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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Flying - Comfortable in the Air




My first flight instructor was Ulf, a soft-spoken Swedish guy almost exactly my age. He was a quite young man with a perpetual Scandinavian smile on his face. I never saw him wearing anything but a clean well-pressed white shirt and navy-blue dress pants. The last I heard about him was that he'd been a captain on Scandinavian Air Service SAS for many years. My first solo flight came after 10 hours of dual instruction. Why don't you pull off the runway, Ulf yelped over the engine noise, I need to take a piss. I brought the plane to a complete stop on the taxiway and shut the engine off.

Opelousas, Louisiana had an uncontrolled airport. It had no control tower and accordingly arriving and departing traffic (aircraft) had to communicate by radio and declare their intentions to each other. The system worked pretty well and still does for the vast majority of American airports. Take-offs and landings are on first-come first-serve basis. Airplanes line up in an imaginary predetermined traffic pattern then proceed to land or to take off safely and efficiently. It was late afternoon, however, and on that particular hot summer day the sky was empty and almost as blue as Ulf's eyes. He jumped out of the two-seater Piper Tomahawk, turned his back to me and did actually take a leak in the middle of the airfield. After a manly shake, he obviously zipped up his pants and came to the left side of the plane, my side that is, and spoke in his characteristically diminutive voice. Say Abufares (that was not my name then but I'm using it to keep my identity secret), what do you say if I ask you to fly around the pattern alone, land, taxi back here and shut the engine off. Then you can do it a couple more times if you feel up to it? I couldn't believe my ears. This was not supposed to happen today. The instruction manual recommended the first solo flight after 12 hours of dual training. I knew that if I didn't answer in 10 seconds or less Ulf would climb back in his seat and call it a day. Yes! That was all I said. I shut both doors closed then switched on the ignition. I saw Ulf smiling and waving his hand as I taxied back in position for take-off on the runway. It was sweltering hot and my heart pumping blood and adrenalin at 200 beats a minute didn't make it any cooler.

It's been 30 years since that Saturday on July 11th, 1981 and I still remember it as if it happened 30 minutes ago. I pushed the throttle all the way up like I did many times with my instructor by my side. The plane twitched then accelerated nervously down the runway veering to the left with the torque of the single engine. I compensated with right rudder and at 55 knots an hour broke ground. The tiny cockpit seemed incredibly large and empty without Ulf. The Tomahawk, amazingly light without his weight, climbed steeply, much more steeply than I ever remembered and I subconsciously adjusted the trim wheel to keep her nose down. I raised the flaps and commenced my left turn to join the traffic pattern on the downwind leg. It all went silent as a surge of freedom flooded through my body and mind. I AM FLYING! I AM FLYING ALONE AT LAST!!!

I made a robust first landing, safe and efficient. Although I didn't grease my plane onto the runway I would never forget that moment in time. It was my greatest personal triumph, and save for a thing or two, still is. After I received my Private Pilot License, Ulf left and joined a regional American airline. Krisan arrived on the scene and instructed me almost completely through my Commercial and Instrument training. She was a fine young lady, petite, smart, and very pretty in her leather jacket and tight pants. She too became an airline captain for one of the majors. Before she quit flight instruction, however, she handed me to Rick.

Now if you were God and wanted to create the antithesis of Ulf and Krisan you could only end up with Rick. The man was loud. He came to work on a Harley with a cigarette between his lips. Somehow it stayed lit till the end of the day. And, and... pretending he was grabbing another cup of coffee, he would chase the secretaries from upstairs and the receptionists downstairs with his lewd remarks and stale pickup lines from the 60's. After Ulf and Krisan, I was in for a cultural shock. My best defense against the inevitable I thought was to talk as little as possible. To this day Rick thinks that I didn't speak English then and is still surprised how quickly I picked up the language afterward. I would use lines I memorized from sitcoms on TV for my routine conversation with him. The guy, and I have no doubt about it, must've thought that I was an absolute idiot. Truth of the matter though, I was a graduate teaching assistant in college at the time. But, he didn't need to know that.

Despite his eccentricities, or perhaps because of them, Rick was a top rated instructor and a very proficient pilot. I completed the remaining of my training with him in no time and within a month or so received my commercial certificate and my instrument and multi-engine ratings. Soon thereafter, I was offered my first job as a pilot in the very same General Aviation and Flight School were I earned my wings. Gene, rest his soul, was a boss, a friend and an older brother, who believed in Rick and me. He helped me get my Flight Instructor and Advanced Ground Instructor licenses and I embarked on a trip of adventure and discovery that had changed my life forever.

I had used the I need to take a piss phrase with all of my  students when it was time for them to solo. Perhaps the only greater satisfaction than my own first solo flight was when I gazed at the sky and followed with my eyes and heart a student of mine flying on his own while I stood on the side of the runway. I know some of them have joined the airlines, one or two became air force pilots and several are flying doctors and professionals.

The world has changed for me and for everybody else over the years. I have taken on more jobs than I can remember in different fields, places and industries, from construction to industrial installations to shipping. My hands stayed soft despite the wear and tear of time, or so she tells me. I didn't have a chance to fly for 11 years during which not a single day, not one, had gone by without me remembering that first solo flight when I became a pilot. To be with Rick in the cockpit again, on top of the world and above the clouds, is something I fail to describe by miles and knots. He sure talks a lot but he was, still and always will be my best friend.

To anyone with the slightest inkling to get in the air and fly I dedicate this post. Go for it!
To my friend Rick, happy retirement and until next time.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Living the Dream

I admired the beautiful handwriting by tracing my fingers over the elegant curves. The calligraphy scrolled like the sway of a perfectly shaped feminine butt in tight jeans. I could see her walking on a metal bridge as I trailed a step behind, too entranced to even breathe. I sighed, hoarding the air into my lungs, before I went breathless again. I ran my hand over my face, entirely covering my nose and mouth then mapping the outline of my stubbled chin. I gasped, a faint scent of Lavender and Jasmine lingered on my fingers. My heart pounded with a thousand delights. Sunshine lighted the world around me and a breeze stirred the surface of a lake, goading the water into dancing with the wind like the bangs of a mischievous boy riding his bicycle on the open road.

© iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Climbing an immaculately manicured hill, you reached a railing where you stopped and looked at the river below. A couple of kids, more beautiful than a mecsek flower and a red rose played together. They laughed and raced and rolled on the grass. Their eyes, tranquil with content saw through you as if you weren't there. “Am I in the way?”, you asked the gorgeous little girl. She willed you to move without even nodding and followed a path laden with gold and jewels only she could see.

Rain threatened but waited. A solitary man stood by a window chasing a woman with a painfully long gaze before she disappeared behind the curb. His eyes held on precariously to the forming tears. I tossed and turned and woke up. The leather-bound notebook lay on the night table. I reached for it and peeled it open where the bookmark cleaved its pages down the middle. I read the Douglas H. Everett quote. There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are those who face reality, and then there are those who turn one into the other. Sweating but not ill at ease, I wiped my wet cheeks and smiled. Another dream, another day.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Born to Ride


To my friend Rick

The horses were standing still and probably asleep when he started brewing the coffee. As he approached the stable, bringing them feed, his cigar smoke brought them back to the here and now. They snorted before one of them, Ibanez most likely, neighed and kicked the door expectantly. It was almost 3:00AM.

I do flock with strange company but such are my friends. Admittedly, I only have a handful of them but Rick and I go back a long way. He is after all my best friend. In all the years we've known each other our bond has been mainly one of sharing the hard and the easy times. We went on without setting eye on each other for 11 years but when we met at last it seemed as if our farewell had been only yesterday.

We left Ward, Arkansas with the break of dawn and rode over the next 36 hours through the hot and muggy American South for 700 miles (+1200 km). Riding nonstop for 6 hours a stretch, save for fuel and piss stops, the beasts beneath us writhed in the scorching heat then waded in the pouring rain. We only have coffee for food when we ride and won't touch a bite till we break the day. We stopped at Sarah's and Ron's for the night and Ron fixed us the best damn steaks I've ever had this side of the Mississippi, or on the other. When we left the next morning, the Jack Daniel's bottles were sitting empty on the kitchen table. I look forward seeing you again dear friends. Thank you both for the good times.

The black and silver Dyna SuperGlide took the road with an easy stride. She roared with delight and defiance with every spin of the wheels. She's Betty's mare, you know, the Harley I ride in America, and I have to tell her how honored I am that she entrusts me with her pride and joy. Thank you Betty, we have to find a way to ride together one day.

The fog hovered then reluctantly lifted off the fields and rolling hills. A deer stood motionless in the middle of the road. The rushing Harleys braked then banked and darted on the very edge. The startled animal wondered if it died and went to heaven. It was its lucky day, I guess, and ours. Images from the past flared with the dashing stripes of yellow paint on the two-way highway. Chimeras from the future giggled in my head as I droned on and on and on not too far behind my riding buddy. He slowed down and I caught up with him. “Is everything alright?”, he asked. Exhausted, consumed and worn-out, I nodded, “It couldn't get any better than this."

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

In Search of the Lost Pueblo

On a hot August morning in New Mexico, my GPSless friend and I embarked on a journey of geographical discovery in search of one of the illusive 19 Indian Pueblos. We were lost most of the time until eventually a couple of lumberjacks gave us the necessary instructions to get through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. As we crossed the 12,000 ft path we descended on Taos and lived to tell about it.
Route: Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Taos then back along the Rio Grande River.

This video is the first in a series of posts called " Homage to America". Hope you enjoy it!