Alyssa Miller Archive

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.

S-turns on the slopes

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

I never would have thought flight training would help me on the ski slopes. But when Scott Edison, an instructor at Moonlight Basin in Big Sky, Mont., started teaching me how to adjust my bodyweight and bend my knees going into and out of turns, my mind immediately associated the task with S-turns.

We didn’t have a whiteboard session; instead, he drew the turns in the snow with his ski pole and walked through them bending and straightening his knees as he flowed through the “maneuver.” I couldn’t help but think of how I walk students through S-turns, steepening the bank angle while turning downwind and shallowing it going into the wind.

I also couldn’t help but smile at the complimentary, reassuring praise he gave me after each small accomplishment—getting off the magic carpet successfully in the training area, learning to turn and stop, and mastering my first run with him—mirroring the aviation instructor-student relationship.

After one run, he told me I was ready to solo, which stirred up some anxiety…but not as much as my first solo in a Cessna 172 more than a decade ago.

Icy fuselage vs. survival hut and machete

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

Sleeping in an icy fuselage during winter survival clinic

Photo by Cameron Lawson

When you’re in an iced-over Beechcraft Musketeer fuselage at night in the Montana wilderness, you have a lot of time to think. There’s really not much else to do.

Rocky Mountain College student pilot Donne Rossow and I had known each other about two hours before we (voluntarily) found ourselves shoulder to shoulder in the fuselage, which creaked and crackled every time we moved and had a door that refused to latch shut. We didn’t talk much because we were trying to stay warm and sleep—conditions that aren’t really conducive to girl talk—but it sure was nice to have another person with me. We were participating in the Surratt Winter Survival Clinic in Marion, Mont.

While I was trying to get to sleep, I kept thinking about the frosted metal structure against my left side and feet (all of the seats had been removed from the aircraft) and the words of wisdom “Mike” shared on my previous blog post, “Don’t take shelter in the airplane, it’s too large a space to heat.”Frost inside the fuselage I also contemplated what aircraft I would rather crash in, based solely on the physical comfort it would provide as a shelter. I chose a very specific one: AOPA’s Sweepstakes Cessna 182 that we gave away in September. I picked it for a very specific reason, too: padding and insulation. The Cessna 182 had a tremendous amount of padding and insulation to help with noise reduction. In my state of mind that night, I reasoned that it would be a little warmer too. (Or, I could have thought about it because it was work related and work was the reason I was sleeping in the frozen fuselage.)

I actually didn’t get too cold, thanks to several layers of clothes and my mummy sleeping bag, but I was glad when morning came. It didn’t take Donne or me long to pack our stuff and head to the bunk house to meet the other 30-plus participants (who slept indoors) and instructors for breakfast. My thoughts on the night echo Donne’s description, “cold…and I really hope I never have to sleep in one again. At least we’re going to know what to expect [if it happens for real]—a poor, cold night’s sleep.”

winter survival shelterThe second night, I slept in a survival hut that fellow pilot Mary Lemons and I made from tarps, rope, and pine branches. We built it near the aircraft because I knew that if my shelter didn’t work, I could survive in the fuselage. Physically, I was warmer and much more comfortable than I was in the fuselage, but mentally I was more stressed. I was alone; my only “friends” close beside me were my machete and a fire that I built. Even though the instructors and other participants were camping in huts 50 yards away, I felt like I was the only soul for miles. My shelter perfectly protected me from the howling wind and snow (who knew tiny flakes could sound like grains of sand hitting a tarp?), but I couldn’t sleep. To occupy my mind, I recorded a video blog on my camera, prayed, and thought about an interview that I did last year with aerobatic pilot Sean Tucker. He’s so optimistic and enthusiastic and, believe me, I needed some of both!

After 10 hours in my hut, I decided it was time to be “rescued” (if only it could work that way in real aircraft accident situations). I trudged back to the bunk house in the dark to be pleasantly surprised that I was just in time for 7 a.m. breakfast—I had survived the entire night!

I learned several things about myself those two nights outdoors. I need to keep my mind occupied; I need to have my back or side against a solid structure for security (either the cold fuselage or the pine branches on the side of my survival hut); I don’t like to be alone; but most importantly, I CAN SURVIVE. I have the will, and thanks to the clinic, now I have basic survival knowledge.

I’ll be sharing more about the survival clinic in upcoming stories on AOPA Online and in AOPA Pilot, so stay tuned!


Now for the machete

Friday, January 13th, 2012

Alyssa's survival gear

Treasuring the last of the warmth of being indoors before heading to the Surratt Winter Survival Clinic this afternoon. Thankfully all of my survival gear that I checked at Dulles made it to Kalispell, and I’ve consolidated my packing to be able to carry as much of it as possible on my person.

My backpack is stuffed with two changes of clothes, extra socks, food, knife, Leatherman, two flashlights (including one that flashes like a beacon), utility rope, fire starter (it definitely creates sparks), mirror (signaling device), water filter and water bottle, thermos, hand and foot warmers, and first aid kits. I rolled my emergency weather blanket and tarp in a thermal mat, and packed more food, cotton balls (for starting a fire), another medical kit in my sleeping bag pack. All told, I just have to carry three items, and if I can attach the thermal mat to my backpack, I’ll knock that down to two.

I also need to attach my sauce pan and another water bottle to my backpack and buy a lighter and machete. Now, I just need to figure out where to pack/attach the machete.

Survival time: Two nights outside in Montana

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

It’s 39 degrees Fahrenheit outside, my toes, knees, and fingers are cold. Note to self: Pack more layers.

Like any pilot preparing for an exciting or particularly challenging flight mission, I’m preparing for an upcoming aviation-related mission—a winter survival course near Kalispell, Mont., Jan. 13 through 15. The majority of the course occurs on Saturday, and the weather is forecast to be sunny with a high of 39 degrees Fahrenheit. While most pilots review charts or “fly” their challenging course on a simulator or check out the destination airport environment on Google Earth, I’m preparing by working outside for an hour or two this evening in Maryland to get acclimated to the temperature and figure out just how many layers I need to wear. Thirty minutes outside has already taught me that thermals and ski pants won’t be enough.

Leading up to this survival course, I’ve learned that my emergency preparations for cold-weather flying have been woefully inadequate. My typical survival gear for flying across the Appalachian Mountains to visit family during the winter consists of gloves, a bottle of water, a pack of crackers, a flashlight, my Leatherman, and my cell phone. If I had to make an emergency landing in the mountains or foothills, where the good landing spots are few and far between, I wouldn’t survive long in the cold.

The Montana Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division, which is hosting the course, recommended that participants bring with what we normally carry as a winter survival kit. It’s pretty obvious my “survival kit” won’t do. Thankfully, they also provided a packing list and some helpful questions to get us thinking in survival mode.

Fire starter: I picked up a FireSteel fire-starter kit designed by the Swedish Defense Department (something developed by any DOD should start a fire, right?). It has a built-in emergency whistle, and striking the two keys against each other should produce many sparks (haven’t tested this yet). I’m also taking cotton balls that I’ll coat with petroleum jelly to help get the fire going (thanks to REI for that tip).

Shelter: I picked up utility cord (similar to para-cord) and a tarp, and am packing my Leatherman and the AOPA knife. If the snow levels are appropriate, we might make snow caves, but I’ll have to improvise without a shovel.

Water: We’ll learn to purify and filer water, and to help with that I bought water purification tablets that work in 30 minutes and will pack my water bottle with a built-in filter. While I won’t be taking the kitchen sink, I will be taking a sauce pan to boil water in. (My checked bag will probably raise some eyebrows as it goes through TSA screening.)

Food: While we get meals during the course, I picked up freeze-dried chicken and noodles (what could taste better than that when you’re cold?).

Signaling device: Mirror. Although I don’t have a personal beacon to carry with me in the aircraft, that’s next on my list to purchase and carry on every flight, thanks to a gift from my family.

During the course, we’ll learn how to immobilize broken bones and treat burns. We’ll also be able to spend at least one night outdoors in the survival shelters that we make, and it might be possible to spend the other night in an aircraft fuselage. (My sleeping bag is supposed to be good down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and the lows that weekend are forecast to be in the 20s.) The best part is that I’ll get to test all of my new survival kit items. They are all remarkably light and compact (except for the sleeping bag), which will make it easy for me to carry in whatever aircraft I’m renting.

So far, all of the advice I have received has come from a packing list and REI. I want to hear from you—pilots who pack winter survival kits or who have had to make an emergency landing and survive in the cold for a few hours or longer. What do you pack? What are the must-have items? If you had a forced landing, what was the most important thing that helped you survive? Share your stories below for me and all of your fellow pilots to learn some new tips.

I’ll be checking back frequently leading up to the course to see what tips I can try out! Signing off for tonight though. My fingers are numb (those of you who fly regularly in arctic conditions can call me a wimp for being cold when it’s 39 degrees out).

Boots on the ground

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Jon Short and Cowboy

Jon Short (far right) and Cowboy to his immediate left prepare to head out with the team.

After an early departure from Cullman, Ala., at 1:45 a.m. Central time Aug. 30, Jon Short, Cowboy (Brian Ferguson), and his crew rolled into Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport around 7 a.m. to be part of the Bahamas Habitat fly-out to different islands in the Bahamas. Cowboy and two volunteers will be working on Cat Island for a week, and Short is ferrying supplies in his Aztec. He flew several missions on Tuesday before clearing U.S. Customs about 7 p.m. in Fort Lauderdale. But that still wasn’t the end of his day, which was already pushing 16 hours. He had to get reloaded with supplies for Wednesday. (His mission isn’t scheduled for 1:45 a.m., so maybe he’ll catch a few extra winks.)

By mid-morning Tuesday, Cowboy and his two volunteers had already assessed many of the needs on Cat Island. We met up with them after clearing Bahamian customs on Great Exuma Island, which seemed to weather the storm with mainly damage to trees.

Damage on Cat Island.

Cat Island, and particularly the Orange Creek area of the island, was hit hard. Much of the fencing in front of the FBO at Arthur’s Town Airport on the island was leveled. But that was minor. In some places, asphalt was washed off the roads like sheets of tar paper. Trees were twisted, and power lines were in the streets. Hurricane Irene’s storm surge washed through the back of one woman’s house, pushing her refrigerator out the front and across the street. Everything two feet and lower was ruined. She plans to move her furniture outside to let it dry. Cowboy said one of his team’s goals will be to help disinfect her house to prevent mold.

Annie Burrows, a janitor at the FBO at Arthur’s Town Airport, has been cleaning the airport facility and helping move relief supplies that are being flown in by Bahamas Habitat. She’s putting her needs last. Her house is still standing, but she lost everything. “I lay on the floor and keep the door open,” she says of living at home now. The water ruined her mattress and the lack of electricity makes being inside without a fan unbearable. Residents in Orange Creek should get power later this week or early next week, one local estimates.

Unloading supplies on Cat Island.

After unloading half of the supplies from a Baron and Aztec at Cat Island (and stacking them in a truck and van, unloading the van where supplies will be sorted, and then reloading the van from another aircraft that had flown in), we wish Cowboy and his crew luck with the big task ahead and head to our next destination. We survey Long Island from the air and then fly to Governors Harbour on Eleuthera Island where Bahamas Habitat has a base camp.

A Piper PA-23-250 at Governors Harbour International Airport was ripped to shreds. The tiedown, chalks, and three 100-lb sandbags that were meant to hold it in place were still in their places. The aircraft, however, had flipped over the airport’s perimeter fence, both engines torn from the aircraft, and the fuselage cut in half behind the baggage door.

Twin destroyed by Irene at Governors Harbour.

We should have known that would foretell the destruction we would soon see.

Bahamas Methodist Habitat Executive Director Abraham McIntyre and Rev. Kenya Lovell, minister for the Central Eleutheran Region of the Bahamas Conference of the Methodist Church, brought us to Cupid’s Cay near the airport while they continued to survey damage, assess needs, and hand out tarps. Trees, mattresses, and appliances were piled in between houses along the one-lane roads. A family worked to erect one side of a room that had collapsed. Another man sat on a downed telephone pole, his head down as he rested his elbows on his knees. But he paused for only a moment before getting back to work.

That’s how resilient all of the Bahamians have seemed on this trip.

Diana Demeritte

Even Diana Demeritte, whose husband of seven years died in March and whose house was almost completely destroyed by Irene, is picking up and moving forward. She’s cleaning out her house, surviving with a makeshift plywood roof and a tarp, two gallons of clean water, and some nonperishable food. Amid the cleanup and heartbreak, she takes some time for herself—coloring her hair.

John Gaitor’s house was farther inland than Demeritte’s, but the shingles on his roof lifted, allowing the hurricane’s rains to flood several rooms. Sometimes he needs a little motivation to continue the cleanup effort after a long day at work with Bahamas customs. Without any electricity, he gets a little creative. One evening, he turned on his car radio. Music streaming from the car put him and his neighbors in cleanup mode. “It keeps that community spirit,” Gaitor says of joking with friends and playing music.

The Bahamians are taking Hurricane Irene’s destructive path in stride, but they still need help—especially those in underserved areas far from the resort towns. Many of the docks on the islands were damaged, making it difficult for ships to deliver supplies. General aviation has played a key role in getting food, drinking water, and tarps to the Bahamians quickly. And with the long days of logistics calculations and flight time, these pilots and volunteers seem as resilient as those they are serving. In just a few hours, they’ll be at it again. Nine flight activities are scheduled to various islands on Wednesday, as half a dozen pilots or more are volunteering to help. Another 1,000 pounds of supplies will be dropped off at Fort Lauderdale Executive to be delivered. Short will be flying around the islands delivering food and water, and Cowboy is scheduled to get some much-needed roofing supplies on Cat Island.

Reaching forgotten islands

Monday, August 29th, 2011

I’ve always dreamed about visiting the Bahamas Islands. Romantic walks on the beach at sunset. You get the picture. I never dreamed that my first trip to the Bahamas would be as part of a disaster relief effort. Yet in less than 12 hours AOPA Staff Photographer Chris Rose and I will be participating in relief flights with Bahamas Habitat. A Baron and Aztec are just two of the aircraft that will be flying supplies over multiple days to Cat Island, Eleuthera, and Acklins Island.

The Bahamas were hard hit by Hurricane Irene, a category 3 storm, but attention quickly shifted from the Bahamas to the East Coast of the United States as many feared the devastation the hurricane would cause if it hit multiple highly populated areas along the coast.

According to Bahamas Habitat Aviation and Disaster Relief Coordinator Cameron King, no deaths were reported from the storm in the Bahamas. However, some of the smaller, non-tourist-attraction areas with weak or little infrastructure are suffering.

King says relief operations typically fall into three categories: “stop the bleeding,” as in major disasters such as the Haiti earthquake; “come up for air”; and the long-term rebuilding process. These relief flights to the Bahamas fall into the last category. King, who has flown many missions to Haiti, says it is a blessing that no lives were lost because of Hurricane Irene and that the greatest need right now is to meet basic human needs: food, water, and shelter. On some of the islands, there is no power and no way to sanitize drinking water. Since Aug. 26, Bahamas Habitat has been working with volunteer pilots to fly food, water, and materials to help create temporary fixes to damaged houses. Generators and roof tarps are essential. Acklins Island, one of the southern sparsely populated islands, was hardest hit and sustained major damage to nearly all of the homes.

On Tuesday morning, Aug. 30, volunteer pilots and a work group will team up to deliver supplies to many locations and help on the ground with the cleanup effort. I’m looking forward to meeting these generous volunteers, like Jon Short, who is not short at all, King jokes, and Cowboy (that’s the only name King gives for him) who will help lead the first Bahamas Habitat work team on the islands. Both have helped with Haiti relief efforts. One group will be leaving Alabama at 2 a.m. Central Tuesday to arrive in time for the 7 a.m. meeting to get the day started.

This trip will be pretty much the opposite of what I had dreamed about the Bahamas; but participating in mission aviation and the relief effort will, no doubt, make my dream pale in comparison. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

‘That’s easy,’ yeah right

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Sometimes, the most well-meaning comments can do more damage than good. And in the aviation world, “That’s easy” can actually discourage students and already certificated pilots instead of pumping them up for that next certificate or rating.

I remember talking to seasoned pilots before I started my commercial certificate training. Everyone said, “That’s easy,” or “It’s a glorified private.” So, in my mind, getting the commercial should be a cinch. Then I tried chandelles and lazy eights. Not so easy the first time, or the second, or the tenth. I got it, but it took lots of practice (and patience) and working with two different instructors to get the maneuvers set in my head and then transferred to the cockpit.

I’ve talked to other pilots who have either thought about getting their commercial certificate or are working on it, and they share one commonality. Everyone told them it would be easy but they’re either discouraged or wonder why it they can’t master the maneuvers right off the bat. Some might just give up instead of sticking it out because it’s not as easy as they were led to believe.

That made me think. If those two words can discourage pilots who already have their private pilot certificate and, in many cases, the instrument rating as well, how damaging can they be to a student pilot? If a pilot calls a maneuver easy that students don’t understand, they might fear that they aren’t cut out for flying.

There’s no “easy button” in aviation. Even the most naturally gifted pilot has to work at it. While some maneuvers may be less complex, that doesn’t make them easy. And what is easy for one pilot isn’t easy for another.

So how about we stop telling future pilots and students “that’s easy.” Really, our intent is to give them a pep talk. Instead, why not say, “You can do it! It’ll take practice, but you’ll get it”? Then, when the going gets rough, as it always does at some point in the training process, they might not get as discouraged because it isn’t coming “easy” to them.

What do you say to encourage pilots instead of “That’s easy”?

How realistic should impossible turn practice be?

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

Last month, I practiced Barry Schiff’s maneuver for the impossible turn at altitude and recorded it on AOPA Live. As expected, many pilots wrote in offering their own advice.

The most common suggestion was to make the practice maneuver more realistic. Schiff recommended turning 270 degrees and noting the altitude loss. That’s because in a real emergency, a pilot is going to turn 180 degrees, then 45 more to end up over the runway, and back another 45 degrees to line up on the runway. It totals 270 degrees of turn. Others suggested practicing at altitude over a straight road to simulate a runway.

So I went up with my instructor, Sandy Geer, again and tried both scenarios in a Cessna 172, same model as before. I also applied some of what I had learned from practicing Schiff’s maneuver the first time.

First, I made sure that I added pitch-up trim during the maneuver (yes, I’m a weakling). I’ve been trained to do this in other practice emergency scenarios (pitch for best glide and trim), but I had forgotten to do this for the impossible turn maneuver. By using trim to relieve some of the control pressures, it was easier for me to maintain the 45-degree bank and airspeed while looking outside. Last month, each time I did the maneuver, I looked only at the instruments.

Setting up on a westerly heading, I climbed to 3,000 feet msl, pulled the throttle to idle, held the pitch-up attitude for five seconds, and then started the turn to the left. After turning 225 degrees, I immediately rolled out and into a 45-degree-bank turn in the opposite direction for another 45 degrees. After stopping my sink rate, I noted my altitude loss: 400 feet. That’s 100 feet more of altitude loss than when I practiced the maneuver with a constant 270-degree turn. But, Schiff also said that after doing the turn he described, add a 50-percent margin. After losing 300 feet with a constant 270-degree turn, that safety padding would put the minimum altitude to turn back in an emergency at 450 feet. With the more realistic 225-degree left turn and 45-degree right turn back to the imaginary runway, my altitude loss was still within the limits set by following his checklist.

Next, I decided to make the scenario a little more realistic by setting up the maneuver above a straight road simulating a runway. The first time, not so good: I lost 600 feet. But, I had let my airspeed slip from best glide (65 knots) to 80 knots. So, I tried again, focusing my attention outside, and lost about 400 feet. Now, I still did all of this at altitude, so I didn’t have the rush of the ground coming up.

I think Schiff’s recommended 50-percent cushion to altitude loss is wise and encompasses a number of factors that can crop up. However, I know my personal comfort level, and I still wouldn’t feel confident making 450 feet my turn-back altitude. However, I would keep the 750-foot mark that I established as my personal minimum after practicing Schiff’s maneuver the first time. Perhaps I will lower that altitude as I gain more practice, but I will probably never lower to it 450 or 500 feet agl.

One reader commented that he had practiced the emergency maneuver earlier in the year at an airport and learned a lot of useful information. That’s not something I’m comfortable with, so I will draw the line at practicing over a road at altitude.

Other readers pointed out the effect that wind could have on the maneuver, which Schiff addressed in his article, and that altitude loss will be greater with a dead engine than one at idle power. Readers also discussed the difference in aircraft loading, whether you have passengers or not. If you haven’t read Schiff’s article, I recommend it—he addresses many factors as he describes the maneuver.

They key is to set your own personal minimum. Practicing Schiff’s maneuver, or one of the others described above can help you establish that minimum, which may be never to turn back to the airport.

Hopefully an engine out after takeoff isn’t something I ever experience. But if it is, I am glad that I am practicing for such an emergency—whether I land straight ahead or turn back. None of my other emergency training had included that, and I would have been horribly unprepared.

So how realistically have you practiced turning back to the airport? Do you prefer Schiff’s 270-degree turn, do you use a road or other straight reference, or something else?