Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Morning Flight

From the earliest days of aviation, pilots have always cherished their morning flights. There is some romance in it because the air is cool and fresh and one can smell the dewdrops. The sun is still low over the horizon and has yet to cast its harsh rays onto the still slumbering earth. The low clouds and mist paint a surreal landscape making the pilot feel that he is both physically and mentally in cloud nine.

Most of my cross country flights are deliberately planned to start at dawn where possible. It would still be dark as one drives into the airport, park the car, unload the luggage, fill up the necessary papers at the club office, grab the plane keys (and the tech log if I'm not returning the same day) and proceed to the still sleeping aircraft. Unlocking the baggage compartment door just behind the passengers' seats, I would dump the luggage as forward as possible to maintain the aircraft's CG. I would then open the pilot's door and place my headset, checklist, GPS, maps and navlog on the passenger seat, check that the parking brake is on and then remove the chocks from the wheels and place them in the luggage compartment. Sometimes I would have to tow the nearly 1-ton aircraft myself to the flightline but usually the hangar help will lend a hand.

With the aircraft secure on the flightline, I would then jump into my car again and rush over to the Control Tower to file my flight plan, returning to the flightline with a signed copy for my retention. I would then begin to conduct my thorough checks including fuel and oil quantities. It would already be light then but the air is still fresh and cool. Having completed my external checks, I would then settle down in the captain's seat and proceed with the startup checks. A brief call to the tower for startup clearance follows and I'm now ready for that most beautiful experience - the grind of the starter motor, the whirring of the propeller blades and the engine coughing and sputtering to life finaly transforming into a loud roar. The vibration flows comfortingly from the engine to the seat bottom and through the control column into my left arm and my heart. What a feeling! Engine checks, a call to the tower requesting for taxi, brakes released and the aircraft crawls majestically to the runway holding point.

Runup checks, a glance at the windsock, landing lights on and a clearance from the tower before entering the runway for line up.  At the takeoff position, I get the ATC clearance from the tower and read back the instructions. I look out to the sky up ahead and see a sky similar to the one in this picture. 
It may look gloomy from the ground but that's a typical morning cloud layer. It is low, thin and silent. The runway stretches ahead with open arms. To a pilot, that strip of bitumen with its bold white markings is the most welcome site anywhere in the world. It bids you farewell each time you take off and welcomes you with open arms whenever you land, like a doting mother. It looks the same whichever airport in the world you may fly to.

"Clear takeoff!", feet on the brakes, I move the throttle forward to 2,000 revs. The engine sound is deafening but music to my ears. I do my CATS checks and having satisfied myself that all are "green", release the brakes, coax the throttle to full and roll down the runway. Sixty knots and I gently pull the control column closer to my heart. The nose comes up and we're airborne into the morning mist. A morning flight is so different from other flights. The air is dense and moist, so the air breathing Lycoming engine sucks it in like a kid quenching his thirst. There is so much power from the engine because the fuel-air mixture is thick. The dense outside air hold the wings more securely while the propeller bites into it like a knife into a wedding cake. There is hardly any wind in these early hours. The aircraft climbs straight and true, the propeller tips sending a deep throated roar to all the people still sleeping on the ground.

Soon we arrive at the base of the thin cloud layer and penetrate it rinsing the wings in the milky stuff. Then we punch out of it into the clear air above. 

We're now above that blanket of snowy white cloud stretching below us like a mat of cotton wool. The sun sends a shimmer across the mat and as I look towards its rays I hear in my head Grieg's "Morning Mood". It is so surreal, I wonder if those fighter pilots out on their dawn patrols get that same feeling each time.

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