My Stephen Mather

Stephen Tyng Mather- He laid the foundation of the National Park Service, defining and establishing the policies under which its areas shall be developed and conserved unimpaired for future generations. There will never come an end to the good that he has done. -Inscription of the Mather Plaques placed in several national parks throughout the US

Not surprisingly, my obsession with the outdoors started very early in my life. I was 6 weeks old when I went on my first camping trip. I have to thank both of my parents for instilling in me at this tender age that the outdoors is something to be cared for, encouraged, enjoyed and respected. They are my Stephen Mather, the man who spearheaded a publicity campaign to promote the creation of a federal agency to oversee National Parks. Mather eventually became the first director of the new agency, the National Park Service under the United States Department of the Interior. Mick and Sally Pope, or Mom and Dad as I call them, made every attempt to show me the wonders of nature and all it has to offer in many different ways. Hiking, biking, canoeing, camping, fishing, naturalist programs, and national park as well as state park visits were par for the course in our vacation planning up until my college years.

My dad was the Director of Parks and Recreation in Elmhurst, Illinois for more than 20 years while my mom was a teacher. Having her summers free meant that we would literally ‘head for the hills’ when June rolled around and spent weeks getting wet, dirty, exploring and learning. Our outdoor adventures were certainly not all fairy tale outings. On one occasion we found ourselves on a river in a metal canoe during an unexpected lightning storm. I had to be fished out of the river once because I got too close, too early in my swimming training. And more than once the entire mosquito population in the area decided to converge on us at one time. All of these events just added to the charm that the outdoors had to offer me as a child. What really sticks out were the night time campfires, star gazing, early morning hues and the often well earned meal of chili and Rice-a-Roni after a long day of activity.

Fortunately, Rich and I have had the opportunity to instill the same love of the outdoors in our own children, Jason (21) and Sarah (18). Likewise, Sarah camped at 6 weeks old and Jason at 6 months (lousy November birthday!). Our first trip together was to Mammoth Cave, Kentucky in 1995. After a 7 mile drive into the park, we left our van at the trailhead and hiked 3 miles into the wilderness. Unfortunately, mother nature had other plans as we were driven out after 3 days due to Hurricane Erin. The vision of Sarah (just over 3) humping her water logged backpack up a 3 mile trail in the pouring rain, ankle deep in water and singing the ‘Barney song’ will forever live in my heart as an early success of raising a nature-loving wee one.

We have also taken the opportunity to travel internationally with them for several reasons. Culture, understanding, experience, scope, tolerance, education and fun were our main objectives and now that they are beginning their own lives as adults, they can continue to travel in the U.S. and abroad with a grateful eye. We have been able to take them to Poland, Ireland, Mexico and Japan during their teen years and have hiked in all of these wonderful countries. Summiting Mt. Fuji with them is one of the many highlights of my life as a parent. If my parents are my Stephen Mather, I hope someday, that we are Jason and Sarah’s.

Learning to love and understand our natural surroundings teaches so many aspects of life that it is hard to put into words how important it is. Knowledge, compassion, acceptance, serenity and responsibility are just but a few qualities it can instill. Not everyone is up for the sometimes extreme conditions of experiencing nature, but know that even a small amount of knowledge and experience can go a long way. Make that effort to see and appreciate it for what it is, our home. For those of you who have been bitten by the outdoor bug, you can identify. For those of you who haven’t, what are you doing this weekend?

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2010 Western Air Tour

‘I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.’
- Robert Frost

The longing for open spaces is raw this time of year in the midwest. After months of living indoor, the first tastes of spring arrive and taste as sweet as the finest chocolate. We’ve fallen into a habit the past few years of shaking off the torpor of winter by jumping into planning for our summer adventures and so we find ourselves again with spring at the doorstep and plans ready to execute.

This summer we will take on six national parks (Hot Springs, Carlsbad Caverns, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Yellowstone) and a national monument (Mt. Rushmore).

To add to the excitement, we’re going to do this by air.

Mountain flying has a whole lot of complications that us flatlanders just don’t have to worry about very much. Many of the airports are high enough that you can really only use them first thing in the morning. Winds blowing through valleys create sinks and lifts that must be taken into account. And flight planning is complicated by the fact that you can rarely fly direct to your destination in a small plane. They simply don’t have the power needed to get up and over some of the mountains. Flight planning must therefore include a dogged attention valleys, passes and finding ways up the various ranges until reaching your destination.

There is a saying in aviation: There is a difference between being legal and being safe. This applies to this trip in that my license makes me legal to fly in the mountains, but I wouldn’t necessarily be safe without taking some additional steps. To get some education, I’ve been reading a couple books about mountain flying. These have been very educational for a couple reasons. First, they layout a pretty conservative approach, and we’ll be taking that advice to heart. Second, the authors of both the books I’ve been reading were killed violating their own rules in the mountains. One flying too low in less than perfect weather and flying into a forest and the other flying too low and hitting power lines. Our flight plan sticks with fairly accessible airports and avoids challenging terrain as much as possible.

The other major thing I’ll be doing is getting out to Denver and doing some mountain training with a flight instructor out there. If I get lucky, maybe I’ll even get to go soaring. But that’s a topic for another post…

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Staking My Claim

There is an art, or rather a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. – Douglas Adams, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

After reading the first few posts of Rich’s, it has become clear to me that this blog is going to be more about the ins and outs of flying instead of a blog by the two of us. I figure that I have two choices: let Rich take the ‘yoke’ and let him blog about something he truly loves, or start adding my two cents. Anyone who’s ever met me, knows that I can’t stand back and keep my big mouth shut, so… here goes!

I am not able to add to the technical aspect of flying, but I can certainly comment on the experience factor from a non-pilot point of view. When Rich began flying, I was seriously concerned. Not for his or our safety, but because I have problems with motion sickness. There was never any doubt that Rich could safely operate a small engine aircraft, but weather or not I would have my head buried in one of the many air sickness bags that Rich has been collecting from major airlines during every flight. Through the magic of dramamine, I am able to eliminate most of the unpleasant symptoms of motion sickness, however, if I ever get my pinch hitter’s certification (more on that later), I can’t be under the influence of any drug, even if it’s keeping me from loosing my lunch all over the cockpit.

As Rich’s co-pilot, my responsibilities are very clear: hold the map and navigate, keep an extra eye out for possible ‘traffic’ and KEEP MY HANDS OFF THE CONTROLS! I have no problem with any of these duties and I particularly enjoy the navigation role. I am a long time cartophile and love any and all maps. I think I officially earned the title when I realized that I sleep with an atlas beside my bed. My navigator job began almost 22 years ago when we got married. On a road trip to Rich’s grandmother’s house in Muncie, Indiana, a trip he’d taken for more than 20 years, I foolishly fell asleep and we ended up in Indianapolis. Now, it really was only about an hour out of the way, but I immediately realized that my husband literally needed me to tell him where to go!


After completing several flights, I concluded that I’ve gotten used to the minor bumps and pitches that planes make and have only had sickness problems occasionally upon landing. ‘Oh, is that it?!’ you may ask. Yes, it is still a problem and certainly isn’t the best time since landing is fairly important, but it’s certainly better than dreading every flight due to sickness, or worse yet, avoiding flying altogether. This is where the afore mentioned ‘pinch hitter certification’ comes into play. It essentially would prepare me to take control of the plane if for some reason Rich would become unable. In short, I would need to learn how to take control of the plane, call for help and land the plane and ourselves, safely. Since flying is Rich’s passion and not mine, needless to say, this scares me to no end! Riding in a plane and flying a plane take two totally different sets of nerves as far as I’m concerned. Of course, I know how to drive a car and would take over if need be, but when you’re 4,000 feet above the asphalt, this poses a bit more anxiety. The jury is still out on whether or not I will receive the training and due to my back surgery, it will have to wait a couple of more months, but I know it would be the smart thing to do. Perhaps my motion sickness would disappear if I were faced with the option to land the plane or crash into the side of a mountain. Time will tell.

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It’s Morning Again in America

‘It’s a 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses.’ – Elwood Blues


My buddy, Buzz, was in from Hawaii — where he doesn’t get to fly, only surf — for a conference so we decided to go flying. Buzz is the proximate cause of me becoming a pilot. I have always been into flying and built a few radio controlled models, but hadn’t seriously considered getting my license until I spent some time talking with him about it. Since he was the one who got me hooked I felt it was only right to further mess up his biological clock by getting him up well before dawn Chicago time to go for a flight-seeing trip.

I arrived at the airport before dawn and started calling Buzz to see where he was. He was lost. I gave him clear instruction to get directions to Diamonds Gentleman’s Club, but apparently that wasn’t specific enough. He called from 20 minutes away asking if he was getting close. The best part is that I’m far from being the Magellan in any group, so it was a bit of the blind leading the blind.

IMG_3238_2.JPGEventually he got there, about 30 minutes late, with the sun just starting to highlight the hangers. The forecast had predicted a possibility of fog, but none was apparent. It was, however, quite cold on the ramp. I took my brother for a flight to Rhinelander a few weeks ago and we had the luxury of a heated hanger to pre-flight. So, we took our time and I walked him through the process. That wasn’t going to happen with Buzz. Not that he needed the practice, but we were already late and now the cold was urging as much efficiency as safety would allow.

Taking off over Fermilab we got a beautiful view of Wilson Hall as the sun rose. I used to have an office in that building looking out over the prairie and, on a clear day, the distant skyline of Chicago.


Finally in the air, I was very disappointed to see Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline covered in fog. Our FAA supervisors make it difficult to get to the lakeshore directly, so we were going to head south of Midway’s airspace and then up the coast. The meant that it would take us around 30 minutes to get to the lakeshore, near the Illinois/Indiana border. I hoped, but wasn’t optimistic, that the bright sun would burn off the fog in that time, otherwise we would have to abandon that part of the flight and just head somewhere for breakfast.

As we flew on, things improved by the minute. By the time we flew over Stateville Correctional Center the skies were clear over the city and only a bit of cloud was still offshore, so we were good to go. The early morning skies were smooth as glass and mostly empty of any other flyers, so we had plenty of time to gaze around. The only other traffic was a couple helicopters reporting on the latest wreck on the highway.

Upon arrival at the lake, the weather gods had smiled upon us and conditions were perfect. The ride continued to be smooth and the clouds had parted. With the sun behind us we flew 20 minutes up the lakeshore snapping pictures and taking video.

IMG_3256.JPGSince we had been up so early, we planned to fly to Janesville, WI and get some breakfast. I like this place because they bake their own bread and make their own jam. It got my standard skillet of medical busting goodness and Buzz got an omelet. We were the first pilots there, due to our early start, but as we ate several more planes arrived. Always fun.

I’ve always found taxiing to be a mind numbering exercise. I got scolded for taxiing to quickly when I went for my flight test for the supervisors. So, of course, the tower sent me all the way to the other end of the airport to take off. Seemed like it took 20 minutes to get there. Finally, after wearing out a set of tires, we got to the departure end of the runway and used our mile of runway to get home.

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Life Just Got More Complex

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction. – Albert Einstein


I went back to the schoolhouse yesterday. I’m always excited to learn new things and was looking forward to getting some time with my CFI again. Since I’ve only had my license since August/2009 I haven’t had a need to fly with him in seven months. This week I had a couple excuses.

My club has a requirement that all members go on a check ride with an instructor on a biannual basis and get a sign-off in order to use club planes. Since we’re in the spring check ride period I had to get this sorted out by the end of April. The check ride isn’t associated with our FAA supervisors, so it’s a pretty low stress event. Just something that has to get done.

The other, more fun part, was that I started the training I need in order to fly our Piper Arrow IV, a complex airplane. The supervisors say that a complex airplane is one that has all the following:

  • A retractable landing gear (land aircraft only; a seaplane is not required to have this)
  • A controllable pitch propeller (which includes constant speed propellers)
  • Movable or adjustable flaps.

The planes I trained in have adjustable flaps. So, no problem there. The complexity is in the variable pitch propeller and the gear.

In the Cessna 172s I usually fly, we do a GMC on approach. Gas (select both tanks), Mix (full rich) and Carb (turn on carb heat, if the plane has it. One of the ones I fly does, the other doesn’t). In the Arrow we do a GUMPs. Gas (select the fullest tank), Undercarriage (put down the landing gear), Mix (full rich) and Prop (on short final push it forward in case of a go-around).

The other change is in engine/propeller management. In the 172 we have one knob for the throttle and that’s it. Push it to go forward, pull it to stop. The propeller goes in circles, but the pitch always remains the same. This is a bit inefficient. A propeller is an airfoil and in fixed pitch systems, a compromise has been struck. You might not be as efficient in cruise, climb or take-off, but you don’t have to manage the pitch.

With variable pitch, you can gain better efficiency by adjusting the propeller so that it is attacking the apparent wind at the right angle. This allows you to get maximum efficiency at take-off when you want to get off the ground and in cruise when you want to save fuel. You measure your pitch in RPMs. Yes, that isn’t intuitive. This kind of system it also called a constant speed propeller because you set for an RPM and the airplane adjusts pitch to maintain that RPM as power and apparent wind change.

There is a nice little subtlety in that. If you have trained in a fixed pitch plane, you are used to getting some audible feedback as the plane climbs or descends. With variable pitch, because the RPMs stay the same, the engine noise also stays the same. So, as you should have been doing anyway, you really have to stay more on top of your scans and your sight lines to make sure the plane is doing what you want.

Independent of the pitch, you adjust the engine power. This is measured by the unfortunately named, manifold pressure. It’s unfortunate, because what’s being measured is vacuum. It’s a measure of how hard the engine is sucking at the atmosphere. If you are at a low power setting, it’s sucking very hard and not getting much. If you are at a high power setting, it’s getting as much air as it wants.

The two settings combine to push air backward and make the plane go forward. You can throw air backward hard enough by either choosing a high RPM and a lower manifold pressure or by choosing a lower RPM and a higher manifold pressure. For example, you can get to a 65% power setting by setting 2400 RPMs and 20.2 inches of mercury manifold pressure *or* by setting 2100 RPMs and 22.7″.

The advantage of lower RPMs is fuel efficiency and, if you are billed on tach time, 14% lower bill. The advantage of higher RPMs is that you will be warmer in the winter because you will be throwing more CO2 into the air.

Ok, that’s a rather modest benefit…

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First Post!

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

The past three summers we have spent some time in various mountains and realizing that we love to hike and climb.  In 2004, we hiked the beautiful Tatras mountains in Zakopane, Poland.  In 2005, we wandered the less lofty, but very misty Wicklow mountains in Ireland. In 2007, we were 2 of few gaijin as we climbed Mt. Fuji in Japan.  In 2008, we hiked around Denali National Park in Alaska. And last summer we spent some fantastic days in the Canadian Rockies near Banff. We sensed a pattern and related to those fun times, Beth has set a goal of visiting all the national parks in the U.S.

As we bought atlases and browsed the web, that sense of longing grew more and more acute as our parks knowledge grew and Ken Burns guided us through the history of the parks. We learned how they were created, I became one with John Muir to the point of beginning to grow my beautiful new beard and we gained an ever deeper appreciation of the work that went into getting them set aside.

Back in the day, not only were people strongly opposed to ‘wasting’ land, but logging, mining and hotel companies all did their damage to the early parks. The Tuolumne River was even dammed to provide water for San Francisco. Fortunately, as a nation, we came to our senses and started legitimately preserving these areas.

Beth and I have only shortened the list by 3, Denali, Haleakala and Mammoth Cave, so we’ve decided we have to visit more.

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