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It was a gorgeous night. A full moon had risen over the ridge to the East. The Western sky was a deep blue against the deeper blue-black of the distant ocean. To my right, the bright moon threw the silhouette of the mountains into sharp relief against the sky. The tail of the airplane cast a shadow on the wing.

I was following Victor 25 from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles on a return trip from the LA area to San Jose in our club's A36 Bonanza. I had limited hours in that airplane, so the insurance company wanted me to accumulate some solo time before they'd cover me with passengers aboard. Since I needed some solo hours anyway, why not satisfy the solo cross-country requirements for the Commercial certificate?

It had been a great flight, with a drop-the-gear slam-dunk VFR descent into El Monte to avoid traffic inbound for Burbank, an excellent and enormous $600 enchilada at Annia's Kitchen, and a stunning sunset over Santa Barbara. I'd even experienced the LA basin's notorious smog. (An old Henny Youngman line came to mind: "I just got back from LA. I flew in, felt the sights, and flew home!") Now I was sitting quietly, admiring the twinkling lights along the distant coast and feeling utterly content while George (the autopilot) flew the airplane. Everything was perfect.

Then a thought occurred to me: "Where you gonna go if the engine quits?"

I did not have a good answer to that question. I was over rough, remote, inhospitable terrain, beyond gliding distance from any airport, even at 10,500 feet. Despite the bright moonlight, the ground below was a black, featureless expanse of wilderness. My life now depended entirely on the health of my engine. Suddenly, the engine instruments held my undivided attention. Fortunately, they showed nothing alarming.

The remainder of the flight was uneventful, but the memory of that unsettling thought stuck with me. I realized that despite my relative inexperience in the airplane, I had already become comfortable enough to be complacent. I did some soul-searching. I reviewed my planning to see how I could have made the flight safer. I studied the sectional chart. I did gliding-range calculations.

Modern airplane engines are remarkably reliable. The chances of our plant packing it in are small enough that we can fly for years without giving it a second thought. Still, I personally know a pilot who had to dead-stick a Bonanza to a landing at an Arizona airport. Years ago, our club's own Bonanza blew a jug on departure from Catalina Island, forcing the pilot to make a 180-degree turn-back to land on the runway. As rare as these incidents are, they do happen.

We all know it's important to practice engine-out drills every so often. We need to know our minimum altitude for safely making a turn back to the airport. We're taught to keep an emergency landing spot in mind at all times. Often overlooked, though, is the need to plan our flights so we have a chance of finding that landing spot underneath us should the need arise. It might not be possible to have an emergency landing plan in our back pocket 100 percent of the time, but we can certainly improve the odds by spending just a few extra minutes in our flight planning, and maybe a few extra gallons of gas, to choose the safest route.

I know I can always improve my flight planning. I know that flying entails some unavoidable risks. I also know that I can take positive actions to minimize those risks. These days, when I'm flying between San Jose and LA, especially at night, I make the mundane, boring, conservative choice.

I follow I-5.

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It was the moment of truth. Michael removed the towel covering the fuel pump, revealing the verdict: 13.2 gallons. That was within a half-gallon of what we'd predicted! Unfortunately, the number we'd actually submitted on our rally form included an additional 10% "fudge factor," a decision that had just come back to bite us. Hard.

Sigh. Maybe next time.

My buddy Anders and I had just competed in a "Fun Fly" rally organized by our fellow club members Hal and Michael. My friend Angela accompanied us in our club's Cessna. She'd just lined up a gig writing for wired.com's Autopia section and was intrigued by my description of rally flying, so she came along to see what it was all about. She wrote a great story about the event.

The informal rally followed the format of the Hayward Air Rally. Hal and Michael have been flying our club's Bonanza in the Hayward Rally for several years now, and they've turned in several impressive performances, often scoring in the top three. Anders and I are newbies, but we've been officially bitten by the bug. On rally legs, he does the flying while I run a home-grown flight planning spreadsheet on my laptop.

Our course that day was a single leg traversing California's Central Valley, starting at Tracy and ending at Los Baños. The objective, as in the Hayward Rally, was accuracy in predicting time en route and fuel burn. This requires an intimate understanding of one's airplane, in particular its fuel burn and true airspeed under various conditions. Managing time is easier than managing fuel, and Anders and I are getting fairly good at it. We were only 13 seconds off this time around, which is respectable, if not quite good enough to be competitive.

It's the fuel that gives us fits.

"How much did we burn?" asked Angela after the fueling was done.

"13.2 gallons," I answered.

"And how much did you predict?"

"15."

"That's not very close, is it?"

"Nope."

In the past, our fuel-burn predictions had always come up about 10% short. So, lacking a good understanding of where the fuel was going, we decided to fudge it. We figured an extra 10% should at least get us closer. Not this time. There are so many variables, especially in our elderly carbureted Cessna. Reproducing a particular fuel-flow rate from flight to flight is difficult. Measuring the actual fuel burned in a particular configuration is a challenge. Just fueling the airplane consistently is hard. Clearly, Anders and I have our work cut out for us.

So, what's the attraction of this obsessive-compulsive behavior? Are rally fliers just sick? Should we seek professional help? Maybe, but it's a blast. There's the challenge of competing with people who really know what they're doing. There's the camaraderie of fellow and sister aviators. There's the opportunity to understand our airplane better, or at least realize how poorly we do understand it. Besides, as I'm so fond of saying, it's flying!

We all sat around the lunch table at Ryan's Place across the street from the airport swapping stories and comparing notes—being careful, of course, not to divulge any secrets. Finally the time came to announce the results of the day's contest. As Michael read them out, it came as no surprise to Anders and me that we came in seventh place. We took our well-earned lumps with grace if not with pride. At least we weren't "Tail-End Charlie" this time!

Being gluttons for punishment, and always on the lookout for excuses to fly, Anders and I have already signed up for this year's Hayward Rally. In the meantime, we'll be doing our homework and making more test flights in a quest to understand that elusive fuel burn. This year our goal is at least to get in the ballpark on both time and fuel.

In the immortal words of my hero Bullwinkle Moose, "This time for sure!"

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The needles were perfectly centered and absolutely still as we coasted down the ILS into Salinas, California. My instructor Bill reached over and tapped the instrument, saying with a smile, "Is this thing broken?" Believe it or not, it was working perfectly and I was flying a beautiful approach. It was one of those vanishingly rare days when I was completely "in the zone"—detecting tiny deviations in vertical speed and heading and responding with micro-adjustments on the controls to compensate—and it felt effortless, just like breathing.

I've had that experience just a few times while flying, and it's awesome. As remarkable as it is, though, it's just an example of what I've come to call the observe-act-observe cycle. Actually, everyone is familiar with this idea even if they don't call it by that name. For example, when driving a car, we observe that the road ahead curves. We take an action by turning the steering wheel a certain amount. We observe whether we're turning at the right rate and adjust the wheel as necessary. We repeat the process until the car is following the right path. This process can be awkward, such as when we're driving an unfamiliar car, but when we're "in the zone," observation merges with action in one smooth, continuous flow that requires no thought or effort. It's beautiful.

And then there are other times.

"You better get back over to the left," Bill warned.

The localizer needle was at about half-scale deflection as I flew the ILS into San Luis Obispo, California. We were making the long IFR cross-country flight required for my instrument training. Try as I might, I could not stay on course. It didn't make any sense. Every time I fought my way back over to the localizer and resumed what I thought was a reasonable heading, I found myself off course again. I struggled all the way down until we finally made a circling approach to land.

"Why was that so hard?" I asked Bill once we were on the ground.

"You had a howling crosswind from the left," he answered. "You didn't seem to want to maintain the wind correction you needed to stay on course."

The terrain surrounding the localizer course at San Luis Obispo channels and amplifies the prevailing winds, making for very challenging approaches. Now I understood why Bill had smiled slightly when I suggested it as our first approach of the day. He knew I was in for a valuable lesson.

I realized that I'd brought to the situation the assumption that only a certain range of wind-correction headings were "reasonable." So, being unwilling to fly the "unreasonable" heading that was actually required, I kept getting blown off course. My assumption had blinded me to the evidence provided by the instruments. That's why it was so hard.

As different as these two ILS approaches were, my learning process at San Luis Obispo was also an example of the observe-act-observe cycle. I observed that I didn't understand a recent experience, so I took the action of analyzing it and asking for help. Bill's comment about my behavior cued me to observe a previously hidden assumption that was limiting my actions.

I've come to regard the observe-act-observe cycle as my single most powerful tool for maintaining the confidence I need to fly safely and well. In fact, I've found that when I'm having one of those "what the hell?" moments like my ILS into San Luis Obispo, there's usually a hidden assumption or belief behind it. That's my cue to ask some simple questions: What do I notice? What can I do? What are the results? This simple idea is at the heart of the book I'm writing, The Confident Pilot.

Focusing on the observe-act-observe cycle has another important benefit. I allows me to take events less personally and realize that they don't have to mean anything about me—even when the needles aren't perfectly centered.

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"I don't like how we're lined up here. I'm going to circle around and come at it again," I told my passengers Tim, his wife Janine, and my wife Janet. We were approaching Columbia airport in the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada range. Nestled behind a hill, the airport is hard to see when approaching from the West, so by the time I saw it, I realized our approach would put us farther along the downwind leg than I was comfortable with. I generally like to be as consistent as possible in my flying because it makes for fewer surprises, especially when flying a slick ship like our club's A36 Bonanza.

After a wide 360, we were on a comfortable left 45 leg for Runway 35 and made an uneventful landing. We'd left the San Francisco Bay Area less than an hour earlier.

"Poof! We're in Columbia!" said Tim, surprised at how quickly we'd crossed the Central Valley.

I smiled. "It's a fast ship," I replied—"a real 'going places' airplane."

We'd come to have dinner at the excellent City Hotel restaurant, which sadly is no longer operating. We made the pleasant one-mile walk through the woods into town. Columbia is an old gold mining town that's now a state park. It's been preserved much as it was in the 1870's. In the Summer, folks even dress in costume and drive horse-drawn vehicles down Main Street. It's a little corny, but the kids like it, and it does give a sense of what life might have been like in those days.

We lingered over dinner, enjoying all of it. The food was perfectly prepared. The service was pleasant and attentive. My passengers very much enjoyed the wine pairings. There was no wine for the pilot, but dessert was excellent! The walk back to the airport in the cool, pine-scented air of the evening was a perfect conclusion to the meal. As we walked out to the airplane, I felt very grateful for the experiences I've been privileged to have.

One of the things I enjoy most about flying is sharing it with others. This is one of the topics I reflect on in Chapter 4 of my book (here's a draft excerpt). Some might regard flitting off across the state for dinner while burning 20 gallons of gas as a selfish indulgence, and it's a fair point. That's why I try to share the experience whenever I can, especially with people who are new to it. I lightheartedly call this my "karma offset" program. This blog is also a part of that.

Because of the terrain, I decided to fly a published departure procedure by GPS, even though we were VFR. We took off downhill, the reverse of our direction on landing. On the climb-out, I noticed that the HSI showed a bogus heading. Damn—I'd missed a checklist item. I verified our heading using the magnetic compass and set the HSI correctly. I made a note to review my procedures later. Before long we'd climbed above the surrounding terrain and had turned on course for home.

It was a dark night. We sat quietly in the soft glow of the instrument panel gazing out the window at the bright stars and the scattered lights of the Central Valley as they passed underneath. The dim outline of the Diablo Range gradually loomed larger on the horizon as we approached the Bay Area. I found myself wishing that everyone could experience the completely unique perspective that a small airplane makes possible. I wanted to share it with more people than just the few who can ride along in my cockpit.

Well, here's a start.

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"Skyhawk 80377, you're cleared to the San Jose airport via direct Sacramento VOR Sacramento 160 radial mood seeds direct maintain 5000 departure frequency 125.25 squawk 3203."

I hunched over my kneeboard like a man paralyzed from the neck up. What the hell were "mood seeds" and what did they have to do with my clearance? They sounded like one of those supplements you see advertised on late-night infomercials.

"Mood Seeds Direct! Just $19.95 plus shipping and handling! Order Now!"

I turned to my instructor Bill with a glassy, deer-in-the-headlights stare that told him all he needed to know. He keyed the mike.

"377 is cleared to San Jose airport via direct Sacramento VOR, Sacramento 160 radial, MOVDD, CEDES, direct, maintain 5000, departure 125.25, squawk 3203," he intoned with perfect calm and poise.

"Skyhawk 377, readback correct," came the cheerful reply. "Have a nice flight."

It was my first IFR cross-country flight and we were on the ground at Mather Field in Sacramento, California. I'd just flown a rather shaky VOR approach, and now I found myself totally bewildered by a clearance that might as well have been in Martian. Bill pointed at the chart on his lap. South of us, a little over 50 miles away, was the navigation fix called MOVDD, pronounced "moved", and a bit to the West of that was CEDES, pronounced "seeds." Or, as I had heard them, "mood seeds." I couldn't help but wonder what I would have done if Bill hadn't been there. I wasn't prone to mike fright, but I was in over my head.

"You sound very professional on the radio," Bill told me, "but that can work against you. Controllers sometimes take that as a cue to give you a rapid-fire clearance."

"That's good to know," I replied, "but how am I supposed to understand alphabet-soup fixes I've never heard of?"

"Well, go back to your clearance mnemonic," said Bill, pointing to my kneeboard.

I looked down at the letters C-R-A-F-T written vertically down the left side of my notebook page.

Bill explained, "C is where you're cleared to, in this case San Jose airport, so everything after that is your R, or routing, until you hear your altitude (A), so write down everything you hear even if you don't know what it means."

"You mean I should have written down 'mood seeds'?" I asked, incredulous.

Bill chuckled, "Yes, if that's what you heard. You can clear it up soon enough, either by finding the fixes on your chart or asking the controller to spell them for you."

"I would never have found these without knowing how to spell them," I confessed.

"Then just ask the controller for the spellings of 'mood' and 'seeds'," Bill said.

This was one of the most valuable lessons I learned in my instrument training. It was about more than just working with Air Traffic Control. It was about how I can take effective action even when I'm totally confused. I just need to observe as much as I can, identify the information I'm missing, and then take an action to get that information, whether it's looking it up, thinking it through, or (simplest of all) asking for help. By breaking down the problem, taking it one piece at a time, and asking for help when I need it, I can clear up temporary confusions and get my bearings again. In the process, I can even cultivate a little calm, poise, and confidence of my own.

Still, maybe I should lay in a supply of Mood Seeds just in case.

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