Archive for January, 2012

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.

Light sport aircraft fly to Bahamas

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

Success! Kitfox aircraft tour BahamasKitfox aircraft fly near a rainbow while touring Bahamas

When you think of small, two-seat, 1,320-pound light sport aircraft, you think of something best suited for short trips. The owner of Kitfox Aircraft, John McBean, and the owner of an Idaho flight school that trains Kitfox customers, Paul Leadabrand (in the yellow Kitfox with huge tundra tires), might just change your mind. They flew their two Kitfox airplanes first from Idaho to Sebring for the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo, and then on to the Bahamas. The airplane started as a kit with thousands now sold, but is also offered as a factory built light sport aircraft. You’ll see a report on it in “AOPA Pilot” in coming months. (I flew the yellow one seen here.) (Click photos to enlarge.)

Kitfox aircraft fly near a rainbow while touring Bahamas

Red Tails of today see “Red Tails” movie

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

Today's Red Tails see "Red Tails"

One of the very first military units in Afghanistan to see the “Red Tails” movie was the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, the unit that today carries the heritage of the 332nd Fighter Group known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Another home for the Tuskegee Airman in World War II was the 477th Bombardment group. Here, you see Col. Paul Beineke, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing commander, speaking to his unit, also called the Red Tails, prior to showing the movie at an undisclosed base. The movie was shown January 27. (Click photo to enlarge.)

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.”

Not enough room

Friday, January 6th, 2012

Yet again I wish the space for “Notes and Comments” in my logbook wasn’t so small. Printing the tiniest letters I can manage, there’s still barely room for the details I’m most likely to need later: route clearances, altitudes, and weather. Only a cryptic abbreviation might help identify this as the day I took two English setters to new homes. I doubt that 10 years from now, that will bring back everything that made these flights memorable.

Icing was a worry. The overcast wasn’t forecast to break up until after I hoped to be gone. I’d had to add a stop at Fayetteville, 90 miles beyond my original destination, so I wanted to be on my way. Ceilings were above 3,000 feet, so there was room to escape if clouds started sticking to the airplane.

Most of my time with Flight Service was spent discussing weather, but I did get a notams briefing. Good thing, too: Runway 6 / 24 at Person County, my second stop, was closed for paving and painting.

Whoops! Person County has exactly one runway. Landing on the taxiway might be frowned on, so a quick phone call was in order. We picked another field; then I called to amend my flight plans.

The clouds proved blessedly ice-free. They lasted just long enough to put a couple more tenths in the “Actual Instrument” column. Skies were clear before I reached the Virginia-North Carolina border.

Fayetteville was using Runway 4. The tower cleared me to land, adding “Winds are from three-three-zero at one-five gusting two-two.” Hello! It’s been a while since I landed in a real crosswind. It wasn’t pretty, but at least nothing broke.

Being more loyal than smart, I buy fuel at every stop. This turned out to be a good thing, because at the next airport nobody answered my unicom calls. The rescuers met me with the second dog.

Raylan before boarding his flight in North Carolina.

“We heard you on the radio, but didn’t know how to answer. There’s nobody here!” Sure enough, the FBO’s doors were open, but there was no sign of the staff. That meant no fuel–this field doesn’t offer self-service. Not good: The next leg was the longest, and winds would be 45 knots right on my nose. The route across West Virginia to Ohio crosses some awfully lonely country.

I launched with the four and a half hours’ supply I had left, planning to divert if the GPS-estimated flight time didn’t settle below 3:30 within the first two hours. It didn’t begin well. The wind produced mountain waves; at one point, pitched up at Vy approaching Roanoke, groundspeed dropped to 44 knots. But the waves dissipated as we reached the mountains and groundspeed inched up from 85 knots to 105 farther northwest. We landed in Columbus with 3:22 on the clock and an hour and a half’s worth of gas.

Boone meeting his new family in Ohio.

It was dark by the time I finished taking pictures and waved good-bye. The flight home was graced with a 30-knot tailwind. Mist gathering in mountain valleys looked like moonlight reflected from distant rivers.

Only when I tried to squeeze those 8.5 hours into two lines of my logbook did I realize that in one day, I’d seen a pretty good selection of the challenges we face in GA. I hadn’t suffered a mechanical failure or flown an instrument approach. But I had dealt with an airport closure, icing risk in IMC, three tricky crosswind landings, turbulence, mountain waves, brutal headwinds, loss of a planned fuel stop with the uncomfortably close planning that required, and solo single-engine flight over the mountains at night.

Not to mention live animals. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Tell us about your memorable flights in the “Comments” section!