March 10, 2004

Everywhere you go there is a pecking order. Sometimes it is based upon what you do, and sometimes it is a matter of who you are. It is a fact of human nature that we categorize and sort the world around us... it is how our brains have learned to sift the order out of chaos. Aviation has its pecking order too, and the folks who fly the heavy iron sit at the top, with student pilots at the bottom. Us fools who sit by ourselves in single- engine planes through all sorts of dark and gloom don't sit very high on the list.

I often rub shoulders with the transport pilots, exchange "hello"s and get some interesting reactions when they figure out that my whole world is just a small part of western New York. Sometimes the conversation ends there, and sometimes it is only the beginning... One fellow looked me in the eye and said he would not like to be alone in an airplane on this particular morning. On another morning, a different fellow looked upwards and sighed that little airplanes are soooo much more fun than the big ones.

This past week has highlighted both of those sentiments as the fickle month of March freed us from winter for a short while. Wednesday night featured a layer of very icy clouds between the ground and cruise altitude. Water droplets hit the plane, ran back a bit and froze. It would have been a real problem if the cloud layer was thicker, or if the plane had to linger in it during an approach sequence.

All summer long I fret the return of the ice and dark of winter, and all winter I am forced to view simple clouds as mortal enemies. Usually the clouds do not produce significant amounts of ice upon the plane, but sometimes they will. Moreover, they can change their disposition with altitude or over a distance. If the plane is in clouds, and the temperature is below freezing, a clear altitude must be sought.

By this time of year it all becomes second- nature, as routine as shoveling the walk or scraping the windshield. There is no yearning for the easy days of summer because they are long ago and forgotten. The fact that spring is on the doorstep is tempered by the fact that March is winter's cruelest month in this part of the world.

Friday night was like a summer evening though. For the first time in months I left the long johns on the hook at home and was comfortable wearing only a light jacket. The air was warm and carried the moisture from the melting snow, but the chill of the cold ground produced a haze that resembled a midsummer evening. Wistfully I looked up at the full moon through the haze and the broken overcast and pretended it was July.

The whole world felt like an easy place as I rolled down the runway, and after takeoff I nudged the nose lower and built speed instead of altitude. At the end of the runway I traded away the extra speed and zoomed upwards, before settling into a normal climb. It wasn't as aggressive as a hot- dogging stunt, just a subtle shift from the routine... enough to acknowledge that "yes I am free!"

I climbed through the murky moonlight and through warm clouds that I knew held no harm. The temperature at the ground had been almost fifty degrees, but half a mile higher, the air was a balmy sixty two degrees. It has been months since I last saw a temperature like that, and looking outside in the dark, I was able to pretend that it was summertime.

A mile below me, the flashing traffic light in the middle of Prattsburg caught my eye, and I thought of small- town summer evenings. Kids would be playing, a few dogs barking, teens hanging out, and folks of all ages could be found sitting on front porch gliders. Maybe I was also pretending it was forty years ago too.

I looked to my right and knew that Dundee was in the distant darkness, and I could see the beacon at the Penn Yan and then Canandaigua airports. There was another beacon in the distant northwest, an anonymous finger reaching out into the night, probably from the Perry Warsaw airport but I couldn't be sure. Honeyoe Falls caught my eye as I started descending for Rochester, and I thought of the friendly grass runway there.

The sky seemed alive with places I have flown and places to revisit in my little plane, as I sat comfortably behind the big rumbling propeller of the company's plane. The lights of Rochester had grown from a distant glow upon the horizon into a web of highways and streets, and it was time to make the final turn for landing. I like Rochester's old runway, shorter and darker than the new ones, but close to the parking ramp.

Us little guys have all the fun. Our planes are short on horsepower and the victories over winter weather are so much more satisfying. We fly low, and look out at places like Painted Post or Middlesex rather than New York or Chicago Our four ton airplanes carry a lot more fun than the hundred ton planes can handle. Many aspects of our planes aren't much different than a Piper Cub, and perhaps us old fools who fly low and slow in air commerce aren't so far from Cubs either.

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