friends, in another part of my backyard.

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