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The sun was low on the horizon and the distant towering cumulus clouds glowed red-orange in the fading light. I was flying my club's A36 Bonanza with my instructor Rick, a former Naval aviator and Bonanza and Baron Pilot Proficiency Program (BPPP) instructor, and we were working on my checkout in the airplane. Rick has owned and flown Bonanzas and Barons for a long time and knows them inside and out, so I was in good hands. We were on our way to Grass Valley, his home airport, so I could get some night cross-country time and some experience with that unfamiliar, mid-elevation runway in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range. A leisurely dinner was also part of the plan.

I had recently bought a pulse-oxymeter, a device for measuring blood oxygen saturation and I handed it Rick to try. He put it on his finger and pressed the button. After a few seconds it indicated good oxygenation and a pulse rate of about 72.

"Cool gadget," Rick said. "This would be useful for long trips at altitude."

Then I put the device on my finger. It showed good oxygenation and a pulse rate of 120. Rick glanced at the display, did a double-take, and then looked at me.

"I must have more confidence in the pilot than you do," he said with a wry smile.

"120?!" I thought to myself. That was a shock. My usual resting pulse is about 60. I didn't feel particularly anxious, and in fact the flight was going well. The Bonanza was a lot more aircraft than the Cessnas and gliders I'd flown before and I was still very new to it, so I suppose it made sense that I would be on "high alert," but it felt like there was more to it than that. There was no time to dwell on it, though—I had an airplane to fly.

It was dusk when we arrived at Grass Valley and I made a passable approach and landing on the downsloping runway. After a quick tour of Rick's hangar, where his car was parked, we headed into town for dinner at one of his favorite places. We had a great time, enjoying the food, the hangar talk, and as much flirting with the charming waitress as is appropriate for middle-aged, married men. (Did we happen to mention that we're pilots? It's possible.) Our only regret was missing out on the local microbrew, but we still had flying to do.

The return trip to San Jose provided plenty of good learning experiences, including an aborted takeoff (note to self: heels on the floor!), leaning for density altitude, and some nighttime pilotage. It was a great flight.

Afterwards, though, I kept coming back to that crazy high pulse rate. Did it mean anything? I started monitoring my pulse occasionally when flying and noticed that it was usually pretty high, even during low-workload phases of routine flights. What if anything was that pulse rate telling me? As I mulled it over, I became aware of a specific anxiety that was lurking in my subconscious: fear of in-flight engine failure.

More to the point, I realized I had doubts about my skills for handling an engine failure. Once identified, those doubts were easy to address by spending some quality time with the POH, mentally rehearsing its emergency procedures, and practicing dead-stick descents and landing approaches from cruise altitude. This was a big confidence booster.

I noticed, though, that my pulse rate still tends to be a bit high when I'm flying. I don't see it as a "problem" that needs to be "fixed" but rather as a clue. Recently, I realized that some of my early fears about low-altitude stall-spin accidents were never fully resolved; they were just overbalanced by improved skills and positive experiences. I take this as a sign that I need to explore the performance envelope until I really understand the edges of that envelope. It's time for some training in upset recoveries, emergency maneuvers, and aerobatics! Watch this space for more about that…

It's been years since that flight to Grass Valley, but it's still providing new lessons. I think that might be true of every flight I've ever made, and writing this blog helps me mine those past flights for lessons that I might otherwise miss.

After putting the airplane away for the night, Rick and I did a quick debrief and scheduled our next lesson.

"G'night, buddy—good flying today!" he said as he headed to his car.

"Thanks, Rick! See you next time," I replied as I locked up the hangar.

Mission accomplished—high pulse rate and all.

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