I Just Needed 3:51 to get to 1,000

When I passed my PPL check ride, 1,000 hours seemed like an eternity away. But, like anything else that seems overwhelming, just take it one step at a time….
Written by
Richard Brown
Published on
29 Mar 2024

Time is an interesting thing. Although it passes at the same rate, second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, the perception of time changes constantly. When I was a kid, it seemed like almost everything took an eternity. Waiting for a friend to get home to go play. Waiting for a birthday or Christmas to arrive. Or waiting for class to end so I could go outside and play. Then there were other times it flew by, like when Saturday morning cartoons came on (before the days of cable TV) it seemed like they were over as soon as they started.

I’ve mentioned before that although I always dreamed of flying. When the Air Force, facing a surplus of 2,500 pilots in 1994, decided to almost eliminate all pilot slots completely for ROTC I dropped out of ROTC my sophomore year and thought that dream was dead. A wonderful wife and some incredible blessings brought that dream to reality in 2016 and on October 15th of that year I passed my Privat Pilot Check Ride.

At the time 1,000 hours seemed like an eternity away. But, like anything else that seems overwhelming, just take it one step at a time. When I sent my family the picture of me passing 1,000 hours, one of my sisters texted back, “That’s an incredible accomplishment!” I replied, “Thanks! Like eating an elephant, one bite at a time. Just more fun.”

When I landed in Pagosa Springs I was at 996.15 hours, I needed 3:51 to cross the line. Normally that would be a given flying home, but the forecast was for tailwinds and there was a slight chance I would come in under the required number. Yes, I could pull back on the power and fly slower, but that seemed like cheating, and perhaps blasphemy in a Mooney.

I did cross the line of 1,000 hours, but it didn’t come easy and would require some sound decisions learned over the previous 996 hours.

Slow in the Snow to Durango

My son had flown into Durango from Idaho Falls and because I hadn’t booked the flight early enough the only one left was a 6am departure. Under normal road conditions it is a 1-hour drive from our place. It was going to be an early start to the day.

The alarm went off at 3am and everyone rolled out of bed. We were on our way by 3:20am, and it was a good thing we had an early start. It was snowing heavily. We were the only car on the road, no plows yet, and already two inches had accumulated. If you have never driven in heavy snow in the dark, it is mesmerizing the way it comes toward you in the headlights. The only way to see where you were on the road was to follow the reflectors along the side. We muddled along at about 25-30 mph for about the first 30 miles of the trip until we came to a section where a plow had worked.

Finally, we got past the falling snow and could maintain a more respectable 40 mph, but the trip there took an hour and forty minutes. We said our goodbyes and started home. Thankfully, the plows had worked the highway all the way back, and at 6:30am my wife and I went back to bed. I needed more sleep. Never fly when you are tired.

When I woke up at 8:30am it was still snowing lightly. The forecast the day before had said the snow would end mid-morning. I got on my computer and checked again, no changes, in theory we should be able to depart midday.

After getting the house ready for our departure I drove over to the airport to clean off the plane. I had wiped snow off it every evening since our arrival so an ice layer wouldn’t form overnight. I arrived to find about 2-3” of snow on the plane, but a slight nudge and sheets of it slid off the wings like a small avalanche breaking free. I left the engine heater plugged in and went back to the house. The skies were looking great, broken to overcast but high enough to fly.

Departing Pagosa (KPSO) Between Snow Showers

A couple inches of snow to clean off

We drove back to the airport, loaded up the plane, grabbed the crew car to take ours back to the house, and it started snowing again. I commented to my wife that we missed the window to depart and now would have to wait again. Back at the FBO we settled into the couches, looking out the windows as the snow fell. After about 20 minutes the sky started getting lighter, the sun fighting to break through, and then as quickly as it began it was over and you could see for miles to the south.

I knew from the forecast and the current conditions along the route if we could get out of Pagosa past the mountains we would be able to work our way around any other scattered snow showers as we worked our way west. A Cirrus had been playing the same waiting game and we departed right after him. Normally we follow the valley to the southwest past Chimney Rock. As we lifted off I could see snow flurries reducing visibility in the valley but to the south I could see at least 30 miles under the layer. On the fly (literally) I decided to proceed south before heading west. Flying past the mouth of the valley I could see the landscape fading away into the snow. Make a plan but be willing to change it when situations change.

Staying Under a Broken Layer

Looking up the valley toward Chimney Rock

We stayed at 8,500’ to keep below the broken layer, dropping down to 7,000’ as we passed Ship Rock before climbing back up. I kept glancing up at the holes in the clouds. There were places big enough to climb through, but I couldn’t tell if we would be in the clear once on top, there were glimpses of bigger clouds up ahead.

Ship Rock, NM

Above the Clouds for a Hot Minute

Once we were over the Chinle Valley the skies cleared up and I climbed to 10,500’, but it was short lived. Off in the distance there were some buildups that I wouldn’t be able to top so we started back down again to go under them. I usually fly north of Flagstaff and Mt Humphreys, but the dark clouds combined with the FIS-B radar picture pointed us to the south side of Flagstaff. Again, a deviation from the plan to go around weather that wasn’t supposed to be there according to the briefing forecast.

Chinle Valley

Another Deviation

The deviation required another change as I looked at the elevations of the terrain ahead. On the more northern route 8,500’ is plenty of terrain clearance, but south of Flagstaff it would be less than 1,000’ of ground clearance, or even into the side of Mormon Mountain at 8,768’ or Hutch Mountain at 8,532’. If the clouds ahead didn’t break up enough, we would have to divert even further south and I would be looking for a fuel stop before we got home.

As we got closer to what I had decided was my decision point, we came out from under some clouds and up ahead it thinned out into some random puffies with plenty of space in between, perfect. Back up to a comfortable 10,500’ we climbed and did a slow slalom through the gaps in the clouds, passing Sedona and then once again pointing the plane west. To our right were snow showers drifting down from the clouds, painting a beautiful portrait with the red rocks jutting up from green hills, reaching toward the clouds above.

Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Area

1,000 Flight Hours!

The combination of multiple altitude changes along with course deviations was more than enough to push me over the 3:51 mark needed for 1,000 hours total time. Just before beginning our descent, as we flew through the Banning Pass, I held up a piece of yellow paper from my knee board that I had written “1,000 Hours” on with a sharpie and took a selfie with my wife. I think she has been there for probably 700+ of those hours.

1,000 Flight Hours!!!

Just like with Saturday morning cartoons as a kid, it seemed like 1,000 would never get here, but looking back I can’t believe it has already come and gone. Here’s to another 1,000 hours and the adventures that will come along the way.

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