On most flights taken in the Cub, I come back a much happier person. However, on certain flights, I am in a transcendent state of happiness for much of the rest of the day afterward. I have often wondered why it was the case, initially ascribing my feelings as proportional to the majesty of the experience. Having taken the Cub to so many mountain ranges and countries has allowed for quite a number of tremendous experiences, which makes it easy to compare how one flight might be old hat whereas another could be something that left me nearly speechless.
Hanging around the Alps has complicated the assumption about the relationship. The scenery is generally world class no matter what the specific flight is like, though sometimes I am merely happy, and other times I am utterly transcendent as described above. I tried to explain it away as an issue with novelty, as I am more prone to stay within 50 miles of the airfield as the Alps are filled with more terrain than one knows what to do with. Was I tiring of seeing similar things?
That theory went out the window when the pandemic made the world smaller. Repeated flights over similar areas are actually increasing in majesty, even though the reality of the pursuit of novelty could be argued either way. While it is possible that I have changed my perspective, there is still a reality that some flights are utterly spectacular, whereas others are merely pleasant.
Since inversions are a regular part of European weather, particularly around terrain, I supposed that flying above the clouds might have something to do with it. It is an age-old sense of bliss, to be in massive terrain, with mountains poking up here and there, and a stratiform cloud deck below (ideally not entirely covering a safe glide range to the valley below). Separated from human society by the cloud layer, one finds himself soaring in the heavens, literally, with the inability to see human influence. It is nothing short of stupendous.
The problem with that theory was that I have had this differential of feeling on flights where clouds were not involved. While I can place a bookmark in the idea that soaring above the clouds constitutes something special, I think that there is more to the story as evidenced by my experience.
The next theory that I had is a more significant one. Aviation has many elements where we often find in magazines and other pilot communications something to the effect of “only with aviation can you see…” where the item in question is some sort of resplendent experience. I find that those experiences can be grouped into two main categories: the sheer majesty of being in the air, and the speed that aviation affords. To fly any kind of airplane and change states, countries, vegetation, or climate zones in orders of magnitude faster than a car is something that we clearly cherish in an aircraft. At the same time, “low and slow” Cub flying is cherished equally as much (if not more, depending on who is rendering the opinion). “Low and slow” is the embodiment of the majesty of being in the air, irrespective of the purpose behind it.
With a pokey old Cub, it is very hard to experience the theory of going anywhere fast. If it is Kansas, then one might as well drive. In the mountains, it is a mixed signal as the Cub can certainly beat a car, sometimes by a wide margin. The world on one side of a mountain range is often different than that of another, so some mix of the two can happen in such an occasion.
I thought I had the problem solved when I figured this reality out. Since I have been flying around mountains for the majority of the last 7 years in this airplane, I have had plenty of opportunities to experience this phenomenon. As the mountain ranges have gotten steeper and taller, the world on the other side has grown significantly more different, including now often meaning that it is a different country on the other side.
It took a few recent flights to furnish some clarity. Not only did I fly over mountains, into other countries, and into what felt like other worlds, I also landed somewhere else. COVID-19 has accentuated a problem that I knew had shown up when I came to Europe: I am far less likely to land at an airport that is not my home base (wherever that happens to be) if I am in Europe compared to the United States.
The opportunity to shut down the engine, step out, take in the scenery, and let the reality of where I stand sink in is one that contributes greatly to the sense of transcendence which remains in my psyche long after the flight has completed. Something about merely flying over to the other side of the range and then turning back, even if it is a full tank three-hour flight, is not the same as the silence that comes from a parked airplane. This reality held true in the semi-arid regions of Spain, where mountains may have only been incidental to the flight at hand. Something about landing elsewhere makes it all sink in.
So, the question becomes, how much has my flying changed since I came to Europe? I did some gymnastics with my logbook and tallied total hours, by year, where the entry included “Local” as the destination compared to those where it did not. Some simple division furnishes the percentage of local flights, where I return to home base compared to a flight where I landed elsewhere. I did not differentiate between the FAA definition of “cross country”; I merely added total hours of the flight if it included going to or coming from a landing at another airport. The chart is not my total flying career, but basically the point at which I became active again and acquired the Cub.
The results are quite interesting: 43% of flight hours in the United States started and stopped at the local airport, whereas 68% in Europe did so. The underlying reasons are pretty simple (to me): there is more paperwork and aggravation to coordinate a flight elsewhere, so I do not do it as much. To make matters more complex, the pandemic has added additional layers to daily life, which means that 90% of my flights in 2020 have been local.
Motivational incentives are lined up to the contrary. I am not bumming around my grandfather’s grass strip in an area that I lived since I was born, nor I am floating around over the Piedmont of North Carolina, which is relatively repetitive. I am in a foreign continent filled to the brim with things to see and do and yet I still find myself motivated to fly locally more than ever. I think that reality, coupled with the added layer of pandemic restrictions, made some recent landings elsewhere stand out entirely. Flying took on a more transcendent dimension, merely by making concrete on a mental level the magnitude that aviation affords. The freedom is immense and hard to quantify, when we have a chance to use it.