This was a very pleasant flight on quite a pleasant day for late summer in central Virginia. A cold front passed through three days ago, with thunderstorms and some pretty good winds, but by today everything had calmed down. That was something of a relief because my passenger was going up in a light plane for the first time, so I was hoping for smooth air. Fortunately, what wind there was was right down runway 33, and being light, brought almost no turbulence. There was a moment of consternation--more like five minutes of consternation--because there was only one set of headphone jacks on the panel. (This was in N75709, which I'd never flown before.) Finally I noticed a piece of embossed tape with the word HEADPHONES right at the bottom of the panel, over on the left, behind the yoke. Sure enough, the other set of jacks was underneath the bottom edge of the panel. With my headset plugged in, everything else went all right. The passenger seemed interested in the workings of the airplane, but when I asked if she'd like to steer on the taxiway, she looked startled and said, "No!" loudly, almost as if declining to perform brain surgery or pick up a spider.
The takeoff was nice and smooth, and we headed west toward the reservoir, climbing to 2,000 feet. It was hot, in the 90s, but the sky was clear and relatively dry, so there wasn't much haze at all for a change. There was a definite horizon--the first time I've seen it in months--and we could even see the mountains, about 60 miles to the west, looking brown, but definitely visible.
Shortly after takeoff I noticed a very large plume of smoke about 15 miles to the southwest and flew to it at 2,000 feet. It was coming from a heavily wooded area with little habitation, and at first I thought it was a forest fire, but it turned out to be in a large cleared area, evidently a new housing development being burnt out of the middle of the woods. The flames at the base of the smoke plume were bright red-orange. There seemed to be nobody around--couldn't see any cars or trucks. I felt disheartened by the scene--it was as if the Amazon rain forest devastation had migrated north, like the killer bees that were released there. I noticed a second smoke plume some 50 miles farther southwest, but didn't bother to go for a closer look.
Instead, I turned around (with a gentle15 degree bank for the passenger's confort) and we flew north to have a look at the James River and the western suburbs. Everything was smooth, although the altimeter readings were dropping about a tenth of an inch every 20 minutes and it started getting a little hazy, so I decided to return to the airport and land while the going was still good. The pattern was clear, except for one trainer, and I got lucky and managed my best 172 landing yet. I think that was partly because I had finally gotten the hang of trimming the 172--and trimming the 172 and trimming the 172.
The passenger still had her lunch stowed in the proper place.
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