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The morning sun was streaming through the blinds when I finally awoke after a much-needed night's sleep. I'd just finished up a hard deadline at work a couple of days earlier and finally felt caught up on my rest.

It was a beautiful summer day, I had comp time coming, and it looked like a perfect day for flying. Over breakfast, I spread out the chart on the kitchen table looking for someplace new within about an hour's radius of my home airport, San Jose International. There were several small airports in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada that I'd never visited and Calaveras County—Maury Rasmussen Field Airport caught my eye. No particular reason—it was just someplace new.

I started flight planning, checking the runway length, gradient, elevation, forecast temperatures, and weather, using the computer to prepare a flight log using current winds-aloft data. Everything looked good. That settled it—I was taking the morning off!

I drove the short distance to the airport, pre-flighted the airplane, and soon was climbing out on course. Visibility was excellent for a Summer day. I reached over and dimmed the GPS screen. My chart and flight log were all I'd need for this flight. California's Central Valley, with its vast expanse of farmland and small towns that look very similar from the air can make pilotage challenging, but my waypoints were easily identifiable in the clear air: Stockton Metropolitan Airport and New Hogan Reservoir.

As I rounded the hill to the West of the airport, approaching from the Northwest, I noticed that the field was on something of a plateau, with a fairly steep drop-off on either end, which I hadn't quite visualized from the chart. (These were the days before Google Earth.) This threw me a bit, and on my first landing approach I found myself badly positioned, so I went around for another try. This time I made a descent landing and taxied to the self-service fuel island.

As I gassed up, I looked around. It was a beautiful area surrounded by golden hills with patches of trees. A light breeze was blowing and the warmth of the late-morning sun made clear that it was going to be a hot afternoon. A couple of local airplanes taxied out and took off while I fueled, but on the whole it was pretty quiet—a typical sleepy day at a rural airport in the USA.

Soon I was taxiing out for takeoff and on my way back to San Jose and an afternoon at work. It might have seemed a pointless trip, burning gas for no good reason, and I won't argue the point. For me, though, it was all about the flying.

And going someplace new in an airplane.

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Whap! My instructor Bill reached over and gave Janet's hand a gentle but unmistakeable slap.

"Only one hand on the yoke!" Bill reminded her.

"Your instructor just hit your wife!" Janet called back to me in mock indignation. "Are you going to stand for that?"

I chuckled. "Today he's your instructor," I replied from the back seat. "I'm staying out of it!"

Janet had been accompanying me in my club's airplanes for several years and picked up a lot about the process of flying, but she didn't have much "stick time" yet. She wasn't ready to start working on a pilot certificate of her own, but she did want to understand more about how the airplane works in case she ever needed to take the controls. I suggested that we arrange with my instructor Bill for some "pinch-hitter" training for her.

"Sounds like fun!" she replied, so I scheduled with Bill and reserved a trusty Cessna 172.

My experience with Bill was instrument training, so it was interesting to watch him work with a beginning primary student. He led Janet through the basics of the flight controls, using the elevator trim, scanning for traffic, reading the flight instruments, eventually having her make a couple of low approaches as though setting up to land.

It was also great to see Janet starting to put things together. It was obvious when something "clicked" and she gained a new insight. I'd forgotten how quickly the learning process goes at the very beginning!

The value of pinch-hitter training is that it takes passengers from passive dependency in a foreign environment to familiarity and the beginnings of understanding. Firsthand experience of how the airplane's controls affect its movement, how to tune the radios, how to read the basic flight instruments forms the foundations for confidence—by definition, the "faith or belief that one will act in a right, proper, or effective way" should the need arise.

In the car on the way home, we chatted animatedly about her experience.

"That was really fun!" Janet said. "I kinda freaked out when I saw the ground coming up on landing—but I feel like I could learn to do it."

"Of course you could," I replied. "I think you'd be very good at it. It's just a matter of practice."

We jabbered away for some time about airplanes and flying, gradually tapering off into a satisfied, contemplative silence.

"Thank you for becoming a pilot, honey," Janet said finally, giving my hand a squeeze.

"Thank you for that first glider ride!" I replied with a chuckle. "And thanks for supporting my flying all these years."

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The seemingly endless stretches of farmland flew past in a blur as we headed South on I-5 through California's central valley. My wife Janet, Eddie Pippin, Canine Aviator, and I were on our way home from a road trip to Seattle to visit family and friends. This was day two and we'd been on the road for hours. I was painfully aware of how much quicker the trip would have been in my club's Bonanza. With my back and legs complaining loudly, the blue Rest Area sign up ahead came as a welcome sight.

As I extricated myself from the car and started walking stiffly to the restroom, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a small wire figure sitting as if on display on a nearby picnic table. I looked more closely and saw the distinctive outline of a P-51 Mustang, rendered in copper wire and balanced gently on a little stand of the same material. Pretty cool.

When I got back to the car, Janet was cradling the little airplane in her hands, looking it over.

"You just picked that thing up?" I asked, puzzled.

"The guy who made it gave it to us," she replied. "His name's Ray."

I smiled. I shouldn't have been surprised that Janet made a new friend in the time it took me to go to the can. She's amazing that way.

"He's an older man—used to be a pilot," she said, "but his flying days are over. He didn't really want to talk about that."

Apparently, Ray came out to the rest area often to make those little wire sculptures. He liked to put them out on the tables and quietly watch people's reactions from his car. He particularly enjoyed seeing people pick them up and take them home. Janet, a lifelong artist, was taken with this simple, down-to-earth fusion of sculpture and performance art and I guess he noticed and broke his accustomed silence to talk with her.

Ray didn't come across as a gregarious man, but I imagine that his craft provided a way for him to connect with others through the power of art—and a love of airplanes. I can only guess, of course—I wouldn't presume to know another's mind—but he and his work certainly had an effect on Janet and me.

Back on the road, we noted the lengthening shadows as the sun sank towards the mountains to the West. I found myself remembering flights over those mountains, picturing how they looked from 10,500 feet in the raking light of early evening, and thinking of the destinations, the decisions, the physical sensations—the whole experience of flight.

As the sun set and the dusk deepened we still had another three hours to go, but I didn't mind —because I was thinking about airplanes and flying.

Thank you, Ray.

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"Maybe I can go flying with you sometime again. You know, I don't know why but that was one of the best experiences of my life. I think of it often. So, so cool."

My friend Angela's email referred to the time a few years ago when she accompanied my buddy Anders and me in our club's Cessna as we participated in a Hayward Air Rally-style "fun-fly" organized by fellow club members Hal and Michael. She wrote a great piece about it at the time for Wired magazine's Autopia blog. It was just a simple cross-country flight over California's Central Valley—not particularly scenic by California standards—but that first experience of flight in a small airplane really stuck with her.

Like all pilots, I completely understand. My own first ride in a glider is something I'll never forget, and it was less than a half-hour flight. It was enough to hook me, and within nine months I was giving glider rides to friends and family myself as pilot in command.

Powerful experiences like first flights are genuinely transformative, whether they're in aviation or not, and they're clues to what we really care about. We ignore them at our peril. On occasion I've found myself thinking of flying as a "discretionary" activity, a fun hobby to be indulged in as time and resources permit, but which can be sacrificed if time and money get tight.

I no longer believe that. I've come to decide that flying for me is not optional. It's necessary.

Wise people through the ages have taught that money doesn't buy happiness. Fame is fickle. Power corrupts. So while money, fame, and power are extremely valuable tools, they don't bring fulfillment in and of themselves. So what does? I've come to believe that the key characteristic of fulfillment is a deeply felt sense of being part of something greater than oneself. Maybe it's a family, a circle of friends, a community, or the entire human race. Maybe it's a cherished cause or purpose. Maybe it's our spectacular Earth or the infinite universe itself. But whether on a simple or a grand scale, I believe that fulfillment is about connection—about being something more than a small, isolated animal alone in the world.

That's what flying does for me. In an airplane I can see the forest, not just the trees. I can sense my place in the natural order of things—yes, even while burning tens of gallons of gasoline. And when I share that experience with pilots and others who love aviation, I feel more connected to them. I feel that I'm part of a community, a circle of friends, that's greater than myself. And that's very fulfilling.

So yes, Angela, you most definitely can go flying with me again! Let's make it soon. These are the experiences that make life worth living.

They are not optional.

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The distinctive sound of a flat-four engine overhead got my attention. I looked up to see a low-altitude Cessna flying Northwest, probably climbing out from San Carlos airport just a few miles away. I watched as it climbed and turned to the West, heading over to the coast.

"Bay Meadows departure," I thought, having flown that departure from San Carlos myself. There was nothing special about a 172 out for a pleasure flight on a beautiful California Spring evening—except that its pilot was flying and I wasn't! The horn of my approaching train brought me back to more immediate concerns as I shouldered by pack and prepared to board.

For lots of reasons, I hadn't flown in a long time and I was missing it terribly. I've always made a habit of at least flying some patterns every couple of weeks, but even that had fallen by the wayside in recent months, and I wasn't feeling much like a pilot. At times like these, I've often set up the desktop computer simulator and done some virtual "flying." It's really helpful for instrument practice, although less so for VFR flying, and it's almost useless for landing practice. But still, it's a good way to keep my head (and hands and feet) in the game.

The home sim is remarkably good. It models the physics of flight very well (it was designed by an aeronautical engineer). In theory, I could even customize my simulated airplanes, making their performance and panels more closely match the airplanes I fly, but it would take a lot of time—time I'd rather spend flying real airplanes!

But there's another kind of simulated flying that requires no money, no special gear, no setup and teardown time, and I can do it anywhere. It's called imagination. I find "armchair flying" to be the best form of virtual flying. It's incredibly helpful for maintaining the mental game, which is where our skills degrade most rapidly during a long hiatus. Reviewing the habits and procedures of flight while sitting on the ground reinforces those mental pathways that are at risk of eroding away.

Imagination or "mental rehearsal" can even help to some extent with the physical aspects of flying. If I pay close enough attention, I can recall very vivid details of the sights, sounds, and kinesthetic sensations of various maneuvers, such as takeoffs, climbs, descents, coordinated turns, and even landings. Memory is far from perfect, but it's better than nothing—and even better in many ways than the computer sim.

There are other ways to keep my aviation "muscles" from atrophy, of course, such as keeping up with my favorite aviation magazines and websites and getting together with my buddies occasionally for some "hangar flying," and I enjoy those too. The important thing is to stay engaged with aviation so when I finally do get back in the airplane it feels familiar and comfortable. Still, I'll probably rope a favorite instructor into coming along for some dual—it's just smart.

So when I got off the train and went home that evening, I grabbed my trusty checklist, sat down in my most comfortable armchair, and started making airplane noises.

Well, pilot noises anyway.

"Mixture rich; thottle slightly open; primer: two shots—in and locked; brakes on…"

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