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Floatplane transition training

We as humans seek experiences that are routine, comfortable and safe. We intentionally do things that are predictable because we like to believe we can control our environment and for that matter ourselves. Control we eventually realize is only an illusion. Change is rarely easy. Learning new things is often punctuated with awkward moments, frustration, failure and surprises that can literally stop us in our tracks. As pilots we could argue we have a slightly higher tolerance for this sort of uncertainty and risk but at our core we are still risk averse.

This exposure to risk and uncertainty can be confirmed by a venerable group of insurance companies that take little time to say “No” to requests for seaplane transition training insurance. This stopped me in my tracks. The timing was uncanny as it was just days away from me completing a floatplane purchase after having earned my Single Engine Seaplane rating just weeks before. I couldn’t help but wonder how people were able to fly floatplanes if nobody would insure them? It seemed that in our time of uncertainty nobody was willing to take a risk on a pilot with 2300 hours and 52 countries under his belt that had never even scratched an airplane.

Luckily with the help of my broker, Bill Pasey, and account manager Kori Moseley, from Pasey-Bond, the company W Brown that insured my turbine commander took a chance on me. This “chance” was backed by a premium that honestly shocked me. The quote was higher than what I was paying for my twin turboprop after increases two years in a row that totaled more than 60 percent. Ouch!

To make this palpable, I reasoned that few things in life are without cost either financially or emotionally. I decided after doing some “plane math” to throw caution into the wind once again to proceed despite the fact that this line of reasoning made absolutely no sense financially.

Training for insurance purposes

Park Rapids Aviation had a young instructor they recommended that was the son of the owner, Jeff Voigt. His son Ean is 23 and following in Jeff’s footsteps but didn’t quite fit the the insurance carrier’s hour requirements. With a letter, we got Ean accepted as an instructor.

Ean is a great instructor and drilled into me that I had to be 100 percent clear on the position of my landing gear 100 percent of the time before each landing. Up for water landing and down for runway landings. I embarrassed myself the second day out by making the critical mistake that no floatplane pilot should ever make.  In the confusion of the moment, I left he gear down on a water landing. I quite simply blew it. Ean of course caught the mistake before it became a catastrophe. I remember walking away that day feeling totally defeated and ashamed. I knew Ean was disappointed as he had been working so hard to prevent me from making that error. After a couple-hours-long pity party I did what we pilots do: I picked myself up off the ground, swore I would never do it again, and decided to go back to fundamentals.

Back to fundamentals-building my checklist

Fundamentals for me meant doing what worked for me which was building and following a solid checklist. Let’s face it, we are human and the weakest link in an airplane. Ean didn’t use a checklist but my mind was not that of a 23 year old and I needed one. I was going to never make that mistake again even on a day when I was distracted by life. I decided there was no shame in relying on a checklist as a backup.

Ean got me proficient in about a week even though we had planned three days. I’ve honestly never been able to take flight instruction for more than two hours at a time in an airplane. This week gave me time to sit with the information and slowly think through what I needed to understand.

Building confidence

Ean signed me off at 20 hours and 25 landings per the insurance requirements and I felt pretty good. I headed back towards Washington stopping to do some landings on Newman and Hayden lakes where Addison Pemberton had introduced me to amphibious aircraft months before in his Grumman Goose.

Landing on my own for the first time was a knee knocking moment and I had a couple of hard landings. On one I landed a little uncoordinated and felt a sheering effect on the Aerocet floats as the plane corrected itself. I took off another time with the water rudders down, which created a lot of drag extending the takeoff run. Once I forgot to set the prop full-forward for takeoff. I was certainly making mistakes. I even landed on a runway and forgot to put the water rudders up. Luckily, I came in flat enough that I didn’t tear them off my Aerocets. I remember seeing that they were down after I got out of the plane and I hopped right up and retracted them before anyone could comment. Ean’s Minnesota voice rang in my ears, “You can make a lot of mistakes in a floatplane, just get the gear right.” I had done that, but I had more learning to do. Maybe the insurance guys were right about the risks of transition training after all?

I realized I still had a lot to learn on my own. No instructor. No excuses. I was now 100 percent responsible! I sat down and continued to build my checklists, cross checked them with what Cessna had for my airplane, and put reminders in for myself. I sat and thought through each of my procedures slowly so they made sense. I was getting more comfortable with floatplane flying.

Gaining confidence in the machine

The plane needed some maintenance love since she was a low-time 1977 model with 1,750 hours on her and had not been flown much. The owner did a major renovation in 2013 and the Sea Swan, as I affectionately called her, looked great but that didn’t mean she was reliable. Putting hours on her would reveal her faults. Gary at Corporate Air Center replaced a starter, starter adapter, the exhaust manifold, a gasket on a fuel bladder, and cleaned up some of the EGT sensors. While all this was happening I was feeling a little nervous since I now hadn’t flown in close to 3 weeks.

I realized I hadn’t felt that level of stress since my first VFR solo.  I kept asking myself how could I be feeling this lack of confidence after 53 countries, 2,300 hours and two circumnavigations? Well, it was real. I reminded myself I was a beginner to floatplanes and I adopted the beginner mentality which keeps pilots alive.

Doing the research

After some research in the Puget Sound area I found two lakes with Seaplane bases (indicated on sectional charts by an anchor) and studied them. I even drove by Lakesamish (spelled correctly) and Lake Whatcom on my way for dinner in Bellingham one night. I read what my Garmin Pilot app said about them and took a look at them from the air using the satellite feature. I studied the surrounding areas and talked to one person about the area.

The moment of truth

The following morning when I was prepping the floatplane the words of a great friend of mine Dick Rutan rang in my ears. “The greatest learning comes when you fly solo.” He was right. I spent some extra time working on the preflight, got a weather report, and took off low and slow thinking about the many things that Ean had told me.  Ean and I had spent lots of time reading the winds and I decided I would circle until I was 100 percent clear on what the wind was doing. I set up into the wind by reading the lines on the water, the smiley faces on the waves, and the calm spots on the upwind side of the lake. I bled off as much speed as I could knowing my plane, outfitted with wing extensions and vortex generators, doesn’t stall until 33 knots. I corrected for wind just before I landed and had a vision of a duck landing with wings out and feet down gracefully skimming the water just before touchdown. I landed so smoothly I could barely feel it. Any duck would have been envious! I thought this landing must be pure luck and I never could do it again, but proceeded to do if five more times between the two lakes. I surprised myself and realized how landing on water is even more of an art form than landing on an asphalt runway.

Making sense of it all

As I flew back to Corporate Air Center at Skagit where the Sea Swan calls home part of the year, I was thinking about how well the plane flew, the configurations for takeoff and mentally seeing that from outside. Of course on takeoff the water rudders would be up, flaps down, prop forward, mixture and manifold pressure in.

Needless to say, I had a smile on my face a nautical mile wide. I thought to myself that flying low and slow and landing on the water felt really good. All that work had paid off and it made sense.  My floatplane fantasy had come true!  I was flying a beautiful plane by myself up in the Pacific Northwest and I could barely wait until I took her upon to Canada and Alaska for the ultimate tests.

As I reflected back over the next few days, I came to realize that while we can’t control 100 percent of everything that happens in our lives we certainly can take steps to mitigate the risks, improve our skills and drive our lives forward in the direction that we feel guided.  This “transition” brings many challenges and surprises but ultimately the cost is far exceeded by what we learn as pilots and humans.  We navigate our way to fuller lives with the help of aviation and sharing the experience and joy with others.

VFR on top…and the hole closes

It is rather well established that one of my most transcendent routines is to climb above a broken or overcast layer in the mountains, flying around in a bubble of tranquility. I enjoyed a comparable experience in Yellowstone once, flying over deep snows in early winter, well away from roads and ranger stations, out of radio range of flight service, while also not in range of cell service. The Yellowstone flight was not above the clouds, though the principle was similar. There is something incredibly freeing that comes from a total disconnection from human civilization, whether it comes from lateral distance in the wilderness, or vertical separation in the case of the clouds.

I have always been aware of the risks of such gamesmanship with the clouds. This spring, I purchased a backup artificial horizon, in case I miscalculated in a bad way, ending up forced to descend through the layer. More importantly, I was concerned with an engine failure above the clouds, where the decision was made for me where I would descend below. Aside from this instrument, I virtually always have multiple successive backup plans in case the hole closed, though it never had.

That was, until a recent flight. It was a Bise wind, which typically involves a solid, raucous overcast below, non-turbulent strong northeast winds above, and a clearly delineated top of the cloud layer. They also tend to be recurringly orographic, with gaps in the clouds in certain valleys, as the northeast wind impacts various ridges, creating a rain shadow (also known as a large hole in the clouds).

On the afternoon in question, I noted typical Bise behavior for several hours. My wife thought my evening flight plans were a bit silly, and I pointed to a normal spot to the east, identifying a large area where the sky was blue. By the time I took off, that area got smaller. As I climbed to 7,000 feet, it seemed a bit tighter as I climbed in a circle through it, navigating around the moving nature of the clouds. The forecast called for the formation of some low-level waves 10 miles to the west, which was a bit unusual, though it also called for the clouds to dissipate a bit after sunset.

I hooked into one of those waves while still in the hole and rode to 10,000 feet above the clouds rather rapidly. Focused ahead, I noticed that the typical gaps over certain valleys did not exist. For that matter, the iron flat tops of the clouds were more animated, with wave signatures riding east to west over the foothills of the Alps. As I focused on riding the wave up, to avoid a fear of mine, which is to get sucked down into the clouds (hasn’t happened…. yet), I finally noticed that the hole behind me largely closed. Imagine that.

Sion was a backup, roughly 20 minutes away, which I could clearly see on the other side of the Bernese Alps was open. That was checked in my forecast, as I always either have multiple backup plans, or am intimately aware if I am leaving myself without one. Flying directly south to get away from the cloud deck as soon as possible (in case of engine failure), I noticed that the waves were rolling over terrain below, which I know quite well. While clouds topped at 9,000 feet or so, there was some activity at the tops.

My next concern was strong winds from the NE and now heading “over the edge” to the other side. Does this mean an overnight in Sion, if I could not overcome downdrafts to get back? I intuited that the winds were sideswiping the Alps, though had never crossed over the lip during a Bise. As I got to Sanetschpass, intuition was correct, and winds died down to 10 knots.

At this point, with an alternate in sight, I rode along the edge of the overcast layer east, then turned south over the wide-open Rhône valley, before turning west to enjoy some overcast clouds against the Valais Alps. My goal was to check out Evionnaz, where the cloud deck typically ends. I heard a flying club aircraft on ATC on the way back to Geneva, heading at an altitude below the cloud deck, versus going above and dropping in. Sure enough, like normal, cloud bases were 6,900 feet, with the valley floor at 1,400’ MSL. I dove in and thought the flight back would be a little slow but uneventful.

As I got to Col de Mosses, it was a bit disorienting as I expected to see a light at the end of the tunnel, which would have been the Sarine Valley. Instead, it was a bunch of menacing gloom, with Col du Pillon visible to my right. Proceeding over Col de Mosses at 6,300’, it started a steady mist, which was not forecast. Continuing along and well within the ability to turn around and alternate to Bex, I checked my fancy thermometer that I installed a year ago: 33F / 0.5C! Yikes! That was not forecast, either. Scanning aircraft surfaces, no ice had formed, though I had to cycle carb ice regularly in cruise.

Once over the pass, I descended 1,000 feet to bring temps up and landed on a long final 10 minutes later, noting that the holes remained closed, showers had moved in, and the clouds were thicker. So much for the forecast, which indicated the opposite.

What is interesting is my hike the next day. I considered flying again, and my wife insisted that I go hiking instead. The sun was out and, again, clouds were supposed to burn off, so I picked an illustrious ridge to climb that I had not visited before. I suspected that, if I played my cards right, I might see a few clouds below on the other side, though I did not hold my hopes up very high. Note that the hike in question is about 10 minutes out from the airport, where I usually have descended to 7,500’ by this point.

As soon as I got to the first ridge, I could see some clouds on the other side of the valley. I first thought they would “do nothing for my photos,” so I carried on, hiking along the auxiliary ridge. In short order, some “wisps” formed above, which turned into fog. 30 minutes later, on a ridge with some steep options on either side, I was trudging along, in the soup, before sunset, asking myself why I was bothering. “Instinct maybe?” I thought to myself. “At what point should you go back?” I thought, as I kept going forward.

Instinct was rewarded by bursting above the clouds. The scene was celestial…and telling. The whole valley where the clouds would “do nothing for my photos” was totally socked in. For that matter, Rüwlispass, which had been dry, was flowing clouds down toward the airport. “Hmmm…perhaps the wife was right.” This all happened in 25 minutes.

After enjoying utterly breathtaking views, I began to slither back to the car, which I now realized would be an after dark trek in the fog. The cloud deck was thickening everywhere. By the time darkness fell, the entire series of valleys was fully socked in. Again, it was not forecast exactly like this in this neck of the woods. The forecast called for the cloud deck to stop “where it usually does,” near Zweisimmen.

Had I been in the air, I hope I would have noticed the clouds thickening. Would I have been frolicking elsewhere? Maybe, though I usually do not venture as far in such situations, if there is a reasonable risk that the cloud deck might misbehave. In any case, on the day I hiked, Sion was still a backup, as were many other options. It is always interesting to contemplate when one might need to use one of them. It is further enlightening to be standing in the atmosphere when it plays its sneaky tricks.

Gstaad. Cloud bases roughly 7,000 feet.

An unusual perspective of Vanil Noir.

Through the hole, with the Bernese Alps straight ahead. The top is not perfectly flat.

These wavy clouds are following terrain below (which I know very well). Added power as descending part of light waves would like to suck me down into them.

Wildhorn (10,656′), on the lee side, at the border of the clouds. Winds are relatively tranquil.

Glacier de Ténéhet, under some early snows, with clouds behind, with light wave action evident.

Glacier de Plaine Morte, hiding under the clouds. 

Doldenhorn ridge.

Other side of the Rhône valley. Matterhorn is hiding in here.

Grand Combin (14,154′).

Good old Mont Blanc.

Rhône River, under the 6,900′ cloud base.

Over the pass, with mist. The camera is making it look more pleasant that it is.

Light rain showers and all holes closed….long final 08.

Hiking the next day. with a few clouds.

Where I hoped to go…

Some wisps showed up.

…which turned into an overcast deck within 25 minutes.

Clouds spilling over the left, socked in on the right (where two airport alternates exist below).

Note the clouds spilling over the pass, like water.

The ridge I hiked up is down under this river of clouds…

…which mysteriously went away…

…and came right back.

Flying Slice of History; the Rare Noorduyn Norseman to OSH21 Pt.1

In late June 2021 I received a message from Brent Blue asking if I would like to fly right seat to Oshkosh in his 1942 Noordyun Norseman.  Honestly I had never heard of the Norseman but after a quick review of this historic Canadian WWII aircraft I was keen to say yes.

Pilot and Right Seat Pilot           Brent Blue & Jolie Lucas

I had never flown with Brent but knew him through his work with AOPA [more here] and his website Aeromedix  We spent a few hours talking about planning, our individual flying styles, ratings, wish list for stops along the way, and of course the planned Saturday arrival to the big event, #OSH21.


For more information and an article on 164UC in Vintage Airplane Magazine, click here.


I flew commercially into Jackson Hole WY on the Tuesday evening before OSH21.  As I deplaned, I saw Brent talking with a fellow in the baggage claim area.  Little did I know that was a harbinger for the next 11 days. After living in Jackson for decades, it seemed like everywhere we went I heard “Hey Brent!”.  During our planning meetings I asked what the limitations on weight and baggage were.  Brent let me know that my baggage allowance for the flight across the country was 900 lbs [which is close to my full-fuel useful load in the Mooney].  After we collected my meager 100 pounds of luggage we loaded up into his big white truck. I couldn’t help but notice the signs that said “Coroner” on the truck.  I knew Brent had been in medicine for decades but did not know he was the Teton County Coroner. I have to say that I did get some “looks” when I was driving his big white truck in the National Park the next day.

Brent had a full day of patients on Wednesday and I got to borrow the truck and go explore the area including Jackson and the Grand Teton National Park.  My time in the park was so magical. I am a mountain girl and have been to many beautiful places around the globe, but I have to say the Tetons were pure magic.

The weather was warm and clear in Wyoming and the forecast was for VFR flight.  The plan was to rendezvous in the late afternoon and drive to Driggs, Idaho [KDIG ]for our departure to Casper, WY.  We loaded up the plane, completed a very thorough pre-flight and departed the airport.  The goal of this flight was to climb in the airport area to gain altitude needed to have a comfortable margin above the terrain.  As with the best laid plans we found that the density altitude was the big winner of the day.  We “climbed” for about 20 minutes and only gained a few hundred feet.

Sunrise departure from  Driggs ID for Mason City, IA

The next morning, we left in the cool, clear air and had no problems whatsoever. Being a day “behind” meant that we had a very long day of flights in front of us.

Super happy to have my Lightspeed headset to cancel the noise from that big round thing up front.

Some of you might remember my Dad was an instructor in the Army Air Corps.  He flew the Stearman out of Rankin Field in Tulare, CA in the early 40s.  He told me many stories of hanging out with Tex Rankin, Sammy Mason and others.  For me, flying in this historic WWII plane gave me an idea of what it must have been like for my Dad.

Flying behind that big radial engine was so thrilling in a slow-motion sort of way.  The Pratt & Whitney R1340 engine puts out 600 horses, but it is pulling a big, heavy, airplane.  Brent was very generous in briefing me on the controls, flight characteristics and procedures in flying the Norseman.  Having the majority of my time in a Mooney, it was a little adjustment to the heavy hand needed on the controls and lag time in responsiveness. The plane features a flip-flop yoke.  I was able to take-off, climb, establish in cruise and even did a “high-speed” pass.  By the end of the second day I was able to keep the plane headed in the right direction, once trimmed, with my toes.

Another difference between the Mooney is the  Norseman burns 30- 34 gallon per hour and about a half-gallon of oil.  We cruised at between 85-100 mph.  I really enjoyed flying with the windows down, seeing the country side unfolding beneath me and got used to the wind in my face and the occasional drop of oil landing on me.

One thing I learned straight away is this airplane is historic, rare, and draws a crowd wherever it goes. Production began on this Canadian single-engine bush plane in 1935.  Only 900 or so were produced.  The beefy air-frame came equipped with interchangeable wheel, ski or twin-float landing gear. Brent explained that his was the only Norseman flying in the continental United States. Along the way I learned what a great ambassador he is for general aviation.

July 22nd was a long day of flying as we had the goal to reach Mason City IA [KMCW] for their “Third-Thursday” event.  This monthly gathering was due to be especially large due to the proximity to the start of Oshkosh. I love their slogan, “There’s no agenda, no officers, no speakers, and no budget.”

We cast a big shadow as we landed.   Even behind that big engine, it was clear to see the multitude of airplanes on display which included the famous C47 “That’s All Brother”. The CAF has restored the historic aircraft and was hopping rides all afternoon for lucky attendees. To read more about TAB click here

On approach to Mason City, IA

The afternoon was sunny and warm with clear skies.  Another fun element of Mason City Iowa was our stay at the last remaining Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built hotel in the world, the Historic Park Inn. We checked in and soon enough were back out at the airport to enjoy the wonderful hospitality of Doug and Kim Rozendaal and the Third Thursday crew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was simply a perfect GA evening.  The grills were going much to this meat-a-tarian’s delight.  Hundreds of folks checking out the 50+ airplanes that came in.  From student pilots to old-timers, the excitement of heading to Oshkosh ’21 was in the air.  The Norseman was a hit with many, many, visitors and folks coming by to take photos.  We enjoyed the evening and then hit the hay for our early morning departure to Middleton, WI [c29] and their Rock the Ramp celebration. . I will continue our journey to Oshkosh in next month’s installment.


 

Gabriel Muller Smokehouse Pilots, Aviation YouTuber Martin Pauly and my Mom & Dad beaming in on me.

As I close, I would like to remind folks, in the waning flying season of ’21, to take advantage of any on-field events going on in your community or region.  Please don’t forget online virtual events as well. For those in California, mark your calendars for Friends of Oceano Airport, Toys for Kids on Saturday December 4th from 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.

 

 

Schedule Changes

I was recently explaining to someone the vagaries of my airline schedule, and the fact that my preferred overnights were not as available because of the way the trips had been changed. This led to a series of questions about the hows and whys of schedule construction.

Every airline tweaks its schedule from month to month and season to season. What is little realized is just how complex this process is. Even at an airline like Southwest or Spirit that only flies one fleet type, there are multiple models of the same airplane with varying seat capacities. At airlines that fly multiple fleet types, things get even more complicated. A flight that does well with an Airbus 319 (the smaller version of the Airbus 319/320 line) in the summer might need another 100 seats in the winter. This could mean a jump to 757-300 or even a 767. Other city pairs might be more predictable, or may be able to support multiple models of the 737 with various seating configurations.

Decisions about schedule changes are based on a combination of historical sales and demand data, as well as current and future demand, which is collected from surveys, website browsing data, and other sources. But it’s never as simple as just swapping out one airplane for another. If the fleet type is changed, this will drive analysis of pilot and flight attendant staffing and availability, which in turn drives training and hiring requirements.

Behind the scenes, there are other pieces that need to fall into place. For example, gate space is a major part of the puzzle. Every airline has optimized the schedule for turning an airplane at the gate, and the turn time is based on the size of the airplane. Between flights, they need to be cleaned, fueled, possibly attended to for maintenance, and stocked with food and drinks. The minimum time is driven not only by these items, but by brake cooling. But not every gate can service every airplane. Wide-body jets need higher jet bridges, and sometimes use more than one jet bridge to board and deplane. Most airports only have a handful of jetways for the wide bodies, and most of the wide body flights are those that take place during international departure banks, typically in the evenings. As if that isn’t enough, it’s possible that parking a wide body at a certain gate will render the adjoining gate or gates unusable. In addition, someone has to make sure that the staffing on the ground is adequate. Baggage handlers, gate agents, even wheelchair personnel need to be optimized.

There are also situations that the airlines can’t control. For example, in almost every city, hotel check-out time is around noon, and check-in time is around 3 p.m. This is so the hotel can get the rooms cleaned and turned over before new guests arrive. In relatively remote locations, the flight schedule reflects this. Likewise, cruise ships operate on a schedule, and airlines flying into Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, etc. will adjust their schedules accordingly. (That being said, anyone who books a flight to arrive on the same day that a cruise sets sail is playing with fire.)

On the flight operations side, not only do the pilots and flight attendants need to be available and scheduled, but it’s also important to take care of crewmember hotel rooms, transportation to and from the hotel, and where appropriate, crew meals on the flight. Remember, the crew that might have been scheduled to overnight in New Orleans last month may now be doing a turn and finishing up in Chicago.

Schedules are incredibly dynamic, and the changes never really stop. Every airline has to deal with minor updates and tweaks even after the monthly schedules for pilots are published. Some flights get canceled, others removed for training, and new ones added. An example of flights getting added at the last minute are common during the college football and basketball post-seasons, as well as the Super Bowl, when extra segments are added for fans to travel to the games. The flights can’t be scheduled or tickets sold until the participants are determined.

So, the next time you are sitting on an airplane on the ramp and waiting for a gate, try to remember that it isn’t as simple as “that gate I can see is open, why can’t we park there?” Last-minute gate changes are a last resort, and doing so can trigger delays further down the line. Likewise, when your favorite layovers are suddenly not so desirable for some reason, keep in mind that before you ever see the schedule, there are teams of people that have already done everything they can to optimize it, even if it might be to your detriment.

FAA to extract visibility from weathercams through crowd sourcing: looking for Alaskan volunteers

Since its inception the FAA Weather Camera Program has provided Alaska pilots with a valuable tool, helping us make critical go/no go decisions.  Today, FAA is looking to squeeze more information out of the system by estimating visibility from the images.  To conduct a demonstration project, they are looking for 40 weather camera users—pilots, dispatchers or other users, to make visibility estimates based on web camera images.  If you are willing to help advance this effort, consider participating in a short training session, and signing up to help.

The FAA Weather Camera Program has provided supplementary weather information to pilots in Alaska for 25 years.

Background:
A weather camera system for aviation use was first demonstrated as part of a PhD graduate student’s program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in April, 1996—in what was supposed to be a six month operational demonstration at three locations.  It proved so popular that FAA took over those sites, and has continued to add camera locations, now operating some 230 sites across Alaska. More recently FAA is installing cameras in Hawaii and Colorado and is hosting third-party camera data from more locations, including in Canada.

Breaking new ground:
A new phase of the program is underway today—to extract additional, more quantifiable information from the camera sensors.  Earlier this year pilots were asked to evaluate visibility data derived from image processing of weather camera images.  Now, the FAA is looking for volunteers to explore a crowd-sourcing approach to estimating visibility.  If you are a pilot, dispatcher, or other FAA weather camera user, and would be willing to spend two hours a week over the course of a few weeks, consider signing up to help FAA explore this means of collecting weather camera data.  You will be asked to look at weather camera images and estimate the visibility based on what you see in the image. Scheduling is flexible and a one-hour online training session provides the background you need to participate.  The project is expected to run between two and four weeks in duration. Your participation would help advance our understanding of how to extract more value from the weather camera system.

To access the presentation:

FAA ZoomGov Meeting.
Optional ways to join are:

Click to Join:
https://faavideo.zoomgov.com/j/16130653524
• Passcode: 642640
• If prompted, accept the Zoom application as instructed.

Mobile Device:
• Download the ‘Zoom Cloud Meetings’ App.
• Select ‘Join a Meeting’ and enter Meeting ID: 161 3065 3524
• Passcode: 642640

Phone Audio Only:
• Call 1-888-924-3239; enter Meeting ID: 161 3065 3524
• Passcode: 642640
• Unmute or mute yourself by pressing *6.

How to help:
Please consider helping to explore this use of the FAA Weather Camera data by volunteering some of your time and expertise. Participate in the virtual training session shown above.  Send an email with your contact information (email address and phone number) to: [email protected] or [email protected] who will respond with additional information regarding the project and how to schedule your participation.

Medical Events

Medical emergencies in flight are pretty rare, but when you consider the numbers, it is inevitable that some will happen.

With 50 to 350 people on an airplane, some of whom already have underlying health issues and may be experience more stress than normal because of the travel experience, someone will eventually get sick. Hopefully, it is relatively minor and not a life-threatening event, and better still if there is a medical professional of some sort on board.

In my days at the regionals, the decision to execute a diversion was almost entirely in the hands of the crew. As you can imagine, this led to a lot of second-guessing, but pilots are pilots, and not doctors. Given the choice, they will act in a conservative fashion and land so as not to risk the burden of a serious illness or death on one of their flights.

At the majors, the carriers utilize more resources. Almost every airline has a contract with a medical service that has a team of doctors on call 24/7/365 to help evaluate a situation. The pilot is expected to gather as much information as possible—passenger name, gender, age, symptoms, pertinent medical history/current medications—and relay that to the folks on the ground. During this conversation, the flight dispatcher is usually listening in. The dispatcher will coordinate with a diversion airport if necessary, and will also have EMTs and paramedics meet the airplane when necessary.

Diversions can be major disruptors to the schedule, and they are expensive. Making one unnecessarily doesn’t do anyone any good, so it’s important to make the right decision. Taking the decision out of the hands of the crew and putting it in the hands of the medical professionals takes the pressure off the crew—if not off the airline—and allows the experts to call the shots.

I’ve had a handful of medical events over the years, and the last several years it has averaged about one per year. Usually, it is someone who is just sick or doesn’t feel well. There was only one where I disagreed with the decision to press on versus a diversion, but it wasn’t my call to make. One memorable day I had medical emergencies on back-to-back flights. That was fun. The second one was on a relatively short flight, and the destination was the only real option, but it was a compressed time frame, and we were incredibly busy trying to coordinate things with ATC, the station, and the cabin crew.

International flights pose their own challenge because of Customs and Immigration procedures. Incidents over water are challenging because the ability to communicate with the company and medical folks may be limited, and the time to an airport may be longer than you’d like. I’ve experienced more than one event coming in from the Caribbean, which always leads one to hope that someone just had a bit too much fun on vacation.

Every company has their own procedures in place for dealing with and properly reporting an event. It behooves even new-hire pilots to be as familiar as possible with those procedures early on, because once the cabin crew calls with an event, the workload—and stress—can rapidly escalate. Knowing where to find your help and what to do with it will go a long way toward ensuring a favorable outcome.—Chip Wright 

Flying in other countries

Aviation is supposed to be a world with a common language, but it doesn’t always work as well in practice as it does in theory. English is the agreed-upon language, but the fact is, not everyone speaks it as a primary language, and many struggle with it.

I do quite a bit of flying in Mexico and Central America, and most of the controllers speak English fairly well, while others clearly struggle to speak with a minimal accent. When I used to fly over certain parts of Japan, China, and Russia, the problem could be compounded. Russians, for instance, use meters versus feet.

Add to this the unusual (for us) names of some of the navaids and fixes that we use in foreign countries, and the risk of misunderstanding is fairly high. The obvious solutions are easy: Speak clearly, speak slowly, and make sure that you eliminate any potential distractions when you are listening to a transmission intended for you.

Fortunately, most controllers are patient and will gladly work with you to make sure that you understand what they need you to do or where they need you to go. And once you have some experience in a particular country, you will get better at predicting what will come next—and for that matter, what won’t. Many places, for instance, insist that you fly a full approach, so getting a shortcut for a visual is usually a non-starter. Other locations with spotty radar or challenging terrain will essentially force you to fly a full arrival or departure procedure.

One of the best ways to prepare for some of these challenges is to spend some time studying whatever material your company provides for operations in various geographic areas. When you get the flight plan, make sure that you can decipher the SIDS and STARS. In Mexico and other Central American countries, there might be a large number of arrivals depicted on one page, with various transitions to choose from. You’ll likely have to study the approach page(s) as well to determine how to load the route. The other possibility is that the flight plan won’t have a STAR on it, and you will be assigned one as you get near. That isn’t the time to try to decipher odd-sounding words that could confuse you. Try to have some passing familiarity with the sounds and phonetics so that you can be sure you have the right procedure.

There are some countries and/or airports that multiple airlines treat with an even greater degree of caution because of a confluence of risk factors, such as language, terrain, weather, et cetera. Bogota, Colombia, falls into this category. Most require pilots to go in for the first time with someone who has been there, and captains often have to go in for the first time with a check airman and be specifically signed off before they can be assigned BOG routinely.

Flying to new countries is a challenge, but it’s also fun, and when you get comfortable with the procedures, it is satisfying to know that you can work the system as intended. But preparation is key, and it can’t be overlooked. Likewise, you can’t allow complacency to rear its ugly head either. Stay focused, stay ahead of the airplane, and stay safe.—Chip Wright 

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NASA terrain avoidance flight system demonstrated

NASA is developing technology initially created for fighter aircraft into a tool to help general aviation aircraft to avoid collisions with terrain.  While many of us fly today with features in our GPS that will alert us to the proximity of terrain, the basic response is, “pull up—pull up.” If, however you are in a confined location that option may not be the best response—or even possible.  While still ‘work in progress,’ NASA is hosting a live, online demonstration of their Resilient Autonomy Activity, an outgrowth of a system developed for use in the F-16 fighters.  Mark your calendar for Wednesday, September 22, at 6 pm Alaska Daylight Time, to watch a simulation demonstration in some Alaskan  mountainous terrain.

Background
Most of the terrain awareness and warning devices that we see today in our general aviation cockpits do little more than flash orange or red, depending how close we are, with the only guidance being to climb.  But NASA has been working on something better.  The NASA Resilient Autonomy Activity is developing a system that provides more options on how to escape terrain, when you get too close.  Based on work in conjunction with the FAA and DOD, they have software under development that came from their Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS), developed for, and today in use in F-16’s.

A screen shot of a simulated flight indicating that a turn to the left is the only remaining maneuver to avoid the terrain ahead.  Credit: NASA/Mark Skoog

This work is being conducted by the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center.  In an event coordinated with the Alaska Airmen’s Association, they plan to give an online demonstration of the system’s capabilities.  Instead of just directing a pilot to climb, the system uses digital terrain data to offer lateral escape routes, depending on the location.  Planned in stages, the system is anticipated to be coupled to an autopilot, and eventually into totally autonomous aircraft.

The virtual presentation will be conducted using Microsoft TEAMS, with time for questions and answers following the demo.  To check out this evolving capability, and ask questions of NASA staff,  join the meeting with the information below:

Wednesday, September 22, at 6 pm Alaska Daylight Time

Microsoft Teams meeting

Join on your computer or mobile app

Click here to join the meeting

Or call in (audio only)

+1 256-715-9946,,104378964#   United States, Huntsville

Phone Conference ID: 104 378 964#

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Regional pilot bonuses

If there was ever any doubt about the need for pilots, or the need to try and retain pilots, those doubts have been squarely put to rest.

In August, Piedmont, PSA, and Envoy, all of whom fly under the American Airlines banner, announced significant retention bonuses. All captains are to receive $30,000 immediately, first officers will receive $30,000 when they upgrade, all pilots who stick around for the flow to American will receive $70,000, and there will also be $50,000 biannual bonuses available, with the details to be announced.

This is a blatant admission that the pipeline of pilots is drying up. It might also be an admission of sorts by American Airlines that pilots are not sticking around to get the promised flow to the American mainline. While I don’t have the details about how this program will work, or what the catches are, this indicates that the adage that “money talks” is going to be put to a test.

For example, how long will an upgrading FO have to stay to receive and keep the $30,000 bonus? What if that FO decides to bid back to the right seat for personal reasons? What is the structure of the biannual bonus? And, perhaps most important to so many of the pilots at the three airlines: how long do they have to realistically wait to get a shot at American? If the wait is too long, the problem is not going to be solved, as those pilots who are experienced and marketable will apply to Delta, United, Southwest, et al. If I am in management at American Airlines Group, I would be trying to figure out what to say to get them to stay.

It remains to be seen whether Delta and/or United will feel compelled to do something similar. Make no mistake that while the pilots in question are flying RJs, these bonuses are approved and maybe even initiated by management, since they pay the bills. It is clear that they see a shortage on the horizon.

I recently had a pilot from American on one of my flights, and while this wasn’t yet public knowledge, the overall need for pilots is, and we were discussing the state of the industry going forward. Every major airline will tell you that they all have the same 4,000 to 5,000 who are viable candidates in their pool of applicants. What makes this such a challenge is that, for the first time ever, multiple carriers are trying to hire at least 1,000 pilots a year. Delta, United, Southwest all would love to train more than that, and JetBlue is not far behind. UPS, FedEx and the Amazon contractors (Southern and Atlas) all need experienced pilots. While the pay at Southern and Atlas is still below where it should be, there is reason for optimism that the pilots are on the verge of a new contract that will dramatically increase compensation.

It doesn’t take much to see that four airlines hiring 1,000 pilots each will quickly deplete the current pool of available talent. It’s important to realize that these aren’t just pie-in-the-sky numbers either. While the pandemic is not over, travel demand has rebounded, and people are ready to move. Airlines responded to the downturn by offering early retirement packages that helped avoid furloughs. Retirements are not going to slow down, and every carrier is ordering airplanes that will result in a net growth of their fleets. They wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t have confidence that the business would be there. In fact, in 2022, United will be taking a new airplane every three days. It’s been decades since the majors have seen that kind of movement.

This is going to create an incredible series of opportunities, but it will also put great strains on each company’s training centers. There will be positions open as instructors, evaluators, course content creators, and more. Recruiters will also be in demand. New and more airplanes will also open up opportunities for mechanics, which is another area of great staffing concern. But for us as pilots, this represents an opportunity to try as many different types of flying as you might care to experience. Ultra long haul, cargo, wide body, narrow body, charters, Boeing versus Airbus…it is all on the table. Some pilots will bid aggressively and fly every plane in the fleet, and others will find a niche and settle in for the long haul in one seat or one fleet. You certainly won’t starve.

I am curious to see the gotchas of the American Airlines Group deal with its subsidiaries, but I do think it is indicative of the state of an industry that needs to work hard to make learning to fly more accessible, more affordable, and more attractive. Let’s hope that this is just the beginning!—Chip Wright

Reinventing yourself: Finding and buying a floatplane

Emboldened by my recent Single Engine Seaplane (SES) rating and move the Pacific Northwest, it was time to set out on a search for a very special airplane. But which one? There are so many different types of seaplanes, should I go with a classic or something newer? Floats or a flying boat? Honestly, I had no idea, so my first thought was to throw caution into the wind (pun intended) and just log onto one of the online airplane-buying magazine sites. I knew of three which included Barnstormers, Trade-A-Plane and Controller. Surely, I would be able to find something that worked for me!  I found the process to be exciting!

While there were many possible configurations, there were not many airplanes for sale and the prices were very high. My first thought was that this was going to be harder than I imagined and maybe it would be like my experience moving up to the Pacific Northwest. Prices had skyrocketed in the last year and it appeared people were trying to unload their junkers to any city slicker who was willing to pay the ridiculous prices.

Defining my mission

As with most major decisions, I seek out the people with the most knowledge I can find. I went back to my friend Addison Pemberton, the master renovator and owner of the Grumman Goose that had whetted my appetite for my seaplane rating just a couple months before.

Addison was pretty clear that the name of the game was to make the aircraft as light as possible so it could get off the water in a short distance and expect to get it wet.  I also needed reliability since I was planning on flying a lot in Alaska and Canada. I needed an autopilot because I wasn’t going to hand-fly on the long legs. I also needed some rock solid IFR navigation capabilities for the bad weather that I knew I would experience further north.

I knew that flying low and slow would be a major adjustment after flying the Citizen of the World in the flight levels at over 300 knots true around the world and over the North and South poles. While it was fun above 18,000 feet at reduced vertical separation minimum (RVSM) altitudes, I was missing a lot below me. It might feel like I wasn’t moving, but I would have more time to take in the sights and change my perspective.

Getting advice from the big boys

AOPA President Mark Baker suggested I reach out if I ever had a floatplane question and he directed me to Minnesota’s Wipaire Inc. to see what inventory they had in stock. They had a newer Cessna 206 on their floats but the engine was past TBO and I wasn’t looking for a project.

Next, I asked my FAA SES examiner, Glenn Smith, who was very knowledgeable as well. He suggested a shop in Park Rapids, Minnesota, called Park Rapids Aviation. I went to their website, and they had only one plane but it was a beauty. It had all the mods I was looking for, but it was old by my standards! It was a 1977 but the airplane was beautiful. The listed price was $495,000 for a Cessna 182 on Aerocet 3400 amphibious floats. One of my friends talked me out of buying such an old and expensive model.

I even had a conversation with aviation legends Burt and Dick Rutan about their experimental SkiGull floatplane project. While the SkiGull hadn’t lived up to Burt’s expectations with respect to handling big waves, they learned a lot. It was probably the only experimental I would have considered based on the brothers’ long history of excellence. Unfortunately, the aircraft wasn’t going to be produced so it wasn’t an option either.

Since I was planning on flying up in Alaska, I also reached out to a couple of Alaskan pilots to discuss options. I figured the people flying in the area would know what worked best up there. A guy named James Spikes, who lived in Wasilla, Alaska, and had won eight short takeoff and landing (STOL) competitions including the famous one at Valdez, let me know the earlier 182 on floats that I considered was a beauty and could be used on tundra tires as well. Marc McKenna, a collector and pilot from Anchorage, with several hangars full of pristine Cessna 180s and 185s, also gave me the thumbs up on that same 182 and told me to “Buy it!”

Buyer Beware

In the process of the search, I came across an option that looked pretty good, but the owner was playing a bit dumb with me. Sensing something was up, I called in the most knowledgeable floatplane mechanic I could find who was Rob Ritchie from Kenmore Aviation in Washington. To give you an idea of Rob’s credentials, when I walked into Kenmore Aviation I asked a guy if he had ever heard Rob Ritchie and he laughed and said, “You could ask that question from here to Australia and get the same answer! Yes!”

The plane I was interested in was just 45 minutes away from Kenmore so I met Rob at the aircraft and he sliced and diced that plane during the pre-buy like he was using a sharp kitchen knife. We determined the airplane had a history up in Canada and 6 years of logbooks were missing. Of course, the owner said he was unaware of the missing books. If it was not for all Rob taught me about floatplanes during that 5 hours, I would have been pretty upset. That lesson cost about $1,500.

Beaver fever

Rob started showing me some of the most pristine de Havilland Beavers I had ever seen. I was a bit intimidated by their size and felt they would be a handful to dock or beach for a first-timer. The price tag in the 700K range was pricey for someone trying to build hours and determine if floatplane flying was even what I wanted to do. The insurance company made it easy by giving me an emphatic, “No!” to doing transition training in a Beaver. In my heart of hearts, I know a DHC3 Beaver will play some part in my life in the future, just not now.

The Universe steps in and gives me some guidance

Over the span of the next couple of months, I learned the state of the market, what floatplanes were selling for, and what my next step would be. As luck would have it, I was walking around 2021 EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh  and my eyes fell upon one of the most beautiful floatplanes I had ever seen and it looked very familiar. It was N257JS—the Cessna 182 on Aerocet floats that I had seen online on the Park Rapids website months before, and she was perfect! In fact, I was blown away by this aircraft. Turns out she had only 1,749 hours on her and I couldn’t find a rusty bolt, a bit of corrosion, or for that matter, anything wrong with her. I knocked on the trailer door behind the plane and out walked a new friend of mine who I respect and admire, Tom Hamilton. He is the most humble person, the founder of GLASAIR, designer of the Kodiak and president of Aerocet Floats. Tom is an aviation legend, and I was surprised to see him. We had several great conversations over the next few days about N257JS, floatplanes, aviation, and life. This was a super cool coincidence, and the Universe was pointing me directly towards this beauty and the quality floats that he designs and builds.

The perfect time to buy

With inflation running wild and all the new administration printing currency as fast as they could, now was the perfect time to use the cash I had and invest in hard assets. As inflation increases so would the value of my airplane! I knew I would not lose money if I sold in a couple years after building some hours as a seaplane pilot.

Pre-buy

I made an offer on N257JS and it was quickly accepted. The pre-buy was with Will at North Point Aviation and went well. Aside from some tight control cables, instruments that needed calibration, a little bit of corrosion on the prop tips, and a bad vacuum pump, it was clean. All the supplemental type certificates were in order and the seller was willing to fix the squawks.

Modding Her Up

Now it was time to decide what she needed from me! N257JS was already loaded with extra features including a Continental IO-550 that was ported and polished, a Hartzell 86-inch three bladed prop, bubble side windows, glass panel, vortex generators, STOL wing, wing extensions, tip tanks, and gap seals to name a few. For my mission, I would need a few more things, which my generous sponsors agreed to provide, including Whelen LED lights, a Concorde battery, and Electroair electronic ignition. I’m waiting on answers from MT on a reversing prop, L3 Harris Technologies for a Lynx NGT-9000 ADS-B transponder and an ESI-500 electronic standby instrument, and Genesys Aerosystems S-TEC 3100 digital autopilot.

Welcome to the DeLaurentis Foundation family!

Escrow closed a week after the pre-buy and I’m happy to say N257JS is now a proud member of the DeLaurentis Foundation. Her (still unnamed) mission is to help me safely build SES, hours to satisfy insurance requirements, preform reliably, turn some heads, and teach me about seaplane flying across Canada, Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest. I’m unsure what role she will play in our future missions, but we know she will be involved in something bigger in the near future that will have impact on aviation and the world.

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