As the gear thunks into the wheel wells I crank the old Bonanza onto left crosswind—a bit more aggressively than usual, just because it feels right.
There are, after all, no passengers to mind today.
Most of my flights are long cross-countries on behalf of AOPA’s magazines and other media channels. The Bonanza A36 makes a terrific traveling airplane, stuffed top to bottom, front to back with staff members and photo and video gear as we visit aviation companies and events throughout the East and Midwest. Many of the air-to-air photos you see on these pages are shot from this airplane with the two aft doors removed. I carefully plan these cross-country flights, watching weather trends beginning days in advance, and then using the AOPA Internet Flight Planner to map it out and file the flight plans. Some of these flights are VFR but most are IFR. The magic of IFR flying is that most airspace concerns simply melt away, simplifying planning. Especially with the complicated and unforgiving airspace around Washington, D.C., I find it easier to file IFR in this region than to go VFR—even on the most spectacularly clear days.
But today is different. Exiting the pattern on the downwind on this crisp winter day, I feel a little guilty about all the empty seats. Heaven knows there’s a long list of people I have promised rides to over the years, but this flight is just for me. Throwing airspace caution to the wind, I launch on this VFR flight with only a quick look at the weather, notams, and TFRs. The destination: No place in particular.
The Bonanza churns north, leaving the airport behind and finding only a patchwork of farm fields and rolling hills ahead. Crossing the Monocacy River I think of canoe trips under the snaking shaded canopy below. Just to the west, the Catoctin Mountains forming the edge of the Glade Valley bring back memories of hiking along dirt trails, my (then) little girls cavorting on rocks, our steps silenced by a carpet of autumn-tinged leaves. A yellow ring on the moving map reminds me of Camp David on the ridge just beyond, the presidential retreat demanding a small prohibited area even when the commander in chief is not there—and a bigger ring when he is. Thankfully, this day he is somewhere else, freeing up a big chunk of airspace.
Most days the Bonanza just wants to go—she loves 2,500 rpm—but this day she seems content with me dialing the throttle and rpm way back and we loaf along at 1,000 feet agl, the engine analyzer showing just 55 percent power. We explore the large dairy farms in the valley and the numerous limestone quarries that scar the earth as seen from above. Fortunately, trees and berms keep those on the ground from seeing these gaping gashes. While truly ugly sights, they are at the same time interesting from above. Usually half filled with Caribbean blue/green water, the gray rock terraces above the waterline create interesting shadows and textures. Even on this January Saturday, trucks and cranes work at extracting the limestone, reminding me of the Tonka dump truck and loader I had as a kid—toys still stored for some reason in my parents’ basement.
I have a tradition of flying on New Year’s Day whenever possible. This year my daughter and her boyfriend and I headed to the airport for that flight, only to be greeted by a passing rain shower. We waited for the passage, but then another round of showers cropped up and, ultimately, we bagged the flight. Naturally, about the time we got back home, the sun came out.
So, OK, the traditional New Year’s flight was out, but this flight, on the first Saturday of the new year, is a worthy substitute. There is no flight plan, no mission; just flying for the sake of flight. To feel the winds ripple off the ridges to the west; to allow the airplane to respond to little mountain waves without a need to command a return to the strict altitude limit usually demanded by ATC. On this day, I commit to not worrying about the future of avgas, the threat of user fees, the crowding of development around the airport, the dearth of new airplane sales. Today, we fly just because we can.