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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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"Why aren't we climbing?" Janet asked.

I was busy. I had just bounced a landing and didn't think much of our prospects for setting down safely on the remaining runway. We were at full power and the stall horn was chirping as I began alternately raising the flaps in increments and re-trimming to accelerate in ground effect. All 150 of our little Cessna's horses were running as hard as they could. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally developed a positive rate of climb as the last of the runway disappeared behind us. After a slight turn to avoid the tallest of the trees ahead, I answered my patient wife.

"Because it's hot."

After a slow climb back up to pattern altitude, I made a decent approach and landing. As I tied down the airplane, I felt shaken and embarrassed. I had realized we were too high on our first landing attempt, so I slipped the airplane hard to make a steep final approach. I managed my airspeed poorly in the slip, though, so by the time we crossed the threshold, we were coming in too hot. After bouncing twice, the second time higher than the first, it was time to go around.

No. It was well past time and I knew it.

We'd come to Lampson Field in Lakeport, California late on a Summer afternoon to attend a concert at a nearby resort. Because our taxi was scheduled to arrive in a few minutes, we placed a to-go order for dinner at the airport restaurant. While we waited, I reviewed my recent decisions. Preoccupied with other traffic in the pattern as we turned downwind, I misjudged our distance from the runway. With higher than normal ground speeds because of the high temperature, we were turning final before I realized just how high we were. Pressed for time, I tried to salvage a bad approach with a full-forward slip. Jittery about the thermals bouncing us around on final, I let the airspeed creep too high. By the time I flared, a bad landing was virtually assured. It was a classic error chain, just like those I'd read about in all those "never again" stories.

Our taxi arrived. To Janet's great credit, she'd already put the experience behind her and was ready to enjoy the evening. She knew the danger we'd been in and the seriousness of my mistakes, but she had the presence of mind to let it go. I decided to do the same, and we went on to have a great time.

When we departed late that night, I climbed high in the traffic pattern before proceeding on course to give us plenty of terrain clearance. It was a beautiful night and we thoroughly enjoyed the trip home. As we cruised high above the Napa Valley wine country, I reflected on the day. The picnic dinner on the lawn with my honey had been most enjoyable. The concert was great. The taxi driver was a kick. But mostly, I allowed the day's primary lesson to sink into my bones and become encoded in my DNA.

The time to go around is the instant the approach doesn't feel right.

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As we often do, my buddy Tim and I recently spent a satisfying hour of pattern work at a nearby airport in my club's Cessna 172. Afterwards, he and his wife Janine joined my wife Janet and me for dinner at a favorite Italian place.

"I hear it didn't go so well," said Janine as we settled in at our table.

That was news to me. "What do you mean?" I asked.

"You're your own worst critic," explained Tim, referring to my assessment of my soft-field takeoffs and landings. "You're never satisfied with your performance."

It was true that I felt my soft-field work had left a lot of room for improvement, but I hadn't meant to convey dissatisfaction or discouragement.

"I was having a great time," I tried to explain. "It's just that I'm always looking for ways to improve my technique."

I was concerned that I'd left Tim with the wrong impression. Overall, I was very pleased with how the flight had gone. The winds were strong, so I got to play with large crab angles in the pattern and challenging turbulence on final approach. My normal and short-field takeoffs and landings were quite good and I had said as much at the time.

I remembered, however, expressing some momentary frustration as we plunked down on the runway during what was intended to be a soft-field landing. "Aw, hell. That would've been a nose-over on a real soft field. I can't give that more than a 4. With the nose-over potential, I could even call it a zero."

I had intended my comment as an honest assessment of the maneuver and a call to action. I didn't see it as a problem or a reason for despair. I realized, though, that Tim had probably heard it that way and came away with the impression that I was unhappy with myself. What's worse is that Tim seemed to feel discouraged by my words, perhaps projecting himself into my situation.

This was a lesson for me. I need to be very mindful of the words I use when talking about flying, especially with people like Tim who want to learn to fly. This will become all the more important as I work toward becoming a flight instructor.

As I reviewed the experience, I remembered reading an article on crew resource management (CRM) by John King in which he emphasized the importance of using factual, non-critical language when communicating about in-flight performance deviations. For example, if an air carrier's policy is that bank angle may not exceed 25 degrees and the pilot not flying (PNF) notices a bank angle greater than that, he or she is required to note the deviation by saying, "Bank angle exceeds 25 degrees" rather than something like, "Dammit, you're bank's too steep!" The pilot flying (PF) is then required to respond by saying, "Correcting" and reducing the bank angle as appropriate. Using factual, standard phraseology minimizes emotional distraction and keeps the crew's focus on their desired results.

It occurred to me that I could apply this same principle when assessing my own performance. For example, in the case of my plunked soft-field landing attempt, I might have said, "That was too firm for a soft field." I could then have moved on to noting possible corrective actions, for example, "I could try a touch more power during the landing flare."

This discipline will not only help keep me focused on my desired results, it will also more accurately convey my intention to anyone who might be listening.

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"You want to climb up through that hole and get on top?" asked Anders as we cruised along 500 feet below a layer of scattered fair-weather cumulus clouds.

It was mid-morning and we'd just departed Bend, Oregon for a VFR return flight to the San Francisco Bay Area. That weekend we'd participated in the Hayward Air Rally in our club's Cessna 172. For the previous two weeks, widespread air-mass thunderstorms had kicked off every afternoon throughout central Oregon, and the pattern was expected to continue. The ragged little clouds above us were likely to grow into towering cumulus later in the day, especially over the ridges surrounding the valley we were following.

Visibility was great, winds were light, and the cloud bases were just where they were forecast to be. Before we took off, reports along our route had shown similar ceilings. They were high enough to allow us at least 1000 to 2000 feet of terrain clearance most of the way. I considered Anders's suggestion.

"You know, I'd rather stay where we are," I answered him. "I know we can't out-climb those cumulus once the convection starts, and I really don't want to be on instruments with thunderstorms in the forecast."

"Yes, but it's early yet, and the clouds are scattered enough that we can probably stay VFR," Anders countered. "More altitude means more choices."

He had a point, but I didn't like our chances of remaining VFR if the convection developed earlier than forecast.

"I'd still rather keep the terrain in sight, especially with such good visibility, distinct ceilings, and airports and highways all along our route," I replied.

"You're the PIC," he said, and we left it at that.

We rarely disagree in the cockpit, but when we do, it's the pilot in command who makes the decision. On rally legs, Anders does the flying as PIC while I navigate. On the return trip, I'm the PIC. It balances out well.

Everything was going well as we passed to the Northwest of Klamath Falls headed for Weed. The ceiling remained high enough and the visibility excellent. The scattered clouds had become a broken layer, however, so we weren't going to climb any higher VFR. Our slimmest margin above terrain came as we followed Highway 97, passing about 500 feet over a sharp ridge that rose in front of us and then fell quickly away.

"How do you feel about your decision now?" asked Anders, as we crossed the ridge.

"I still like having the terrain in sight," I said, "especially with the clouds thickening above. Yes, we're close to the ground right here, but the winds are light, we have an escape route in either direction, and we can clearly see where we're going."

"Well, I'd be more comfortable with greater terrain clearance," he replied.

I could see the merits of both our arguments. More height above terrain means more options, but getting caught in IMC with thunderstorms popping and no way to see them is bad news. Given the circumstances, I'm still comfortable with my choice. I'd like to hear other opinions, though, so please feel free to leave a comment.

As we passed over the Strawberry Valley Southwest of towering Mount Shasta, we were treated to a spectacular sight. The cumulus over the ridges on either side had grown into great columns, while the clouds above us were still ragged and benign. We would soon leave the clouds behind as we headed out over the Sacramento Valley, but for the moment we found ourselves inside a magnificent cathedral, with the sun streaming through windows in the clouds.

"Wow—you can't beat this," I said to Anders as we cruised along at 9,500 feet. "This is amazing."

"Yes indeedy," Anders quickly agreed. "No argument here."

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"You mean this doesn't shoot the guns?" the young man asked in mock shock and disappointment. The kids knew my Cessna 172 was no warbird, but some part of them still harbored the hope that the push-to-talk switch fired the cannons.

"Nope, that's for talking on the radio," was my factual, if lame, answer.

A friend had asked whether I'd be willing to help the boy scout troop that he advises with their Aviation Merit Badge. An opportunity to share my love of flying? Sign me up! My buddy Hal and I flew the Seagulls' fleet (an A36 Bonanza and a Cessna 172) to a nearby airport to meet the boys and let them see the aircraft up close. I'd recruited Hal not only because he's a very knowledgeable and generous-spirited man, but also because he's a former Naval aviator who had served on the aircraft carrier Hornet back in the late '50s. The Hornet is now a floating museum in Alameda, California, and the scouts had done part of their merit badge training on that ship. I thought they might appreciate the connection, and I was right. Hal got the only applause of the day just by walking into the room!

"I brought a model of the airplane I flew during my tour on the Hornet," Hal told the boys, showing them a plastic model of the F9F Cougar that he had flown as a 23-year-old junior officer. He described what a catapult launch and an arresting-gear landing felt like.

"You went from 0 to 120 miles per hour in about three seconds on takeoff. On landing, you went from 120 miles per hour to 0 in about the same time. You know those wild rides you've been on at Disneyland or Great America? None of them comes even close!"

The kids got it.

The main purpose for the event was for me to give a presentation about pre-flight planning, the last topic the scouts had to learn about to earn their badge. It's tough to keep teenage boys interested in a weight-and-balance spreadsheet when there are cat shots to talk about, but I did my best, trying to keep things moving along.

When we took them out to the airplanes, though, they perked right up. We divided the group in two, so each kid got to sit in the cockpit for a few minutes, getting a brief tutorial on the flight controls, instruments, and anything they had questions about (mostly the guns).

"Thanks a lot for helping out today," I said to Hal as things were winding down.

"I've had a great time. They're a great group of guys," said Hal, as we prepared our airplanes for the short hop back to our home airport. Hal and I both love to share our passion for aviation with anyone who shows signs of interest. We were pleased that the boys made the effort to ask questions.

As we were about to leave, the young man who'd been asking the most questions thanked me, saying, "I learned a lot today."

Now that's a good use for an airplane.

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