Menu

Paper versus electronic QRH

In the last several years, airlines have made the transition to electronic flight bags. Nowhere is this more common than with charts and flight manuals, and the reasons are obvious. Updates are automatic; currency of publications is assured; and the decreased weight saves fuel.

An often-overlooked issue from the past was on-the-job injuries, which were very common because of shoulder and back injuries sustained from manipulating the bags (some airplanes were worse than others for causing injuries).

But there are still some skirmishes being fought. For years, pilots have relied on paper quick reference handbooks (QRHs), which contain Abnormal and Emergency checklists. The temptation is to switch to an electronic QRH for some of the same reasons: cost, efficiency, currency, et cetera. However, there has been some strong pushback from pilots on this, and for good reason.

The paper QRH might be a last resort, and it doesn’t have a battery that can die or overheat. It also isn’t prone to fat finger dialing. Imagine, if you will, the adrenaline rush that kicks in during some of the more dire emergencies, such as a catastrophic engine failure, a pressurization issue, or some other calamity. The electronic checklists often have hot-links in them, and during a bumpy ride or one in which your nerves have your fingers shaking, it can be easy to make a mistake and tap the wrong link, which can lead to confusion. Or worse.

Another advantage of a paper QRH is the ability to pass the book back and forth, if necessary, without worrying about bumping the screen and triggering an unexpected change. One compromise that some airlines have reached with their pilot and union reps is to ensure that there is at least one paper QRH on board versus the two that some had. Pilots are usually asked to demonstrate proficiency with the tablets in the classroom or the simulator, but they have discretion as to which one to use. Most find it easier not to have to worry about toggling between multiple apps when dealing with abnormal procedures.

The electronic flight bag is definitely here to stay, as it should be. It’s a great tool, and it needs to be utilized as much as possible. Sometimes, the old adage “less is more” applies. This definitely applies, in my opinion, to the QRH. I also sometimes wish we still had paper maintenance logs, which didn’t have as much of the tracking history in them, which made it easier to find more recent trends if you needed them.

Life is much easier with the electronic flight bag, and I have no desire to go back to paper charts, revisions, or 40-pound bags of dead weight. I do miss a few of the advantages of paper, but the one tool I don’t want to lose is my paper QRH. Here’s hoping that the airlines will recognize that is a small expense to be paid for an easy enhancement to safety.—Chip Wright

Surfing the Wave

This whole idea started with an online forum discussion, pondering how high a Super Cub can really go. Sure, there is the whole published ceiling that might offer insight, though there was my rather extensive personal experience flying the PA-11 to interesting heights. I exceeded the ceiling once, with a passenger, in Colorado, getting to 16,300’. In France last summer, I came close on a warm day, reaching 16,000’ just over the summit of Mt. Blanc, but still hadn’t broken the record again in almost five years. I had even installed vortex generators since, and it was looking like the published ceiling was about it (16,000’ in the PA-11). I supposed, on engine power alone, a Super Cub would do the same thing: roughly its published limit and not too much more.

Well, that is fine on engine power. Mountain winds are another story. What goes down must have gone up somewhere else, so find the upward wind currents and see how far one can go.

On an innocent morning in the Pyrenees, I told my wife I was going for a flight (without telling her what I was up to), filed a flight plan to talk to ATC, and went to the airport. I talked to the airport manager, who is a renowned glider instructor, and confirmed exactly how to best catch the waves, and asked to borrow a nice oxygen setup.

The thing is, mountain waves are very tranquil…once in them. The transition layers beneath feature plenty of turbulence and rotors, usually enough that when about to enter the wave and have things calm down, a sensible pilot turns back. After all, he and his airplane are getting the snot beat out of it. Why risk more? I had gotten into waves a number of times in Colorado and in the Pyrenees, though it was usually a nominal altitude gain and wasn’t necessarily with the intent to ride them as far as I could go.

As it was a chilly winter morning, climb out was good. By 7,500’, I was beginning to get knocked around. At 9,000’, it got a little interesting. By 12,000’, turbulence was almost gone. At 15,000’ I really hooked the wave and was heading up nicely. At 19,500’, French ATC put an end to the party, as Class A was lurking above, and despite my repeated pleas to continue my fun and go for a better record, they couldn’t issue a variance. You know, airliners going into Toulouse and Barcelona….sigh. It took 43 minutes to get from field elevation of 3,609′ MSL to 19,500′ with full fuel and 100hp.

So that answers the musings of the mind. It was astonishingly cold, though the airplane handled as normal. Mixture was leaned quite a bit to keep the engine running, airspeed was consistent, and nothing was too terribly out of the ordinary. Some descending circles with GPS indicated upper level winds of 58kts in the wave, though I still haven’t broken my wind record. That was done at 13,500’ just east of Yellowstone in 2015 in the Absaroka Mountains.

If it’s not obvious, I’d love to go higher in the Cub.

Statistics from the Climb

Waves in the upper atmosphere from 12,000′.

13,000′. The Pyrenees, looking west from France to Spain and Andorra.

19,000′. Took a photo with the wing to prove I wasn’t faking it in another aircraft. Timberline below is 7,500′, and the highest peaks in the foreground are 9,500′.

19,500′. The highest peak in the Pyrenees is on the horizon at 11,168′.

Cockpit view. I don’t even have a 10,000′ hand on the altimeter, though the altitude from standard altimeter settings on the transponder reads FL192.

18,500′ on the way down, with the Mediterranean on the horizon. The pass beneath is roughly 5,400′.

Getting to more reasonable altitudes at 11,500′.

Note the boats in Barcelona harbor on the extreme left horizon of the image. They are 76 statute miles from the airplane.

 

 

Breaking the chain to get the job you want

Recently, I’ve had to sit on the cockpit jump seat during several commutes because of heavy loads during the holidays. It isn’t the most comfortable seat in the house, but hey, a free ride is a free ride and full airplanes bode well for my job security and profit sharing. This has led to all manner of conversations with the crew—outside of the sterile cockpit realm, of course.

Most of these commutes tend to be on Republic, which is one of the largest regionals in the country, and also the world’s largest operator of the Embraer E-170/175 series of jets. In fact, following Republic’s bankruptcy a few years ago, it’s the only airplane the company operates, having shed the older E-145 “Jungle Jet.”

Almost without exception, the conversation at some point turns to the topic of hiring at both the regionals and the majors, rumors, fact-checking, and seeing who knows who. Republic flies on behalf of United, American, and Delta, and it is a key cog for each carrier. Numerous pilots have relayed to me that it’s extremely difficult for Republic pilots to get on directly with one of their code-share partners; friends who work for Republic have told me the same thing. The conclusion and consensus is that the three “brand names” don’t want to contribute to a shortage of pilots at one of their key regional partners. That said, all three have other carriers with whom they have preferential hiring or interview programs set up, but those other regionals tend to be much smaller. and the process is tightly controlled in order to manage the flow of pilots in such a way that metal can still be moved.

I saw this when I was at Comair. For years, Delta had three regional partners responsible for over 90 percent of its regional flying: Comair, ASA, and Skywest. When Delta needed to hire, it tended to take pilots from one of the three carriers in chunks, and when that carrier called Atlanta to complain about losing pilots, the ratio would shift to favor pilots from one of the other two.

This is a bit of a simplistic explanation, but the reality was that Delta didn’t want to leave any of its regionals with a shortage that would only hurt Delta, so the company hired relatively evenly from all three. By doing so, the company also got pilots that were intimately familiar with the Delta system, so it was a win-win. Keep in mind that Delta was also getting pilots experienced in flying jets when that was a relatively rare phenomenon, unlike today.

Those days are largely over, and the pilot shortage is real enough that the majors with regional feed need to consider the ramifications of their hiring decisions on their regional partners. As a result, pilots at Republic are forced to consider “breaking the chain” if they want to get on one with one of the big legacy carriers. Essentially, this means that many are opting for a carrier such as Spirit, JetBlue, Allegiant, or one of the cargo ACMI operators like Southern or Kalitta. Many are also going to Southwest.

Once they get hired by someone outside of their brand of choice, they test the waters for a year or so and make a decision about going through the job-searching process, a new training cycle, et cetera, taking into account career goals and the disruption to family life.  As you might expect, many stay, especially with strong carriers like Southwest and JetBlue. But not all do, and they find that getting hired at UA/AA/DL is much easier when they are no longer directly tied to those carriers. Passing muster in a bigger airplane also helps.

None of this is necessarily fair, but it is the reality of the current job market, and it’s a strategy that people in other fields have been using since the dawn of time. Pilots are no different: Job One is looking out for yourself. Hopefully, Republic will enter into genuine flow or feed agreements across the board, which would benefit all parties. In the meantime, pilots at carriers in a similar position need to be willing to consider the same strategy.—Chip Wright

Dealing with pre-departure delays and jitters: What is your intuition trying to tell you?

As pilots we often rely on our technical knowledge, flight training, and experience to make critical decisions in the air and on the ground. We use this knowledge to decide if we will continue a flight when something fails, to determine if weather will affect us, how our aircraft will perform given the maintenance it has received and what our course of action will be when making go/no-go decisions.

I believe we have another decision-making tool available to us as pilots—our intuition. Call it what you will: gut instinct, a hunch, your sixth sense. Psychology Today refers to intuition as the brain on autopilot—I think of it as an inner voice that always has our back. Regretfully, no training program I’m aware of has ever told us to rely on our intuition, and yet, it offers information that could save our lives in critical decision-making moments.

Case in point: As my departure date for my polar circumnavigation looms ever closer, my airplane, Citizen of the World, has started throwing me some major curves and fits. It has been sending me some very clear messages that leave me feeling a bit uneasy in my stomach. The messages I’m receiving are clear: The airplane is not ready for departure. In fact, it’s like it won’t let me go even though my get-there-itis is pushing me to keep moving.

A lot of technology and new equipment have come together in Citizen of the World in a very short period of time including a new Avidyne Avionics panel, Max Viz infrared sensor, refurbished Honeywell turbine engines, MT propellers, and a Peter Schiff environmental system to name a few. Being an optimist and thinking that this is not my first rodeo (see my equatorial circumnavigation), I assumed the trip would roll out on time and smoothly like back in 2015. Nothing could be further from the truth. This trip is an entirely different animal than an equatorial circumnavigation and much more complex: vastly greater distances, the worst weather on the planet, extreme cold, lack of places to land, pilot fatigue issues, challenging navigation, and a more complicated/modified airplane.

To add insult to injury, for some reason the human factor is also coming into play like it never has before. It’s making my earlier trip complete with engine out at 14,000 feet over the Strait of Malacca feel like a cakewalk (see my book Zen Pilot: Flight of Passion and the Journey Within). Disagreements between contractors, health issues of key players, family issues for supporters, and my own physical challenge of dislocating a shoulder have had me on high alert. Not a great way to start a long-distance solo flight.

As my initial departure date neared, I was starting to lose sleep over these issues and my intuition kept waking me in the middle of the night saying, “Not yet! The plane needs to stabilize and needs more testing.”

The problem is, of course, that all these things result in delays for every scheduled installation or inspection, since the modifications must happen sequentially. For example, the environmental system must be installed and working reliably before the six ferry tanks are installed, which limit access to the environmental system once the tanks are installed.  All of these delays add stress to meeting my departure date.

These issues I have listed do not even account for the random events that plague aviation and life. The things we cannot predict or plan for can have a tremendous impact on us, and even greater consequences when we aren’t paying attention to our intuition or worse, choosing to ignore it. By listening to our intuition and acting on it immediately we clear the air for better solutions to rise up and ease the growing stress that is clogging our mental and emotional engines.

While flying the airplane from Tennessee to New Mexico en route to Gemini Air Group for a third look at the airplane by some very talented mechanics, I noticed the entire right side of the pilot window had cracked and delaminated. This was slightly unnerving given that I was flying 30,000 feet above ground, and that the airplane was pressurized to 6.4 psi cabin differential. I couldn’t help but think that the windshield could collapse in on me at just over 302 knots or 347.3 mph, the speed at which I was currently flying. As I watched the cracking spread to the top of the window, it was as if the Universe was talking to me and stopping me in my tracks. Coincidentally  I was close to my next fuel stop and Gemini Air Group. My intuition was again telling me, “Not ready, you have more work to do on this plane.”

Looking into replacing the window, I was told by one mechanic, “You can fly with it ‘as is,’ it just won’t look pretty.” Aesthetics and get-there-itis aside, my gut was telling me this wasn’t just a delay issue, it was also a financial, and even more important, a safety issue. Heated aircraft windows are made in small quantities and are enormously expensive, slow to manufacture and install, as well as critical for flying at the flight levels I will be flying.

In addition to the windshield delaminating, we became aware that the right engine had been refurbished using bearings for the torque sensor transducer that were potentially defective and needed to be replaced, requiring the prop to be removed and the intake disassembled. Testing the engine would require inflight investigation and shutting the airplane down in flight. Everything continued to point to a delay—but would I listen?

My intuition continued to nudge me. As the clock ticks, we have scrambled to get help from our sponsors/angels. Even more critical is that I’m losing valuable time as the temperatures at the South Pole drops 30 degrees in the month of January alone.

Despite being told countless times that turbine engines are 100 times more reliable than piston engines (I have two turbines on Citizen of the World), it has become clear to me that everything around the turbines is like any other airplane part and subject to failure regardless of what is happening with the turbine engines.

Recognizing what was happening, listening to my intuition, talking with my team, and staying focused on safety, I decided to delay the trip by about 30 days, and then six months, to give the airplane and me more time to prepare. The good news is that the uneasiness I had been feeling subsided, and things began to unfold more easily and gracefully once again—the trip fell back into alignment. Sponsors have come forward to help with some of the costs of the windshield, the mechanics are making repairs, and my shoulder is almost pain free again.

While we can’t qualify our intuition like we can other more technical facts related to flying like our personal minimums, we can still use our intuition to guide us when it comes to our safety and that of our cherished passengers. Developing your sense of intuition is time well spent and is worth consulting before flying. Two simple questions can get you started: “How do I feel about this flight?” and “If there was no stress what would I do?” Learning how to feel your feelings and listen to what your stress is telling you will lead you to the best co-pilot you will ever have. Trust your intuition.

Choosing the regionals as a career

No pilot has ever begun a career with the goal of becoming a career pilot for a regional airline. It almost always happens unexpectedly.

For some it is the result of bad timing, such as getting into aviation late in life and being held back by a series of economic downturns. For others, the lack of a four-year degree becomes an insurmountable obstacle, and others are denied a chance to move on because of a poor training history, DUIs, medical issues, or just bad luck. Most of the pilots I know who chose to stay at the regionals until retirement didn’t need the extra income that a job at the majors would provide. They often had another source of income, military pensions, a spouse with a great job, or had done well enough in previous career fields that flying for a regional was all they needed. As a percentage of the total, however, these folks represented a small group.

Most of the time, career regional pilots wake up and find themselves in the most common of situations: a mortgage, perhaps a spouse who isn’t working outside the home or works part time, kids, car payments, and numerous other trappings and obligations of a middle-class family. They decide that the move to a major isn’t for them. Many cite their current schedules, seniority, days off, et cetera, and believe that they will be too long in getting back to a similar point before the kids are grown.

Should you opt for this lifestyle, or feel forced to stay in it, keep in mind that your job security is tied to circumstances beyond your control. Network managers for your major airline partner decide which regionals come and go, how big each will get, and what you’re going to get paid. Your company controls absolutely nothing that matters.

That said, there are ways to maximize such a career in a way that will keep you competitive if you ever need to get that next job, while providing personal enrichment and satisfaction. One of the easiest is to get involved in the training department, which is larger than most people realize. Sim and ground instructors are the obvious choices, and great teachers with line experience are always valued. Becoming an examiner increases pay and responsibility and looks great on a resume. Training management experience can be parlayed into careers outside of aviation and will never provide a dull moment.

Involvement with updating manuals and procedures is another area of expertise that sounds more dull than it is. Airlines modify or tweak procedures all the time based on human factors studies, accident and incident reports, manufacturer recommendations, and more. When one thing changes, it often triggers an avalanche of manual revisions, which must be done in concert with the FAA. Working with the feds increases your contact network and can lead to great opportunities.

Safety departments also attract a certain kind of person, both on the company and the union side, and they often work hand in hand. Nowhere is this more true than with ASAP programs. The beauty of safety work is that this is an area in which the airlines freely exchange information and data, because safety is universal. There are numerous conferences every year in which safety data is discussed, analyzed, and shared (much of this also includes folks in training).

Staying with the regionals isn’t the typical choice, but for those that make it (or are forced to make it), there are ample opportunities to make a difference, and the job can be as satisfying as you want it to be. You can also stay connected with others in a way that you can use to move on if you choose or have to move on, all while staying current in the airplane. If this is you, broaden your horizons as much as possible, and dive into some of these chances. You’ll be glad you did.—Chip Wright

Spark the Wonder of Flight

As 2018 quickly becomes an entry in the logbook, I look forward to the New Year. For me 2019 will be a year of connection, growth and change. It is fairly easy to attend aviation events, fill up our tanks with the latest information, technology, and dream of that PC24 in our hangar. Yet it is much harder to actually roll up your sleeves and volunteer at one of these events. I came across this quote on the Internet and it piqued my interest.

As I look back at my calendar I am very encouraged by the countless men and women who gave of themselves, who were available for opportunity to spark the wonder of flight in others. Here is a sampling of the opportunities for fun and volunteerism that I was fortunate to be a part of. Hopefully you will be inspired to take part in events in your part of the country.

In February I flew in formation with a few other Mooneys to Yuma Arizona to attend the 7th annual Gunfighter’s Formation Clinic. 35 airplanes enjoyed the three-day event co-sponsored by the Red Star Pilots Association and the Mooney Caravan both of which are 501(c)3 non-profits.

Gunfighter’s Formation Clinic

This event brings together aviators of all sorts whose goal is to gain the skill and proficiency to fly mere feet away from one another. We were lucky to have my Mooney sister, Pia Bergqvist, the Executive Editor of Flying Magazine join us for the fun, and she wrote a fabulous article on the joys and challenges of formation flight.

The month of April means that things are shaking in Lakeland Florida for Sun ‘n Fun. I was thrilled to be able to present Exiting the Hold: Reaching your Life Goals in the forums and for AOPA. We all know the fabulous events on the schedule at Sun ‘n Fun, but as a credentialed part of the media I was able to see the inner workings of this week-long annual event. I tend to have a bunch of stuff to carry at shows. I was also lucky enough to have rides in a golf cart to and from the parking lot to the event site.

SNF Volunteers Rock

It was during those rides that I got to know many of the dedicated volunteers. It can be easy to overlook the volunteers, but they really are the ones who make the events so special.

The second Saturday of May is Oceano Airport Celebration: Salute to Veterans. This annual event not only highlights the gratitude for those who have served our country, but as well collects needed items for military care packages. Friends of Oceano Airport [FOA] is a 501(c)3 non-profit as well as a proud member of the California Pilots Association. I am happy to serve as the President of FOA.

Oceano Airport Celebration: Military Care Package Donations

Volunteers are the backbone of this community fly-in. Year after year we transform our campground into the event site. The goal is to share our beach-side airport, highlight its benefits, and inspire the love of flight to our community.

The month of June brings Father’s Day and every June for the past 52 years Columbia Airport [O22] in the gold country of California, hosts hundreds of attendees for the Father’s Day Fly-In. Columbia Airport has an airplane-only campground and is within walking distance of the historic downtown [state park, gold mining, pedestrian only]. I have volunteered at the fly-in for about nine years. It is so fun to see the tremendous community involvement. My Mooney Ambassador booth is popular, not only for having an awesome airplane or two on display, but also for the Moo Pool.

Moo Pool at Columbia Father’s Day Fly-In

It is not uncommon to have over 100-degree weather. Taking a dip in the pool is fun for the kids, and I have known a volunteer or two to put their feet in.

It is hard to think about July without plugging in KOSH in our flight planner. This year I made the trip solo in my Mooney with a very newly overhauled engine and a fairly new IFR rating. Wittman Regional Airport becomes home away from home for over 600,000 aviation lovers and 10,000 aircraft. There are upwards of 5000 of volunteers working to ensure that the event is as fun and safe as possible. I have volunteered at OSH in a couple of capacities as a presenter but probably even more fun as a member of the EAA Airventure Concert Band for 8 years.

EAA Airventure Concert Band

The band is made up of members from all across the country and sometimes world, who practice our music independently over the spring and summer. We come together and practice a few times, then perform at the airshow opener and have a concert. Elton Eisele who is also an EAA Departure Briefing Chairman directs the all-volunteer band.

The first ever VNY Prop Park airport event was held in September. California Pilots Association also held their annual meeting at the event.

Van Nuys Airport Prop Park Fly-In

Historic 16-right provided a great backdrop for renowned speakers Rod Machado and Barry Schiff, a movie night featuring 16R and Living in the Age of Airplanes , 99s scholarship pancake breakfast and aircraft displays. The team of volunteers worked tirelessly to make the new event a success.

Later in September I was happy to be able to present Exiting the Hold at the California Capital Airshow. Established in 2004, the California Capital Airshow 501(c)3 plans and operates the exciting, family-friendly annual event designed to honor the Sacramento region’s rich aviation heritage and veterans while using the power and magic of flight to inspire young people. CCA gives back to the community through scholarships charitable group donations and exciting educational youth programming throughout the year.

California Capital Airshow

The steering committee of the airshow works to involve the military GA, and Sacramento communities. The schedule offers something for everyone. There was a night airshow, a dance under the stars; educational forums and the daytime show featured the Blue Angels.

In October the inaugural Central Coast AirFest took place in Santa Maria, CA featuring the Canadian Snow Birds. This event was willed into existence by a dedicated group of volunteers. There was a tremendous amount of community integration and involvement in the two-day event.

Central Coast Airfest featuring the Canadian Snowbirds

The first Saturday in December is always a busy one for us at Oceano Airport. For the past ten years we have held a Toys for Tots event in cooperation with the US Marine Corp Reserves. The satisfaction of knowing that the children in our local area are receiving gifts underneath the tree is fantastic. In addition to toy collection we also had a burger fry that supported our local San Luis Obispo 99s scholarship fund.

Oceano Airport Toys for Tots

The first event for my 2019 calendar is an evening at ACI Jet Center in San Luis Obispo, CA.  I am working with King Schools to present Exiting the Hold: Reaching your Life Goals. We will gather on Thursday February 21st at ACI. Come enjoy this free community event with FAAST team credit, refreshments, as well as cool door prizes. The face-paced multimedia presentation will help you learn the six elements for getting unstuck in life and reaching your goals.

Spark Wonder

As you look toward 2019 I will give you some advice; get involved. Spark the wonder of flight in your community. Volunteer your talents in local, regional or national events. I guarantee two things; you will be tired, and it will be a happy-tired. See you in San Luis.

The minutiae of seniority

Most people know that seniority is the way of life at the airlines. But seniority is a fickle thing. It matters in all aspects of your day-to-day lives, and some pilots will study the minutiae of seniority until they can’t see straight.

When I was at Comair, there was a captain who was famous for having been the most junior captain in the company for a number of years. He was on reserve, and he had the worst possible schedule one could get. He never had weekends off; he got the vacation nobody wanted; he had the worst trips. But, as he always pointed out, he was a captain. The guy who was one number—one lousy number—below him was the most senior first officer. The FO had the best schedule, his first choice in vacation, and a lot of days off, but he was still an FO making significantly less money. He also was not logging turbine PIC time, which was making his future job searches much more difficult.

In every airline, in every category, there is that one person who is just one number away from being where he or she wants to be. This person’s reasons and desires aren’t always known, but in time those desires can be fleshed out. It becomes most obvious when the company opens a new bid for something, and you see pilots trying to jump in to get what they want. With all of the advancement taking place now, it’s almost a linear progression for a lot of pilots who have waited years for what they want. But there are also strategic bidders.

For most airlines, being on reserve is the least desirable option, and in some cases, it’s downright brutal. Many first officers will try to wait until they know they will be assured of being off reserve before moving over. This is risky on a couple of fronts.

First, unless you know what other, more senior FOs are thinking, you may find yourself getting left behind for the left seat more than you might have imagined.

Second, even though this is a boom time, you run the risk that movement will stop for unforeseen reasons for an indeterminate amount of time. The captain I mentioned above made his move for exactly this reason. Had he waited, he would have been stuck in the right seat at much less pay for a number of years.

Another common unknown is an impending change to the union contract. If new work rules or better pay rates are on the horizon, a strong argument can be made for making the move to the left seat sooner versus later, especially if you will be a relatively junior captain.

Studying the minutiae of seniority can also tell you just when you can expect to hold weekends off, holidays, morning versus evening trips. Vacations are tougher to figure out because not everyone wants or needs a summer vacation or the week at Christmas, but you can still see which way the trend is going for your seniority. And, as is so often the case, there is almost always a stark dividing line between two pilots who are just one number apart.—Chip Wright

Adventures in flying

I’m always puzzled by the awe with which so many people—some of them pilots themselves—regard those of us who regularly fly to other continents.

From Day One, there was clearly nothing superhuman to me about the feat, especially given the incredible capability and redundancy of the equipment we operate. Modern business jets are as well equipped as any airliner. Sometimes better, in fact. There are backups for everything, and then backups for the backups, and procedures for dealing with even those systems, should they go south. All this on an aircraft where a failure of any consequential item is already extraordinarily rare.

As I’ve noted previously, the most challenging part of the job isn’t the flying. Rather, it’s keeping up with the varied rules and regulations for each country’s airspace. The customs and immigration procedures. The layers and layers of administrative tasks. The language barriers, time zone changes, and so on. The actual flying becomes the predictable, straightforward aspect of it all. And I have absolutely no problem with that. It ought to be boring, because that’s the level of safety expected for modern day commercial air travel.

So that’s the long way of saying I wouldn’t be too impressed by “extended range” flying. If you want impressive, let me tell you about a long-time friend and student of mine. We got to know one another when he appeared on my schedule for a primary aerobatic course, where he mastered loops, rolls, spins, and loop/roll combinations like the Immelmann, split S, and barrel roll.

I also taught him to fly tailwheel aircraft, and in retrospect it’s one of the most significant endorsements I’ve ever provided. Later, I was his CFI during commercial certificate training. The following year, he bought a beautifully restored 1929 Travel Air 4000 biplane, and I provided some instruction in that as well.

Note the concave curve to the lower wing of this Travel Air biplane

If you’re not familiar with the Travel Air, it’s a link to the earliest days of aviation. I’ve seen the original bill of sale for the aircraft: It was signed by Walter Beech. Yeah, that Walter Beech. The lower surface of the wing has a concave curve to it, as many early airfoil designs did. And although the original Wright J-6 powerplant since has been replaced by the more ubiquitous Continental W670 radial, it’s still a 90-year-old tube-and-fabric, open-cockpit antique. On a good day, you’ll get 85 mph out of in cruise.

That’s to say the airplane isn’t much good for going anywhere. Or at least, that’s what I always thought. As far as I know, my friend never ventured too far away with the Travel Air… until one day when he called and asked a few questions about international procedures, equipment requirements for Europe, VFR airspace, and charts for the Continent. I assumed he was going to be taking some lessons at a local flight school over there.

Charles Lindbergh and his Travel Air biplane

Nope. He was having his Travel Air shipped to England so he could fly it VFR across the Channel and the rest of Europe toward Greece. Then from Crete, across the Mediterranean to Egypt, and down the full length of the African continent to Cape Town, South Africa.

I’ll be honest, my first thought was, “Is this a joke?” My second was, “Are you crazy?” And my third: “How are you going to get approval for any of this?” My jet will make a trip like that, but it comes with a team of professionals to handle the permits, fees, rules, permissions, and mounds of paperwork that always accompany such a journey. I wondered what a flight risk analysis app would say about a trip like this.

On further investigation, he was joining a group of intrepid barnstormers who were re-creating the early 20th century mail routes that ran the length of Africa. They called it the Vintage Air Rally. As I remember, my friend described it to me as “a little adventure.” Boy, was it ever.

But it gets better. When the rally ended in Cape Town, the other pilots had their airplanes disassembled and shipped back home—”home” being places which were, for the most part, a lot closer to South Africa than southern California. My friend? He decided to fly back to England. On his own.

Here’s a map he sent me after reaching the United Kingdom. I stared at that image for a long time. Imagine the weather, the unimproved strips, the mechanical issues, and so on that he had experienced. I know at least one aircraft on the Vintage Air Rally crashed.

My friend regaled me for an hour with stories about being detained for days after a bit of paperwork was not where it should have been. Another time he suffered a broken crankshaft in flight. After a safe landing, he had a new engine sourced, shipped, and installed by his mechanic (who flew all the way from California and arrived at the same time the engine did) within a day or two. He had encounters with instrument conditions, extreme density altitudes, and winds we rarely see back home.

On the other hand, his tale also included moments like landing in the dirt of a remote village only to find the people there had never seen an airplane before and didn’t know what his machine was. Can you imagine giving a ride to a kid who has no concept of what an aircraft is, who has never seen even a photograph of one before?

The air rally participants received permission to make close flybys of normally restricted wonders like the Egyptian pyramids and Victoria Falls. And just by virtue of the low altitude and VFR flying, they saw things from the air I’ll never see in my airplane.

By the time he had completed the trip and was ready to crate his biplane, if memory serves he had flown something like 15,000 miles across some of the most challenging and inspiring terrain on Earth. To me, this is the kind of adventure I imagine when the word “awe” is uttered. Even the earthrounders aren’t as impressive, because they’re usually flying much more capable equipment and operate out of established airports. This air rally was barnstormers writ large, and I doubt anything will top it in the flying careers of those who participated.

I told my friend that there are pilots, and then there are aviators. His experiences made him the latter and were ones that could not be duplicated or taught. Perhaps that’s what made them so special.

As far as I was concerned, from now on, he should be teaching me. I dunno if that comment played a part in what comes next, but he’s now working on his flight instructor certificate.

Alaska pilots: Planning to fly to Canada in January? Test a new app to cross the border

January is not generally the month of choice to fly yourself from Alaska to Canada.  But if you are planning such a trip, why not help test an app to make filing your eAPIS notices easier?  AOPA is collaborating with Jeppesen and Airside Mobile to develop an app to use when filing eAPIS reports, required when you leave or enter the US.

A free beta version of the app, Jeppesen Mobile QuickClear will be tested in the next 5-6 weeks.  If you are planning a cross-border trip in this time period, and would like to provide feedback to the developers, contact Matt York at [email protected] for details.  And don’t forget that in addition to filing an eAPIS report when leaving or returning to the US, you must also contact the Canadian and US port of entry you plan to fly to, by phone, to arrange for arrival.  See AOPA’s website for details on flying to international destinations at http://aopa.org/travel#international_travel.

The other details of the job

Every job has certain aspects that are relatively unknown or don’t often go seen by the general public. Sitting in the pointy end of a plane is no different. Everyone knows that we fly from point A to point B, and some even understand how that’s done, but in addition to the flying, the flight planning, and hopefully a greaser of a landing, there’s more to it. Here’s a list of some what a day’s work often entails, all from only a couple of my more recent trips:

Wheelchair needs. Passengers are often loathe to admit when they need a wheelchair at the destination, though in some cases, they may not realize how tired they are until they get there. At the last minute when these crop up, it’s usually the pilots who have to make a radio call for wheelchairs.

Sick people. A flight this week had a young boy who got sick pretty early on. His vomiting must have been pretty bad, because it set a record for a chain-reaction event. No fewer than nine rows of seats needed some degree of cleaning, and the unfortunate cabin crew ran out of all of their cleaning supplies and sick sacks. It was only a two hour flight.

Fearful fliers. I’m not a fan of drugging Nervous Nellies. One passenger helped his elderly mother by giving her a sleeping pill right before departure. Within a few minutes, she was totally zonked out, and had to be carried off the plane by several people. What if there had been a need to evacuate? Helping her potentially put others at unnecessary risk.

Cabin supplies. This takes up an inordinate amount of time before a flight, and honestly, it shouldn’t. Flight attendants never seem to be lacking for paper towels, headsets, trash bags, and blankets, to say nothing of the improperly loaded food and beverage carts that were put on the wrong planes.

Dirty windshields. This is a major issue in the summer, but it can be one all year round, due to bugs and bird strikes. It’s a safety issue because with a dirty window you can’t see other traffic in the vicinity.

Wi-Fi issues. Airplane Wi-Fi is known to be fickle, in large part because the airplanes have a hard time keeping a signal when moving so fast. In the wired world, passengers demand on-board Wi-Fi, even though it has some pretty severe limitations. That said, we spend a lot of time trying to keep it working.

Connections. Pilots have virtually no control over passenger connection issues, and most airlines have sophisticated computer systems that do most of the decision making with respect to determining what connecting flights will be held versus those that won’t. That said, we will try to find out as much as we can as fast as we can, but there is usually nothing we can do to change the outcome.

Pets. People traveling with pets want to know where they are and if they were actually boarded. I always say something to the flight attendants when I see pet crates while doing the walk-around, but I don’t always see all of the animals that are bound for a particular flight, especially in extreme weather, since they will be brought to the plane just prior to closing the doors in order to keep them comfortable. All we get is a note that animals are on board, not necessarily which animals those are. But the track record for matching animals with owners is excellent.

This is just a partial list, but it gives a bit of an idea what else is entailed. Little details come up every flight, and all must be attended to in some form or fashion. There is more to flying than just flying!

« Older posts