Flying Together

A Bumpy Ride

July 1, 2006

Marital navigation aloft

Taking my husband and children flying after obtaining my pilot certificate and instrument rating years ago used to be effortless and fun. Whether it was doing a few steep turns over our sheep pasture or popping over the mountains to see grandma's house, we enjoyed the freedom of being airborne together.

I had my checklists in hand and my procedures memorized. It was a relief to be able to fly without an instructor checking my performance from the right seat. My husband, Lan, would come along on an occasional practice flight, taking the wheel now and then, but for the most part, flying was my domain.

Then he got a pilot certificate of his own.

At first it was fun to sit in the right seat and enjoy my husband's first landings as pilot in command. His flying had consistency that mine often lacked. Although I tended to migrate within a few hundred feet of traffic pattern altitude, usually coming in well over glideslope only to dump all of my altitude on short final, Lan's approaches had a flawless, textbook quality about them. He never deviated more than 50 feet from traffic pattern altitude, never allowed the nose to balloon when he dropped in the flaps, and never made an approach that wasn't right on glideslope. During a joyride, Lan would choose an altitude over Cache Valley in Utah and stay with it, but I tended to climb and descend indiscriminately, making radio calls after the airplane had apparently chosen an altitude it liked. Flying for me was "slipping the surly bonds of Earth" without worrying too much about accuracy. Lan, on the other hand, seemed to be exhibiting signs of a precision junkie.

We were pretty sure that we'd have to negotiate our different flying styles if we ever wanted to go cross-country as a family, but we never really talked about how we'd deal with each other's preferences or divide responsibilities aloft. I considered myself to be the expert since I had more hours and landings, but it had been six years since my checkride and I was pretty sure Lan had fresh knowledge that had become rusty for me. To get used to flying together, we agreed that our first cross-country should be a short one — a trip to a family reunion in Delta, Utah. The flight would take about 90 minutes one way in our Cessna Skyhawk. Lan would fly out and I would fly back. It would be easy.

After takeoff from Logan-Cache Airport, I radioed the Cedar City Flight Service Station, opened our flight plan, and plugged waypoints into the GPS while Lan flew the airplane and our boys made jokes from the backseat. Two pilots aboard seemed like the way to go. I could worry about radios and navigation while Lan kept his eyes outside of the cockpit. What could be better?

Even though the cloud ceilings were fairly low because of a lot of spring moisture in the air, we seemed to have plenty of room to maneuver between obscured mountain peaks. We had just transitioned through Salt Lake City airspace when we noticed dark clouds and rain directly in our flight path. I imagined we'd have room to scoot between a small gap formed by the mountain range to the east and the storm system to the west if the clouds didn't budge, but they looked unusually gloomy. Just as I was wondering whether the storm would pose a significant problem, a bolt of lightning erupted from the darkness.

"I think we probably ought to turn around and get a clearance on the other side of this mountain range," I suggested, wondering exactly how far off the strike had been.

Lan eyed the storm. "Naw, I think we're OK." He maneuvered the airplane so that we were headed toward the small patch of blue sky between the storm and the mountain.

"Well, I don't think it's a great idea to keep going toward a thunderstorm when we have other options," I offered.

"I think that lightning's farther off than you think," he answered calmly.

Not wanting to overreact or seem like an anxious novice, I called flight watch for more information.

"Affirmative for convective activity." The voice on the radio was broken and hard to read. "Recommend route change to the east."

"Well, that settles it," I said. "We really ought to turn around."

"But we only need to clear it by 20 miles and it looks farther away than that."

"Well, sure, 20 miles is the rule, but it's hard to gauge that stuff in the air. Do you really want to risk it? If it moved toward us while we were trying to get around that mountain, we'd be in trouble. And we can't climb with these ceilings."

"Let's just get closer and see," he insisted. "Besides, we've already been cleared through [the class] Bravo [airspace]. I don't want to call them again." He kept flying south.

"Look," I explained, "ATC would expect us to call if we ran into weather. It's no big deal. Besides, it's going to get bumpy the closer we get...."

As if on cue, the airplane hit a pocket of turbulence and skidded sideways. I was impressed, if not a little surprised, by the quick response to my prediction.

"OK, fine. Maybe you're right." He shrugged and gently turned the airplane while I contacted Salt Lake.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. We lost 30 minutes to dodging scattered showers, but Lan brought the Skyhawk down in Delta in a way that would have made the most finicky instructor proud. I was happy with the flight but looked forward to flying the return trip, certain that things would go more smoothly when I was in charge.

Hours later, I took off for home, taking care to fly over Oak City and rock the wings at assembled nieces and nephews. I turned the airplane north into late-afternoon skies that had become bumpier since morning, grateful that the briefer had no en route weather to report. I set 7,500 feet in the autopilot so it would beep if my altitude wandered, but because of the turbulence, I decided not to enable it. The airplane climbed faster than I'd anticipated, and before I knew it, a familiar beep filled the cockpit. From the backseat, our 15-year-old, Ben, chimed, "Fries are up!"

We laughed, and I pushed the yoke forward and trimmed off pressure. But before I knew it, it was beeping again. We were up 300 feet. I nosed over and added more trim.

"Boy, you really want to climb today, don't you?" My husband smiled, but suddenly it wasn't funny. I was doing fine in what must be terrible updrafts. "Push the nose over," he suggested.

"I know what to do," I snapped, pushing forward some more and reducing power. I didn't need someone with 60 hours of flight time telling me how to fly an airplane.

We continued north while I scanned the flight instruments and checked the GPS. I was relieved to see that the cloud ceilings had lifted a little since morning. Aside from the bumps, the view was beautiful.

"You sure you want to run it that hot?" Lan interrupted. I looked over and realized that the needle on the exhaust gas temperature gauge was sneaking up over the red line.

"I was just about to check that." I sulked.

We flew on quietly; the autopilot had been mercifully silent.

"Are you climbing over 9,000 feet on purpose?"

"Yes," I lied, looking at the altimeter, realizing that the autopilot hadn't been beeping because I had exceeded the input by too far. "Our ceilings are higher now, and I think it's better to have more altitude over the lake in case we have engine trouble."

"But you know we have to stay under 7,000 here for Bravo, right?" He showed me the sectional.

"I know. I'll just descend when we get closer." I entered the frequency for Salt Lake Approach and began to descend. When I reached to change the altitude setting on the autopilot, I realized Lan had already done it.

"You didn't need to do that, you know."

"I know. Just trying to be helpful."

I had fiddled with the autopilot and GPS while he was flying, but somehow it seemed wrong for him to help me. His help seemed to imply I couldn't do it myself.

I called Salt Lake Approach and got passed back and forth between frequencies several times before I found somebody who'd give us clearance and a squawk.

"I like the software I've been using for my cross-country flights," Lan explained. "It gives you more specific clearance frequencies for Salt Lake so you know exactly who to call depending on where you are."

"This worked, didn't it?" I demanded. "It's the one listed for our position in the flight guide. So they switched us around a little — it's no big deal. Besides, we're not really in Bravo anyhow; we're under it."

Silence.

I kept my assigned altitude religiously until we were away from the Class B and then headed east over to Logan. Our 12-year-old, Arthur, woke up complaining that he was tired of listening to Green Day and needed a new CD, just before announcing his plans to pursue a career in air traffic control; "somebody needs to tell you guys where to go."

I crossed over the last mountain pass into Cache Valley, entered a wide, left base, then turned final — well above glideslope — slipped in some crosswind correction, and adjusted for one last gust of wind that sent us floating left of the centerline and a little farther down the runway than I'd anticipated. I taxied over to the tiedowns and we all tumbled out, tired and bedraggled.

I had grabbed my flight bag and started for the car when it occurred to me that I wasn't quite done with the flight.

"Ah, darn it," I fumed. "I forgot to close my flight plan." Still annoyed by Lan's suggestions, the bumpy flight, and the less-than-perfect landing, I fumbled with the cell phone and began dialing, only to hang up in dismay. I put the phone away.

"So, aren't you going to call?" Lan asked cautiously. It was clear that the air was not entirely stable between us.

"Well, I guess there's no reason to close my flight plan since I never opened it."

"Yes, you did — wasn't that what you did when you called from Delta?"

"No, I called to file and get an abbreviated briefing."

"Oh." Silence again.

We got into the car.

Driving back home I realized that I hadn't been a terrible pilot, but I had been a difficult person. By not accepting help I had refused my most valuable resource: another competent pilot.

"Hey, I'm sorry for being so grouchy up there today," I said reluctantly. "It was just a little nerve-racking, that's all."

"That's OK. It was fun." He seemed sincere.

I wasn't ready to call it "fun" and our boys weren't, either. Lan's presence as a fellow pilot had made me a little more competitive and a lot more self-conscious than I wanted to admit. No one had had much fun since I'd taken off from Delta.

"I know you were just helping out. I shouldn't have been so crabby."

"You tell me stuff to do all the time and I don't mind." A pause. "You were right about the thunderstorm."

"Yeah, maybe. But maybe we'd have been fine going through, too."

"It doesn't matter. Better safe than sorry, you know."

I thought about the years I'd called all of the shots aloft and realized it was one thing to navigate airspace and cloud minimums alone and another entirely to navigate with a pilot spouse. While Lan's presence should have been comforting and helpful, it had been trickier to navigate than I bargained for.

"Hey," I said, trying to lighten things up, "do you think John and Martha King ever had it out in a Cessna?"

His features softened a little. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, do you think that they're ever flying around when Martha says, 'Touch the transponder and I'll break your fingers!'?"

"Nah," he said with a smile. "They're probably way beyond that kind of stuff."

"Well, give us a little more practice and we'll probably get beyond that stuff too."


Denice Turner, AOPA 5270862, of Providence, Utah, is an instrument-rated private pilot.


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