Behind the Scenes: A Flight With Filmmaker Jeff McLain

My favorite part of being a pilot is the people I meet through aviation. I have taken people up to scout for morel mushrooms, celebrate an 11th birthday with a daddy daughter flight, and most recently to help a filmmaker capture aerial footage out the window of our Cessna 182.

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I met Jeff McLain last summer at Rocky Mountain School of Photography. He was instructing a studio lighting class as part of the Summer Intensive course I was enrolled in. The dark studio with controlled lighting, a plethora of cords and remotes, tethered equipment, and precision photography was far from my comfort zone. I live for open skies, soaring thousands of feet above the earth with nothing tied to my camera, free to shoot what Mother Nature puts in front of me; she controls the lighting in my world.

While I am still trying to get comfortable in a studio setting, it was a great experience when I had the opportunity to show Jeff my world of photography, and get some behind the scenes photos of the whole process.

Filmmaker Jeff McLain is working on a documentary about ancient buffalo jumps, many that scatter the Montana landscape. Our mission was to get some aerial footage of Ulm Pishkun, known as First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park. It is an archaeological site with possibly the largest bison cliff jump in North America.

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Native peoples used this site for at least a thousand years before Lewis and Clark passed through here. The bison jump site consists of a mile long sandstone cliff; there are remnants of drive lines on top of the cliff and there are up to 18 ft. of compacted bufffalo remains below the cliff.

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We took off from KMSO well before the sunrise, and navigated over jagged peaks to the Rocky Mountain Front. After some flight planning, we navigated the outskirts of Great Falls and did a couple of low flybys of the buffalo jump just as the morning light spread over the cliffs of Ulm Pishkun.

The fixed base operation at KGTF was kind enough to loan us a car, and we drove out to the jump to get some additional photos and footage from the ground. At the bottom of the cliff, archeologists believe that the earliest hunters merely stripped the flesh off dead bison. But in roughly a.d. 500, as indicated by carbon-dated stone tools and fire pits, it appears the meat was processed into pemmican, a mixture of pulverized jerky and dried wild fruits held together by melted fat. Trails lead visitors through these ancient meat harvesting and processing areas. More on this history can be found at fwp.mt.gov.

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And no real flight adventure would be complete without checking out local fare. Breakfast at 2K’s Cafe on 3rd Ave was the perfect end to our morning!

This was our first attempt at slowing down airspeed in the plane enough to open the front window and shoot outside the plane!

Surratt Memorial Winter Survival Clinic

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Every year, unpredictable winter storms plague the northwest only to delay, destruct, and fatally dismantledrivers passing through Montana’s highways.

The difference between a safe rescue or death from hypothermia can be as simple as a few survival items stowed away in the luggage compartment, the proper equipment attached to your vest or the right things packed away in the trunk of your car.

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airplane fuselage used for training

“The only three things you need to survive a winter situation, besides your mama’s love,” said Frank Bowen of Northern Lights Training Group, “Shelter, water, and food.”
These three – well, four things, if you count your mama’s love on your list of survival needs- are ranked in order of importance. Crucial things to remember if you ever find yourself isolated without shelter in a remote area of Montana in the winter.

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Flare gun; an important tool to have in any survival kit

 

The first time I thought about surviving a wilderness area stranded in cold, came when my husband got his private pilot license and decided to fly me from Missoula to Fort Benton, across the Continental Divide. It was early fall, but significant snow covered the craggy peaks that make up the Rocky Mountains.
As we were flying back at night, in awe of all the snow-covered mountain tops we were crossing, I wondered where we could land if anything were to happen to the plane. My husband’s response did not exactly ease my concerns: “Well, I guess we will just turn off the landing light and close your eyes before impact.”

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Pilot Travis Booher heads off into the woods with his survival kit to set up camp

That was the first indication that if I were going to be a passenger on any future flights in small aircraft, maybe it was time I educate myself in the world of general aviation. I got my private pilot’s license in December 2011, which was immediately followed with completion of the Surratt Winter Survival Clinic, hosted by Montana Department of Transportation, in Marion.
The clinic is named after Terry Surratt, a pilot who survived an emergency landing in his iced aircraft in a snowstorm January 1992, but then perished from hypothermia from lack of survival knowledge or skills. His widow has set up a memorial for her husband that helps subsidize the clinic, which trains a couple dozen people every year to avoid situations like the one Surratt found himself in.

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Flint and steel with magnesium block. This method of fire starting was difficult for me.

The point of the clinic was clear: the only way to ensure the best odds of surviving such a storm while traveling is be prepared. At the first clinic I had only the minimal amount of gear and failed to (A): build a proper shelter, (B): start and keep a fire going, and C: procure any type of water melt, treatment or food rationing.
I was left with just “my mama’s love” to keep me going.
Determined to redeem myself, I insisted on attending the DOT Surratt Clinic once again January 11-13, 2013.

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finally got the fire going

This time around, I came prepared to battle the cold and come with correct dose of mental toughness. I had a tarp for a shelter, water-proof matches to make fire, and a pot to melt snow for water.
The clinic is made up of a handful of experts from around Northwest Montana. Frank Bowen, founder of Northern Lights Training Group taught us how to construct a shelter from a tarp and pine bows, and how to build a snow shelter. He listed shelter and fire as the first priorities in a winter survival situation, because exposure to the elements in extreme weather will cause your body to lose heat faster than can be produced.

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Example of a snow cave shelter

“Don’t assume it is going to happen to the guy down the street,” said David Hoerner, Bureau Chief for Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division. “It’s those times when you least expect something to happen that you find yourself unprepared.”
Each of the twenty participants built their own snow fort. I felt confident my little tarp and pine bow lined snow fort was going to be warm enough to tough out the cold, and sleep in it overnight. I mean I did have a sleeping bag, how cold can it get?

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Travis with our shelter in the background

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example of a simple tarp shelter

Apparently, cold enough to keep me awake until three in the morning, when I made the walk of shame back to the warmth of the bunkhouse.
The most valuable piece of information that one can retain, is that low body temperatures will lead to hypothermia and will leave you unable to think clearly or move well. One mistake a pilot never wants to make is leaving their transportation. This wisdom applies to cars as well as aircraft.
“If you find yourself stranded in cold weather, stay with the vehichle,” said Bowen. “I can’t emphasize this enough. There are so many instances where people wander off and end up dying from hypothermia. It is a lot easier for rescuers to locate a vehicle than a single person moving away from the site.”
Following this second go around at the survival clinic, I left with the sense of empowerment, and with the sense that I can survive in a winter emergency scenario. I highly recommend this clinic for these very reasons.

Helena Aviatrix First Woman to be Named as Master Pilot by FAA

This article recently appeared in the Helena Independent Record. Photo courtesy Patricia Johnson, article: Derek Brauwer

Many people know Patricia Johnson as an educator. She taught physics and earth science in Helena for 27 years, and now she administers school grants at the Office of Public Instruction.

To fellow pilots, Johnson is a lifelong student and aviation advocate. To air traffic controllers, she is N5812R — the registration number printed in bold letters along the side of her 1966 Cessna 172 plane, which Pat calls “Romeo.”

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Eliza Wiley Independent Record – Patricia Johnson gives a tour of her 1966 Cessna 172, “Romeo.” Johnson a Helena resident and longtime high school teacher is the first woman in Montana to recieve the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Johnson may not be your typical flying ace. She doesn’t perform aerobatics shows, fly fighter jets or take off in treacherous conditions. Flying for her is a hobby and an escape. She’s had many adventures over a lifetime of flying, but notes that she’s done most things only once.

But Johnson’s flying experiences are singular in other ways as well.

She was the only woman in the student flying club at the old Montana State College in Bozeman, where she first took a seat inside a cockpit 51 years ago.

Read the rest of this entry

Long Solo Cross Country Flight Ends in Crash Landing for Montana Teen

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Two Super Cub airplanes search for missing plane piloted by teen near Pryor Mountaians.
Photo: Larry Mayer-Billings Gazette

A Billings teenager on her long solo-cross country got disoriented and crashed the Cessna 172 she was piloting in a rugged part of the Shoshone  National Forest. She survived the crash nearly unharmed, and was able to walk away from the crash.

The teen, 17-year-old McKenzie Morgan, was on a multi-city solo cross country as part of her flight training out of Laurel, Mont., with stops planned in Powell, Cody, and Greybull in Wyoming, then Fort Smith and Billings Mont., all before returning to Laurel.

According to a news release from the Park County Sheriff’s Office in Wyo., Morgan became confused and got going in the wrong direction after taking off from Greybull, Wyo.

“She became disoriented during her training flight and crashed in an extremely rugged area of the Shoshone National Forest northwest of the abandoned mining town of Kerwin,” the release said. Read the rest of this entry

Montana Spring Goose Migration

The goose migration to Freezout Lake has always captured my attention, so when the weather cleared I figured it was a good time to head on over to Choteau, Montana and check it off my bucket list. The flight from Missoula to Choteau is quite spectacular crossing the Continental Divide over Bob Marshall wilderness area. Here is a photo of the back-country paved strip Benchmark, tough to spot but it is just off the tip of the wing.

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Once you cross the Continental Divide land flattens out for miles and miles. This is where thousands of snow geese take a break on their long journey north every year. Read the rest of this entry

Scouting For Morel Mushrooms From The Air

One of the most interesting aspects of being a private pilot is meeting new people through aviation. And you just never know who will end up on your doorstep. A couple of weeks ago my husband and I had the lovely experience of meeting Western Montana Mycological Association guru Larry Evans. If you are anything like me, the word mycologic isn’t in your vocabulary. For the layman, it means Larry loves mushrooms. He is one of Montana’s most active and knowledgable mushroom guys around.

We met Larry through a mutual friend and he was interested in taking a plane ride over the burn areas in Southern Montana to scout out potential morel mushroom growth this spring. Morel mushrooms are like fungal gold in Montana. Larry is one of the best people to know if you want help figuring out where to find morels. He was excited to get an aerial view of the landscape so when he asked us to take him up, we were more than happy to oblige.

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Above is an aerial photo over the Bitterroot mountains taken on the flight.

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The image above is a rough outline of the flight path with Larry. Read the rest of this entry

Stillwater Splash-in

Stillwater Splash-in 2012

A seaplane rating for pilots is a bragging rite of passage. If you hold an endorsement to fly a plane onto water it trumps all landlubbing pilots. No matter the age, experience, or caliber of aircraft flown, nothing beats the freedom of being able to fly over a body of water and just point. There, I want to land there. And then you do.

“There” has a name. It’s Stillwater Landing, a small lake in northwest Montana and every other year seaplane pilots near and far gather for a weekend of airplane camping, live music, and flying fables. This gathering deemed “Stillwater Spash-in” has been taking place since the inaugural get-together in 1994.

Meet the host, Bill Montgomery. The man behind the curtain of this great event happens to be the most down to earth, generous, fun-loving music and aircraft enthusiast around.

Since the sixties Montgomery has been enjoying his little piece of Montana heaven on the shores of Stillwater just west of Whitefish. And like any true Montanan, no piece of the Last Best Place can be truly enjoyed without sharing the tranquil beauty of our borders with others. Well, Montgomery goes above and beyond the hospitality of your average Montanan, or even fellow pilot for that matter. Every two years, and a few events in between, he opens his 40 plus acres of land, twelve of which are shore front, to pilots, musicians, neighbors, and heck anyone just driving or flying by, to camp out and enjoy quality live music on his property.

It is apparent from the first view of his hangar, custom log outdoor stage with sound system, and floatplane campsites that line the water on his property; this place was built for gathering.

Being a pilot does come with some downsides, one being that pesky God complex. So of course when we flew into Stillwater it wasn’t hard to fathom Montgomery invited talented musicians just to entertain us pilots for the weekend.

But then I started talking to some of the artists. Montomery always draws sparkling high-caliber talent to his property; it seems his passions between music and aviation run equal. He has built not only an empire for seaplanes, but castle for musicians alike. The soundstage at Stillwater is envied for the open-air stage, grassy stadium seating, and quality sound-recording equipment.

So, as much as us big-headed pilots think the musicians came for us, they have just as much street cred to know that any planes flying in may just have shown up for the music. That my fellow pilots, musicians, friends, neighbors is the beauty of Stillwater Landings. We are all drawn together to enjoy the good life. Thank you Bill for all the great memories! Looking forward to many more.

Please enjoy our video and photos from the weekend. Hope to see you next time!

Stillwater Landings

Our airplane a 1975 LA4-200 Lake Buccaneer.

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Mission Mountains on our way up to Stillwater.

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Falls in the Missions.

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We found a big brother to our Lake Buccaneer.

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Outdoor stadium seating perfect for twilight picnic.

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Pancake breakfast.

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Two Parks, One Challenge

Keep Em Flying Challenge

When Airplane Owners and Pilots Association president Craig Fuller presented a challenge to members four months ago my ears perked up; I’m not one to turn down a challenge. The challenge? Pilots need only fly as pilot in command for five hours to five airports located at least 50 miles apart—in any kind of aircraft—and take any Air Safety Institute online safety course in the next four months.

“There are many ways for AOPA members to make a difference, including this challenge,” said AOPA President Craig Fuller. “The more people who fly, and do their part to help others discover the value of general aviation, the easier it will be to ‘Keep ‘em Flying’ for generations to come.”

Any pilots willing to step up are offered an entry into a drawing for a pool of cash prizes. Ask any of my friends and they will tell you I am more than enthusiastic about sharing my new-found love of aviation. I’m pretty sure most of them actually want me to shut up already. So if AOPA is willing to pay me to keep flying and keep talking, I accept.

FIRST AIRPORT: Glacier International: KGPI

We departed Missoula and headed north. This was my first flight as pilot in command of our beloved Cessna Skylane after receiving my high performance endorsement. A big thanks to our airplane partner and bestest CFI Steve!

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On the way up we had a great view of Kerr Dan, a concrete gravity-arch dam located on the Flathead River which controls the size of Flathead Lake, the largest fresh water lake west of the Mississippi. In the spring all the gates in the dam open up to control spring run off.

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Passed the majestic Mission range in the Flathead Valley.

KGPI is only a few miles from my mom’s house and it was only a few days before Mother’s Day, what a great opportunity to take her up for the first time! Glacier International Park is her backyard playground. It is where she spends long sweet summer days exploring its peaks, and escaping on skis for some blustery winter solitude. We took a scenic tour over the park; it was satisfying to see her beaming as she pointed out all the peaks she has climbed.

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We spotted Ryan Field, a private airstrip on the outskirts of Glacier Park.

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We could see plows working to clear the road through Glacier from the air.

This picture was taken from Glacier np Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/glaciernps/7221783166/sizes/m/in/set-72157629725011599/

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We got a great view of the Seeley-Swan mountain range while enroute back to the airport. You can see Hungry Horse reservoir in the background.

SECOND AIRPORT: KMSO

SSFF to KMSO 129nm 1.4 hours flight time

I have been feeling the need to repay my CFI Steve since the ink dried on my high-performance endorsement, so when he asked for a ride back to Missoula from Felts Field near Spokane, the answer was clear. He shares ownership of our 182, so I felt honored when he let me be pilot in command. I also hit 100 hours flight time in my logbook on this flight!

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Our flight path took us over the craggy Cabinet Mountain range.

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Approach to KSFF

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Departing Felts Field

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Back home!

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Here is a view from the left downwind for runway 29. It is one of my all-time favorite views. Missoula is where I completed all my flight training and any time I fly back from a cross-country the familiarity of KMSO pattern eases my travel woes. I spent a lot of time hating this pattern and have ended a few flights in tears while training, but after so many hours getting to know this airport I now condiser it an old friend. Whether it is straight in for runway 11 or left downwind 29, the sight of Missoula’s landmark Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel, and the river that runs between them means the end of a journey and the comfort of home.

THIRD AIRPORT: Boeing Field KBFI

Some flights are inspired by good weather. I woke up, looked out the window, then called in sick. I wasn’t necessarily sick per say, but the weather was urban dictionary “sick” and I was ready to fly somewhere. Anywhere. Seattle has been on my bucket list since I heard about Boeing Field and all the lovely FBO’s willing and ready to help make your weekend a dream. Seattle is also just far enough away to make it a royal pain in the butt to drive for just the weekend, but a nice 3 hour leasurely flight in a small aircraft. We called up some friends who were really good sports about letting us crash at their house last minute, then we fueled up and pointed her west.

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On final for 31L at Boeing Field

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After landing, Aeroflight let us use thier courtesy car to get into the city where we enjoyed checking out the Pike market and eating fish & chips at Ivars Fish Bar.

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We picked up our friends and took a scenic flight out to the San Juan Islands. This is a view of downtown Seattle from the air.

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Most islands in the San Juan’s have an airstrip or airport. We opted to land at Friday Harbor.

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Midfield crossing over Friday Harbor’s airport. You can just barely see another airplane has just landed at the bottom of this photo.

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“Friday Harbor traffic, Skylane 7557 Sierra turning a right base for runway 16, Friday Harbor.”

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Walked into town and enjoyed some oysters on the Harbor. Now that’s a $100 hamburger if I have ever seen one!

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After departing Seattle we had a great aerial view of Snoqualmie Falls just outside the city.

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FOURTH FLIGHT: Morgan County Airport 42U

My dad invited me down to Utah to enjoy a Utah Symphony concert in Park City featuring the band Kansas. How could I say no? A little time with family, a little Kansas, a picnic on a resort lawn? Does Morgan have an airstrip? We can all see how this story ends. I carried my wayward self on down there in my 182.

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Here is a screen shot of our flight path south. Can you tell where we are?

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Showers over Idaho.

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Reservoir near approach to Morgan County Airport.

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Snow Basin ski area, a good reporting point when navigating to Morgan.

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Me and my dad with Park City in the background.

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Outdoor concert venue for the Symphony. Not too shabby.

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FIFTH AIRPORT: West Yellowstone WYS

On the way back from Utah we had to dodge some rainshowers and decided a stop in West Yellowstone was in order. I have heard good things about the airport, like courtesy bikes, pilot campground, nice restaurant. They were all true. If you ever have a chance to fly into West Yellowstone…DO IT! POTUS Obama landed there with his family in 2008. If WYS is good enough for airforce one, its good enough for me.

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On final at WYS

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The campground for pilots was impressive! Clean, spacious, private, and they even have showers!

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Took a two mile ride to the town of West Yellowstone on the courtesy bikes!

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Enjoyed an order of “Rocky Mounain Oysters” at the airport. I love that they had them on the menu, clearly for the tourists. It’s a Montana thing. Yes, they are bulls balls. Yes, they taste like chicken. Yes, I lost a bet.

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Upon departure we built up some altitude and took a scenic loop around Yellowstone National Park.

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The view of Grand Prismatic Spring from the air is breathtaking. This is one of Yellowstone’s iconic landmarks.

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And here is a view of Yellowstone Falls. Spectacular!

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This is the area referred to as the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

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From Yellowstone to Missoula we flew over the Berkely Pitt in Butte, Montana.

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The city of Butte from the air.

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Thanks for the inspiration AOPA! It’s been fun.

First Passenger…Ignorance is Bliss

I was driving my best friend Melissa to the airport headed for yet another monumental milestone in flight training: first passenger. We were just about to the parking lot of my FBO when she pointed out a cool airplane stopped on the tarmac. Naturally I turned my head to check it out, and took my car straight off the road. After a sharp swerve that brought us abruptly back onto the asphalt, I sheepishly looked over at her and said, “Are you sure you still want to go up in an airplane with me at the controls?”

Fortunately I am a better at flying an airplane than I am at driving a car. And due to the fact that I carpool to work, I have spent at least twenty times more hours in the left seat of an airplane than a car since starting flight training. I am also lucky to have a friend that is an up-for-anything adventure hound who will let you know she’s having fun by flashing a full-toothed smile I’ve deemed the “perma-grin”. I looked over in her direction. Perma-grin was on. Flight was a go.

The most surprising part of the flight was how relaxed my passenger was, and how relaxed I wasn’t. She had her seat scooted all the way back and was casually snapping photos; I was nervously chomping away at my gum and sweating bullets like a bookie. This was the first time someone else in the airplane wasn’t interested in fighting me for controls or shadowing my rudder input. That’s when I realized that another person’s life was completely in my hands. It was up to me to follow the careful training and strict regimen my instructor taught me and his instructor before him, all the way back to the first flight schools developed a little over one hundred years ago.

Our flight was just under two hours and consisted of a short familiar route north with a stop in Ronan. I realized Melissa’s headset wasn’t working very well when I told her that I wanted to land in Ronan and check out this cool barn. When I reached the end of the taxi-way where the barn sits and pointed to the historic landmark she had a puzzled look on her face, then said, “Oh, BARN! I thought you said you had a cool BAR you wanted me to check out…I was kinda wondering about that.”

That’s right Melissa, Montana may have its fair share of cool back-road bars, but its eight hours between bottle & throttle, not eight inches! Once again Mel proved to just go with the flow and let me be in control of her fate, even when she thought I was taking her bar hopping on our flight!

Her blind trust and calm demeanor made me recall my first flight as a laissez faire passenger in a Cessna 172 right after my husband Travis got his private pilot license. I must say, if I knew then what I know now that flight wouldn’t have happened the way it did. I tracked down a post he put up in a student pilot forum right after our flight. I also blogged about the flight and posted all the fantastic pictures I took on the trip which you can read here. I remember everything being so adventurous and thrilling I wasn’t asking concerning questions like, “Where would we land in the middle of the Continental Divide at night if we had engine failure?” That is a question that might cross my mind now as a pilot, and likely make me convince my extremely competent, but less conservative husband to bend from the direct-to route. Here is his post from my flight as first passenger:

I finally took the wife up on our first trip to a small town 150 k miles away.  KMSO  –> 79S
We took off at 9:30 am and started out over the Rocky Mountains on a direct route.  I have not spent much time flying a long leg over mountains so it was a little nerve racking being over them for a good 45 minutes until we hit the flat lands on the other side.  But I have to say it was an amazing sight and the air was amazingly smooth with not even the slightest bump in the sky!
Over all the flight over was uneventful, just beautiful views and smooth air.  I located the little airstrip in Fort Benton and tried calling to get the automated weather but all I got was static, for some reason I could not get the weather on the radio or the cell phone??  So thats fine because the ATIS for a nearby airport had calm winds, so there should not be a huge difference 30 miles down the road right?  Well I did a fly over to double check the sock and noticed a pretty stiff direct cross wind to the only paved runway, thats fine, I can handle 10-15 knot x winds.  Well on final I knew this was going to be interesting because the wind was gusting pretty bad and I already had full rudder input and still could not get straighten out all the way.  I figured I would float it in and make a go around decision if I was not comfortable. Every thing looked good on short final with just a little extra speed for the gust factor so I set her down.  Well the upwind wheel hit first but quickly after the other side settle down and the winds tried pushing me off the side of the runway!  I got on the brakes and got it straighten out and noticed that my wife was filming the whole thing and she didn’t seem to think it was too bad, thats good because my palms were sure sweating. Anyways I walked in the unmanned airport office and noticed the weather station and saw that the winds were in-fact 20g25 kts direct x winds!
Anyways, we had a great day exploring this historic little town and did not end up heading back to the airport (in the courteous loaner car) until just before sunset.  I kind of wanted to do the flight back in the daylight but on the other hand I wanted the wind to die down a bit.  So we took off just as the sun was setting and had the best seats in the house as we climbed up to altitude. Once the sun had set the night started getting darker and darker, I knew I had all the proper training needed for night x countries, but the nerves started setting in knowing we were going to be flying back over the mountains in the dark!  I just flew the victor airway straight back, got on my radial and flew a straight line. Once the nerves calmed down I started to really enjoy the flight!  Again there was not a bump in the sky and the night views were amazing.
The night landing back at our airport was perfect, we floated down and settled down onto the runway as gentle as you can, and thats when she observed what a landing is suppose to feel like!
So 3.9 on hobbs and an absolute great beginning to my new life as a Pilot!
Thanks for reading and hopefully I can share some of the great pictures and videos

I pulled up that video of his landing I was filming as a passenger and now have a whole different view of the actual conditions as a pilot. You can see where without proper wind correction on the ground we were being scooted quickly off the runway. You can view my entire post on the Fort Benton airport link at the top of my blog or click here.

Fort Benton Landing

My husband has a lot more confidence than I do as a pilot, but my conservative side makes us a great team. I was so glad to see my first passenger have just as much trust in me as I did on my flight with Travis. It may not have been the audacious adventure I experienced as first passenger, but Melissa was enthusiastic and I was a proud pilot excited to document our time together in my logbook soon after landing. And I couldn’t help but notice the giant perma-grin pasted on my face the rest of the day.

The Checkride…We’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe?

rig·ma·role/ˈrig(ə)məˌrōl/ Noun: 1. A lengthy and complicated procedure. 2. A long, rambling story or statement.
 
The culmination of every student pilots training is the FAA checkride; mine happened December 13, 2011. I’m a little behind on writing this post, which is weird since I have so much more time now its over, but I’ll save you the suspense, I passed (whew). It really takes good milestone to look back and see how far you’ve come.  And what would any FAA exam be without its fair share of rigmarole? But what I’d really like to share is the moment during my checkride when it all came together.
 
Most all checkrides start with a cross-country flight plan you are required to prepare ahead of time. The flight my examiner assigned was from Missoula heading north to Kalispell. If you have been reading my blog you will know this is a route I flew every weekend in the summer with my husband to our family lake house, and was my first solo cross country. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful areas in western Montana; needless to say I felt like I had won the lottery of cross-country flight plans.
 
My flight portion got off to a shaky start when I got disoriented with the directions from ground. Turns out they closed a taxiway and had me going the extremely long and roundabout way to runway 29. Lesson 1: Don’t become complacent at your own airport, just because you’ve done it a million times doesn’t mean tower is going to be nice and do it that way again on checkride day. (Can we ever depend on tower to be consistently nice, or even consistent?) This little mishap had me a little rattled, and was not a confident way to start. Everything after that seemed to compound and fluster me into mental flaming spiral of epic failure. But we made it off the ground and to our first checkpoint: Animal Bridge.
 
 
My examiner asked what Animal Bridge meant and what it would look like from the air. I was so pleased to be able to tell him about this animal crossing that is unique to our area. It was built to allow wildlife to cross over highway 93 on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
 
Since my examiner seemed interested and I was doing a fine enough job “flying the airplane”, I decided to point out another one of my favorite landmarks I watch for on this route: Dancing Boy. I got very excited to show him the silhouette of a native american boy dancing with a drum created by an avalanche chute on the mountainside near Arlee, MT. It is a landmark that is more visible with a little snow on the hillside and I always look forward to early fall when his shape starts to appear more filled in with every snow storm.
 
 Can you see dancing boy?
 
As I pointed out dancing boys profile to my examiner, I began to relax. I actually forgot I was being tested for a few moments. I was proud of the fact that I knew the area so well and was able to share some of my favorite landmarks from the air. Then I realized, this is what flying is all about. As pilots we get a perspective from a place not many people see every day, and its exciting to introduce and share this part of the world with someone new. I think at this point my examiner could see how passionate I was about flying, and even though it isn’t listed anywhere in the Private Pilot Practical Test Standards, every examiner who loves and is good at their job will secretly add it as a trait they are looking for in a good pilot.
After this, I was at ease enough to head back to Missoula for some landings. And wouldn’t ya know it tower once again had me running all over the place, doing a holding 360, setting up for a right down-wind on 11, then  tear drop out and back for 29, then back into left pattern with extended down-wind. I don’t think I did one pattern the same, but the best part was by this time I felt relaxed. I was enjoying the flight enough to make casual conversation, fly the airplane, and read back correctly.
 
And by the time it was over I knew all the hard work I had put into training the past eight months was worth finding  this new passion. And if you are looking to become a private pilot you should know there is going to be a fair amount of rigmarole including conflict with your instructor, schedule, weather, government regulations, spouse. And a lot of money spent on ground school, written test, plane rental, instruction, check ride, therapy. But there will be many new friends to be made, sights to be seen, mentors to learn from like Greg Brown, and all the support at AOPA’s Facebook page.  And the best part is the end when you get to see how far you’ve come and how much you have accomplished.
 
 
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