Tom Haines

Comments from an Alaska veteran pilot

September 30, 2012 by Thomas B. Haines, Editor in Chief

Every once in a while I get a letter from a reader that is especially encouraging and thoughtful. Today was just such an occasion when 30-year Alaska pilot Jim Gibertoni commented on my Waypoints column in the October issue . The subject is the use of general aviation for transportation and the associated challenges.

Given his decades of flying in challenging Alaska, his comments and observations are particularly valuable. He cut and pasted my article into his email and then inserted his comments into the article [I've noted his inserted comments in italics.] I’ve posted his letter verbatim below. What do you think?

Tom

I will save a copy of this article in my past great article file. Do not change anything it’s great. You are 200% correct and to me this is one of the pieces to the puzzle of why GA is going backwards.

My comments ( not to be confused with changes, do not change anything in this article) are in red. [I have put Jim's comments in ital--Ed.]

When I write about using my Beechcraft Bonanza for transportation, I frequently get questions from members asking how to best plan for weather contingencies when flying a single-engine piston airplane. Good question. I wish there was a single, simple answer.

My first question to myself when considering a trip where weather is a factor is about the capabilities of the airplane and myself. I do this all the time, sole searching myself has kept me safe I believe. Is this the sort of weather situation that can be handled in a single-engine piston airplane? Very good question, I ASK MYSELF THIS EVERY FLIGHT. Let’s face it, while we like to crow about the utility of flying ourselves, there are limits, especially when flying airplanes like mine. I agree 200%, my plane is the same as yours 1969 U206/G. The plane is non turbo, no anti ice and was set up for economy, lost cost, LOP, and carrying allot weight. My plane has got to return money to the coffers. I am a plumber in Northern Alaska traveling from village to village (my pickup). It not a toy. I fly it 300 hours plus per year and about 10% is in hard IMC. Did I mention that I live in Northern Alaska and we have icing here (350 days a year).

Without even turbocharging to get into the flight levels, no ice protection except pitot heat, and no pressurization, my options are limited. No airplane is immune to weather, but with a turboprop, pressurization, and icing protection—and maybe even airborne radar—you can get through more situations than those of us who fly more pedestrian machines. Agreed, exactly correct, Looked at getting a Caravan numerous times. While a Caravan would add to the utility it would not return money to the coffers. The Math simply is not there.

Putting the gear aside for a moment, how am I doing? Instrument current and confident? Rested, hydrated, and nourished enough and feeling up to a challenge that may be a couple of hours down the airway—after I’ve been sitting at 9,000 or 10,000 feet all that time? And am I really up to the challenge today? I’m usually game for going for a look-see, but there is an occasional day where I simply don’t feel like running the flight planning gauntlet and the hassle that may come from having to stop short of the planned destination. Excellent

Those are the days I just stay home or buy a ticket and let someone else do the work. This sentence and the timing of this article on my doorstep is so accurate. In the last two weeks I skip 7 days in a row going to Kaltag a village about 250 miles west. One the eighth day I went under published MVFR weather. Nine times out of ten I am single pilot VFR/IFR. This day I took a second  pilot with me (inner voice). I have an STEC 30 A/P. Trip was non eventful other then hard IMC on the way home. Three days later I got ridiculed by other CFI for flying that day because of potential icing. Point is I do not have your option let someone else do the work. That not feasible, so I just wait for my window. A very old woman ask me last year if I ever had an accident with the plane. I told her no, I am way overdue!

However, making challenging flights is how we grow in our weather experience and decision making. Thank you for this sentence, you truly are a master at your writing skills, wish I could do this. Staying home when the sky darkens is a sure path to not getting much utility out of an airplane. Preaching to the choir. All things in life are in balance, sway one way and the story ends sadly, sway the other way and you lose utility and money. I am 60 now and been flying up here since the 70’s. Sometimes I think I have a PHD in this balancing act until I get caught, and I still get caught at times. Old Sicilian saying “you can be arrogant, you can be ignorant, however you cannot be arrogant and ignorant at the same time” Never forgot that and how it applies to Aviation. Next step for a lot of people is to sell the airplane, because they aren’t using it enough.

Most important for me is a flexible schedule. As I’ve said before, I don’t plan on traveling by GA anytime I have a hard and fast deadline to meet. If I don’t have the schedule flexibility to leave a day early or later and the forecast is for severe weather along the way, it’s not a trip for an airplane like mine.

There is no such thing as a hard and fast deadline in Northern Alaska. Been there done that, never ever to go back to it!

If I can take off in visual conditions and face building thunderstorms down the road, but know I can easily turn back to improving weather, that sounds doable. If the weather is isolated enough that I can easily get around it without nudging into fuel reserves—another good possibility. If the weather is at the destination, I’ll want to know how far it is to the nearest airport with visual conditions. A fuel stop may be required.

Once you take off, the plan may go out the window. Maybe that big gap between those storms fills in or the fog that is expected to lift at the destination doesn’t; then what? That’s when you act on the plan you made before takeoff—turn back or go elsewhere, or you dream up another one with the help of the onboard weather gear, Flight Watch, and ATC. This is when it’s great to have a co-pilot aboard who can seek weather information for other airports and routes while you fly the airplane. Did I mention how nice it is to have even a basic autopilot for such trips? YIPEEEEEEEE, would not go anywhere without my STEC30, Call me spoiled,

but I won’t fly in weather anymore without datalink weather. I wish I could say that, however the reality is there is no Satellite radio, ADS-B or Datalink in northern Alaska, now and we are not scheduled to receive it for three more years. I live in Jurassic Park in dinosaur land.

 

It’s changed the way I fly and the utility I get out of my airplane.

Returning from EAA AirVenture in July, Flight Training Editor Ian Twombly and I left beautiful weather in Appleton, Wisconsin, bound for Maryland. A line of thunderstorms stretched from Cleveland eastward. More storms were developing over West Virginia, but it looked like we had a clear path over Pittsburgh. As we progressed that afternoon (our schedule didn’t permit a morning flight) the two systems began to merge. Climbing to 11,000 feet to stay visual, we maneuvered among cloud tops and had to turn due south toward Parkersburg, West Virginia, to get through the narrowest part of the line. Thanks to the datalink weather, Stormscope, and ATC, we were in clouds less than five minutes and never got wet—despite some impressive thunderstorms east of our course. Once south of the line we turned east and paralleled it all the way home.

Returning from Wichita after flying the Cessna 182 JT-A diesel airplane (“Jet A for Your Skylane,” page 52), AOPA Live Executive Producer Warren Morningstar and I skirted similar weather in about the same place—again at 11,000 feet and with supremely clear skies behind us. We passed through beautiful sunset-lit cloud canyons and dodged to the south as dusk turned to darkness. We could see lightning in the clouds well north and south of us, but we weren’t in IMC more than five minutes during the entire trip. Challenging and satisfying flying, but started only with options available.

Articles like this are why I subscribe to AOPA magazine

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