What’s In AOPA Pilot Archive

Remembering the Kennedy accident

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

I returned home from a few early Saturday morning errands to find a panicked message on my home answering machine. It was July 17, 1999–you remember the days before PDAs and text messages when we were out of touch for sometimes hours at a time. Anyhow, the message was from a media contact at Piper Aircraft who said the company needed help from AOPA. They were being hammered by the media because of the John F. Kennedy Jr. accident. Could we help?


Clueless as usual, I turned on the television to find that apparently everyone but I knew that young Kennedy was missing; his Piper Saratoga last heard from near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, the night before. Thus began what turned out to be a very busy day full of media speculation.

To assist Piper, I tracked down AOPA’s media relations contacts at the time, Warren Morningstar and Drew Steketee. They both were already in the loop (they had pagers–you remember those). I put the two in touch with Piper. The media was starting to question the safety record of the venerable PA-32 and was looking for an independent source of safety information, such as the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. The PA-32 then and now has a fine safety record and the notion that the airplane was at fault quickly went away.

The July 1999 issue of AOPA Pilot happened to have a new Saratoga on the cover, which wasn’t lost on some resourceful reporters for major magazines and newspapers who quickly found my home number and started calling for insights into the airplane. Although I didn’t write that particular article, I did have several hundred hours in the trusty Saratoga. Before I was willing to share any comments I made sure I had a long enough conversation with the reporter to make sure that I felt he was truly looking for insights as opposed to seeking someone to support his own agenda. Most were quite reasonable and could be convinced not to speculate about the cause–especially since at that point they hadn’t even found the bodies of Kennedy, his wife, and sister-in-law.

The next day, a Sunday, I found myself in a Kennedy-esque sort of situation. I was flying northeast from Frederick, Maryland, to Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to look at an F33 Bonanza that I was considering buying. It was a typical Mid-Atlantic sort of summer morning–hazy, hot, and humid. There were a few scattered cumulus clouds around, but they were mostly masked by the haze. Knowing the region well, I launched VFR but soon regretted the decision. It was technically VFR, but the haze was incredibly thick–even by our usual standards. Even in daylight, I was relying mostly on the instruments, happy to have a solid autopilot in the A36 Bonanza I was flying. By my late-morning return to Frederick, the conditions were even worse, but I had wised up enough to file IFR. I couldn’t imagine flying in such conditions at night and over water with no horizon–especially without an instrument rating. What was Junior thinking?

As AOPA Air Safety Foundation President Bruce Landsberg pointed out a year later in our Landmark Accident report, the NTSB determined the accident was the result of spatial disorientation caused by the haze at night and the young pilot’s relative inexperience in flying in such conditions.

In his blog this week, Landsberg reminds us that having a Plan B is the best strategy when you think you might be headed into a situation that is more than you can handle. Equally as important is a willingness to execute Plan B, which can sometimes mean telling naive passengers that you’re driving this evening or staying home, as disappointing as that may be. Better to be stuck at home than the subject of an NTSB report and on the receiving end of a lot of media speculation.

GA and the environment: Your chance to comment

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Leaded fuel, noise, threats of “cap and trade” emission limits (carbon offsets, anyone?). It would be easy to believe that the word “environment” is no friend of general aviation. Yet, GA has an important role to play in the environment–whether helping to spot blatant polluters, putting out forest fires, or providing a bird’s-eye view of run-off or insect infestations, general aviation airplanes are at work every day in support of the environment.

The small amount of lead-tainted emissions from our 100LL is really the least of our worries when it comes to avgas. Even the availability of the lead additive is threatened because of low demand and the dangers of producing and handling it. Even if air pollution were not an issue, we would need to be looking for alternative fuels. And much work is under way on that front.

Noise is an issue we’ve faced for years, and we’ve come up with many simple solutions. Going forward as communities further impinge on airports and as neighbors get ever less tolerant of being disturbed, we may need to get even more creative.

When information is presented properly, environmentally sensitive neighbors will often choose an airport in their community over another shopping mall or housing development that invites even more traffic and pollution. Airports, at least, represent open space. And some airports are hard at work reducing their impact on the environment.

To look into the impact that GA has on the environment and vice versa, we put a team of our editors to work on a special report in the July issue of AOPA Pilot. The package looks at ways you can reduce your impact on the environment while flying–in some cases while reducing your operating costs. We profile airports that are looking out for the environment, show GA at work protecting the environment, and look to Europe for some clever designs that may some day further reduce our impact on the environment and maybe even reduce our costs.

Once you’ve had a chance to read the articles, we hope you’ll come back here and share your thoughts and ideas. The environmental movement is not going to stop at the airport perimeter. It will impact our flying in the future. Let’s start a dialog now and gin up some clever ideas that will keep us flying.

Thanks for your sharing your thoughts in the comments section below.

Way to go, Sean

Friday, May 8th, 2009

Congratulations to famed air show pilot Sean Tucker for displaying terrific aeronautical decision making–true airmanship.

As you may have heard, Tucker landed on Highway 101 in northern California after concern that he didn’t have enough fuel to make it back to the airport. I can’t imagine a more difficult decision than one where you take a still-functioning airplane and put it down off airport. “Hope” always wants to horn in and convince you that you can make it back to the airport. But, concerned that he had a fuel problem, Tucker quickly assessed the situation and with assistance from the aerobatic team and photo ship he was flying with, put the airplane down safely without a scratch onto the highway. After adding fuel and with permission of authorities, he took off again and flew the short distance back to the airport.

As we have reported in AOPA Pilot making the decision to land off-airport is a tough, but often good choice. In this article, AOPA members retell their tales of such decisions. Once it’s clear you’re going to land somewhere other than airport, you need to take immediate steps to improve your chances of survival, as we noted in this article on forced landings.

Tucker is also to be congratulated for having the PR savvy to fess up to what happened–he ran out of fuel, although it appears a change in the fuel system in his aerobatic airplane may have contributed to the confusion about how much fuel was on board. To hear him recount the tale and hear what he learned from the incident, listen to this podcast from AvWeb.

I’ve known Sean for more than a decade and have always found him careful and wonderfully candid about his flying. As he relates, “Nobody is immune from the gotchas in aviation.”

True, but only the really bright pilots learn from their mistakes and are willing to share their learnings as completely as Tucker has.

Bittersweet mission

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Some folks have destinations all lined up for when they get their private pilot certificates (the beach! that great golf course! a fantastic ski resort!). Others are mission-minded: Angel Flight and animal rescue come to mind.

I have destinations. I also have missions. One is to fly my children to college visits. Daughter Maddie, a high-school junior, is busily checking out colleges. She did the Boston run in the fall with her dad. On Friday it was my turn to take her to Philadelphia.

We had a perfect flight Friday morning out of Frederick Municipal to Wings Field. (You can read a lot more about this historic airport–the birthplace of AOPA–in Julie Walker’s article in the May issue of AOPA Pilot.)

What would have taken three hours by car was compressed into about a one-hour flight. Hertz was only too glad to drop off a rental car at Wings. We stayed overnight so that we could enjoy the city. And on the way home Saturday, as the Archer bumped its way to 4,500 feet amid up- and downdrafts, my daughter said, “I had fun this weekend. ” Then she fell asleep. High praise indeed, coming from a teenager. I’ll take it, along with any opportunity to spend some quality time with my daughter before she heads off to new adventures.





Monitoring one BIG baby

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

A blimp is like a child that never grows up. From the day its 200,000 cubic foot envelope is inflated, a Goodyear blimp is monitored 24/7–never left alone. I visited the Goodyear Spirit of Innovation today at its gigantic hangar on the airport at Pompano Beach Airport in Florida. The 200-foot blimp looks almost like a toy inside the enormous span. I’m told they can actually fit two of the blimps inside, although it must surely be tight. You can easily read the big Goodyear on the side of the hangar from space! Check out the satellite view from Google; switch to satellite view, search on “Pompano Beach Airpark, FL” and zoom: http://maps.google.com/maps?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF-8

Staff continuously monitor the gas pressure inside the envelope. Actually, an automatic system monitors the gas pressure and occasionally starts an air pump to inflate or deflate ballonets inside the envelope to maintain the proper helium pressure. Staff monitor the pump and other systems.

Look for a feature on the historic Goodyear blimps in the May issue of AOPA PILOT and a really amazing photo that we plan to shoot tomorrow. Goodyear Aviation, at 100, isn’t the only outfit to have a significant birthday this year. Stay tuned.

Letter to the editor

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

One of the great joys about being a published writer is the constant feedback you receive, be it good, bad, or ugly. Readers are never shy about offering an opinion, and writing for a pilot audience means getting that opinion served up without extra toppings. In other words, pilots are brutally honest. The thing that continues to baffle me about reader feedback, however, is the seeming random nature of which stories generate it.

In the February issue of AOPA Pilot I wrote a story about the Beechcraft Baron. It’s produced more comments than anything I’ve written about in the past few months, and each follows one of three themes: I hate the airplane and/or its workmanship; I hate the cover and its cover lines; or I love the Baron and everything about it. And yes, you guessed it, the third group is in the minority right now.

The airplane haters tell me they feel that way because of the cost. Sometimes they reference that comment with the photos on the cover and page 50 showing the nose gear doors slightly open. For anyone who has flown or owned a Beechcraft product, this is probably no surprise. But for those who decry Hawker Beechcraft for its workmanship and service, consider that a company rep discovered the problem and fixed it for no charge before even returning the airplane to its owner following the photoshoot. So much for poor service.

The cover is another issue. Some took exception to the lines, which say, “You’ve finally arrived: When only a Baron will do. ” To put that into context, consider that cover lines exist to either sell a magazine or get you to turn to the story. That’s it. A few writers were indignant about the fact we would say on the cover something so out of touch with America’s economy. Hey, the cover lines are there to “stimulate” your desire for a new airplane so a few more people in Wichita can keep their jobs.

Finally, some comments have been good. And no surprise, they are from people who have flown the airplane or owned it. For the record, the Baron is a great airplane. It’s one of general aviation’s proud symbols. Yes, it costs $1.2 million. If you can’t afford it (and most of us can’t) don’t get mad, enjoy it for what it is.  After all, those who can’t afford to buy a Ferrari don’t get mad at them for making it. The magazine is supposed to inform and entertain, not be a social commentary about the state of the U.S. economy. So for those who say a $1.2 million airplane is extravagant, consider that many of your friends and coworkers likely find your 172 to be in the same league.

Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie

Monday, February 2nd, 2009

Thirty-eight years ago, when Don McLean released “American Pie,” few if any of my 12-year-old friends knew the backstory: that it begins with McLean’s memories of “the day the music died”–the night Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper and their pilot crashed in a snow-coverered field in Iowa. We just knew we liked the song. (I had the 45.) If we were lucky, the deejay on our AM station played the full version, but most of the time he didn’t. (It was almost nine minutes long, after all.)

Likely you’re seeing a lot of media accounts of that crash this week on its fiftieth anniversary. If you haven’t already, grab the February 2009 issue of AOPA Pilot and read Bruce Landsberg’s thoughtful article. It’s a tragic chapter in history made sadder still by the realization that, 50 years later, VFR-into-IMC is still taking lives. Audiophiles note: The Feb. 3 edition of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered  featured Landsberg talking about how pilots can avoid such accidents.

Fly the Zeppelin!

Saturday, January 24th, 2009

Flying a Zeppelin is, well, a gas. Now you can experience it yourself. When I wrote the feature article in the February issue of AOPA Pilot , pricing and details of the pilot experience program hadn’t been finalized. Now Airship Ventures has the details on its Web site about how you can fly America’s only Zeppelin. For about $3,000 you can spend a day learning about the big airship and then climb aboard and fly it around the San Francisco area. Now, there’s a Father’s Day gift dad will appreciate more than that paisley tie. And don’t forget, Valentine’s Day is even sooner….(note to self, send URL to Brenda!).

Air Force students featured in October succeed

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

Where are the Air Force candidates now?

The U.S. Air Force pilot candidates featured in the October 2008 AOPA Pilot article “Solo!” have completed initial flight screening and moved on to higher-level training. Here’s where they are now. 

Lt. Andrew Maston is completing multiengine training in a Hawker Beechcraft King Air with the U.S. Navy at Corpus Christi, Texas. He heads to Little Rock, Arkansas, for Lockheed C-130 training in February 2009. 

Lt. Kelly Wolters went to Laughlin AFB and trained in a T–6A Texan II and a T–1A business jet. She graduates January 23 and takes Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape training prior to heading to Altus AFB, Oklahoma, to train in the giant C–17 transport aircraft. After training she will fly the C-17 out of McGuire AFB, New Jersey. 

Lt. Josiah Smith and Lt. Tandon Mardis went to Columbus AFB, Mississippi, to fly the T–6 Texan II and will next fly a trainer based on a Hawker Beechcraft business jet, as will Lt. Ben Gleckler.  

Lt. David Foster went to Vance Air Force Base, Enid, Oklahoma, to train in the single-engine Hawker Beechcraft T–6A Texan II. His training was interrupted to correct a sinus problem and will resume soon.

Cannibal Queen

Friday, October 17th, 2008

Stephen Coonts, the author of Cannibal Queen (I’ll always remember him for Flight of the Intruder), writes nostalgically in this month’s AOPA Pilot about revisiting his old biplane. As Koonts points out, the Queen has been pressed into biplane ride service ever since he parted with her in the early 90s, but still looks good despite the hard duty.

Coonts’ story prompted some memories of my own about the old girl. I used to fly the Queen in my former weekend job as a scenic ride pilot/instructor in Atlanta–but my memories aren’t so fond. The Queen had much better performance than a stock Stearman. It’s engine and prop (a 300-hp Lycoming and constant speed prop) gave it a lot of pep compared to a standard 220-hp Continental and a fixed-pitch prop. But the Queen could be cantankerous. The engine sometimes refused to start on sultry Atlanta afternoons, and it had a tendency to backfire, run rough, and belch fire intermittently. On the ramp one evening, I watched an orange flame shoot about six feet out the single exhaust pipe. The backfire was a common occurrence, but the dark surroundings made this one particularly memorable.

The Queen always looked great with her raised turtle deck, sleek cowl, and wheel fairings–but she was never my favorite.

Steve Collins, the business owner, never shared my suspicions. He loved the Queen and flew her at every opportunity. When we’d fly to air shows or other events, he took the Queen, and I’d usually fly something else.

The Queen was also somewhat unusual for a Stearman in that it had a two-passenger front seat. But the passengers had better be friends because they’d have to sit awfully close. On one cross-country trip, two brawny guys had to share the front seat, and they were practically fused at the hip when it was finally time to get out . . .

Anyway, Coonts’ story brought back some fun memories, and I couldn’t resist sharing a few of them.