By Jeffrey Scheuer
Imagine it’s a bright spring morning, and we’re sitting in a single-engine Cessna at Columbia County Airport. You may object to the thought, but it’s too late — I’ve advanced the throttle and we’re rolling down the runway and off into the sky. As we climb out over the Hudson Valley, the landscape suddenly casts off its one-dimensional cloak to reveal depth, texture, and scale.
Don’t worry, I’ll get you back down. But first, as long as we’re up here let’s have a quick look around. It’s gorgeous. (You should see it in October.) And when we get up a little higher, I have a surprise. By the way, this flying obsession of mine began as a whim. I’d always thought it might be fun to try, and one day I did. It could happen to you.
Now look down. The Hudson River unwinds like a ribbon below, bisecting the farmlands of Columbia and Greene counties. At the western edge of the broad valley stands the long sloping wall of the Catskills; to the east are the gentle green folds of the Berk- shires in Massachusetts. It’s completely clear (“CAVU,” as pilots say, or “ceiling and visibility unlimited”) and you can see 80 miles or more: south to the Hudson Highlands below Beacon, north to the Adirondack peaks and the Green Mountains of Vermont.
Some twenty miles south of us, Stissing Mountain towers over the surrounding farm and hunt country of central Dutchess County. Across the river, we can see the deep, mysterious cloves of the Catskills, and if we flew further south, we’d see the magnificent rocky escarpment of the Shewangunks. A vast expanse, this valley: yet from the air it seems, if not smaller, somehow more whole — more ours. An hour up here in a small plane, and we could traverse the entire stretch of it from New York to Albany, or fly to New Hampshire. In a day, we could easily reach Michigan or Virginia.
Now the surprise: take the controls! That’s right: ailerons and rudder to bank into a turn, elevator to raise or lower the nose, power to climb. When cruising, the airplane almost flies itself. It’s designed to be stable in flight, not fall out of the sky. But the real wonder is that giddy sensation when the plane first responds to your touch. At that first memorable moment, I was hooked on flying. Learning to fly was a series of daunting challenges. At first, soloing seemed a distant goal; then flying a cross-country trip to a distant airport; then earning the license. It didn’t come easily for me — but it came.
There are other pleasures, certainly, after that first feel of the aircraft: the sense of freedom in gaining admission to the sky; mastery of a complex machine; the execution of procedures, such as a good landing. But the main thrill isn’t power or speed. In fact, at higher altitudes it can seem as if you’re moving rather slowly. For me, the magic of flight is in the altered sense of scale, the different relation of time and space, and the deeper connection to the land, that can only be attained by leaving the ground. It isn’t to escape what a pilot once called the “surly bonds of earth,” but rather, by stepping back from Mother Nature, to better admire her face.
Altitude, in fact, brings interesting revelations, and a different kind of intimacy with the earth’s surface. White water, as I noticed on a cross-country flight to Glens Falls, looks frozen and solid from the air. Natural disasters, such as the recent tornado that cut a swath through northwestern Connecticut, reveal their full dimensions. Big landmarks (mountains, rivers, lakes, coastlines, distant cities) become signposts for the aerial navigator. But small details are also telling: the shape of a cloud, or the direction of its shadow over the ground; which natural and manmade objects make good navigational checkpoints and which don’t. Like a hiker, the pilot must learn to read the terrain; like a sailor, the cues of wind, water, and light.
Pilotage, or visual navigation with aeronautical charts, is one of three basic methods of navigation. It is used in conjunction with dead reckoning (calculations of time, speed and distance) and radio navigation, using electronic instruments such as the VOR, or very-high-frequency omnidirectional range, which tells you where you are in relation to a radio signal from a beacon.
Framed by mountains and divided by the river, the Hudson Valley is an especially easy area to navigate by pilotage. The terrain is simple and varied: there are no sprawling suburbs or featureless prairies to confuse the novice pilot, nor endless expanses of lakes, swamps, or forests. A few distinct roads make excellent landmarks: the New York State Thruway, the Taconic State Parkway, Route 90. In fact, following a series of great waterways — the Hudson, Lake George, Lake Champlain — one could fly all the way from New York to Burlington or Montreal and scarcely open a chart, though it’s not the recommended method. Similarly, after a long day’s journey over New England, the Hudson is an unmistakable and reassuring finish line glinting in the afternoon sun.
The Hudson Valley boasts a wide assortment of airports, from the quiet little paved strips at places like Red Hook, Verbank, and Stormville, to the major regional airports at Albany and Newburgh. For flight training, I’d recommend one of the mid-size fields. Columbia County, where I did much of my training, is uncontrolled but has a long, inviting runway; Saratoga and Glens Falls are similar. Dutchess County Airport and Schenectady Airport have control towers and dual runways but little commercial traffic, and thus are good for learning to talk to a tower in a relaxed environment. The major aviation company in the area is Richmor Aviation, which offers charter, rental aircraft, and flight schools at Dutchess, Columbia, Schenectady, and Saratoga.
Weather in the region is usually good for flying. We have our share of clouds, but fewer thunderstorms per year than most areas of the country — including the South and Midwest. The major annoyance here is summer haze, as the dust from East Coast pollution offers condensation nuclei for water molecules to condense on in warm weather.
The time it takes to get a license is probably the main hurdle for most people: typically 40-60 hours in the air, plus ground- school and studying. Living in New York City and training erratically on weekends, I took longer than usual to get my private pilot’s license; but it can be done in a few months of concentrated work. The cost — about $3,000-$4,000 — isn’t much when you consider that you’re getting a transformative experience, for less than the price of a good used car. It helps, of course, to live near the airport and be young, single, and in reasonably good shape mentally, physically, and financially. But I’m here to tell you it’s possible otherwise.
Charles A. Lindbergh understood the intertwining passions for land and sky when, after 28 perilous hours over the Atlantic, he reached the Irish coast. “One senses only through change,” he wrote in “The Spirit of St. Louis,” — “appreciates only by absence. I haven’t been far enough away to know the earth before. For twenty-five years I’ve lived on it, and yet not seen it till this moment…It’s like rain after drought; spring after a northern winter. I’ve been to eternity and back.”
As a recently-certified pilot, I haven’t glimpsed eternity, and it isn’t on my flight plan. But flying is one of the greatest adventures this side of Paradise, and the Hudson Valley Region offers an excellent venue. Here, the change of perspective does indeed enrich the senses and the soul. But speaking of the atavistic human urge to return home: let’s make a radio call, ease the throttle back to 1500 rpm’s, and put in 10 of flaps. There’s the runway. Ease her down…that’s it… gently…more right rudder…nose up…let her settle…hold her off…there. Good landing.