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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Last flight with my best passenger

All lines in a logbook are the same, but not all the hours in it are.

As we fill up the pages of our logbook, some entries are more special than others. Some are written with an ink that weighs heavily on the page, separating those few moments from entries kept just to show we did a certain flight on a certain day. As we fill up the pages of our life, some people and experiences end up being more permanent than others, while others are just another line on a page.

This particular entry is about my last flight with my first passenger: my father. Sunday is Father's Day, and although I've never forgotten him, this week I want to remember him.

My father and I at the Cleveland National Air Show, 2009.

There are two entries in my logbook for July 13, 2008. The first is 1.0 hours in a Cessna 172, with the comment being "Private Pilot Checkride". Directly below that is an entry for 1.8 hours in a Flight Design CTsw, with the very first time there would be a number in the "Passengers" column, and the comment simply being, "Celebration flight". He was passenger #1.

In the time afterward, whenever I didn't already have someone I'd promised a ride to, and assuming it wasn't one of those days when I wanted to fly by myself (flying, like meditation, sometimes requires and rewards solitude), he was almost always ready to jump at the chance to fly around, even if it was for no other purpose than to convert avgas into noise.

His name would appear in my logbook nine more times. I always thought it would be ninety or more. I always thought there would be plenty of time. We always do, until the time is gone.

On page 4 of what is now 106 (and counting) in my logbook is this entry:

10/18/2009: CTLS N566FD, LPR -> UNI -> PJC -> LPR, 4.30 total hours, 359.49 miles, Landings: 2 day, 1 night, 1.10 night hours, 1 passenger. Comment: leaf flight. Passengers: Last flight with Dad

We started with a rough plan: fly to Ohio University to check out the fall colors from the air, fly the 20 or so miles to the Ohio River, then turn back around. Our flight path would take us almost directly over the Mohican River, a place we spent many fun summers camping and canoeing on as I was growing up, so I marked the place to look for it on the sectional, and we took off.

One of the pleasures of being a pilot is the freedom it brings with it. Like many good flights, the plan started with a straight line there and back, but ended up being a meandering exploration to an entirely different state:

It was supposed to be a boring, straight magenta line, but the right half of the flight followed the Ohio River north to see where it is formed.
It started out simply, with a straight-out departure that ends up taking us over downtown Elyria. The hospital where I was born sticks out of the left edge of the picture:

Downtown Elyria.

Although the colors weren't all that glorious in Elyria yet despite the mid-October date, they did start becoming more dazzling as we flew along:

We ended up finding Mohican a little easier than I expected:

As we continued on our flight on an amazingly smooth day, we came across this bit of farm field near Zanesville:

In our part of Ohio, everything is flat. We are where the Great Plains start, and from us it's a thousand miles of grid lines without a curve or bump in sight. By this point in the flight, we were starting to get into the tiny foothills of the Appalachians. This incredibly winding river has carved a path of almost perfect undulations in the rock that tried to get in its way:

The river is visible at the center-left of the picture. The back-and-forth coiling of whatever river this is (still nameless to me now) is so regular, so uniform that it almost looks artificial. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen before, and would be for almost 5 years until I started flying over the Blue Ridge Mountains as an airline pilot.

My mind carries my father with me now as I routinely fly over Harpers Ferry on the way from Washington-Dulles to State College, PA. Along the way, the beautiful Shenandoah converges with the Potomac at the site where John Brown conducted his raid a century-and-a-half ago. The Potomac writhes on northward, and at one point, near Shepherdstown, WV, not far from the site of the Battle of Antietam on the Maryland side, the river makes a similar series of undulations, then travels on a path so unnaturally straight before going back to doing what rivers do as it flows along to the horizon. Every time I fly over this stretch of history, I think back to how similar it is to the first time I ever saw a river do that:

Antietam is at the center-right of this picture.
But that is now; let's get back to then. We stopped at Ohio University's airport to stretch and check out the terminal. Another connection is made: OU's airport identifier is KUNI; now I fly to State College, whose identifier is KUNV, since it's the home of Penn State University. While there, I took a picture--in fact, the only picture I still have--that has my father by a plane:

Had I known he would be gone on page 4, I would have taken so many more. There was supposed to be so much time to do that.

We left Ohio University's airport to take some pictures of what many consider to be a very beautiful campus:

I never imagined that only 19 months later, I would be back on that campus (having driven this time) for a bioinformatics conference in exactly the place that picture captures. We continued on what was supposed to be a short, few-minute hop to cross the river, then turn around:

In no time, we found the Ohio River:

We had driven across that river dozens of times to see family in Eastern Kentucky, where he was from. Since he had never seen it from the air before (and I had only done so once), we decided to fly up it for a little while before turning for home.

After a while, we decided that since we were only a little over half an hour from Pittsburgh, we could just continue up the Ohio to see where it begins. Neither of us had ever seen the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela, where the two meet to make the river that gives our state its name. In an airplane, after all, 70 miles is just up the creek.

Unfortunately, along the way the memory card on the camera became full, so there are no more pictures until landing. This is extremely unfortunate indeed, as we had an uncomfortably excellent view of downtown Pittsburgh along the way. I say "uncomfortably excellent" because on the way to the three rivers, I found out the hard way what those oddly-shaped notches in Pittsburgh's Class B airspace are for:

Turns out, those clusters of obstructions (the things that look like an M with dots in between their legs) are the skyscrapers downtown. Nowadays, with almost 4000 hours more in the logbook, I wouldn't think anything at all of calling ATC and asking permission to enter their airspace. But with less than 100 hours, I still didn't talk to controllers routinely or fluently, so I just stayed below their airspace instead.

Since we had been flying a lot longer than expected, my bladder had had enough. This was supposed to be a 2-hour round trip, and we were now almost 3 hours in and still not even in the same state. We both quickly agreed to land and find a bathroom, and the closest reasonable place to where we were was Zelienople.

We did our business and took off again, this time heading in a straight line for home. It is just under 100 miles as the crow flies, or about 50 minutes. We said little. Some of that was from having been in an airplane for almost 4 hours, and some of that was due to the lateness of the day. But a large measure of the silence was because we had both just enjoyed an amazing, unplanned voyage, and we were still simply enjoying the time we just had.

I wish I knew it was almost all the time we would ever have. He knew he had cancer. But no one else did. He didn't want anyone to feel sorry for him, so he said nothing.

Two months and 25 days later, he would, as John Gillespie Magee would put it, slip the surly bonds of Earth. But for that October night, on the homeward leg, together we "with silent, lifting mind... trod [t]he high untrespassed sanctity of space" for the final time.

He is buried at the Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery, an honor he earned as a Vietnam veteran. A month after he was laid to rest there, I flew over for some pictures:

I have flown to it and back so many times now that I no longer need a chart or GPS to navigate there.

In my days as an instructor, there were some students I signed off to solo before they thought they were ready. I knew they were, as I wouldn't have signed them off if I hadn't had full confidence in their abilities, knowing that I had done everything they needed to have the skills and knowledge to make into the sky and back successfully. They had learned what they needed to from me, and it was time for them to learn the rest solo.

Although he was not a pilot, my father did the same thing for me in his own way.

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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