Book Review: The Long Way Home

In early December, 1941 a Pan Am fly boat commanded by Captain Robert Ford and his long way home book covercrew of ten had almost completed their scheduled flight from San Francisco across the Pacific to Auckland, New Zealand. As the radio operator scanned the airwaves, he caught an AM radio station broadcast with the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor—which they had left only three days before.  Shortly thereafter, a Morse Coded message (their only long range form of communication) instructed them to “Implement Plan A” a Top Secret, sealed document all Pan Am captains had carried in the preceding months. Once opened, they realized that their world had changed.  The arrival in Auckland was uneventful, but that would be their home for more than a week, until further instructions were received. Now they learned that it was no longer possible to return along their normal routes. The crew was directed to remove any identifiable markings from the aircraft, maintain radio silence, under no circumstances allow the aircraft to fall into enemy hands, and proceed west to Laguardia, New York.  At the time, the company had no routes established “to the west” until reaching the Atlantic, off the coast of Africa.  They also had no charts, weather, radio frequencies or other information any pilot, GA or airline, would want to undertake such a trip.  They were literally, in uncharted territory!

What follows is an adventure, which I found fascinating on several counts. The story is chronicled in the book, The Long Way Home, Revised Edition, by Ed Dover.  Based on interviews with surviving members of the crew, and illustrated with flight logs and photographs of the aircraft and crew members, it was written in 1999 and revised in 2007. A Flight Radio Officer for Pan Am’s flying boats from 1942-1948, Dover knows first-hand the technologies and procedures of the day. He transports you back to a time when a combination of dead reckoning, celestial navigation fixes, and drift sights— augmented with a new low-frequency direction finder— were their tools to navigate the 2,400 nautical miles from California to Hawaii.  While not a typical GA aircraft at 82,500 pounds pushed along by four 1,600 horsepower radial engines burning 100 octane avgas, the Boeing 314 flew in the same part of the atmosphere most of us do today.  So as they encountered a cold front on the way to Hawaii, Captain Ford descended to 500 feet to get below the cloud bases.  I found the story to provide enough information for those of us that are pilots to have a good sense of their operating conditions, while still making the narrative read like a mystery novel.  To avoid robbing anyone of the opportunity to enjoy the story themselves, let me just say that when they took off to cross Australia, Indonesia, India, to the middle East and over Africa, it is an adventure!  To give you a clue—before leaving New Zealand they went to the local library and borrowed some atlases to select a route… To help follow the story, I fired up Google Earth and reconstructed the route, for my own “situational awareness.”

long way home route graphicView Boeing Clipper route around the world in Google Maps

I have a personal connection to this story. My great uncle, Captain Gordon George, flew the flying boats for Pan Am in this same time period. His career started as a Navy pilot flying seaplanes before joining the airlines, eventually retiring from the Boeing 707.  As a young pilot, I enjoyed his stories of this period. He described encountering 80 and 100 mile an hour winds enroute across the Pacific, only to have dispatch not believe them. Their credibility improved when the jet stream was “discovered” by the meteorological community, and it was recognized that there are bands of winds that reached those velocities.  I also remember his saying at the time he retired from Pan Am that flying had become little more than “being passed from one air traffic controller to another,” and that in his mind, “that wasn’t really flying”  After reading this book, I have a better understanding of the world that he operated in, and what he meant by the statement.

For a look at the start of true global aviation, in a time that seaplanes were the norm, and a global network of land-based airports was still in the future, I recommend this book.  Aviation, adventure and a war story all wrapped into one. My thanks to Ed Dover for taking the time to research and share this rich journey with us!

 

FAA Makes Tower Closing Decisions with Dates

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has decided to close 149 federal contract towers beginning April 7 as part of the agency’s sequestration implementation plan. The agency has made the decision to keep 24 federal contract towers open that had been previously proposed for closure because doing so would have a negative impact on the national interest. An additional 16 federal contract towers under the “cost share” program will remain open because Congressional statute sets aside funds every fiscal year for these towers.

The national interest considerations included to save those 24 towers were: (1) significant threats to national security as determined by the FAA in consultation with the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security; (2) significant, adverse economic impact that is beyond the impact on a local community; (3) significant impact on multi-state transportation, communication or banking/financial networks; and (4) the extent to which an airport currently served by a contract tower is a critical diversionary airport to a large hub.

FMI: http://www.faa.gov/news/press_releases/news_story.cfm?newsId=14414

The FAA has released its three-part phase in period for closing federal contract towers. On April 7, 24 contract towers will close (http://download.aopa.org/advocacy/130325april7-closures.pdf), followed by 46 on April 21 (http://download.aopa.org/advocacy/130325april21-closures.pdf), and the remaining 79 on May 5 (http://download.aopa.org/advocacy/130325may-5-closures.pdf). The FAA is closing the towers based on activity levels, with the first to close having fewer than 1,000 commercial operations in fiscal year 2012. The second group had fewer than 2,500 commercial operations.

This means the following towers will be closing in the Central Southwest Region:

- Arkansas: Drake Field (FYV in Fayetteville) on April 7 and Texarkana Regional – Webb Field (TVK) on May 5.

- Iowa: Dubuque Regional (DBQ) on April 21.

- Kansas: Hutchinson Municipal (HUT) on May 5, New Century AirCenter (IXD) on April 21 and Johnson County Executive (OJC) on April 7 (both in Olathe), Manhattan Regional (MHK) on May 5, and Philip Billard Municipal (TOP in Topeka) on April 21.

- Louisiana: Shreveport Downtown (DTN) on April 7.

- Missouri: Branson (BBG) and Columbia Regional (COU), both on May 5.

- Nebraska: None.

- New Mexico: Double Eagle II (AEG in Albuquerque) on April 21 and Santa Fe Municipal (SAF) on May 5.

- Oklahoma: Lawton-Fort Sill Regional (LAW) on May 5, University of Oklahoma Westheimer (OUN in Norman) on April 21, Wiley Post (PWA in Oklahoma City) on May 5, and Stillwater Regional (SWO) on April 21.

- Texas:

Closing on April 7:

  • Lone Star Executive (CXO in Conroe)
  • Georgetown Municipal (GTU)
  • Dallas Executive (RBD)
  • Sinson Municipal (SSF) in San Antonio

Closing on April 21:

  • New Braunfels Municipal (BAZ)
  • TSTC Waco (CNW)
  • San Marcos Municipal (HYI)
  • Collin County Regional at McKinney (TKI in Dallas)
  • Victoria Regional (VCT)

Closing on May 5:

  • Brownsville/South Padre Island International (BRO)
  • Easterwood Field (CLL in College Station)
  • Sugar Land Municipal (SGR in Houston)
  • Tyler Pounds Regional (TRY)

For a complete list, visit: http://www.faa.gov/news/media/fct_closed.pdf

AOPA recommends checking notams often, flying with current charts, and reviewing ASI’s Operations at Nontowered Airports safety advisor (http://www.aopa.org/asf/publications/sa08.pdf).

TENNESSEE’S AVIATION DAY ON THE HILL

Last week, AOPA joined with the Tennessee Aviation Association and Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame and together we put on TENNESSEE AVIATION DAY ON THE HILL at Legislative Plaza in Nashville.

Getting exhibits set up and providing a Continental Breakfast for Legislators and Staffers by 7:00 AM started for me at about 4:30 in the morning. As the State Capitol began to come alive for the day’s business, we got into full-swing serving biscuits & sausage, coffee, fruit and juice and talking about General Aviation! Jo Ann Speer, the President of the Tennessee Aviation Association brought hundreds of little balsa airplanes with the TAA logo on them and they were a real big hit. TAA’s entire Board of Directors were there as was TAHF Chairman, John  Black. We had the best location possible, right outside the entrance to the Lt. Governor’s office.

Wednesday morning at the Capitol, a first ever event for TAA and the TAHF, was a great day. I spend a lot of time in the halls of the Legislature for AOPA so I knew most of our visitors personally. Tennessee has a long history of legislative support for aviation and that was strongly re-enforced by the reception we all got from both Legislators and Staff. It is such a pleasure working with governmental leaders that “get it”, as we say! Of course, we managed to work in some lobbying on a few issues of interest as well.

These types of aviation events, focused on State Capitols are productive and important. In the every-changing halls of democratic government we should never stop doing these things. The Tennessee event was my second one this month. I also participated in one in Atlanta on February 6th. It too was very successful.

Ski pilots: Fly In to the Willow Winter Carnival

In what may be the first Alaska fly-in of the year, ski-plane pilots are invited to fly into Willow Lake, and attend the Willow Winter Carnival.  As daylight slooowly starts to return to the north, this event provides an excuse, er good reason, to pre-heat and fly over to Willow.  The Winter Carnival is not new—it has been going on for more than 50 years.  But this year thanks to some hard work on the part of community organizer Jane Dale (one of many hats she wears), provisions were made allowing ski-planes to land on the lake, within easy walking distance of the festivities.

The first airplane to arrive at Willow Lake as part of the Winter Carnival. Mt. McKinley looms in the background.

So what is the Willow Winter Carnival?  The event takes place in and around the Community Center and includes dog sled races, ski competitions, an outhouse race, bridge tournament, extreme dog boarding (I was afraid to ask what this was), ice cream eating contest, and much more.  While I was there today the Colony High School Jazz Band entertained the crowd followed later in the day by a K9 explosive detection demonstration by the Anchorage Airport Police.  Something for everybody!

The fly-in is organized by the Alaska Airmen’s Association and the Willow Airport Support Group.  The skies were blue, and the air cool and crisp, to the tune of about -5 degrees F.  While I was there, the first aircraft landed: a classic yellow supercub.  While most people arrived by car, the community center was packed. In addition to the special events, vendors were selling food, kids faces were painted, a wide range of items were available for sale or being raffled off, including a four-wheeler.  I bought a book on Joe Redington Sr, directly from the author.

If you are looking for a break in this rather bazaar winter we are having (weather wise), consider firing up your ski-plane and flying over to Willow for a few hours.  The Carnival takes place during two back-to back weekends: Jan 26-27 and February 2-3.  If you fly, check out the Willow Winter Carnival Site Plan, showing where the ski-strip and parking areas have been placed on the lake. Be extra alert, as there are dog races and other events also occurring on the perimeter and south half of the lake.  The revenue derived from this event provides the operating funds for the community center.  Details about the carnival are found on the Willow Area Community Organization’s website.  Consider it an Alaskan version of the $50 hamburger!

Book Review: The Bishop’s Boys

What was the world like when the Wright Brothers make the first sustained, powered flight?  Most of us are familiar with the year (1903) and the place (the sand dunes at Kitty Hawk), but what allowed Wilbur and Orville to accomplish this feat? How did they succeed where better funded efforts had failed?  The Bishop’s Boys: A life of Wilbur and Orville Wright by Tom Crouch, answers those questions and literally transports the reader back to the decades before and after the introduction of powered flight—setting the stage for the airplanes we enjoy today.

This story is not a quick read, unless you do nothing else for a couple days straight.  The 529 page account is broken into three sections. The first introduces us to the Wright family–particularly Wilbur and Orville’s father, Milton, who had a profound influence on their lives.  Milton was a dedicated church man, who rose to the rank of Bishop in the Church of the United Brethren. In this capacity, he spent much time on the road. Also a devoted family man, he corresponded frequently with his wife and children, providing a rich source of material frequently quoted in the book.

The second section introduces us to the public’s interest in powered flight, which was bubbling over at the end of the 1800’s in the US and Europe.  We meet the leaders of the aeronautical movement, men including civil engineer Octave Chanute, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley, and Otto Lilienthal, the German engineer and aviation enthusiast.  Lilienthal had completed almost two thousand flights in sixteen different models of gliders in a five year period prior to 1896.  The exploits of these individuals, and more, made headlines in the popular press which fanned a fever already in the back of the Wright Brother’s minds.  It was the work of these pioneers that Wilbur and Orville turned to as they started their own investigation into the secrets of powered, heavier than air flight.  While the concepts of lift and drag had already been identified, even initial formulas derived to calculate them, the genius of the brothers was their decision to focus on how to control an aircraft in flight. The famed December 17 flight at Kitty Hawk is today identified as the milestone we associate with the start of powered flight, however put in context of the times,  the aircraft that flew that day was but a prototype that continued to evolve over the next several years toward the first “production” aircraft.

Wilbur Wright instructing a student pilot in Pau, France, passes over an ox cart.–1909.

The final section of the book covers the post Kitty Hawk period. While continuing to improve upon their aircraft design, Wilbur and Orville increasingly had to deal with the political and business world to gain acceptance of their invention.   The brothers attempted to cloak themselves in secrecy to protect the patentable aspects of their work, at the same time trying to sell their invention to the government and to interests in Europe.  The years that followed became the “patent wars” with more time spent in court defending their invention, and less in the shop doing what they did best—solving technical problems to advance aeronautical science.

While written in 1989, the book feels timeless. The author tells the story as it happened, with inclusions of quotes from the letters, news reports and documents of the day. The bother’s focus on developing a way to control an airship in all three axes (roll, pitch and yaw) set them apart from others attempting to achieve powered flight.  Fortunately for us, a wealth of documents and photographs survive–and are liberally sprinkled throughout the book.  This isn’t just a story for pilots.  Crouch, who happens to be the senior curator for the aeronautics department at the National Air and Space Museum, also describes the social and political issues of that era. He goes into some detail on the patent war that stifled aeronautical creativity and innovation, and the controversy between the Wrights and the Smithsonian Institution. Tied to a major dispute over claims of the historical significance of Langley’s efforts versus the Wright’s accomplishments, this feud of almost thirty years duration came close to costing us our ability to look up the Wright Flyer that hangs prominently in the Air and Space Museum today.

When I next crawl into the pilots seat of my own aircraft, it will be with a much deeper appreciation of what the Wright brothers—and the other pioneers of their times—did to bring us the gift of flight!

Bid on Citation Jet Type Rating

By way of background information, the Massachusetts Business Aviation Association (MBAA) collaborates with AOPA on a number of legislative aviation issues. The Association is described as a not-for-profit association founded to promote and advocate for business and general aviation interests within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The MBAA addresses and responds to the full range of issues impacting the business and general aviation community within Massachusetts including safety, security, operational effectiveness, community and government relations, and environmental concerns.

There members include some of the largest corporations and employers in Massachusetts. Individual aircraft owners throughout Massachusetts who fly for both business and personal reasons are also members of the association.

In an effort to support the career development and training for student pilots and aircraft mechanics, the Massachusetts Business Aviation Association (MBAA) is auctioning off an Initial Citation Jet Type Rating valued at $17,000, to raise money for MBAA’s scholarship fund. The type rating was generously donated by CAE Simuflite, and the auction is open on eBay until September 15, 2012. The following is a link for anyone interested in bidding.

http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=221120762964

Since the purpose of this auction is to generate revenue to support training for student pilots, this is an event that we can all get behind.

Craig Dotlo, Eastern Regional Manager – AOPA