See and Avoid

By lex, on December 5th, 2009

I suppose it had to happen eventually – little airplane, big sky theory notwithstanding – but your host came more closely than he would have liked to shuffling off this mortal coil at about 1145 this morning. A local family full of birthdays and anniversaries came down to Montgomery from Rancho Penasquitos for to dabble in the world of air combat, 150HP Varga Kachina style. All full of nervous laughter during the brief, and frank relief when we’d returned.

Which was nothing like as certain as we’d have them believe.

It was a weird kind of day for it, and overcast deck at about 2500 feet over the ocean, fair visibility below. The sunlight doing its best to slant down through ephemeral holes in the cloud deck.  It’s cooler now than in the summer time, when the sun bakes through the greenhouse canopy and stirs the mad blood. But gray skies and a gray sea merge one into the other leaving the neophyte occasionally topsy-turvy. The inner ear in constant rebellion with the visual receptors as to up and down.

I’d a new wingman aboard, recently joined the company from the paying work. A retired USAF Viper driver whom the naval set will have to hammer in to an acceptable form. Hand signals differing from service to service, and a lamentable tendency to check the formation in on every frequency. Including Tower, which is Simply Not Done in the sea services. Single radio or no.

Had half a mind on him as we motored up the coast in a day that would never quite declare itself. Saw something right ahead at perhaps half a mile, perhaps a quarter. Something without bearing drift.

You see traffic all the time when flying under visual flight rules in San Diego. It’s a lovely place to fly, after all. The weather usually unimpeachable. But today was not that sort of day, and what VFR traffic as could be found was cramped into a narrow sliver of airspace below three thousand feet.

Most traffic moves ever so slightly from left to right, or right to left. Their relative motion on the canopy helps the primitive brain evaluate the threat. Through millenia of hunting and being hunted, the human eye is perfectly adapted to sensing moving threats. We do less well when things come straight at us.

I was cheerfully going through stalls and turns with Mike, the paying passenger of the moment. With half a mind towards Sean, our new hire. When I saw something dead ahead that didn’t really belong there. Growing larger. It took a moment to process.

I’ve had near midair collisions before, of course. You can’t spend twenty years flying fighters and not get rather closer than you’d like to other machines. If I’d been flying a Hornet when I picked up my bogey, and he’d been flying another fast jet there wouldn’t have been time to react. I’ve been told – and believe – that when you think you might survive every synapse fires as you maneuver to avoid. When you know that you will die, you tend to relax. Let it all go.

Forgetting for a moment that we weren’t closing at over a thousand miles per hour, I relaxed prematurely before remembering myself: Even at a quarter mile, I had plenty of time at merely 240 knots Vc. “I’ve got the airplane,” I grunted to Mike, who was all-too-happy to yield it over. Pulled hard to the right and down, and watched the Diamond DA40 pass blissfully unaware down my left hand side.

The rest of the flight was uneventful. The afternoon hack had me flying with Shelly, an exuberantly, abundantly feminine CFI with blond hair, cowboy boots and 26 summers behind her. Blinders might have been appropriate as I helped her strap in to the back seat, if only to keep me attentive to my duties. She’s a lass with a happy smile who has been doing clerical work for the company, but is now decamping for parts elsewhere and this was her last hurrah, like. We had a grand old time flicking the aircraft through its paces while Sean’s second passenger explored the remnants of his luncheon.

There’s a way to tie those two flights together, some larger message in it.

But bless me if  I can figure it out.


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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Flying, Neptunus Lex

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