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Gotta Get that Rating!

I started my training for my instrument rating in 2011. I decided that I wanted to learn from Mike Jesch who was a dear family friend, Master CFII, American Airlines Captain, Angel Flight, and LightHawk pilot. Mike is based in Fullerton, California. I knew that choosing to have instruction in the LA Basin would mean a greater challenge. Not only would I have to get to LA, but also train in one of the country’s busiest air spaces.

My Mother and Father were my biggest supporters in my life. My Father was a trainer in the Army Air Corps. We always had a little airplane. When he landed he would always say, “Another successful flight of Haywire Airlines.” I lost my Mom in 2010 and my father in 2015. Life happens and I went from being married, to being a single mom. My IFR training was self-funded. Due to these changes I had to take a break in the instrument training in 2012 and didn’t re-start until July of 2016.

Through the years I have been intrigued by the concept of neural plasticity, the idea that your brain isn’t completely hard-wired; that through experience and training, we can re-wire or alter the brain’s functioning. I have been a licensed psychotherapist for 27 years now. I am used to being a teacher. I have taught at the graduate school level, aviation seminars and numerous presentations. These activities let me be the leader, the one who “knew the answers” [or at least knew where to look]. Being a learner is hard. It is hard on the ego, your emotions, and your confidence. I am lucky that Mike is such a wonderful teacher. Much like my primary instructor Dave, he was encouraging and patient. But even with the best teacher the beast that needs to be tamed is insecurity, doubt and old thinking patterns.

My Mooney is equipped with dual VORs and a DME; no autopilot or IFR certified GPS. What this meant for me was a lot of “public math”. Mike would ask me “Where are you?” and I would struggle to try to figure out my location based on radials, DME distances and such. Needless to say, it was a humbling experience.

Training in the Mooney was double-edged. On the positive side, the airplane is a very stable platform and my instruments were configured in a simple but effective six-pack. However the downside of a high performance, very aerodynamic airplane is speed. My no-wind groundspeed is 145 kts. My IFR-student brain speed was probably 100 kts. This meant slowing the airplane down. I was pushing myself toward neural plasticity, forcing a cortical and neuronal re-wiring. I tell you sometimes it downright hurt. The mental fatigue was stunning. I truly believe my IQ lowered while under the hood due to the lack of visual and situational cues. Through it all I was humbled, dismayed, frustrated, and exhilarated. I always tell my clients or students that unlike the common assumption, practice makes practice. Practice allows repetition and through repetition we gain mastery. Practice we did.

The other thing I forgot to mention is that my instructor Mike is wicked smart. Seriously. He is probably one of the smartest folks I have ever met. A natural teacher he would challenge me, come up with unusual approaches or scenarios and gave me a lot of experience. I have four hours of instruction in actual IMC conditions. What a gift that is from an instructor. While IMC enroute to Camarillo for a 99s event, I experienced vertigo. It was the strangest sensation. I felt like my body was in one of those carnival mirrors that distorts reality. Mike said that he watched me and timed how long it took for me to recover, 3-4 seconds. Although it was uncomfortable, I am thankful for the experience.

I cannot count how many times I had to drive somewhere because of the coastal fog or weather. Mike would always say, “Gotta get that rating!” I decided that I needed to act in 2016. I made cuts in my budget to pay for the training I needed to get my rating. I became focused in the fall of 2016, secretly scheduling the written exam in November. I studied for hours a day and it paid off with a solid 90% on the test. 2017 was dedicated to instrument instruction. This meant that my son got used to me being in front of the computer, on the simulator, or at the airport. In late August I had my check ride scheduled. For some reason I felt pressure to get the rating done in August due to my travel schedule with AOPA to the regional fly-ins.  The pressure I put on myself caused insomnia, stress and lack of focus.  Mike and I went on a “check ride prep” flight and I performed horribly.  There were no safety of flight issues but mentally I was just not there.  It was hard for me even to calculate the reciprocal of a heading to radial.  As we were at MDA for the LOC BC-A I said, “I am postponing my check ride, I am not ready.”  After landing Mike gently said, “It is better for you to know that you aren’t ready versus me having to tell you.”  Mike flew home to LA and I burst into tears.  Only a few folks knew when my check ride was. I let them know that I postponed due to stress.  I quickly received a phone call of support from Robert DeLaurentis.  He could tell I had been sobbing. We processed the event and he helped me to see this was a positive versus a negative. I continued on with my training and came to believe I had made the correct decision.

During my last flight with Mike he asked me, “Where are you.” I glanced down and quickly said, “I am 5 miles south of Paradise [VOR] on the 185 radial” I suppose it was then I knew. I had literally wrapped my brain around instrument training.

November 17, 2017 was my instrument checkride. I was grateful to be able to use an office at ArtCraft Paint in Santa Maria. The DPE, Dennis Magdaleno drove up the coast and we started about 10:00 a.m. We began with the ground portion. I didn’t think I would be as nervous as I was. If he had asked me my middle name, I probably would have hesitated.   I did well enough for us to move to the flying portion. It was early afternoon and the day was just perfect. Low clouds had cleared and the sun was shining. As we walked out to the airplane Dennis said, “I love Mooneys! It is my favorite airplane.” I said, “Me too!”

Before we started the engine Dennis told me there are three outcomes: pass, fail or discontinue. If there were an issue that caused me to fail he would simply say that I needed more instruction and I would have to try again. He ended by saying that if he didn’t say anything after landing and during taxi that it was a good sign that I passed.

Although extremely stressful I did everything he asked of me on the practical test [LOC-BC, ILS, VOR partial panel, unusual attitudes, DME arc]. The final approach was a circle to land. As I landed I made sure I was right on the glideslope and touched down on the centerline at the aim point. I taxied off at the first exit and parked outside of ArtCraft. Dennis didn’t say a word. [Inner happy dance going on]. We debriefed the flight and he asked for my logbook. As my certificate was being printed he excused himself and left the room. I was alone, keenly alone. I burst into tears, I suppose from the adrenaline, relief and pride. At that moment I missed my parents and my kids. Getting my instrument rating was by far the hardest thing I have ever done. It was harder than graduating from college, harder than my professional licensure exams, and harder than being a single mom. 2017 was the year I promised myself that I would indeed get my rating. 366 days from the date of the written test, I did just that. Another successful flight of Haywire Airlines.

 

Hotel Issues

Living life out of a suitcase is not without its challenges. If you talk to any number of pilots (or flight attendants, for that matter), you’ll hear some common themes when it comes to hotels. These issues aren’t in any particular order, and each carries a certain amount of weight with each person. That said, they are all problems at some point or another, and if you’re interested in the airline lifestyle, you have to be ready for each curveball.

Transportation: One of the most common complaints is that of unreliable transportation. This is usually a bigger issue when the hotel is providing the ride, since they also have to accommodate other guests as well. Shuttles usually run on a schedule, but not always. What is very frustrating is waiting for one that is supposed to be waiting when you come out of the terminal, especially late at night after a long day of flying. This is much less of an issue when the transportation is contracted out to a third-party vendor, but even then it can still happen. That said, this is much less of an issue in the day and age of the smart phone, since apps make it much easier for drivers or front desk clerks to keep tabs on your flight. And that goes both ways: If the van can’t run, you can always take an Uber.

Room readiness: This is a bigger issue on those rare days when you finish early in the morning, and the housekeeping staff is still keeping house. If the wait is going to be of any real consequence, the hotels will usually comp a free meal to the crew. Along the same lines is the rare occasion when you walk into a room that hasn’t been cleaned yet, or is currently occupied, thus requiring another trip to the front desk. It’s worth noting that rooms not being ready upon arrival is pretty common in Europe, since most U.S. arrivals are coming off of red-eyes.

Noise: For some, this is the biggest problem of all, and airlines usually have language in their contracts with the hotel that stipulate certain rooms for crews to minimize noise. The most common culprits are the elevators, ice machines, and people who are drunk, belligerent, or inconsiderate. Often, hotels with a lot of crews will isolate the crews on certain floors, away from the rest of the guests, but it isn’t always possible. Noise can be a major issue for cargo crews, but it’s also a problem when you have an early wake-up and need to go to bed early. Sometimes, it’s just unavoidable: New Year’s Eve, the Fourth of July, and certain local celebrations.

Air conditioning: This might be my own biggest pet peeve, but not being able to get the room comfortable can be a major source of frustration, especially if the hotel is set up on a single temperature based on the time of year.

Everyone has his or her own definition of what makes for a great or a lousy hotel, and in this line of work, you’ll become an expert on hotel-ology and issues. You’ll also find yourself making your vacation reservations based on the experiences you’ve had at work. The hotels generally do a great job of trying to meet the needs of the crews. When they don’t, you need to use the appropriate channels to let those in charge know that the hotel is substandard.

A New Normal

I suppose it was an eventuality living overseas that I would finally start accepting how things are done here and slowly forget the ever-present reality that “this would have been easier in America.” At this point, my immersion has gone to a new level, where it has steam rolled whatever resistance remained.

For those that read last month’s post, it was about the Catalonian independence referendum and my utilization of general aviation as a way to make sense of all of the upheaval here in Catalonia, by flying on a daily basis. As the days continued past the suspended declaration of independence early in October, my sense of angst did not reduce, as I kept thinking about the fact that all of my assets here in Spain are not insured against civil unrest and war. For that matter, nobody has coverage for that sort of thing. Being so close to the French border, logic said that we should have a plan, and we did devise one early on: first our safety if stuck at home, second our ability to sneak out, and third the financial effects of it all. As I took stock of the continuously tense situation, I decided that my escape plan with the airplane had some holes in it.

I joked that I would hop in the plane and make a James Bond escape across the border, declaring an emergency if I had to and requesting political asylum. If lives are at stake, that is how it would go down, and I’d endure unhappy French gendarmes if I had to. Then, as I thought more about the reality that we may wish to reposition assets for prevention, then my WWII escape from behind enemy lines would not get the sympathy I had hoped, especially at St. Leocadie, an airport merely 8 miles from La Cerdanya aerodrome, yet over the border in France. If it was a foul weather day, I would need to land there, and it is both an “altiport,” which is a restricted use airport in France requiring a signoff before being permitted to land, and a hybrid military installation where advance registration is also required. I decided it was time to get the site licenses and registration taken care of.

Of course, I could not use my airplane, as I would need the site license to land there to take the lesson in the first place, so I rented from the local flying club and went up with the Chief Pilot. It was a 1959 Super Cub with a 150-horsepower engine, the same model my grandfather informally taught me how to fly in at age 8. I initially expected the whole affair to be a nonevent, though I had a nagging suspicion I was in for a lot of work, which turned out to be correct. I hadn’t flown a Super Cub in 20 years, and never from the front seat. The lesson would be in Spanish, a common second language for both of us. As anticipated, the checklist was in French, and as I noted this fact, I was told by the instructor that “when [he goes] to America, the checklist will not be in French.” Right. Airspeed was in kilometers, which is about as awkward as driving a car in the UK. That all aside, the lesson was pleasant, though left me sweating like I was a student again, and confirmed a longstanding suspicion: while I am becoming a better aviator flying the PA-11 so much, I do not fly many models, and I wonder if over specializing is not the smartest thing to do. It was good to fly another machine.

Le Super Cub – St. Leocadie, France

After the lesson, I now had two site licenses, as we visited La Llagonne, a glider field at 5,600’ elevation. A few days later, I flew up to La Llagonne before the season entombed the place in snow and mud, taking some food and enjoying a bit of a meal surrounded by scenery that looked like Colorado and Wyoming. In this moment of quiet reflection, I began to realize that the magnitude of aviation experiences to be had is cumulatively becoming almost overwhelming. In my initial indignation at bureaucratic nonsense, a subtler enjoyment of the depth of culture and experience was not being noticed. Despite the seemingly anachronistic requirement to have this site license, it creates a situation where not many get to land there, so it is kind of special to be able to. That, and yet again I am nibbling on some food staring at this airplane, amazed how many places it has been. Besides, why would I expect the French, Spanish, or anyone else to care about what an American pilot thinks about their rules?

La Llagonne, France – 5600′ MSL

After getting the site licenses taken care of, any angst about independence evaporated. I made a plan, took care of all paperwork and other affairs that I could, and decided to stop caring. Shortly thereafter, I decided to enjoy a Friday afternoon and putz around the hangar on what was a hazy day unsuitable for photography. The warmth of the late October summery weather beckoned a flight around the pattern, so I decided to leave the cameras in the car and head up with the door open. During climbout, someone asked me “What do you think of the Republic?” “Republic? Did they declare independence?” “Yes, just now.” Figures, I have a moment of peace and a country is born beneath me.

Independence declared. I grabbed the camera and went flying, Urus, Catalonia.

For those that follow the news, the independence saga continues, a political drama that is by and large entirely unpredictable. That being said, I quit trying to predict it, and keep flying. Recently, a raging Tramontane wind coupled with a strong low between Corsica and Rome, creating furious winds that finally cleaned out all Catalonian haze, high and low. Once the winds calmed down, I decided to swallow my angst and conquer a flight I have not been able to do since I got here.

The Mediterranean is 54 nautical miles as the crow flies, yet is inexplicably one of the most complex routes, and that has nothing to do with airspace. Taking off at 3,609’ MSL, I have to climb to 7,200’ to get over terrain, then commence a step descent over terrain that looks like severe Appalachian hills: densely forested countryside with West Virginia-style curvy roads and few fields. These gnarly hills twist and snake, changing their form and working their way toward the Mediterranean plains, a cruise initially at 5,000’, which gives way to 3,000’ and then roughly 1,500’, as Barcelona’s airspace is overhead. Turning to cruise down the coast, terrain starts to act a bit like Big Sur, which cliffs adjacent to the ocean and terrain up to 1,200’ here and there close to the water, giving way to valleys that drop to sea level, containing developed areas. There is a lot of think about with regard to an engine failure, though the scenery is exquisite. All of these areas are absolutely filled with microclimates.

Climbing to 7,200′ MSL to leave La Cerdanya

Cruising at 5,000′ MSL

Descending to 3,000′ MSL

Mediterranean Coastal Plain. 1,500′ MSL cruising altitude.

Costa Brava, with Montseny in the background.

Not a good place for an engine to quit.

Tossa de Mar

Palafolls

Fueling was at a ULM field, Palafolls, a short field at sea level wedged amongst 10-foot swamp grass, which was an entertaining approach with unmarked high-tension lines, an elevated highway on short final, and a factory complex so large that the roof would have made a suitable emergency landing location. Taking off from there, I finally had a chance to fly around Massís del Monsteny, a 5,000’ hill east of Barcelona that frequently taunts me from a distance. Being so close to the Mediterranean, the hill almost always has sea haze or clouds making imagery unsuitable, except today.

After Monsteny, it was a descent down to 3,000’ to photograph the ridges west of Vic, which were uncharacteristically free of persistent fog and inversions. That gave way to cruise climb over West Virginia terrain, clearing a ridge at 5,200’ before giving full throttle for the climb through a downdraft to 7,200’ to clear Puigllançada, then descending alongside ski resorts in stiff wind, for a long final back to La Cerdanya at 3,609’.

Massis del Montseny near Barcelona. Note Mediterranean in far left background.

Cliffs west of Vic, 3,000′ MSL cruising altitude.

5,500′ en route to 7,200′, encountering light rotors off the hills.

Puigllançada to the left, at 7,200′ before descending into the valley to La Cerdanya.

It has been a historical enigma why I was averse to taking the flight in the first place, and yet that aversion was confirmed by how tired I was after 4.5 hours of flying over this route. It is easier to fly above timberline, in the Pyrenees or the Rockies, in the middle of winter, than this kind of flight. It is certainly the opposite of low and slow over farm country, and after some reflection, the level of complexity, terrain variation, microclimates, development, remote areas, and mix of coastal and mountainous terrain over a short distance makes it unusual, challenging, and rewarding. I would also suppose that while aviation is aviation, the sheer immersion of inputs and visuals in an exotic nation places more processing burden on the mind, as there is so much density of things to see and process, especially while flying over new surroundings in a place where sovereignty is, well, up in the air.

Speaking of flying above timberline, book #13 has been published: “Around the Summit: Flying Grand Teton.” It is an aerial photography manifesto of every nook and cranny of Grand Teton National Park, featuring my most technical mountain flying to date in the Cub.

 

More GPS Interference Testing in Alaska

The military will again be conducting GPS testing out of Restricted Area 2205, east of Eielson Air Force Base, November 12-17, 2017.  This activity will be conducted at night, between the hours of 06Z and 16Z (Starting on November 11th, 9 pm Alaska Daylight Time, running till 7 am daily for five days).  A look at the chart accompanying this notice, issued by the FAA Joint Frequency Management Office Alaska, shows that effects could be widespread.

Map of potentially impacted area from upcoming GPS Testing.

If you experience any GPS anomalies, in addition to notifying ATC, please share that information with AOPA by sending an email to: [email protected].  Details including aircraft type, location, altitude, and the nature of the anomaly would help us track this issue.

While these hours of operation represent the maximum extent that “testing” may be conducted, we expect actual activities may be of shorter duration.  ATC will be notified by the military before testing on a given day is started, and when it has been concluded, so a call to Anchorage Center may provide a better idea of what to expect during these days.  As always, please check NOTAMS for any changes regarding this activity.

At the Alaska Civil Military Aviation Council meeting earlier this week, we were advised that each of the Red Flag Exercises being planned for the coming year will include GPS Interference activities.  AOPA will continue to monitor this activity and its impacts on civil aviation, as we continue to advance into the era of satellite based navigation.

Link to the notice:  JFAK 17-03 GPS Flight Advisory

Stay sharp

Learning how to fly is a challenge, and it can be mentally and physically taxing. Flying is one of the few three-dimensional activities that humans engage in, and it’s not our natural state of being. As we progress up the ladder of competence and proficiency, it becomes easier, and we develop a sort of stamina for flying longer and longer periods of time, especially if we limit ourselves to cruise flight and take out the work of practicing takeoffs and landings.

As we move into bigger airplanes, we begin to have more tools at our disposal to make our task of flying easier. GPS, Nexrad, and other goodies become more prevalent. At some point (we hope), a functioning autopilot finds its way into our lives. If so, life becomes much easier indeed. A good autopilot is much more than just cruise control, since it should control both pitch and roll. Once you have experience with an autopilot you’ll realize just how fatiguing the art of flight can be, especially if you’re trying to avoid weather or multi-task.

When you reach the corporate/135/121 world, autopilots are often not just a luxury, but mandatory—especially for RVSM airspace and for some approaches. It becomes very easy to take off, reach the minimum engagement altitude, and turn on the autopilot. On the other end, you might turn it off right before landing. After all, autopilots are smoother than we are, and they can often increase the efficiency of the flight, which in turn saves money because of fuel savings.

The NTSB has found, and the FAA agrees, that it’s very easy to become overly reliant on automation. As you progress in your career, it’s important to keep up the practice of hand flying, and stay proficient without a flight director to guide you along. But even if you use a flight director, practice flying with the autopilot off. Do it in all phases of flight. Throughout my airline career, I’ve tried to do a fair amount of manual flying. I don’t do a lot in the terminal area of a busy airport, especially a hub, because I believe it’s safer to use “George” and keep my eyes outside for traffic. That said, I’ll often climb most of the way to cruise, and I try to turn the gizmos off well before landing. This keeps me proficient on the way the airplane handles, and it keeps my basic flying skills sharp.

If you need proof, look no further than the 2009 Air France flight over the Atlantic that crashed, as well as the 2013 Asiana flight into San Francisco International Airport (SFO) that hit the seawall. Obviously, in both cases, more was involved. But basic piloting skills had been eroded, which was totally preventable.—Chip Wright

Alaska Aircraft Registration Program Proposed

The Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT) has released draft regulations proposing an Aircraft Registration Program.  If adopted, this regulation requires aircraft owners to complete a registration application and pay an annual fee of $150 for non-commercial aircraft, or $250 for aircraft used in commerce.  Exemptions would exist for aircraft primarily operating in interstate commerce, or to foreign countries.  Aircraft transiting the state are also exempt, along with those owned by the federal government or unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds.  A waiver could be obtained for dismantled or not airworthy aircraft, or aircraft registered in other states, and not in Alaska for more than 180 days a year.  Details are available: https://aws.state.ak.us/OnlinePublicNotices/Notices/View.aspx?id=187638

Analysis of the proposal
While no one wants to see the cost to fly increase, the state’s financial situation is serious, with the decline of oil revenues that have funded about 90% of state services for several decades.  While reducing their operating budget 22% since 2015, there is still a huge deficit to operate the 240 airports owned by DOT.  The Governor’s Aviation Advisory Board looked at options to increase revenues, and supported increasing the aviation motor fuel tax, as the most efficient way to improve the situation, without expanding state government. See “Alaska Aviation Motor Fuel Tax Increase Under Discussion” for more details.

In a recent poll conducted by AOPA, the Alaska Airmens Association and the National Business Aviation Association, pilots across the state favored the motor fuel tax increase over either a registration fee or landing fees, although a significant number of people responding commented that they opposed any increased fees or taxes.

Please share your comments on this proposal with AOPA, as we navigate these challenging times to find the right balance to support aviation in Alaska.

To comment on this regulation
There are several ways to comment on this proposal.  DOT will hold three hearings to take comments on the proposed regulation:

  • November 9th   1st Floor Conference Room
    Alaska DOT&PF
    3132 Channel Drive, Juneau
  • November 14th  Airport Response Center
    Fairbanks International Airport
    5195 Brumbaugh Blvd, Fairbanks
  • November 20th Central Region Main Conference Room
    Alaska DOT&PF
    4111 Aviation Ave, Anchorage

Comments may also be submitted by mail to:
Rich Sewell, Aviation Policy Planner
Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities
PO Box 196900
Anchorage, AK 99519

Or via email to:  [email protected]   Please send AOPA a copy of your comments by emailing them to: [email protected]

Comments must be received by 5:00 pm Alaska Standard Time on January 5, 2018.

Stupid Pilot Tricks

I’ve been flying turbine aircraft for more than a decade now (jeez, time flies!), and with few exceptions, those with whom I’ve shared the cockpit have operated in the consistently safe and professional manner one would expect from an aviator who makes their living flying airplanes.

You’d think this would go without saying, but unfortunately corporate and charter pilots don’t always have the resources or limitations you’d find at a major airline. As the Bedford G-IV accident illustrates, this is especially true of private (Part 91) flight departments. Some of them are run as professionally as any Part 121 airline, while others… well, let’s just say they leave something to be desired when it comes to standards, training, and safety culture.

But every now and then you come across something so egregious that you almost can’t believe what you’re seeing. For example, take a look at this sequence of photographs, which were sent to me by a friend. This Hawker was departing from the recent NBAA convention in Las Vegas, the one place you’d expect a business aviation pilot to be on his or her best behavior.

This first frame looks like a normal takeoff.

Here’s where it starts to get interesting. The main gear are still on the runway but the nose gear retraction sequence has already started.

The nose gear is halfway retracted by the time the main landing gear leaves the runway.

Main gear retraction begins the instant lift off occurs. You can see the main gear doors are already opening.

The nose wheel is almost stowed, and the mains are folding inward. How much indication of a positive rate of climb does the crew have at this point?

Gear is mostly retracted and altitude is perhaps a couple of feet above ground. At least the flaps are still down.

Spoke too soon! Flaps are retracted and a steep turn initiated abeam the NBAA static display. Looks to be little more than a wingspan above the dirt.

The coup de grâce, a banked turn of perhaps 80 degrees over the area north of the field, which is now primarily residential housing.

I don’t fly Hawkers, but ran it by some friends who do. None of us could think of any scenario where raising the landing gear handle prior to takeoff would be acceptable practice. There’s nothing to be gained from doing it. At that point the only thing preventing the gear from folding up are a couple of squat switches. They’re not exactly the most robust and durable components on an aircraft, and they live in a dirty, windy, vibration-prone environment. To say this pilot was taking a gamble would be charitable.

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with some mitigating circumstance to explain this. Is it possible the gear handle could have been raised inadvertently? Or that a malfunction in the system could have caused it to begin retracting without the handle being raised? Sometimes people do unexplainable things without realizing it. It reminds me of the Virgin Galactic accident, where one of the pilots unlocked the feathering mechanism at too high a speed and it caused the entire spacecraft to break apart. As the old saying goes, “I know people do crazy things, because I’ve seen me do ‘em.”

Unfortunately, the last two photos put to bed any such thoughts. The Hawker is well into a turn at what appears to be not much more than a wingspan worth of altitude. That means the pilot started the turn as soon as he or she thought the wingtip wouldn’t drag in the dirt. And then there’s the very steep turn in the last photo, which an eyewitness – an experienced aviator in his own right – estimated at about 80 degrees of bank. That’s a clear 91.303 violation. The law defines aerobatics as “an intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft’s attitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight”. The definition is necessarily vague because of the differing performance of various aircraft. A 45 degree pitch angle may be normal Vx climb for my Pitts, but it would be abnormal for a transport category jet aircraft like the Hawker.

If that’s not enough, check out the supremely early flap retraction. Industry standard is 400 feet minimum before any configuration change.

Summary: The pilot was showing off. Which is incredibly stupid, because the airport was populated with professional aviators, many of whom are getting tired of seeing this sort of thing. A number of them are involved with flight safety initiatives and have undoubtedly read more than their share of incident and accident reports caused by just this sort of behavior.

Is it possible to fly into or out of the industry’s largest convention without understanding that a hundred cameras are trained on every arrival and departure? Perhaps they WANTED to be recorded; if so, they got their wish. The entire thing was probably recorded on the FDR, CVR, and ATC radar. Certainly, it was captured on film, probably on video somewhere too, and last but not least by the eyes of everyone who saw it.

Is it really worth sacrificing life and livelihood on a stunt like this? For some people, apparently the answer is yes. What’s most irritating is that these stupid pilot tricks give everyone in my line of work a black eye when most of us do not deserve it. So it’s up to those of us in the industry to say loud and clear that pilots who engage in these hairbrained stunts are not cool. They’re being unprofessional, unnecessarily risky, and demonstrating the exact opposite of “the right stuff.”

Liticaphobia?

Something unusual happened while I was at the AOPA Regional Fly-In in Groton, Connecticut: An air crash lawsuit at which I was scheduled to testify as an expert witness had settled on the eve of trial, leaving me unexpectedly with two unencumbered weeks on my hands. I was on the East Coast with my airplane and now could spend those two weeks however I pleased. For someone who hadn’t taken a vacation in years, this was cool!

Wright Brothers National Memorial

Wright Brothers National Memorial — Kill Devil Hills, NC

I decided to spend the first week exploring the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and the second week visiting friends in Raleigh and family in Charlotte. I also made arrangements with a flight school in Raleigh to get a much-needed Flight Review and Instrument Proficiency Check.

The two-hour flight from Groton to the Outer Banks was uneventful, and the last part of it was beautifully scenic. I spent the week in a small waterfront Airbnb with a balcony overlooking the Albermarle Sound, a few miles south of Kill Devil Hills where Orville and Wilbur first flew in 1903. It was a marvelously enjoyable, productive, restorative week.

Early Sunday morning, I checked out of my Airbnb and drove my rental car back to the airport to fly to Raleigh. I turned in my rental car, taxied my plane to the departure end of the runway of the small untowered airport, picked up my IFR clearance from Cherry Point Approach Control, and performed the usual preflight runup.

Like most piston twins, my Cessna 310 has four magnetos—two for the left engine and two for the right—controlled by four toggle switches. The preflight runup involves turning the mag switches off one at a time and checking for excessive RPM drop, unacceptable roughness, or abnormal EGT indications. My routine is to sequence through the switches from left to right, shutting off the left engine’s left mag first and the right engine’s right mag last. I’ve done this thousands of times in the 30 years I’ve owned this airplane, and I must confess I perform it somewhat robotically. This time, things were different.

Uh oh!

S-1200 magneto

Bendix S-1200 magneto

As I cycle the leftmost mag switch, the left engine quits cold. Yikes! I hastily flip the mag switch back on just in the nick of time to get it running again. I cycle through the remaining three mag switches and everything appears normal. I try the leftmost switch again. The left engine quit again.

Hmmm… Turning off the left mag kills the left engine. That means the right mag must not be producing any spark. Not good.

I briefly consider departing anyway—that’s why this airplane has two mags and two engines, right?—and instantly reject that idea. A wise aviation mentor once taught me that when making aeronautical decisions, I should always think about what the NTSB probable cause report would say. “PIC departed into instrument meteorological conditions with a known mechanical deficiency.” No way.

While taxiing back to the airport ramp, I think about the consequences of scrubbing the mission. It’s Sunday. I could order a replacement magneto first thing Monday morning. If I pay for overnight shipping, the mag might arrive by mid-day Tuesday, and the airplane might be back in the air by late Tuesday afternoon. I’ll have to cancel my Tuesday training appointment in Raleigh. I’ll need to find lodging and ground transportation for two more days on the Outer Banks. There’s a rental car waiting for me in Raleigh that’s probably too late to cancel…

Wait…I’m an A&P mechanic and my emergency toolkit is in the airplane’s wing locker. Maybe I can troubleshoot this mag problem and figure out a way to fix it. Maybe it’s something simple that doesn’t require ordering a replacement mag. Maybe I can improvise some battlefield repair…

I’m grasping at straws now, and realize the chances are somewhere between slim and none. But I’ve got to give it a shot, otherwise my plans for the coming week will fall like a row of dominoes.

An Open Door…

Open hangar door

Open hangar door, toolbox inside

Approaching the transient tiedown ramp, I notice a large hangar off to my right with the door wide open. I can’t believe my luck: Someone’s open on Sunday! Maybe I can get some help? I taxi toward the open hangar and shut down on the ramp in front of it. The huge hangar appears largely empty. I don’t see any people or airplanes inside, just a big red roll-around toolbox and some miscellaneous ground support equipment. A beautiful Waco open-cockpit biplane is parked on the ramp nearby.

I uncowl the left engine nacelle to inspect the right magneto and its associated wiring, but find no obvious defects. I disconnect the P-lead from the right mag, but that doesn’t fix the problem, so the problem must be inside the magneto itself. Ugh!

I walk towards the open hangar door. As I get closer, I spot a fellow puttering around deep in the bowels of the hangar. I walk over to him and muster up my most friendly smile.

“Good morning! I’m Mike, and that’s my Cessna 310,” I say, pointing at my airplane on the ramp.

“Good morning,” replied the fellow with a smile, “I’m Sam.”

“Nice to meet you, Sam,” I said. “I’ve got a problem and I’m hoping maybe you can help me.”

I proceeded to describe my plans to fly to Raleigh and my decision to scrub the takeoff because the right mag on the left engine was inoperative during my preflight runup.

“The mag completely dead?” Sam asked. “Not just fouled plugs?”

“Dead as a doornail,” I said.

“That doesn’t sound good,” Sam said as I nodded in agreement.

“Would it be possible for me to pull the plane into your hangar, so I can work on the problem?” I inquired, gesturing at the huge, vacant structure.

“Nope,” Sam replied curtly. That wasn’t the answer I was expecting, but Sam was still smiling, so I persisted.

“Any chance I could use this toolbox,” I pointed at the big red roll-around, “while I’m working on my airplane on the ramp?”

“Nope, I can’t let you do that,” Sam said, still smiling. My puzzlement continued to grow at Sam’s unexpected non-cooperation. Then I had a thought.

“Sam, are you an A&P?” He nodded in the affirmative. “Would YOU like to try troubleshooting my magneto problem?” It occurred to me perhaps he was viewing me as competition.

“Nope, I don’t have time for that. Gotta take some tourists up for a biplane ride,” Sam said. “Besides, I don’t work on magnetos; I always send them out.”  Sigh.

Ultimately, I managed to persuade Sam to lend me a ½-inch offset wrench and a small stepladder. With those and my emergency toolkit, I was able to remove the ailing magneto from the engine, disassemble it, resolve the problem, and put everything back together. Ultimately, I departed on my flight to Raleigh a few hours late, but my plans for the week remained unscathed.

Liticaphobia?

Over the next few days, my mind kept returning to interaction with Sam. He seemed like such a nice fellow. Why did he act toward me in such an uncooperative fashion? What would it have cost him to let me use his empty hangar and his unused toolbox while he was up flying the Waco?

Liticaphobia means fear of being sued

The only answer I could come up with was liticaphobia: the fear of being sued. Sam undoubtedly saw me as a lawsuit waiting to happen. There’s an old joke among aircraft mechanics that the most dangerous thing in aviation is an aircraft owner with a toolbox. I’m sure that in Sam’s mind, if he facilitated my hairbrained scheme of taking a magneto apart (something he stated he’d never do himself) and then anything bad happened, he would be contributorily negligent and vulnerable to civil litigation.

Sam is not alone. In my experience, most aircraft mechanics who work on GA aircraft have a siege mentality about the possibility of being sued. This fear casts a shadow over every decision they make. It causes them to practice “defensive maintenance”—performing more maintenance than justified on the grounds of safety-of-flight—and to be secretive about errors they make for fear that disclosure might lead to litigation.

Twenty-five years ago, before I became an A&P myself, I had an eerily similar experience at an airport in Northern California. I’d flown there for a business meeting, and when I returned to the airport dressed in coat and tie, I discovered to my horror that my right main tank had been misfueled with Jet A instead of 100LL. The fueling company had no A&Ps on staff, so I started contacting the various maintenance shops on the field looking for someone who would help me get my fuel system purged. Not one was willing to touch my airplane for fear of liability. Finally, I succeeded in persuading one A&P to agree to help me if I signed a blanket waiver agreeing to hold him harmless for anything that might go wrong. This mechanic then wanted to disassemble all sorts of stuff on my airplane that didn’t need to be disassembled in order to purge the system. Ultimately, I was successful in getting my airplane flyable again, but not without a terrible struggle.

Overblown

These days, I do a good deal of expert witness work in air crash lawsuits, generally on the defense side defending mechanics, shops and aviation manufacturers against claims by air crash victims. I can testify firsthand that aviation is a horribly litigious field, with way too many lawsuits for my taste.

Overblown

Mechanics’ fear of being sued tends to be greatly overblown.

At the same time, I can also tell you that mechanics’ fear of being sued tends to be greatly overblown. Mechanics are rarely the target of air crash lawsuits, simply because few of them are high-net-worth individuals with enough assets to be worth suing. In the relatively few cases where mechanics and shops do get sued, these suits virtually always settle quickly within the limits of their liability insurance (typically $1 million), simply because the plaintiff lawyers understand that there’s no more money to be had. That’s why these lawsuits almost always target aircraft, engine, and component manufacturers who tend to have deeper pockets.

This paranoia about being sued is not limited to aviation. Doctors have been practicing “defensive medicine” for decades, especially those in high-risk specialties like ob/gyn and anesthesiology. Teachers have become frightened to discipline unruly kids or even give them hugs, while seesaws are disappearing from schoolyards for fear a kid might get injured. Have you purchased a ladder or bicycle or baby carriage lately and seen how many warning placards they now have? The fear level is getting ridiculous.

The incidence of US civil (tort) litigation has remained essentially flat per capita since 1975, but media coverage of litigation has skyrocketed, and that coverage is overwhelmingly skewed toward reporting cases involving huge damage awards. This has created the perception that the risk of being sued is much greater than it used to be, and that the consequences are frequently ruinous for the defendant. That’s seldom the case.

Look at the facts: According to a Harvard University study, for every 100 people hurt in an accident, 10 file a liability claim, 8 are settled within insurance limits, and only 2 actually get to court. Of those that make it to court, the plaintiff wins only 30% of the time, and in those cases the median damage award is $30,000, almost always covered by insurance.

So my appeal to shops and A&P mechanics is to maintain a reasonable amount of liability insurance ($1 million is generally adequate) and then do the right thing without paranoia about being sued if something goes wrong. Enough with the CYA already!

Last Chance to Dance: camaraderie, education and inspiration during the close of the flying season.

With fall leaves changing and winter weather approaching; many of us are getting our last fly-ins of the season in the flight planner. Though I live at the beach in California, not everyone gets to enjoy about 11 months of VMC. Why not check out remaining fly-ins in your area, and get in on the end-of-the-year fun?  Need help finding an event or have an event to post? Check out the calendar on the AOPA Events page. I hope to see many of you in Florida at the end of this week.

Coppertstate Fly-In Aviation and Education Expo, Falcon-Field, Mesa AZ (KFFZ)  October 27-28. Come and meet fellow aviators and attend a variety of workshops and forums.  Weather toward the end of October is typically clear, sunny with highs in the mid to upper 80s.  Lows in the 60s.  Bring your family for a great aviation outing!  For more information visit event site.

Cooperstate Fly-In

AOPA Regional Fly-In, Tampa, FL [KTPF] October 27-28. The AOPA Fly-In season wraps up at Peter O. Knight Airport (KTPF), Friday Workshops led by world-renowned presenters were very popular with attendees. Topics include: Flying in the Extremes: Water Survival Tips and Techniques, IFR Refresher: Getting Back to Instrument Proficiency, Pilot Plus One: Combining Learning, Inspiration, and Adventure, and Owner-Guided Maintenance: Managing Your Aircraft Maintenance. The fun continues at the ever-popular Barnstormers Party, presented by Jeppeson. Saturday activities included free seminars all day, dozens of exhibits and aircraft on display, great meals, and a Pilot Town Hall with AOPA President and CEO Mark Baker. Event Info and Registration.

AOPA Friday Seminars. Photo Credit: David Tulis

Challenge Air for Kids and Friends, November 4, 9 am-4 pm at Ambassador Jet Center at Dallas Executive Airport [KRBD]. Pilots volunteer their planes to fly children with special needs on a 25-minute flight to build confidence and self-esteem.  Pilots must have 500 PIC hours, current Medical and FAA license, and insurance for $1,000,000.  Challenge Air for Kids and Friends has been around since 1993 and been doing this event in Dallas for many years. Please join us on Pilots, Volunteers, Families, and Agencies all need to register here on their website. We look forward to seeing you there!

Challenge Air for Kids

Spirit of Flight Living Aviation History Day, November 11, 10am-2pm Spirit of Flight Center Erie, CO [KEIK] Educational program about our aviation heroes and Salute to Veterans. Annual museum canned food drive for community food bank. Bring a food item and receive a FREE Starbuck’s coffee. For more information.

Living History Day. Photo Credit: BlueDharma

Friends of Oceano Airport Toys for Tots, December 2nd, 10 am-2 pm. Oceano Airport [L52] Join us for our annual Toys for Tots event in cooperation with the US Marine Corps. Bring a new, unwrapped toy and enjoy the fun. 10:00 Arrivals and holiday beverages 11:00 Live holiday music: the Jingle Bells 12:00 Burger Fry 1:00 Reindeer Games There is no admission charge. Aircraft on display, historical exemption sign-offs. Banner Airways: Take a ride back in history in the 1943 Super Stearman Yellow Bi-plane. SkyDive Pismo Beach is on hand for those wishing to skydive with a view of the Pacific Ocean. Oceano Fuel Discount $.25 per gallon, plus $.25 per gallon donation to Toys for Tots. Lodging Discount: Pacific Plaza Resort L52 Oceano Airport, Oceano California. Make a child smile at Christmas.

Oceano Airport, Toys for Tots

The jet-setting life

One of the perks of airline employment is the ability to travel for free. It isn’t always what it seems, but when it works out, it’s marvelous. There are some tricks and tips you can use to maximize your enjoyment of your flight benefits. In no particular order, here are some of mine:

Have the time off. If you’re going to travel for fun, make sure you have the days off you need, and give yourself time to get home. Most companies will cut you some slack and give you one freebie if you get stuck somewhere, but they won’t give you more than one, and they won’t buy you a seat home. In the same vein, make sure you return to work rested. You owe your employer that much.

Go off season. This is especially true of hot spots and beach destinations. We all want to get a few days on the beach in January, but the people who pay our paychecks—the passengers—book their trips months in advance, and the airplanes are usually full. So, if you want to go to Hawaii or Florida, go in September/October. School has just started, and people aren’t clamoring for a vacation just yet. There are usually a handful of flights that will have a bunch of open seats, and you can come and go fairly easily.

Check the discounts. All airlines have negotiated discounts with various travel vendors, including hotels, rental cars, or resorts. You may need to get some help from your company’s travel department to get a proper employee verification letter (Disney is a stickler for this), but the legwork is worth it, as some of the discounts can be substantial. Also, ask around for advice. There are a few car rental discount websites you can use that will net huge savings—I rented a car through Thrifty on one of these sights in Hawaii that saved me over 50 percent. On another trip to Hawaii, my company discount saved me 70 percent.

Be willing to keep it short. My wife and I found out that our favorite restaurant in Honolulu was going out of business in a few weeks. We decided to manipulate the calendar a bit, and we went out for two nights. We had one full day to enjoy Oahu, and having been there before, it was easy to decide how to make the most of our time, but the trip really was about going to dinner. That remained our focus, and we had a great time.

Know your options. There are several avenues you can use to get accurate passenger load information on flights for almost any airline in the world. Be willing to get creative. If you’re married, make sure your spouse is OK with getting split up. That means making sure your spouse knows how to (quickly) buy a discounted ticket on another carrier if necessary. You may need to ride on the jumpseat, even on a long flight. It’s often a seat of misery, but hey, it’s free, so don’t complain. And remember, the more people who are involved, the more complicated it gets.

Watch the loads. You may need to cut your vacation short and leave early if flights are filling up. Cancellations, equipment changes, and weather can wreak havoc with your plans. Stay flexible, and be ready to leave or early or spend a few extra bucks to stay late. Here’s an example of the unexpected: My family and I were enjoying some days off in St. Petersburg, Florida, when the Tampa Bay Rays won the American League Championship Series to reach the World Series, which was to start a few days later. The next day, flights began filling up rapidly. We had to leave a day early and take a bit of a circuitous route home. Such are the breaks.

The jet-setting lifestyle is a bit of a misnomer, but when it works out, it’s a great perk. Be smart in your planning, and, as with an IFR flight, always have an out. And when it doesn’t go your way, find a way to make the most of it.—Chip Wright

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