Classroom in the clouds
The white and blue-striped Skyhawk 776 lifts off the runway at the Truckee Tahoe Airport with a cacophonous sputter.
Raif Anderson is behind the controls, but he doesn’t have a license to fly. Prospective pilots must log 40 hours of flight time and then pass a test administered by the Federal Aviation Administration in order to get one.
Anderson has flown 30 hours and is still studying for the exam. But from my seat in the back of the plane I am not too concerned; Anderson’s instructor Dave Tranquilla is riding shotgun and seems quite ” well, tranquil ” in his plush sheepskin seat.
“Folks who learn to fly up here become better pilots,” Tranquilla says. “It’s much more challenging because of the topography, the air density, and the weather.”
What I am worried about is that we are flying at altitude, in thin mountain air, and have loaded the plane to just 80 pounds under its weight maximum with a reporter and photographer.
We turn corkscrew circles above Prosser Reservoir to reach the 9,000-foot altitude necessary to clear the ridges around Verdi Peak and drop into Reno. Truckee and its inhabitants spin tinier and tinier below us.
Some 3,000 feet above Truckee, the town looks like a model railroad scene. A glassy-gray river runs along the tracks. Rooftops peek out of the trees like revealed secrets, the clouds reflect on Boca Reservoir and wildfires have left tree trunks scattered like dropped toothpicks on the slopes below.
This would all be very tranquil and serene, but the propeller noise is deafening and the numbers and commands coming through my aviation headphones are a lot to keep track of. Altitude, longitude, call number, latitude. Aircraft number, confirmation number, names, destinations, requests.
In the front seat, Anderson and Tranquilla discuss our air position and descent plan.
“You are using all your faculties at once up there,” Tranquilla says later. “It’s mental, but that wears down the physical too. You can never stop thinking, because you are always trying to think ahead of the plane.”
I take off my headphones and clear my thoughts to the sound of engine reverberations. It’s better when you don’t have to think, don’t have to plan.
“Coordinating the flight is definitely the hardest part,” Anderson says. “It’s amazing how much you have to think about.”
The washed-out glow of mid-afternoon cloud cover makes the hills below look like sand dunes. But beyond that is Reno’s urban sprawl and our destination ” Reno Tahoe Airport.
The Skyhawk descends awkwardly for a touch and go on the airport’s runway. The loss in altitude sends my innards blobbing up into my diaphragm. I feel perfectly safe, but at the same time, I am never really certain that we’re not just going to fall out of the sky or start spinning down like a whirligig.
As the plane heads down onto the runway Anderson pulls up too soon on the landing and sends the tail of the Cessna scraping the tarmac. I put my headphones back on to make sure that I am tuned into any last-minute messages before the plane explodes.
“Oops,” utters Anderson.
Tranquilla instructs his student on reclaiming the plane’s stability and we lift off once again. No one but me has bat an eyelash.
“Um, watch out for the Atlantis,” Tranquilla calls to Anderson as we gain altitude.
The hotel passes below us, unscathed.
“Every time you’re flying, everyone in the plane is smiling. It’s the freedom,” Anderson says after the journey. “I get done with a flight and I’m just fired up.”
Anderson, who lives part time in the Tahoe Basin and spends winters as a ski guide in Alaska, says he wants his pilot’s license for the time he spends in the north. And he is eager to finish up his remaining training hours.
“Come Thanksgiving, I’ll be eating my turkey in the sky.”
Tranquilla says most people don’t realize the time it takes to get a license to fly.
“But if you are one of those people that gets off on that adrenaline of skiing or motorcycles,” he says, “you’ll really dig it.”
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