New Year’s Day, 1999

For many, New Year’s Day is a day for family and friends to gather and watch football. That was the case in this house, for all the kids wanted to head out to the in-laws and watch the Rose Bowl game.

By nature, I am not one who stands and watches. True, I watch my children play soccer and hockey and such, but I am also known for pacing up and down the sidelines of what ever playing field / arena they are playing on. the playing field.

And if the circumstances are such that I have no family investment in a game, chances are I won’t ever give it the time of day.

All during that afternoon the weather channel had been warning us, BLIZZARD ON THE WAY.

You’ve seen it happen. It’s one of those times when the weather folks get the lead on the evening news and there is a gleam in their eye as they point at charts and maps and proclaim that we are in the path of a truly BIG ONE.

When asked if I wanted to go watch football, I said, “No thanks, I will stay home. You all have a great time.” The day was clear and sunny, rare for our part of the world in January and I decided to head out and stock up on some food. I told them I would putter and get the snow blower ready as well.

Yea right.

Blue sky, sunny, clear cold January air. Remember that?

The real reason I wanted to stay home is that I wanted to fly. I had wanted to fly in the afternoon sun, and that was somewhat unusual for me. I prefer to fly at night. But it had been so cold in December that I wanted to feel the warmth of being bathed in afternoon sunshine.

The day dragged along and twilight quickly approached.

So I waited until it was early evening, New Year’s Day.

As I headed out for the airport I noticed the empty roads.

Out the right window of my car I smiled at the brilliant full moon.

This was one of those moments in life where all the buttons were pushed. A surge of adrenalin ran through me and my heart started to pound. For some it might seem strange, the kinds of things that throw all the switches and light up the brain. I knew in an instant that it would be a great night, that this was  going to be MY moment.

I climbed out of my car at the hangar and grabbed ahold of the partially rusted handle, dragging the heavy  the sliding doors open. I know that I said it was clear and cold, but this was more than cold. The temperature had dropped to a frigid 2 degrees (-16C). I quickly plugged in the space heater and placed it inside of the cabin to try and warm up the interior. Using the air compressor I brought from home, I filled all three of the tires with air. 

The only reason I had a chance to start this airplane was the engine oil heater that keeps the oil in the pan as warm as possible in these temperatures.  I placed the tow bar into its slot and began to slowly drag the reluctant airplane out of the hangar and onto the asphalt.  This was also one of those nights I wondered if I would be successful in pulling it out of the hangar. 

 Thankfully I was successful.  After turning the prop 10 times to loosen up the oil, I climbed back into the airplane and turned the key. In the darkness I watched the instrument lights glow and quiver as the battery slowly cranked over the engine. Thankfully it fired up, but the time it took to get started the steam from my breath frosted up all of the windows.  

Eddie Bauer makes sub-zero parkas for moments like this and it kept me warm as I waited for the defroster to give me at least an inch of view at the bottom of the windshield.

An inch? Taxi an airplane out to the runway with a whole inch of clear windshield?

Well, the roads were deserted and so was the airport.  I could see down my taxiway and everyone else was warm and safe at home, hidden away from the twenty below wind chill.

The big three bladed propeller with its 300 horses of warming engine soon cleared the windshield and I got clearance to taxi out to the run-up area of the runway. After the preflight checks and bringing the engine up to operating temperature it was time to call back to the tower and get permission to fly.

I love this moment.  

“Saratoga XX ready on runway 27 right.

The tower answers, “Saratoga xx.. Cleared for departure, runway 27 right, fly right traffic.”

Gently I ease the throttle forward with my right hand. I am lined up on the centerline of the runway. Granted it’s Christmas time, but at night, the airport always looks like Christmas. The runway lights were dimmed to a golden white, with the ends of the runway accented in red and green. Blue lights rim the taxiways

I love the feel of 300 horses spinning the propeller in front of me.

Imagine… 300 horses pulling me on a kite… with a long rope… I wonder if they could make me fly?

The airplane starts to roll forward and the runway lights begin to flash by. The bright lights of the wingtip strobes reflect off of the snow as I watch the airspeed indicator climb to 80 knots and then this is the moment of… flight… as the nose wheel leaves the ground, then the main wheels follow. Within seconds the trees on the right side of the runway disappear from view and the nose of the airplane points skyward.

This moment of transition is burned into my mind, as it has been since my first flight at eight years old to my first lesson at age 15.

I learned to fly before I could drive.


I don’t know.

Some things you just have to do in life, and for me it was to fly. And then I learned to love the night sky.  And this night, that self same frigid air was also crystal clear. From the side windows every speck of light sparkled like a diamond against a field of blackness. It was truly awesome. As I turned to the right the moon that had been behind me, now reflected on the right wing. With another turn the moon’s light splashed across an unfrozen lake. In less than a minute I had already gained over a thousand feet and I continued to climb by the light of the full moon.

The night landscape has changed in the last 20 years. It used to be you would see a field of white punctuated by the occasional red glow of a Kmart sign. Now, more than half of the streetlights have an orange cast, and are mixed with all kinds of hues of green and white lights.  The night landscape is a cacophony of color.

This was a night for flight. I put the airplane into steep banks to the right and then to the left. I turned into circles of 360 degrees until the air became turbulent with the wash of my own propeller.

When I ran into my own prop wash I leveled out for a moment and then rolled into a turn in the opposite direction.

I practiced turns so steep that if you were a passenger you would swear that the airplane was on its side. Forty-five degrees of bank does look steep, and requires a lot of backpressure to keep the nose on the horizon. The steeper you turn, the more you increase the g-forces on the airplane.

Its a game about balance, as the brain takes in the data and you compensate, adding a bit more power, a touch of back pressure, or perhaps a little less bank. Roll in at due north, spin around to the right and see just how close you can roll out again at true north.

Oh, and don’t lose any altitude, because that would be sloppy flying.

After an hour or so of practice maneuvers I returned to the airport, mentally tired, but satisfied.

It’s not my airplane, but I get to use it.

And on this night of watching, this night… I know life.

This was my evening of moments when it all came together.

Sated, I locked the hanger door,  and listened as the now hot engine clicked and ticked as it cooled in the frozen night. I climbed into a very cold car and gratefully, drove off into the night.


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