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A fine day for flying

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines owns and dotes on a 1972 Beechcraft A36 Bonanza.

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines owns and dotes on a 1972 Beechcraft A36 Bonanza.

I relish these o'dark thirty visits to the airport. It's cold, dark, and quiet at 6 o'clock on this January morning. The stars seem to beckon us skyward — not a cloud to be found. Paul Huff meets me at the hangar. He's poking around a couple of nice-looking Piper Cherokees parked nearby. He surely can't see much in the dim glow from the security lights that ring the ramp, but a pilot can't resist checking out an airplane — like a moth to a flame.

As I stop to survey the ramp and drink in the calmness of the still morning, I realize we're the only fools up this early. I hesitate to crack the silence with the creaking hangar door, but twist the control knob anyhow, spilling light out onto the ramp as the door slowly rises. Waiting for the door to groan open, I'm reminded of that woman on Let's Make a Deal who stands before Door Number 1 to reveal the coveted prize. [Insert your best Jay Stewart voice here.] "For today's winner, we have a beautiful Beechcraft Bonanza. The fully equipped classic Bonanza swaddles six in luxurious leather. You'll cruise across America at speeds of more than 200 mph, reaching your favorite destinations refreshed and relaxed...." And about then the door grinds to a stop as the cynical Jay Stewart in me adds, "and when you land you'llbe amazed at the fuel bill, the maintenance costs, the insurance charges...."

Obviously, I've had way too much coffee this morning.

After the preflight, I unplug the engine heater and remove the blankets from atop the cowling. Checking the oil, I can feel the warmth radiating from the engine. The trusty gas-powered tug jumps to life with just one pull of the starter cord even on this cold morning. With that, I squeeze the tug's handle and slowly back out, presenting old Zero Sierra to the starlit world. Paul knows Bonanzas, but I give him the official passenger briefing anyhow, reminding him of the over-wing exits, the location of the fire extinguisher and the ELT, and the finesse necessary to twist the finicky door handles.

We scramble aboard and before one blade passes, the big Continental rumbles to life. The oil temperature gauge snaps to the top of the yellow arc even though the outside temperature is in the 20s. We are soon pointed west, climbing briskly toward the stars. Potomac Approach is awake this morning and accommodating when I request flight following for our trip to Knoxville, Tennessee.

Paul and I hatched this trip several weeks ago at church. He asked if I might fly him to Knoxville to pick up the Bonanza that has been in his family for a couple of decades. His father, now in his 80s, doesn't fly much any more. Paul, anxious to keep the airplane in the family and wanting transportation from Maryland back to Tennessee to visit family, agreed to buy it.

The planets align

We stay in touch by e-mail, waiting for the forecast of a good weather day that fits both our schedules and allows him to get down there, check out in the airplane, which he hasn't flown in a few years, and get home VFR. He's not instrument current and neither is the airplane, a 1952 C35 model with a 225-horsepower engine and electrically controlled propeller.

On a Sunday in mid-January, the forecast for the following Wednesday shows a big high pressure system parked over the Appalachians, suggesting clear weather all day. The forecast holds and sure enough as we climb away from the airport, we can see forever. The forecast of strong winds suggest turbulence, but as we climb over the Catoctin Mountains the air is glass smooth. As we level off at 8,500 feet, I can feel the airplane hunker down for cruise. We're soon skipping along at more than 184 knots groundspeed, or, as Jay Stewart might state it: "More than 200 mph!" A 12-knot tailwind while southwest bound — I must be living right.

A half hour after takeoff, the strengthening glow to the east soon reveals the sun, warming my side of the airplane. We ride along quietly, admiring the view on this glorious morning.

Farther to the west, a dusting of snow tops the mountains.

Paul is a project engineer for a large multi-national corporation. He gets to build roads, bridges, and other cool stuff. All I want to do is drive a bulldozer. Maybe he can arrange that. As an engineer, he likes to work on mechanical things and is anxious to get the old Bonanza home so he can begin tinkering with it. He plans to keep it in a hangar on a grass strip near my home airport in Frederick, Maryland.

The airplane has lived its life with the Huff family mostly at Sky Ranch Airport, a grass strip just north of Knox-ville's McGhee Tyson Airport. Barry Sanders, owner of another nearby private airport, maintains the Bonanza. Paul speaks almost wistfully of Barry, who is a CFI and A&P mechanic. I get the sense that Paul would chuck the desk job to have Barry's life of working on airplanes. Barry lives on his airport and cares for its winged residents every day. He bicycles to work across the runway to the maintenance hangar.

As Virginia turns into Tennessee below us, Paul speaks of the private pilot nirvana of living on an airport. "Whenever Barry wants to take the family skiing or to the Bahamas or to Las Vegas, he just bikes over to the hangar, taxis his Bonanza over to the house, they load up the kids and fly away." The cockpit is quiet for a few minutes while we both contemplate what that must be like.

A Message light on the Garmin 530 interrupts my thinking as it reminds me to start the descent for Knoxville Downtown Island Airport. Aptly named, the airport is located on an island near the confluence of the French Broad and Holston rivers as they form the Tennessee River. Island's single runway parallels the river. I enter a left downwind for Runway 8. To make the base turn, you fly past a big hill being eaten away by a mining operation. Knoxville office towers fill the windscreen as I turn to fly back up the river for the final approach. The folks at the tidy FBO run by the Metropolitan Knox Airport Authority welcome us and quickly top the Bonanza's tanks. Meanwhile, Barry shows up right on schedule flying a Citabria. He expertly swings the airplane around into a parking spot and ambles over to say hello. He'll fly Paul across town to Sky Ranch to pick up his airplane.

Barry seems like a to-the-point sort of guy. A longtime AOPA member, he immediately thanks me for all the work AOPA is doing to prevent user fees from destroying general aviation. As one who lives GA every day, he knows that user fees or onerous new taxes will crush not only his business but his lifestyle — and also foil the dreams of his customers and the likes of Paul, who yearns only to fly every once in a while. Soon they're climbing away in the Citabria as I fire up the Bonanza and head northeastward, paying the price for the tailwind on the way down.

Even with a little headwind, I'm back in the office by noon, happily refreshed by the chance to get out and fly on a beautiful morning on a flight that mattered.

I learn later that Paul made it home just fine that evening and is enjoying life as an aircraft owner. Let's hope another couple of generations of Huffs are so lucky to own such a fine airplane and fly with the freedom we enjoy today. Good luck, Paul.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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