four o'clock in the afternoon and the temperature is hovering around
39 degrees. A light wind blows down the length of the runway. Clouds
hang thin and high, too high to see them swiftly sailing east. With
the exception of the bitter cold, the weather is perfect.
attire consists of an army surplus nomex flight suit, a bright yellow
down jacket, a ski mask and ski gloves. The down jacket is of a rare
thickness that can hardly be found anywhere outside the far northern
latitudes. Sitting in the cockpit with this thing is like sitting in
a goose-down soup. Forget about seeing the hobbs meter on the lower
left - or the circuit breakers on the lower right.
minutes later I am at full throttle with three-thousand feet of
runway ahead. Stick full forward, rolling, tail up, a little left
then right rudder. In the cold, still air the wings are rock steady.
Lift off. Set pitch for about eighty miles per hour. Hold a little
rudder. By mid-runway I can barely see the airport buildings over the
left edge of the cockpit. By the end of the runway I am six hundred
feet over the numbers and rocketing upward at 1600 feet per minute!
are blocking the low-lying sun, creating a timeless feeling. Although
it's now nearing sunset the intensity of the light hasn't changed
significantly since noon. The colors of sky and land are muted and
blended - gray, blue and dark greens. I fly to the north and began
climbing again once out from under the class C airspace of Richmond
International Airport. Leveling around 3000 feet I see a business jet
cruising far below me, heading for Richmond possibly, or maybe
ducking below their airspace for a local municipal airport. It is
strange to see a sleek, fast jet far below my primitive little craft.
slip-stream tugs at my collar. My nose burns from the cold air. I
cover my nose with the ski mask and my breath is redirected into my
goggles. My goggles fog and freeze. I uncover my nose. A few minutes
with my nose uncovered brings fears of frostbite.
Later on I got a
better ski mask - problem solved.
are patchwork farms where I chased deer in the summer. The stark
scenery of winter is all around. The fields are stripped and plowed.
The river holds thin patches of blue-green ice. A light covering of
snow lays in the shadows of trees and barns.
the Pamunkey River east towards the puffing stacks and pulpy smell of
a paper mill. The West Point Mill is a pulp and paper mill which
creates a staggering 2,000 tons of paper product per day... four
million pounds each day! It's history extends back almost ninety
years. One of their specialties is something called "kraft
paper" - the brown, high-strength paper from which our grocery
bags are made.
West Point paper mill
sure what comes out of the stacks at West Point so I stay up high and
fly lazy circles around them. The mill is a Rube Goldberg nightmare
with interlacing pipes, tanks and structures of all shapes and sizes.
Ship graveyard on
the James River
horizon glows a slight purplish red now. It is too cold to even think
about trying to expose my watch. I dial in the weather reporting
station for a nearby airport. No need to extract the eastern standard
time from the 24 hour Greenwich mean time they report. It's something-forty
one and that means 4:41. Time to get back. The sun sets at five.
lights are on in the dimming light as I turn final. Eighty miles per
hour, seventy five, seventy and hold it. A little right of the runway
to see it better. The air is so thick at this temperature. Flare just
above the runway. I don't worry about how far back the stick is. If I
focus on getting the stick all the way back I invariably flare too
high and float down. Instead I focus on attitude. Flare close to the
runway, hold it off, hold it off and let it touch.
this time I hold it off a bit too long. I realize this at the last
moment as the wings lose their grip and I float down and slam onto
the runway. Remember, any landing you can walk away from is a good
landing... especially if nobody is around to see it.
- Mark Williamson
(1/7/2001) No copyright!