By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091
This piece originally ran in Robert’s Stick and Rudder column in the August 2020 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
Over the past few months, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the many journeys I’ve made by air, the lessons learned, and the importance of staying active in aviation. For many of us, flying may have been curtailed for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but as we get back into the air, perhaps we can better appreciate the freedom that flight offers. When it comes to maintaining proficiency, there is no better prescription than to go flying — anywhere — and have fun doing it. That’s where we get to practice, put our skills to the test, and gain the experiences that keep us expanding our knowledge and skills. Along with the experience and knowledge come the stories that help us remember the lessons forever.
Years ago, a buddy of mine and I flew a Cessna 172 to Saint-Hubert in Canada (CYHU) to have the airplane painted. It was winter and Mother Nature had been generous in her gift of white, which had been piled up into massive snowbanks that lined the runways and taxiways. We arrived in the pattern only to find everyone speaking in French. The controller spoke to us in English as required and asked us to extend our downwind leg, but we lost all situational awareness due to the language barrier. We ended up flying way too far downwind before we finally called the tower and asked to turn base. I’m pretty sure the controller had forgotten us! After landing we soon became lost. Even ground control couldn’t help because we had disappeared into the deep maze of snowbanks — so much for a progressive taxi! We learned the importance of being proactive and the value of a good airport diagram.
One day, a couple of friends and I flew from Westerly, Rhode Island (WST), down to College Park Airport (CGS) outside Washington, D.C., to visit the National Air and Space Museum. I followed another pilot into the pattern and ended up making two go-arounds before I finally looked at the windsock. It turns out I had blindly followed the other pilot into the pattern for a downwind landing, which simply wasn’t going to work out. Once I looked at the windsock for myself, I saw the problem, reversed direction in the pattern, and made a safe landing. The importance of looking and thinking for oneself was never made clearer.
Perhaps one of my favorite adventures was when I took a buddy of mine and our daughters on a fly-in camping trip to Montauk Airport (MTP) on the tip of Long Island, New York. But getting ready to go was a challenge. Despite the fact that the girls were young, small, and weighed little, and we had four seats, I hadn’t worked out the weight and balance (and volume) until we were ready to depart. We simply couldn’t fit everything into the old V35 Bonanza and remain within limits. We had to leave some critical cooking equipment behind to get us there safely. But the setting was spectacular. We spent time sharing stories beside the campfire by the sand dunes with the Bonanza in the background and the tent pitched beside it. We walked to a nearby restaurant for breakfast in the morning. Later we combed the beach for sea glass and shells. It was a trip to remember, and it made me rethink my planning efforts.
At one point, my career took me on a temporary assignment in San Diego, where I promptly joined a flying club and began exploring the area. One day I took a few friends in a Cessna 172 across the mountains to Agua Caliente Springs Airport (L54). We had a great time exploring the area, but a lesson was in store for me on our departure. Climbing out on a westbound heading into higher terrain, the stall warning unexpectedly began blaring. I looked down to see the airspeed dangerously low. The combination of high-density altitude, rising terrain, and failure to properly scan the instruments unintentionally put me in a dangerous position. Lesson learned!
Years later, a charter flight to Massena, New York (MSS), ended up running much later than expected, and that meant rerouting the night flight home to avoid thunderstorms over mountainous terrain. After dropping my passengers at about 2 a.m. in Groton, Connecticut (GON), I elected to make the seven-minute flight to Westerly State Airport to get my car rather than take a cab home. I realized my mistake shortly after takeoff when the entire coast became veiled with a thick blanket of unexpected fog. After rerouting, a missed approach, and regrouping with ATC, I finally ended up sliding down the ILS into Providence, Rhode Island (PVD), just as fuel was running low and conditions dropped below minimums. Fatigue can play tricks on us, distort our perceptions, and wreak havoc with our judgment, where even a simple seven-minute hop can unexpectedly turn into a harrowing misadventure.
Not every trip needs to have a defined purpose or point of interest; all we need is someplace to go. One day a fellow instructor threw a dart at a map, and the decision was made for three of us to fly a Beech Baron from Jefferson County Airport (BJC, now Rocky Mountain Metropolitan) near Denver, Colorado, to North Omaha Airport (3NO) in Nebraska. The cabin heat wasn’t working very well and it was essentially useless in back, so we brought a sleeping bag to keep the back seat passenger warm. We left in the late afternoon and arrived in time to find a nearby restaurant for dinner. For the flight back, I drew the short straw and ended up in the back seat. It was a cold night, made colder still by the altitude and darkness. We were all suffering. Although I was wrapped in that sleeping bag, I nearly froze on the 450-mile flight home. We arrived late to ferocious winds and heavy turbulence, but ultimately managed a safe landing. The lesson from this trip was that things like cabin heat aren’t just a luxury — they are a necessity for pilots to maintain their ability to think, move, and fly.
For many pilots, there is no greater pleasure than a flight to the mecca of general aviation —the annual EAA fly-in and convention at Oshkosh (OSH). A good friend and I flew his Piper Arrow there from Hartford-Brainard Airport (HFD) in Connecticut, making an overnight stop on the way. An arrival at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh redefines air traffic control and high-density traffic situations. It’s an amazing learning experience in itself. But perhaps a more daunting aspect came earlier on our last leg — the long stretch across Lake Michigan, which we made with a headwind, but at the highest altitude the Arrow could muster. Although we had inflatable life jackets with us, I can only imagine how things might have turned out had we needed to ditch. On the way home, we took the longer — but less stressful — route along the lake’s southern shore. Although we usually can, nothing says we must fly direct to anywhere.
The lessons we learn and insights we gain from our flights might not seem like profound revelations, but each becomes woven into the fabric of our experience in a way that could never be recorded meaningfully in any logbook, and each helps shape us as a pilot. When we fly, we learn. So, where are you headed next?
Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091, has been flying for more than 30 years and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.