Alyssa Miller Archive

In the hot seat of a MiG-15

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

migBuilt in the 1940s, the Russian UTI MiG-15 trainer is a stick-and-rudder turbojet designed to train pilots for combat. This week, I’m learning the peculiarities of the way this early fighter flies with Larry Salganek, Jet Warbird Training Center owner and instructor, and FAA designated examiner based at Santa Fe Municipal Airport in New Mexico.

One of the features of the fighter not associated with the aircraft’s instability and handling characteristics is what gave me pause: Hot ejection seats. If the MiG were to go out of control and the aircraft couldn’t be landed, or we couldn’t bail out on our own, we could eject. Keep in mind, this was built it the 1940s. My ejection seat would be catapulted from the aircraft by an estimated 18-inch canister filled with gunpowder at a force of about 20 Gs. Most civilians who have had to eject from a MiG have not survived, Salganek said. The ejection seats are old, civilians don’t have a lot of training in ejecting, and often they are hesitant to eject and may wait too long.

Ejection, bailing out—that part of the pre-flight briefing always gets me (well, bailing out, as this is the first time I will have experienced flying an aircraft with a live ejection seat) when going on aerobatic flights. Watching how to jettison the door, making sure my parachute is tight, and learning how to open it after exiting the aircraft always causes a lump in my throat that stays until engine start and I re-focus my attention on flying.

I called a friend who flies aircraft with ejection seats for some advice, hoping to calm my nerves. His advice: Keep my hand away from the ejection handle. While one of the pins for the ejection seat will be removed before we close the canopy, a safety pin that goes through the handle to jettison the canopy and pull the ejection seat will remain in place. I would have to complete three steps to eject, so that pretty much rules out doing so accidentally.

Salganek, who has been doing this type of training for nearly 20 years, also put me at ease talking about how well the aircraft runs and its impeccable maintenance record. Watch for an upcoming story in AOPA’s print, online, and video publications to find out how the MiG flies and what it was like to sit on top an 18-inch canister filled with gunpowder for a 40-minute flight.

Wish lists and budget buys

Saturday, October 13th, 2012

Super Decathalon

My dream aircraft!

On my commercial flight to AOPA Aviation Summit, I started daydreaming about the products that would be on display in the exhibit hall. If my purse had no limit, I thought, what would I buy? Immediately, I thought of a new pair of headsets. I’ve been borrowing a pair for almost a year now after my signature blue Sigtronics that I’ve had for 12 years started to interfere with communication. Then, I started making a wish list of everything else. List in hand, I set out in the exhibit hall with two budgets in mind: unlimited and a more realistic $500 limit.

Product

Unlimited budget

$500 budget

Airplane

I’ve been weak in the knees ever since I saw 5G Aviation’s fire-engine red Super Decathlon in the Parade of Planes on Oct. 10. So, I headed straight to the exhibitor outside the Palm Springs Convention Center to inquire. For $175,000, the base airplane would be mine; plus, I’d purchase two $1,995 training sessions from them to finish off my tailwheel endorsement and take an unusual attitude recovery class.

I’d buy a Cirrus SR22 for my distance-flying machine. That costs $449,900.

Subscription to Trade-A-Plane. I’m on a 10-year savings plan to buy a used aircraft, so Trade-A-Plane will help educate me on the market. A one-year subscription costs $9.95.

Headsets

Headsets are very personal items. I tried out David Clark, Lightspeed, Bose, and Clarity Aloft headsets in the exhibit hall. The Clarity Aloft headsets interested me because they wrap around the back of my head and fit inside my ears. Traditional headsets typically start hurting the top of my head after about two hours of flying. If I had an unlimited budget, I’d buy one from each headset manufacturer, fly around with them, and then pick my favorite.

I’d buy the tried and true David Clark H10-30 headset with passive noise attenuation for $270. David Clark will repair anything that breaks or goes wrong with the headsets—for free, no questions asked. Even though they don’t have active noise canceling, they are comfortably quiet.

Navigation

Garmin aera 796 portable GPS—oh, the luxury of not folding and unfolding a sectional a million different ways. The aera 796 costs $2,499.

I would enter every raffle exhibitors at Summit were offering to win a free iPad. Then I’d wait a few weeks for AOPA’s FlyQ EFB to be released and buy the VFR plus IFR subscription for $119.

Aviation adventure

Air Race Classic 2013—four days of flying over 2,133 nautical miles. The adventure costs $6,000 per team.

I’d live vicariously through The Aviators. I can buy a season on DVD for $20.

Sunglasses

Scheyden talked me into trying on their Albatross line, which costs $209. I have an older pair of Scheydens that have served me well. They’ve lasted three years so far, a remarkable feat for someone who has stepped on and rolled a nosewheel over sunglasses before.

Hazebuster exhibited some stylish sunglasses at Summit that range in price from $38 to $115.

 

Sentimental flight

Monday, May 21st, 2012

My journey back to Sporty’s for their annual fly-in May 19 was a special one. I soloed and earned my recreational pilot certificate there almost 12 years ago, and I had been back a couple of times over the (yikes) decade.

Departing Sporty's fly-inThis flight was sentimental because my dad was flying with me. On the way from Frederick, Md., I stopped at Boggs Field in Spencer, W.Va., to pick up my dad and head to Sporty’s for the sweepstakes giveaway. My dad had learned to fly in high school and took me for my first flight when I was 2 years old. He encouraged me to learn to fly and took me to Sporty’s for my training while I was in high school. However, as he reminded me on final approach into Sporty’s, this was the first time he had ever flown in there. He had briefly lost his medical right before I started flight training, so all of his time at Sporty’s had been on the ground.

We walked through the headquarters and reminisced over the time we had spent there and talked about the changes: Now there’s a residential airpark, a playground for children, and some new hangars. Familiar favorites had stayed the same. The electronic world daylight map is still hanging in the entrance to the shop. Jason in the operations department is still there—and he’ll call you by name even after a decade. And they still give away free hot dogs on Saturdays.

This is one flight I’m particularly thankful to add to my logbook. What are some of the sentimental flights you’ve made lately?

Aviation at its finest

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Sometimes, we pilots and controllers can be a cranky and judgmental bunch, picking apart our own or others landings (and not always in a constructive manner), complaining about air traffic control or other pilots, and griping about wide traffic patterns or annoying nonessential radio chatter.

Other times, we rise to become some of the finest ambassadors on Earth.

Kristen's soloSuch was the case May 15 at AOPA headquarters on the Frederick Municipal Airport in central Maryland. One of my students, Kristen Seaman, completed her first solo, and the tower controllers, pilots, and other flight instructors couldn’t have been better. Kristen included the magic words “initial solo” in her calls to the ground and tower controllers. The tower controller cleared her for takeoff, keeping an eye on her to make sure the Baron departing right behind her wouldn’t overtake the slower Cessna 172. When she greased her first landing, the controller enthusiastically congratulated her on a job well done. After two more landings, she taxied back for a celebration on AOPA’s ramp. A fellow instructor applauded as she taxied by, and a pilot who had heard the radio calls as he approached the airport stopped by to congratulate her after he tied down his aircraft. He commended her on joining an elite group of those who have soloed and encouraged her on the next steps in training and the rewards of becoming a private pilot.

I couldn’t have been prouder, well of my student, of course, but of the aviation community to see how many went out of their way to make her first solo even more enjoyable and memorable.

Just think, with that kind of community and encouragement from all pilots, instructors, and controllers—all the time—across the United States, it should be a cinch to make a dent in the student pilot dropout rate. We need to be careful, take a few deep breaths, and restrain ourselves when the curmudgeonly side tries to creep out, and go out of our way to be friendly to those trying to join the ranks of the 500,000-plus aviators in the U.S.

Tiedowns foil the best, worst of intentions

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

During a lesson this week, one of my students and I discussed the recent news about a California man whose attempt to steal a Cessna 152 was foiled by a tiedown. The man was a former student of the flight school, according to news reports, and reportedly threatened employees with a gun in order to get the keys to the aircraft. Police apprehended the man after he shut down the aircraft because he was unable to taxi out of the tiedown spot–the tail was still tied down.

First, I told my student I was glad I would never have to worry about her pulling a gun on me or trying to steal our Cessna 172 trainer. Then, we turned to tiedowns and preflight inspections. Early in our training, I would walk around the airplane with my student during the preflight to mention any missed items and the importance of checking them; however, I wouldn’t point out if she forgot to untie the tail or wings or remove the chocks. I recommended a big-picture walkaround after the preflight to catch any obvious oversights, such as tiedowns or chocks, so she would always pick up on it then.

To help stress the importance of untying the aircraft, I also shared an embarrassing story of my own. During my initial flight training, I had untied my wing and my instructor untied his side, but neither of us got the tail and I didn’t do a big-picture walkaround. When I tried to taxi out of the tiedown spot, we didn’t budge. We added more power–nothing. I have never seen anyone shut down an aircraft as fast as my instructor did when he realized what had happened. We had pulled the rope so tight that he actually had to cut it. Making the matter even more embarrassing was the fact that we were tied down in front of a flight school with floor-to-ceiling windows so that everyone had a clear view of the ramp. That story has stuck with my student, and she’s never forgotten to untie the aircraft.

Unfortunately, now she has another reminder of the importance of a thorough preflight, but this one with illegal intentions. In the case of this California man, the tiedowns turned out to be the last line of defense preventing him from stealing the aircraft. For the rest of us trying to get in the air legally and safely, they can be an unforgiving (and embarrassing) reminder of the importance of a proper preflight.

Behind the B-25 photo shoot

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Mike's pre-dawn aerial shot.

Some events are just, well, so cool and rare that you’ll do whatever it takes to capture the moment and pray that you can at least convey a glimpse of the magic to those who couldn’t be there in person. The timed departure of 20 World War II bombers from the Grimes Gathering of B-25s is one of those events.

We received permission to do an aerial shoot during the takeoff and briefed the intended flight path and altitude with the event organizers the day before the mass departure. We worked with Mad River Air, a flight school on the field, to set up their Cessna 172 as a photo platform for AOPA photographer Mike Fizer and go over the route with the school’s chief pilot, Aaron Coleman, who would fly the mission.

Then, we set our alarm clocks for the 4 a.m. hour.

Admittedly, getting up at 4:40 a.m. wasn’t that bad. As if my shower didn’t wake me up, our hotel fire alarm went off at 5 a.m., ushering us and many veterans and guests visiting for the B-25 gathering outside in the dark (I’ve never seen so many bomber jackets at that hour). I grabbed my work laptop, headset, and purse. AOPA’s videographer Paul Harrop started evaluating what order to evacuate his video equipment, and Mike came out with all of his photo equipment. Thankfully it was a false alarm. But, by that time, we were loaded and ready to head to the airport; then the fire trucks pulled in. Paul directed us through the only narrow exit the fire trucks left open.

Getting ready for B-25 morning photo shootAt 5:30 a.m., we were getting the Cessna 172 ready while the B-25 crews performed their preflight inspections. Mike and Aaron needed to be wheels up by 6 a.m. to not disturb the ceremony set to take place before the B-25s started up. While they orbited the airport, Aaron had to dodge other GA traffic making last-minute approaches to the airport to witness the mass exodus. Paul and I took video and photos on the ground. The organizers sent an escort with us so that we could move to different locations instead of staying corralled with the rest of the media. After hitting one bump before crossing a taxiway, Paul nearly fell off the back of the golf cart…thankfully he regained his balance—and grip. Our friend Collis Wagner thought he was going to have to scrape him off the taxiway.

Paul Harrop

Paul Harrop captures video.

Aaron and Mike orbited the airport for two hours, from dark through sunrise to daylight, until the last B-25 took off. We booked it back to the hotel about five minutes away. I started writing in the car while Paul took side streets to avoid the traffic (dozens of people had lined the airport to watch from the side of the road). Less than two hours after leaving the airport, we had our story and video back to our team at Frederick, and photos for a slide show followed shortly (thankfully, Mike was able to work with the photos I shot from the ground).

Cessna 172

Aaron Coleman is a proud AOPA member.

Then it was back to the airport to finish some more assignments and on to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton for some information gathering about the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders. We’ll have the chance Wednesday to briefly interview the five remaining raiders. We hope you’ll enjoy the sights, sounds, and history of the B-25 gathering and Doolittle Tokyo Raider’s seventieth reunion.

Taxiing for takeoff.

Flat Stanley’s incredible Sun ‘n Fun spring break

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

Most parent, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors of those who have small children know—and have met or traveled with—Flat Stanley, a character from Jeff Brown’s Flat Stanley children’s book. The book is often included in elementary school curricula, and students send him to friends and family to document his time and adventures. They then return Flat Stanley to the students with photos and a rundown of his activities.

Flat Stanley meets the U.S. Air Force ThunderbirdsMy cousin, who’s a first grader in Ohio, sent Flat Stanley to me about a week before Sun ‘n Fun, so I stuffed him in my purse for the trek to Florida. He’s a good little traveler—no complaints about the 3:15 a.m. alarm to wake up and leave for Baltimore Washington International/Thurgood Marshall Airport for a 6:35 a.m. flight. At Sun ‘n Fun, Flat Stanley accompanied me to interview the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, watch a night airshow, and man AOPA’s Sweepstakes Husky.

His adventures aren’t over yet. Back at AOPA headquarters, he’ll get to fly along in a Cessna 172 and later in April will travel to Ohio for the B-25 gathering at Grimes Field in Urbana. When he returns to my cousin, his envelope might be a little crowded with pictures and tales of his adventures, not to mention some foam glider cutouts and educational worksheets.

Flat Stanley is an excellent way to expose children to new experiences. Now, he can help introduce them to the wonders of aviation and plant the seed for future pilots.

Bucket lists, new adventures

Monday, March 12th, 2012

On March 10, I had the opportunity to fly in my first aviation event geared toward taking as many as possible on their first general aviation flight. Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland (AOPA’s home base) can get busy, but it’s not often that I see six aircraft waiting to take off. That’s the way it was for much of the day as pilots volunteered to take girls and women aloft in aircraft ranging from Experimentals to helicopters to twins. The effort was part of Women of Aviation Week’s Fly it Forward Day.

My first passenger was Martine, whose curiosity in airplanes and my piloting credentials kept me on my toes for answers and explanations.Fly it Forward event I let Martine know that I was a flight instructor before loading her into the left seat. Even though Martine knew many aviation terms, much of the experience was new, including learning that a Cessna 172 is steered on the ground by our feet. With so many people in the traffic pattern, it gave us the perfect opportunity to discuss radio communications and point out aircraft in the sky.

By the time we took off and leveled at 2,500 feet msl, she was ready to try her hand at straight and level. By the time we landed, she was ready to learn to fly! Martine promptly picked up a flight training packet at the flight school on the field, and I gave her a couple of CFI recommendations after I made her first entry in the logbook she had just purchased.

A few hours after the flight Martine had her husband, Bill, come out to the airport. He wants to learn to fly too. Apparently, learning to fly is on their “bucket list,” and they want to accomplish their dream while they still have time to enjoy flying. He had many of the same questions as Martine, which she proudly answered to prove she remembered much of our conversation during flight.

Martine and Bill’s enthusiasm for aviation matched that of two of my other passengers that day–Brownie Troop girls young enough to be their grandchildren. Each of the girls shared bonding time with her mom while looking over the patchwork farmland below. They were equally thrilled when their moms got to “drive” in the air. One girl was so excited she just started giggling after takeoff. (That’s such a precious sound to hear coming through the intercom!)

I hope the new adventure for these girls will leave a lasting impression and inspire them to learn to fly. And, I hope Martine and Bill get “pilot certificate” checked off their bucket list so they can travel together by GA.

What would you do for a Thunderbird flight?

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

They’re sleek. They’re fast. They’re precise. Their airshow performances put pilots in awe. They’re the Air Force Thunderbirds. After watching a show, who hasn’t thought of what it would be like to be in the cockpit during one of those routines?

I’m hoping to find out what it’s really like. I’ve been fortunate enough to be given an opportunity to apply for a media flight in the Thunderbird No. 8 fighter during Sun ‘n Fun. My chances aren’t bad either. The Air Force accepted five applications for two media flights.USAF Thunderbirds Media Ride Forms

The application process wasn’t difficult, but it was a little, well, revealing. The Air Force now knows more about my physical dimensions than my friends and family. Age, height, and weight weren’t enough. I also had to provide my waist and thigh sizes, measured from the largest point, and my butt-to-knee and butt-to-head measurements. The measurements had to be precise because, if I am lucky enough to be selected for the ride, the aircrew flight equipment must fit properly or my chance is gone. The Air Force was so exact that they provided a diagram about how to take the measurements. Needless to say, getting my butt-to-knee and butt-to-head measurements with the help of a coworker one morning in my cubicle made for some interesting conversation with the rest of my group!

The requirements didn’t stop there. I also had to provide my jacket, pant, and shoe size … in men’s sizes. So, I made a quick trip to Walmart one evening to try on clothes. I must admit, I felt rather odd shopping in the men’s section and then going to the women’s fitting room to ask to try on the clothes.

Even though the application was rather detailed on my measurements and medical history (certifying that I have no heart or back problems), it’s actually you, our members, who were most important. Part of the purpose of the media flight is to increase the Air Force’s exposure. AOPA’s 400,000 members pack power on Capitol Hill, and I’m hoping that strength in numbers will also help me get in the cockpit of the Thunderbird No. 8 jet.

Still, I wanted to add a note that if I didn’t meet their specifications, I would do anything in my power to meet their requirements by the March 30 flight. Lose weight, gain weight, add muscle—anything that I could control. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a spot for begging on the application.

If you had the chance to fly with the Thunderbirds, what would you be willing to do to make it happen?

Adding to the ranks of aviatrices

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Women comprise a small portion of the total number of active pilots: only 42,218 of 627,588 active airmen certificates are for women, according the latest U.S. civil airmen statistics from Dec. 31, 2010.

We can help change that statistic and boost the pilot population by introducing more women to aviation and encouraging women who are currently in training. From my narrow perspective, 2012 seems to be getting off to a good start.

I met Jennifer Mastoris, a 17-year-old high school senior, shortly before Christmas. She was eyeing her private pilot certificate while I worked toward my flight instructor certificate. Both of us were training at Mad River Air at Grimes Field in Urbana, Ohio. She earned her private pilot certificate Jan. 8.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a winter survival clinic in Marion, Mont., and bunked overnight in an icy fuselage with private pilot hopeful Donne Rossow, a student at Rocky Mountain College in Billings. She’s working toward her private pilot certificate and hopes to someday fly F/A-18s.

When I learned of Jennifer and Donne’s new accomplishments, I couldn’t help but look forward to March 10, the Women Fly It Forward event AOPA is participating at its home airport in Frederick, Md., to see how many women we can take flying that day. It’ll be a chance to perhaps introduce some women to general aviation flying for the first time. Hopefully the bug will bite so we can continue adding to the number of female pilots and pilots overall.