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Flying South by Barbara Cushman Rowell

If you are ever passing through Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport with some time to spare, they have an excellent second hand bookstore with a great section on aviation. On a recent trip I stopped by and was casually browsing when Barbara Cushman Rowell’s “Flying South” came to my attention. I first noticed her surname which brought to mind the world famous mountaineer, climber and photographer Galen Rowell. A quick look at the cover and at the spectacular photos inside confirmed the connection. Barbara Cushman Rowell was Galen Rowell’s wife and this book is as much a story about her escape from his shadow as it is about a flight she took from California down and around South America and back.

For me this is a book I really love. Perhaps because it is written by a woman it is one of the most honest portrayals of the ups and downs of aviation I have read. She describes the fears, the uncertainty, the elation, the sense of achievement, the whole range of emotions that I think we all experience as aviators but which we might not admit to in public. The other thread running through the book is Rowell’s personal flight of discovery, how the experiences of the flight and her reactions to them lead her to a better understanding of herself.

Barbara Cushman met Galen Rowell through her job at The North Face outdoor equipment company. A whirlwind romance followed leading to their marriage and then things became a blur of travel, photography, climbing expeditions and way too much time waiting for Galen while he did his thing and she watched. Through a growing frustration with this state of affairs, Cushman Rowell is encouraged to list the top 10 things she would most want to do if money was no object. The top 4 items were:

  1. Learn to Fly
  2. Become fluent in Spanish
  3. Explore South America
  4. Write a book

Starting at the top of the list she takes her first discovery flight and is immediately smitten, she has her private pilot license seven weeks later and has found a passion that she can call her own. They go on to forgo buying a house and instead purchase a Cessna Turbo 206 which she and Galen use to great effect in their photography business, traveling to and from some of the most mountainous regions in the United States and Canada. Working on items 2 and 3 on the list She takes trips to South America to study Spanish and becomes very proficient in her chosen language and gains a great appreciation of the countries and culture she visits. Despite this, over time some disenchantment starts to creep in again. When one of Galen’s friends suggests she come along on a once in a lifetime flight down to Chile and back, she leaps at this chance to bring so many of her goals together in one trip. Needless to say she later achieves goal #4 in writing ‘Flying South’ and I think its a worth addition to any library.

The book describes each leg of the cross-country flight from Oakland, CA down through Central America, around the western coast of South America to Chile. They then return around the east coast, through Argentina, Brazil, around the Caribbean and back into the US. In the course of the trip they fly over spectacular terrain which is wonderfully captured in the photos in the book. Its hard to imagine having a better person along to document a trip like this than Galen Rowell. They deal with a whole range of weather ranging from good to bad to the truly ugly, she experiences a vacuum pump failure, continued VFR flight into IFR conditions, political coups, crossing the Andes, flying over the Amazon and much more.

Whether you are a pilot or not, this is a great adventure book, Cushman Rowell does a very good job of relating the aviation side of the trip so it can be appreciated by pilots and non-pilots alike. As a pilot, some of her experiences and mental battles were very familiar to me and putting myself in her position and wondering what it would be like to deal with various situations was a very salutatory experience.

Personally I would have liked a few charts in the book to be able to better piece together the flights, instrument approaches and terrain but that would have been a little out of place in a book for a general audience. You might want to follow along with a world atlas as you read or use Google Earth to get an even better feel for the places and terrain. You’ll get a good review of South American geography and an even better appreciation for the flight. If you have access to one, fire up the flight simulator and give bits of it a go for yourself – how would you like to fly their leg to Rio….?

1 Comment on “Flying South by Barbara Cushman Rowell”

  1. #1 Mark McGuinness
    on Jan 17th, 2010 at 8:11 am

    I can’t disagree with anything the reviewer said. I came across the book in pretty much the same manner. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down.

    The book is relatively fast paced, and captures the spirit of aviation to a tee.

    My only criticism is shared with the reviewer: needs more charts! I found myself having to constantly refer to an atlas, because I wanted to see where Barbara was. A few more photos would have been nice.

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