Saturday, February 17, 2007


I’m living in Houston, Texas, temporarily – trying a job with a major oil company. The big question on my mind is “can I live in Houston, or will I go crazy?”. After almost six years in Tucson with its myriad outdoor activities, can I survive in the fourth largest city in the US? Traffic, pollution, humidity. And what is there to do in Houston? Plenty, I’ve found out – but you have to look around. In Tucson it’s easy to decide what to do each weekend. Just jump in the car and head to the mountains. Hike. 1-2-3. It’s almost too easy, and it becomes routine. Pine trees smell nice and scenic vistas are wonderful, but they eventually get boring and then you need to shake it up. Moving to Houston has pushed me to explore new avenues of adventure beyond hiking and biking.

As a geologist, I’ve learned to love landscapes. Every little hill or furrow or swale tells a story of times gone by, of rivers and lakes and oceans sloshing across the land (nearly all rocks are deposited by water or underwater). Geologists usually have a map in their head showing where they are. They can usually point to north without hesitation. They get lost, like everyone, but they can always spot a far-off landmark or initiate a search pattern to find a known position. Such are the ways of the geologist’s mind.

In the West, the landscape is imminent. It is there in your face in its sharp-edged and thorny harshness. It presses upon you and enters your mind. In the summer, thunderstorms crash across the sky 100 miles away and you can see the show. On clear days from a mountaintop you can see halfway across the state, or more. And Arizona is not a narrow state.

In the East, the horizon comes in close and crowds you. Your ceiling is the trees instead of the heavens. The farthest you can see is the nearest wall or hedge or group of buildings. Sometimes you can catch sight of a water tower or skyscraper five miles off. How to regain this sense of space and this vision of the horizon? In the West, topography gives distance to our view. So to gain this vision in the East, you need to gain some altitude. The obvious (though not the only) way to do this is to fly in an airplane.

All of the above propelled me to an airfield about ten miles from my apartment in west Houston. I met my friend Matt, who had come along for the ride, and we found the instructor Jake and hopped in a Piper. Jake went through preflight steps very quickly, but I recognized much of the routine from reading the Private Pilot Handbook (Christmas gift from parents – thanks ‘rents). The exterior of the plane was nice and shiny, although a little dented here and there. It looked almost brand-new. Climbing into the interior of the plane was like getting into a junky old car. I was surprised at the rattiness of the seats and the obvious wear and tear on the fixtures and instrument panel. My memory was cast back to high school and riding with friends in $250 cars. The 1976 Ford van I owned for a short while also came into mind. Jake cranked the engine and the plane shuddered as the engine roared to life. Again, reminiscent of those old junk cars. Still, I was telling myself several things, listing them mentally: 1) this is a training plane, it gets a lot of use; 2) this is the cheapest training field in Houston (at least, the cheapest one that bothers to have a website); 3) planes get a lot of careful inspection; and 4) my instructor probably doesn’t want to die, he knows way more than I about flying, and he’s flying this thing.

We taxied to the far end of the field and took off in a strong (15+ mph) crosswind. The plane shuddered into the sky. Speaking on the headsets took some getting used to but was strangely fun, since it removed the need for shouting. We headed northwest toward the “Salt Mines”. I was surprised at the amount of open land and farm fields. (From the ground, when you look around it seems like there are many buildings because you’re looking laterally. From the air you see all the hidden open spaces. These tend not to be near roads, where it’s more built up. For the same reason, when looking at urban or suburban areas with Google Earth it appears there is much more vacant land than you’d guess from daily experience). We did some turns although I completely ignored the rudders, which I think the instructor was operating. It was very difficult to keep scanning the sky (for other planes) and try to read instruments. The few hours I spend on Microsoft Flight Simulator helped because I could identify all the instruments and their functions, and I knew generally how the controls worked. Still, keeping the plane level, or climbing/descending at a constant rate, steering, and watching for other planes was taking 200% of my available concentration. I was tense. Jake did most of the work for the landing – hard right rudder and hard right wheel because of the crosswind from the north.

Back in my car, I was amazed how quite and smooth it ran. Driving home on the highway seemed easy and relaxing. The third dimension (vertical) was removed, and all the controls were automatic from years of driving experience. I remember the first time I drove, and it felt much like my first time flying. I know that after a few hours of lessons I’ll have the basic controls down enough so that I can concentrate on the legions of details…

Was it a good time? Yes. It wasn’t great fun in the air but once on the ground I realized I was probably hooked. I bought a logbook and Jake logged my first half-hour of flight…


mooTi22 said...

How very exciting! You did it. And your post was very captivating. When is your next lesson? You know, we have an airport here in Napa that you could fly in to.

Rent said...

You're welcome. Love that swale.

Jasper said...

Wow. Houston and flying. Good to see you on the blog again.