An Outsiders Look into the World of Small Airplanes
When my alarm went off in the soft gray darkness of early morning, there was a big part of me that was convinced going back to sleep would be a better alternative than going for a flight in my new bosses plane. As someone with absolutely zero aviation knowledge who has only been a passenger in a small plane once before, my sleepy mind eventually wrestled itself out of bed, energized by the idea of soaring over the mountain range I call home.
Eventually, I woke myself up enough to drive to the Truckee-Tahoe Airport. I puttered my little car into a parking spot with the airfield in my rearview, right in front of an alpine themed playground area near the main building, styled after the traditional Lake Tahoe log cabins. Since moving to Lake Tahoe four years ago for college, I had driven past the entrance to the airport countless times, never thinking I’d ever get to explore it. As I sat in the darkness of my car in the pre-dawn parking lot, I felt like I was only biding my time before some security guard kicked me out for trespassing, somehow knowing with a glance that I’m not a pilot. I was early, no doubt, as I watched the airport slowly come alive with the pre-sunrise assuredness of just another day. Trucks with flashing yellow lights floated through parking lots, inspecting cars and gates and hangars with routine ease, juxtaposing the bubbling anticipation oozing its way past my seat-belt into the night as the sun’s rays did the same, illuminating the polished wings and propellers of the fleet of planes guarding the horizon behind me.
I had just gotten a job writing articles for Disciples of Flight among other sites, and my boss wanted to see a non-pilot/aviation enthusiast’s view on flying in a small plane. Having only one prior experience flying in a small plane back home in the Sacramento valley, the thrill of our mountainous early morning escapade was still vibrant and fresh. The Sierra Nevada Mountains have a reputation for being unpredictable, the fickle weather transforming into small tornados and massive storms on a dime, and so it may be a frightening, but undeniably awe-inspiring experience, whether or not weather decides to rear its ugly head.
Out of nowhere, while my eyes were transfixed on the alpenglow bleeding into a golden sunrise, a familiar white truck pulled up beside me, reigniting the excitement that had dragged me out of bed in the dark. Hopping into the back seat, I was greeted by Bryan and Christina, my employers and the pilot and copilot of my aerial adventure. A catchy pop song later, and we pulled up at the green hangars and began gathering headsets and batteries and the like. This being only the second time I’ve been in a small non-commercial airport, when the sun rose I was able to see how beautifully different the Truckee-Tahoe Airport is compared to the faded industrial gray one out in the dirt fields of rural Sacramento. Every little building and seating area was wooden and green, making it feel very comfortable among the pines of the Lake Tahoe Basin. As we entered into the first moss colored hangar, I was introduced to Martin, (a Cessna 182) of the Stewart fleet, before we raced off to the other hangar where I was to meet Rebecca, our lady of the air. As the hangar door folded in on itself and rose into the air, Rebecca, (a Cessna 210) greeted the morning glow with the majesty of a slow-motion reveal. The light glinted off every rivet and strut as I admired the machine that would take us into the sky, high above the mountaintops.
Tightening my headset and buckling my safety belt over my leather jacket, I listened to a stream of avionic terminology bounce between the two pilots as we sat on the taxi way, another plane behind us, waiting for our chance to lift off. After confirming every little piece of equipment is functioning perfectly, I caught the question, “Cockpit doors and windows?” answered with an air of finality, “Doors and windows locked.”
I could feel a child-like grin spread across my cheeks as we started rolling towards the runway. The voices of local pilots were a continuous presence in my headset, which I could hardly hear over the majesty of the landscape shrinking below us. Trees I knew to be nearly 200’ tall became petite miniatures on some sort of cosmic model of the Sierras, as great ravines opened before us, welcoming and foreboding all at once. One of the many dangers of the Sierra Nevada’s are these ravines and crevasses. A pilot may fly into one that appears to be a massive mountain pass that abruptly ends, trapping the pilot with nowhere to fly and no time to think. Despite these goosebump-raising reminders of natures’ power, the beauty of the landscape overpowered any fear I might have felt. The mists of morning dew turning to vapor in the face of the brilliant sun rose and gave the land a feeling of mysticism as we raced far above it, and it crawled below us. Swimming pools near copses of mansions transformed into sapphires, crowning the mountain ridge as we pulled ever further away from the surface of the earth.
The view was undeniably better than my last small plane experience, when I was the passenger of my high school friend and student pilot, Katie. Her father had been teaching her to fly, and nearing the end of her training, he allowed her to take a friend into the air. Luckily for me, later that week I was soaring over the smog-illuminated lights of Sacramento’s streets and sky-scrapers. Somewhere over the rice paddies along the I-80 causeway, Katie and her father switched off the engine, releasing our flight over to the will of gravity. I remember how the plane initially sunk to the back, then shifted and sent us plummeting nose-first towards the soggy earth. It must have only been a couple seconds before I heard the engine roaring back to life, but it felted like I was stuck in a slow-motion montage of a bad action film for hours. Experiencing all over again the chilling exhilaration I felt in those few seconds had me wondering if Bryan would pull any such stunts.
Seemingly moments after take-off, Bryan’s muffled and static-y voice informs my headset that we have begun our descent into Auburn. Somehow gifted with otherworldly sight, both Christina and Bryan discuss the invisible runway apparently lying in wait for us amongst the endless sea of pines. The closer we got to Auburn, the more similar it appeared to the rolling hills surrounding the valley I grew up in, though much more green than the golden shade of dead grass we had back home. Apparently, far out of my range of vision, there was a plane hogging the runway where we intended to land. Many voices swarmed and wrestled within my ears; other pilots near the Auburn airport, the voices from within the cockpit. While I was distracted by the red dirt growing ever closer, the pilots must have come to an agreement and we landed without issue. After clambering out of the backseat, Bryan and Christina scooched the plane into a parking spot and chained the wings down, leaving Rebecca anxiously waiting for us to return with full stomachs, like a dog leashed outside of a diner.
We made our way through the sleepy airport to the Pilots Lounge, a quaint breakfast and lunch joint nestled between pilot classes and repair shops, with an outdoor seating area granting patrons the ability to admire the menagerie of planes of every size and color waiting for their pilots. Acclimated to the chilly air of the mountains, we decided to sit outside, embracing the rosy autumn sunlight painting the tables and chairs butter yellow.
Over coffee and plates laden with steaming potatoes, fresh fruit, omelets, biscuits and gravy, and hefty breakfast burritos, we discussed work, lives, and other pilots, while Bryan quizzed Christina, a pilot-in-training, on different models and characteristics of nearby planes. I listened casually, half comatose due to the breakfast and coffee warming my insides, absorbing their discussions about low wings and wheel fairings. After hearing an offhand comment about arrogance being a character trait of many pilots, I interjected, half-facetiously, “That’s understandable; pilots are ‘Masters of the Sky’!” Immediately Bryan pompously adopted this title with playful pretension, as Christina laughed and shook her head, asking me incredulously, “What have you done?”
We finished our hearty breakfasts and conversations over constantly refilling cups of coffee. After paying and admiring the kitschy airplane decorations wall-papering the diner, we made our way back to Rebecca, waiting loyally in the cool morning. Again, the two pilots volleyed between them the pre-flight checklist as we taxied toward the runway, waiting for a black and gold helicopter to clear the path. Watching the bulbous pod of the helicopter levitate above the pavement, bobbing and floating like a tadpole along a stream, I realized how happy I was that we were in an airplane instead. I remarked that I felt helicopters were inherently unsafe, and Christina agreed, saying, “They look so unnatural.” Watching a near-invisible propeller support the two pilots visible within the door-less cockpit, I was reminded of an overripe black plum dangling perilously off a twig, held on only by its continued ability to defy physics.
While I inspected the helicopter, we were accelerating down the runway, and moments later, we were airborne, carving curves into the blue sky over the town of Auburn, watching as tiny cars parked at tiny supermarkets, or schools, or little cafes. Something about watching reality from above made it feel so distant, so detached from whatever magic was supporting us on the foothill breezes and gusts of wind laden with yellow-red leaves. As we admired the land sprawling before us, the incomprehensible age of the mountains and crevasse’s became fathomable for the first time. Before humans were capable of flight, before the existence of humanity at all, these mountains stood just as proudly, keeping close watch over the still emerald lakes and weaving silver ribbons rushing between the ancient trees. Seeing such greatness from such great heights has a way of making one feel beautifully insubstantial, just one spark of light in a luminous sea of life. Nothing makes student loans and looming due dates shrink away like a little bit of aerial perspective.
As we approached Donner Lake, Bryan switched back to the frequency to communicate with the Truckee pilots once again, the voices of other pilots buzzing like insects in the back of my mind. Bryan put our wings perpendicular to the bottomless blue, skating over the water on a knife’s edge. I pressed my nose against the cold, thick glass, imagining myself falling forever into the depths below, as if in a dream. The sublimity of the landscape urged me to close my eyes in wonder, but I couldn’t peel them away from the smooth azure lake. We pulled away from the lake in a wide turn, aligning us with the landing strip at the Truckee-Tahoe Airport.
Touching down to earth once again let loose another stream of questions the majesty of the landscape had paralyzed me from asking moments earlier. “How far can you stay up without landing?” and “How far can you travel in that time?” among others, realizing no matter how long the flight, it could never be enough to fully grasp the wonder of it. We discussed ground and air speed, the dangers of flight and the even more frightening gas prices as we zoomed over the blacktop back to the hanger. As Bryan and Christina put the Cessna 210 back to bed in the darkness of the hanger, I marveled at their ability to remain on the ground with the freedom of the sky in their hands. Smiling to myself all the way back to my car, I wondered what life would be like if I never had to land.
Closing my car door with gratitude in my heart and a hearty wave out the window, it felt as though buckling myself into my own cockpit was clicking myself back into reality. Crossing the threshold from the airport gate to the highway that would take me home, it was as though I could feel the slipstream of time splash and rush around me, stepping from a timeless airborne fantasy back into the concrete, grounded existence I knew before. A peaceful, ethereal contentedness tickled my chest as I smiled to myself all the way home, admiring the mountains in a way that was once invisible to me.