Your 2021 flying plan

As the new year rolls in, it’s a great time to put the past behind us and take some positive steps toward an even better flying year ahead. It’s a time when we can get clear on how we can be better pilots and better people. Honestly, I think the two go hand in hand. I’d like to make some suggestions for your own personal flying plan to make your flying year ahead safer, more robust, and impactful.

Fight the contraction

Many you may be saying, “life has taken this turn and I’m going to hunker down and wait it out. I’ll pick up my flying when this is all over.” That’s the conservative thing to do. I’m going to suggest you do just the opposite. When people are moving in one direction there are opportunities going in the exact opposite direction. This is a hard thing to do as the herd mentality can be strong and playing it safe seems like an easy decision. Life as a pilot may at times be risky but we do what we can to mitigate that risk and we get in the airplane and go flying. Do the same in life it will pay great dividends. The very reason I fly so much is because I took advantage of a contracting real estate market in the early 1990s when people said it was insane to expand.

Make improvements to your airplane

For those of you that have taken that huge step of aircraft ownership you know there is so much you can do to make your ride safer and more capable. During a slower economy, this may be the time to get a better deal on labor and even aircraft parts. Some of those projects that are time-intensive are perfect for your list of things to do in the new year. The Citizen of the World is getting painted now at Art Craft Paints in Santa Maria, California. I’m taking this time to get the upholstery upgraded and we are replacing various bushings and other parts that are easier to get to with the control surfaces removed.

Survival training

Work on your survival kit! I wrote an article for AOPA that detailed a simple kit to carry if you wanted slightly more than what Rambo might carry. See ( I suggest that you consider expanding it a bit to include all of the environments you might fly in and then practice with the gear. I’ve now taken four survival classes through CAPS and Survival Systems but never got to use my gear out in the country. Doing things like building a shelter, hunting or fishing for food, or pulling out the medical kit and practicing with it are good ideas.

Try something new, mix it up

Keep your mind engaged and learn something new. If you need some ideas, peruse the list of courses that are available to you through companies like Gleim Aviation and King Schools. Get your tailwheel endorsement, floatplane rating, or for me—it’s time to give helicopters a try. I built and flew many radio controlled aerobatic helicopters even before learned to fly. As a child, I remember being excited to get my Whirly Bird model. It flew around in circles connected by a tether and could land, take off, and even pick things up. Maybe it’s time to explore the area of aviation that has been calling out to you since childhood.

Explore somewhere new

Pick somewhere new to explore. The nature of flying is exploration and there are so many places to go in our state, country, and world if your ambitions pull you in that direction. Canada, our neighbor to the north, is on next on my list this year. The country is vast, the people are friendly, and the air traffic controllers are wonderful. I have been there a few times already and really liked the Klondike in Yukon territory, and specifically the city of Dawson where the gold rush started. It’s steeped in tradition and great for the soul.

Share the adventure

This is a critical thing for each and every pilot to do for the community of aviation. Participate in or develop your own program to inspire others to become excited about flight. For 2021, I have been working with Redbird Flight Simulations and written 5 flight simulations that will allow anyone to fly the south and north poles, dodge a cyclone out of Madagascar, and experience the chilling test flights of the Citizen of the World after the installation of countless new systems. This combined with the 12-part docuseries and a 30 to 45 minute Air and Space Live Chat with the Smithsonian we hope will inspire people to take more interest in flying. For you it might simply be taking a kid flying. Do what works for you. The critical thing is to share your passion!

Find the solitude

Flying is the best medicine for the challenges we are now experiencing in life. Taking that hour or two to disconnect from the grid, leaving your cell phone behind and the chatter of life to connect with nature and just be in the silence is so important. Remember silence is oxygen for the soul. One of my favorite things to do here in San Diego is to fly out to Catalina Island and go for lunch and a walk. It’s like combining the challenges of flying, nature, and a nice meal all into one. It’s the best of all worlds and makes for a relaxing and peaceful afternoon.

Dream a little bit bigger

And finally, I encourage each of you to step a bit outside your comfort zone. We get used to defining ourselves in limiting ways. Sometimes we believe what others and even we have told ourselves. If we listen to this chatter, then it becomes part of who we are. We are growing and expanding human beings and each day we are given the opportunity to be anything that we want to be with enough focus and persistence. When the Universe directed me towards flying around the world now twice—first West to East—and then South to North—I never thought I could even do that, but I chipped away at it until it was done. Writing and public speaking were a great concern but with time and persistence I grew to find my voice. You too can find yours.

We get another crack at life in 2021. Why not take full advantage of it and just go for it? Everything we need is available to us. Yes, there are challenges, and there always will be, but they make us stronger and wiser. 2020 was a year to count our blessings and to reflect on life. 2021 is the year to make your boldest step forward, to find the opportunities that are present and to be the great pilot and person you have always wanted to be.

Let’s do it together in 2021!

What’s next?

As I write this, the ink is still drying on the CARES 2.0 legislation that Congress passed in order to offer relief to individuals and businesses as the pandemic rages on. What does it mean for aviation and the airlines?

In short, it’s a Band-aid, and not much else. Last spring, as the full extent of the virus became known, airlines (and the rest of the travel industry) spoke of three possible outcomes. A “V” shaped recovery curve would have meant a severe decrease in travel, followed by a fairly rapid return to levels seen pre-COVID. A “U” shape was described as a severe drop, followed by an extended stay at a decreased level, and then a rapid return to normal. The worst-case scenario is the “L” shaped curve, with traffic and demand bottoming out and not returning to anything remotely resembling normal until a vaccine or an effective therapeutic was available; herd immunity would also help.

The reality has been somewhere between the U and the L curves. Despite the uptick in holiday travel, demand is still way down. At my carrier, the schedule is still less than 50 percent of what it was in 2019, but certain routes are showing hope. Cargo flights are currently doing very well as passenger jets are used to supplement FedEx and UPS to cover transport of the vaccines and personal protective equipment.

With fears of another surge in the first quarter of 2021, it’s too hard to predict any timelines for a return to normalcy. The uneven rollout of the vaccine isn’t helping, but there is hope that we may finally be turning the corner. Airports have more people, and flights are slowly being added to the schedule. At the carriers scheduled to resume or being service with the 737 MAX, the hope is that the fuel efficiency offered by the airplane will allow for some schedule growth.

A friend of mine has a son who is a recent graduate of a major aviation university, and what had been expected to be a fairly quick entry into the airline world was instead replaced by chaos and upheaval. The expected August 2020 class was pushed back indefinitely, but has since been moved to February 2021—good news indeed if it holds, but that’s no sure thing right now. But if it transpires, then it means service to and from smaller regional airline-centric cities is beginning to show some signs of life.

The first big test will be demand for travel over spring break. A number of colleges have pre-emptively cancelled their traditional spring break in an effort to keep the academic calendar on track. But elementary, middle, and high schools are not all taking such a drastic step, and parents who decide to book a trip this year aren’t likely to change their minds after 14 months of being cooped up.

Following spring break, the next time period to watch will be the summer months. The Olympics have been rescheduled, as have all of the qualifying competitions, and if the vaccine rollout picks up steam, people will be more and more ready to travel, and cities and states will be more and more ready to open. Little things will (hopefully) begin to add up: weddings (and subsequent honeymoons) will begin to pepper the calendar, as will the gradual return of major trade shows, conventions, and big business events (including AirVenture, if not Sun ‘n Fun). Families will travel for vacations, to watch their favorite baseball team play, to visit colleges…the list goes on.

If you’re a potential airline pilot, all of this is good news, as is the continuation of retirements because of  the Age 65 rule. It will pay to keep abreast of what all of your preferred employers are planning on doing with respect to staffing. One question that has already cropped up is whether the vaccine will be mandatory. Right now, most carriers are keeping mum on any plans to mandate getting the shots, but it’s possible—maybe even likely—that certain countries will require proof of vaccination in order to enter the country. As a pilot, that basically means that the shots will be a requirement. No such mandates are in place yet, but it’s reasonable to expect that they will be coming. It’s also possible that some states will require it.

While 2020 has been a year to forget, it has also been an unforgettable year. But COVID is in our collective crosshairs, and we will find a way to control it and get our lives back. And when that happens, air travel—along with hotels, restaurants, theme parks, and more—will reap the benefits.—Chip Wright

Customer service and COVID

“Customer service,” unfortunately, is not usually synonymous with the airlines. We’ve all heard or experienced the horror stories of lost bags, exorbitant fees, lost kids, and heaven knows what else. But in this era of COVID, customer service is taking on new meanings and new challenges.

In the post-9/11 world, it is all but impossible for a pilot to leave the flight deck to deal with an unruly passenger, yet more passengers seem to be more aggravated and aggressive than before.

With the proliferation of masks, there has been a rise in cases of people who don’t seem to be willing to fully comply with the new rules, though the rapid spread of the virus has helped to some degree. In my recent travels, I’ve seen a number of confrontations that could—and should—have been avoided, and in this case, most of the blame falls on the customers, not the airline.

Every airline is now not only requiring a mask, but also requiring passengers to acknowledge the new rules when a ticket is purchased and/or during the check-in process. There are also numerous announcements made at the airports (which have their own rules), as well as on board the airplanes.

Flight attendants routinely remind everyone of the requirements for a mask, usually as a part of the first public announcement, and then regularly thereafter. On top of that, most captains are also emphasizing the need for a face covering, with reminders that noncompliance will not be tolerated.

In my 20-plus years in the airlines, I’ve never seen such a universal effort to ensure compliance using such harsh measures. Instead of just offering a verbal warning, noncompliant passengers are being escorted off the airplane, and are quickly finding themselves on a list of passengers who are banned from that carrier until at least the end of the pandemic, and maybe longer.

Pilots can still help defuse some situations on the ground, but in flight, they are relying on the cabin crew and potentially any crew members riding along on the flight. There have been several cases of pilots witnessing a disruptive situation from afar, and stepping in to offer support of the employees on the ground (usually the gate agents).

Because the overwhelming number of passengers are folks who fly only once or twice a year, they may be dealing with situations where they have to keep the mask on for longer stretches of time than they are used to. This may make them uncomfortable or just frustrated. That’s understandable. But there are also other folks who are not totally sold on the stated efficiency of aircraft cabin filters, and those are passengers that we can’t afford to lose. Just about every flight in the air these days is losing money. Tickets are cheap and seats are empty.

It is imperative that we all be sensitive to one another, but it is also imperative that we understand that we tacitly agree to abide by certain rules when we go to certain places. That includes, for now, the masks. Speaking up so as to be heard, as well as speaking slowly and clearly, also help. Sometimes someone just needs to be vent and be heard. Often, if they feel some validation when they need to talk, they will readily go back to full compliance. Give eye contact and a genuine ear.

This new norm is going to be with us for a while, and we all need to work together to get to the other side of the pandemic. In the meantime, we all need to use our best “customer service” in all facets of our lives.—Chip Wright

Ten years of Cub ownership

As the new year approached, it occurred to me that I have owned the Cub for now just over 10 years. There is nothing like the passage of time measured in a base 10 number for a tad bit of reflection. Instead of rambling on endlessly about many of the stories that I have already told, I realized that I have most of the expenses for the airplane readily available. What better way to summarize a decade of flying than to reduce it to some numbers to tell the story?

It turns out that I only have these records collated for calendar years 2013 to 2020, so we will go with that. I compiled a chart below of my effective hourly operating cost, as measured in US dollars. For the cost accountants among us, I decided to not include my commercial pilot certificate training costs, installation of new equipment, the move to Europe, nor the costs of my European pilot’s license (which, as I have ranted, were intemperate). Since 2020 for me was an utter bloodbath cash wise, spending record sums to keep the prop spinning, there had to be a better representation of maintenance costs. Can I really believe that the $500 I spent on maintenance in 2013 is fair compared to $12,500 in 2020 (it’s a Cub!!)? In effect, the restoration costs incurred by my grandfather made the early years fairly cheap. During the following years where I flew it like crazy, I was effectively racking up a bill for something so unfortunate as 2020. Thus, I took 8 years of maintenance costs, pooled them, and applied them based on hours flown. The result is below:

10 Years of Hourly Operating Costs

Now, I expected it to look something like this. The technical components are pretty simple: in 2015 I flew over 300 hours. 2017 and 2018 featured lots of flying, particularly in cheaper places like the Iberian Peninsula. 2019 and 2020 is the result of finding the most expensive country in Europe, flying in it, and then watching the Swiss franc appreciate in value rather strongly, making the problem worse.

So, what can be done about this problem? I shall reflect on a conversation I had when negotiating hangar space at a certain airport in Switzerland. The quote for rent was astonishing, to which I replied: “You’re quoting me 1/3rd of the value of the airplane, paid every year in rental costs.” Without as much as a shred of humor, the person replied: “Get a more expensive airplane.”

What is the solution? Fly more! I probably could get the rate down to about $140 if I reasonably increased flying hours, though that is about it, unless I go bonkers and repeat 2015. I did have to ask myself if owning my own aircraft is the most financially sensible option, for which I have a good cost comparison available. I am a member of the flying club in Gruyères, for which a PA-18-95 is available wet for 182 CHF/hr ($206), it being substantially the same airplane as mine. That includes everything but landing fees, which in my case, my effective [bloodbath] wet rate without landing fees is $175/hr. The advantage of the Super Cub is that everything is maintained without me having to lift a finger. The disadvantage is that the distance is difficult, and the plane is regularly booked by other members. Despite approaching equivalent rental costs, owning is still a better option for how I like to fly.

This exercise had a surprise emotional reality. I expected it to be little more than numbers, with an effective comparison of Europe vs America, with results that we all could predict. What I did not expect was to have the following reality smack me in the face: “Nothing has not been as good as 2015.” That was the year of living on Alpine Airpark in Wyoming and flying the wings off the airplane.

The truth is that 2015 was false in many ways. I flew probably 100 hours more than I would have normally, due to the impending move to Europe, which began in August 2015; such motivation would have been less if I did not have projects to finish. Housing availability on the airpark turns out to have been for us a very limited window where we were lucky and could not have reasonably expected it to continue past spring of 2016. Further, the alignment of factors that made Europe possible were many and all came together precisely when the housing situation in Wyoming went south. If we were faced with the same circumstances again, there is little doubt we would make the same decision again. It was opportunistic to have been in Wyoming in such a fashion and equally to come to Europe at that time.

That doesn’t change the fact that the best year for aviation was 2015 by a wide margin. Europe has thus far been astonishing on many levels, though this exercise woke me up to the fact that, despite world class scenery, I am staying too close to home and I would like to change that paradigm. While I won’t be able to recreate the raw freedom and introspective expanse of the American West, I have some ideas that I am considering.

Some pretty pictures from recent flights:

Chablais Alps on the French side of Lake Geneva. Accidentally flew into a light snow shower that I didn’t see and got a splatter of icing, for the first time ever.

Islands in the sky, on the NW side of the Alps in France. It seems this is rather common in winter.

Mont Blanc (15,774′) with some blowing snow. Chamonix, France is beneath the inversion.

Mosquetaire aircraft on skis taking off from Wildhorn, Switzerland. The smooth area is a glacier.

Outrunning a snow shower – Château-d’Oex, Switzerland.

Super Cubs on the Wildhorngletscher, Switzerland.

Book #26 has hit the shelves: “Flight of a Lifetime: A Monument to an Epic Flight in the Alps.


Into the Alligator’s Mouth

2020 has been some year.  Gone were the AOPA Regional Fly-Ins, Sun ‘n Fun, Oshkosh, as well as all the awesome state and regional airport days and charity fly-ins I usually attend.  Should you choose to hang out with me over the next four months while the weather improves and COVID [hopefully] fades, you will gain insight from me and  a dozen of my friends.

This blog-series, Into the Alligator’s Mouth, will center on the psychology of personal minimums;  your personal relationship with your minimums.

Actual scary alligator. Photo credit: Lauranell Grisham, High School friend extraordinaire

Like any healthy examination of relationships, we will focus on:

  • 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.


This year I have flown about ½ to ¾ my normal hours.  The majority were in training for the Commercial certificate and the check ride I took in the Columbia River Gorge. Due to the fires in the Pacific Northwest this summer, I had some very recent experience flying in actual instrument conditions [smoke/ash] down to published minimums.

Shasta, en route to Hood River Oregon

Yet on a routine flight home from Camarillo, I received a bit of an awakening about my personal minimums.  Let me explain. My best friend Pia and I had just finished a great weekend up at the beach. The plan was to fly her home to Camarillo, turn and burn back to Santa Maria.  The weather at home was forecast to be 1000 overcast, which really wasn’t a big deal.  As I flew the short flight home dusk began to fall, and so did the ceiling.

When ATC originally asked my intentions, I asked for the RNAV 30, but as the visibility went down, I opted for a precision approach.  Normally if I am planning for a flight with an approach in actual conditions, I carry a printed plate which is highlighted, have an iPad geo-referenced plate on Foreflight, and the approach loaded in to my G530W.  I wasn’t anticipating this approach, so I didn’t have the paper print out, but had everything else.  I briefed the missed approach and noted that San Luis Obispo Airport was VFR. I knew that if I went missed once, I would immediately go to San Luis Obispo and have my son pick me up. I got vectored way out over the ocean and finally turned in to the ILS 12 Santa Maria.  I broke out just 60 feet above published minimums, had great forward visibility underneath, and landed just fine. Another successful flight of Haywire Airlines.

I have to admit that as I was flying, I realized my personal minimums had not been adjusted since right after my 2017 instrument check ride.  Further that I could fudge on my minimums and best case no one would know, and worst case the NTSB investigator would know.

My personal relationship with minimums

At time of instrument rating in November 2017 I had 7 hours in actual [dual] and my personal visibility minimums on departure were double precision approach minimums, or approximately 400 feet with the idea being that if I needed to get back in to the airport, I could.  For approach, I also used double the charted minimums, while I was still pretty green.

Sometimes my Facebook memories provides a mea culpa type situation for me. Here is a snippet from a 30-day-old instrument pilot flying in dense smoke.  In this case, I was within my personal minimums but the conditions were unique.

“December 17, 2017: Today was a great day for me, sorry for the long post. Feel free to drink heavily as you read, or eat sugar cookies. It started off as a Pilots and Paws rescue flight for a one-eyed cat named Gio. Since I was headed up to the Bay Area, I thought I would contact my 96-year-old pen pal/friend William Mason [Army Air Corps Flight Instructor at Rankin Field with my Dad, and brother to uber famous pilot Sammy Mason] who flew out of Petaluma to see if we could meet up for a burger at the 29er Diner.

Smoky Skies

I did all my flight planning with Foreflight, SkyVector, and the NOAA site for weather which was severe clear except for smoke in vicinity of departure airport, Santa Maria, CA. I filed the flight plan online and got an email that it was received by flight service [She thinks “What a rock star I am for using all this wonderful technology”] When I left the house this morning it looked like dusk instead of dawn due to the smoke. I could see that San Luis Obispo was clear, so I thought, at most, I would be in the smoke [instrument conditions] for just a few minutes. Opening the hangar door, I could see a fine layer of ash all over my Kennon cover.

As I loaded up the plane I looked out and saw the tiniest of tiny suns trying to burn through the smoke. I got my taxi clearance and asked tower for my IFR clearance to Petaluma. The next bit of news was not so happy “Uh, 6619U I have no IFR flight plan for you in the system.” Drat! I mentioned that I had even gotten an email confirmation. Hmmm. I let the lovely tower folks [really, they are, no sarcasm there] know when I was done taxiing, I would figure it out. Figure it out I did. Guess who filed the plan for a WEEK from today? Me, yup me. Duh. Luckily, I had the routing, so no worries, got it put into the system.

Upon departure the smoke was maybe 1000 above ground level… maybe. I was in the smoke; I mean in the smoke. Could not see anything, nothing. “Okay Sister, this is what you are trained for, instrument scan, track the course, you can do this. Probably won’t be but a minute or two.” Yeah—no. Just under thirty minutes later I come out of the smoke right over the Paso Robles airport. I knew that my tracking was not the best while in the smoke. I was disappointed that I sort of got flustered. I was able to just regain my composure and soldier on.

Bill Mason & Me

Hecky darn, that was stressful. I flew up the coast and the day was spectacular. ATC was super helpful and I was able to navigate well with my lowly 2-VORs, DME, Garmin 396 and IPad mini. I asked for the Bay Tour [as did about a hundred others] and was grinning ear to ear flying over the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the bay. I headed off to Petaluma and landed safely. The next few hours were spent with Bill and his daughter.

We got to catch up, talk about aviation and some of his glory days. When it was time to leave, I made sure to check the date and time on my flight plan and hit “File”— voila it went through. I did get vectored in a way from ATC that reminded me of an old high school cheer “lean to the left, lean to the right, stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight” The routing on the way home was offshore quite a bit. I don’t know about anyone else, but I swear I hear every single engine hiccup when I am over water.

At 9000 I saw a beautiful and enduring view of the sunset off the right side. I knew  that the smoke would be formidable on the approach into the Central Coast. I descended down from 9000 to 8000, then down to 5000. Under the smoke at 4000 feet, it was black as night. I requested a precision approach from ATC. I thought it best to fly an approach I had practiced many times that took me right to runway 12. Between the black of night, and the ash build up on the windscreen, and the general haziness from the smoke, the approach was challenging.

For those pilots reading you will be cheering for me as my needles were centered DEAD-ON the whole time. I did have a little bit of an optical illusion just above the aim point. It was hard for me to tell how high I was above the runway to begin the flare. I should have maybe looked out the left window, but I didn’t. Landing was rock star– which is so wonderful. All in all, I had an hour of actual. Another successful flight of Haywire Airlines.”

I used an AOPA IFR Template to develop my written personal minimums for my instrument check ride.

There is also a VFR Template available.

My “hard and fast” minimums are about items that scare me the most: ice, low visibility, low fuel. Flash forward to 2020 and I had approaches in to Oshkosh close to minimums [weather] and several California airports to minimums in smoke.   But I hadn’t updated my written minimums until now.

Pucker Factor: On the trip home from Camarillo, I wasn’t psychologically ready for an approach down to minimums, but the reality of the overcast layer meant I had to slow down the airplane, and get ready.  If you argue with reality, you will lose, every time.

Hidden Gem: Updating my written minimums every season will keep them relevant and my flights safer.

As I pondered personal minimums in a pandemic, I decided to reach in to my address book of pilot friends and reach out 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.  While all I talked to had a formulation for themselves in regards to limits, I found out that except for me and the two guys with over 20,000 hours, no one else had personal minimums written down.

I had a fabulous time talking with the 12 pilots and I got a little gem or a pucker factor from each of the conversations. So join me next year, for more stories. 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 on yourself.

As one CFI/DPE  I interviewed pondered regarding minimums…

“How far do you put my head in an alligator’s

mouth before I can’t get it out?”


So long 2020


Packing for more than just the trip

The reliability of modern air travel is really quite remarkable. Airlines routinely report a success rate of well over ninety-eight percent. Even a drop of a tenth of a percentage point can get the attention of the bean-counters and managers. If a carrier operates 5,000 flights a day, and only one percent cancel, that’s still 50 flights that didn’t go—and hundreds of passengers can be affected. Bump that to 1.1 percent, and you’re up to 55 flights and more stranded passengers. And since the cancellation of one flight often leads to the cancellation of another, you can quickly see the domino effect.

That said, as pilots, we need to be ready for all eventualities. This is especially true if you are a commuter, but applies even if you’re not. When I pack for a trip, I never pack for less than the length of the trip plus one day. I always have at least one extra pair of underwear, socks and a tee shirt just…in…case. In all of my career, I’ve rarely needed it, but I’ve been grateful to have it when I did. In my case, winter weather has almost always been the culprit. Snow and ice slow everything down, and taxiways, ramps and runways may be slowed to a crawl or even a stop. Deicing fluid runs out. Trucks break down. It takes at least 20 minutes to get the fluid heated up. All of this is in direct competition with crew duty times.

I’ve been snowed into various cities for anywhere from one to three days. Sometimes I can see it coming, and prepare accordingly. Other times, not so much. Summers are easier because you can pretty much count on a pair of shorts and shirt to do the trick. Winters are tougher to pack for, because you don’t always know what kind of clothes to take or where you will end up. And even south Florida in the winter can be downright cold.

In addition to having a suitcase that is properly packed without turning into a rolling brick, you also need to have enough cash in your wallet for any contingencies. In cold climates, an ice storm can knock out power grids, rendering credit cards unusable. A power pack to charge your phone is handy as well in case of a power failure. Do you take prescription medication that may not be refillable out of state? Take enough for two weeks just in case.

As the winter weather digs in, my bag always gets a bit heavier—jeans instead of shorts, maybe a winter jacket as well. Doing laundry on trips is never fun, and doing it in the sink or the tub is even less so. But getting stuck somewhere can also be a lot of fun and a chance from some great camaraderie, and will undoubtedly lead to some of your best stories. My all-time favorite was an unexpected 4 day vacation in St. Maarten, which I know will never happen again. But you can bet that if it does, I will be adequately prepared!

First look versus train to proficiency

In airline training, there are several kinds of actual training. Ground school, the simulator, emergency procedures, aircraft doors, et cetera, are all unique, with specific requirements.

In the simulator, training usually concludes with a checkride of some sort. Sometimes the checking event is a routine flight from A to B with a few minor mechanical issues thrown in to test your problem-solving skills. Other times it consists of items called “first look events.”

First-look events are items that a pilot is expected to perform such that they meet or exceed the established standards on the first try. A classic example is the V1 cut, which is the failure of an engine at the most critical part of the takeoff. It’s critical because an abort or a rejected takeoff is no longer an option; the crew must fly the airplane off the ground on one engine following very specific procedures.

There are a number of other first look items, such as certain approaches and maneuvers. They are called “first look” because the crew is not allowed to practice or rehearse the item during the training event, and the instructor is not allowed to help or coach.

As you might imagine, these events tend to be fairly critical skills, skills that need to be embedded in the memory and the muscle memory. A pilot is expected to have reviewed these items before showing up to the training center. There is a little wiggle room for error, and if the performance is not up to standards, there may be a way to train it again before a final evaluation is recorded—but the less-than-stellar performance will still be recorded for record-keeping and tracking by both the FAA and the airline (if the crew crashes, the ride is over). Most often, however, the expectation is that the minimum standard will be met. If it is, then a few more practice runs may be allowed just to sharpen the responses and the skill set.

Another set of maneuvers is the “train to proficiency” (TTP) maneuver. This is just what it sounds like: the pilots are given a thorough briefing on the maneuver, and they are allowed multiple efforts to show mastery. The idea is simply to gain proficiency on something new or on something that has not been emphasized in the recent training cycles. In the last couple of years, every airline has been required to put their pilots through upset recovery training. This been a global push, not just a U.S. one, and it has been brought to the fore by actual events throughout the world.

Data indicate that pilots of large transport equipment were using inappropriate or incorrect control inputs, so we all got a chance to recovery from a wide array of unusual attitudes at all altitudes. Because it was a new series of events, it was introduced as a TTP event. The goal was not to subject the pilots to the stress of a pass/fail event, but to introduce a new set of skills, a greater understanding of swept wing aerodynamics, and a new confidence in the humans as well as the machines.

TTP events are definitely more relaxed and more enjoyable, though no less intense. First-look items are a chance to show off your stellar airmanship. There are pros and cons to both. Both require study and preparation. Both ingrain and enhance skills. And both can save your life.-–Chip Wright  female wrestling

Weather flight

When I first visit a mountain range, particularly one that I intend to do some flying in, I gaze from the car, train, or walkway up into terrain, wondering what it would be like to fly in such areas. Then my mind wanders to what kind of bad weather the place experiences. The natural evolution of this process is to imagine what kind of marginal days might exist which would be splendid to view from the air though questionable to pull off.

When in a new area, the obvious choice is to restrict flying to nice weather days. For me, that is often not only VFR but usually sunny as well. As we know, mountain winds are something that I do not mind surfing, though I don’t see the point in doing so if it is hazy or otherwise uncompelling, as I like to take impactful photographs. Too much in the way of clouds or other standard stormy weather usually isn’t worth it on either level.

When it comes to icing, dangerous wind, thunderstorms, and IMC, it is obvious that those days are ones where the Cub stands in the hangar. Most other airplanes do as well, as it is hard to pull off IFR flying deep in the mountains, unless one is landing at a long runway with a good ILS or RNAV approach, which is not usually the case in tight terrain. In any case, on those stormy “obvious” bad weather days, I am frequently looking out the window, assessing what is going on.

What interests me is to catalogue a basis for understanding if I were to get caught in unexpectedly bad weather. Does moderate rain tend to have low ceilings? Is it legal VFR, or if technical IFR, is it survivable in the Cub? Could I get fooled in such a situation, fly down a dead-end valley, and get boxed in behind me? If that happens, does it fog in below, or can I land in a field? These questions are going through my mind whether I am at home, in the car, or doing anything else on the worst of days; I’d like to know what I would do in that situation in the Cub, in that weather, in the mountains.

That lends to the number of times where the forecast is an “obvious” bad weather day, and it turned out to be anything but. Sure, it may have lower ceilings, some valley fog here and there, with precipitation coming and going, but did it ever become IFR at any point? Would I have been truly stuck if I went up? If I went up and things changed, could I make it back to the airport? Could I make to an escape route out of the mountains to another airport? I then login to webcams to examine my suppositions.

When I started mountain flying in Colorado, I can only count one marginal day that I flew. Nothing bad happened, though I filed in my mind that I “only flew on sunny days.” Forgetting my summer flying around the Appalachians (half the time in MVFR weather), I started flirting more actively with marginal days in Wyoming. It helped to live on the runway, so I could hop in the plane, circle around the valley, and dive back to the airport if things went south. Ultimately, I took next to no risks in that regard, only progressively beginning to chase beautiful cloud phenomena associated with weather after about 200 hours of Wyoming flying.

The Pyrenees opened up the floodgates of that kind of behavior, aided by time, the fact that the valley tended to stay VFR, and the reality that weather often parked itself over one of two ridges. I slowly nibbled at the question, until it became something regular to take a local flight on days that would be unacceptable to traverse a longer distance.

That still left the Alps as a wildcard. None of the aforementioned ranges had the notoriety, vertical relief, or precipitation count as high as the Alps. Treating it with appropriate respect, I reset my understanding when it came to what was acceptable and what was not.

It did not mean that I avoided looking out the window and asking myself how I’d handle being in the air, no matter what I was looking at. That led to some marginal days that I flew, where a cross country flight was out of the question, though a local one was not. It was a reality that has repeated itself enough times that the itch that demanded to be scratched was facing a bona fide stormy day.

In this instance, there was a stalled low driving a strong front into the southern Alps. As I would be taking off from the north side, it was evident that clouds bunching up against the Pennine Alps ridge would not be a problem on the north side, though Mediterranean moisture was so extreme, dumping over 3 feet of snow on the south side, that it was breaking containment on the north side, dropping some inches all the way into southern Germany. That front was parked to my east, with a variety of swirling clouds and other features in western Switzerland.

After extensive browsing of an official flight briefing, unofficial weather sources, micro models, 360 degree webcams all over the Alps, and my good old intuition, I decided that I wanted to do something new: I would leave the local area, cross the Bernese Alps into the Rhône Valley near Sion, and come back. I left myself the right to completely change my mind, and I had three alternate airports if the plan went south. The only way to truly gain some experience in this area would be to actually go up in the air and experience things firsthand. My goal was to compare how I feel on the ground in my personal throne where I suppose upon how I’d handle bad weather in the mountains, to how it felt in the cockpit.

I offer a narrated photo tour below of the flight in question.

Takeoff from Gstaad Airport, runway 26, 300′ AGL.

Between Leysin and Montreux, looking west toward France. Fairly clouded in below, but some surprise sun to the west.

Looking south, where I intend to go. Roc du Champion to the left, Dents du Midi (10,686′) to the right, occluded in some light snow. Bex Aerodrome available in the open valley before the stratus deck.

The Rhône River emptying into Lake Geneva. This kind of cloud deck is fairly common and shouldn’t move too much.

Some action in the Vaud Alps, though note Les Diablerets (10,000 feet or so) in the back, with the summits open. My intention is to get to the other side.

Martigny at the bend, with the intended flight to the left. Snow shower has abated and the stratus deck appears to not want to close. Alternate airport one mile below and 3 miles behind me.

Dents du Midi to my right. Snow shower showing no signs of snowflakes down here.

Rounding the bend, looking into the heart of the Alps in the Rhône Valley. Sion Airport in the gap in the clouds, most of the way down.

Had to call Sion Tower to get cleared through the CTR, due to terrain. No traffic was active other than rescue helicopters.

Approaching Sion. Believe it or not, I am in glide range of the airport and can do so VFR. It is just under the gap to the right. Darker clouds ahead are the big snowstorm pummeling other parts of the Alps.

Still in VFR glide range, though I have proven my point. Raron Airport is down the valley, though I am not sure it is open, and I am really extending myself if I plunge into the precipitation, try to get back, and find that things have changed. Time to head over the pass to my left.

Looking back from where I came, as I start climbing north. It looks worse than it is. A sliver remained open for Sion (for which I kept a leery eye). I also could have gone down to Martigny and flown under the cloud deck if need be.

Climbing toward Sanetschpass. Summits look clear, though some clouds I am unsure about ahead.

Sanetschpass on the right. Clouds seem inconsequential.

Crossing the pass. Clouds were there, actually – just hard to see.

On the north side, reassuring that things haven’t worsened to the west, as I had some concern clouds would grow from the NW. They were to my right from this point, as expected.

Virtually in glide range to Gstaad Airport. Massif du Vanil Noir on the right. Those low clouds were not there when I took off, so they were actually beginning to ooze up the valley. That phenomenon is extremely hard to forecast on some days.

North side of Vanil Noir.

Now heading toward the airport. Some days this cloud deck stays here…. all day. Other days, it moves up another 2 miles, and parks there. And other days, its devilish tentacles creep further up, cover the airport, and that is that.

Left hand downwind for runway 26.

Left base, runway 26, per the procedure. It is a “box” circuit around Gstaad.

All in all, it was uneventful, though one can see how, if I was wrong in my assumptions, it could have been quite eventful. There were always backups and options in mind, with clear weather to the west, though it is worth noting that nobody else was up during this flight, either in Gstaad or Sion.

Book #25 has been released, “Glaciers of the Bernese Alps.” It is something I am rather proud of, an aerial compendium of nearly every glacier in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland, which contain the largest glaciers in Continental Europe.

An Eye on 2021: Wings and Wheels

As the flying season closes for a lot of the country, and the promise of a COVID vaccine on the horizon, I ask you to consider what your airport can do to encourage visitors to come to your home ‘drome.  Hopefully in 2021 we will fly more frequently for pleasure, business, recreation and charitable purposes.  Wouldn’t it be nice if after the wings are done flying we had some wheels to get us to a nice restaurant for lunch, or to our hotel or nearby scenic attraction?  My hope is that after reading my little blog a couple dozen of you might add to the list of airports that have bicycles available for pilots flying in.

At L52 Oceano Airport in California we are one of the closest public airports to the Pacific Ocean. Long ago bikes were available for guests.  They were painted orange and said “Oceano Airport.”  They were leaned up against the fence and folks would take them and ride to Pismo Beach for some clam chowder or a walk on the pier.  I was told that if any of the bikes were found in town abandoned, someone would throw them in a truck and bring them back to the airport.   Fast-forward to 2010.  Friends of Oceano Airport in conjunction with an airport-based business Empirical Systems Aerospace brought back the Fly ‘n Ride, only this time contained in a Rubbermaid shed that is locked to keep children from accessing without parent supervision. The bikes have combination locks, and there are helmets and a tire pump in the shed.  Our Fly ‘n Ride works on a donation basis.  Folks are pretty generous, dropping a few bucks in the bucket, which allows us to buy tubes and tires as needed.  We have a liability waiver that we ask folks to sign.  Although it was years ago, I distinctly remember the conversation with the risk management lawyer of San Luis Obispo County.  Initially she wanted us to insure the bikes, in case someone was injured or even died.  I asked her, “If your friend loaned you a bike and you fell off and broke your ankle, would you sue your friend?”  She said, “Yes” and I said, “Then you do not understand the culture of General Aviation and G.A. Airports.  When we fly to some airports and you need a ride into town someone will throw you keys to the courtesy car, with no questions asked.”  We compromised with the waiver.  It basically says if you fall down, you are in charge of getting your own Bactine.

Our local University and Sheriff department collect hundreds of bicycles every year that are abandoned, recovered or impounded.  Initially we applied for several of those bikes, which were free. For our purposes however a multi-gear bike with hand brakes was way too much maintenance for a beach-side airport.  Now we have three or four beach cruisers for our airport guests.  Yes, I call them guests.  I think we should all treat folks who fly into our airports as guests.  Make them feel welcome, speak to them, offer a ride to town.  Better yet, why not set up a Fly ’n Ride at your home airport.  It really doesn’t cost much, and it will increase not only traffic to your local businesses but will increase your airport’s goodwill factor.  Below is a table of the airports that I know about around the country that have bikes available.  If your airport has them and is not on the list, please take a moment to put the details including identifier, name/state and any notes in the comments section.

I grew up in the right or back seat of a Bellanca then a Mooney. While the bikes wouldn’t have worked for a family of four necessarily it would have been something fun to do while waiting for my Dad to do the pre-flight or fuel up.  We can all do something at our airports to make it more welcoming to our guests.  If you come into L52 Oceano California, make sure to grab a bike head left out of the airport and make your first left on Pier, a few blocks down is one of the prettiest beaches in the world, our little slice of paradise. Cheers to a healthier, more connected 2021!

Is Flying in the Alps that Dangerous?

Before I delve into my thesis, I must preface that I find narrow proclamations in aviation to be quite dangerous. I recall in 2015 saying to myself that I “hadn’t found a crosswind I couldn’t handle yet.” A few weeks later featured nearly flying into a fence….during a crosswind that I couldn’t handle. Such binary conclusions about one’s skill are unlikely to be true across the board; thus, I preface this concept of alpine flying lacking serious danger or difficulty as a relativistic proposition versus aviation dogma.

I have considered this subject before, in a lighter sense, as years of mountain flying have ticked by. It has grown to seem so, dare I say it, easy. When I say “easy,” I mean that pulling off a tranquil and pleasant flight, whether above 15,000 feet in terrain or down lower, on a windy day or not, does not require operating the controls of the aircraft like it is an F-16 in battle. The actual inputs to the controls on a typical mountain flight, inclusive of those that are of technical complexity, are relatively similar to a flight along the coast or over farm country. The only issue that complicates the matter is the presence of large vertical rocks in the way.

I approached the Alps as though they were the cream of the crop of danger and difficulty, at least with regard to the type of mountain flying that I do. I haven’t ventured to Alaska, Patagonia, or the Himalayas, so we’re talking about mountains that max out at just shy of 16,000 feet. While not the tallest, there are not too many ranges that exceed that height, so my determination is at least reasonable.

At any rate, drama around the “Föhn,” Europe’s equivalent to chinook winds, along with glaciers, sizable terrain, and a seemingly regular stream of fatal aircraft accidents cemented my view that the Alps were superior to the Rockies in Pyrenees in difficulty, danger, and height. The problem with my view surfaced from another pilot, a Czech individual who has been all over the world. While he wasn’t as enthused about mountain flying as I am, I asked how he was going to “handle” the Alps getting from Spain back to Eastern Europe. He replied, “It is not a big deal. There are two passes and I can go pretty low and it doesn’t take long to cross.” That reminded me of the only German that I spoke to in 2016 that openly dismissed the apparent doom flying into the Alps: “You can cross the Alps flying as low as 6,500 feet.” Considering that I had been based at 9,927’ MSL in the USA, that seemed to make a mockery of my presumptions.

It didn’t prevent an appropriate amount of dramatic and sometimes neurotic fear, until one day I asked myself where the fear went. Now, many readers will likely proclaim: “See! He is getting overconfident. The idiot is going to crash!” No sooner than I posited the question to myself did I decide to go flying on a nice sunny day. I wanted to get to the vineyards of the Rhône Valley in the Valais of Switzerland, to fly relatively low at 3,000’ MSL to see them in autumn color. At 5,500’, still in the Pre Alps, I managed to encounter 40 knot winds. Knowing that the funnel at Evionnaz and the turn at Martigny would be like the spin cycle of a washing machine, I gave up on the idea.

Therein lies what makes the Alps easy versus what makes them difficult. The ability to look out the window, see the sunshine, glance at the clouds, and have an intuition that “today will be a good flying day” means that a good read on weather and the sum total of alpine characteristics has been learned. After a confirmatory flight briefing, the question beckons: what is so dangerous about flying around on a sunny day with almost no wind, even if it is in the mountains?

Below I will break down some of the characteristics of mountain flying as some of them are very real, some are hyped, and some are contingent on the pilot and aircraft in question. Mountain flying is not unilaterally equally as dangerous in all circumstances; I would venture that, in certain circumstances, risk could be quite similar to flatland flying.

Dangers of Calm, Sunny Day Mountain Flying

  • Emergency landing locations. Either locations are poor, there are less of them, or they are far from civilization. It depends on the situation whether this factor is worse than other types of flying (certain hilly and populated coastal locations are worse than mountains).
  • Terrain Height. If the terrain exceeds the service ceiling of the aircraft, then terrain becomes a literal obstacle, which can introduce loads of complications. If an aircraft can fly above the range in question, dangers differ.
  • “Calm, sunny day flying” can turn into something else, such as clouds, wind, and thunderstorms. While that is a risk anywhere, the problem is worsened if a pilot is thrust into a situation above his or her skill level in high terrain.
  • Distance from Airports. Most mountain ranges of significance mean a greater distance from airports, which means less in the way of alternates.
  • If down in terrain, flight service is often out of radio range, and flight paths can become curvy and more complex.


  • Some pilots do not perform well physically in high altitude. Others may perform entirely normal, though not have much in the way of experience to understand what those thresholds are and if they are a problem. If the altitude in question requires expensive oxygen that the pilot does not have, then the point is moot.
  • Aircraft Limitations. I was flying a Cessna 152 once in Virginia and decided to head above the clouds. When the airplane wouldn’t climb anymore at 9,200 feet, I thought there was a problem, so I emailed the flight school upon my return. “That’s as high as she’ll go.” If the airplane in question won’t climb or climbs terribly, then that might put an end to ambitions for some mountain ranges.
  • Density Altitude. DA is the most pernicious when it comes to takeoff performance. Many airports in the US West are found at 4,000’ to 8,000’ (or higher), coupled with hot summers whereas the highest flat airport in Europe is at 5,600’, with average cooler summer temps than the US West. A spam can aircraft that needs 6,000 feet of runway to get off the ground is a serious problem. DA shows up when trying to climb at high altitude and unable to do so, though it is only problematic if coupled with another problem (inability to escape (below) or wind).

Situational Differences

  • Aside from skill and aircraft limitation, this is one of the biggest points that is missed. A spam can at 12,000’ entering a mountain bowl too low and too slow may end in death (I watched a video on just such a fatal accident outside of Telluride). A PA-11 or Super Cub in the same bowl can turn on a dime and leave. The difference between end-of-life and exploring another mountain feature (even if having miscalculated) boils down to the airplane. A fast cruising airplane near surface ceiling with no climb ability left is terribly dangerous if approaching terrain from below without enough room to do a 180. Sadly, this kind of accident repeats itself all too much.
  • Wind energy in the mountains is about 10 times as complicated as flatland wind energy. It creates rotors, waves, and also different wind directions. A prevailing westerly wind will snake through terrain, locally changing direction as much as 90 degrees either way, before rejoining the prevailing flow on the other side. These winds over passes and down valleys can be stronger than at higher altitude (or not). Wind also tends to be associated with orographic lift and localized precipitation.

If there isn’t a situational or structural factor that categorizes a proposed flight as dangerous or impossible, then the difference between aviation in a large mountain range being easy and safe or difficult and dangerous boils down to one factor: knowledge. When I speak of knowledge, I am talking about it in the sense that, if a pilot knows what is happening in the mountains and knows how he and his airplane will respond, then a dangerous flight can be made safe and easy. The problem, however, is that only so much can be taught in a classroom setting. Most mountain knowledge is acquired through experience, as it is a complex art.

The ability to have a mountain flight take place with minimal turbulence and normal control inputs, including around the summit of the highest mountain in Europe with 50 kt winds, boils down to knowledge. There are places on that day where the airplane would likely be shredded by the wind or hurled into something inanimate. There are places on that same day, where the strong wind has no turbulence, and the flight is like touching heaven. The barrier between the two isn’t separated by much, which means knowledge is the difference between life and death, serenity and terror, general aviation and a crash statistic.

While an extreme factor, most mountain flying dangers are localized issues that lurk in specific, predictable places, with consequences from light turbulence all the way to catastrophe. Those things change day in and day out, as wind direction and weather systems come and go. One evening might present a physical impossibility for flight, whereas the next morning might be serene, where later that day news of a plane crash in the same area could be heard. I have personally been in the air in each of the Alps, Pyrenees, and the Rockies while someone has crashed within 10 miles of my flying location, which unfortunately is the most extreme manifestation of the localized nature of mountain flight danger. All of those days were partly to mostly sunny with light wind.

For me, the most salient takeaway some years into my mountain flying endeavors is the lack of an underlying neurotic terror. While I love flying in the mountains more than anywhere else, I have done it for years with a hyper tuned sensitivity to the dangers that lurk a few miles or less from where I am flying. Certainly, additional flying experience helps, as does reading more and more weather forecasts (to compare to reality), as well as hiking to many of these locations. Many valleys, ridges, and summits are no longer new to me, including the village, open area, or other emergency landing location below that I previously flagged mentally. Despite the passage of time, I am resistant to the idea that flying in the Alps is somehow deprived of danger. Perhaps it is less work for me to pull it off now, though that won’t be the reason I nearly fly into my next metaphorical fence.

Les Diablerets (ridge in front), Mt. Blanc (center horizon). What could go wrong?

This is actually one of my fears: an inversion socking in while in flight. This image taken while hiking.

Book #24 has been published, “Alps in Monochrome.” It is a compendium of aerial photographs taken in the style of Ansel Adams, landscapes in vivid black and white.

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