Alyssa Miller Archive

Take me out to the airport

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

20140816_134226There’s nothing like a family fun day out. When it happens to be at an airport, even better—especially if the airport offers something for everyone in the family.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to fly AOPA’s 152Reimagined to the Tazewell County Airport Fly-In in Cedar Bluff, Virginia, to talk to members and help introduce children to aviation. The airport, situated on a ridge top, buzzed with activity—bounce houses for children, food vendors, a covered picnic area, live bands, booths from the local sheriff’s office and AOPA, helicopter rides, and demonstrations by a Just Aircraft SuperSTOL, an Extra, a powered parachute, and a jet-powered remote-control aircraft.

Pilots who flew in got lunch for free and could take advantage of a great fuel discount—that day the airport offered it for $4.90 a gallon! (After 3.5 hours of flying time to get there, I topped off for only $81!)

20140816_133203Grandparents, moms, dads, teenagers, and young children were all smiles as they walked around in a warm breeze, sat in camping chairs, and played.

It’s been several years since I’ve seen such a diverse age range enjoying themselves at an airport. And I’m not talking about a couple of family members tolerating it while one (the pilot) runs around like a kid at Christmas. I’m talking about families lounging around, listening to music, playing, laughing, and spending quality time together like hanging out at an airport and watching airplanes is the most natural, inviting pastime in the world.

Tazewell usually hosts an airshow this time of year, but broke its tradition to opt for a fly-in, bringing pilots from outside the area in to mingle with the local community members. This brought a welcomed increase in traffic to the airport that is usually quiet, with only a few refueling stops from jets.

20140816_133518The day held a special treat for me as well—my own family flew a short hop in a Cessna 170 to surprise me at the fly-in.

If you ask me, Tazewell had the perfect fly-in and open house. And if other small airports across the country are doing the same, there’s hope for general aviation yet.


Thanks, Annabelle

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Growing up in aviation, I hadn’t met very many female pilots, let alone a woman who had blazed the trail, making it easier for me to enter the field.

Attendees at Annabelle Fera's retirement party express their appreciation for her dedication to aviation as a designated pilot examiner. Photo by Woody Cahall.

Attendees at Annabelle Fera’s retirement party express their appreciation for her dedication to aviation as a designated pilot examiner. Photo by Woody Cahall.

When I moved to Frederick, Maryland, to work at AOPA, I started hearing about Annabelle, a local legend. She was always referred to simply as Annabelle—no last name was needed, everyone knew who you were talking about. She was the designated pilot examiner on the field, and it seemed as if every pilot at Frederick had taken a checkride with her. She was always fair in her examinations, they said.

Still, when it came my turn to take my instrument checkride with Annabelle, I was terrified. My instructor introduced me to her a couple of days before the checkride. She was petite and kind-hearted, not a scary examiner with horns. She emphasized the importance of safety, which helped to calm my nerves somewhat.

After passing my instrument checkride, I focused less on Annabelle’s status as an examiner and more on trying to learn about what brought her to this respected position in the aviation community.

Annabelle earned her pilot certificate in 1969. She worked her way up through an airline transport pilot certificate, but the airlines wouldn’t hire women then. She found a job instructing and later became an examiner in 1978. There weren’t many female aviation examiners at the time; a photo of a certificate from the FAA repeatedly uses “he” and “him” in conferring the title of designated pilot examiner on her.

Occasionally, I would ask Annabelle for advice. After my commercial checkride, I confided in her about some of my insecurities in aviation, to which she promptly responded by giving me a favorable evaluation of my piloting skills and encouraged me to continue pursuing my dreams. From her statement, I knew that evaluation wasn’t one she gave out freely and that she had years of experience to back up what she said.

Experience indeed. When Annabelle retired recently, she had more than three decades of experience as an examiner and had given more than 9,000 exams. During her career, she probably spent double the time of giving that many exams in encouraging pilots to follow their dreams and girls to consider careers in aviation. I remember Annabelle urging teenage Girl Scouts to go up for a flight to see if they liked it and “fly my dream for me,” during an AOPA event in 2011.

Annabelle got a taste of how many lives she impacted over the decades during a retirement party Aug. 10 at the Frederick Municipal Airport. Pilots of all ages who had worked with, trained with, or taken a checkride from Annabelle came out to say “thank you.” At the celebration, I learned that her legend extends far beyond Frederick. She gave a checkride to Sam Walton’s grandson and to a Saudi prince, and to airline pilots who now fly various routes around the world. But bigger than that is how her reputation has spread by word of mouth (there are thousands of us, after all).

I know I’ve used her as an example while flying with teenage girls in the remote villages of northern Alaska. They too face many obstacles, and my hope is that after sharing highlights of Annabelle’s incredible career with them, they will realize that they too can persevere and learn to fly if their heart is in it.

So, thank you Annabelle, for blazing the trail, for sharing high standards, and for being an impeccable example to pilots. I am fortunate to have flown with you.

Confessions of a powered pilot

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Having fun after my first glider flight with John Earlywine (behind the glider) and AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer Mike Nichols (right).

Having fun after my first glider flight with John Earlywine (behind the glider) and AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer Mike Nichols (right).

I had been offered glider flights in the past, but I would respond with “someday.” I had heard the arguments for it: It’s so quiet, you only hear the wind over the canopy; it makes you a better pilot. I had watched gliders fly over my apartment on approach to landing at the Frederick, Md., airport. But I was reluctant. I just wasn’t comfortable going up in an aircraft without an engine.

That changed June 1 with my first soaring lesson. I needed to gather aerial video footage for a story about the Central Indiana Soaring Society and the Alexandria airport the club purchased in order to keep it from being closed. Experiencing their soaring operation firsthand also would give me a better understanding of why this club went to such lengths (and expense) to save the airport. (See the video at 17:51 in the June 12 AOPA Live This Week episode.)

I met John Earlywine, a veteran instructor at the club and competitive glider pilot, and learned about his composite DG Flugzeugbau DG-1000.

For something I had always imagined as one of the purest forms of flight, I was surprised at how unnatural getting settled in the glider felt. Earlywine chuckled when I asked if I needed a headset. (While I didn’t think I would need one to talk to him, I wasn’t sure about communicating over the radio. Turns out, he had a mic in the back.) Once in the glider, I felt like I was practically lying flat and kept trying to move up in the seat until I realized the canopy wouldn’t close. For a Cessna 172 pilot who is used to sitting in a chair-like position, this new position, akin to lounging in a beanbag, took some getting used to.

Kris Maynard takes a break on the Piper Pawnee while waiting for pilots to tow aloft.

Kris Maynard takes a break on the Piper Pawnee while waiting for pilots to tow aloft.

Being pulled aloft by a Piper Pawnee piloted by Kris Maynard made me forget about my nerves during the preparation. After accelerating down the runway behind the Pawnee, with only the sound of the glider’s tire rolling over the asphalt, Earlywine lifted the glider into ground effect and held it about three feet off the runway until Maynard was ready to climb out. Once we were about 1,000 feet in the air, Earlywine left me fly on tow. Flying on tow is similar to flying formation in trail. Earlywine counseled me to pretend the Pawnee’s relationship to the horizon was my attitude indicator, to make uncoordinated turns to correct getting out of line with the tow plane, and to look past the Pawnee as if I were flying an ILS. All of that was easier said than done. I had a couple of formation lessons a few years ago but had forgotten about the uncoordinated control inputs used to keep the aircraft in line with the lead. Each time I entered a coordinated turn to realign with the Pawnee, I shot past and Earlywine helped me recover back to the center.

Once at 3,000 feet, I pulled the tow release and Earlywine instructed me to start hunting for lift. Cumulus clouds would have made it easy to spot the thermals, but this day was clear and sunny, except for a few wispy cirrus clouds. I started looking for large areas of asphalt or dark fields that might offer some rising air. We also circled over the town of Alexandria.

Finally, I found some lift to recover the couple of hundred feet that I had lost while searching. After regaining altitude, I took a minute just to look outside. I realized that I had been tense—almost as tense as I am in the dentist’s chair—up to that point. But the beauty of flight became very real at that moment, and I relaxed. I actually felt as if I were flying freely because the bubble canopy allows an almost uninterrupted 360-degree view; the pilots sit in front of the wings; and the nose of the glider is slender. The only sound was the rush of the air flowing over the canopy, quieting as I slowed and growing louder as I lowered the nose to gain airspeed.

John Earlywine logs my first glider flight.

John Earlywine logs my first glider flight.

While circling in the thermal, I had a tendency to do what Earlywine said most powered pilots do: pull the nose up into a climb. In soaring, climbing in a thermal doesn’t mean a “climbing turn” in the sense a powered pilot is used to. We circled and climbed in the thermals with the nose slightly low. The more lift we found, the higher pitched one of the instruments chirped, and the higher pitched Earlywine’s voice grew. Whenever we flew out of a thermal, the chirp turned to a monotone and Earlywine would “turn off that annoying sound.”

Finding lift became a game for me. I wasn’t thinking about getting from Point A to Point B, although with the glider’s 47:1 glide ratio, from 3,000 feet we could have flown to Indianapolis Regional Airport where the glider club had been the day before for AOPA’s regional fly-in. I was only focused on finding that precious lift to stay aloft. I nearly forgot one of the original purposes of going for the flight: gathering video footage. Giving Earlywine the controls, I started filming while we maneuvered and Earlywine brought us in for a landing.

I had been looking forward to flying the pattern and landing but videoed it instead. That gives me all the more incentive for another glider flight!

Indianapolis rolls out Midwestern hospitality

Friday, May 30th, 2014


Aircraft started arrriving early for AOPA’s Indianapolis Fly-in.

Indianapolis Regional, one of the reliever airports for the Super Bowl in 2012, is rolling out the Midwestern charm on a grand scale once again—this time for AOPA’s Regional Fly-In May 31.

Yellow chocks are spaced evenly apart at the edge of the concrete and grass, ready for the early arrivals. Volunteers donning neon green shirts point the way to the parking area. IndyJet employees park aircraft comfortably apart, so you don’t have to worry about swapping paint with the wing of the aircraft beside you. As soon as the prop stops, volunteers are right at the door, offering to help passengers disembark, unload any baggage, and grab the tow bar to finish parking the aircraft and secure it with chocks.

A volunteer helps get chocks in position for arriving aircraft.

A volunteer helps get chocks in position for arriving aircraft.

Now that’s an impressive welcome!

The volunteers and IndyJet and AOPA staff have been working nonstop to make sure attendees feel welcome.

Volunteer Michael Pastore, a 20-year AOPA member, is among the pilots camping out overnight at Indianapolis Regional. He flew is Cessna 140, Toto, from Naperville, Ill., and said he volunteered to help because he believes pilots need to do their part to support the organization.


Volunteers welcome pilots with that famous Midwestern hospitality.

Brian Lynch a helicopter instructor from Clarskville, Tenn., drove 5.5 hours through the night to get to Indianapolis to do his part. He napped a little, and then shortly after 7 a.m., he started helping set up, marshal aircraft, and man the gate leading to the airfield. He was still going strong at 7 p.m. But, he said, he’s going to take Saturday morning off to schmooze with pilots before helping marshal aircraft leaving at the end of the fly-in. His purpose for coming to the flying: “See what’s going on, get the pulse of the community.”

The friendly welcome upon touchdown has set the atmosphere for pilots visiting into the evening at Indianapolis Regional. There’s no rush—just a bunch of laid back pilots taking in aircraft new and old, swapping stories, and sharing some of that warm Midwestern hospitality.

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.


Unlimited budget

$500 budget


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 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.


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.


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.