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I sat at my desk in my home office leafing through a couple of months worth of kneeboard notes and entering the flights in my logbook. I confess I tend to get lazy about logging my flights. Sometimes I'm only prompted to do it to show flight currency. It's not enough to make the flights—you also have to log them! I filled a page and turned to the next. It was an endorsement page! I had just filled a logbook.

It was a small, arbitrary thing with no real significance. I won't get any certificates or ratings or special commendations for filling a logbook. It's not as though logbooks contain a standard number of entries, so "number of logbooks filled" isn't a meaningful measure of experience. But still, there's something satisfying about it. It's a milestone of sorts.

Aviation has all kinds of formal rituals, such as soloing an airplane and getting your shirttails cut (or getting a bucket of water over the head for soloing a glider!), passing a knowledge test, or the big one, passing a checkride. But there are also lots of little, informal rituals and milestones, like flying with your first passenger, flying in for a pancake breakfast, sitting around the FBO doing some "hangar flying", going to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh—or filling a logbook.

The next morning I drove to the pilot shop at the airport across town to pick up a couple of items. As I checked out, the woman behind the counter smiled and said, "New logbook! That's fun, huh? Means you're flying a lot!"

"Yes, ma'am!"

She was right. It is fun!

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The last glow of twilight was fading from the sky as we headed towards Los Angeles in my club's Cessna 172. My friend Nadine was in the right seat with Macallan the 23-pound mega-shih-tzu on her lap. My wife Janet was in the back seat along with our minimal baggage. We'd had a wonderful dinner at Paso Robles, where we took on some fuel. As we approached Santa Barbara, I had just turned towards our destination of Van Nuys when we saw several flashes of lightning ahead in the distance.

The weather had been beautiful the whole trip and the forecast called for it to continue, so that lightning was unexpected to say the least.

I keyed the mike. "Center, 377, we're seeing some lightning up ahead. Can you give us any information about that?"

"Oh, there's some activity over near Daggett," said the controller, "but I see nothing along your route of flight."

"Great, thanks for that," I replied.

Daggett? That was in the Mojave Desert well over a hundred miles away! I was reminded just how far you can see from 9,500 feet.

"It looks a lot closer than that!" said Janet.

"Yes, it does!" I agreed. Even with the controller's reassurances, we were going to keep a careful eye on those storms. I was always taught to avoid thunderstorms by at least 30 miles, but I realized how hard that can be to gauge, especially at night. If it hadn't been for the controller's help, I would have been very concerned.

That experience stuck with me and it's come in handy more than once. Years later when my buddy Anders and I were on our way to Bend, Oregon as part of the Hayward Air Rally, we found ourselves faced with some nasty convective weather. By the time we got to the Klamath Falls area, we were seeing shifting masses of black clouds, opaque sheets of rain, occasional muted lightning flashes, and lowering ceilings directly on our route North. We heard other pilots calling out the position of storm cells on the air-to-air frequency. Thinking back to the trip to Van Nuys, I strongly advised against betting our lives on judging the distance to those cells. We called it a day and spent the night in Klamath Falls and went on to Bend in the morning.

Sometimes the air between storms is clear and there's lots of room to divert, so by relating storm cells to features on the ground, you can use good old fashioned pilotage to determine their approximate distance. This is much easier during the day, but it can be possible at night too. One evening when I was flying patterns at my home airport of San Jose International, I was turning crosswind when I saw lightning over the Santa Cruz mountains, less than 15 miles away. From my low altitude, it was easy to see that the lightning strikes were between me and the mountains. Needless to say, that was the end of the evening's pattern work!

The remainder of our flight into Van Nuys was uneventful. As it became clear the storms really were out over the Mojave, we were even able to enjoy the show. At that safe distance, it was actually quite beautiful. The night was clear as we followed the "rabbit" and landed on the big runway, 16 Right.

"Beautiful flight, honey," Janet said as we taxied to the FBO.

"Yeah, that was great—thank you, Kennan!" said Nadine.

"You're welcome!" I replied. "Glad you enjoyed it!"

Macallan just gave me a hang-dog look indicating he was glad to be on the ground.

Well, you can't please everybody.

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How many times have you heard someone say, “It’ll come with time,” when referring to learning a particular skill or technique? I’ve heard it quite a lot. Often, it seems intended to end the conversation, or at least change the subject, when the speaker is tired of talking about it or has exhausted their knowledge of the subject. Still, the implication is that only time will bring the skills in question and there’s simply nothing more to say or do about it.

We put a lot of emphasis on flight time in aviation as a measure of experience, but how good a yardstick is it really? As the old adage says, “Do you have 500 hours of experience, or 1 hour 500 times?” The truth is that flight hours are only part of the story. A very experienced former airshow performer I know put it this way: “Recent experience counts for a lot more than total experience.” I’ve noticed that too. I know that my instrument flying skills were sharper right after my instrument checkride than they are now, even though I have more total experience.

Still, I think many student and low-time pilots get discouraged, despairing that it will take years and hundreds if not thousands of hours for them to acquire the skills they need to fly confidently and well. But there’s actually a lot we can do to gain experience quickly.

Take landings, for example. Landing is one of those skills that takes a lot of practice to do well. An instructor I know once said, “It takes at least a thousand hours to really learn how to land.” That might be true given the way most of us fly after earning our licenses: short- to medium-length cross-country flights of an hour or more, with a single landing at the destination and another landing at home after the flight. If we make a concentrated practice of landings, though, doing pattern work regularly and getting periodic dual instruction, we can hone our landing skills much more quickly.

But while it’s true that skills come with practice and persistence, that doesn't mean we should just keep doggedly bashing away. W. C. Fields once said a very wise thing: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then if you still don’t succeed, the hell with it. There’s no sense being a damn fool about it.” I might be reading too much into his little pearl of wisdom, but I take it to mean that if what you’re doing isn’t working, quit doing it and try something else. We don’t have to take a myopic, nose-to-the-grindstone approach to practice and bulldog our way through.

With awareness, we can bring some subtlety and nuance to the process, ultimately making it less onerous and more productive. Anyone who’s been following this blog will recognize this process. Yep, it’s the observe-act-observe cycle again, and it’s a great way to build confidence by gaining experience quickly.

So these days when someone tells me that a particular skill will come with time, I just smile, knowing I don’t have to just sit around waiting for it to happen.

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I sat in my Seattle hotel room frowning at my computer screen. The weather synopsis showed a stationary front parked right on the Canadian border, and true to its name, it was forecast to stay put for at least the next 24 hours bringing rain and low clouds to the area. In contrast, the forecast for Seattle was surprisingly good, and the view out my hotel window corroborated it.

"How's it looking?" asked my wife Janet.

"Well, the ceilings look reasonably high and temperatures are above freezing," I answered. "It looks like we can get into Victoria or Vancouver pretty easily, but there won't be any sightseeing along the way and once we're there, well, the weather will be crummy."

"And we have to head home day after tomorrow," Janet said.

"Yep, and tomorrow's forecast looks just as bad," I replied.

"Doesn't make much sense, does it?"

"Nope, not really."

So much for the best-laid plans! I'd spent months collecting all the documents and charts we'd need to cross the border to visit Victoria, Vancouver, and the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. I'd registered with eAPIS and learned how to submit manifests. I'd researched Canadian customs procedures and aviation regulations and purchased the required survival gear. I'd spent hours studying the Canadian charts and approach plates, which cost real money. I'd renewed my passport and obtained a Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit. I'd updated my pilot certificate with an "English proficient" endorsement. I'd obtained a US Customs user fee decal, Radio Station License, and letter of insurance for the airplane.

And now it looked as though it had all been for naught. Sigh. "Well, that's the flying game," I said, and started planning a flight South where the forecast was much more vacation-friendly.

The start of our flying vacation in my club's A36 Bonanza with my parents and Eddie Pippin, Canine Aviator, had been delayed two days by a nasty weather system complete with thunderstorms and icing, so we knew we'd have to be flexible. As it was, we spent the trip visiting the remote family farm where my mother had spent the five happiest Summers of her childhood, the stunning painted hills of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and four first-rate aviation and car museums: the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, the LeMay Museum, Seattle's Museum of Flight, and the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum in Hood River, Oregon. We were treated to a wonderful birthday dinner with friends and family in Seattle. And we got to tour the stunning Cascade mountains that span California, Oregon, and Washington in the best possible way: by small airplane.

So even though the trip didn't go as planned, no one was complaining. For me it was yet another lesson in how much more fun, relaxing, and safe flying can be when I'm not too attached to an itinerary.

Dusk was fast approaching when we finally landed at Ukiah, California to drop my parents off at their car. We loaded their bags, said our good-byes, and Janet and I prepared the airplane for the trip home. The stars were bright in the moonless sky as we took off to the South, following Highway 101. Soon we were level at our cruising altitude as the scattered lights of the Santa Rosa Valley passed underneath us.

"It was a wonderful trip, sweetie," Janet said with a smile.

"It certainly was, and it's not over yet," I replied, gazing out the window. "It's a beautiful night for flying!"

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"This transmission is coming to you approximately halfway between the Moon and the Earth. We have been 31 hours and about 20 minutes into flight. We have about less than 40 hours left to go to the Moon."

Forty-two years ago this week, astronaut Frank Borman, commander of Apollo 8, began a television broadcast with these words. Two days earlier, he and fellow astronauts Bill Anders and Jim Lovell had embarked on the first interplanetary voyage in human history. The mission's purpose originally was to test rendezvous and docking procedures in Earth orbit, but because of delays in lunar module (LM) development, it was decided to change the mission to a flight to the moon. The purpose now was to explore translunar flight and lunar orbit procedures in preparation for later missions. Rumors that the Soviet Union was also planning a similar manned circumlunar mission further spurred the decision.

It was ultimately this political reality and not scientific curiosity that motivated the US government to spend an estimated $25 billion on the Apollo program, equivalent to over $170 billion today. Such a program would be unthinkable in today's political climate, but the relative prosperity and cold-war passions of the 1960s made it possible.

Whatever its motives, the Apollo program was responsible for one of the most profound awakenings in human history. One of the best-known products of the Apollo 8 mission was this photo, showing the Earth rising over the lunar surface as the spacecraft orbited.

Earthrise - Apollo 8

Volumes have been written about this one photograph and its effect on the human psyche. Seeing the entire Earth for the first time as a distant, magnificent jewel suspended in the vast blackness of space forever changed the way we human beings think of our home. The Apollo missions afforded us the ultimate perspective on the Earth: close enough to recognize it as our blue and beautiful planet, but distant enough to make abundantly clear its utter isolation and fragility.

However profound the effect of this one image, I believe it's just one spectacular example of the experience of flight. In truth, pilots have been viewing our Earth from a unique and compelling perspective since the dawn of aviation. Even a low-altitude flight in a Piper Cub offers a fundamentally different experience of our world, on a small and intimate scale, than is possible from our usual ground-bound vantage point. I believe this is one of the main reasons that the experience of flight is so revelatory for so many people and that a craving and longing for that perspective is a powerful component of what we call the "flying bug."

There's an irony in this perspective in that the very technology that makes it possible contributes, in however small a way, to damaging our magnificent Earth. That's why I'm so excited about recent research into sustainable flight technologies, such as electric propulsion and algal biofuels. (See my posts from earlier this year about the CAFE Foundation's annual Electric Aircraft Symposia.) It's also why I try to share the insights I've gained from flying small aircraft with as many people as possible.

The Earthrise photograph and the unprecedented perspective it made possible, like all insights born of flight, have come at great cost. Are they worth it? That's up to us.

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