History of the Aviation Infrastructure in Alaska

Most Alaskan’s know that the first powered aircraft flight in Alaska took place in 1913, as a demonstration at that year’s Fourth of July celebration in Fairbanks.  And that commercial aviation started a decade later when pioneer aviator Ben Eielson talked several Fairbanks businessmen into buying a Curtis JN-4D “Jenny.”  Eielson proceeded to fly from the local ball field, sometimes cutting weeks off the travel time to remote mining claims. But when did we start to develop the airfields, communication and weather stations to support this new mode of transportation?  Who did the work? I recently spent a few hours at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the Rasumson Library looking for answers to these and other questions.

From air fields to airport system
As “the aviation” first started to develop, airplanes literally operated from fields.  A ball-field in Fairbanks.  Hay fields in other places.  Since Alaska did not achieve statehood until 1960, the initial efforts at dealing with aviation as a system fell to Alaska Territorial government.  Aviation is included in the 1929 Annual Report of the Governor of Alaska to the Secretary of the Interior, mentioning that “At the present time there are 44 landing fields in the Territory and three transportation companies operating a total of eight commercial airplanes.” At the time individual communities raised funds to develop an airfield, expecting to receive matching funds from Alaska’s Territorial government.  In Valdez, the city not only raised money, they put sweat equity into the project by clearing the land, even before there was an aircraft to base there!

A series of reports of the Alaska Aeronautics & Communications Commission helped document aspects of this history.  In 1929, the Territorial Legislature appropriated funds administered by the Highway Engineer to “…purchase, install and maintain radio-telephone station equipment for the larger towns.”  The report went on to say, “In a short time the problem of communications became too complicated for the Highway Engineer, and subsequently in 1937 the Legislature established the Territorial Department known as the Alaska Aeronautics and Communication Commission.”

Definition of the Alaska Aeronautics and Communications Commission, established in 1937. Source: Report of the Alaska Aeronautics and Communications Commission, 1941-42.

1937 Alaska Aeronautics and Communication Commission
The Commission, comprised of the Territorial Governor and one commission member from each of Alaska’s four judicial districts, initially oversaw the installation of weather stations, and collected statistics on aviation activity, which were detailed in a series of annual reports.  A supervisor was hired to coordinate this activity. The commission’s initial role was “supervision and promotion of aeronautical and communications within the Territory…” even then, not to duplicate or conflict with federal regulations.

The first report covering 1937-38, filed by Supervisor G.E. Goudie, describes coordinating with both the federal CAA and the FCC.  In that period, the commission managed to stand-up weather stations in Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage. Observers at these locations recorded weather reports, issued eight hourly weather broadcasts daily and wired reports to the Weather Bureau.  Work was underway for a station in Ketchikan.  In addition, “radio ranges” for navigation were in planning stages for these locations.

Territorial operation of these stations was to be a temporary measure, until the CAA could obtain funds to take over the “Alaska Program.” Alaska was already behind the rest of the country in the development of infrastructure.  In addition to weather and aviation communications, the use of this communication network included emergency messages, often involving need for medical assistance or transport.  These were credited with saving numerous lives across the territory.

New aviation regulations for Alaska
As the United States geared up for war, the military temporarily took over operation of some of the territorial radio stations, and aviation operations in general. Even at that time, people were looking ahead to the need to expand, as manufactures announced planned production of aircraft to support “private flying.” From the 1942 report, “Numerous manufactures have recently announced planes, suitable for use by the average citizen and within the reach of his finances, to be manufactured after the war.” In anticipation of that surge of air travel, the commission worked on safety rules, “…requiring certain safety provisions be carried out thereby reducing the possibility of increased costs to the territory in the conducting of searches…” This generated a territorial requirement for Alaskan aircraft to carry emergency rations, in a regulation adopted March 22, 1943.  That report also contains territory-wide maps shows the commercial air routes, areas authorized for “irregular routes” and radio stations in use at the time.

Toward a full Department of Aviation
From the inception of the Commission in 1937 into the early 1940’s, the focus had largely been on establishing weather stations, radio networks, and the collection of aviation statistics.  In a later article, I plan to outline the next steps in development, which include an increased focus on airports, eventually leading to the establishment of a full-fledged Department of Aviation in the late 1940’s.  A big thank you to the staff at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Rasmuson Library for their assistance locating the reports that document this history!

Alaska air transportation routes map from the Report of the Alaska Aeronautics and Communication Commission, 1942-43


When ground and sim training are complete, it’s finally time to fly the airplane! Back in the day, the first step was to get some landings in an actual airplane, usually conducted in the middle of the night at a small outstation under the guidance of a specially trained pilot. Those days are largely gone because of cost and safety concerns (mostly cost). Simulators are now so good that the airlines and the FAA agree that “familiarization flights” are no longer needed.

Initial operating experience (IOE) is the term used to describe your first trip of several in an airplane under the watchful eye of a check airman (sometimes called a line check airman, or LCA). IOE is an exciting yet nerve-wracking experience. You’ll go to the airport, find the crew room, and go through the entire preflight routine. It will feel like you have no time at all to get everything you need to do done, but in no time you’ll be able to do it all with time to spare.

The LCA will be talking a mile a minute, trying to teach you as much as possible in as short a time as possible. At the gate, you’ll do a supervised walk-around, and then get in the cockpit and do your routine as you’ve trained for it in the sim. However, now you’ll be bombarded by other distractions that you didn’t have before, such as flight attendants who want to say hello or need you to order something they’re missing in the cabin. Mechanics may be nosing around, and ticket agents usually come down to see if you’re ready. It doesn’t help that you still haven’t perfected the routine, and you feel as if you’re running in mud. Meanwhile, the LCA keeps talking, and he’ll take over a lot of the little stuff to try to achieve an on-time departure.

You’ll be thinking about the fact that you’ll be flying the airplane for the first time with a cabin full of passengers who have no idea that you’ve never actually flown this airplane, but you can’t dwell on it. Time will feel very compressed as you’re dealing with ATC, busy frequencies, and weather you don’t see in the sim (especially good weather). Your first night in the hotel will probably be one of the best nights of sleep you’ve ever had, thanks to the exhaustion.

IOE is a lot of fun in addition to being a steep learning curve. You’re putting all of the pieces together and realizing the culmination of your dreams. At times it’s frustrating because you don’t realize going into it how much you still have to learn, and landing the airplane is totally different than the sim. But over a few trips, with several LCAs, it starts to fall into place. And no matter how many times you go through IOE in the future, it will never be as overwhelming as the first time. Nor will it be as fun.—Chip Wright

From the Pyrenees to the Portuguese Coast

I tried to cross the Iberian Peninsula once before in 2017. The plan went south 100 nautical miles into the flight, and I haven’t since been able to make much headway out of Catalunya owing to a lack of Spanish airports with fuel in key areas. It would be better to have two fuel tanks in this aircraft, though alas, that is not how it is.

For a variety of reasons, we decided to spend three months in Portugal, along the Atlantic Coast. Since I wouldn’t dare leave the Cub behind, that meant figuring the problem out, solving it, and actually pulling it off, crossing the entirety of the Iberian Peninsula, from the Pyrenees to the Atlantic, in February.

I spent many weeks staring at Google Maps and sectional maps, trying different things on for size, realizing that it is very hard to finalize a plan, as headwinds are unknown until the day of flight. Eventually, I settled on an astonishing six stops for a 560nm flight. If I removed one, the distance became an issue with winds, fuel, and alternates, whereas executing the plan seemed on the surface absurd. Part of the problem is that I take my time taking photos, and since I did not ever expect to fly this Cub in these countries, I decided to simply take longer and savor the experience. It would take two days due to time of year.

A window of weather opened in mid-February, two weeks before our anticipated drive. I have learned the hard way crossing the USA that one should move an aircraft before leaving terrestrially, as go/no go decisions can be made same day, whereas to return via public transportation and commence a flight separates the go/no go by two days from the flight. Thankfully I went the weekend that I did, as the weather became extremely unsettled right up until now, locals in Portugal noting that it has been a very long time since they have received so much continuous rain.

Part of making this trip possible is the carriage of two gas cans in the back seat, totaling 10 gallons, for which I would use as a backup, to land at abundant ultralight fields and airports that lack fuel, and transfer as necessary. If I did not have this feature, I would have to fly a silly zigzag between airline-serviced airports in Western Spain. For safety, I ordered a seatbelt extension and had handles welded on the front, to prevent them from dislodging in the event of a non-catastrophic airplane crash, whacking me in the back of the head and causing severe injury that otherwise would not have happened. With that in place, plus water, food, first aid, a tent, blankets, tie downs, tools, extra oil, a MacBook, flight bag, cameras, and clothing for the return trip, the whole thing looked like a gypsy caravan, and behaved aeronautically as such given the weight involved. This isn’t my first rodeo with such distance and gear.

Gypsy Caravan

The first stop was about 100nm, leaving the Pyrenees, crossing over an inversion, and landing in the middle of the Monegros Desert, replete with desert wind. It was a microlight field of 1,300’, with a runway that had the quality of a farm driveway. Swerving around massive vultures at 20’ AGL on short final, I bounced along stones and ruts, pulling up to the hangar/restaurant, noting mariachi music playing. With desert vegetation, Aragon architecture, and Mexican music filling the air, it felt like I was in the Sonoran Desert.

Exiting the Pyrenees

Tardienta de Monegros was a really funny little airport. The owner runs a microbrewery, hosts a mini Spanish “Burning Man” festival, and regularly has video and still photo shoots at the field, as the place is in the middle of nowhere and nobody cares what happens. He showed me some sample commercial print material done: some neo-Nazi reenactment, Molotov cocktails in full flame, plenty of fashion models, and apparently two full porn movies shot by established enterprises….with European ULM aircraft as backdrops! Fuel consisted of gas cans obtained from a gas station. I had wondered why he asked the day before exactly how much fuel I wanted; he merely drove and got it from the nearest station. Funny as that was, I was proud of myself for precisely calling it: 30 liters of consumption, with a tiny bit of room left over.

The next leg took me just outside of Madrid, another two hours in flight. Winds were a stiff headwind over the desert, quite rocky along the Moncayó ridge, and then a slight tailwind over the central Spanish highlands. Unfortunately, it was cloudy during this stretch, which is no good for photography, though I did enjoy the open stretches. Landing at Robledillo was a bit intriguing with a stiff wind, though it was a pretty field. I had called in advance to ensure that they took credit cards, which they assured they did. Upon arrival, it was all cash, for which I was thankful I had a pile.

Monegros Desert near Zaragoza – rather breezy.

Spanish highlands.

NE of Madrid – this photo reminds me of the Swan Valley in Idaho.

At this point, I could have headed to the other side of Madrid and called it a night, except I wanted to get a photo of Valley of the Fallen. It is a monument to those who died during the Spanish Civil War, controversially built by Spain’s former dictator Franco. Nonetheless, it features a 500-foot cross that can be seen from twenty miles away. I also received a recommendation to check out El Escorial, a Spanish royal summer residence, which was just over the hill. To pull off the flight, I had to cross a spider web of airspace, which local pilots told me I had to obey. Catalunya has an excess of controlled airspace, and it is popular practice to intentionally have an incursion in areas where “they would never send an airliner.” The odd thing is, Catalunya is one of the more wealthy and orderly sections of Spain, so I was shocked to hear that Madrid treats its airspace like the rest of the world: obey it. Thus, I snaked around and under CTRs to get to the northwest side, take photos, and get to Casarrubios for the night, southwest of the city.

Valley of the Fallen

El Escorial, in infrared.

The next day featured dull wind though overcast, which meant things were uneventful for the crossing of Extremadura. It is a place with low population and few airports. The night before, I discovered an airport that I had missed: El Rinconcillo de Guadalupe. That meant I could make it to the Atlantic Coast with only two stops that day instead of three. Since it was in an extremely rural area, I would be using the gas cans, which was fine with me.

Leaving Casarrubios.

Overflying the field, things looked normal, except there appeared to be a runway marker right in the middle of the field. Hmmm… perhaps the wind blew it there? I landed around it, noting an abundance of cow plops all over the grass runway. Strange…though perhaps they use cows to trim the grass? It wouldn’t be the first time, as my first flight in the PA-11 was in Florida at my grandfather’s winter residence, where a local farmer allowed him to take off from his cow pasture, which meant chasing the cows off and avoiding manure. This wasn’t that big of a deal.

I taxied to the edge of this “airport,” noting that it had nothing in the way of facilities or buildings, just some fencing and wide-open range, an over glorified cow patch with a windsock. I started my process to unpack the gas cans, only to note a Guardia Civil (paramilitary police) car lurking around by the fence, then moving away slowly. “Oh, maybe they’re interested in the airplane” I thought, full well knowing that a problem was brewing. I kept about my business as the nefarious police car moved a few times, eventually hearing one of the officers calling for me to come to him.

I walked over with a look on my face that did not indicate I enjoyed being interrupted to which four burly officers glared back. The entire conversation happens in Spanish.

El Jefe asked, “where is your permission to land?”
“It’s an airport. I don’t need permission.”
“This airport is closed and is private. It is not open to the public!”
“Not according to my map.”
“You need permission to be here.”
“Well, if that was disclosed properly on official aviation maps, I would have gone somewhere else.” I then pull out my iPad, showing him the airport designator, which he finds educational as he clearly has never seen an aviation map before.
“Where is your flight plan?”
“I don’t have one.”
“You don’t have a flight plan?”
“Flight plans are not necessary for flights outside of instrument conditions and outside of controlled airspace.”
At this point he was stumped. “Where did you come from?”
“Where is that?”
“Southwest of Madrid.”
Stumped a bit more. “Where are you going?”
“What do you mean why?”
“What is the nature of this flight? Is it commercial?”
“No. I am flying the plane there because I am going to spend three months at the beach.”
“I need to see some identification.”
At this point, I produce an expired Spanish visa (now resolved) and a brand-new US passport with no stamps in it whatsoever, meaning I don’t have a shred of proof I am in the country legally (even though I was, technically). He looks them over and hands them back. “I need to see the aircraft registration.” It is at this moment that I realize nothing bad is going to come of this exercise. I dismantle the entire gypsy caravan to get the registration, which is “properly displayed” under all of my luggage. I also fetch my stack of European ramp check paperwork, ready to go to war over VAT and importation tariffs if this guy is in the mood. He looks at the registration and asks me where the registration numbers are on the aircraft. I point to the rudder, then to the registration showing that they match. He asks a few questions about fuel range and if these things have an “ITV” (car inspection). I am not asked to produce a pilot’s license.

During this whole affair I am hearing my 87-year-old grandfather’s voice echoing in my head: “I have never been ramp checked by the FAA!” Well, I’m 36 and this is the second interrogation by police.

El Jefe continues, “I need to see the contents in your luggage.”
“You want me to open my suitcase?”
“To see if I have crack in it?”
“Well, if the Guardia Civil wants to see my underwear, who am I to stand in the way?”

He does a quick glance at just two of them. I offer my tool chests, flight bag, and the rest. He shakes his head. I ask, “Are you sure?” He is quite sure that his interest is flagging, as I think to myself that if I was going to smuggle anything from Morocco in a Cub, it would not be in the suitcase, but what do I know?

At this point I ask, “Is there an infraction here?”
“No fine?”
“Nope, but we need to take a picture of the registration for the file.”
“Ok, have fun.”

The farmer that bought the airport then arrives, commencing an indignant Spanish rant about how I am the third airplane to land since he bought it, and he doesn’t understand why, as he shoved the marker in the middle of the runway. I then furnish an education that de-registering the airport would be the first step, followed by removing the runway numbers, runway markers, and windsock and putting two yellow X’s on each end, that these are the international symbols for a closed runway. They all have a look of both appreciation and realization that they were dramatic idiots. I allowed a bit of face saving and graciously continued my refueling, for which everyone calmed down and had a nice chat, inclusive of the farmer eyeing up the airplane with some curious intrigue, and the Guardia Civil taking selfies in front of the Cub before takeoff.

Courtesy call by Spanish law enforcement. Note the airport marker in the middle of the runway, apparently denoting that it was closed.

The flight into Portugal is nowhere near as eventful as those shenanigans; however, I did have a problem that required resolution. Flight plans can only be activated over the radio to my knowledge here, not via iPad or other device, even though they can be filed, amended, and delayed through electronic means. Madrid Approach would not answer, probably due to altitude, so I could not activate the plan there or anywhere else in the boonies, which is required to cross borders within Europe. I cancelled it via the iPad, as I have learned that European airports still expect arrival if a filed plan is not activated, whereas in America they fall out of the system after 30 minutes.

As Portugal is pretty strict about the border, I finally dismiss thoughts about sneaking in without calling, and make the call to the Portuguese military, advising I had a problem with flight plan activation. They ask where I am going and tell me to stand by, for which eventually they say they cannot find a flight plan and it’s no big deal. My transponder is not on to conserve limited battery power, as I have no alternator and could not locate a plug for the charger during my overnight stay.

We do some back and forth about “negative radar contact,” my explanation being accepted, which was met with “N5547H, squawk 1367” 15 minutes later. I turn it on, using my buffer (reserved for urgent situations and coming controlled airspace), squawk, get verbal radar identification, and no explanation why we just had a conversation that I had low battery and now I am on radar. Iberia…there aren’t words.

I refuel at Ponte de Sôr and am told I must have a flight plan to exit the ATZ. I try to get around it. Not allowed as I must have one to take off, so I fill out a paper form and they scan it off to Lisbon Flight Service. I am cleared to takeoff, head west, and am told I must switch over to the Portuguese military, even though I plan on avoiding military zones. They cannot find my flight plan (so much for “required to take off”), so they send me to Lisbon Approach, who “couldn’t read the form.” I try multiple times to get rid of flight following. Not allowed (even though it is). We spend 5 minutes air filing an ICAO flight plan, get handed back to the military, and eventually he tires of me when I fall off radar and just tells me to let him know when I get to my destination, which I do. I ask to terminate the flight plan. Not allowed in the air! I advise I do not know who to call to terminate via phone, and get no response. I then wander along the Atlantic for a few minutes, taking in the fact that I had the Cub based on the same Atlantic Ocean, 3500 miles to the west in the North Carolina Outer Banks, three years ago. I expected none of this in life and continued to be amazed by the places an old plane can go.

I land, for which the owner of the airport (who speaks only Portuguese) calls Flight Service and has a clear argument with them that yes, he is calling and not me, and yes I landed, and why can’t the stupid flight plan be closed? Iberia. There aren’t words.

And so the Cub is back on the Atlantic for the time being.



Life as a chameleon

Flying as a first officer (FO) means working as a chameleon. Every captain has his or her own quirks, and the FO has precious little time to figure out what those quirks are. Some captains are just weird, and some are just plain wrong, and others are just a bit too literal in their interpretation of certain rules and procedures. Some are just, well, quirky.

I flew with a captain at my first airline who had a reputation for being difficult to get along with for various reasons. The general consensus was that he had a temper, and if something wasn’t done his way, he’d get upset.

The one thing that stands out in my mind was his origami method of folding the paperwork. We had a paper release at the time, and there was one section that had all of the pertinent data needed for a flight. It had space for the ATIS, the clearance, performance info, et cetera.

Ninety-nine percent of the pilots utilized that paper the same way. This guy didn’t. It had to be folded a certain way, and I can’t begin to guess how many tries it took him to get it this way, but when he finally had his eureka moment and found his magic fold, FOs were doomed. It wasn’t just that it was folded a certain way. It was folded in such a way that every line on it was now visible at all times (which was something only he cared about).

In order to achieve this art, he was the only one allowed to handle it. The FOs weren’t supposed to touch the paper until he had done his folding, as he didn’t want any wrinkles or stray ink marks. All of this would have been somewhat tolerable under normal circumstances, but a person who has such odd behavior about one thing has it about everything. Further, he wouldn’t tell you about this until after you’d upset him. If you’re going to be weird, particular, and difficult, tell everyone in advance.

Another example was a captain who tried to correct my actions by quoting “the book” to me. That’s all well and good, except in three cases out of three on three consecutive flights, he was wrong. It led to a fairly heated argument on the last leg of the trip, but by then I’d figured out how he operated: I had to be perfect, and he had to be right. It makes for an unhealthy working relationship, and not one that is conducive to safety or a good time. Sometimes it’s best to just do what they want and grit your teeth, but if you’re going to quote the book, get it right.

Most captains try to fly to the established standard, but we all are human, and it’s understandable that there are times when a shortcut gets taken, or minor difference gets introduced. It doesn’t help that sometimes the manuals are as clear as mud. But as long as safety isn’t compromised or a policy is deliberately violated, there can usually be a meeting of the minds.

If the new “concept” is one that leaves you uncomfortable, then discreetly check your manuals to verify you’re right, and then ask why a particular liberty was taken. That doesn’t mean you need to do the same—in fact, you should do things exactly as you’ve been trained, and then decide whether or not it’s worth pursuing other avenues to bring it to the attention of the appropriate people. If it is, don’t hesitate to do so.

Captains….they all do things the same, only different.—Chip Wright

It’s About Time!

I just added ADS-B Out to my airplane. I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a very long time—48 years to be exact.

Air Facts (May 1970)

Air Facts (May 1970)
click image to read article

It was 48 years ago that my very first aviation article was published. Its title was “The Role of Computers in Air Traffic Control.” I was 26 years old at the time, not long out of college, and starting a career in computer software at the dawn of the computer age. I’d only been a pilot for five years and an aircraft owner for two.

I timidly submitted the 3,000-word manuscript to Leighton Collins (1903-1995), the dean of general aviation journalists (and Richard Collins’ dad). Leighton founded his magazine Air Facts in 1938, the first GA magazine to focus primarily on safety. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Leighton became a pioneer in using GA airplanes to fly IFR, something that was considered risky business at the time. In 1970, I was a newly-minted CFII and Skylane owner, and Leighton was my hero and Air Facts my bible.

Leighton loved my article, and published it in the May 1970 issue of Air Facts.  I was thrilled. I was also hooked and went on to write more than 500 published aviation articles between then and now.

How big is the sky?

I’d been instrument-rated for about four years when I wrote that article, and had thought quite a bit about the differences between VFR and IFR flying:

A pilot flying VFR in clear weather is unlikely to see more than a few other aircraft on a typical flight; to him the sky seems to be a rather empty place. Yet to the pilot stuck in an IFR hold with an estimated-further-clearance time forty-five minutes away, the sky seems to be an order of magnitude more crowded. Why? Clearly there is no shortage of airspace; every VFR pilot knows that. The aircraft flying under IFR have the best equipment and the most proficient pilots aboard. Where does the congestion come from?

My conclusion was that the fundamental difference between VFR and IFR lies in who is separating aircraft. VFR pilots are responsible for their own separation, while IFR pilots rely on air traffic controllers to keep them separated from other traffic. Thus, I reasoned, the comparatively low capacity of the IFR system must be attributable to some failing on the part of controllers. Yet as someone who has spent many hours visiting ATC facilities and observing controllers at work while plugged in beside them, I can testify that these folks are amazingly sharp, skilled, and well-trained professionals who do their jobs exceptionally well.

So why can’t these hotshot controllers separate IFR aircraft nearly as efficiently as VFR pilots are able to separate themselves? My conclusion was that the very nature of the separation task is fundamentally different:

A pilot is concerned solely with the one aircraft that he’s flying, but a controller must keep track of several aircraft at once. Give a person several things to do at once—even simple things like head-patting and tummy-rubbing—and his performance in each task drops sharply. Keeping track of a high-speed airplane is considerably harder than either head-patting or tummy rubbing. Keeping track of a dozen such airplanes travelling in random directions at random altitudes is simply beyond the capabilities of any human.

Our IFR system is designed to simplify the controller’s job to the point that it is within the realm of human capability. It does this primarily by eliminating the amount of randomness the controller must deal with. It strings airplanes along a few well-defined airways/SIDs/STARs, confines them to a few standard altitudes, and sometimes slows them down to a few standard speeds. Doing these things makes the airplanes much easier for the controller to keep track of and keep separated, but it also wastes most of the available airspace and reduces the capacity of the system.

Do we really need ATC?

It seemed to me that the capacity of the IFR system could be vastly increased if we could just stop relying on controllers to separate airplanes and enable pilots to self-separate, much as they do when flying VFR. In 1970 when I wrote the article, we were right on the cusp of two major technological breakthroughs that I believed had the potential to make that possible.

GPS ConstellationOne of them was the promise of accurate satellite navigation. The Naval Research Laboratory had launched its Timation satellites in 1967 and 1969, the first ones to contain accurate atomic clocks suitable for navigation. Meantime, the Air Force’s Space and Missile System Organization was testing its more advanced system (codenamed Project 621B) for aircraft positioning between 1968 and 1971. These were the progenitors of today’s GPS system—something I could see coming in 1970, although a seriously underestimated how long it would take to become operational. The first constellation of 10 “Block-I” GPS satellites wasn’t in orbit until 1985, and the system’s full operational capability wasn’t announced until 1995.

MicroprocessorThe second breakthrough was large-scale integration (LSI)—the creation of integrated circuits containing tens of thousands of transistors on a single silicon chip—and the emergence of the microprocessor. Microprocessors weren’t yet invented in 1970 when I wrote the article, but as a computer scientist (my day job at the time) I could see them coming, too. As it turned out, Intel introduced its 4004 microprocessor in 1971, its 8008 in 1972, and the 8080 (which really put microprocessors on the map) in 1974. This watershed development made it feasible to equip even small GA airplanes with serious computing power.

The ATC system of tomorrow

Traffic DisplayIn my 1970 Air Facts article, I painted a picture of the kind of ATC system these new technologies—GPS and microcomputers—would make possible. I postulated a system in which all IFR aircraft and most VFR aircraft were equipped with a miniaturized GPS receiver that continually calculated the aircraft’s precise position and a transmitter that broadcast the aircraft’s coordinates once per second. A network of ground stations would receive these digital position reports, pass them to ATC, and rebroadcast them to all aircraft in the vicinity. A microcomputer aboard each aircraft would receive these digital position reports, compare their coordinates with the position of the host aircraft, evaluate which aircraft are potential threats, and display the position, altitude and track of those threat aircraft on a cockpit display.

Such a cockpit display would enable IFR pilots separate themselves from other aircraft, much as VFR pilots have always done. It would permit them to fly whatever random routes, altitudes and speeds they choose, giving them access to the same “big sky” that VFR pilots have always enjoyed.

I theorized that pilots are highly incentivized to self-separate and would do a much better job of it than what ground-based air traffic controllers can do. (Just imagine what driving your car would be like if you weren’t allowed to self-separate from other vehicles, and instead had to obtain clearances and follow instructions from some centralized traffic manager.)

What took so long?

NextGen controllerWhen I re-read that 1970 article today, it’s truly eerie just how closely the “ATC system of the future” I postulated then resembles the FAA’s “Next Generation Air Transportation System” (NextGen) that the FAA started working on in 2007 and plans to have fully operational in 2025. Key elements of NextGen include GPS navigation and ADS-B—almost precisely as I envisioned them in 1970.

I was wildly overoptimistic in my prediction that such a system could be developed in as little as five years. If the FAA does succeed in getting NextGen fully operational by 2025, it will be the 55th anniversary of my Air Facts article.

NextGen also includes improved pilot/controller communication (both textual and VOIP) and various improvements designed to allow use of more airspace and random routes. Sadly, it stops well short of transferring responsibility for separating IFR aircraft from ATC to pilots as I proposed in 1970—although our aircraft will have the necessary equipment to do that if the FAA would just let us. Maybe that’ll have to wait another five decades until NextNextGen is deployed (and there’s an autonomous self-piloting octocopter in every garage).

Cargo versus passengers

I was recently in a friendly debate with some friends on Facebook about the merits of flying cargo versus passengers, especially in the coming years as Amazon continues its stratospheric growth. Those who fly cargo tend to be absolutely devoted to that line of work. The common refrain is that boxes don’t complain, and the chief pilot rarely calls.

What are some of the pros and cons of cargo versus passenger flying? Let’s start with cargo. Yes, it’s true that cargo doesn’t complain, unless it consists of live animals, in which case it may very well complain or lose control of its bowels. But the point is valid. Passengers do a lot of bellyaching about the airlines—some deserved, some not so much. Boxes just sit there and take up space, and they don’t care if the ride is bumpy or if the cabin is hot or cold.

Passenger carriers generally have fairly set rules on leaving early. Cargo operations tend to be more relaxed about departure times. If the airplane is full 30 minutes ahead of schedule, chances are you can leave. That may not sound like much, but if you’re scheduled to fly all night, every minute of getting done early helps.

Speaking of the schedule, that is hands-down the biggest drawback to cargo flying. The overwhelming majority of the schedule takes place “on the back side of the clock,” also known as night time. While many cargo pilots claim that you can get acclimated to the schedule, the reality is that the human body isn’t designed to be awake at night for extended periods of time. You’ll be asleep when others are awake, which can be a challenge in hotels if they’re noisy. You will be forced to flip your body around when you get home in order to have any semblance of a family life.

But if you can make it to the big boys of cargo (FedEx and UPS), the benefits are tough to beat. The pay is fantastic (it has to be to attract pilots to that kind of work) and the health insurance and retirement are superb.

Even at the second-tier carriers, such as Atlas and Southern, there have been meaningful changes and improvements. Pay is going up, and schedules are getting better. Amazon is clearly trying to get a better deal on shipping costs by controlling its own airplanes, but it remains to be seen if the company can build a stand-alone delivery system. But even if it can’t, it can produce jobs that don’t currently exist. The downside? The pay is no match for the majors, and it probably never will be, even though it’s getting better.

Passenger carriers have their own pros and cons. Passengers do indeed complain, and it’s embarrassing to see your company on the news when something bad happens. The competition is cutthroat. Working conditions at the regional airlines are a far cry from what they used to be, but they’re not where they need to be.

The schedules can be somewhat sporadic, but outside of long-haul flying, they’re not nearly as hard on the body as cargo. Pay, however, is now much more reflective of the market for pilots, especially at the regionals. For some, the availability of pass benefits and free travel makes all the difference. I like to get the words of thanks and appreciation from my passengers when we get them where they want to go. Cargo may not complain, but it doesn’t thank you, either.

And the chief pilot? He rarely calls as well. And when he does, it’s almost always a justified phone call, and it’s the same phone call his compatriot at a cargo company would make.

There are pros and cons to both cargo and passenger flying. Both offer their own rewards. If you’re not sure which one you want to do, try them both, talk to pilots on both sides, and use that information to make a decision.—Chip Wright

If you Build it, They will Come.

Determination, passion and connection in the heart of the Rockies.

Amy Helm became the airport manager of Glenwood Springs Airport [KGWS] in April of 2017 after interviewing and presenting a petition with the signatures of 60 local pilots who supported her candidacy. The daughter of a private pilot, Amy didn’t set out to be an airport manager, but nonetheless she has devoted her time, determination and passion to this Colorado airport nestled in the heart of the Rockies.

Amy Helm

Amy loved aviation as long as she can remember. She worked at Glenwood Springs Airport in high school and earned her pilots license there. After college and fulfilling some wanderlust, she returned to Colorado wanting to get a job as a back-country pilot. As is often the case, Amy soon discovered that she needed to learn about maintenance and repair in order to pay for her flying. She received her A&P and after completing a stint as an apprentice, she moved to SE Alaska working as a mechanic for a bush pilot. The next stop on her grand circle tour was Juneau Alaska where she earned her IA and worked as a helicopter mechanic for Coastal Helicopters.

Amy and I talked about the qualities of character it takes to be a pilot, mechanic and airport manager. I asked her if her job is hard. She laughed and said, “There are days that are hard, and there are days that are a lot of fun.” Amy said that the number one factor in both her work as a mechanic and an airport manager is determination. Anyone who has volunteered at an airport knows a lot about determination. At Glenwood Springs it took two separate work parties and 30 volunteers to get the airport back in tiptop shape for visitors.

Development has encircled their airport with housing tracts on both sides. Over the years there have been threats to the airport from developers. Thus Amy’s first tasks as the new airport manager were to spruce the place up, replace worn signage, increase community awareness, and start planning on a community aviation expo. The first event was very successful giving 150 airplane rides, hosting 500 people in attendance, over 30 types of airplanes and helicopters on static display for the community to walk around, sit in, ask questions about and  a vendor display. The second annual event will be held August 18th, 2018.

Glenwood Springs is a tourist destination with skiing, skydiving, white water rafting, climbing and of course the world’s largest hot springs pool. Camping on the airport grounds is allowed. Although the fourth oldest airport in the country Glenwood Springs Airport does not receive FAA grant money, nor any funds from the City of Glenwood Springs. Funding for the airport is based solely on donations, fuel sales, tie-down and hangar income.  Amy and I spent some time talking about mobilizing pilots and promoting General Aviation to communities.

Call to Action

Pilots are “do something” people. Fly the airplane; don’t let the airplane fly you. We all are airport, and airplane, lovers. When it comes to your local airport,  think small and big; local level, community-based. How can your airport serve your community in non-aviation needs? Perhaps a space for community meetings, a host of a canned food drive, or a fund-raiser for the local humane society. With our home airports,  step up, raise your voices and let your opinions be known. This might mean speaking in front of the airport board, or county commissioners. Use your local airport as a resource. Bring the community inside the fence. Be able to tell the truth. If someone wants to do something unsafe at an airport, speak up. Be on guard for encroachments, misapplications of directives, and oppressive policies. The second level of involvement is in between micro and macro, it is the state level. Are you involved with your state aviation association? Do you know who your regional director for AOPA is? Do you have a Representative or Congressman from your state on the GA Caucus? Have you thought about becoming involved with aviation at the state or regional level?

If you Build it, They will Come

In order to promote General Aviation define it for the non-flying public effectively.  It is very important to be positive and focus on the ways that G.A. helps our communities and our citizens.  When I meet someone at an event I ask if they are a pilot, or know a pilot.  If not a pilot, I ask if they ever wanted to learn how to fly.  If yes, have they made steps toward learning, and if not, why not?   Even those folks who do not wish to become pilots would benefit from knowing how General Aviation affects them on a daily basis. Here are some ideas you might try at your home airport:

Oceano Airport Salute to Veterans May 11-12th, 2018

Toys for Tots

Airport Day Fun









Fly-In Movie Night is always a big hit. All you need is a large screen, projector, sound system and popcorn. Toys for Tots is a great feel-good event that will benefit the children in your local area. Take a page out of Amy’s playbook and have an Airport Appreciation Day. Young Aviator Camp: Approach your local YMCA, Parks and Recreation, or Boys and Girls Club and ask about putting on a day camp for children.  Most airports have a green space, campground or empty hangar that can be used as a classroom area. Topics could include: What is General Aviation? Fundamentals of Flight, Basic Navigation, Mechanics, How to Become a Pilot, Careers in Aviation, and Charitable Flying. Young Eagles: EAA chapters have a tremendous amount of impact on the youth in our local communities when they hold a Young Eagles day. Public Radio and Television: Those of us in GA oftentimes overlook public radio and television, yet they are constantly on the look out for community-based stories.  Why not contact your local station about an upcoming event at your airport?  4-H Aero, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts: Both Boy and Girl Scouts have merit badges in Aviation.  Why not offer a daylong workshop to help the kids get their badges? Service Club Speaker: Why not talk with your local service club, or chamber of commerce about using YOU as a speaker?  This is a perfect opportunity to talk with a captive audience about the value of general aviation and general aviation airports. Emergency Responder Appreciation Event: Each of our communities have unsung heroes. Why not have a pancake breakfast, spaghetti feed, or burger fry and invite your local ambulance, search and rescue, law enforcement pilots, fire fighters and other emergency responders.  School Assemblies: Elementary schools have requirements about science education.  Aviation falls into that category.  Why not talk with your local principal about doing a fundamentals of flight assembly for your local school?  You could have RC models to illustrate lift, thrust, drag and gravity.  End your presentation with ways that the children can come to your airport. Remember children, bring their parents!

For many in the country the aviation season is beginning. We are making our reservations for Sun n Fun, or one of the four AOPA Regionals, or Oshkosh. But please remember to support our small GA airports which host events. Get your airport on the map like Amy has with Glenwood Springs. Host, volunteer, or attend a cool event. Invite your friends and more importantly your community. You will be rewarded with the joy of flight, connection with others, and keeping our airports vibrant.

Battle of Mediterranean Winter

I like to believe that I arrive at conclusions based on accurate information. Vegetation, weather data, and conversations with locals implied that Cerdanya gets some snow each winter, though not much, and it “always melts the next day.” As I have heard around the world, the elderly speak of how winters used to be worse and actually had some snowpack, though now…not anymore.

Fair enough. Last winter was supposedly exceptional, as Levante events off the Mediterranean favored the south side of the valley with purportedly a year that is unlikely to be repeated. As I was told, in some recent winters barely any natural snowfall fell on that side, so I was duly impressed and happy with what we received.

Granted, measurable snow fell from early November to late April in the valley, sometimes up to 8 inches at a time, and melted as promised rather quickly, each time being told its “normal,” despite wheat crops getting smashed and lawn sprinklers running while it was snowing. As winter gave way to summer, I was greeted with snowfall on the mountaintops (9,000 feet) in every single calendar month, despite valley temperatures at 4,000 feet reaching almost 100 degrees last summer. This is something that happens once every 10 years in the Rockies, so I thought it was exceptional. The locals told me it was normal.

Then we received 18” of snow on green leaves at 6,000 feet, merely 2,000 feet above the valley….on September 13th. Again…..”normal” according to the locals.

Curiously, September 13th was not a harbinger of things to come. We had a wicked drought where temperatures were summerlike well into the fall, snow didn’t fall on the mountains for months, and reservoirs dropped down to 37% of normal seasonal levels – a story that sounds a lot like California. This continued into December, with no real snow, nice weather, and a nagging presumption that I saw the best that Catalonian winter had to offer in the prior year.

In January, the Battle of Winter began.

It started with a wallop of snow that came while I was driving back from Switzerland, coming over the pass in France greeted by roads that were reminiscent of a war zone. The next available moment, I went flying thinking that was probably the best we’d see for the winter, plowing through the unplowed snow for takeoff.

Jan 8 – La Cerdanya Aerodrome

A few days later, I was surprised that the snow was still there, so I went up again to photograph some remaining river fog, still taking off through somewhat thick snow on the field.

Jan 11 – Riu Segre fog.

I then ventured out to the Pre-Pyrenees, to try to play again with persistent winter inversions, and despite not much snow on the other side, I did encounter some nice tones. Maybe winter is slacking off as expected.

Jan 12 – Montserrat

A complicated story in itself, the focus of my next day’s flight was a checkride for my European pilot certificate, which took us out of the Pyrenees as part of a test of cross country dead-reckoning skills. There, we were able to test the diversion requirement without the examiner making something up; rather, we encountered localized clouds blocking our path, and in so diverting discovered a pocket of winter. Perhaps things are starting to remind me of last year after all, even though I have been taking off through slush and snow for days on end?

Jan 13 – Pre-Pyrenees

The next day, it was a bit windy, as the infamous “north side” of the Pyrenees had gotten some snow, which seems to be the focus this year. Despite the continuing upper level winds, a raw, guttural desire to attack came from within, and I weaseled around some cloud layers to sneak up to 10,000 feet around sunset.

Jan 14 – Puigpedrós (9,554′ / 2.912m)

Pyrenees at sunset from 10,000 feet.

For some reason that I cannot remember, I felt the need to fly yet again, and this time found Tosa d’Alp with some snow, but really not that much compared to the prior year. Alas, we had our shot of winter and I guess that is that?

Jan 15 – Tosa d’Alp ( 8,488′ / 2.587m), believing there is no real winter.

The three essential ingredients of Pyrenees winter are: waves, snow, and inversions. This image features all three, followed by my new fixation: a dual band 590nm infrared camera, which shows foliage in a separate color tone than sky. I still am perplexed why I viewed the inversion last year as such a negative…

Jan 22 – Waves, Snow and Inversion.

And the new infrared camera…

The following flight proved my hypothesis. Despite lingering snow pack now for two weeks at the house, winter is localized this year and is basically a joke. Heading halfway to the Mediterranean, I was able to view alpine tundra lacking any serious snow…in late January. Last year, this part was completely covered and had avalanches. Alas, my new toy did handle haze well in lower elevations, and life goes on without real winter.

Jan 24 – Eastern Pyrenees with low snowfall. Proof that, as my wife says, “winter here is a farce.”

Lower altitude infrared.

So it snowed again. Curious.

Jan 26 – Plowing through snow again to take off…

And then it started to blow. 20 knots at field level, 40 knots at 9,000 feet, and 60 knots at 12,500. I had a strong intuition, with a northeast instead of north wind, that I could sneak around Cadí-Moixeró with blowing snow and 40 knot winds, and this I did without encountering downdrafts or turbulence.

Jan 27 – Who doesn’t like horses?

A tad breezy…

In the wave at 10,000 feet…

And the blowing snow at 8,600 feet beneath…

It was finally time to head over to the “north side” to see what all the fuss was about. Whatever snow we were not getting on the Spanish side was falling on the French. I am told this is normal, as many years its good on either side of the valley, and not both. Apparently, this year belongs to the French, so I might as well check it out.

Jan 28 – Catalans doing donuts in a field.

French backcountry skiers.

The “north side,” progenitor of our famous mountain waves, and recipient of lots of snow.

The mountain waves strike again, though I still am operating on the delusion we are not experiencing winter, despite three weeks of snowpack.

Feb 3 – Mountain waves again from 8,500 feet.

A storm was predicted, 12 inches, so I snuck up in the beginning of it to enjoy some good old flying in the snowflakes (you can see them whizzing by). This is an age-old pastime that I take very cautiously, having never experienced ice, though almost always merely dabbling on the edge of a snow shower. If someone decides to fly into an ice storm without a FIKI system because of this image, he or she should consider some instruction.

Feb 4 – Flying in the snow.

And the coup de grace: attack of the Mediterranean! 3 feet of snow. Flying took a break until I could a) find the car b) get it out and c) get to the airport to find out how much fell and who to bribe to get enough removed to do some STOL activity and go flying. Thankfully, capitalism won and the flying club paid some heavy machinery to clear the field.

Feb 5 – So much for 12″ of snow….

Feb 8 – Infamous hair dryer engine heater.

La Cerdanya (including aerodrome) with 3 feet of snow.

A trip to the “north side” on the tail end of a north wind snow event. I finally decided to see what is going on over there during these events. It was absurdly cold at 9,500 feet.

Unfortunately, temperatures dropped to -9F / -22,8C and that caused the foundation to heave, requiring a tractor to open the hangar, a Barcelona TV crew to block what limited taxi space was available, three airplanes, a tractor, and two cars to get parked in the way, and an insulting shovel stuck in a snowbank that I had to power off to remove for wing clearance. After 2 hours of removing obstacles at a rate slightly faster than they were presenting themselves, I was able to see some of the Pre-Pyrenees with snow uncharacteristically low. Ironically, the flying club went through three tow planes, unable to start any of them. As I taxied up to them in my significantly older and carbureted engine, I offered my hairdryer, and they indignantly declined, looking at me like some kind of hobo.

Feb 9th – Minus 9F / Minus 22,8C in the morning, coldest in 18 years. Pre-Pyrenees unusually covered in snow.

North side of El Pedraforca (8,223′ / 2.506m)

I would go up today as I write this, except winds are gusting to 50mph. While I absolutely in all seriousness would relish the chance to see a ground blizzard from the Cub, there are some things that are just not possible.

Feb 10 – Winter wins this round. 

In a nutshell, winter is quite pretty and enjoyable, though I may suggest altering suppositions about Spain’s purportedly temperate meteorology.


In a decidedly less wintry theme, I have published “Field of Dreams: American Agriculture from the Sky,” my second work covering a national subject as seen from the Cub.



Will there be any more consolidation?

The airline industry has gone through several cycles of consolidation in the last 10 to 15 years: ValuJet/AirTran, AirTran/Southwest, TWA/American, USAir/America West, USAir/American, Delta/Northwest, and United/Continental at the majors. At the regionals, Republic/Chautauqua/Shuttle America, SkyWest/ASA/ExpressJet and Mesaba/Pinnacle have changed the landscape. Alaska and Virgin America are the most recent to announce plans to wed.

Of late, there have been rumors about a jetBlue merger, and there has long been talk of Spirit and Frontier. JetBlue seems to be the most interesting one, because that airline has become a major powerhouse with hubs in New York, Boston, and Orlando, along with a sizable presence in Fort Lauderdale. JetBlue also caters to both business and leisure travelers.

Historically, airline mergers have had to meet several criteria, the most important of which is the maintenance of access to travel for passengers. This became less important as Congress recognized in the last round of mergers that there was too much service at airfares that were too low. With the mega-carriers now operating, profits have soared. However, what makes a merger with jetBlue difficult is the potential choke-hold that its hubs would provide to whomever buys the airline. Congress could require some kind of a fracturing of the company in order to support a merger. JFK, the crown jewel, would be the ultimate bargaining chip.

But here’s the rub: Too much of what jetBlue does out of JFK replicates too much of what other carriers already offer from their own East Coast coast hubs. An airline would need to add service from JFK that jetBlue doesn’t have, or service that supplements existing international service from that market.

Orlando is a leisure market with lower yields, and it doesn’t lend itself well to being a southern connecting hub such as Atlanta and Charlotte, though it does provide ready access to points south in the Caribbean and South America. But, many of those are also load yield, so the problem doesn’t immediately solve itself.

Mergers also create other huge challenges, not the least of which is  bringing together drastically different work cultures and product offerings. Nothing will clog up a merger like disgruntled employees that are also being swamped with new procedures, rules, and policies. The end result is billions of dollars lost and millions of unhappy customers.

I won’t say that jetBlue won’t or can’t get caught up in a merger, but it has to be accomplished wisely, with the realization that the end product will be drastically different. I do, however, think that a couple of the ultra-low-cost carriers will be forced to eventually merge, with Spirit and Frontier being the logical choices. They compete for a segmented market offering low fares that are hard to turn into profits. Customer service is less of a concern, but it still matters. I think Allegiant will continue to be a stand-alone carrier because its niche is different, and it sells the whole travel package as a vacation, not just a ticket from A to B.

The regionals are harder to predict. Their existence depends on capacity purchase agreements with the majors. However, even SkyWest, which was long considered “the place” to work, is having trouble recruiting and retaining pilots. It’s possible that, down the road, SkyWest and Republic may have to at least do the dance.

Consolidation is probably over for now. However, in such a dynamic industry, anything can happen. Change is constant, and it stands to reason that offers will at some point be made and entertained. Whether they will be consummated will depend on the circumstances in place at the time.—Chip Wright

The Cessna SkyCourier

Cessna recently announced a partnership with FedEx to build a clean-sheet twin called the SkyCourier. Designed to service smaller markets in the FedEx network, the new high-wing twin is a classic Cessna design: It’s boxy, with a strut-supported, straight high wing and fixed gear. It won’t be fast, as it is advertising a top speed in the range of 200 knots. Odds are that the airplane will be designed for single-pilot operations in the cargo world, and will be flown with a crew for passenger flight.

Big, boxy Cessna’s tend to be easy to fly, and the SkyCourier will likely be no different. The landing gear is going to be fairly wide, so crosswind landings will be a relative breeze.

So what does this mean for wanna-be professional pilots? Back in the day, getting multiengine time was the equivalent of a crusade. Nowadays, there’s a recognition that multi time is not realistically attainable in any sufficient quantity, and regional airlines train pilots the way they want them to fly in Level D sims, after which they get extensive training when flying the line.

There is no word yet on how training will be conducted in the SkyCourier. Chances are, there will be some kind of simulator, even if it isn’t a full Level D. Sim training is safer, cheaper, more efficient, and more effective than training in an airplane. The systems on the SkyCourier are likely to be pretty simple, so the academic side of the training will probably spend more time on the avionics.

Pilots who are lucky enough to fly the SkyCourier when it hits the market will have a decided leg up on their competitors when it comes to landing certain jobs. Multiengine time will always be a valuable commodity, and it’s quite possible that pilot with relatively low total time, but a good chunk of multiengine turbine pilot-in-command time in the SkyCourier may be able to procure a job with a major airline faster.

I also suspect that the SkyCourier will find a place in the passenger world in markets where the Beech 1900 or the Twin Otter used to excel. It won’t happen in droves, but it will happen. In time, it will find work for skydiving and missionary work, and if winds up on floats, I won’t be surprised.

The lack of retractable landing gear will lower insurance premiums (not to mention maintenance costs) for operators, and won’t measurably hurt pilots looking to move on.

This airplane is a great piece of news, as it demonstrates the confidence of FedEx and Cessna in the small-town package delivery market, and injects new life into a segment in which the airplanes that are available are old and tired. Those who are going to fly are going to be very fortunate indeed.

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