Why Is Flying So Exhausting?

This past weekend offered an opportunity to experience something few ever get to.  Flying the Hudson River corridor in my little plane has been this little adventure that’s been tucked away in my brain for years.  Once a little seed has planted itself in my brain, it doesn’t typically go away.  There have been a couple of opportunities to fly east, but for one reason or another, they never panned out.  A fellow YouTuber, Ted Greenfield of “Over Fifty and Learning To Fly,” and I decided to make it a priority to get to New York as soon as possible.  It finally happened two Saturdays ago.  It was very cool and we have shared videos of the experience with the world on the flyGIRL YouTube channel.

The flight up the river and back lasted a little more than an hour.  All of the work leading up to that small block of time is what completely wiped me out.  It got me thinking.  Do people know how much work goes into a flight?  Do they know how even a small one hour flight can drain a pilot?  Don’t get me wrong, pilots do have experiences and vantage points that few people ever get.  We get to see and do many rewarding things.  However, even a short flight does require effort.  Theodore Roosevelt said, “nothing worth having comes easy.” 

Element #1: Planning and Replanning

Several weeks before the planned excursion, there were calendars that were arranged, rearranged, and rearranged again and again.  It took a few weeks to find a mutually agreeable weekend.  The first scheduled weekend had to be scrapped because of disagreeable weather and flight restrictions in New York.  We then chose a different weekend.  As most people know, finding a few days in a row without commitments comes with challenges and frustration.  We would not be deterred!  Even though we both had lots of other moving parts, we managed to find another weekend.  

Element #2: Mother Nature’s Mind Games

Studying the weather is constant.  You plan for every scenario.  “If the weather does this, we’ll go that way. If it does that, we’ll go this way.”  Along every route, you look for airports for fuel stops, potential food availability (if you have an extreme disdain for being hangry like myself), possible hotel accommodations, conducive runways that are in good condition…Once you have it all planned out and it’s the day of your departure, Mother Nature decides to change her mind oftentimes, and you start the whole thing all over again! 

Element #3: Preparation Nightmares

The night before any cross-country flight should just be called “Nightmare On My Street.” I toss and turn all night, waking every hour or so to write down one more thing on my little bedside notepad that needs to be packed, one more person that needs to be emailed, one more charging cord, more socks, more snacks, perhaps another headset?  Should the oil have been changed?  Did I update my GPS cards?  Should there be an IFR flight plan filed or should it just be VFR?  Do I need a rental car?  Where are my chocks?  Are there new batteries in my flight bag? What did I do with the oxygen? Life vests?  Are they within reaching distance? Are there enough tissues in the plane??  It’s insanity.  Of course, you can’t take any sleep aid because you don’t want to be under the influence of anything that could affect your judgment.  Waaaaaahhhhh!  

Element #4: Heat Exhaustion

Summertime weather has advantages and disadvantages.  You have long days.  That’s helpful.  You also have extreme heat and convective activity (thunderstorm potential). Thunderstorms are no bueno.  If you want to avoid these two elements, you need to fly early in the morning or later in the evening.  Most little airplanes do not have air conditioning.  And unless you are a cold-blooded zombie, the heat inside this “convection oven with wings” will release every ounce of energy and toxin in your body through your sweat glands within five minutes.  Keeping yourself from melting into a puddle of sweat and tears takes something I call “lying-to-yourself-about-how-hot-it-is.”  Repeat these words:  “It feels like Iceland in here.  I’m actually cold.  This is nothing like the summer of ’92.” Come up with your own batch of lies to get you through the preflight and engine start.  Once the propeller starts spinning, it’s heavenly.  The blast of air feels like a miracle straight from heaven.  It’s enough to reenergize me until my little Piper can climb to five-thousand feet, or so.  

Element #5: The Rule Of ETA Plus An Hour

It’s unclear to me as to why this is true, but everything takes about an hour longer than you think it’s going to take when you’re trying to depart.  It’s inevitable.  There’s a traffic jam at 5 am on Saturday.  Of course, that never happens when you really have nowhere to go, but it does on the Saturday that I’m flying out of town! The airport gate code isn’t working.  My son took the set of keys with my hangar key on it.  My plane wasn’t filled up with gas.  The WiFi in the FBO is nonexistent.  Your iPhone or iPad decides to update as you’re trying to get a weather briefing.  The janitor is cleaning the bathroom and you wind up waiting twenty minutes before you can go JUST ONE MORE TIME.  The fuel sump is jammed.  All of the flight schools students want to take off at the same time (and many of them are performing a run-up for the very first time).  You can’t find the piece of paper with your VOR checks on them.  The fog won’t lift!  You can’t get Clearance Delivery on the ground frequency.  No one hears your radio check.  You left your credit card to pay for the AvGas in your jeans from last night in your suitcase which is buried in the back passenger seat under three under bags….My experience has taught me that more often than not, my ETA will be about an hour later than expected.  I might as well get up at 3 am.

Element #6: Mental Fatigue

After all of your planning, briefings, and setbacks, you’re finally in the air.  There’s a heavy crosswind on takeoff.  The plane is bumping all around for the first couple thousand feet.  I’m concentrating on maintaining the runway heading.  The sweat is finally drying and turning into an oily, sticky, full-body, “protective” coating.  I call it “protective” because nothing and nobody will come near you for the rest of the day.  The shower I took before leaving was a complete waste of time.  

My mind and body are on full-blown alert until it’s time to level off.  Only then, do my shoulders finally relax a little.  Hopefully, the air is smoother and I begin to check out and appreciate the view.  The majority of the flight still calls for mental focus.  There are always things to be thinking ahead about.  Whether that is weather you’re avoiding, keeping up with ATC, a potentially better altitude, the next stop, your engine performance, systems, route forecasting and/or deviations, full bladders, empty stomachs, etc. As a pilot, you are constantly analyzing and reanalyzing; adjusting, readjusting, evaluating, reevaluating, thinking and planning ahead for any situation.   

Element #7: The WTF’s

Many, many, many times there are things that happen that you weren’t planning.  When you’re isolated from almost everyone and everything, it’s all up to you to figure it out.  Things that are typically simple on the ground can become a little more frustrating and trying in the air.  Just needing to use the bathroom can become extremely distracting. It is hard for me to concentrate when all I’m dreaming of is a potty.  That becomes an “event”  sometimes that sets you back.  It takes some effort to change destination airports so you can use the restroom.  It’s so hard to just take small sips of water when your body feels dehydrated after being on the hot airport asphalt.  Then, BAM! You need to stop short of your first planned stop for a freakin’ potty break.  Shutdown, landing fee? Profuse sweating all over again.  Engine restart, taxi, clearance, run-up, line-up, takeoff and there’s your second layer of “protective” coating. 🙂

When you’re flying solo high above the earth, even the simplest things become more complicated.  “I can’t reach my iPad that fell off my kneeboard that I had to remove to rearrange my headset cord!!!!” You do learn to contort yourself in a variety of creative ways to blindly reach for all kinds of things! Autopilot helps a tad but it can’t be fully relied upon all the time.  Autopilot’s malfunction, just like anything else! 

Element #8: The Waiting Game and In-Between’s

Sometimes, you have to wait and wait and wait for hours or even overnight.  This has happened to me when I’ve been only an hour away from my destination.  Suddenly, the destination is covered in terrible weather, inadvisable visibility, unsafe conditions, whatever…and you sit in a little podunk municipal airport surrounded by a variety of individuals or NO ONE AT ALL, for hours.  Your phone may have no cell service.  You can’t get Uber.  You’re starving.  You consider busting a window and breaking into the small airport office but realize after peeking through the window that there isn’t a darn thing to eat in there and you really don’t want to go to jail.  You just wait for improvement that may or may not come.  There have been a few times that I’ve had to stay overnight.  Sleeping in an unfamiliar hotel doesn’t typically provide me with a good nights sleep.  It also adds to the mental load because you have to plan the rest of your flight all over again, under new conditions.  

Element #9: The Arrival

You’ve been in the air, actually flying for about four hours.  However, you’ve spent about four hours on all the other stuff.  The fuel stop (or potty breaks), refueling, fuel sumping, sweating, pre-flighting, lunch, weather briefing, filing, waiting around, another run-up, etc.  

You finally make it to your destination.  The airport makes you park about as far away from the terminal as possible because you’re a “foreigner.” You’re in a new time zone.  You’ve got five bags to carry.  You have a headache from climbing, descending, climbing, descending.  You walk up to your excited, expectant friend that greets you with a big, energetic smile.  You look terrible.  You have oil on your shorts, several dried layers of sweat and mascara smeared across your face.  It was a long day (or days).  You want an adult beverage, a shower, and quiet, mind-numbing conversation.  No deep, intellectual conversations for a while.  Your day ends with pure satisfaction but also pure exhaustion.  You’ve used your brain all day, non-stop to problem-solve and concentrate. Your body has gone through several extreme temperature changes, tension, and space confinement at several different altitudes.  You’ve been in unfamiliar locations with unfamiliar people constantly making decisions.  

And This Is Fun?!

Not only is it fun, but it’s also an indescribable level of satisfaction.  It’s like waiting in line and getting on the scariest roller coaster over and over again.  You know you’ll be a little hesitant about what may lie ahead.  Those ups and downs provide a thrill and a moment or two that prove to yourself how you are able to get through it successfully with a huge grin on your face and a new memory to cherish. 

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