Friday, June 23, 2006

Opening Flight

"Lucky, open us up." The Duty Officer ordered, spouting out a tail number.

It's still dark outside, but the forecast is good. In the small Texas town where student pilots dot the skies overhead, there is always the need for adult supervision. Students can't simply fly on their own--they need someone to physically go up and check to make sure the weather is clear.

I don't really mind these opening flights. Any chance to go fly alone is a good one. A quick pre-flight of my equipment and I am out the door, helmet and parachute in hand.

It is my favorite time of day. The pre-dawn glow casts and eerie blanket across the silent flight line. As I walk to my assigned aircraft I feel a sudden calm. In an hour this space will be alive with the roar of engines as students and instructors take to the skies. For now, however, the only sound is of the mockingbirds singing from the grass beside the runways. A crew chief moves absorbed in his own thoughts as he prepares my jet for use. Reaching the wing, I glance through the binder containing the vital data of this particular aircraft. The total number of hours flown is displayed prominently on the first page.

54,297.2 Almost 27 years of a 40-hour work week spent in the air. Spent being slammed on the pavement by inexperienced pilots. Students whose first flights were in her have long since retired after 35 year careers. She must look forward to quiet flights such as this one.

A cursory walk-around and I strap myself in. The crew chief leans on the wing, yawning. Apparently the coffee hasn't taken effect yet. The flip of a switch and the cockpit comes to life, gyros begin spinning up and lights glow bright. She breathes.

It takes a student up to ten minutes to compete the 72-step pre-flight checklist. My hands glide over the dashboard subconsciously for the 386th time. I am done and waiting for the required one-minute warm-up time of the master gyro.

Visor down. I cast a glance over the shoudler to ensure noone is behind the engines, as if anyone would be out here this early. I see the opening safety crew climbing the stairs of the minature tower that rests beside the approach end of the runway--the last-chance a student has before landing gear-up. The crew chief looks in my direction for the signal. A twirl of my gloved hand gives him the heads-up. He nods, and my left hand flips the ignition.

The morning silence is shattered by the single T-37 engine firing to life. A second later a spark in the combustion chamber ignites the JP-8 fuel and a six-foot flame lunges out of the tailcone. After it calms the J-69 turbofan takes over on its own, and the gages in the cockpit show signs of a good start. She lives.

Moments later the other engine is warm, the flight controls are checked, and the chocks are pulled. I break the morning radio silence by keying the mike and pulling my oxygen mask to my face.

"Laughlin Ground, good morning, Tiger 50 request taxi."

A half a mile away a female airman stands and looks across the dim flightline at the hundreds of aircraft. My lone T-37 stands out from the silent sentinels, strobes falshing and cherry-red beacons slowly turning.

"Tiger 50, good morning, taxi runway one three right." Permission granted.

The crew chief steps aside and I slowly slide the throttles up, dew dropping from my wings as the old bird glides foward. I wave to him and begin to taxi alongside the runway. Moments later, the flightline is slilent once more.

A few more checks and I enjoy the drive. The mockingbirds lift off, startled by the steady whine of my engines. A low mist blankets the takeoff strip, soaking the pavement but not preventing flight. As I pull up to the threshold I flip the radio again, this time to talk to the safety crew now ready to begin the day.

"Tiger 50, number one." The radio crackles. My friends, not as fortunate as I today, respond with envy. They will not fly until the day is older and the temperature has broken 100 degrees.

"Number one cleared for takeoff, winds are 140 at 5." Winds are realtively calm and down the runway. I glance up and not a cloud is in sight. Another switch and the canopy motors down, plunging me into virtually total silence minus the steady hiss flowing through my helmet from the radios.

I move into position in the center of the runway and move the throttles forward. Dials across the dashboard swing to life again, stopping at "100%." Everything checks in the green. That goodness for small miracles. The eager aircraft leans forward against the brakes, begging for flight. One last check of the engines and I let her go.

My helmet move slightly backward, not slamming against the headrest as the more powerful jets do. I dance on the rudder pedals, keeping her moving steadily down the strip. My eyes flicker toward the airspeed, although by now I can generally tell when the earth has given us permission to leave. 80...90...100...I gently lift the nose of the jet and the earth falls away, swirls of morning mist left in my wake.

It is my favorite time of day.


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