one family's yearlong dare to live their dreams
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Coming down to Earth

Hudson River at 3,500 feetShamans and meditators work their whole lives to achieve this perspective. I got it in 1.3 hours of flight over the Hudson River Valley. Overflying your normal existence—seeing it laid out below–changes you.

My instructor had me taxi down runway 15 at Kingston Airport and lift us up into the air at 60 knots to sail over the Kingston-Rhinebeck bridge, and head north along the Hudson.

I practiced some turns before heading us west, back across the river and to the Catskill Mountains. Then we truly entered another world. Greg had me fly through a mountain pass to gaze down on a verdant valley below. Out we flew through another pass, and then headed south around the curve of the mountains to overfly Woodstock, my home.

Reality began to set in when Greg demoed proper turns, banking us at 45 degrees, left and right, and back again repeatedly, until I felt rather airsick. My turns were decidedly sloppier, and much less steeply banked.

The illusion was broken. I was no flier, just a dreamer sitting in my queasiness. “I’ll bring us in gently,” said Greg. Back on the ground, Greg told me he was getting laid off as another company bought the flight school. He told me not to be discouraged. I presented a credit card at the front desk to pay for my $213 lesson, keenly aware of the expense as an added weight to the burden already on that card.

Past the halfway point of our year-of-living-adventurously project, Wendy and I are dragging the ground. We’re still paying off that trip to India. Continuing flight lessons are an unaffordable luxury. Hours to meditate or practice guitar turn out to be equally unaffordable expenditures of time.

Money is fuel in the tanks. Time is altitude to maneuver. Like millions of others, especially these days, we’re short on both. But we’ve seen life at 3,500 feet. We know what’s important to us and what isn’t, what’s worth working for and what’s not. For starters, we need to spend less time earning more money. I have some ideas for doing that.

What’s holding you back from living your dreams? What can you do about? Leave us a comment to share your ideas.

Life in 3D

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what makes flight so compelling to me. Now, after my introductory lesson at Kingston Airport, I think I’ve got it.

It’s a matter of perspective. Even here in the country, we’re surrounded by people. Scrabbling around on the ground, we have to make way for each other, go around obstacles, never seeing beyond the next hill or corner. It’s life in 2D. We live that way our whole lives, and we’re used to it.

But when you climb into the cockpit of an airplane, you leave all that behind. After a running start, you leap into the sky, and suddenly you’re living in 3 dimensions.

When my instructor and I took off, we had the sky to ourselves. There were no stop signs, traffic lights, no traffic at all, no obstacles to where we could go, not even a cop to tell us to slow down or signal our turns. We were free. Free to move up or down as well as left and right. Free to turn, bank, or climb or descend as we pleased.

C-152 approach to KingstonThe Hudson river flowed below us, wide and mighty, no more just an expanse to cross, but a gently curving length, whole and majestic, like the mountains to the west. The treetops covered the now-irrelevant roads. The city of Kingston glittered, sharp edged in the sunlight. “I don’t care how fast a Ferrari is,” remarked my instructor, “the fastest way from point A to point B is a straight line.”

And then there’s the landing, as much a miracle as flight itself. Working throttle, flaps, rudder, and ailerons, Greg slowed us so that we floated down to kiss the runway so gently I hardly felt it, and we were rolling in 2D again. “Hello, Mother Nature,” he said, with evident satisfaction. Because as transcendant as flight is, a safe return home is never to be taken for granted.

Needless to say, I’m hooked.

Flying Dream

K20N photo by Julie Sitney

Photo of Kingston-Ulster Airport by Julie Sitney

Driving along Highway 209, just before I hit the bridge into Rhinebeck, I always turn my head left for a glimpse of the single engine airplanes parked on the flight line at the Kingston Airport.

There’s no passenger terminal there, no jets taking off and landing, not even a control tower, just those little airplanes.

Once in a while, I’m lucky enough to catch a glimpse of an airplane coming in for a landing. When I was a kid and I heard an airplane passing over my house, I would race to find one of my toy airplanes, and hold it as high as I could near the window to fly along with the real one, adding my own back-of-the-throat growl to that of the real engine. My favorite daydream was to imagine that I had wings growing from my back. I would try to imagine what it would feel like to run as fast as I could, and then push off the ground and sail into the air.

As an adult I started my journalism career writing about modern-day barnstormers who flew a rocket powered airplane with old-fashioned stick-and-rudder controls out of the atmosphere. Besides that of watching SpaceShipOne fly firsthand, a memory I’ll always treasure is sitting across a restaurant table from one of the pilots afterwards, enthralled by his description, complete with hand gestures, of his flight.

And yet, I’ve never taken seriously the idea of flying myself. There’s something about a dream sometimes that just doesn’t seem like it could ever come true. Until now.

I have an appointment with a Certified Flight Instructor at the Kingston Airport. Soon I will turn off the highway at the airport instead of driving past. I’ll climb into a Cessna 152, and I’m told, take off for an arial tour of my own neighborhood on my very first lesson.

I’ve already told Amelie to look up from the playground at camp that day when she hears the growl of an airplane engine. I’ll waggle the wings to wave to her and her buddies. Maybe one of those kids will have a toy airplane with them, and they’ll hold it up against the sky, flying a dream too.

Flying by the Seat of My…Desk

My month of flight isn’t until this summer, according to the Party of 4 schedule. July, I think it is, and then we’re going to Paris for a month….

But that hasn’t stopped me from dreaming about flying. It’s amazing what you can do with a Mac and a control yoke.

Wendy gave me X Plane 9 for Christmas, and I soon found that the old video game joystick I had in my closet was totally inadequate for serious flying. No input for rudder pedals, for one thing.

At least that was a good excuse. After I got the yoke, I was still bouncing off the runway (or crashing into it and burning) whenever I tried to land.

Taking off is a cinch. It’s the landing that’s the hard part. And, yes, it really does seem that you can learn to fly with software.

I’ve had this book on my shelf for a few years now, Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying by Wolfgang Langewiesche. I got it when I was writing my book about rocket pilots and I was having a hard time figuring out what test pilot Brian Binnie was trying to tell me about flying SpaceShipOne. Angle of attack? Stab trim? Pilot induced oscillation? Huh?

Amazingly, gratifyingly, it’s all spelled out in this book published in the 1940s. Biplanes, Cessnas, spaceships…they all fly the same way, with a stick and a rudder.

Just a few minutes into rereading the sections on the rudder and angle of attack, turns, and landings, I was able to bounce down to a landing that probably wouldn’t have even killed me in real life. Man, was that satisfying. And I experienced all for myself that aggravating wing-waggling condition called pilot-induced oscillation.

Who knows how much of this will transfer over to the cockpit when I climb into a real airplane this summer, but right now I’m having a ball flying my desk. One of these days I’ll work up the courage to load up the SpaceShipOne profile, drop off the mothership, light up the rocket engine…and in all likelihood, find myself, in the words of private astronaut Mike Melvill, “squashed like a bug.”

Meantime, I’m just a weekend desktop pilot, practicing takeoffs, turns, and landings from a simulation of my local airport, and it feels damn good.

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