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Getting ready for class

When you get the call for a new hire class, it’s quite a thrill. But it can also leave you scrambling to get ready to check out of the real world for six to eight weeks.

Getting ready for class is similar to getting ready for your interview. The first thing you need to do is a document check. Your new carrier will  want you to have a current passport with an expiration date at least six months away. You may have to pay for expedited handling, but if you’re close to that window, just get it done.

Next up is your medical. Just about every airline requires all pilots, including first officers, to maintain a first class medical. If yours is going to expire in the next two-three months, consider biting the bullet and getting it renewed early, especially if you don’t want to have to run the risk of getting an appointment with a new doctor in a new city right away. If you decide to wait, be prepared to buy a ticket to get home to your regular doctor if the training schedule gets fouled up.

Your CFI certificate. If you’re coming up on a renewal for your CFI, try to knock that out of the way as well. Even if you have no intention of teaching again, think about how hard you worked to get your flight instructor certificate. You may end up wanting to teach just to work with some favorite clientele, or you may want to pick up some pocket change. And, heaven forbid, if you should have a problem with training and need to go back to teaching, you’ll need it. Additionally, you don’t want to rule out going into the training department at an airline, which is totally different than what you’re used to. Finally, doing a FIRC is time-consuming, and once you are finished with training, the last thing you’ll want to do is sit in front of your computer and bang out all those hours of clicking “next.”

Your driver’s license and pilot certificate. This sounds so simple, but you’re required to notify the FAA when you change addresses, and if your driver’s license is close to expiration, you want to get that renewed as well, especially if there is any chance you’ll be renting a car. If you’ve been bouncing around from one place to another looking for a place to live, you’ll need a mailing address for your new company. And, because you’re going into training, you may well have an event or a ride observed by the FAA. Matching addresses on your certificate, medical, and driver’s license saves some potential embarrassment.

Doctor’s appointments. These may be dictated by your current insurance situation, but you’ll want to use whatever time you can to knock out a basic physical, a trip to the dentist,  and your optometrist if you wear glasses. Once class starts, you will be too busy to be bothered, and a cavity or some other unexpected malady is not something you want to mess with in a new-to-you city.

Packing. You’ll want to have clothes enough to wear for at least a week to 10 days between loads of laundry. The company may or may not require you to have certain equipment at certain points in the training (such as headsets), and you’ll want to take stack of blank flashcards, a notebook, laptop, and spare phone chargers. If you’re driving to class, take a printer. Yes, a printer. It’s amazing how convenient it is when you can print something in your hotel room when you least expect to need to do so. If you’re flying to training, skip the printer, but find out what is involved in using the one in the hotel business center. You may need it for everything from printing out benefits information to getting a hard copy of the fuel system diagrams.

Getting the call for class is both exciting and stressful. But with a little bit of foresight, you can maximize the excitement and minimize the stress. It’s a long slog through the grind of indoc, systems, and the sim, let alone your first flights on the line, but it’s worth it. Don’t make plans to spend time with friends or family or a love interest. You’ll be pretty consumed, and you owe it to yourself, your employer, and your future passengers to totally devote yourself to training. There will be plenty of time to play hard later.—Chip Wright

What’s wrong with this picture?

An excellent artifice to take stock of the status of one’s situation as a pilot is to focus on what one is excited about. We all know what it was like to tell war stories as a student pilot about light to moderate crosswinds, which was at the time the most exciting thing to happen in an airplane. It would be natural to assume that a regularly active pilot would have more and more adventures under his or her belt, so the level to which something becomes exciting or novel would elevate.

I would expect that proposition to be linearly true if I stayed in the United States. I would have likely dragged the Cub well into Canada and possibly Alaska by this point, ratcheting up the adventure component, not-so-ironically flying in mountains that look quite like the Alps, and then some. As that did not happen, it exposes some additional dimensions which, as I have alluded to, do not always open the mind.

The first thing that caused me to wonder if I need some sort of psychological assistance is the practice of getting excited about my monthly invoice for my home-based airport. I have various photography and logging methods that keep track of flying, which means that every one to three months, I go back and update the official logbook. Thus, I don’t precisely recall where and when I went flying; I just go and let the chips fall, which they do in this case in the form of a monthly bill. The absolute perversion is that I have gotten to the point where I am excited if the bill is higher! For the month of April, it was “only” $192.31, which meant I went flying “only” seven times. My record is $274.73, which is ten times in a month, which I seem, again, perversely determined to break.

The second thing that raised an eyebrow is how I have convinced myself that I am now Indiana Jones with my landings at non-home-based airports. As I have ranted about before, European airports as a whole, country notwithstanding, tend to have a wide variety of categories, with a cornucopia of unique rules, charges, operating hours, and aggravations. The bottom line is that one cannot do what I used to do in the US: a flight briefing checking weather and TFRs for the whole area, NOTAMs for the intended refueling point, and then change my mind in flight (checking the AF/D and NOTAMs in the air). Here, much more research is involved and, in the case of Switzerland, PPRs (Prior Permission Required) are generally the norm, except for towered airports. That means picking something and sticking to it, with its attendant planning steps.

Since the last post, I landed at three other airports. Emotionally, it feels like I am some sort of ace pilot maverick though, much like my glee at how high I can ratchet a landing fee invoice, it has a certain perversion of logic to it. I recall days in the US where I landed at more than three different new airports in a single day. For that matter, I landed at four in one day in France on the escape from Germany in 2016, and at three each day for two days in a row while crossing from the Pyrenees to the Portuguese Coast in 2018.

I did recently experience the dreaded nightmare that caused this inertia. One of the things I am afraid of is either landing at a field and realizing that I broke some rule, or down to reserve and finding some reason why I cannot get fuel. There is another reality that prevents trying in the first place: PPRs. The first PPR I ever obtained required filling out a form on the web and waiting for email permission to land. Fortunately, it came within the hour, before the intended maintenance flight later that day. Somehow, I thought they all were like this, and I thought to myself: “How on earth am I ever going to go anywhere if I must get permission the day before, or if I don’t know if and when they will reply?” In my insistence to conquer this problem in the last two months, I forced myself to deal with it and found that each airport is different. Most are a quick phone call where they jot down the tail number and are rather flexible, which resulted in getting comfortable.

Not so fast! The day in question was after a long period of bad weather, in advance of a raging windstorm due the next day. There was going to be some “south Föhn,” which is problematic where I wanted to go. I wasn’t sure how much of this Föhn was going to blow, though the intended airport of Bad Ragaz is known as the worst in Switzerland for when south Föhn is blowing. Sure enough, it was a bit frisky that morning, so I devised an alternate. That resulted in a bunch of phone tag the morning of the flight to arrange a PPR. As I thought about it, every flying club aircraft in Switzerland was in the air at that moment. A perfect summerlike day in Spring, with impeccable visibility, no wind, and good glider lift? The PPR guy would obviously be out fueling and running around managing a litany of airplanes (that got their PPR the day before). I eventually chose candidate number three, for which the same thing happened, so I found number four, that had a phone recording PPR and the AIP said avgas was available for visitors on weekends. Just in time, airport number three called back, and I visited there some hours later.

While I can be descriptive as to the logistical vagaries belying my disproportionate excitement over landing at three other airports, it really is a reminder that something is wrong with this picture that I am excited with only three in a month. Since there is nothing one can do about the airport network, I am going to have to ratchet up the determination to untangle the situation and, at times, get the motivation up to snuff to keep at it.

The third reaction this month to my flying that I found interesting relates to two separate flights: one to above the summit of Mont Blanc (summit: 15,771’ flight: 16,200’) and a second flying in and out of the upper glacial valleys of the major glacier basins in and around the Aletschgletscher. Both of those were incredibly calming and pleasant, “how flying is supposed to be.” I recently had a way to drive this point home when chatting with the airport attendant at Reichenbach. I mentioned how “flying in this very south Föhn wind at the summits does not bother me. It is the airports, ATC, traffic, and turbulence down low that is a problem.” It’s funny how having to explain it to someone else coalesces the whole thing.

Much like how normal pilots find dread from the landing fee invoice while regularly flying outside of the wilderness conveniently and safely enjoying airspace and airport services, they tend to find flying over glaciers and wind shorn summits to be mildly disconcerting. I suppose it took reviewing what I find exciting and noteworthy to take stock of the whole thing. Despite my oft stated rationale behind it, I am not an Indiana Jones pilot for landing at three new airports in a month.

One of the rare opportunities to run errands using the Cub and have it be worth the time.

Thunderbolt Display successfully delivered to the Apple repair shop. Now don’t lose an engine climbing out from Lausanne. So far, Lausanne Airport is the closest to general aviation procedurally to the USA, as it is uncontrolled and public (no PPR).

Vierwaldstättersee, the site of getting beaten by south Föhn winds in February. I flew down the lake and into the valley this time.

Tight quarters however not an issue when the wind is out of the north.

Fuel. The only thing that gives away that its not in Wyoming is the ‘propeller whacking a head’ warning sign in German. Triengen.

Why Bad Ragaz was out of the picture. A breeze over Eiger and Mönch, which was translating into south Föhn in places.

And now the relaxing stuff. Mont Blanc (15,771′) from below.

From 16,200′ with Aosta Valley in the background.

Finsteraarhorn (14,022′) from the south. 

Finsteraarhorn from the north.

 

Behind the scenes

Like any other industry, aviation has a lot of stuff that happens “behind the scenes” that the average Joe isn’t aware of.

In fact, often people within that industry may not be aware of some of it either. After all, how often do you go to a restaurant and think about all the stuff that goes on in the kitchen before you get your food? Someone has to know how much of what to order, and someone has to determine how much of each food to make ahead of time based on demand and popularity.

The airlines work the same way. As you read this, the calendar will be indicating summer. And not just any summer, either, but the first summer after the strangest summer any of us can remember, along with a weird winter that didn’t seem to want to end. Many airlines already have a small team of people working on next winter’s operations. Deicing fluid needs to be ordered well in advance, with supplies adjusted based on expected fleet plans at each airport/hub, training manuals for all affected work groups need to be updated and harmonized, and equipment needs to be maintained, replaced, and repaired. Just getting the manuals updated is time consuming, because at some airports the work is contracted out to a company that handles multiple airlines, so everything has to be written as simply as possible.

Deicing equipment only gets used a few times a year, so functionality checks start early in order to find issues that result from leaving stuff sitting around for months on end. The folks who train the trainers also need to be brought up to speed early so that the training pipeline gets started, staffing can be adjusted, and schedules accommodated.

Another big behind-the-scenes area is the long-term scheduling of flights. Every airline calls it something different, but it’s basically the same: where will we be going, and with which airplanes, in 12 to 24 months. The three big seasonal peaks are Thanksgiving, which is easy (in the relative scheme) to plan on; spring break; and summer vacation, specifically the month of July.

My airline is constantly putting out communications about the next one or two summers, because those busy months drive the training schedule for pilots, and to a lesser degree, flight attendants. Big events factor in as well. For instance, last year, the Olympics were supposed to be a major focus point. COVID changed that, and this year the Games may be held with no crowds. Next year, the World Cup is on the docket, but it’s too soon to say how COVID may or may not affect that event, and that doesn’t take into account which teams may or may not qualify.

Maintenance is another never-ending cycle of planning and contingencies. Airplanes are subjected to some form of light maintenance every day or so, but they also need to be scheduled for “heavy” inspections based on the manufacturer recommendations. These checks pull the airplanes out of service for a few months at a time, and they are scheduled a year or more in advance. A majority of these events take place outside the United States, especially for wide-bodies. That is yet another variable that needs to be accounted for.

There are also unexpected events, like the grounding of the 737 MAX, which was down for two years, got released to fly, and then was partially grounded again. Airlines can accommodate some of these curveballs, but too often the only resort is to cancel flights and issue refunds.

Just like a restaurant that has to plan for a big social event, the airlines have to constantly tweak their plans, and often there are a lot of partners involved and a lot of unexpected ripples that have to be dealt with in the process. It’s part of what makes aviation such a dynamic, exciting industry: There is never a dull or a still moment. But there is always something that needs to be done.—Chip Wright

Silencing the naysayers

Flying in “cabin class comfort?”

Sometimes we are motivated as much by those people that say we can’t do something as by those that say we can! On my 2019-2020 Polar Circumnavigation the voices and comments of the naysayers were alive and well.

One of these comments came from a retired 747 captain who said, “If you are so ’Zen,’ maybe you should see the signs you are getting and not do the trip!”

Another comment came from one of my closest friends who was telling the sponsors that the polar expedition was really a “sponsor-financed vacation.”

Neither of these comments could really be further from the truth. This was never so obvious as when I was over the true, magnetic and North Pole of Inaccessibility and the 5 hours that followed, when my two flight management systems, two ADAHRS (attitude, heading and reference systems), autopilot, HF, and VHF comms went offline. With the Jet A fumes so strong in the cabin that I could taste the fuel in my throat as my eyes watered and sinuses burned, I remember thinking that my reality was much different than what people truly understood.

How then do we reframe these thoughts and comments so they don’t slow us down or block our efforts? Instead, no pun intended, they “fuel our efforts” so that we can take this all in-stride and as the saying goes “smile in the face of adversity?” Here are six ways that might help you deal with the naysayers.

Identify and isolate the naysayers

You will know who they are by their comments and actions. Your job is just to put them behind you. My social media team was instructed that I didn’t need to hear these comments and just to delete and block them. As a practice, we put them behind us as fast as the Citizen of the World could fly, which was about 311 knots true.

Use negative comments and thoughts as an opportunity to educate

Sometimes, despite your deft maneuvering, you won’t be able to dodge all of the negative comments and thoughts. When one of my biggest sponsors said I might as well just tear their logo off the Citizen of the World—since they didn’t think I was ever going to leave—I just hung up the phone. I wasn’t going to listen to that for even an instant. Maybe not the best move out of the sponsorship playbook, but one I was not going to entertain. In hindsight, I could have agreed to disagree and explained we had identified additional risks that we were taking steps to mitigate, and we wanted to ensure a safe and successful flight. And of course, during the delays they were getting additional exposure.

Overcoming a mountain of criticism is often about educating others. Some people simply don’t understand the magnitude of your efforts, passion or the challenges you are facing.

Reveal information on a need-to-know basis

Complicating my attempt to educate, my team intentionally held back information because we didn’t feel my family members and supporters could handle the extreme stress that I was experiencing. It was hard enough on them because their fears were coming up. We figured I would just endure the overwhelming stress and struggle of this journey with the help of my closest supporters. Comments I sent via satellite text to my greatest supporter and friend Susan Gilbert when I was critically low on Jet A fuel over the dreaded Drake Passage confiding I didn’t think I had enough fuel to make it—would have sent others into hysterics.

Focus on your supportersFor every person doubting me there were many more telling me that I could do it and my result would be overwhelmingly positive. Their comments were light filled and so positive that often they would bring me to tears. A note from Eddie Gould of General Aviation Support Egypt (GASE) kept me going:

Adventures like yours do inspire and create so much more than what you have personally achieved. Having this adventure during one of the world’s most horrific periods must rank high above many of the worthy exploits undertaken by pilots.

I guess we, on the ground, have felt invested in your quest in a way that others would not. Your successes in the air are also ours. I have a massive smile, and I know Ahmed does too, when we get something approved, or a plan works out or even when you say . . . ‘this hotel is fantastic’ . . . the work we do in the background can be enjoyable, satisfying and at times . . . frustrating . . . like when you lose comms or someone doesn’t answer a phone in an office 7,000 miles away. But your adventures create the memories for us too . . . and this adventure is yours and our crowning glory . . . you took on everything the planet could throw at you, faced dangers in every corner of the globe and even had to change everything you knew about to become a Spanish recluse and then a Viking hermit!

I hope you make the book at least half as exciting as the reality was . . . and by the way . . . the aircraft was amazing and beautiful :-).”

The truth will come out as you look closer

Things are not always as they appear. One follower texted me, “it must be nice to be flying in cabin class comfort!” In the picture above with my survival gear stacked outside the airplane you see me moments before departure doing my best to put on my game face when the reality was that I was facing absolutely terrible odds. My survival gear would go on the copilot seat and behind me leaving me little space to move around. The entire back of the Gulfstream Twin Commander 900 was filled with six additional venting fuel tanks. Before the flight concluded I would be losing navigation, dealing with snow blindness, mechanical issues, fatigue, fuel gelling, and wearing a stuffy and uncomfortable rubber emersion suit for 18.1 hours.

I had assessed my chances of survival at roughly 50%. That was not 50% that I would set out and come back possibly making the South Pole—that was a 50% chance that I’d still be alive in 20 hours.

Use these comments to identify risks you need to mitigate

Your naysayers will help you identify the risks you must overcome. They are expert at helping you identify in great detail the issues you must address. An example of this came when a fellow circumnavigator told me that he didn’t think the Citizen could fly 4,400 nautical miles unrefueled. He said I was foolish not to test the range of the Citizen until the actual flight. He was right, and my team set up a series of test flights that helped us verify the range of the plane which allowed me to take less fuel than I was capable of carrying. In a sense, you have an extra team working for free helping you to think through every detail of your journey.

Scarcity

Understand these naysayer comments come from a place of scarcity. The comments are less about what you are doing and more about what others have passed on in their lives. Don’t believe the stories of others they are not your own. It’s like Don Miguel Ruiz says, “If you are going to tell yourself a story make it a good one!”

Silencing

With the successful completion of the Polar Circumnavigations the naysayers would finally be silenced. They would have to move on to their next project! The ADS-B Out tracking from Aireon fueled by info from the 66 Iridium NEXT- satellites over the South Pole really said it all. If that was not enough, I had two nano GPS trackers, iPad screen shots, recorded conversations with the South Pole that will come out in the docuseries, “Peace Pilot to the Ends of the Earth and Beyond” and a latitude/longitude text msg sent almost directly over the South Pole.

Perseverance

The naysayers are just a part of your journey and intended to teach and protect you. With their continued help your success will be even sweeter. Yes, it will be hard and at times unbearable, but you will succeed. It will feel like you are about to be crushed like a bug but yet you must persist! It will feel like you are carrying the weight of the world but with the help of your supporters you can do it if you continue to put one foot in front of the other day after day. It may take longer than you think. My preparations were intended to take 6 months but took 18. My actual trip was intended to take 4 to 5 months but took 8 months and 23 days.

Smile in the face of adversity and you will find your success and much more!

Sports charters

As we move into spring and summer, the airlines are heading into some of the busiest charter work that they do: basketball tournaments and Major League Baseball. Charters are not the money-makers that they used to be, but they still turn a guaranteed profit for the airlines, and they are an important part of the business model.

College basketball can be among the most challenging, because it is so unpredictable. Nobody knows when a team is going to be eliminated or move on to the next round, so the schedule has to take that into account. Usually, when traveling by charter, the schedule is built to take in the best possible option, which is that the team in question will make the next round. If they lose, then they usually have to sit around for a day or two or three in order to return home on schedule.

If the team is lucky, the contract with the airline can include the flexibility to leave early if they lose, but this is entirely dependent on the airline and its ability to have a crew and an airplane in position, to say nothing of the catering that must be done according to the terms of the contract. Catering and food are a big part of these arrangements, so don’t underestimate their importance.

Baseball is much easier to predict, because the schedule is laid out in advance. That said, baseball charters can be demanding, difficult work because of the hours. Most charters (of any sport) include three total flights at a minimum: one to get the airplane into position, one to actually fly the team, and one to get the airplane back into the regular schedule. The fee charged covers all three, plus whatever crew-related expenses there will be. Most baseball (and football) teams negotiate with a single carrier, and they often use different-sized airplanes based on the trip, with long flights usually requiring a bigger airplane.

For the crew, the job begins with getting the airplane into position, usually by flying it empty to the pick-up point. This is the easy part, and also the most important. It’s also where the problems usually start, because if a game goes late—or really late—it messes up the schedule.

Let’s say a baseball game goes 12 or 13 innings—not common, but not unheard of. That can easily add an hour or more to the schedule. The standard post-game order of events doesn’t change: showers, press obligations, packing, et cetera. The team loads up on buses and heads to the airport. The airplane can be loaded fairly quickly, but being late is being late.

Since most games are played at night, the flight is usually a red-eye of sorts, so the big battle is fighting fatigue. But the job isn’t done. Dropping the team off is usually even quicker than loading them up. However, because charters usually start and stop at FBOs or company hangers, that means the airplane may have to be cleaned or fueled before it can go to the gate. Or, worse, it may have to be flown empty to another city to work a flight. As a pilot who has done these three-flights-in-a-night adventures, I’m here to tell you that the last ones aren’t a lot of fun.

More than once, I finished a basketball charter pulling into the gate as the crew working the first flight of the day was showing up. It was a mad dash to get the airplane ready to go as we slogged off to a hotel or grabbed a seat in the cabin to go home, another baseball team or university (hopefully) grateful to us for a job well done.—Chip Wright

Anticipating Break-up of Alaska’s Rivers: Pilot Observations Needed

As the long, cold and dark part of the year departs, break-up of Alaska’s rivers is getting underway.  The National Weather Service expects this that year, it could trend toward more of a mechanical event, with ice jams and flooding being more likely in some parts of the state.  NWS Hydrologist Crane Johnson presented the Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center’s outlook at a webinar hosted by the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy (ACCAP).  Pilots are encouraged to consider participating in the River Watch Program this year,  sharing photos and/or pilot reports of ice conditions as we fly along the rivers between mid-April and perhaps into early June, to help monitor this situation.

Forecast for 2021
Factors that influence the nature of river break-up include thickness and areal extent of ice that formed over the winter, the quantity of the snowpack, and spring weather.   Crane was joined by ACCAP Climatologist Rick Thoman, who summarized the temperature and precipitation over the past winter and then looked ahead at the forecasts for the weeks ahead.  Based on this data, we should expect more of a mechanical break-up with the ice jams and associated flooding this year, as opposed to a gentle thermal break-up where ice largely melts in place and does not provide much resistance to the increased river flow associated with melting snows.  For more details on the processes in play, and the specifics of what areas are most at risk, I encourage you to watch the recording of the webinar, presented on April 13.

 

Breakups can vary in intensity depending on winter conditions, and how fast warming conditions develop in the spring. Based on existing conditions and forecasts, this season is expected to have more mechanical characteristics.

 Areas at Risk
Looking across the state, some regions are more at risk than others.  While ice thickness and snow cover are known to some extent, the remaining wild card is the temperature in the weeks ahead.  Based on forecast data to date, the break-up outlook map depicts an above average potential for flooding across the interior along the Yukon, Tanana and Kuskokwim drainages, as well as in the Copper River drainage and in the southeast panhandle.

The Spring Flood potential will be updated periodically. The current version will be found at: https://www.weather.gov/aprfc/floodpotential.

Historical Distribution of Ice Jams
While attention is often focused on the larger rivers, Crane also presented a map of the historic distribution of ice jams across the state.  It shows that they have occurred in more locations than just the major rivers.  Given this widespread distribution of possible locations for ice jams, observations from pilots can be particularly helpful to the River Forecast Center in monitoring break-up.

Ice jams can occur on a wide variety of rivers across the state. Consider flying segments of the smaller rivers to look for ice jams and related flooding.

What can Pilots Do?
If you are willing to devote some flight time to help the National Weather Service monitor break up this Spring, consider participating in the River Watch Program.  Initially designed to use Pilot Reports as the primary mechanism for reporting ice or flooding conditions, it now more commonly uses pictures taken with a smart phone (preferably with GPS turned on) of river conditions.  Email them to the River Forecast Office after getting back on the ground.

Information about the program, what to look for, and how to communicate results, is available on the River Watch page.  As the season progresses, NWS will update their breakup status map and indicate areas they are specifically interested in learning about–so check back periodically for updates.  Please keep in mind that not all communities are open to outside visitors; so, check the state’s Safe Travel site for local restrictions, before you plan your flights.

River Watch image on the Yukon River using the Theodolite App to capture location direction and altitude.

River Watch is a way for general aviation to contribute to the public good, while clearing out the cobwebs if you didn’t fly much over the winter.  Check out the details on the River Watch website and consider this a good reason to get airborne.  And while you are capturing river details with a smart phone, take time to file a Pilot Report or two with Flight Service when you are in locations that don’t have reported weather. Your PIREPs are appreciated!

Into the Alligator’s Mouth: Installment 3

As  usual  Mother Nature gave me some real-world experience which challenged my own personal minimums on a recent flight.   I head to the Pacific Northwest monthly for business. Having my own personal time machine has allowed me to realize the dream of living and working in two very different states.

Planning for a 4.5-hour trip over some beautiful but inhospitable terrain is a challenge.  With no de-icing or anti-icing systems on my vintage Mooney, weather can be a friend or foe.  For this trip 30-35 knot headwinds were forecast at my “normal” altitude of 10,500-12,500.  Typically, I leave my fuel stop in Northern California and climb right up to cruising altitude.  Due to the forecast winds I decided to fly low until reaching Redding, CA, then up and over the terrain. 

This might not sound like a big deal to many pilots, but altitude has always been my friend and I like the options it affords me, should I become a glider. With this in mind I opted for the northwesterly course around Mt. Shasta.  This flight plan, while not the most direct route, puts me very near Redding, Weed, Dunsmuir and Siskiyou airports.  I have to say that at 8,500 feet I got a great view of the terrain, and the ride was smooth as silk. However, this was a calculated risk, based on my personal guidelines.

It hasta be Shasta

My goal in writing this series is that as PIC you do everything in the airplane intentionally and with forethought.

So here we go.  In the past few months, we began our journey into the mindset needed for the functional implementation of minimums.  As I pondered personal minimums in a pandemic, I reached in to my address book of pilot friends  to ask questions about minimums, guidelines, self-restrictions and the like. I spoke to range of folks from pretty newly minted private pilots, to those working on an instrument rating, commercial, CFI and DPE.  I talked with female and male pilots with hours ranging from low hundreds to 25,000. As one CFI/DPE pondered in regards to minimums…

How far do I put my head in an alligator’s mouth before I can’t get it out?

I had a fabulous time talking with a baker’s dozen pilots and I got a little gem or a pucker factor from each of the conversations. My hope is that our words might start an honest discussion on ways that we can keep ourselves safe in the airplane or on the ground. Because in the end, cheating on your minimums is cheating yourself.

This series centers on the psychology of personal minimums.  Like most relationships, we will focus why we create them, why we commit them to paper [or not], when we fudge on them, what we learn from them, and what we hope never to again experience.

Interviews: For the interviews I asked starting questions and interchangeably used personal minimums and personal guidelines.  The reason for this is some pilots initially thought when I spoke of minimums, I was referencing charted instrument approach minimums.  The answers will be in their voice, the first person.

Questions

  • Do you have a current set of personal guidelines or minimums for your flying?
  • If yes, do you have them written down?
  • If so, do you ever review them or alter/update them?
  • What are the areas you consider when you think of your own minimums?
  • Have you had a time where you cheated on your personal minimums?
  • Has there been an experience in the airplane you would like to share that gave you a “pucker factor” that others might learn from?”
  • Do you have a “hidden gem”, or learning tip, to share?

*[For the sake of this article, in their responses, I will simply use the word “minimums”]


K.W. Airline Captain CFI, Mooney owner

Looking down on Sedona, AZ

I got an instrument rating right after private and waited a bit to get my commercial. When thinking about personal minimums I divide things into three categories: the airport, myself, the airplane.

For the airport I am most concerned with surrounding terrain or weather conditions and my level of familiarity.  My minimums would vary if say, terrain was high and my airport familiarity was low.

I am the most important part of the equation. I ask myself if I feel tired, what time of day is the flight and if I slept well. I pay attention to whether I am hydrated and eating well. I like to do airport homework a few days before. I consider destination and alternate airport approaches.

Airplane familiarity is something I consider every flight.  When I am in my personal aircraft which I have owned many years, I know the ins and outs of the maintenance which factors in to my decision making.  I have to say, I am very particular when it comes to fuel on board.  My personal guideline is that I always land with 1.75 hours of fuel remaining.

When I was a private pilot did I not have things written down in terms of personal minimums.  But I wouldn’t go to charted minimums with a 15 knot crosswind. Now that I am flying for the airlines, I have had to fly a variety of aircraft and the limitations are built in to our procedures.

Pucker Factor:  I took off from Galveston some years ago. I’m not sure if I didn’t check for icing, or if icing wasn’t predicted (This flight was pre-ForeFlight and and other easy weather tools). It was typical Gulf Coast winter with 600’ overcast. I expected tops to be around 3,000’. It wasn’t that cold on the ground, maybe 45°F – 50°F. While climbing through the clouds at 1,500 ft I completely iced over. It took about 2 seconds. The windows were covered in frost and I couldn’t see anything. Fortunately, I was still climbing and speed was good. A really long minute or two later I saw sunlight coming through the frosted over windows. A few seconds after that all the ice melted off. It was gone as quick as it showed up. Lesson learned, always know where the freezing level is…even on the Gulf Coast.

Hidden Gem:  I don’t have to fly anywhere, even as a pro-pilot. I have canceled a lot of personal flights when I feel I need to. There is no shame in sticking with your minimums and canceling a flight.


D.J., Commercial, Instrument, Mooney owner

Ice buildup on the Mooney wing.

I love flying, but I am a big sissy.  As an instrument pilot, I  have very high minimums. I don’t want to fly approaches down to charted minimums, my preference is to break out at 1,000 feet.  I also wouldn’t launch on a flight to fly solid IFR.  I have no backup vacuum so that is reasoning for wanting IFR to VFR on top.

I also consider the airport and weather conditions. For example, the cross-wind limitation is 11 knots from the POH.  While I know I could do better on a long runway, for me that is a hard limit on a short runway. I am also particular with minimums about fuel, I always want to have 1.5 hours of fuel left on landing.

Another aspect of  personal minimums is consideration of my health. If my sleep was not good night before, I won’t fly. If I am sick I wouldn’t fly. If I am emotionally upset I wouldn’t fly. I do find that flying is a stress reliever for mild stress.  So determining my stress level is vital.

Pucker Factor:   My airplane was loaded with medical personnel as I was headed to Mexico on a humanitarian flight. I encountered un-forecast icing over Julian [San Diego area] at 8,000 ft. The Mooney could not climb.  Every surface was covered with the mixture of rime and clear ice and it flew like a slug [see photo above]. I  immediately talked to ATC and let them know about the icing.  Fortunately, within 20 minutes the ice had broken off, though we could hear it hitting the tail section.

Hidden Gem: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.  I took off Boise in dense fog.  I accelerated down the runway in the fog, and once airborne I knew I would never do that again.


M.J. Airline Captain, Master CFII and Cessna owner

Over the Yellow Sea between Incheon, South Korea and Beijing, China

My best advice regarding personal minimums, is to write them down and take them seriously. Never change them for a single flight. If you change them for a current flight, they are not really a minimum. I suggest quarterly updates, perhaps in keeping with your landing currency [every 90 days].

During an instrument training and checkride you have to fly down to published minimums. After rated you will need to develop your personal minimums. Do you have one set of minimums for takeoff airport and landing airport [plus alternate]?

I have a lovely, and frequent passenger who isn’t a fan of bumps.  Therefore, when I have passengers on board, I adjust my minimums for wind and turbulence.  My maximum cross wind on landing is 10 knots for passenger comfort. It is important that I consider weather, my currency, proficiency, passenger comfort, day/night, and complete a runway analysis every flight.

Pucker Factor: I would describe my example of pucker factor by a story of one of my flights home from OSH. There was weather over the Rockies, starting right over Boulder, CO and continuing pretty much all the way to our Plan A destination at Grand Junction. My passenger was a fairly experienced CFI, but I was PIC for the trip. We discussed the weather issues (afternoon thunderstorms in the mountains) before takeoff on that leg and agreed on a couple points. First, we established a couple decision points, the first of which was over Boulder. Our criteria at that point was, could we see over the Divide adequately to attempt to cross Rollins Pass and continue, or turn around? Plan B was to divert to Ft Collins, where a friend had offered to put us up for the night. So, we knew what the concern was, had established our decision criteria, and had our options defined. We set another decision point near Eagle, CO, with a Plan C to land there and wait out the storm at a hotel for the night. As we approached Boulder (DP1), we assessed the situation and agreed that the pass looked good to continue, so we pressed on with Plan A and discarded Plan B. Did that again at DP2 and continued along. This portion was a little sketchier, but we both monitored the conditions and the way back to Plan C (landing at KEGE) remained good. In the end, we were able to continue with Plan A and had a very nice dinner at KGJT, and then a great flight on the final leg the next morning.

Hidden Gem:  As pilots we are responsible for two types of environments:  the strategic environment [on the ground planning]; and the tactical environment [in the air reality].  The strategic planning environment is measured, concrete and methodical.  The tactical environment is situational, reality-based, and fluid. Make sure you take both into account on every flight.


I hope you enjoyed this month’s installment.  Please consider using one of the AOPA templates to write your minimums down whether VFR or IFR.  If you have feedback about the interviews, please feel free to use the comment section below.


In the meantime, keep up with online safety seminars, join your state aviation association, and stay involved with your local airport.  Make sure that you consider all aspects of minimums; airplane, pilot, and environment before you yell. “clear prop.”

My flight plans include 4S2 Hood River, Oregon, and KOSH, Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  As my Dad used to say when we touched down, I am looking forward to another successful trip of “Haywire Airlines”

 

 

 

Extracting Visibility Information from Weather Cameras

Deriving visibility information from weather cameras has been in the works for several years—and you may be in a position to help determine if it is ready for prime time.  The Visibility Estimation through Image Analytics (VEIA) Program looks at FAA weather camera images and derives an estimate of the visibility using an automated comparison to clear day images.  The FAA will be evaluating this product starting in April 2021.  They are looking for Alaskan pilots willing to help with the analysis by looking at the camera-derived visibility, examining observations and completing a questionnaire.  If successful, this program could significantly expand the number of locations across the state where visibility information is provided to the aviation community.

Background
The FAA Weather Camera Program is very popular–used by pilots, FAA Flight Service Station staff, National Weather Service forecasters, and just about anyone else interested in current weather conditions and trends.  The capability was first operationally demonstrated by a University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student’s PhD thesis project, by installing camera stations at Anaktuvuk Pass, Kaltag, and Ruby.  The demonstration was supposed to run from April through October of 1999.  Subsequently the FAA took over those three camera sites and, through several twists and turns, ramped up to the statewide operational network found in Alaska today.  There are currently over 230 camera locations, typically comprising three or four cameras per site.  The system also hosts camera data from the extensive Canadian network of stations and has integrated 13 Colorado weather cameras into the FAA Weather Camera Program through a partnership with the Colorado Division of Aeronautics.  Building on the success of the program in Alaska, the FAA is also installing 23 cameras along popular flight routes in Hawaii to enhance aviation safety and pilot decision-making.

With images updated every ten minutes and distributed through the program website, pilots may look at locations along routes they intend to fly to see if conditions are suitable for VFR operations, using this supplementary source of data.  By viewing images over the previous few hours, one can also look at recent trends in weather conditions.  Even more information is available in locations where camera sites are collocated with AWOS or ASOS stations, as this data is displayed along with the camera views. This gives the user the benefit of both visual images as well as current conditions in a textual (METAR) format as sources of information to consider in making flight planning assessments.  An example of this type of display is seen in the accompanying illustration from Ketchikan International Airport (PAKT).  But there are far fewer AWOS and ASOS stations in Alaska than weather cameras — so can we derive more quantitative weather information from the camera data itself?

FAA Weather Camera Display and current METAR. The display of weather camera observations at Ketchikan, where cameras looking in four directions show conditions and may be compared against an annotated clear day image.

Extracting Visibility from WeatherCams
A variety of techniques have been explored to derive visibility estimates from weather camera observations, including image processing and crowdsourcing techniques.  For several years FAA-funded research has been underway at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory to use image processing techniques to derive visibility from weather camera data.  Images from approximately 10 days of observations are used to develop a “best” clear day composite image. New images from the cameras are then compared with the composite image. An edge detection algorithm, using a ratio technique, is used to estimate visibility in statute miles.  The results are presented via website along with the trend showing potential changes over a maximum of six hours.  An example of the output from VEIA is shown with the weather camera views in the illustration from the Seward Airport (PAWD).  This technique only works during the day when there is adequate illumination to create suitable images, so no information is derived by VEIA during hours of darkness.

FAA Weather Camera Display and Camera Derived Visibility Estimates. This display includes weather camera observations at Seward, where cameras also look in four directions to show condition, and may be compared against an annotated clear day image. The visibility estimates are presented to the user to show the most current estimate of visibility and the visibility trends at a given location.

How can you help?
This spring, the FAA’s Aviation Weather Demonstration and Evaluation Services team will be evaluating the VEIA product.  The team is looking for a cross-section of individual end-users to actively examine and evaluate the experimental data.

The evaluation will be conducted between April and June 2021.  Participants will be provided individual accounts to access products and provided with training materials to understand the VEIA capabilities and functionality.  All participants are asked to use the VEIA system and participate in two virtual meetings to provide feedback to the evaluation team.  At the end of the assessment, each participant is expected to complete a final questionnaire.  Please consider participating in this cutting-edge research to expand weather reporting capabilities at weather camera sites and develop additional sources of weather information for pilots, dispatchers, meteorologists, and Flight Service Specialists in Alaska.  If you fit into one of the following categories and would like to participate, use the registration links below to sign up:

VEIA Registration links:

Pilot:  https://forms.gle/cZLychGHER9fgeuk9

Dispatcher:  https://forms.gle/x5UMCYBtUXxNhdJT7

Meteorologist:  https://forms.gle/VFewc2bnucnxoEfCA

FAA Flight Services:  https://forms.gle/7MQWDHdfbZkHuxmcA

If you have questions or need more information, please contact Jill Miller at [email protected] or call 609-412-9080 (east coast time zone).

If you are already a user of the FAA Weather Camera System, please consider devoting a few hours of your time to evaluate this new product, which has the potential to significantly expand the network of locations reporting visibility in Alaska.  If this technique proves to be successful, it will be a significant advancement for the network of reporting points in Alaska and a momentous innovation in extracting supplementary information from weather cameras.

 

[This article was originally published in the April-June 2021 issue of the Alaska Airmen’s Association newsletter,  The Transponder.]

Sterile cockpit

A headline of late was of a pilot in the San Jose, California, area going on a rant that was broadcast on the radio. This is not the first time this has happened, and it probably won’t be the last. The usual culprit is a stuck mic switch.

The FAA has announced an investigation into the incident, and it’s safe to say that if the guilty individual is found, there will be some kind of disciplinary action and/or a fine.

Aside from sounding unprofessional, the transmission apparently took place below 10,000 feet, when an airline crew is supposed to be honoring sterile cockpit procedures. The FAA says pilots are supposed to limit conversation only to flight-related discussion below 10,000 feet. Considering that a number of accidents have been attributed to violation of sterile cockpit—to say nothing of other incidents—the FAA is going to wield its power.

Most modern transport-category radios have an auto-shutoff feature that will shut down transmissions after a certain amount of time. This incident is the reason why—not so much because of what was said, but because a stuck mic can create a safety issue if other pilots or controllers can’t transmit and receive over the stuck mic.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of this, because the other pilot will be in the crosshairs as well for what appears to be a lack of effort to bring the conversation back to the appropriate topics.

It would be naïve to say that sterile cockpit violations don’t happen every day. They do, but that doesn’t excuse it. We all need to be aware of where we are and what we are saying, and anytime we are using a radio panel, we need to make sure that what is meant to stay in the cockpit actually does. It’s easy to miss it when your mic continues to stay hot, but a subtle indicator is the change in your own voice in your ear when you’re using the radio versus the intercom. But that’s the problem: It’s a subtle change, and all too easy to miss. Some radios also have a transmission symbol or indicator, such as a “T” or a “TX” that appears on the screen. Some … but not all.

This incident needs to be a reminder of the need to honor the sterile cockpit. It’s easy to get complacent, but it certainly isn’t impossible to comply. In fact, some pilots I’ve flown with have personally requested that anything below 18,000 feet be considered sterile, the rationale being that even the teens can have a lot of traffic and opportunities for missed radio calls. While that isn’t a necessary step, it’s not an unreasonable one either.

In general aviation, the rules are much more relaxed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come up with your own conditions that might be “sterile.” It could be an altitude or within so many miles of an airport, or some other definition that you feel will reduce the risk of an ATC mistake or error. Whatever you decided to use, just remember that whatever you say may not only be recorded, but broadcast live on the internet, and the FAA may want to discuss it.—Chip Wright

‘Citizen of the World’s’ STEM education makeover!

About four months after the Citizen of the World returned to the United States from her record setting polar circumnavigation, she went in for new paint and interior at Art-Craft Paint, Inc. in Santa Maria, California. The Citizen had earned the major makeover after enduring some of the roughest treatment Mother Nature could throw her way during the flight over the Poles to 22 countries on six continents.

The goal was to prepare her for a new high visibility mission for the year ahead as a STEM Education platform. The Citizen of the World will be visiting various aviation events across the United States including the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo, EAA AirVenture, the NBAA Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition, as well as various museum events. The Citizen will have a Redbird Flight Simulations Inc. flight simulator with her so aspiring pilots can hop in the seat and fly five high-stress flights that include the North and South Poles and a cyclone out of Madagascar.

To accomplish this lofty makeover goal, Teresa Arredondo from Art-Craft Paint, Inc. suggested we make the Citizen “look the part.” Being new to airplane makeovers, I spent a week at their facility observing, talking to the team, learning more about the process and my plane in the preparation and makeover. I would like to share what I learned about the difference between a good paint job versus a great paint job with those of you that feel it’s time to spoil your aircraft as well. Why not? With interest rates at an all time low of 1.2% it makes sense to bust a move and help spur the aviation economy!

Eliminate flammable materials

We were surprised, maybe even shocked, to find out parts of the interior of the Citizen of the World were done using highly flammable materials intended for use only in cars. In aviation, using these cheaper materials is forbidden because it turns the aircraft into a flying roman candle complete with large amounts of billowing deadly black smoke. Sadly, this huge detail was missed during the pre-buy, but needed some immediate attention. Technically, an airplane without the proper flame retardant materials is not airworthy. For me, this was a chilling fact considering I just flew my expedition with six extra fuel tanks—five of which were in the cabin just inches behind me.

Cover the seams with aluminum tape before stripping

Many companies skip this important step when painting your airplane. It will save you about 40 hours of labor but when the plane is stripped the chemicals make their way into the seams and start breaking down the sealant that you rely on to keep the airplane airtight. It takes about two years for this to become a major problem. The stripper acts like a cavity that just gets worse and worse and reduces the integrity of that seal. It actually does more damage to your aircraft than the extra hours of labor will do to your wallet.

Add survival stripes

Why not take this stellar opportunity to increase your chances for survival as a pilot in the air and on the ground? After a few conversations, Teresa she made a priceless suggestion. She proposed that we add two bright red survival stripes across the center section of the wing. Sounds like a small thing, but if you ever go down—whether it be over Antarctica or your local mountain range—you will be several times easier to find with your emergency signal built into the top of your wing!

Add a ceramic coating and get your shine on!

Ceramics are inexpensive way to use modern technology to literally take your plane that extra mile. In the process you extend the life of your paint job by five years for a fraction more expense. Additionally, you can reduce the number of times you need to wash your aircraft each year, save the planet, and make your baby look like a mirror! This is professionally applied and you can use it to see yourself in case you left your mirror at home. On my two circumnavigations I found this increased my speed by 1-2 knots and as a result the range was extended as well. A ceramic coating is a great way to save money in the long run.

Add a little sparkle

Want an inexpensive way to spruce up your paint job and make it stand out? How about adding some pearl luminescence to the paint? The cost is minimal and all of a sudden that boring baby blue looks like something special. You will surely turn a few heads on the ramp with this small, but significant upgrade.

Take the opportunity to replace hard to reach parts

There are only two times when the control surfaces are removed from your aircraft. First, during a proper paint job, and secondly during an accident investigation involving them. The bearings that are now magically exposed are inexpensive and they are critical components of flight. You might as well replace the bad ones while you have access.

Flaws Revealed

When we had the control surfaces off the Citizen of the World, the mechanic at Art-Craft Paint, Inc. noticed that the airplane’s rod ends did not match those in the parts manual. A few calls later we found that someone had installed the wrong ends. The Citizen was definitely giving up her secrets after all these years and asking for a little help so she could always perform at her very best over the most remote parts of the planet.

Balance the control surfaces

A fast or inexpensive paint job will skip this critical step and it can be dangerous. If you want a good flyer, then you have to take the time to first weigh the control surfaces when they come off, compare that information to what the factory recommend, and then check them again once they are painted. If you skip this step, you also run the risk of creating an unwanted resonance that you never had before. That smooth flying plane may not be so smooth if you skip this step.

Find a shop that takes a personal interest in your plane

In the process of working on the Citizen of the World the Art-Craft team started to get attached to this historic and special lady. As a final touch, everyone who worked on the aircraft signed the inside cover of the avionics bay which was then clear coated. Charles Lindbergh did this same thing with the Spirit of St. Louis.

As with everything in aviation, you have to be patient, crack your wallet, be methodical, and pay extreme attention to detail. You might as well do it right while you have the opportunity. You will regret it later if you don’t. Remember, your paint job represents who you are so you might as well present the best you can if you are going to make those new colors soar!

Please stop in and say “Hi” at Sun ’n Fun, NBAA, EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh, and some select AOPA Fly-Ins. Teresa and I will be there and we would love to hear your thoughts on our museum quality STEM education platform.

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