Pilots sometimes talk of smooth air as being “smooth as glass”, or “like glass”. Of course, the air is not smooth. It’s the ride that’s smooth. And when you take to the skies in something that weighs less than your car, a smooth ride is a welcome rarity.
Generally, Ma Nature is up to something; whether she’s creating high & low pressure centers, causing air to rush about seeking pressure equilibrium (wind), or heating up the ground on a clear day with the sun, creating invisible air geysers (turbulence), she’s always up to something. And it’s annoying.
Generally, when the air is still, teasing pilots with thoughts of a smooth, easy ride, the lack of wind causes all the junk in the air to just sort of hang around for a while, reducing visibility—sometimes to levels so low that a flight is impossible without the use of instruments. Rare is the day when Mother Nature blesses the pilots with the aviation trifecta: smooth air AND good visibility, on a weekend day.
This weekend, Ms. Nature was feeling especially generous, because both yesterday and today my home airport and its environs was blanketed with a delightfully clear and smooth parcel of air. So I guess this weekend was one of those reasons I bought an airplane.
Back in the days when I was renting, if I waited till Friday afternoon to realize that the weather this weekend was promising to be absolutely perfect, I’d be too late to reserve a rental, even for an hour. Instead, I stole away from the pre-Thanksgiving preparations for a few hours each day this weekend to engage in the therapy pilots crave.
Usually when I go to the airport, I have a plan. I want to go to this airport or that one, or fly this far, or practice that maneuver. Today’s plan was to practice some takeoffs and landings, then head to Solberg airport for some gas, then maybe over to Princeton to check out the pilot shop. Zip zip zip. Things started out according to plan; I spent some time in the pattern practicing takeoffs & landings, then over to Solberg. I could see Solberg while still climbing up on the crosswind leg, a mere 800 feet above the ground; the visibility was spectacular. After getting gas, I was climbing away from Solberg airport, thinking about my route to Princeton, when all of a sudden I thought “wait a minute; this is why I bought a plane, to fly. Let’s just fly around for a while.”
And so for the next half hour or so I just loitered around central New Jersey, a couple thousand feet above the farms, meandering around the big Round Valley Reservoir, looking at cars on route 78, a kid on a bike. I realized that twenty years ago, I was that kid on the bike. Now I’m just a kid on a bike with wings. I marveled at how smooth the air was; times like these, you feel like you’re levitating. After a little while of this, you start to feel like you actually belong in the air. It’s an awesome feeling.
On my way back to my home base, I decided to try a steep turn. This is a pretty benign maneuver you learn while training for your private pilot certificate; you bank the plane 45 degrees and trace a circle across the ground. The goal is to maintain the bank angle and not climb or descend, rolling out on the heading you started on. If you do it just right, you will actually fly through your own wake.
So, on a day of incredibly smooth air, here I was trying to fly through turbulence of my own creation. Hmmm.
Clear the airspace, roll in: thirty, fourty, fourty-five degrees. A little back pressure now, to maintain altitude. A little throttle too. There. Around we go, the nose fixed in its position on the horizon, drawing a circle over the ground. Here comes my heading; roll out, release back pressure, throttle back… bump bump. Yay!
Back to the airport, land, tie down; hope that I can sneak back tomorrow.
Today, instead of the dawn patrol I did the dusk patrol. By the time I got to the airport today the sun was already on its way down for the evening, but there was enough time to get into the air for a few takeoffs & landings. Once again, the air was amazingly smooth, and I was able to really enjoy watching the plane do exactly what it’s supposed to do. When the air is smooth, all the little things that go into a nice landing just come automatically. You set power, put the flaps like so, set trim, and the plane should be going this fast. Take your hands off the yoke. Look out the window, the pitch looks right. Look at the airspeed indicator. Whaddayaknow, we’re going exactly as fast as we’re supposed to be. Turn base, more flap, trim it out. Look at that, we’re sliding on down to the runway at 400 feet per minute, seventy miles per hour. Turn final, thirty degrees of flap now, here comes the runway; got the field made now, throw out all fourty degrees of flap, sixty miles per hour, starting the roundout, hold it off, hold it off, chirp.
The last trip around the pattern unfolded as the sun set and the runway lights twinkled on; slinking down toward the runway one last time, despite the buzz of the engine and the crackling on the radio, I felt quite calm, peaceful, and happy.