Rick Carlisle's higher calling

Rick Carlisle bought his Cirrus SR22 turbo in July of 2014 and has already logged about 180 hours as a pilot. Courtesy of Tim MacMahon

Rick Carlisle peers through the lenses of his Ray-Ban aviators at the runway before him.

The Dallas Mavericks coach has checked to make sure that the two fuel tanks in the wings are filled to the tabs and that the oil level is at exactly seven quarts to keep the 315-horsepower Continental engine running smoothly.

"November six-one-two Romeo Charlie, ready to depart Runway 25," Carlisle calls through his headset to the air traffic controller at the Orlando Executive Airport.

That's pilot-speak for the "N612RC" painted on the tail of Carlisle's Cirrus SR22T, a 26-foot-long, single-engine plane that seats four comfortably. The N is government assigned, the 612 a tribute to the Mavs' title-clinching win in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on June 12, 2011, followed by the coach's initials.

Carlisle has replaced his Nike cross training shoes with the lightweight water shoes he wears in a cockpit that is a bit tight on the floorboards to accommodate size-15 sneakers.

Carlisle has clicked on each item in the pre-takeoff checklist accessed on one of two 10-inch monitors in front of him.

He's relaxed. Focused. Confident. Prepared.

And cleared for takeoff.

Seconds after receiving clearance, Carlisle moves a lever forward with his right hand to maximize the plane's power, causing the aircraft to speed down the runway. He then applies back pressure to the control yoke in his left hand to keep the plane at a seven-degree pitch and hits a switch by his right knee to bring the flaps on the wings up, allowing the aircraft to lift into the air. Downtown Orlando is to the right and Disney World to the left as the plane climbs at more than 1,000 feet per minute until reaching its cruising altitude of 9,000 feet en route to Charleston, South Carolina, near Carlisle's Kiawah Island home.

Carlisle lives in South Carolina in the offseason, but has been in Orlando for a coaching clinic at the University of Central Florida where he spoke, that morning, about how he came to learn to love and embrace pressure situations.

His day job has plenty of them, and he has earned the right to be considered among the league's elite coaches with a 619-431 record, 2001-02 Coach of the Year award and 2010-11 championship on his résumé.

He's a self-taught pianist who has performed in many packed concert venues, which brings about a different form of pressure.

And he's now a licensed pilot on the brink of achieving his instrument rating. Carlisle understands the pressure in aviation literally can come with life-and-death consequences.

Asked what he thought about his coach being a part-time pilot, Mavs owner Mark Cuban replied, "I hope he's a good one."

Carlisle, who purchased his Cirrus SR22 turbo in July of 2014, has already logged about 180 hours as a pilot despite flying only during the offseason and All-Star break, using the plane to visit family and friends and make basketball-related trips. He approaches safety with the utmost seriousness. The aircraft features a rocket-launched parachute located inside the fuselage that can be discharged in an emergency situation. When deployed, the parachute safely brings the entire aircraft to the ground.

Carlisle says he would not have bought a plane without a parachute. Mike Matthews, the Cirrus Aircraft regional sales director who sold Carlisle his plane and the co-pilot during the Orlando trip, says the parachute system in the company's planes has saved 107 lives to date.

Additionally, Carlisle explains that the Cirrus' cockpit technology, designed for function and safety, makes the Mavs' 757 "look somewhat primitive." He also did extensive research before selecting his flight instructors.

"First of all, you don't take on this kind of challenge without the best instructors and the best and safest equipment," Carlisle says. "Rob Gilbert and Mike Matthews have been the best teachers I could have asked for, and Cirrus makes the best planes."

Nevertheless, Carlisle isn't yet comfortable enough to allow his family -- wife Donna and 11-year-old daughter Abby -- to fly with him as the pilot.

Carlisle says he extensively discussed the possibility of becoming a pilot with his wife and daughter before beginning the process.

"They were both extremely supportive, provided that I did it the right way," Carlisle says.

"In due time, they'll come up, but I'm going to make sure I do all the work and have the appropriate ratings. It'll happen when it happens. Donna and Abby are looking forward to doing it at the right time. I haven't determined that it's the right time yet."

The trip from Orlando to Charleston is a smooth flight on autopilot the majority of the way. This trip is a significant contrast to the previous day, when Carlisle had to navigate around thunderstorms with the assistance of Matthews while flying from Charleston to Orlando.

Most of the flight features beautiful, bird's-eye views of beaches and the Atlantic Ocean, but Carlisle is focused on feeding his aviation fascination and preparing for his instrument flight rating exam the following week.

Matthews, who played basketball at North Carolina-Asheville and began a coaching career before pursuing his passion for flying, is a self-proclaimed "aviation nerd" who has logged more than 5,000 hours as a pilot.

Throughout the flight, Matthews periodically quizzes Carlisle, such as asking how he can differentiate VOR 1 from VOR 2. Carlisle consistently answers correctly -- "You're gonna ace this s---," Matthews tells him -- and they both try to explain the conversations to a curious guest in the backseat whose head is spinning almost as fast as the plane's propeller.

"It's like speaking a different language," Matthews says. "When you get it, it's amazing."

At one point, with permission from air traffic control, Matthews demonstrates one of the plane's safety features. Applying three notches of left trim, the aircraft begins to dip into a bank headed beyond 45 degrees. As the aircraft turns just beyond the 45-degree mark, it automatically stops the turn and recovers itself to a wings-level attitude.

"How can we back that up?" Matthews asks.

"Down here," Carlisle says, pointing at the lone blue button among the dozens on the complicated console. That button will also automatically level the plane if a pilot gets spatially disoriented flying in the clouds -- another safety feature on the Cirrus that Matthews calls a "smart plane," much like a smart phone.

The monitor directly in front of Carlisle features the primary flight display (PFD), which shows the traffic, terrain, altitude, bearing, ground speed, indicated air speed and true air speed, among other things. The monitor toward the right of the dashboard can access a variety of screens, from a GPS to various maps to interactive weather reports to Sirius XM radio. (Carlisle opts for a little classic rock on XM 25 Classic Rewind during the flight.)

There is some minor turbulence during the flight's descent, a result of thermal radiations or "thermals" commonly associated with flying during the hot summer months, but it's nothing that concerns Carlisle. However, the upcoming landing might be the most challenging yet for Carlisle, although it isn't apparent to a novice in the backseat.

"I just thought that [brother Bill, who went to law school after 20 years as a sheriff's deputy and undercover detective] taking on that kind of challenge midlife was really an awesome thing. I was looking for something similar to do that was challenging, practical and useful." Rick Carlisle

That's because an Air Force C17, which generates more power than a 737, takes off on the runway as Carlisle's much smaller Cirrus SR22T makes its final approach. The multiple jet engines of the C17 create significant wake turbulence, prompting Carlisle to leave the flaps on the wings at 50 percent instead of the normal 100, maximizing the speed of the landing to fight through the disturbed air.

"Excellent. Keep working it. Keep working it," Matthews tells Carlisle as the plane makes its approach. After a calm landing at 85 miles per hour, Matthews adds, "There you go. That was awesome. Good job, Coach."

"Survived another one," Carlisle deadpans.

Carlisle exits the cabin and steps off the wing onto the ground, then cracks a wry grin and adds, "Pressure, baby -- gotta love it."

There were practical reasons for Carlisle to pursue his pilot's license and buy a plane, such as the desire to visit his parents more often. They live in Ogdensburg, New York, near the Canadian border, a trip that requires two flights and a two-hour drive if traveling commercially -- an all-day ordeal. In his plane, Carlisle can make a direct flight and a five-minute drive to his folks' farm.

Carlisle used to typically make only one trip per year to visit his parents. He visited them four times this offseason.

Carlisle was also motivated to immerse himself in a midlife mental challenge. He was inspired by his younger brother Bill, a father of 13 who retired after a two-decade career as a sheriff's deputy and undercover detective to attend law school, graduating in two years on an accelerated program and passing the New York bar exam on his first attempt in the spring of 2014. Bill Carlisle then joined the Carlisle Law Firm, founded in 1961 by their father Preston, who at the age of 84 remains the managing partner and goes to the office every morning.

"I just thought that him taking on that kind of challenge midlife was really an awesome thing," Carlisle says. "I was looking for something similar to do that was challenging, practical and useful. So I did a lot of research on flying.

"And truthfully, if it hadn't been for the safety of Cirrus planes and being able to find two great instructors, I might be in my second summer of cooking classes or something else instead of flying."

It's the same kind of intellectual curiosity that prompted Carlisle to learn how to play the piano in college during the year he was required to sit out after transferring from Maine to Virginia. He taught himself to play after finding an old, beat-up piano in a barn and fixing it up with a screwdriver and some adhesive tape, a far cry from his state-of-the-art aircraft.

Decades later, the 55-year-old Carlisle is such a skilled pianist that he occasionally sits in and performs solos in live concerts with friends Bruce Hornsby and Darius Rucker.

Carlisle was actually traveling to visit Hornsby in Williamsburg, Virginia, the first time he flew in a Cirrus SR22T. Carlisle, who had started researching the process of becoming a licensed pilot, planned to charter a flight but ended up going on a demo flight with Matthews.

"I remember thinking, 'These guys have gotta be crazy to think I'm ever gonna buy an airplane,'" Carlisle says. "And then a month later I had an airplane."

Carlisle has plenty of hobbies to entertain himself during the offseason, such as playing table tennis with his buddy Greg Bosch in the man cave next to his basement garage or golf on the course in the private community where he lives. (He recently made his first hole-in-one while playing in a foursome with Rucker.)

Aviation isn't a hobby for Carlisle. It's a "total commitment," he says, referring much more to the time and effort (hundreds and hundreds of hours) than the money (well into six figures).

"It's ongoing," says Carlisle, who often sits in one of the jump seats of the cockpit of the Mavs' 757 during team flights. "I don't think I'm ever going to feel like I totally have it. This is one of those endeavors where you always have to be in a training and learning mode."

Carlisle sets his alarm for 6:15 a.m. the day after returning from Orlando and arrives at the Charleston Executive Airport an hour later. He spends the next two hours in the Cirrus training center's conference room, studying for his instrument rating oral exam with flight instructor and close friend Rob Gilbert. Gilbert also manages Carlisle's plane, which is chartered approximately 8-10 hours per month during the winter.

Gilbert peppers Carlisle with questions such as, "What's the final approach fix if we're intercepting an ILS?" Much of it sounds like alphabet soup, with Carlisle taking notes on the back of several pages of paper that have aviation acronyms printed on them, a list he adds to while working on a computer in his home office after dinner that night. Carlisle and Gilbert meet for multiple study sessions most weeks during the offseason.

"He wants to learn and asks a lot of questions," says Gilbert, who admits with a smile that Carlisle would be a pain in the rear if he were a year-round pupil. "I'll get texts at midnight sometimes, 'Hey, I just want to confirm this.' But I'd much rather work with a guy like that than somebody who just wants to get by."

Carlisle and Gilbert follow the study session with a training flight to prep for the "check ride" that the coach will take the following week with a Federal Aviation Administration designated examiner. The check ride will be the second part of the exam to get the instrument flight rating, which will allow Carlisle to fly in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), commonly known as flying in the clouds.

"A lot of people might think that it would be pretty cool to fly airplanes. For me, that part of it has been secondary. The redundancy, procedures and habits associated with aviation are tools that would help anyone in any kind of life endeavor." Rick Carlisle

This training flight consists of executing several different types of instrument approach procedures. A hand-flown ILS to Runway 23 executing the published missed approach. An RNAV GPS approach to Runway 35 on autopilot executing the published missed approach into a holding pattern. Exiting the hold, a localizer approach to Runway 23 with a circle to land on Runway 17. And, finally, a hand-flown LNAV+V with a failed PFD to Runway 35.

Sound complicated? That's because an instrument rating is generally considered the most difficult to earn at this stage of a pilot's progression.

For most of the training flight, which is conducted at altitudes of 4,000 feet and lower, Carlisle replaces his Ray-Ban aviators with a pair of "foggles," which black out the vast majority of his vision, allowing him to see only inside the cockpit to simulate flying in heavy fog or thick clouds.

Gilbert throws some curveballs at Carlisle, such as challenging him to manually set the approach for a landing, simulating the flight management system malfunctioning. It's a scenario that is unlikely to come up during Carlisle's check ride, but Gilbert wants to make sure that they cover all the bases.

With some guidance from Gilbert, who has 20 years of experience as a flight instructor, Carlisle successfully executes each exercise, taking off and landing the plane a total of four times at two airports under various circumstances during a span of slightly more than two hours.

"My head hurts," Gilbert tells Carlisle after the final landing back at Charleston Executive Airport. "I can't imagine how you feel now. That was a mental workout."

That's the part of being a pilot and continuing his aviation education that appeals most to Carlisle, who sees parallels to his career.

"A lot of people might think that it would be pretty cool to fly airplanes," says Carlisle, who passed the IFR exam on his first try. "For me, that part of it has been secondary. The redundancy, procedures and habits associated with aviation are tools that would help anyone in any kind of life endeavor.

"My great friend and mentor Chuck Daly once compared NBA coaching to being the pilot of an aircraft navigating through the turbulence that inevitably comes with any NBA season. 'An NBA head coach's job,' as Chuck so succinctly said, 'is at the end of the season to safely land the plane...'

"I'm gonna keep working on my landings."