December 23, 1998


"So can I guess that this was scud running", the man asked, with no inflection of a question mark in his voice. I replied that yes, sort of, it was. I felt his upcoming flight test was the day's most significant flight, and I didn't want to dwell upon our trip down from Elmira. I muttered to myself that this fellow didn't quite have his license yet, and I was already showing him bad habits. I have a regard for his judgment though, and have confidence that he was impressed more with the trip's difficulty than its results.

This fellow, Bruce, had flown regularly since springtime, and was ready for his test. I knew it, and he knew it. The only remaining challenge was to get him and the examiner together on a day when the weather in Selinsgrove PA was good enough for a flight test. Sunday was scheduled, but the weather forecast was mediocre at best. It appeared that the Selinsgrove weather would be adequate, but that weather for the trip would be difficult over the high ground north of Williamsport.

Normally I don't go to tests with my students, and only at the last minute I decided to go with Bruce. Frankly, I was worried that I would end up watching the airplane drone effortlessly through smooth air under a medium height overcast, wasting my day and taking the shine off of "his" trip.

By the time we crossed over Canton I knew that I had made the right choice, as the clouds grew lower and the ground rose higher. I reviewed with him that our present altitude was adequate to clear all terrain, and that a turn to due north would take us back to better weather, if we were unable to continue. A few minutes later, the ground just beneath us disappeared in clouds, and Bruce shifted to instrument references and made a smooth 180 degree turn. Returning to better conditions, I outlined my backup plan, which was to follow the valley from Canton through Roaring Branch and Trout Run to Williamsport.

I had never traveled that route, and I was impressed by such a steep- sided and narrow valley. Set below and amidst the morning's clouds I couldn't help comparing the view to paintings of various Chinese mountain landscapes, although I didn't have time to properly appreciate the scenery. Scud running, or flying through valleys because the clouds are too low for the hilltops, can turn nasty if a narrow valley becomes capped by low clouds and then fills in. There is no way to turn around if you wait until too late.

After introducing Bruce to the examiner, I had little to do, so I took a walk. It was just like a spring day, with dandelions to sniff, and a cardinal singing in the woods beyond the creek. I walked almost into town, just enjoying the weather, and came to notice that although the road was a strip of retail stores, there were a number of older properties that dated back to an earlier time. They reminded me of the house my grandmother's parents had in Horseheads in the 50s, a proper house at the sidewalk, with a neatly planted back yard, and a shed in the back corner. I'm not one to live in town, but there is something irresistible about a house, yard, and a picket fence.

Returning to the airport, I paused at the middle of the highway bridge, my daydreams still carried along by such gentle December weather. I thought of Bruce and his flight test, of my flight test, and of the millions of other flight tests. It is one of life's significant passages. Idly, I attempted to divine his success by dropping little pebbles into the slow moving water below. The pebbles dropped straight down, which I interpreted to be a good sign.

Bruce flew home as a private pilot. He worked many hard hours to earn his new license, and received the gift of flight for his efforts. This gift goes on and on. He can receive it alone, he can share it, and he can pass it along. What a wonderful way to start the week of Christmas.

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