After a long hiatus, I finally feel like I have something to write about. Recently flight school acquired a new dimension when I began our set of visual navigation flights. Visual Navigation (VNAV) is, as the name implies, navigation solely by external reference points: bridges, road intersections, prominent buildings, and the like. And it is very exciting flying.
First of all, because I am navigating visually, I get to look outside the aircraft for most of the flight. This is a remarkable difference from Instrument Navigation, where I spent most of my time in the air concentrating on the navigation instruments, my kneeboard, and my slide rule. Admittedly, that training is necessary, because it is the bread-and-butter of airborne navigation, but it was really nothing more than a glorified desk job – my desk just happened to be the rear cockpit of an airplane. Being able to (or supposed to!) look around from the air restores the glamour of Aviation: from above, you really feel godlike.
Second of all, in order to be able to clearly see references on the ground, I need to fly lower. Flying low is fun because you seem to be going faster and you feel more connected to the ground – you aren’t simply all alone at 28,000 feet. Flying low is stressful, because there are towers and large buildings that can pass close beneath you, but that only heightens the experience.
Finally, in VNAVs, the maneuvers are downright exhilarating. Gone are boring 30-degree-angle-of-bank turns from Instrument Navigation. Marking on top of a navigational checkpoint involves a 3-G, nearly 90-degree-angle-of-bank steep turn and a quick acceleration to the new airspeed. If I need to check a reference underneath the plane, I can order a “wing-flash,” which is when the pilot dips one wing alarmingly in order for me to get a view of the ground directly beneath us out of the side of the canopy. But what is especially exciting is the target run, when we acquire our “target” by raising the nose and rolling the plane so that it (and the rest of the ground) appear in the upper portion of the canopy so we can comfortably see it. This is flying – this is what I imagined when I embarked on an aviation career.
Of course, preparing VNAVs are equally difficult and time-consuming as preparing INAV (instrument) flights. There is a lot of paperwork: charts to draw and prepare, procedures to practice, and briefing items to memorize. So I am keeping busy. I am not too busy, however, to mark the passage of summer. I am entering the golden days of Pensacola – when the humidity and accompanying violent thunderstorms fade leaving clear and beautiful weather. The deep, choking foliage seems faded, too–enervated, perhaps, by the heavy heat and powerful sunlight of summer. It has become pleasant to run outside, the summer tourist swarm has left the beaches, and the ocean is still warm and still. It won’t start getting cold for at least another two months. Until then, I will focus on waterskiing, beachgoing, and barbecues.
I count myself very lucky to be here now. It sometimes seems like an accident that I ended up in Aviation, and equally so that I live in Pensacola. As I write this, the late summer sun streams through my window, and I can’t help but marvel at how good things seem at times. Pensacola may be a small town, it may be aggressively “deep south” in character, and it may be dumpy and poor, but it certainly has its own beauty. My perception of it, of course, includes the flying, the tight group of peers I fly and live with, and my experiences in the city itself–but I am happy here. Though I hope eventually to be posted to San Diego (which is famously beautiful), I can’t get very excited about it when in the midst of a beautiful September afternoon in Pensacola.