July 11, 2006


Why I Love to Fly


Its been quite some time since Iíve posted anything not related to my CAPS deployment last year, the subsequent brain surgeries and the lengthy recovery process.Even though I resumed flying last September, Iím just not able to fly as frequently or as far as I used to.Iíve largely resigned myself to the fact that, until I regain my medical certificate, my flying these days is limited to going up with a CFII co-pilot, day trips to Nantucket, and occasional forays into IMC to maintain proficiency.Once in a while Iím able to find an Angel Flight with passengers who are within the gross weight limitation of an SR22 (with 350 pounds of pilots in the front seats), but more often than not these missions are canceled at the last minute for one reason or another.


Today, however, was the best flying day Iíve had in quite some time.


Two weeks ago I signed up for the second leg of an Angel Flight from the midwest to Long Island, and last night when I reviewed the weather at the origin airport, I had a gut feeling it was unlikely that the pilot for the first leg would be comfortable flying today (due to the dinosaur-era airplane he was flying).Sure enough, as I was driving to the airport this morning, the pilot for the first leg called to say that he couldnít take off due to weather in the vicinity and that he was planning to wait for an hour.Sure enough, at 9:30 a.m. he called to let me know that he had scrubbed the mission.I felt really bad for the patient:I woman Iíve flown before on Angel Flights who cannot afford a commercial flight and has little flexibility in scheduling a new doctorís appointment.


I called Angel Flight Northeast to confirm the cancellation, and just before hanging up I asked offhand if there were any open missions for today.Yes was the answer:a mother and father who live near Massena, NY had just called because their infant daughter was being operated on today in New York City.I asked how much they weighed, and was pleasantly surprised to hear 275 pounds.I immediately filed new flight plans on DUATS:only 1.5 hours in each direction, which meant no need to refuel and therefore no weight and balance issues for the return leg with a full load of passengers and luggage.


We took off from White Plains (KHPN) at 10:30 a.m. and arrived in Potsdam airport (KPTD), south of Massena, just before noon.The conditions enroute were haze, and then various cloud layers, so it was easy IMC for most of the trip.Radar coverage in that region of New York State is virtually non-existent, so we were cleared for the GPS 24 approach from twenty miles out and werenít able to pick out the runway until less than three miles.


The passengers arrived just after we landed, and as we chatted before takeoff and during the flight it became clear that this was no ordinary Angel Flight mission:Their daughter is ten months old and has been hospitalized since birth:first in Burlington, Vermont, and for the last five months at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City (where, coincidentally, I too was hospitalized for a good part of last summer).Theyíve been able to visit her only three times since the transfer to New York City:either by driving (a ten hour trip each way) or by bus (a fourteen hour trip each way).Last night, at midnight, the hospital called with news that a donor had been found and that their daughter would be operated on this morning to receive a new liver and small intestine in a ten hour surgery.Finally, this young couple had never before flown in an airplane.


This combination of factors gave the mission an undercurrent of emotions and significance to the passengers that I have not felt in a long time, even after having flown many dozens of Angel Flights.


As we flew south past Albany, the weather picture added a new challenge to the equation:XM weather showed red precipitation blobs moving from west to east across our route, and the Stormscope showed significant thunderstorm activity just 50 miles past our destination.Using these tools, we were able to thread through all of that unpleasantness and keep the ride smooth albeit a bit rainy.I showed the passengers what was happening as we passed each band of storms and explained the strategy for maneuvering through them if necessary.


I began to worry when we were just 20 miles north of HPN, because two commuter flights above us were unable to navigate around various buildups and still descend quickly enough for the approach into White Plains.Then the controller banished both of them to holding patterns just north of us, and the captain of one flight complained that she didnít have enough fuel to go around in circles for an hour or two.Then the controller advised them that LaGuardia and Newark airports were no longer accepting any inbound flights, due to heavy thunderstorm activity on their arrival courses.I advised the passengers that we were just passing through the last band of the storm and were lucky enough to have an arrival course that took us precisely between two large buildups.


For the first time in my experience during IMC, the ILS approach at White Plains was replaced with the GPS 16 approach.But rather than have us fly to the initial approach fix, the controller gave us first class treatment with vectors to final.It was an oddly silent approach:all the jet traffic into White Plains was stacked up in holding patterns behind us, and no one was taking off because of ground holds due to the severe weather in the vicinity.Mindful of the passengersí high state of anxiety, I landed as softly as humanly possible; only to hear later that they got a bit nauseous because they were afraid to look outside as we approached the ground.


Reflecting about the day as I drove home, I realized how deeply I love to fly.The combination of mental, physical and emotional aspects is both intense and soothing.Whether skimming the clouds, landing in haze or twirling dials to visualize the weather ahead, I find flying to be one of lifeís supremely satisfying experiences.Add to that the ability to use an airplane to help unite a young family with their own immense problems just adds to the equation.Isnít that just what Orville and Wilbur envisioned when they upgraded from bicycles to gliders to powered flight?