From the Flight Deck: Clouds in My Coffee – Flying Experience

From the Flight Deck: Clouds in My Coffee – Flying Experience

by Kevin R. Dingman

Clouds     None of us got to where we are by avoiding hard work or tough decisions. But, when contemplating choices with potentially life-altering consequences, often times it’s rejuvenating to set aside the daily grind and embrace the visceral. My hangar office is just about finished; one of last year’s resolutions. Now I find myself at my desk, feet up with a cup of coffee, staring at the Duke, when, according to the calendar (and the IRS), I’m supposed to be writing, not staring. If my articles are a bit late to the editor, it’s the Duke’s fault. But, sometimes, writing can be like trying to get the last glop of toothpaste squeezed from the tube. After staring at the Duke, I often find a full tube is right there for the squeezing. Stepping back from the issue to get a fresh perspective can be revealing.

Perhaps a resolution to the question of whether to fly, or not to fly, is simple. We do things to elicit or avoid sensations: fear, joy, pain, exhaustion, discomfort, excitement, relaxation, gratification, love and hate. Why did we get into the flying experience in the first place? And are those reasons still valid, or have they been replaced by new or better reasons? For many, it’s the emotions and the sensations of flying an airplane— particularly the gratification of completing complex tasks that combine mental and physical abilities, having control and the sights and the freedom. It’s also sharing these emotions with other pilots, family and sometimes even normal, wingless earthlings.

Clouds3Altered States

One of the most enjoyable contrasts, and perhaps another of the main reasons we fly, is our ability to alter the environment by choosing a destination that has a climate that we want. This can be either tropical or arctic. Some want to play in the sun and sand; others want snow; some want solitude and some want a crowd. Some want friends, and some want relatives— a condition that is occasionally mutually exclusive. All are rewarding possibilities and provide a change in scenery. Pilots are blessed to see many things that non-pilots and most passengers do not: the view out the front window. While in-flight we may see majestic panoramas or massive weather formations. We have seen countless sunrises and sunsets from, arguably, the best seat in the house. We witness drastic changes in climate – for better and for worse, and geographic features only visible from the air. In the U.S. alone there is Mt. Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the Barringer meteor crater and views of major cities, oceans, lakes and the heavens.


Technically, we have all seen them, on just about every flight in fact. Airplanes from a distance are unrecognized at first; birds, party balloons, even what we assume are meteorites, could just as easily be space debris in the final stage of a decaying orbit. Until recognized, they’re all UFOs. Have I seen any? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked the question by non-pilots – usually airline passengers, hundreds I suppose. I answer no, of course, because they mean have I seen the flying-saucer kind. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t admit to it even if I had…. until I’m retired anyway. Venus was the only UFO we had the kahonas to ask Center to identify. Yes, Venus the planet. It was really bright and the colors were fluctuating, so give me a break. I know better now. And to prevent you from having the same embarrassment, Venus is very bright and when near the horizon, its color changes from white to blue to green and then red. It looks very much like the navigation lights and strobes of an airplane. I know from experience that ATC can’t see it on radar, so don’t ask. It probably won’t even show up with the newfangled ADS-B.

From The Cockpit

I carry a camera everywhere. Not that I’m on the lookout for E.T. but you never know. It’s because we see so many great things while flying. Extra-terrestrial sights included Hale-Bopp and Halley’s comets, many meteorites, full moons and the Northern Lights. I’ve seen both a funnel cloud and a tornado, the side of a thunderstorm while in a vertical climb in a T-38, explosions from missiles, rockets, bullets and bombs delivered by me or my wingman, witnessed a spinning out-of-control missile from Vandenberg, a weather balloon the size of a football field and tethered border patrol balloons. I’ve seen the returning space shuttle, a launch from Cape Canaveral, and a close view of the desert floor while supersonic. I’ve flown formation with a dozen different fighters, a C-150, PA-28’s and a B-52. Hundreds of hours of formation flying and aerobatics allowed me to experience what it’s like to become one with the airplane. I was shown how to recognize the old buffalo watering holes from 35k, and in Alaska I’ve seen glaciers and watched a moose run from a lake as I passed over at three hundred feet and 480 kts. I saw the fires from the LA riots and was diverted after the earthquake.

Clouds4Share The Love

Providing flight instruction and Young Eagle flights, the Civil Air Patrol, volunteer flights for patients, vets and pets are excellent avenues in which to pass along our thrill of flying to newbies and the public. I’ve never really fallen in love with providing basic flight instruction – I don’t have the patience for it and become frustrated when good students run out of money. Instructing and evaluating “students” in the F-16, however, was very rewarding. As you can imagine, they were, for the most part, already very well accomplished pilots. It was simply a matter of teaching them how to use the airplane as a weapon in air-to-air and air-to-ground combat—both of these endeavors necessitated plenty of looking-out-the-window.

What are they worth to us, our airplanes? Productivity, time-saving travel and a long list of emotional gratification – how much value is that? Once we’ve figured out how to make them work, understand the presentation and filter out the useful from the irrelevant, avionics of today present so much accurate and timely information that we scarcely need to look out the window…. except to land. And at the airlines, when using autoland, we don’t need to look out the window even then. Because of modern technology, our situational awareness is at a Zen-like level of understanding. Plus, some of the NextGen procedures prevent sightseeing even more.

For Sale?

When considering a suite of ADS-B compliant avionics, new de-ice boots, a prop overhaul and some engine work, the Duke could easily absorb a year of my salary in upkeep and new stuff. So, I’ll lean into the wind, start picking off the stars in the night one at a time and keep flying; it’s an expensive resolution but what else can I do, sell the Duke? Not this year.

Clouds6I’m not ready to stop seeing new things from the air or looking at the Duke through my office window. Perhaps the emotions of aviation give us the equivalent mental sensation as that of a tailwind, even when life presents us with headwinds. I’ll stare a bit longer to convince myself the hypothesis is true. If you resolve to give up looking out the window of your airplane, find another window first because looking out the window is important. Other than a good fire, it may be the only thing that
really is.

Kevin Dingman has been flying for 40 years. He’s an ATP typed in the B737 and DC9 with 20,000 hours. A retired Air Force Major, he flew the F-16 then performed as a USAF Civil Air Patrol Liaison Officer. He flies volunteer missions for the Christian organization Wings of Mercy, is employed by a major airline, and owns and operates a Beechcraft Duke. Contact Kevin at

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