I’m currently recovering from some minor surgery, and out of the cockpit for a few months. During this time, I’m digging up some memorable flying experiences from the past. Don’t worry… multiple paragraphs contemplating the ocean from 40,000 feet will be back soon!
We start our takeoff run into the setting sun, its bright orange glare diffused across the old, scarred, and grit-blasted windshield of the Cessna 172, all but blinding us. Even with the protection of the darkened lenses of my sunglasses, I squint my eyes almost all the way shut and use the side window to judge our position on the runway. My student in the left seat—a relatively new pilot building flight time—is doing a good job of keeping our nosewheel on the centerline despite the sun’s challenge. I glance at the instrument panel, where the arm on the airspeed indicator is sluggishly spinning to the right, chasing the speed of the second hand on the clock that sits nearby, while out of the corner of my eye, I see the 3000 feet of remaining runway sign slide by.
The runway at Sedona is 5,100 feet long and sits on top of a bluff, looking much like what I imagine the deck of an aircraft carrier does to an approaching plane and pilot. The airport is at 4,800 feet of elevation, and on this hot summer day is a pleasant 20 degrees cooler than the blistering air where we came from, in the Valley of the Sun, some 90 miles to the south. I’m relativity new to instructing, and very new to taking off from an elevation higher than 1000 feet. Performance decreases with elevation and with temperature, and as I watch the 2000 feet remaining sign pass by, I wonder if I had made a mistake when my student and I worked our takeoff performance calculation back on the ramp a few minutes ago.
The airspeed indicator finally decides to start moving for real, and the scrub brush and gray and brown dirt I see out the window slowly drop away as we start to climb out. My student seems to be handling things fine, utilizing a combination of instruments inside—he is working on his Instrument rating after all—and what he can see outside to keep us flying. I look at the sectional chart clipped to my kneeboard, and trace our path from the end of the runway, to the southwest. There is a 5,100 foot hill a few miles away, still above our current altitude as we slowly climb in the hot and thin air. Out the left side window, past the wing strut, the route looks clear, as the terrain drops away and follows Highway 179 towards Phoenix.
I point in that direction, and my student takes the hint. We bank gently to the left as he lowers the nose slightly to begin to accelerate. My side window momentarily fills with blue sky that rapidly washes out in the glare of the sun that is hanging just above the horizon line and now shining directly on the right side of my face even as the high wing plane rolls level and blocks out much of the sky above it. The rising terrain I was concerned about is still several miles off our wingtip, and I realize for about the hundredth time in the past few weeks that I don’t know nearly as much about mountain flying as I would like, having learned to fly over the flat coastal plains of Florida.
The turbulence we fought through on most of our flight up to Sedona an hour ago has vanished, and in the smooth air we wing our way southward, the red, rocky bluffs surrounding the valley fading into the end of day glow, their edges softening in shadow. My student diligently runs his after takeoff checklist and verifies his position on the sectional chart. On the single, out-of-date, and finicky GPS, the distance to go readout rolls rapidly downward as our own long shadow slides across the rocky canyon land below us. The sun drops over the western horizon and the air suddenly cools further. I reach forward and slide closed the air vent that has been blowing on my face. Behind our tail, the red rock walls, visible in shadow just minutes before, now disappear into the night.