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A Little Dab'll Do Ya

I lay in bed one evening thinking about a flight I'd made several days earlier with my wife Janet as we returned to the San Francisco Bay Area from a trip to visit my parents on the North coast of California. It was mid-Summer and fire season was in full swing. There was a major blaze raging in the rugged terrain South of the Anderson Valley accompanied by the usual temporary flight restriction squarely along our usual route. We skirted the TFR to the West along the coast, which put us upwind of the worst of the smoke, allowing a clear view of the fire area. The warm weather was accompanied by a classic temperature inversion, with the top clearly visible from 6,500 feet as a blanket of smoky muck below us as far as the eye could see.

Planning the flight North and the return trip several days later had required accounting for the TFRs, visibility limitations, and the timing of the Summertime coastal fog. The situation required closer attention than usual.

As it happened, because we were upwind of the fires, the visibility was surprisingly good. We were treated to a beautiful view of the coast below us as the snow-white fog built up offshore. It was such a peaceful scene. The view to the East, though, looked like something out of Dante. Lines of red-orange flames stretched for miles across ridges and valleys, churning forth gray-white smoke that streamed Southeast, enveloping the landscape.

When we arrived at Little River airport, the fog was on its way in. As I finessed the airplane through the familiar low-level turbulence on final approach, we faced an advancing wall of white. We landed just minutes before it pushed onshore, closing the airport. It does that just about every Summer evening—the only question is the timing. We were carrying plenty of fuel and could have diverted if necessary, but we lucked out.

On the return flight, we found that the inversion was still strong, but much higher. For about fifteen minutes, as we passed to the South of the TFR, we were on instruments because there was no discernible horizon, even though we were technically VFR. Making that unexpected transition to instrument flight and back to visual flight was great practice.

I lay in bed recalling all these images and their attendant sensations—the feeling of three-dimensional motion, the vibration of the engine—and felt a deep satisfaction that made me smile. I often find that a single flight's experiences persist in memory for a long time. In fact, it's often easier to savor these experiences after the fact when I don't have to concentrate on flying an airplane. Even the simplest flights, such as an evening of pattern work at my home airport, can leave me feeling almost giddy.

As sleep crept up on me, I marvelled at how persistent the joy of flight can be. It had been days since our trip, but I was still taking pleasure in it. My last mental image as I drifted off to sleep was of waves lapping a shoreline, a ragged-edged blanket of fog over the ocean, and a setting sun. I slept well.

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