The good, the bad, and the (plane) weird

A bunch of us agreed to post on the same topic yesterday, writing about one good part of flying, one bad part, and one weird part (unfortunately, I’m running a day late). Here are some of the other blogs with a post:

The good

June 17-18, 2003. I had just finished giving a long evening seminar in the financial district in lower Manhattan, I was exhausted, and it was very late. My original plan had been to fly home to Ottawa the next day, but bad weather was going to be arriving early in the morning and staying for the next few days, and as a VFR-only, 150-hour private pilot (my license only 9 months old), I had to fly out that night or stay the rest of the week. I got a lift with someone out to Caldwell Airport in New Jersey, my eyes heavy and drooping on the drive. I found an open gate, preflighted, and started my plane just as the control tower was closing for the night at 11:30 pm.

This sounds more like the beginning of an accident report than a good experience, and it’s even worse when you consider that JFK Jr. set out on his own fateful night flight from this same airport. I had a tiny handheld non-aviation Garmin GPS with me, but it wasn’t an aviation GPS, so my primary navigation that night was VOR/DME, and the whole trip was hand-flown (I still don’t have an autopilot). As soon as I started my engine, I was wide awake, and since I was hand-flying, I stayed that way for the whole flight — after a bit of an awkward time crawling under NY airspace, I climbed up high in a clear sky, and for the next two and a half hours I watched the lights of rural New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Ontario slowly roll away under my wings. As I approached Ottawa Airport at 2:00 am, there was no one else around, and tower told me just to approach the airport from any direction I wanted and pick any runway. A woman from customs was waiting to meet me — I had to pay a call-out charge of about $40, but it was well worth it. I’ve had a lot of wonderful flying experiences, but nothing compares to that early, dream-like night flight, that I never should have tried.

The bad

I’ve had a few bad experiences actually flying, but for me, the hardest stuff has been what happens on the ground. Even a small, private plane requires a lot of attention, to the keep the plane safe, the paperwork legal, and the costs under control, and then there’s the problem of my own recency. If you don’t fly for a living, those stresses are in addition to your job (instead of being part of it), and they made for some bad nights and big bills early on. After four and a half years of ownership, I now enjoy my plane and don’t have to spend nearly as much time or money on it, but I could go back in time, I don’t know if I’d go through all that again to get to this point.

The (plane) weird

I’ve heard some pretty strange things over the radio, and always enjoy the sight of my Warrior parked on a ramp beside a row of bizjets or even military fighters, but for the weird part, I’ve decided to pick something that will seem bizarre to pilots outside Quebec and the Ottawa region: bilingual radio calls.

In Ottawa and Quebec, air traffic control and FSS is required to operate in French as well as English, and at uncontrolled airports, pilots will often make position reports, etc., in French. I’ll announce in English that I’m joining the downwind, a pilot will announce in French that he’s taking the runway, someone else will do a radio check in English, the Unicom operator may attempt to give me an advisory in English and then give up (at small Quebec airports, many Unicom operators speak very little English). Somehow or other, we avoid each-other, but it must be a terrifying experience for a unilingual English or French pilot, hearing radio calls and not knowing what they mean (especially if the caller’s voice is urgent).

My flight instructor was francophone but didn’t think much of the bilingual system in the air, and I agree — the air is a place that safety should trump politics. Make all pilots learn to speak English, French, Mandarin, or whatever, but please make sure we’re all speaking the same language up there, whatever it is.

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