Pilot Culture 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?

No prop? No problem!

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

A pilot friend shared this video, in which a Mexican pilot successfully lands a Cessna 172 on a highway–after the propeller departed the aircraft in flight.

My Spanish is rusty…very rusty…and the audio isn’t very good, but the pilot appears to do an excellent job of keeping his cool, choosing a place to set down, and then landing. The latter might have been a challenge in itself, as video from after the landing shows traffic on what appears to be a rather busy road. It even appeared that he unlatched the aircraft door shortly before touchdown (do you remember that step from your emergency-landing checklist?).

The accompanying article doesn’t provide any detail as to who the pilot was, or when this occurred. I’d like to know more of the back story. Regardless, a tip of the hat for an emergency landing well done!



Overdue recognition for the Tuskegee Airmen

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen are receiving well-deserved attention this month, following the release of George Lucas’ movie Red Tails. Here’s a short video well worth viewing, produced for the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

I had the privilege of working with Patrick Anderson’s video crew while telling the story of Matt and Tina Quy’s original Tuskegee Stearman (see “Honoring the Tuskegee Airmen,” December 2011 AOPA Pilot). The plane is now on display in the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, and will move to the National Museum of African American History and Culture when the new museum is finished in 2015.

Yes, I’m the Mike Collins listed in the credits, but all I did was share a camera ship I had arranged. And I may have offered a few tips on air-to-air photography to fellow journalists who’d never done this specialized type of photography that we almost take for granted sometimes. And while I do appear very briefly in the video, I’m confident that has nothing to do with the credit line.

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).

They don’t fly ‘em like that anymore…

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Channel surfing the other night, I knew I’d hit the jackpot when I saw the Twin Beech zoom through a hangar. Yup, it was “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” starring Spencer Tracy, Jonathan Winters, Phil Silvers, and two stunt pilots named Paul Mantz and Frank Tallman.

Tallman (are you wondering if we’re related? More on that in a minute*) flew the Beechcraft D-18 through a billboard as well as the hangar. The billboard was constructed of balsa wood so that it would fly apart easily when Tallman blew through it. As it turned out, the balsa wood had been allowed to dry too long and hardened up, and the airplane was damaged when it went through.

As for the hangar stunt, Tallman supposedly practiced three approaches just skimming the roof of the hangar. Trees just east of the hangar at the now-defunct Rancho Conejo Airport near Los Angeles required Tallman to pull up rather sharply after it cleared the opening.

If you’d rather not sit through the three-hour film, a kind soul on YouTube has compiled his favorite flying scenes in this clip. The hangar stunt can be seen at about 8:10.

*Whenever I’m at a show, members of a certain age will squint at my nametag and then ask, “Are you related to Frank Tallman?” I always tell them this: “My husband’s father took him to see Flight of the Phoenix in the theater when he was a youngster. Don pointed to the credits where Frank Tallman’s name appeared and said, ‘He’s our cousin.’ Maybe he believed it; maybe Don wanted it to be true because he was a pilot too. But his son became an amateur geneaologist several years later… and we’re not related.”

Reason No. 151

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

I was expecting it to be Reason Number 150, but the rescue group decided to juggle the passenger list, and I wound up with eight dogs and puppies rather than seven. Most were small, so I didn’t have to harness anybody in the co-pilot’s seat. A hard crate in the back seat carried a beagle mix and her two pups, still nursing; the soft crate next to it held another hound mix and a Border collie, both half grown. A soft crate in the baggage hatch was big enough for a black hound who’d served as  a foster mother and two more beagle pups. By the time we’d climbed above 5,000 feet, everybody had settled down to nap.

An English setter on his way to a new home.

For the second straight week, I’d had to tunnel into 40-knot headwinds all the way across West Virginia. In a 180-hp Piper Arrow, that slows things down considerably; the groundspeed readout on my GPS only occasionally showed triple digits. But heading east, it boosted us to 175 knots. The 320-nm leg from Yeager Field in Charleston to the Queen City Airport outside Allentown, Pa., actually went seven minutes faster than the 210-nm outbound leg from Frederick, Maryland, and the pups reached their foster homes by dinnertime.

I made my first rescue flight in January 2009. Not long afterwards I began using a column in my logbook to track the number of dogs I’d hauled. This latest pack brought the total to 151. Without a doubt, it’s the most rewarding flying I’ve done. I’ve landed at airports I’d never have had any other reason to visit, flown on gusty, bumpy days when it would have been easy to be lazy and stay home, and put those hard-won instrument and crosswind landing skills to practical use. I have met some of the most selfless, generous, hard-working people on the planet–people who will not let themselves be discouraged by an endless stream of unwanted animals and county shelters that can’t afford to help them. Best of all, I have pictures of 151 dogs (and counting) and the satisfaction of having given them a little help getting home.

Maybe dogs aren’t your thing. No problem! Opportunities for public-benefit flying are everywhere. Whether it’s transporting human patients on Angel Flights, training to do search-and-rescue with the CAP, carrying out environmental surveys, or giving demo flights at your airport’s open house, there’s no end of ways your airmanship can help make things better for someone else. Look around, and you’ll find plenty of reasons to fly–enough to deserve a separate column in your logbook.

If aviating for others has changed your attitude, tell us more in the “Comments” section.  We’d love to hear about the worries as well as the rewards … not to mention any really good flying stories.

David Jack Kenny is the statistician for the Air Safety Institute.

The sound of silence

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

Sept. 11, 2001, was a day of turmoil for most Americans. After all the stress and anxiety of the day, it was great to get home to family. Only then did the last surprise of the day really hit home to me.

At home, outside, the crystal-clear blue sky was silent. No airplane noise. No contrails. No nothing.

How unusual is that? Here’s how the airspace shakes out above Frederick, Maryland: At the lowest altitudes are the Robinson R22s from our local helicopter school. They’re almost always flying, and frequently get far enough west of the airport to overfly our house. Above them is the fixed-wing traffic going to and from Frederick Municipal Airport. Next are the airliners heading south to Dulles; and a couple of thousand feet higher, eastbounds for Baltimore-Washington International. Higher still are the contrails of flights making their way up and down the East Coast.

Of course, they all were grounded that night. The only airplane noise came when the fighters flying combat air patrols above Washington, D.C., occasionally strayed in our direction.

Today, 10 years later, all the normal traffic was present and accounted for–although we did hear fighter jets, just once or twice. I much prefer the airplane noise, thank you very much.

What almost happened on 9/11

Friday, September 9th, 2011

As we reflect on the events that transpired 10 years ago Sunday, I was both intrigued and surprised to read a story I don’t recall hearing about previously: that of the first F-16 sortie scrambled to protect Washington, D.C., from United Airlines Flight 93–the fourth airliner presumed hijacked that clear September morning.

Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney had just returned from two weeks of air-combat training in Nevada. She and Col. Marc Sasseville quickly launched to intercept the airliner. Not one of their squadron’s aircraft was armed, however–no missiles, no bullets. Their only plan, if they found the jet, was to ram it. Like high-tech kamikazes.

There are many places I was thankful not to be on Sept. 11, 2011. The cockpits of either of their fighters just shot to the top of my list.

Hours later, they learned that the passengers on the flight had accomplished their mission for them, causing the plane to crash in Pennsylvania. Penney’s story, recently printed in The Washington Post, is a short but compelling read.

That unselfish willingness to sacrifice all for the greater good has been seen in–and sadly, demonstrated by–so many of our military personnel and first responders in those dark days, and the days since. That’s what I will remember and honor this weekend. It’s also a fair bet that was the last morning there were no armed jets on alert in Washington.