Blog: Taking to the Skies

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Taking to the Skies - Tuesday, July 25, 2023
I haven't been great about keeping up with previous coworkers, but last Friday I was able to catch up with Maciek in person for the first time since he left the company three years ago. Seems like he's doing well and staying busy. He's still into jumping out of planes, but now he also flies them, as he got his private pilot's license this year. So when we arranged a hangout, we decided to make it more fun and flew up to Sonoma for half a day!

We picked Sonoma because neither of us had been there and because it was a relatively short flight (around an hour including safety checks and taxiing). We flew in an American Champion Citabria out of Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose.

We landed at Sonoma Valley Airport and were the only plane there the whole time. This small airport is owned and operated by Vintage Aircraft Company and they let the public land there for free. The airport is untowered (has no control tower), so the protocol was that we announced our landing on a designated frequency to inform any nearby planes. But during our time there, we were the only visitors. Maciek said that it was because everybody else was at Oshkosh, an annual airshow and the world's largest.

We did a 20-minute biplane ride with Vintage Aircraft. They have several different planes including a WW2-era Boeing PT-17 Stearman that we rode in, which was faster than our Citabria. You have to book in advance, which allows them to get the plane ready. This plane has an open cockpit with a modified front seat fitting two people (though it's very cozy) with the pilot in the seat behind. Since you're in the open, it's pretty windy and a radio is not feasible. Flying without a radio is apparently still allowed in Sonoma.

The biplane ride took us around the scenic Sonoma countryside. Everything looked green and fairly flat. Since it was pretty windy, I started getting queasy due to all the turbulent air going into my nose, and the queasiness stayed with me pretty much the rest of the day. The ride was $418 after a 10% cash discount. It was fun enough, but I don't know if it was worth the money, especially since we had our own plane.

Next, we headed over to Sonoma Skypark, a short 5 minute flight away. We pretty much took off from Sonoma Valley Airport, made a left turn, and landed at the Skypark. There's a guy, Eric, who lives in a unit there and has a hangar with antique planes, and Maciek had made arrangements for us to take an informal tour. It was cool learning more about small planes, though most of it was over my head.

The Skypark has a truck that pilots can borrow, but that day was one of the few days that the truck was in use. But Eric was kind enough to give us a ride into town. We walked around downtown and looked at the pricey menus of the restaurants there before finally deciding on the less pricey food at Mary's Pizza Shack, where we had a late lunch. We hung out in the area for a couple hours until it was early evening, then took a Lyft back to the Skypark.

We flew out west over the Bay, around Golden Gate Bridge, and over SF before heading down the peninsula. It was awesome seeing the city landscape from the air. Everything looks closer together when you're looking down from a higher vantage point.

Golden Gate Bridge from the air

As we neared San Jose International Airport, we were directed to fly pretty much right over the airport. Maciek explained that the airspace directly above an airport is safest because any planes taking off or landing are passing below, not through that space. We finally got back to Reid-Hillview a little past sundown.

I'm really glad that we got to hang out and I was able to scratch my aviation itch. I'd previously thought about getting a private pilot's license, but the trip helped me realize that it's not quite for me. I had a romanticized view of how flying would be, like it would just be you and the open sky. In actuality, the cockpit seems like a noisy place - on top of the constant roar of the engine, you're constantly talking to air traffic control or listening for what others are doing. Even while just flying, you're communicating with ATC to coordinate your passage through their airspace. And when we did have the opportunity to talk, I couldn't always hear Maciek too well through our headsets. Not a great place to have a conversation.

Our trip definitely gave me a greater appreciation for those who fly. There's a ton of work that goes into it and a lot of experience involved in making flying safe and enjoyable. It's not that I don't want to put in work, but rather that I have a lot of other things I'd rather do that will keep me busy for a long while. My stomach also prefers being on the ground. So while I learned a lot and had a lot of fun and wouldn't mind doing a trip like this again, I'm okay with this just being a bucket list thing. I'm grateful for experiences like this and friends to share them with!