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Going West

If someone asked me what a version of heaven in an airplane would be, I’d probably choose flying in the Alps in October. October has a majesty to it that I can’t get enough of, and the Alps, well, they’re the Alps.

I had met a new friend who spends part of his time in Gstaad. An American pilot, he loved the Cub, so we arranged that I’d fly over from Sion to Gstaad. From there, we’d head to Interlaken, on to the headwaters of the Rhône River, and then wander along the Bernese Alps before descending into the Bernese Oberland back to Gstaad, where I’d make the quick hop over the ridge (9000’ or so) back to Sion.

On the flight over, I went around the bend, crossing a section of the Oberland that I had not visited before. Upon entering left downwind over a massive piece of rock (Swiss patterns are intriguing), I noted a proliferation of old airplanes on the tarmac. After powering down, I noted a number of L-4s and other old aircraft, a result of some sort of group that happened upon the place. It was quite nice to see a pile of Cubs on a picture-perfect day in the Alps, so I snapped a shot before refueling for the next leg.

The flight over Interlaken is something I hadn’t yet done, even though it had been a dream for a long time. I used to use Google Earth’s “flight simulator” mode, specifically in this neck of the woods in the Alps, flying the F-16 over all sorts of precipitous terrain, stunned at what I saw on my computer screen. How could it be that glaciers spill thousands of feet down, or that proceeding over a mountain ridge, the ground could drop more than a mile? Today would be the day to experience it in real life, 10 years beyond my initial fantasies.

Interlaken was as stunning as expected. We were a bit high owing to the fact a 100 hp airplane doesn’t climb so well when loaded, and I didn’t want to drop down only to lug ourselves back up. Besides, we were heading to a famous Swiss pass, for which I later hoped to get above 12,000’ if we could, to enjoy some of the higher terrain. It’s a debatable presumption in this airplane unless it’s the dead of winter.

Battling a wind funnel that was not in our favor, we finally got over Grimselpass, turned west, and then let the terrain and wind lift us up. Unexpectedly, I got as high as I wanted to go, circling some enormous peaks, overflying those glaciers and mile-deep mountainsides that I had hoped to see. From there, it was a fun ride along where the Oberland and Alps meet, before the descent back into Gstaad for fuel. As the sun was getting low and the Swiss take time quite seriously, I got out of Dodge, went over Pas de Cheville in brilliant evening light, descended over vineyards in autumn color, and landed at Sion. The last in the hangar, the Cub was parked in front of four business jets, leaving me with a feeling that such a flying day is as heavenly as it gets.

Looking back toward Sion before rounding the bend, Rhône River near Martigny.

Not too far before left downwind for Gstaad.

Two other Cubs on the ground at Gstaad. Even better.

Interlaken!

Brienzersee.

Grimselpass.

Rhône Glacier, source of the Rhône River. In summer 2017, the Cub went to where the Rhône meets the Mediterranean.

Schreckhorn.

Top of the Aletschgletscher.

Jungfrau, looking north.

Along the Bernese Alps looking into the Oberland.

Descending toward Gstaad.

Climbing out of Gstaad.

Bernese Alps in evening light before heading over the pass.

Larch trees near timberline in evening light.

Pennine Alps in the distance from the Sion control zone.

PA-11 in Sion, parked as it should be! A perfect flying day….

When I got home, my wife greeted me with: “Your grandfather is dying.”

Before I go any further, this is the grandfather that took me for my first ride in a J-3 at age 2, that began teaching me to fly the Super Cub at age 8, and restored the PA-11 for my flight training at age 16. The airplane I use for this blog is the same plane that I used for my solo flight, and it was done on his grass strip, which was next to my parents’ property. Aside from that, he had a Cub and Super Cub restoration shop on his property, for which I spent most of my youth admiring aircraft in various stages of restoration, watching the process or just hanging out in the shop because that’s where I’d rather be.

He had made it clear for a long time that he was not going to deal with the disabilities and inconveniences of old age. Sure, we all say something like that, though this guy always meant business when he spoke. Within a few hours of arriving back from my flight, he was on the way to hospice, where he died a few hours later at age 87.

In the following days, my sister offered to send over some scanned photos. I thought the idea was silly. Hadn’t I seen them all? Well, “why not” I thought and agreed to it, for which I got a pile of photos and saw the whole story in a different light. Whether it was my late father at age 5 in the 1950s standing next to a Super Cub, or me sitting in the backseat in the 1980s with my sister as a J-3 was being started, or a long series of crashed airplanes that he brought home for repair and restoration, I noticed some things I hadn’t seen before. For one thing, the Cubs and Super Cubs look alike. The Ford pickups in the background are like a lineage of Americana, changing with the times as the airplane in front of it doesn’t change at all. Then there was the matter of my sister, for which the photos seemed to indicate she was quite happy back in the 80s, sitting in the airplane, more so than I remember. We recently talked, and I discovered that she was going to become a pilot twice, and various major life stages got in the way, even though he had taught her how to land the Cub. How can one grow up together and miss such obvious things? At least it puts a smile on my face that I am not the only descendant to take to aviation in the family.

My late father with my grandfather and his Super Cub. 1950s. Note the old pickup.


Advance to the mid 1980s. That’s me sitting with a big smile on my face (it looks the same when I fly today), while my grandfather hand cranks the J-3. The Ford in the background is newer….

And my grandfather.

Now its 1997. I have gotten a lot bigger, and watch puzzled as my grandfather hand cranks the PA11 I now have. He had a relatively new Super Cub with a starter and I wondered why this airplane lacked one (teenagers…). There is yet another newer Ford in the background yet the Cubs are still Cubs.

This was a big part of my youth: my grandfather sourcing crashed airplanes for repair. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

I decided to exercise some caution and hold off on flying for a bit. My wife aptly asked if my first flight could “not be around Mt. Blanc” (15,774’), for which I agreed. As we had to return to Spain due to running out our immigration allowance in Switzerland, I chose to take a flight on a blue-sky day to scope out my feelings, and, well, like my grandfather, flying is a great way to lift the mood. When my father had terminal brain cancer and I visited a decade ago, my grandfather thought that it was a great time to ride in the Bell 47. While conventional wisdom said I shouldn’t have, I too couldn’t resist and hopped in.

My grandmother often said that when I was young, I was a little version of him. It’s hard to describe him in words, as on one hand, he is unassuming, and yet on another, he did whatever he wanted and didn’t let anything stop him. I am quite aware that my inspiration for my present approach to life can be credited to his influence and giving me the gift of aviation. Everything about this paragraph is an understatement.

I had expected him to live into his mid-90s based on his robust health, and therefore hadn’t thought too much how I might feel about aviation once he was gone. There was some concern that my motivational equilibrium might change, and I found myself having to face the question sooner than expected. The flight to Spain from Switzerland was both functional and uneventful, though I have been flying quite a bit since. Each time I get in the plane, I feel alive and it feels like a bit of him is alive, and I think the best answer to how I feel is…..more flying.

My wife at one point said that she felt awful for “ruining such a good flying day,” and I wouldn’t have it any other way, other than to have been in New York instead of 4000 miles away. Whether it was the picture perfect skies, flying the Cub he restored, the litany of old airplanes at Gstaad, fulfilling a dream in the Alps, or the Cub sitting in front of a bunch of business jets, everything about the day was a culmination of so many factors that started when my grandfather saw a Piper Cub advertisement in 1939, drew them in grade school, walked to a gas station to work in his early teens to save up for lessons, and bought his first J-3 in the 1940s. From those early days to the decades that passed into my flying career, it made that day in the Alps possible, and will hopefully lead to more dreams being fulfilled for others in the future, for that is the gift of aviation.


Test flight on a nice day to make sure my equilibrium is kosher. Larch trees in full color. While conflicted, its refreshing to fly.

Over Grenoble, France on the way to Spain.

Wandering around the central Pyrenees.

Another day over Andorra.

And some mountain waves over the convergence of Andorra, France, and Spain. I guess I can say I’m back in the saddle.

 

 

 

 

Fuel planning

Like any other business, airlines are hawkish about keeping costs in line. The biggest expense for an airline is fuel. Recently, oil prices have climbed, and as a result, airlines predictably have begun to re-emphasize fuel-saving strategies that often are allowed to wane. Single-engine taxi operations, minimizing APU usage, and flying a cost-efficient flight plan are all common ways to stretch the company dollar.

Balancing the pilots’ needs with those of the bean-counters to save money is a never-ending source of tension. In general aviation, it is standard procedure to fill the tanks and go, no matter how short or how long the flight is. Preventing water condensation in the fuel is a common rationale for this, especially for an airplane that doesn’t fly every day.

But in a jet, topping of the tanks is almost never an option. Most of the time, this will cause a landing weight that exceeds the limit. Further, it’s very expensive. Roughly 3 percent of the fuel on a jet is used to carry the fuel on a jet, and that is a number that adds up. Dispatchers, who actually file the flight plans, will take into account the anticipated weather and regulatory needs and fuel the flight accordingly. Each airline has a different policy when it comes to planning fuel, but most will plan to land with the legal reserve plus a small cushion.

Further, every airline keeps extensive records on fuel burn. Historical burn data is tracked for each route, flight, time of day/month/year, individual aircraft, each engine, and even for each captain—and the accuracy of the data is uncanny. Analyzing this info allows an airline to keep fuel costs in check without comprising schedule integrity or safety.

One of the most common data points used is the frequency of a diversion based on the amount of extra fuel carried. For example, an airline knows that a given flight has a normal completion percentage of X. For every so many minutes of extra fuel, the completion percentage needle may move incrementally upward. At some point, no amount of extra fuel is going to make a statistical difference, but it will harm the bottom line. And, once that point is reached, the success of other flights (the connections) comes into play, because if one airplane diverts for weather, odds are that a whole bunch will divert.

For pilots, there is almost never too much fuel, but there does need to be an acceptance that you can’t save every flight, and sometimes a diversion is the best option for all involved. Over time, the cost of carrying extra fuel begins to exceed the potential savings. As a result, it is incumbent upon us to realize that we need to think of fuel in terms of extra minutes. How many extra minutes of fuel do I need or want, based on weather, anticipated routing delays, et cetera? What amount of fuel am I comfortable landing with at the destination? There is nothing wrong with adding some extra fuel, as long as it is done with the big picture in mind. Adding extra fuel for the sake of adding it is a waste and only hurts the bottom line, and it runs the risk of driving up ticket prices and chasing away your passengers.—Chip Wright

Why Choose Business Aviation?

I’m often asked: Why pursue a career in business aviation? Most professional pilots measure their career with two metrics: compensation and quality-of-life. If scheduled airlines provide more of one or both of these, why would any right-thinking pilot consider private, charter, or corporate flying as anything other than a stepping stone to a Part 121 gig?

It’s a good question. I suppose those of us who work in this corner of general aviation have our own reasons. From where I sit, business flying offers aviators a much richer arena of jobs, destinations, lifestyles, insights, technologies, and so on. For example, we tend to be more intimately involved in maintenance, outfitting and refurbishment, and management. We see firsthand the benefits our work provides to those who employ us. And there’s something to be said for job satisfaction as a result.

A typical crew meal

We have access to some of the latest and greatest equipment in the skies, aircraft that fly higher, faster, and further than anything else in the civilian world. The next non-military supersonic aircraft isn’t going to be an airliner. It’ll be a business jet. Get in one and you’re likely to have a more comfortable seat, better in-flight service, faster airborne internet, better food, larger windows, and lower cabin altitudes than an airliner. Those things aren’t just for the passengers. I’ve often said, “Nobody ever goes hungry on a Gulfstream,” and so far I’ve been right.

I also love business aviation for the behind-the-scenes look it offers at the how and why of aircraft operation. The general public wonders who these people are that fly privately, where they’re going, and why they’re using such an expensive mode of transportation. I know the answers to those questions because I’m right in the thick of it all.

I’d be the last one to suggest that flying is boring, but some pilots do start to feel that way after a while. In business aviation, there are myriad opportunities to expand one’s horizons. For example, as the lead pilot on my aircraft, I have access to management statements and review them for accuracy each month. It’s enlightening, to say the least. After doing this for a number of years, you’d think I’d get used to the size of the figures contained therein… but I never do. The cost of operating a business aircraft is astronomical, yet so many companies own them anyway. I know these people; most of them are not splurging. The value they extract from operating the jet simply makes the expense economically worthwhile.

Business aviation careers build valuable relationships and sometimes lead to “bigger, better things” (as if there’s anything bigger or better than flying!). I know numerous pilots that have gone on to start their own charter or aircraft management firms, brokerages, training operations, consulting gigs, or assisting in purchase/sale transactions. Others have moved into management positions. Each of these can be far more financially lucrative than flying for a living. Me, I have some sweet writing jobs that I probably wouldn’t have been approached for were it not for my work in this business.

One of the best parts about a business aviation career is the opportunity to be recognized and rewarded for your own job performance rather than simply exist as a seniority number and miniscule cog in an enormous machine. Even the largest publicly-owned companies have relatively small flight departments, and that means people know your name. They can offer opportunities that cater to your desires and talents because they are aware of what your wants and capabilities are. And if they don’t? You can move horizontally within the industry. A new job doesn’t have to mean starting all over at the bottom of the heap.

Though they’re improving steadily, I don’t know if bizav will, on average, ever rival the total career compensation or quality-of-life you might be able to get with a major scheduled airline. That’s one of the major impediments the industry is dealing with in its effort to recruit and retain talented individuals. But I do know this: Business aviation offers many things that can tilt the value proposition in that direction, if you’re willing to do a little digging.

As Scully and Mulder said, the truth is out there.

Sharing Aviation with the Public—over Pizza!

Pizza—always good. Pizza at the airport, even better. Pizza with a view of the runway—fantastic!

For years pilots, airport staff and employees of local aviation businesses have hungered for a restaurant on the general aviation side of Fairbanks International Airport.  In September 2017, East Ramp Wood-Fired Pizza opened—and satisfied more than our hunger for food.  The establishment sits on the top floor of a hangar facility with a great view of the airfield.  In the background is the 11,800 foot air carrier runway, where heavy metal arrives and departs, interspersed with Beech 1900’s, the occasional  formation of military fighters making practice approaches. Every now and then the Antonov 225 drops in for a refueling stop.

Open just a little over a year, an airport restaurant is bringing a much-needed element of the general aviation side of Fairbanks International Airport.

Closer to the diner’s view, the shorter, 6,500 ft GA runway and the 2,900 ft gravel “ski” strip provide a stream of smaller aircraft—from Navajos and Cessnas to Super Cubs, landing and taking off.  Between these two is a view of the south end of the float pond with a mix of seaplanes splashing down.  In the immediate foreground is a gas pump and transient parking area, which provides diners with the opportunity to watch planes load, fuel and do their preflight checks.  All from a warm, safe, comfortable vantage point—with food!

Inspired by a local pilot and CFI, Wendy Ehnert first considered building a restaurant on airport property, but after spotting an ad in the Alaska Airmens Assocation newsletter, the Transponder, she knew she had the perfect spot.  Her initial target audience was feeding the airport crowd, but with a little more than a year in operation, she estimates that three quarters of her business is from the larger community-and not just “airport people.”

Separating the public from aviation
The growth of fences and security at airports may well be one of the factors that hinders bringing the next generation of pilots, mechanics, and air traffic controllers into the fold. Just by making it difficult to observe aviation in operation.  As a kid, I recall standing at the rail in front of the airline terminal at this airport and getting blasted by the prop wash of the DC-6’s as they taxied away from the gate and turned toward the runway. I wondered what it must feel like to sit in the driver’s seat and apply power to those four big engines.  Ok, I still wonder—but that’s beside the point. It made me aware of the excitement and thrill of taking off, and going to distant, exotic places.  Today, minus the prop wash, sitting over a meal and watching airplanes of different shapes and sizes provides a connection that is important to make, both with future pilots and other practitioners of this craft.  It is also something we need to share with the interested public, who votes on bond issues, ordinances and other policy matters that impact the viability of our airports.

Gathering place for social events
Beyond allowing the public a great spot for aviation viewing, East Ramp Pizza also provides a venue

Binoculars are provided to let patrons…

for groups to meet.  The local 99’s Chapter, Aviation Explorer Post, and other groups hold meetings there. The restaurant has organized several hangar flying nights, and is currently hosting a photo contest—with plans to produce a calendar in the future.  These are all activities that help bring people together, and encourage engagement, which is important to the overall community.  The restaurant is decorated with historical artifacts and pictures, most of which have

…satisfy their appetite for aviation.  (Photo pair by Chef Shawn Kerr)

been loaned by local enthusiasts, that sets it apart from other eating establishments.  So how is the food?  In the short time they have been in business, the establishment won a spot in the local paper’s 2018 Readers Choice Awards for pizza!

We need more facilities like this at our airports, to feed as well as inspire. While it often isn’t included in the list of necessary airport general aviation infrastructure, it should be.

Exiting the Hold: Quieting the Critic

In last month’s installment of Exiting the Hold: Reaching your Aviation Goals we talked about the importance of being a flexible thinker. This month we will focus on quieting the critic, exhibiting determination and the importance of perseverance in reaching your goals.

Quiet the Critic

“You are not enough.”  “You don’t have enough time, intelligence, money or opportunity.”  For most people their critic gets up in the morning before they do and goes to sleep well after they do. This critic keeps a running commentary of everything they have done wrong all day, the shortfalls, and missed opportunities.

In order to master something new, you will have to first master your critic. This process must be quite active. Simply trying to ignore the critic will not work. Passivity will not work. The critic lives in scarcity. In order to break out of the hold, we must be able to live in plenty, and that requires inserting positivity into your thinking. It might be helpful to think of the critic being on a dimmer switch. Our goal is to turn the dimmer switch down. If you make a mistake in training, fess up, analyze what went wrong, and move on.

The Thought Layer

When initially presented with stressful stimuli, our brain and body cannot tell the difference between fear and excitement. A person sitting on a ride in an amusement park that loves roller coasters is going to have the same bio-chemical reaction from the ancient part of the low brain as the person seated next to them that hates riding roller coasters. The body doesn’t know the difference between the two beliefs. The layer that makes that determination is thought which comes from the higher part of the brain we don’t share with reptiles.

The thoughts you have about your journey will determine whether you perceive worry or anticipation. In the same way that we need to keep on the correct side of the power curve in an airplane, we must do the same with our thought layer.

Exhibit determination

Determination has been shown to be one of the key factors in success. Our greatest strength lies not in never having fallen, but in rising every time we fall. This old adage rings true in pursuing your aviation goals. As my CFII and dear friend said, “Instead of looking at obstacles as a brick wall, instead look at them as picket fence.” Develop the ability to look past the obstacle and realize there is success on the other side.

Demonstrate sheer determination and be willing to apply yourself in any situation that will allow you to continue to build time, complete your training, and pursue advancement. Perseverance means that you continue to strive for excellence and guard against complacency. Remember the critic is only a dimmer switch away.

Professional PAs

One of the most overlooked skills in being a professional pilot is using the public address (PA) system. Few pilots are natural performers; most of us are not. While a few give their PAs while standing in full view of the passengers, most of us do not.

Airlines usually require the pilots to give a PA anytime the seatbelt sign is turned on, and some require a PA at the beginning of the flight. Outside of that, much discretion is given to the crew. The general rule is that one should be given just prior to departure, one just prior to the top of descent (TOD), and during any weather encounters.

The PA at the beginning of the flight should be a genuine welcome, along with a quick summary of the flight time, the expected quality of the ride, and perhaps a note about the destination weather. Also worth noting might be certain items that are not working on the airplane that could affect everyone, such as problems with the air conditioning, the on-board WiFi, or unusually long taxi delays caused by weather. The Passenger Bill of Rights also plays a role in this, as does common courtesy. The passengers, after all, pay our salaries, and once the door closes, they’re trapped in a vacuum with little to no information.

Turbulence expectation announcements serve two purposes. First, they let the passengers know that it may not be safe to get up, and they should keep their seatbelts fastened. Second, it lets them know that the flight attendants may not be able to conduct their service in full or in part, or may have to delay it. This is an area that has received a lot of attention in the last few years, because changes in weather patterns have made turbulence encounters more frequent and more dangerous. Injuries to flight attendants who are standing have increased, so the airlines are responding in kind.

I’ve always made it a point early in the mornings to limit my PAs as much as possible because passengers are trying to sleep. When I can, I give them a heads up that we will say as little as possible to avoid disturbing them. That said, it’s important to do a PA prior to the TOD so that passengers who are standing, or need to use to the lav, or return something to the overhead bins, can do so safely. I also try to pass on updated arrival gate information on flights that have connecting passengers. When I can, I tell them where the airplane we are on is going, unless it doesn’t make sense (for instance, if the flight is from ABC to XYZ, and the airplane is going back to ABC, the odds are good that nobody is reversing course after an hour on the ground).

Prior to onboard screens and apps, sightseeing announcements were popular, but that’s no longer the case, especially if someone is watching a movie or a show on a TV screen that will be interrupted by the PA. But…sometimes a good sight-seeing announcement is warranted. On longer flights, the TOD announcement should include the remaining flight time and the weather, along with any anticipated bumps in the descent.

Announcements need to be professional and courteous, not to mention reasonably brief. A great way to practice is to practice giving them while you’re driving or in the shower.

Develop a general outline that you can follow and stick to it. If the flight will be delayed or even cancelled by a mechanical problem, be honest without going into so much detail that you overwhelm your audience. Tell them what you know, and tell them what you don’t know, and don’t make anything up.

Avoid using humor that may fall flat. Over time, you will learn when you can lighten the mood or how to do so in a way that isn’t going to make you look foolish for doing so, but tread lightly. Even on flights to happy places, there may be somebody on board who is going to a funeral or dealing with tremendous personal stress. Try to respect that.

PAs are a great way to make a positive impression, and done right, you will. Practice until it is second nature to hit all the key points. Be genuine, as well as professional. Learn to enjoy them, and recognize that nervous flyers are counting on you to set them at ease. Your PAs may be the reason passengers buy tickets on your airline again. And, they may be the reason that they don’t.—Chip Wright

9 Ways to Combat Fear in a Cockpit

“A superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid situations which require the use of his superior skills.” – Frank Borman, Apollo 8 Commander

As pilots, we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about what we can do to mentally prepare ourselves before every flight. As the pilot in command, even if you aren’t flying a 20-plus-hour leg over the South Pole, the challenges can be similar for any flight. The goal is to be in your peak mental state to handle whatever comes your way. A quick Google search shows that 75 percent of aviation accidents are caused by human factors such as poor judgement, lack of composure, and an inability to maintain attention.

If the techniques I’m sharing would improve your performance by just a small percentage, wouldn’t that be worth it? Consider drawing on some simple Zen techniques described in my book, Zen Pilot, Flight of passion and the Journey Within, to increase your “Zen Power”—the ability to be mindfully aware in the present moment and focus on helpful thoughts and actions.

Stay focused in the moment

What happened to you last week at work or this morning at the breakfast table is in the past. Leave it there. You can’t do anything to change it. Likewise, if you are thinking about that five-figure bonus you are entitled to that Bill at the office is trying to prevent you from getting, it won’t help you in the cockpit, so don’t let it take up your invaluable and available mental and emotional bandwidth. The most you can ever hope to control is what you are experiencing right now.

Silence your mind

My mind often gets very busy before a flight. The voice of “self-doubt” seems to find its audience and share what it is thinking with me. This voice often judges me as a bad pilot. Thoughts such as, “You shouldn’t have messed that approach up,” “You should have tried harder,” “You should have paid more attention during training,” and “You should be smarter.” In this process, I basically “should” all over myself. The way out of this circular thinking is to simply say the words, “Cancel, cancel,” and use your “Zen Power” voice to remind yourself of some of your successes—“You aced that check ride!” “You read the weather properly.” “And don’t forget that landing you greased!” If you are going to tell yourself a story, you might as well make it a good one!

Overcome your fears by going deeper into them

Rather than running from the things that scare you, like most people do, I’m going to suggest something that may seem even scarier. Go deeper into the things that scare you. Take them head on. To do this, visualize what you fear most—think about it, feel it, really get into it for a few seconds. You need to feel the fear completely before it will go away. One fear for me is how I will navigate over the poles when I lose my GPS and magnetic compass. When that fear shows up, I visualize getting close to the South Pole, having my magnetic compass start to spin and my GPS fail. I close my eyes and feel the panic, confusion, and stress, and I keep going deeper into it. For a time it feels even scarier. I hold the energy and feel it completely. I have a bit of an emotional response and continue to hold it and feel it. And then something amazing happens—the fear starts to fade. In a few minutes, it totally disappears. I can breathe again. From a metaphysical perspective, I received the message from my unconscious, it’s been noticed and released, and now it’s time to keep going: dead reckon, keep the sun in the same position, switch the GPS to true north and put a waypoint before and after the pole, which it can handle.

Whose fear is it? 

Before I departed on my first circumnavigation I had three people come to me and voice their concerns. My girlfriend said, “I had a dream that you died a terrible death ALONE in the Pacific.” My dad said, “You are taking risks that you don’t need to. You’re just going to get yourself killed!” My best buddy suggested, “Wait until you can afford a turbine aircraft, which is 100 times more reliable.”  My impending flight brought up the fears of my top three supporters, but those were their fears, not mine. I listened and I gave them empathy—“I hear your concern, thank you for caring.” You can’t control other’s reactions, but you can control yours. I had to let them deal with their fears; I needed to handle my own.

What is the fear trying to tell you? Trust your intuition!

If you are waking up in the middle of the night like I have in a cold sweat or dreaming that you are stuck in your airplane at night in the water, thumbs and ribs broken, upside down as your airplane begins to sink in the ocean, then it’s time to be bold and take action! That fear is doing you a great favor and detailing what you need to focus on so you can be fully present in the cockpit. How about taking a survival course or two before you fly? Get strapped into a simulator at Survival Systems and get dunked in the dark. Or attend a course with Tim Kneeland at Survival Educators and learn how to survive in those nightmare situations. How about practicing an egress from a smoke-filled cabin at CAPS Aviation? I’ve done them all and highly recommend all of them. Each course is a full day, and it turns out, is actually fun.

Close your eyes and visualize handling different emergencies with ease

When you are sitting in the cockpit, have you ever calmly sat there and thought things like, “I’m losing cockpit pressurization. What do I do?” Me either, until I started using a Peter Schiff environmental system and did a “Zen Power” visualization. In my mind, I grab my oxygen mask, which is located over my left shoulder, place it on my face, and then turn on the backup pressurization system. Thinking through these things in the cockpit can be a great advantage when things start going south, no pun intended!

Pre-plan ways to get an answer while in flight or on the ground

What greater comfort is there for a solo pilot than being able to ask for help from an expert like a mechanic or flight instructor when an emergency arises? The good news is that technology has your answer! Handheld satellite texting devices and satellite phones by the satphonestore.com offer you an almost instant way to reach out in your time of need. I was 600 miles off the coast of California on the last leg of my equatorial circumnavigation in 2015 when my engine temperature jumped 20 degrees in less than an hour. I texted my mechanic and he quickly resolved my emergency situation. Don’t wait to ask for help and plan for it before you need it.

Override your reptilian brain and make decisions with your prefrontal cortex

When you lose your cool in the cockpit, you pretty much become the family lizard and activate your reptilian brain for the next 30 minutes. This is great if you need to kick the window out of your airplane or rip the hatch off the hinges like the Hulk. But the Hulk never flew an airplane. It is natural to go through a brief period of confusion when you’re angry or scared, but when you practice “Zen Power,” you will calm your lizard brain and switch on your CEO brain to make critical decisions. Take a few deep breaths; remind yourself that you have a lot of great training, technology, and hours flying, and then get down to business. You have all the external tools you need within arm’s reach and all the internal tools you need inside your head.

Use a simulator

If you are afraid of doing an approach down to minimums on a windy, low-visibility day with icing, then you are in luck! Most reasonable simulators today can create that exact scenario and you can fly it 100 times from the comfort of your own heated and dry home until you can do it with one eye closed. We all know with repetition comes comfort and better performance.

I hope these “Zen Power” strategies have helped you gain comfort in the cockpit. Each of them takes regular practice but will help you remain cool at that moment in time when you are called to perform like the confident pilot you have been trained to be. Remember, you have been blessed with the ability to fly. It’s a privilege to take flight, and you are an example for everyone who looks toward the sky for inspiration!

Airports that are the same, but different

It’s all supposed to be done the same, but it often isn’t. Worse, nobody seems to be able to say how the differences came about or why the old ways are still in place.

I’ll give you an example. In nearly every airport, when an airline crew is ready for push-back, they call the ramp tower, if there is one, or they call ground control and advise they are ready for push. Ramp or ground then makes sure the area is clear and grants permission for the push-back to begin, possibly following with a specific disconnect point. It’s pretty straightforward.

A few airports have their own way of doing things that are not immediately obvious. Boston (BOS), for example, requires a crew to call clearance delivery with the ATIS code and the assigned transponder code—even if the same controller just read the clearance and the assigned transponder code to the crew. If you try to call ground, you will be sent to clearance delivery, but not for a clearance. Worse, do you know what clearance delivery will do? He or she will tell you to monitor ground control, and then lean over to the ground controller and say, “Hey, this one is ready.”

Other airports use what is called a metering frequency, but this one makes a bit more sense. Think of metering as an intermediate buffer between the ramp and ground. O’Hare (ORD) is a great example. Ramp control issues the push and immediate taxi clearances. The crew then moves to a designated spot, where they call metering. Metering then verifies that the crew has the right transponder code (the transponder will be on), and tells the crew to monitor ground. However, during bad weather, metering can pass on to the crew that they need to go to clearance for a new route, or pass on other information that will avoid cluttering up the ground controller’s frequency, such as runway changes, et cetera. Used properly, metering frequencies are one of the FAA’s better inventions, and some airports that don’t have one should get one (I’m looking at you, LGA).

Some airports don’t have controlled ramps, and crews are responsible for pushing back on their own with the marshallers and the tug drivers ensuring that the ramp is clear. Orlando (MCO) does this for some terminals, while others have a ramp control, so there are odd differences even at one airport. What is frustrating is that some of this information is either not published, or was published so long ago that nobody knows where, or worse, it’s sometimes published incorrectly by an airline in its internal manuals. It’s become institutional knowledge, and controllers tend to think that every pilot has been to their field every day.

Most of the time, the standardization efforts made by the industry are honored and they work. But like secret local traffic patterns, some airports continue to defy convention. Pay attention out there!—Chip Wright

The Biggest of Many Things

Part of why it took so long to come to the Alps had to do with the expectation that sheer size of the mountains was directly correlated to how dangerous things must be. When I took the flight here from Spain, I expected to get involved with a death-dealing ordeal pushing the limits of me and the airplane. It has turned out that instead of being a thing of brutality, it appears that it is the culmination of years of mountain flying, as it has all gone off without a hitch, and has not been as dangerous as I thought.

I set out to attack a specific goal, which I can happily state that I recently achieved: photographing all 82 peaks over 4000m (13,123’) in the Alps. Similar to my flying bender last summer going at it 83 days in a row, and the 65-hour flying month of September 2015, it has been two months of razor-sharp focus on the high peaks, which meant that I only went flying if I could fly at those altitudes. While it turned out to not be death-defying during every flight, it was a project consisting of a tremendous amount of effort.

Spread from France, to Italy, and almost to the border of Austria, these peaks take about an hour of climbing to get to altitude, leaving 2 hours before I need to be back on the ground. Therefore, flying has been in 3-hour full-tank increments and has also taken me a number of places. With the focus of my project done, I have also had the chance to fly for the sheer fun of it, which has meant visiting some more interesting places.

Switzerland flows pretty smoothly when it comes to aviating. Dare I say it, the “system” here runs fairly close to American aviation, albeit at about three to four times the price. I get my dose of American flying in Spain by simply checking out of the system and doing things the backcountry way, which is both a joy and tiring. Here, it’s a nice mix, as the Swiss restrict airspace near congested areas, leaving the mountains for fun.

In visiting other airports, it has been quite interesting to partake of Swiss traffic patterns. Instead of a standard box pattern, most that I have come across are custom, taking terrain into account. The size of some of the terrain here, wedged inside a traffic pattern, is quite a treat. Even in a Cub, I feel a sense of nervousness, with trees whizzing by one wing, and the runway wedged down below on the other. I couldn’t imagine doing some of these things in a fast aircraft.

The Swiss adventure isn’t quite over yet.

Aletschgletscher, the largest glacier in Europe. It is 14 miles long and is almost 3,000′ deep at some of the upper points.

Roughly 1,000′ above the Aletschgletscher, looking downhill. 

Left-hand downwind for Samedan, Switzerland, airport. At 5,600′ elevation, it is advertised as “Europe’s highest airport,” though the designation may be dubious. Landing here required the completion of an online course and requires carriage of the certificate.

Taxiing at Samedan.

The natural order of things has been restored. I have achieved getting above Mt. Blanc, France (15,774′), the highest peak in the Alps. Previously, I could only get close and the Cub just couldn’t do the rest due to unfavorable winds.

North slope of Mt. Blanc. This kind of thing puts a smile on my face.


Forbidden fruit of Courchevel, France. Located at 6,587′, at a length of 1,761′ and a gradient of 18.6 percent, it is an “altiport” requiring a special signoff. As one can see, it is strictly one way in, and no go around after short final.

Aiguille du Midi (12,604′ – to the left). It is Europe’s steepest gondola. Yes, you can ride a gondola to the rock with a pointy antenna on it.

Glacier d’Argentière, France. My first flight near it was from quite far away. This is a better way to see a glacier.

Megève, France. Note the short, angled airport to the right. It is truly a field with no go around located at 4,840′ elevation. Mt. Blanc lurks to the left.

While Gstaad Airport isn’t overly crazy when it comes to landing, it does evoke a certain sense of being one of the most expensive European destinations available. Landing was a tad over $25 and fuel was market price. Left-hand downwind is over the rocks in the back of the image, which tower to incredible heights.

In the middle of this project, I have birthed Winds of Change: An Aerial Tour of Rocky Mountain Forests, a tour of forests in their varying conditions in the Intermountain West. It was a pleasant project to put together, taking me back quite immersively into my Wyoming flying days.

Alaska Governor’s Forum focused on Aviation

The three leading candidates in the Alaska Governor’s race addressed an Aviation Town Hall on Monday, Oct 1st and responded to questions on a variety of aviation topics. Hosted by the Alaska Airmens Association, the forum provided the three leading candidates; Incumbent Governor Bill Walker, former State Senator Mike Dunleavy and former US Senator Mark Begich, an opportunity to explain how they would address a variety of issues.  Questions covered topics ranging from funding of the 239 airports operated by the Alaska Department of Transportation and defending access rights, to how their administration would support training the next generation of pilots and mechanics.

Held at the Alaska Aviation Museum, on Lake Hood, the event drew a crowd of close to 200 people. Airmens Association Executive Director Corey Hester, and the Director of Government Affairs, Adam White, moderated the session. Audience questions, collected in advance, were delivered by members of the Airmens NextGen Group.  Partners in the event included AOPA, Alaska Air Carriers Association, EAA Chapter 42, Women in Aviation and the Lake Hood Pilots Association.

I encourage you to watch this session and see what the candidates had to say.  To view the session hour-long forum, go to: https://youtu.be/1-boHf8SVcI

From left to right, candidates Dunleavy, Begich and Governor Walker address an aviation crowd. The session was moderated by Airmens Exec. Dir. Corey Hester and Govt. Affairs Dir. Adam White.

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