Flying with Mark

Friday, December 21, 2007

I hate flying. I have expressed it many times before. And, I mean, I hate commercial flying. Although I am getting better: I’ve got five travel days in December alone and in order to maintain health and sanity I just can’t freak out each time I get into an aircraft.

So. It was a bit of a personal challenge to get it together to fly with Mark out in Alabama. The last time I had been in a prop plane, I jumped out of it (with a parachute). That was back before the Fear set in, though — I think I was 19. Anyway. I did it! Last Friday afternoon, December 14th, Mark took me for a short spin around Huntsville, Alabama. It was a beautiful day — mostly clear (as you’ll see) with a nice evening sun casting shadows and really throwing everything into a nice relief. Between moments of feeling extreme peril, I managed to get off a few shots. (Note: Mark did an excellent job flying — any sense of danger came from my own miswired brain.)

Here’s another shot of the plane. Mark owns a 2007 Diamond Star XL, apparently the plane in its class with the highest safety rating. And a nice looking vehicle, to boot. It’s a four-seater, but it seemed like three is really the practical limit.

This surprised me. Maybe it shouldn’t have. It shouldn’t have surprised me. But the majority of the instrumentation existed on two flat-screen monitors — one had the artificial horizon and various metrics, the other a GPS-tracked map of the area showing landmarks and, optionally, weather. There were redundant analogue gauges, as well, in case of problems with the digital systems. I mentioned to Mark that it made the whole thing feel kind of like playing a video game — you really could do basically the entire flight just by watching those screens. And pilots do. It’s called “IFR” — “instrument flight rules.” If you’re in a cloud or something, that’s what you use. (As a novice, even what’s probably extremely entry-level information is still pretty novel.) The opposite of IFR is VFR: “visual flight rules.” Anyhoo.

Here’s Mark talking to the tower. We both wore big headphones with mics to speak to one another and to the ground.

The Digium building is the L-shaped building about 3/4 of the way down and 1/3 of the way from the right. It’s angled like a “V” in the shot. You can also see a Saturn V rocket in the distance. NASA has a large research facility in Huntsville and there is quite a bit of aerospace business happening.

A nice sunset out of the side window.

Okay. So Mark buzzed his Farm so I could take some shots, but the tilting of the airplane really freaked me out. 30 degrees really does seem like a lot, especially if you’re more-or-less encased in a glass bubble. I tried to get good shots, but, well, I was hanging on for dear life. You can see Mark’s barn in the far lower left-hand corner, poking out of the trees. We could see the rest of the property quite nicely — the main house, the ravine, the open patches where we rode ATVs — but I just couldn’t get a good photograph off. D’oh.

Heading home, now. This is a shot just straight forward out of the cockpit.

And, finally, the Tennessee River.

So. I had a really good time and would probably go up again if invited. Though it spooked me, it really did feel more comfortable than your average commercial flight. A couple things probably contributed to this: 1) Mark sat there and gave me the play-by-play as things happened. So no surprises. 2) Flying slower, lower, and in such an open cockpit just felt generally more relaxed and pleasant than being wedged into a small seat with a foot-wide window to look through. Very nice. Thanks, Mark!