Life on 2 Wheels: Skybiking across the West in a Cessna 182
June 10, 2016
Editor's note: For countless Summit County residents, a bicycle is more than a machine — it's a lifestyle. Every week during the summer, we'll ask our most adventurous residents, "Where has your bike taken you?"
Suddenly, Nick loudly said, "I know — we'll call it skybiking."
Giving him a glance, I didn't say anything, just quickly turned my attention back to the instruments and the windscreen. We were being buffeted in the cockpit by the winds: slammed to the left, tilted to the right, head almost to the roof and then back into the seat. The Cessna 182 seemed to be struggling to climb, to stay wings level, maybe just to stay in the air, I thought.
We had just left Centennial Airport on the Front Range at 5,700 feet MSL (mean sea level) and were now climbing to over 13,500 feet MSL to fly over Rawlings Pass. I was in the pilot's left seat and the winds were fighting me personally. I constantly shifted my gaze from the window to the airspeed indicator to the altimeter to the vertical speed indicator to the window, licking my lips before doing it all over again. When Nick said "skybiking," I didn't really comprehend what he was talking about over the loud roar of the engine and the even louder roar of the wind whistling past the fuselage, seeping in the windows and doors.
It was early on a brisk, late-summer morning when we took off, and as we had climbed to clear the pass between a couple of 13,000-foot peaks, it had cooled noticeably.
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Yet I was sweating, drops falling in my eyes. I had a white-knuckled grip on the yoke with my left hand, keeping my right hand ready at the throttle. It was equally tense. With every shutter of the tiny Cessna, I thought, maybe aloud, "What the f*** am I doing here?"
Another quick glance at Nick and I saw that his attention was riveted on the scenic mountains and ground below. Calm and relaxed. I, on the other hand, was continuously scanning the instruments between looking straight ahead. I couldn't let on how scared I was. That would be unmanly — unstepfatherly. Nick was not only my flight instructor, but also my stepson. While I had been fairly open with him about my fear of heights, I tried to be enthusiastic about flying, and I was actually very excited about this adventure to across the West for mountain biking.
Miraculously, it seemed, as we finally arrived at our cruising altitude after crossing Rawlings Pass, the winds calmed considerably and, on the other side, where it is called Corona Pass, the flight became smooth and pleasant.
Nick pointed to the sectional chart, where both names for the pass were displayed. I haven't figured out why the two names, but, then again, the passes haven't been used for a long time.
As the little Cessna mellowed into the flight, I set the trim control, and then adjusted the throttle and the fuel mixture for our cruising airspeed. I found that I could relax and even look out at the scenery — and the ground. However, I kept a firm grip on the yoke. The bad part about flying is that when things get confusing and scary, you just can't pull over and stop.
From air to singletrack
I finally agreed that, yes, skybiking was a great name for our adventure. We had been planning for this day since I first started flying lessons. We loaded the bikes and camping gear in the Cessna 182 and headed west from Denver, seeking new mountain biking venues and fantastic flying. Well, I was pretty sure of the mountain biking part.
The single-engine plane, N85936, was by no means a large aircraft — a four-seater, if the two in back are good friends. We had to fold the back seat, take the wheels off the bikes and jimmy them into the passenger compartment to make everything fit, carefully stowing some camping gear around them. The small storage space was immediately filled with our clothes and the rest of the bike and camping gear. There was no room for a stove, food boxes or a cooler, so eating was going to be interesting.
It was our luck that Mary Michael, Nick's girlfriend, had baked us a batch of her famous chocolate chip cookies. We inhaled them immediately after takeoff.
The impetus for this trip began even before I started flying lessons. Actually, I would say the idea was the result of several beginnings, in no particular order or significance. Like many youngsters, I had boyhood dreams of being a pilot. Maybe it was the glamour of being a pilot and overcoming the risk associated with flying, and flying does involve a risk.
Then, at some point, I developed this fear of heights — acrophobia. While I had never really explored the whys and wherefores, somehow I came to the conclusion that facing the fear might somehow alleviate it and tried rock climbing. That effort hardly resolved anything. It is difficult to cope with denial.
Then, more recently, my wife and I tried to convince Nick to get back into flying after he finished college. He was working at Albertsons, and this effort included me saying, "If you get your CFI (certified flight instructor's certificate) reinstated, I'll take flying lessons from you."
Nick did, and so I had to. Of course, my decision was somewhat incomprehensible because I suffered — and still do — from acrophobia. However, I took the matter seriously enough that I discussed my fears with a psychological therapist friend, who suggested relaxation therapy, as phobias are anxiety driven. So I listened to some relaxation music on tapes that he loaned me.
Like rock climbing, that effort also didn't seem to help. However, once I got into the cockpit, I found that I was too preoccupied with the instruments and flying that I forgot to be afraid. That was, of course, until we hit an air pocket, when I would certainly white-knuckle the yoke.
The local community college was offering a ground course for the first time, which seemed yet another omen that I should learn to fly. (Ground school is a prerequisite for the FAA test.) The classroom was fun and easy and right up my alley, but being in the cockpit was a whole different emotion.
Piloting a plane required multitasking — perhaps not one of my strong points. One must control pitch, roll and yaw, while at the same time monitoring airspeed, vertical speed and angle of attack. A pilot must also be cognizant of weight, lift, drag and thrust, all the while communicating on the radio with either the tower or UNICOM (Universal Communications) in uncontrolled airspace.
Naturally, all of that is followed by the easy chore of putting the graceful, soaring machine back on the ground, where it is basically a lumbering tricycle. A pilot has to get into the traffic pattern, fly the downwind leg while throttling back, turn onto the base leg at the appropriate time, adjust for the correct flap setting and line up with the runway in the final leg, again while controlling the altitude of the plane. Finally, the pilot must flair the aircraft at just the right moment for a smooth touch down. The flair was the part that came only after performing many landings and touch-and-goes.
Flying lesson one complete. When we landed in Ketchum, Idaho, it was finally time to ride.
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