Flying To Nowhere, Part 1

Going West

It was a chance conversation that steered me into the skies this cool and sunny January morning. A friend of mine was telling me about the airplane he and his father owned. “We had bought the airplane so the two of us could share flying” he told me. “But we never flew it. It just sat in the hangar. It was crazy – what’s the point of having an airplane if you don’t fly it? The whole thing was sad.”

Hearing something said aloud that I had been thinking was a jolt. I have a perfectly good airplane in a hangar, and while it gets flown occasionally by me and my partners, I couldn’t remember the last time I had flown solo just for fun. When was the last time I gone out flying to different airports just because? That thought process sent me scurrying to my logbook and I started to flip through pages. Yes, there were flights in there, but I was looking for something specific. I was looking for what I would call non-obligatory trips- no instruction given, none received, not taking passengers to a location, or flying for business.

I went through months, then years of logbook entries, and was struck with the realization that I might have to go through several older logbooks before I found what I was looking for. I would be better off, I mused, to forgo searching through 25 years of logbooks and instead add a new entry into my present logbook.

The more I thought about it, tahe more excited I got. I would just get into the airplane one morning and fly all day. I would fly without schedule or reason, the next location my only goal. I would stay low and slow, and spend most of my time in the airplane looking out the window at the beautiful world below. I could remember a time when that was the only reason I flew. And as I sketched out this retro flying adventure in my mind, it brought back memories of a time when I was this excited to fly.

I booked our airplane for the upcoming Saturday. I confidently reserved it all day – 9 AM to 5 PM. Looking at the reservation made me hesitate – seriously, eight hours? Was I really going to fly my airplane to nowhere for eight hours? I crossed out 5 PM and stared at the page, letting my mind wander, back to distant memories of Saturday mornings years ago, the anticipation of an adventure, traveling to parts unknown, and recalled the feeling of total satisfaction at the end of those trips. Maybe I needed more time, not less. I replaced 5pm with 6 PM as my end time, and pulled out the sectional chart.

I have always enjoyed maps, maps of any kind. As a Boy Scout, my favorite activities were always the ones that included a study of the area topographical charts. I pored over roadmaps, the world Atlas, even the maps in my otherwise incredibly dry textbooks in elementary school. I may have been one of the few 10-year-old boys that was more interested in National Geographic magazines for the pullout maps instead of photos of scantily clad natives of some far away and primitive culture.

Now I studied my sectional chart – there were so many airports I have never been to in my state alone. South Carolina is trying to change this. The State Aeronautics Commission has developed theAmbassadors Passport program, set up to encourage general aviation pilots to visit the state’s smaller airports. South Carolina has 59 public airports, most of them single runway strips with a handful of Cessna’s, Pipers, and other small airplanes scattered on the ramp. When I first started flying, I kept a chart on the wall with a pin stuck into every airport I had landed.

That chart is long gone now but the passport program might be even better. Here’s the way it works: the South Carolina Aeronautics Association (SCAA) sends you a multipage booklet, with a box for each airport in the state. When a pilot lands at an airport, he gets his passport stamped. Each airport has a stamp unique to them, and when your book is full, you get a nice leather jacket.

I had a passport in my flight bag, with a few stamps in it already. This would be a great opportunity to visit airports I had never been to before, or hadn’t been to in many years, well before the SCAA had started their program. All I had to do now was figure out what direction I would point my prop and start flying.

As I was starting on the coast, going east was automatically eliminated for me. That left me north, south, and west as cardinal destinations. With my chart spread out on the table, my decision was surprisingly easy. I would fly north to a quiet airport that had the best price on fuel anywhere in the area, maybe the entire state. Once I had full tanks in my Cherokee, I was pretty much free to fly all day, and I would, away from the Atlantic Ocean. The chart showed an entire string of airports to the west, most of which I had never visited. It was, for me, the most pristine part of the state. Flying this area for nearly 30 years had made me fairly well acquainted with most of the airports in a 50 mile radius of my home field, but this part of the state was all frontier to me. Go west, old man.

I deliberately stayed away from planning for this trip. That was hard to do – planning is one of my favorite parts. I didn’t scrimp on the safety-related items– I checked the weather and inspected the airplane, but I didn’t put any time constraints or draw a whole lot of lines on the chart. I certainly made sure there weren’t any active temporary flight restrictions, commonly known as TFR’s, but otherwise, I was just going to get into the airplane and eyeball my entire trip. I was not going to file an instrument flight plan, as I do normally. In fact, I was going to avoid any airspace that would require conversation with air traffic control. I wanted to get back to why I learned to fly. This was going to be a simple trip, by visual flight rules, with my chart on my lap and my eyes out the windows.

My lack of planning started to bite me almost immediately. After pulling my airplane out of the hangar and completing my preflight inspection, I parked my car in the hangar, grabbed my wallet, and opened the trunk to pick up my flight bag and headset. So far, so good. I collected my iPad and GPS receiver that stay plugged in on the bench. In the past, there have been times when I have forgotten at least one, and sometimes all of these items. I opened up my flight bag to make sure my license and medical were there, and then checked for my Ambassador passport book. It was missing.

I searched every pocket in the flight bag, then my chart wallet, then another smaller bag that I store in my flight bag. Still no passport. I searched my headset bag. No joy. But I did discover something in my headset bag – a single AA battery. I have a noise canceling headset that requires power. The problem is, it requires two AA batteries. I always carry an extra set of batteries in my headset bag as a backup, but somehow, I had lost a battery. If the batteries died during this flight, a single battery would be pretty much useless to me.

I looked at the airplane sitting on the ramp, ready to go. I looked at my car parked in the hangar. I only lived five minutes away, so I could drive home, get an additional battery, and look for my passport book. I knew where all the batteries were, but really had no idea where the passport might be. It might take me a while to find that at the house, if at all. That would mean my airplane would be sitting out in the alley, potentially blocking any other airplanes that needed to get past me. That was a non-starter- if I needed to go home, I would have to pull the car out and put the airplane back in the hangar.

Nope, I decided, if I need to buy a battery, I’ll do it on the trip, just like the pioneers. And since I don’t have my passport, then I’ll change my quest, but I’m still taking off.