When my dad told me he was learning to fly, I had reason to be skeptical about the project. Over the years, just about every endeavor my dad and I have attempted has nearly been disastrous — hiking 130 miles across the Pasayten Wilderness (and nearly running out of food), getting caught in a massive squall on his sailboat in Puget Sound, climbing the second tallest peak in the Olympic mountains (and nearly sliding all the way down on my ass). Add to that equation a machine that’s prone to fail at an elevation of 10,000 feet, and you’re asking for disaster.
But I think my dad also knew of his tendency to get into dicey situations, so he took it slow. He’s been taking flying lessons for over two years now, and has logged over 200 hours of flight. Some people actually qualify for their pilot’s license in less than a month, but dad just got his a couple weeks ago. This means he’s now qualified to take people flying, and so when I came for a visit, he asked me if I wanted to go.
Sure. I mean, what’s the worst that can go wrong, other than running out of fuel and plummeting into the icy waters of Puget Sound, or flying into the side of a mountain, or flipping the plane when an unexpected gust hits us during the final approach for landing? The last time I’d been in a small plane was with my dad — we’d been attempting to hike 450 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail from Oregon to Canada, but had to abort it about 70 miles in when Dad injured his leg. We found ourselves stuck in Trout Lake, Washington, which just happened to have a small airport. Dad had enough cash to get us about halfway to Seattle in a small plane, and then we bussed it the rest of the way home. You see, my Dad’s just the responsible sort of person you’d like to trust with your life when you’re literally up in a small plane with no parachute.
This time, we were taking off from the Renton airport, south of Seattle. The first thing you have to do is clean off the windows with Pledge. Pledge? See for yourself.
Apparently pilots like Pledge because it not only gets their windows clean, but there’s no waxy buildup. Or something. Anyway, it wasn’t long before we were lined up ready to go at the end of the runway. Renton’s a huge airport because it’s right next to a big Boeing plant, so it’s got to be big enough to take up and land full-size jetliners. We practically could have taken off sideways across the runway. But Dad was being careful, so he decided to take off in the standard direction:
What do you know? This thing actually works!
I think Dad got his buzzcut because it gives him that rakish Chuck Yeager pilot look. He really does look the part, doesn’t he? One thing I hadn’t really known about flying is how much time pilots spend making sure they don’t run into other airplanes. Even growing up in a relatively large city, it was always kind of exciting when a plane flew overhead. It didn’t seem like you saw a small plane more than once or twice a week. Yet they were all over the place. Dad had to radio in to Sea-Tac airport and have them advise him whenever another plane was nearby. A few weeks before, a couple planes had collided over Lake Washington and — amazingly — just one of them crashed into the water — the other one landed safely. Over the course of our flight, we were constantly warned about planes in the vicinity, though the closest we ever got was about a mile or so from another plane. Here we’re flying over Lake Union, where dozens of seaplanes take off and land every day. Unfortunately, the day was a bit hazy, so this is the best shot I could get of downtown Seattle:
Next, we flew over Puget Sound and headed up Hood Canal. Apparently the U.S. government has no problem with anyone flying over a fully armed Trident nuclear submarine:
After a brief stop in Port Townsend for some excellent blueberry and peach pie, we continued north across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This path takes us through the flight pattern for a naval air station, so we had to radio in for permission to continue. No problem. Just watch out for the bombers flying at Mach 2. In no time, we were coming in for a landing at scenic Friday Harbor.
We wandered around town for 45 minutes or so, resisting the urge to head to one of the bayside bars for a drink. After all, we still had to fly home. The fact that you can go to all these spectacular places but can’t have a glass of wine with your dinner when you get there is probably enough to prevent me from ever attempting to get my pilot’s license.
About 40 minutes later, we had flown the distance a car might have covered in 5 or 6 hours, counting ferry time. Here’s our final approach into Renton:
And we lived to tell about it: