A Trip to the South: Final Leg Home

The last in a series of posts describing my trip to bring a Mooney to South Carolina for a pre-buy inspection. See the previous installment here. Last time, my Dad completed the pre-buy inspection in South Carolina, and we made the decision to stay overnight in Raleigh, North Carolina. We landed that evening at KRDU.

The next morning I woke up before dawn, and instinctively checked the weather on my phone. A strong cold front was racing across western Pennsylvania, with a dramatic shift in wind direction and an increase in wind speed to 30+ knots. The terminal area forecasts for New Jersey put the frontal passage at around noon, and I knew we would be racing it on our way back. We needed to leave…now.

My Aunt and Uncle, who had graciously let me stay at their beautiful home on very short notice, dropped me off at the airport.

My flight instructor, having stayed with his relative in the area, was dropped off about 10 minutes later. We took another look at the weather, that cold front was moving fast. “I think we can thread the needle,” he said. “It’s gonna be windy, but we can make it back.”
“Okay I’ll preflight, you file.” I replied, walking out the door to the ramp. I laughed when I saw what we were parked next to:
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The Cessna Citation X would have gotten us back a bit faster, but might have burned a bit more fuel.

I finished the preflight, my instructor climbed in, and I fired up the engine. A few minutes later he was calling Raleigh Clearance-Delivery and copying our IFR clearance back to Trenton-Robbinsville.

Three minutes later, after a run-up on the ramp area, we were cleared for takeoff. I poured on the coals and 20 seconds later we were in the air. We were cleared up to 7000 feet, and at altitude I could clearly make out the weather features we were racing home, with a sharp line of cirrus clouds curving to the north on our left. The flight really showed how great a Mooney can be. A very favorable tailwind gave us a max ground speed at 207 knots, while burning 10.9 gallons of fuel per hour. Under 90 minutes later I was going through the in-range descent checklist, and starting to bring back the power.

About 30 miles out we listened to Trenton ATIS, and inexplicably they were reporting “winds calm.” I knew this had to be false, all of the forecasts were calling for gusty NW winds. We checked another nearby airport: winds 260 at 18 gusting to 28–that’s a little more like it. They were also reporting wind shear. I knew it was going to be a challenging approach.

ATC cleared us to descend, and as soon as we were below 3000 feet we hit some continuous light chop. I kept pulling the power back, and at 2000 feet the turbulence increased to the moderate range. I entered the downwind leg of the pattern to Runway 29 at Robbinsville, and put the gear down. With all that extra drag the plane was really getting pushed around by the turbulence. I focused on correcting the large deviations, while relaxing on the stick enough to let the plane ride out most of the chop. I turned Base leg, did a GUMP check, took a breath and turned final. The turbulence increased as we got lower and slower. I elected to keep 10 kts extra speed on final, and didn’t extend the flaps all the way–typically a recipe to float a Mooney all the way down the runway, but not in this kind of wind. I wrestled the airplane down to ground effect, including through a moment of what I think was wind shear that made the plane feel like the bottom dropped out. A last gust pushed me off centerline but I kicked in right rudder and left aileron and eased the airplane on the ground. It really is true that you have to fly the airplane all the way to touchdown. With a big sigh of relief I pulled off the runway and taxied back to the parking spot, still covered with snow and ice. I realized I was sweating profusely, but it was a huge boost of confidence to land the airplane in those conditions, on the first try. It made me feel like I’ll be pretty good at this pilot thing.

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A Trip to the South: Part II

Continued from Part I

The speed raced past 60 knots, I pulled back on the stick and the airplane lifted off the icy, snow-covered runway to begin the flight from Trenton-Robbinsville N87 to Santee-Cooper KMNI in South Carolina. We were on an IFR flight plan with a route as follows: N87 CYN V16 RIC V157 LVL V155 CTF KMNI, filed at 4000 feet which gave us a near 25 knot headwind. While this made for a terrible groundspeed of about 125 knots, it was better than what we’d get had we climbed higher. The jet stream wasn’t our friend that day. As I mentioned before my CFI was along for the trip, and he graciously handled the radio calls while I flew the airplane and operated the GPS, a Garmin GNS480. The instrument is a bit less intuitive at first than some other units (such as the more common Garmin 430), but after a few early hiccups it started to make sense and its benefits as a more powerful flight management system became clear. We settled in for the nearly 4 hour flight, stretching the range of the airplane close to its limits, assuming a personal minimum of landing with an hour of fuel in the tanks. I picked up this habit after reading Richard Collins’ The Next Hour, but it is a common-sense rule.

The terrain below was cold and bleak, the rivers and even much of the expanse across Delaware Bay was frozen over after a few weeks of sub-freezing temps. But despite the headwind, there were virtually no bumps, and the 120 knot groundspeed in the Mooney burning 11 gallons/hr was much better than the 85 knots at the same fuel burn in a 172 or similar airplane.

I was perfectly happy, watching the ground below show gradual signs of warming as we flew south over Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. But I had this small voice in the back of my mind, constantly wondering if I had made the right decision to go. Fretting over whether we could get back that night. I tried to relax and focus on flying, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the day wouldn’t work out as we planned. I thought about the factors involved: if my dad was going to be able to do a pre-buy inspection, it would have to be on a Sunday. We didn’t want to wait too long so as to delay buying the airplane, or waste the owner’s time waiting for us. The weather, while not perfect, looked better than it had for several weekends prior, and than it looked the following weekend. I was bringing my CFI along, so if I got stuck, it would be disruptive to more people than just myself. The weather was moving in faster than forecast, so we had only narrow windows of time to work with, and we were flying an unfamiliar airplane, which though it was loaded with all the features and equipment you could want, would be difficult to adjust to if we were caught in actual IMC. It’s funny how many things go into flying an airplane besides actually flying. It’s at least 50% mental.

We sped southward at 4000 feet, then 5000 feet, talking to a long list of air traffic controllers–some of them the same ones as I had spoken to on my VFR flight at the end of December. Finally we approached central South Carolina, and the large Lake Marion, appeared on the horizon. We descended and cancelled IFR when we had the field in sight, setting up for a pattern approach to runway 20 (I had landed on runway 02 the month before, runway 20 ends in a drop off directly into the lake). Though the winds were strong, I made an acceptable landing and taxied up to the hangar, happy to get out and stretch (and use the restroom!). To my great surprise, my Grandfather was standing there waiting with my Dad. He lives in Charleston, about an hour away, but I hadn’t expected to see him, and he gave me a hug and a warm welcome. My Mom was also there, embracing me tightly, excited as always to see me, as was I to see her. Even my Dad’s sister was there, also from out of town, so it was a nice impromptu family reunion.

We pulled the airplane into the hangar and Dad set to work inspecting the airplane. First he pulled off the engine cowling while I opened the tail access panels. He then did an engine cylinder compression check. I had a bite to eat from the brunch mom had prepared, famished from almost four hours of flying and a small breakfast at 5am that morning.
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He frowned as he ran his index finger along the seam of the engine crankcase and along the edge of one of the cylinders, noticing a small but worrisome amount of oil. The news didn’t get better, with the compressions from cylinder 4 on the low side and cylinder 3 was on the borderline of needing a replacement. He looked at me and grimaced, silently. He then went over the rest of the airplane with the precision and attention to detail that I knew would make it worthwhile to fly all the way down. He’s simply the best at this kind of thing. Whatever cost it took, or inconvenience, was worth it to have his opinion.

About 3 hours had passed and Dad was finishing up, so my CFI and I began preparing for the trip back home. A look at the weather had us both frowning. Although the forecast ceilings back in New Jersey were 4000 – 5000 feet, a line of snow showers was moving in faster than expected, and conditions could decrease to MVFR or lower. “It’s your call,” said my CFI. He offered as an option to stop in Raleigh, North Carolina for the night, as he had family there he could stay with. I mulled the details for a few minutes, and called Landmark Aviation at KRDU to check the landing/overnight fees. Finally I said “I haven’t made a night landing in almost a year, and I don’t have any actual IMC experience so far, so I don’t want to combine, possibly, both of those things tonight.” My CFI agreed immediately, adding, “and especially in an airplane neither of us own!”

We confirmed that we’d head up to Raleigh, landing at KRDU, an international airport (Class C airspace), about an hour’s flight north, and we’d fly VFR. We fueled the airplane, I said goodbye to my family, and we climbed in. Dad lingered by the airplane, and we spoke through the pilot window hatch. “Keep looking,” he said. “The airplane is in good shape in terms of airworthiness, but it will need some investment soon, maybe a top-end overhaul.”
“That’s exactly the kind of advice I flew down here for,” I said.
“And the paint is pretty ragged,” he went on. Neither of us do thank-yous or goodbyes very well. I was sad to leave so quickly, especially to leave and know I wasn’t going home that night. A feeling of homesickness started to creep in on me.
“Thanks, Dad,” I said.
“Anytime, I hope you bring more planes down here for me to look at,” he replied, walking back behind the wing and clear of the plane. I fired up the engine and we were in the air five minutes later, headed north and talking to Shaw Approach for flight following.

It was beautiful to fly in the late afternoon as the sun sank to the horizon. The approach to KRDU, my first time landing a Mooney at a towered airport, was fun and exciting, and the speed brakes helped immensely to keep the airspeed in check. The landing was smooth on the long runway 23L, and within a few minutes we were taxiing up to Landmark Aviation on a ramp full of jets. Everyone we interacted with was extremely pleasant, treating us like we belonged, and explaining the ramp fees when we asked. We decided to add 5 gallons of fuel to the plane, and they waived the overnight fee (total without fuel would have been around $40). The fuel was expensive ($7+/gal), but not unexpected, and the convenience of landing at a major airport and walk from plane to car in about 30 seconds can’t be overstated. It is simply amazing to fly yourself from place to place, especially when you get to pull up on a ramp full of jets.
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The flight back to New Jersey and the most challenging landing I’ve made

TO BE CONTINUED…

A Trip to the South (and getting stuck for a night)

The alarm went off at 5am…on a Sunday morning. My warm bed and my sleeping girlfriend were almost too much to resist dragging myself from under the covers into an adventure that would see me fly about 1,000 nautical miles with a forced overnight stop in Raleigh, North Carolina and a landing back in New Jersey that I won’t soon forget.

I was bringing an airplane I’m considering buying, a Mooney with a mid-time engine and a fantastic instrument panel, down to South Carolina for my Dad to complete a pre-buy inspection. Dad is a world class aircraft mechanic, and his opinion is invaluable to me. The owner was fine with me taking the airplane that far, so long as I brought my instructor along.

I forced myself out of bed, and groaned slightly when I heard the sound of a strong wind gust buffet the bedroom window. maybe I should just get back in bed, I thought. I went through my usual routine and rushed out the door, forgetting the coffee I had made. At least there wasn’t any traffic that early in the morning.

The airport was dark and cold–the latest blast of arctic air was moving in, causing the temperatures to drop and the winds to gust. I walked out to the completely empty ramp, then further all the way out to the runway, to check the surface condition. It wasn’t good, still covered with snow and ice from the recent storm that came through. As the sun started to rise I brushed the layer of fresh snow that had fallen overnight off the airplane. I kept having to take a break and sit in my car to get out of the wind.

Finally my instructor arrived and we finished the final preparations–removing the last ice that had built up, and fueling the airplane for the flight South. My instructor decided to file IFR, completing the process on his iPad with the Foreflight app. He frowned when he realized we’d have a 25 knot headwind and nearly 4 hr enroute time. Then he asked if I was making the “go” decision.

It’s never an easy decision, and especially so when you’re putting so much distance between yourself and home base. To be honest, I don’t know exactly how to make the decision, I just try and make sure that, as a previous instructor said, every decision I make is to try to become the oldest living pilot. With a slightly sinking feeling, I made a “go” decision. Without hesitation he said “alright let’s go.” We climbed in the airplane and the engine fired right up, thanks mainly to the engine heater protecting it from the brutal cold.

As the engine idled and I completed my after engine start and taxi checklists, my instructor called McGuire Departure control and received our IFR clearance with a release time in just 10 minutes. Everything moved fast from then, taxi across the icy ramp and down to the departure end of the runway, a quick run-up, final check, and we were accelerating down the runway and lifting off into the frigid sky.

The Flight down South

TO BE CONTINUED…

Why a Mooney?

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“Prop full forward, mixture full rich, flaps set for takeoff,” I said out loud as I lined the Mooney M20J-201 on Runway 02 at Santee-Cooper Regional Airport, KMNI, on a calm cool morning just after Christmas. A low pressure system was scheduled to move in later in the afternoon, so the sky had those high stretched-out wisps of cirrus clouds. I advanced the throttle smoothly, let my eyes dance back and forth from the runway centerline to the oil pressure gauge to the RPM and manifold pressure gauges, all while keeping track of the quickly increasing airspeed. “60 knots, rotate.” It seemed like just saying the words made the plane fly. A few seconds later, “80 knots, positive rate, gear up,” I said as I lifted the gear handle and added some down trim at the same time to compensate for the striking pitch up from the airplane as it lost all the drag from the landing gear.

Maybe the Mooney isn’t the only airplane that makes me feel the way it does in those first few moments of flight. I’ve only been pilot in command of Cessna 172s and a Mooney M20J. Maybe a Bonanza would make me feel the same way; it’s undeniably a good-looking airplane, it’s fast, has a decent useful payload (though still not a 4-adult + full fuel airplane). But a good Bonanza would be a little expensive. To find one comfortably in my price range I need to exclude virtually all of those made in the last 30 years.20140112-164935.jpg

A Cirrus would be great, they’re fast and attractive airplanes with great avionics packages, and the whole-plane parachute is an amazing feature. But the airplane also smacks of a rich-man’s ride, even a first-gen with high time on the engine is out of reach. I’m not saying it’s bad, it seems like a great airplane, I just can’t afford one.
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“What about the Cessna line of airplanes?” you might ask. Well, the 172 just isn’t fast enough for me. The 177 Cardinal (assuming an RG) is faster, and the 210 Centurion (especially a turbo version) is more my kind of speed machine. But the Cardinal just isn’t sexy, and the 210 burns too much fuel and is too expensive. The 182 seems like a good blend, but again the speed/fuel burn/cost/sexiness equation just doesn’t add up. The Cessna 400 is sexy and extremely fast, but astonishingly expensive. So too, for that matter, with the fast Piper singles like the Saratoga, Matrix, etc.

“Mooney three zero one kilo charlie contact Norfolk Approach on 125.2”
“Over to 125.2 for three zero one kilo charlie, have a good day,” I reply, reaching up to turn the knob on the Garmin 430.
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I wait a second and make the call, “Norfolk Approach Mooney three zero one kilo charlie, with you level at five point five.”
“Mooney three zero one kilo charlie, Norfolk Approach, Roger, Norfolk altimeter three zero two nine.”
“There zero one kilo charlie,” I quickly reply, adjusting the altimeter setting slightly. My girlfriend is taking some pictures. The air is perfectly smooth, just over halfway home to New Jersey as we pass over Norfolk, between three or four naval installations. I look down over one and convince myself the little grey jets lined up on the ramp are F22 Raptors. “Awesome,” I think to myself, glancing up at the engine gauges, checking that everything is as it should be. I’m sure the Navy wouldn’t mind that much if I had to land on one of their fields if I had an emergency, but I really don’t want to find out. Just over an hour and we’ll be back on the ground in New Jersey, covering about 500 nautical miles in about three hours, ground speeds between 160 and 175 knots, burning 11.7 gallons of fuel per hour.
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I’m choosing a Mooney because it is the best blend I can find of fuel burn, speed, stability, safety, and sheer attractiveness.
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Owning an Airplane (Why I decided to Buy)

Two years ago I never would have dreamed that I’d be seriously considering buying an airplane of my own at the start of 2014. I hadn’t started flight training at that time; in fact, the thought didn’t even cross my mind for another six months.

Even just a year ago, 5 months before getting my private pilot’s license, I couldn’t have imagined I’d be on the cusp of buying an airplane, and especially not a Mooney, what I’ve long considered to be my “dream” plane. But here I am, lining up financing, insurance, tie-down space, and the terms of a partnership on a mid-80’s Mooney M20J-201. And if I’m perfectly honest, I’m absolutely terrified.

How it Happened

In August and September I was enjoying my private pilot privileges, renting a 172 for a few hours at a time and introducing friends and family to my passion for flying. But that was not the reason I got my license, I don’t want to just be a weekend pilot flying in circles or on quick hops to local airports for a hotdog or something. I want to travel, see new places, avoid commercial airlines and commercial airline passengers and lines at security.

So I investigated local flying clubs. For the price of the admission fee, in essence, buying a share of the club, and cheap monthly dues, I would have access to a few airplanes and be able to take them on trips without incurring the typical “daily minimum” requirements of renting from an FBO. It seemed to be the most logical thing to do; indeed a flying club is probably the best ratio of cost per hour flown when compared to renting from an FBO or owning your own airplane. I found a club at a nearby airport, went to a membership meeting, had conversations with the board of directors, was offered a place in the club, and sent in a deposit check to be held until I returned from a vacation to Europe (which I mentioned in my last post).

While on vacation I had a sort of epiphany: I don’t want to be in this flying club. Going from renting from an FBO among a pool of unknown pilots to scheduling one of three airplanes among a pool of 50 other club members just didn’t feel like that much of a change. I’m not exactly a people person, and while most of the members I had met were very welcoming and encouraging, there were more than a few that were clearly hostile to outsiders, set in their ways, and generally just people with whom I have no interest in interacting. So for me the decision ended up being less about the cost to fly, which was clearly advantageous in a flying club, and more about the social aspect. I don’t want to share an airplane with a bunch of people. I would pay more to have access at almost any time, and more importantly, I want almost all of the control in decisions regarding the maintenance and upkeep of an airplane. I don’t want just a 1 in 50 vote. This is of course a very personal decision, and for many people a flying club is an excellent option, and there are many fine clubs across the country. But I realized I wanted more than the club could offer. So when I returned from Europe I requested the flying club destroy my deposit check and apologized for wasting their time and efforts. The administrators were very helpful and understanding throughout this process.

The Mooney

Soon after, I decided to continue my flight training and get my complex aircraft endorsement. I went back to Princeton Airport and took some ground instruction to fly a Cessna 172RG “Cutlass.” The weather didn’t cooperate so I didn’t get to fly it, but to be honest, the airplane isn’t one I’m interested in flying. I want to go fast. I did some digging and was shocked to find a Mooney M20J-201 for rent at a nearby airport. I called immediately and the guy that answered the phone said, “Well you’re in luck, I usually never answer the phone here, but I’m the guy that teaches the Mooney.” We went on to have a long conversation, me explaining that I’ve loved Mooneys since I was a kid but how I’m a low time pilot and wonder if it’s a good idea to learn to fly one now. Him explaining why the Mooney is as close to the perfect aircraft as you can get, and how it’s fine if I’m a low time pilot, while the airplane has a steep learning curve it is very stable and predictable. We clearly had both “drank the Kool-Aid” about Mooneys.

Overjoyed, I scheduled a time to get introduced to my new teacher and to the airplane, and started reading as much as I could about learning to fly the airplane. That first up-close encounter with the airplane was thrilling. It was just a ground lesson, we didn’t even start the airplane. But touching it, sitting in the pilot’s seat, smelling the inside of the engine cowling, I was entranced, obsessed. It felt like a sleek, powerful, mean, mythical beast, daring me to turn the ignition. Taunting me to try and learn to tame it.

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My instructor is a smart guy, a good pilot, and a little edgy, quickly apologizing mid-sentence for saying the F-word a lot. But he has a deep well of respect for Mooneys, and I think he can tell I’m completely enthralled and a little intimidated by the airplane. I just try to be a dry sponge, absorbing everything he says in his no-nonsense, rapid-fire style. “Keep it simple,” he says. “60 knots rotate, 70 kts liftoff, 80 kts gear up, 90 kts flaps up, 100 kts climb,” he explains the takeoff. I furiously write it down. He goes on, “100 kts on the downwind gear down and first notch of flaps, base leg 90 kts GUMP check and 2nd notch of flaps, turn final gear down check last notch of flaps stabilized approach 80 kts, 70 kts over the fence, 60 kts touchdown,” he describes the landing. Simple, I think, with a gulp.

If that first encounter with the Mooney was so exciting, the first flight was almost better than sex. He had me sit right-seat, and he did the first takeoff, then handed me the controls soon after and I flew the rest of the time. We turned East and headed out over the shoreline, then followed it south to Cape May, picking up flight following along the way. I marveled at the ground speed of 188 kts heading East, and more than 160 kts headed south. 20 miles from the airport, at 4500 feet, he started the in-range descent checklist, and began reducing the power an inch of MP at a time. I could already tell I was way behind the airplane. He walked me through the motions for the gear down checklist and final approach, and I landed the plane on runway 28, from the right seat. We were both a little impressed by my landing, and my heart felt like it would beat out of my chest. My brain felt like jello, but we taxied back and I made a good takeoff and headed north back to Robbinsville. Again he helped me stay ahead of the airplane, and made sure I noticed how checklist-dependent I should be with it. I made another fine landing in the waning minutes of daylight, and we taxied back and shut down.

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Needless to say, I was hooked. Although I had some bad luck with the weather for a few weeks, I spent the next 6 weeks learning and practicing how to fly the airplane. We made another trip to Cape May and I sat in the left seat, then we had a lesson on maneuvers, power on and off stalls, steep turns, etc. I was amazed at how well the airplane handles and behaves in every part of the flight envelope. Then we spent two lessons practicing landings, the hardest part about the process. Over nearly 20 landings, I finally acquired the skills to make good smooth touchdowns and slow the airplane down without inducing the oscillations the airplane is famous for. The landing gear, unlike other airplanes, is cushioned by rubber disks, and they will bounce strongly if the landing isn’t smooth. Even if the landing is fine you have to be cautious about adding too much braking too soon to avoid causing a nose wheel oscillation. My final exam was another trip to Cape May, and it was dependent on me completing the flight without help from my instructor. Thankfully, I did a lot of mental preparation and felt confident. I flew the airplane beautifully and made several excellent landings, and a few hours later I was a proud newly-endorsed pilot of complex aircraft. More importantly, I was signed off to rent and fly the Mooney.

There is a Mooney for Sale

Near the end of my training, my instructor had me take a walk with him. He showed me another Mooney and told me it was for sale and that another one of his students was interested in having a partner to buy it. I could hardly contain my excitement. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my decision to not join the flying club was made so that I would be able to take an opportunity like this if it ever presented itself. I never dreamed that it would come up less than two months later!

Since then I rented the FBO Mooney and flew VFR from New Jersey down to South Carolina, a distance of 500 miles. It took just over 3 hours each way, which is the longest flight I’ve taken so far, and further strengthened my belief that I got my pilot’s license in order to travel. The entire flight was thrilling, and the trip could not have been faster any other way, if you assume for a commercial flight that you leave the house 2 hours before, and that the distance to and from the airport adds another hour or two, a commercial flight would take about five hours door-to-door if there weren’t any delays. The Mooney was clearly faster, and waaaayyy more fun! However, the daily minimum to rent the Mooney is 3 hours, meaning that it costs $600 dollars per day to rent the Mooney to take on a trip–even if I don’t fly it for a day or two. This is impractical, and is the primary reason I’d like to buy a Mooney of my own. Of course, the argument can be made that the costs of ownership are even more prohibitive, despite the lack of a daily minimum. I will examine these costs in a future post.

Flight to Boston

Last weekend I flew up to Boston, landing at KOWD, to pick up my girlfriend. I brought my instructor and inadvertently completed my long IFR cross-country flight.

This was the first flight I filed and flew in the IFR system, and it went very well. I still need a lot of practice to be able to stay ahead of the airplane on the busy arrival segment, but overall it was extremely satisfying to plan and complete the flight and fly as precisely as IFR requires.

Although I wore view-limiting goggles throughout the flight, my girlfriend snapped some photos on our return trip.

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