You hear the controller say “Cessna 4-3-0-2-Lima, Runway 27, cleared for take off.” Your pilot looks around to make sure you're all belted in and then makes eye contact -- “ready to fly?” he asks. You nod eagerly. The next few seconds are a bit of a blur – the rapidly increasing sound of the engine, racing down the runway and then suddenly all that seems to fade away as the aircraft gracefully leaves the ground beneath it. You look down at the little planes dotting Oakland airport as they get smaller, and then suddenly you hold your breath – just beyond the boundary of the airport, the magnificent structure of the Oakland Arena and Coliseum have come into view – your once-in-a-lifetime experience of a flying tour of San Francisco Bay has begun!
You spend the next 45 minutes looking down on the traffic on the Nimitz Freeway, imagining what a traffic reporter's job would be like, admire the beautiful colors of the spinnakers on the sailboats in the bay, look down on Alcatraz island, as tourists disembark from the tour boat to begin their visit to the island prison, and finally, look down on the wonderful rust-red Golden Gate bridge in a way that few of your friends can.
In my own case, there was never any doubt that I'd become a pilot. I grew up on Air Force bases in India, watching my pilot father fly fighter aircraft every day as part of his job as a test pilot in the Indian Air Force.
Beside a year of gliding in New Delhi's Safdarjang airport, I never got a chance to pursue my love of flying in India. From friends who became civilian pilots in India, I heard horror stories of the challenges of learning to fly in India – the high cost, limited facilities, unreliable aircraft, unprofessional flying schools and instructors, yada, yada, yada...
But when I moved to the US, finally realizing that dream was, truly, a piece of cake. I enrolled in a flying school in Hayward, and within a few weeks, had soloed, and was well on my way to earnings my Private Pilot's License. 5 months later, I passed a 'check-ride' with an FAA examiner, and was rewarded with a typewritten document that authorized me to rent planes and carry passengers. My wife was my first passenger, and our first flight was a lovely day trip around the San Francisco bay, over the Golden Gate bridge, and then to Half Moon Bay for a wholesome brunch at the '30 cafe' at the airport there, named after one of the runways, Runway 30.
Over the years, we've taken trips as far South as San Diego, North to Oregon (Crater Lake, with another flying couple – we shared costs and flying responsibilities) and Eureka / Arcata, East to Yosemite, Lake Tahoe / Reno and a number of small places that we otherwise would never have visited. I've taken hundreds of friends on the 'Bay Tour' I described earlier. All of them return with a wow on their lips, plenty of unique photographs, and an overall feeling of awe.
Many people ask me about flying and I then realize that there are many myths about earnings a pilots license that serve as a barrier to discovering this truly fascinating sport. I hope to dispel some of them here.
The first and most oft-quoted barrier is the cost of flying. A flying license generally costs $5,000, give or take $1,000 – the actual costs depend on how long you take to earn your license, since students generally rent an aircraft and pay instructors by the hour (these represent the largest segment of costs of your training). Since most working folks can only fly weekends, this means it'll take you 5-6 months to complete the necessary hours, which means you'll end up spending $1,000 or so a month.
On an ongoing basis, you pay for the time you rent an aircraft and for the fuel you use when you fly it. I fly every other weekend, so it costs me $150-200 a month to maintain my hobby. You'd agree that's a pretty reasonable price to pay for such a wonderful and unique activity.
The economics are pretty good on a long trip too. For example, on the trip to San Diego, we flew for a total of 7.5 hours. So although we had the plane for the three days of the labor day weekend, I only paid for hours flown, and the trip therefore cost me around $600. Given that we were four of us, it works out to $150 a head, slightly under the $160 Southwest Airlines would've charged us to get there and back. The best part was, we were in San Diego by 9:30 AM, while on Southwest we would only have been there by 1:00 PM.
The second question people ask me is whether it's safe. There's no denying that there is an element of risk involved in flying, like there is in any sport. However, the risks in flying are not significantly greater than lots of other activities that we indulge in on a regular basis, including driving. Risks are minimized by doing things sensibly – training well, staying current, making the right decisions, ensuring that your aircraft is well maintained, being careful about your preflight, and not putting yourself in situations that exceed your ability. Most accidents are caused by pilots who do dumb things – flying into weather that they're not qualified to handle or in situations that are beyond their capabilities.
Flying makes you take responsibility for your actions in ways that nothing else does. When you're up there alone, there is nobody else to rely on, nobody to blame, and no Escape button to turn to. It teaches you things about yourself that you didn't know existed. A solo flight on a late evening when the setting sun paints the sky with a truly beautiful and sublime palette, even gets you thinking about god.
Of course, if I've convinced you that it's safe and the costs are reasonable, you may still ask me “Why Fly?”. There are many reasons, and each pilot probably has his own; I'll give you some of mine.
To start, I love the freedom that flying gives me – this might sound like cliché, but getting airborne is like being born again – the bonds fall away as you put more distance between your aircraft and the ground.
Second, it gives me the opportunity to visit places that I would never have otherwise considered going to. The beautiful approach into Half Moon Bay airport, for example. Or the view of the Golden Gate from the air. Or the little town of Columbia, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where a short walk from the airport lies a quaint little mining town where you can rent pans and pan for gold, see people in period costumes and even see a horse drawn fire engine.
Lastly, it is an activity that leaves little room for sloppiness – I take pride in staying proficient and current and in the pleasure that a smooth landing in a stiff crosswind gives me. As I mentioned, flying is an activity that demands you take ultimate responsibility for your actions – no excuses or complaints.
How do I start?
Do I have you hooked? Find a flying school in the airport near you and set up an introductory flight with an instructor. Go up (the instructor will let you handle the controls once you are in the air) and see if you like it. If you think flying is for you, discuss a schedule with that instructor that you can financially support, and get started. There are some great resources on the web for beginner pilots -- www.beapilot.com or www.projectpilot.org, for example. All the best, and happy landings!!
Kuari Pass in winter
A few years ago, I made a resolution to try and do at least 3 Himalayan treks a year. While 2020 was almost a complete wash out, I responded eagerly when my good friend and fellow trekker Gautam Gode invited me to join him for the Kuari pass trek in the winter of 2020. His friend, Gaurav Monga, joined in and the trip was on!
The trail for the Kuari Pass trek is reasonably well marked and clearly delineated. The walk per se is not particularly challenging in normal circumstances, the only thing that was different here was that we were doing it in winter, and when we arrived it had snowed for the previous few days and there was therefore a lot of fresh white powder on the ground, something that made experience all the more beautiful.
The trek commences in the village of Kharchi, and the first day is a short 4.5 hour walk , gaining about 1900 feet in altitude, to the Akrotghetta campsite , so called for the beautiful lone Walnut tree [called ‘Akrot’ in Hindi and the local language]. As you reach the Akrotghetta campsite you look around you and see several 6-7000 meter mountain peaks covered in snow and this is what makes the Kuari pass trek especially beautiful -- spectacular views of the snow-capped peaks and the changing character from sunrise to day-time and then sunset. This continues to the next campsite, Khullara.
Since it was winter, it was cold in the morning before the sun hit you, and after the sun dipped below the Hills (which typically happened as early as 4:00 PM). While the sun was shining it was actually quite pleasant. One had to make sure that one properly utilized layering techniques to stay warm, and at night, the trek organizer, India hikes, had provided us with 2 sleeping bags and a liner each, which was more than adequate [in fact on the 3rd night I actually found myself sweating inside the sleeping bag].
The Trek to the pass itself was on the 3rd day and due to ice and snow on the route some members of the group decided not to take a chance , so 12 out of 18 of us managed to actually climb the summit. The views from the summit were even more spectacular because you could see almost 360 degrees around, peaks like Chaukhamba, Kamet, Haathi Parvat, Dunagiri , etc. You just cannot get tired of the views on this particular trek.
The trek group were a mixed bunch -- three TV serial actresses from Bangalore and a good friend of theirs who was a photographer, software engineers from Kerala , a filmmaker from Mumbai and some folks from Delhi. Gautam, Gaurav and I were the three oldest at 52, 50 and 49 years of age, but as I've seen in my half marathons, older people tend to take preparation for such events much more seriously and I do believe the three of us were fitter and therefore typically at the front of the pack when it came to actual walking.
We were also amused to see how surprised some of the folks from the south were with the cold (I've lived in Ambala, Delhi and New York, so I don't count). I guess if you haven't experienced -10 degrees C, you have no idea how cold that can be. We also observed how focused people were on getting their photographs taken, and looking good in them. I am guessing that for the Snapchat - Instagram generation, the primary purpose of the trek is to generate enough material to keep their feed busy for the next year or so!
Wildlife of Uttarakhand is legendary and this trek was no different. On the drive up we were extremely presently surprised to see a full grown leopard by the side of the road leaping up a rivulet. We got only a flashing glimpse of him but it was sure energising. On the way down I happened to see and take some nice photographs of streak-throated woodpecker who was busy pecking away at an old pine tree. I have a photograph of him with a worm in his mouth. Of course we had several Bhutia dogs following us and hanging around the camp, and one night when I stepped out to relieve my bladder, in a flash one of them snuck into my tent and if it wasn't for the alertness of my half asleep tent mate, he would probably have been comfortably sleeping inside my sleeping bag when I returned a few minutes later!
The people of Uttarakhand are special - hardy, friendly, and cheerful, despite the tough conditions under which they have to live and work. Interacting with these folks always makes one realize that there's more to life and joy than material comforts or possessions.
Another beautiful thing that we were fortunate to experience on this trek was a meteor shower. I've always enjoyed looking at the stars at night, and the Milky Way in particular. I was not aware that a meteor shower was in the offing, and was thankful to the trek leader for the heads up. When I stepped out on the night of the 12th, I saw three meteors at the same time and a few minutes later I saw two other meteors , which was an absolutely delightful experience.
The trek organiser, India Hikes, was efficient as usual, and I do think that they have gotten better over the years that I've been trekking with them. We were fortunate this time to have one of their most experienced trek leaders, Dushyant, and he certainly lived up to the reputation that preceded him . Every time I watch a good trek leader in action I have a renewed appreciation of how difficult that job is -- the participants in the trek are customers, and a bad review on Facebook or other social media could have a damming effect on both the career of the trek leader as well as the prospects of the trekking company.
But at the same time, they are team members who have to be commanded, disciplined, motivated, entertained, comforted, and sometimes told “no”. To do all this while maintaining an even keel and smiling face requires a unique set of skills, which one does not see often in the same person, but Dushyant certainly had them in more than adequate measure. Due to the snow, uncertain track, and lack of fitness of some team members, he had to modify the itinerary and order some people down by the easier route, which he handled with tact.
Kuari Pass trek was my first winter trek, and I was happy to see that I was able to handle the conditions, the cold as well as the snow, as well as I thought was necessary. I do believe that winter treks are special because of the very clear day and night skies that you get, the sight of snow on the ground, less crowding in general, and the challenge that the conditions provide. I'm not sure if I'll do one again but I'm certainly glad that I did this one and that it brought otherwise bad year to a wonderful end.
I remembered my mother, who passed away earlier this year, a lot during this trek, particularly when I was on the summit. After every trek, we would sit down and I would project my best photographs on the TV for her, and walk her through a day-by-day account of what had happened, and she would vicariously experience the trek through my descriptions and photographs. I was acutely aware that this time that would not be the case. But on the other hand, she was probably there with me, on my shoulder, finally experiencing what I could see with her own eyes.
Executive, entrepreneur, investor and mentor to social entrepreneurs, golf and squash addict, author of thrillers... In short, an amateur dabbler in new experiences, and provoker of thoughts.