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Human factors assumptions, part 1

As I write this, the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air Boeing 737 MAX accidents are still being investigated. While we know that the MCAS system is going to get the major share of the blame, there is also a push to change the way pilots are trained. One of the topics that has come up is one that was addressed in the movie Sully, the story of the USAirways dead-stick landing in the Hudson River, and that is some of the assumptions that go into aircraft and systems design.

Engineers—both hardware and software—creating a new design need to make some basic assumptions about pilot reaction time, knowledge, and experience. Reaction time delay is one of the most difficult things to predict. Modern aircraft are so dependable and so reliable that it’s easy to take them for granted. And that’s the problem: When something does go wrong, it’s critical that the time lag of a response be given adequate consideration. As Sully showed, when the crews in the sim knew exactly what was going to happen and when, and were allowed to respond immediately, they had no trouble getting the crippled A320 back to departure airport, especially when allowed to practice several times.

In reality, though, such events almost never go so smoothly—after all, who ever anticipates losing both engines to a flock of geese? Imagine dealing with the shock of some kind of a collision, followed by a marked change in the normal noise pattern of flight, and then the audible chimes and lights and other indications of an anomaly. Then, once that has begun to set in, the brain has to convince itself that what it is seeing or hearing is real.

Media reports indicate  this happened with the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air crews. Additionally, it involved a system that the crew of the Lion Air flight was totally unaware of, and the crew of the Ethiopian Air flight was only marginally aware of. The noise of the stick shaker—which is extremely loud and distracting in the 737 by design—combined with the realization that the airplane was descending and trimming itself nose down must have been overwhelming. In both incidents, there was surely a realization at some point that the crew was unable to overcome the airloads in order to reverse the trim.

It’s one thing for designers to try to anticipate crew responses during the early phases of flight. But they also need to look at human factors from several angles, including crews that might be in the middle of a longer flight on the back side of the clock, such as a red-eye or a transcon. The effects of fatigue on sensory response need to be accounted for, which is another reason that some warnings are designed to be loud and attention-getting.

The type of fatigue matters too. Is the crew tired because it’s the last leg of a six-leg day, or is it because they are flying in the middle of the night? Crew experience also needs to taken into account. An experienced, well-trained crew is going to have a better response under virtually any circumstance, and there is reason to believe that at least one of the pilots involved in the Ethiopian Air crash may have been extremely low on the experience meter. Throw in a similar situation with fatigue or personal stress, and such an individual could easily be overwhelmed. It might impossible to account for every possibility, but realistic common denominators need to be established.

Manufacturers do what they can to test their theories and assumptions in the simulators, but there are limits to the effectiveness. Every pilot knows that during a sim flight, something will go wrong. They may not know what, or when, or where or how, but they are primed for a surprise, so even the surprise isn’t a total surprise. Further, when you know that you’re in a box, you know that you’re eventually walking away. That means that the effect of full-blown fear and panic is almost impossible to test for or measure.

There has already been much discussion about human factors assumptions moving forward as result of these accidents, and it’s a discussion that will go on for some time. Checklists and procedures are already being retested, rewritten, and studied. Pilots have complained for years that inexperienced cockpit inhabitants—usually first officers—are unable to cope with a sensory onslaught of often conflicting information. These accidents seem to bring some evidentiary data to that argument, though we must wait for the final reports to be written.

What we do know is that 346 people were killed in very preventable accidents, and the laws are written in blood. Changes will be coming.—Chip Wright

The power of courage: Finding and using It

“Courage is being scared to death … and saddling up anyway.” – John Wayne

With my departure from the continental United States on a six-month odyssey looming less than a week away, I am being pulled away from all my creature comforts including friends, family, home, car, and beautiful San Diego, while we explore the most remote parts of the planet. The National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of State are referring to Citizen of the World’s  global journey as a “Polar Expedition.” I’m reminded of a thought I had while in pitch darkness flying over the middle of Pacific back in 2015. I was heading toward American Samoa, an island that that was fogged in and surrounded by mountains, and I anticipated landing at their nontowered airport. I had just closed my eyes, and then I turned my head left toward the pilot window. When I opened my eyes  it was just as dark as with my eyes closed. At that moment, I realized I was very much alone in the middle of the Pacific with no support. That little voice in my head said “What are you doing? You could be at home in San Diego on your comfortable sofa watching TV with your girlfriend!”

The fact that I’m doing another circumnavigation with an even greater land mass and riskier weather has occasionally had me asking myself the same question when I wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat.

And I’m not the only one questioning why I’m doing this.

When some people learn that I’ll be flying an extensively modified 35-year-old Turbine Commander 900 aircraft named Citizen of the World—with dozens of upgrades including six extra fuel tanks and more plumbing than your house—a few too many people refer to my plane as a “Frankenstein” (which, by the way, is a very nasty way to refer to such a fine, fine lady).

Humor aside, this joking doesn’t add to my level of comfort despite the fact that I have had the very best people working on the airplane with hundreds of combined years of experience. They have made mistakes along the way—and so have I. So far, since we’re all still here, we’ve obviously safely recovered from the mistakes, but there’s always an element of fear of the unknown and what might happen next riding shotgun in my mind.

So, then, where do we find the courage to do things that are challenging … (and honestly scare the p*ss out of us) as we navigate the ever-present fear on our individual journeys?

“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” – Albert Schweitzer

I think courage comes from many sources. One is from the people who believe in us—the ones who support us with their time, resources, words, and faith. Because of their belief in us, we tell ourselves, “If they believe in me, I can believe in myself as well.” They see our abilities from a different and higher perspective.

For example, I was at the National Business Aviation Association convention a few weeks ago talking to the underwriter from Great American Insurance Group, which has agreed to insure my trip. I told the underwriter that I had chosen to add hull damage coverage to my policy even though most pilots on these kinds of long trips don’t carry it because of the high cost. When I explained that we had postponed three times to mitigate additional risk uncovered by more thorough preparation, I could see in the agent’s face that we had another believer. In my mind, our preparations were 100 percent complete when our 20,000-hour airline pilot and board member told me we were prepared and had done what we could—given the nature of the flight.

“Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.” – Steve Jobs

Another source of courage is from our own intuition and that of others. On my first trip around the planet East to West I had people tell me it wouldn’t go well. One person wrote on Facebook, “The Pacific is littered with planes just like yours.” My ex-girlfriend told me about dreams she had that I died a terrible death alone in the Pacific. My father said, “You are just going to get yourself killed.”

That was a hard trip, especially when my only engine failed at 14,000 feet over the ocean and 19 miles from the closest airport. As other frightening challenges arose, I felt like I was running out of my nine lives and had literally pounded way too much on death’s door. (See my book, Zen Pilot: Flight of Passion and the Journey Within for details.)

In preparation for this trip I’ve had so many very intuitive people I respect tell me it will be a safe trip and much easier in many ways, that all the problems I’ve had to date happened in advance of the trip so I could have a safe trip outside the U.S. When I pray—and I pray a lot—what I get back is that I will be safe, and things will go well. While I can’t know the future for certain, I can set the stage and choose to focus on the encouragement of people whose guidance I trust while doing everything I can to mindfully manage the negative thoughts and challenging situations that arise.

Courage also comes from experience. In my book, Zen Pilot, I talked about fear being my constant companion and co-pilot for some 26,000 nautical miles. Recalling that I had been tested to my limits and I was able to hold my course despite adversity, frustration, overwhelming fear, and financial challenges that would break most people reminds me I can do it again. And if I can do it, that courage can remind all of us in the most difficult of times that we have the resources to handle whatever the Universe throws our way. This is also known as “Faith”—faith in ourselves, faith in our equipment and yes, I will say it because it takes courage—faith in God.

On a spiritual level, I believe that courage comes from within—deep within us—maybe even from our souls. On the other side of the fear, which takes courage to pass though, is the greatest freedom we will ever feel. Getting to that freedom starts with these three courageous actions: 1) soul searching, 2) allowing ourselves to be broken down to our most fundamental selves, and 3) that critical component of persistence.

The use of persistence to activate courage is sometimes the most difficult of all qualities to muster up and to sustain. When I am all alone and there is no one there to help me at the moment when I need it most, it’s hard not to think I’m being tested. I feel exposed and vulnerable and I perceive myself as unprotected. What keeps me going, the reason I persist and can find my courage and act on it, is that I believe we are all here fulfilling a greater plan that has been laid down for us well in advance of our physical birth. We are simply fulfilling the contracts we have agreed to for this life.

And finally, embracing a mission greater than yourself inspires confidence, courage, and action. When the voices of self-doubt are screaming at me, when I feel like God is not hearing me, when I lose my focus, forget everything I have just shared with you, when I have lost my faith in God and myself, I reach into my pocket and touch my courage coin for a reminder of why I am doing this: One Planet, One People, One Plane: Peace for Humanity.

“You don’t concentrate on risks. You concentrate on results. No risk is too great to prevent the necessary job from getting done.” – Chuck Yeager

Robert DeLaurentis will be flying from the South Pole to the North Pole in his aircraft Citizen of the World, and is scheduled to depart on November 23, 2019 (Pole Gods willing), from Gillespie Field in San Diego. He will be taking 200 courage coins that he plans to distribute along the way and upon his return to inspire future generations to achieve their impossibly big dreams through the power of courageous action.

Sim seat-fill

No pilot wants to be under the scrutiny of an examiner or an instructor any more than is absolutely necessary. However, airliners require two pilots, and that means any training in the sim also requires two pilots. Most of the time, pilots are paired with another student, and each gets equal time to practice whatever is on the schedule.

But, as the saying goes, best laid plans… Occasionally, a pilot is not paired up with another student. This may be attributable to an odd number of trainees, or because one student needs to be held back for remedial training, or one quits or gets fired or is sick, et cetera. And some airlines—increasingly fewer do this, but it still happens—won’t let two pilots who have been training together take a checkride together. When this happens, the training department needs to use what is often termed a seat-fill, which is another pilot brought in to occupy the second seat and perform accordingly.

Most of the time, seat-fill pilots are stand-by instructors, but when they aren’t available, local pilots near the training center usually get the call. Sometimes the airline is required to use reserve pilots, but often, lineholders can make themselves available as well, using whatever sign-up process is available.

The immediate question is, why would anyone want to do this, and is there a jeopardy component to this? Well, yes, you are in a jeopardy situation, which means that if you perform in such a fashion that you would have failed your own checkride, you can find yourself effectively grounded until you’ve been retrained. That, however, is rare.

Most pilots volunteer for seat-fill because they consider it an easy way to make some extra money on a day off without having to go to the airport or spend a night away from home. It’s also a great way to stay sharp on procedures in the sim that you don’t get to do very often. Last, but not least, you get to know most of the instructors and examiners, and they get to know you, so when you go in for your training, you are much less nervous and more comfortable than you might otherwise have been. Taking that a step further, you might get the benefit of the doubt if you make a mistake or two during your own ride that might have been cause for concern previously.

Another benefit to doing a lot of seat-fill is the networking that can take place. If you’re interested in getting into the training department, this a great way to show your bona fides in terms of your preparation, readiness, willingness to help a new hire, and the like. The truth is, there is no downside to doing the seat-fill if you can. If your schedule is flexible, and you live near the training center, take advantage of the opportunities that seat-filling provides, especially as your own checkride approaches. Extra training, extra cash, and more confidence: It’s a lot more upside than down!—Chip Wright

Airline charters

As the calendar turns to winter, regional airlines will be doing more and more basketball charter flights, especially for colleges. RJs of all sizes are ideal aircraft for this particular mission, between the seating capacity, the ability to get into smaller airports, and the cost to operate.

From a pilot’s perspective, charters generally work in ways similar to regular flights, but there are some differences. A charter coordinator from the airline usually rides along. The coordinator is the primary point of contact between the team and the airplane. The coordinator’s responsibilities include making sure that meals are properly catered (this is a major part of a charter, and if this gets messed up, it can cost an airline the contract), that buses are arranged, and, in remote places, that the flight release is properly delivered to the crew. This last responsibility is less of an issue now with the widespread use of iPads, but it’s not unusual that a paper copy is produced as a backup.

The worst part about charters is the unpredictability, and perhaps the hours. While games are scheduled, they can go long, and when they do, things can get interesting in a hurry.

Many charters take place at night, so one of the concerns is getting the airplane in position for its next assignment. I recently worked a regular trip with a morning departure out of Miami. The airplane, however, was coming off a charter for the Tampa Bay Rays, and the game—in New York—had gone into extra innings, delaying the flight to St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, which delayed the ferry flight to Miami. We had to wait for the airplane to be cleaned, given a security inspection, and then made available to us. Our delay was more than an hour. When that happens, the delays can ripple through the day.

Baseball and basketball charters also include a lot of late-night or red-eye flying. Football isn’t quite as bad, but Thursday, Sunday, and Monday night games can be rough.

I did a NASCAR charter years ago (we were carrying a pit crew). We had a mechanical issue that we could not legally defer, and owing to a comedy of errors, it couldn’t get fixed in time. We wound up canceling the flight as our duty time expired (not so comedic), which caused all kinds of mayhem. Companies and organizations pay an awful lot of money for charters, and their patience for delays and cancellations is minimal. Throw in disgruntled employee job actions and the challenges to the airline can be steep.

Some events cause a surge in charters. The NCAA basketball tournaments, the World Baseball Classic, the College World Series, even corporate mergers all can generate a surge in charter activity. It also isn’t unusual for an organization or a college or university to request certain crew members who are known to go above and beyond in their efforts to please. I knew a captain at a major airline who was highly thought of by several of the NFL teams that he flew, and discreet efforts were made to get him assigned to those flights. He considered it an honor and did whatever he could to get the trips onto his schedule. Of course, the opposite also holds true, and you can be banned from charters, if not outright terminated.

Some charters can be a lot of fun, and others can be more tedious, but they all require a fair amount of flexibility. Charters are also guaranteed money-makers for the airline, and the contracts are valuable. Treat them like the important asset that they are and provide the best possible service you can. Heck, you might even wind up with some free tickets to a game or a concert!

Chasing Alpine Autumn

I have a whimsical illusion from my flight training days in New York that I apparently used to spend untold weeks flying every evening while the sun began to go down and the countryside was bathed in autumnal glory. While some autumn flights probably happened more than once, I know better than to think autumn near the Canadian border lasts that long. Usually it was one resplendent weekend with a maximum of two weeks that could count for anything spectacularly colorful, and that was that. Nonetheless, this mental image of putting the Cub away after a fall flight seared its way into my mind as something ideal.

It wasn’t until 2013, when we had moved to Summit County, Colorado, that I had a chance to revisit this idea. While the Cub had been stationed in North Carolina, nothing could seem to approach the glories of New York, despite the Blue Ridge and its apparently famous colors. I had expected a few aspen trees to show up elsewhere in the state of Colorado, and largely thought I had sworn off autumn in exchange for life in the Rockies.

That was until a fateful drive over a pass, where I was greeted with a colorful display of aspens that rivaled New York, and it was mid-September. I positively went on a tear, mostly on the ground, though also in the Cub, photographing what I saw and enjoying it greatly. Those flights in the Cub were challenging, as I had just positioned the airplane in the Rockies a month before and knew next to nothing about mountain flying. I was still able to get some iconic scenery of the Gore Range and parts of the areas around Summit county before autumn came to an abrupt end.

Since that autumn, I have fantasized about recreating its glories. For every single year since then, it hasn’t worked for varying reasons. 2014 I was able to get one flight with some color up in the Blue Ridge. 2015 I was in Wyoming, and while one would assume the West would explode with cottonwoods and aspens, even the locals complained how poor a year it was for color despite my persistent attempts to find it in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. 2016 and 2017 I was able to see some color in the Pyrenees, though concentration is an issue in that neck of the woods, where autumnal displays tend to accent scenery as oppose to compose the subject. Ironically, the Pyrenees put on a blanket of flowers in the spring that exceed the colors of fall. 2018 I actually expected almost nothing, as the Alps consist of rocks, snow, ice, and pine trees. “Perhaps there is some color down near Zürich,” I thought to myself, and let it be. A death in the family happened just before the larches began to turn color (interrupting flying), and in my final Swiss flight before leaving, I was greeted with an explosive display of color that I won’t forget.

Which leads me to 2019. Armed with information about larch trees – pines that change color and drop their needles – coupled with last year’s display, I expected a northeastern style explosion of color if I could time it right. Therefore, I made room to attack with it an appropriate level of viciousness. Instead of a repeat of last year, where the entirety of larch trees change color all at once, this year they have varied greatly by geographic area and elevation, with progressive change as the season progresses. I got lots of flying in before the weather turned impossible, which I am told is also normal.

Late September flight. Apparently some sort of low-growing plants turn red first. On the way to the St. Bernard Pass.

Same flight, two valleys over. Apparently not all grasses provide color. Fouly, Switzerland.


Val Ferret, Italy. Yet here the red shows up again.

Apparently its low bushes which change one at time.


October and now some early color above Trieste, Switzerland. It is a famous turbulent wind funnel and it was living up to it on this flight.


I thought colors would improve around the bend. Not exactly, though I could add a glacier in. One can see larches which are lime tone set against normal evergreens, which remain dark green.


Beneath Grand Combin. Still just a tad of color.


Yet on the same flight, I finally find some orange pine trees. This is as Swiss as it gets: mountain waves, larches, snow, glaciers, and large peaks in one image.


Next flight and I am left wondering if I will find color. Above Leukerbad, Switzerland.


Apparently I will. Above Brig, Switzerland.

Beneath Simplon Pass. Winds here had the subtlety of riding a bronco.

Next flight. Now we’re getting somewhere. NE of Martigny, beneath the Dents du Morcles.


Val d’Hérémence, Switzerland. A tad of snow mixed with larches. 

A box canyon with larches at the end. Pointe de Vouasson. Maneuvering is a tad tight with even the Cub in here.

The valley to Zermatt.


Larches mixed with regular trees,


One larch in the sun. Zermatt, Switzerland. Flight hazard to worry about: cable car wires. 


Just over the border into France at the Col du Forclaz.


Next flight. I did not imagine I would find a cloud layer mixed with larches. South of Nendaz, Switzerland.

More box canyon. The Valais is filled with them. Zinal, Switzerland. Flight altitude 7,600 feet.


Down the valley from Blatten, Switzerland.

This flight was the coup de grace. On the way to an overnight at St. Moritz. Approaching Passo della Novena. Normal pilots on a cross country would cruise at 10,000′ or more to stay above terrain. I wanted to see the trees, so I plotted a circuitous path weaving down various valleys.

Just over Maloja Pass. 

Taxiing at Engadin Airport, the “highest airport in Europe” at 5,600′.

In the air again before nightfall. A few colorful trees here before the Italian border. It reminds me of Montana and Colorado.

South Tyrol, Italy – the section where German is spoken.


Reschen Pass. Austria on the other side. One apparent challenge at sunset in the Alps is sharp shadows, particularly when flying into the sun in a tight valley.

Round the bend after my first foray into Austria. 9th country for the Cub! Austria left, Italy horizon center, Switzerland foreground.

Back in the Engadine before sunset, where my camera unceremoniously died.

Don’t worry, I have another one. Morning climb out toward St. Moritz, on the way home. 


If you made this far without giving up, my magnum opus has arrived, a book chronicling the pursuit of the 82 highest peaks of the Alps. “Above the Summit: An Antique Airplane Conquers the 4000ers of the Alps” is now available.

The One Decision your Technology can’t Make

Last week the general aviation community was thrilled when Garmin unveiled their long awaited auto land technology they call Autonomi. When used properly, the system will make general aviation safer and increase passenger comfort.  AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines wrote a great article about flying “behind” the new system, which can be found here: https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2020/january/pilot/hands-off

Right Seat Ready!© at AOPA Photo by David Tulis.

For over a decade, along with my partner Jan Maxwell, I have taught Right Seat Ready!© a companion safety seminar for non-pilots. Our goal is to educate those in the right and back seat on basic aviation, navigation and communication skills to get the airplane back on the ground safely should the left seat pilot become incapacitated. Two ancillary benefits for our attendees is the increase of comfort in the airplane and willingness to fly more often.  We also have a  proud record of turning three RSR participants into pilots and aircraft owners in their own rights.  Jan and I  have taught around the country for aviation groups, type-specific clubs and at the AOPA Regional fly-ins. The beginning part of the day focuses on the aforementioned topics. Sometime after lunch we change gears to the one decision that technology cannot make for us, the initial decision of whether to launch on a flight.

Right Seat Ready!© at AOPA Photo by David Tulis.

I am a member of MooneySpace, a lively forum of Mooniacs. After the launch of Autonomi, one member joked that Right Seat Ready!© would be out of business soon. Of course I knew they were only kidding, but it made me think about the amount of information we give our right-seaters to help assess whether their left-seat pilot is good to “go”. We train them to watch you and assess how you are doing. For much of the country, the weather is worsening, and we might be relegated to hangar flying for the next few months. Please take a look at this information and seriously consider your health and wellness. Here is a portion of the information we are teaching your right seat non-pilot, just a fraction. Please consider these items in your Go/No Go decision, the one decision that your parachute or auto land cannot make.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I love that airplanes have parachutes and auto land systems when the unthinkable happens. But as a practicing psychotherapist I also am keenly aware we can have blinders on when it comes to our own limitations. Please take a moment and read this article I wrote for AOPA Pilot on understanding the relationship between the psychology of life and the psychology of flight: https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2012/april/pilot/bouncing-back Your launch decision is the only one that cannot be made by the technology in your airplane. Your life and those that you love depends on that decision being the very best.

Airport reserve

If you’re new to an airline, you’ll soon find that not all of the assignments are of the type that bring fame, glory, and riches. One of the least desirable is going to the airport and just sitting there.

This particular assignment goes by several names: ready reserve, field standby, hot standby, airport reserve. Whatever you call it, 99 percent of the time it is boring.

Essentially, airport reserve is just that: You’re assigned a window of time to spend at the airport, in uniform, ready to go. Your job is to be immediately available to get to a gate and get a flight out that has a sudden shortage of a crew. Last-minute sick calls; mechanical problems; crews timing out on their duty day; diversions of an inbound flight; and ferrying airplanes are common reasons for Scheduling to call the airport reserve crew to save the day.

Most of the time, you’ll go to the airport and go nowhere but home, but as we move into the winter months, there is usually an uptick in the usage of the airport reserve crews. Flu season compounds the problem, especially if pilots wake up to find out one of their kids or their spouse is sick and need to stay home. The contagious nature of the flu also means that people will spread the virus without realizing they are sick themselves. The same is true of the common cold. Summer also sees an increase in airport reserve usage as thunderstorms wreak havoc and force Scheduling to pull out all the stops to keep the operation moving along.

Depending on the airline, airport reserve will last anywhere from four to eight hours. Regionals tend to use this tool more than the majors, but the majors have it as well. It’s also common among cargo carriers, which are very schedule-sensitive.

There may be some overlap from one shift to the next, and there may or may not be rules in place to determine the methodology Scheduling can use to determine if the airport reserve can be called out versus someone sitting reserve at home. Often, you’ll question the logic of how certain people are used when. More often than not, you’ll be right to question those decisions. Hopefully, there will be other rules in place as well to prevent pointless scheduling practices, such as not bringing in a pilot for a late afternoon/evening shift who can’t do an overnight, or bringing in a pilot who has flown enough in the previous several days that he or she can’t do any of the flights on the schedule. It also helps to have a limit on the number a pilot can do in a given month.

The best thing you can do to make the time pass is to bring books and magazines to read, movies to watch, or use the time to catch up on company-mandated training. While you will be technically required to be in uniform, it may be possible to put your uni on a hanger and wear your civilian clothes, as long as you can change in short order and not create an undue delay in getting to the gate.

Airport reserve is one of the least appealing things about being a pilot, but used appropriately, it can be a life-saver for the airline. Done poorly, it can be a waste of money and resources. On some fleets, airport reserve doesn’t make sense, either because the fleet is too small or, for wide-bodies, the duty time limitations prevent it from being used effectively. Your job is to simply be prepared, suitcase stocked, ready to go at a moment’s notice to save the day and get at least one flight completed.—Chip Wright

Six things I’m most excited to share during the polar circumnavigation

There are several things that I’m most excited to share with my friends and fellow pilots as almost two years of complicated preparations come to a conclusion before the Citizen of the World embarks on a record-setting polar expedition over the South and North Poles. First and foremost:

Antarctica. The highest and most mysterious of all the continents, Antarctica is known to have the worst weather on the planet. Add to this, Antarctica offers some of the most challenging navigation on Earth, where the meridians converge and everywhere is north from there! One of the least traveled places on the planet, Antarctica has exotic places I have never heard of before like Elephant Island, Hercules Dome, Ronne Ice Shelf, and the Weddell Sea. This anticipated wonder has even piqued the interest of Smithsonian Magazine editors who asked for photographs of what I see. Because of the heavy fuel load it’s unlikely I’ll be at Citizen’s maximum cruising altitude of 35,000 feet on the outbound leg so everything I see will be up close, raw, and very personal.

Performance. We performed more than 50 modifications to Citizen over the past three years. The airplane was one of the early Gulfstream models with a longer 52-foot wingspan, higher pressurization, and a longer and deeper cabin. Later, the Twin Commander was upgraded with high-altitude Dash 10 engines, five-bladed nickel-tipped scimitar props, and reduced vertical separation minima (RVSM) so Citizen can fly higher and faster at 35,000 feet. We added ceramic coating over the paint for speed, we installed a Peter Schiff Environmental System to reduce weight, for better fuel heating capacity, and to provide non-contaminated bleed-air for pressurization and more speed at altitude (since the system uses less bleed air). To extend Citizen’s range we added three fuel tanks—for a total of seven—to extend the range out to 20 hours of flight time and 5,000-plus nautical miles. Other modifications include Whelen LEDs, higher ply tires with inner tubes from Desser, and an Avidyne/L3 panel with MaxViz Infrared that would beat any kid’s home computer simulator—hands down! For the complete list of modifications, please see more details on our Flying Thru Life website.

Self-confidence. The personal growth that comes from flying solo to remote parts of this beautiful, mystical, and wondrous planet in a highly modified airplane is terrifying but rewarding as well. Taking yourself and your aircraft to their limits is something that a pilot/person never forgets and is loaded with moments that teach us what I refer to as “Zen Moments.”  Executing on a mission like this builds a fierce survival instinct, confidence, and a can-do attitude despite all odds. Knowing you are supported by those who believe and trust you unconditionally allows you expand your horizons and push the limits of what you thought was possible in yourself and the world around you.

Civilization. The Citizen of the World will stop in over 26 countries on this polar circumnavigation, giving me the opportunity to meet new and interesting people in exotic places like Tunisia, Madagascar, Dakar, Patagonia, and Antarctica. The differences among people will fade and the similarities will become more prevalent as it becomes more and more obvious that we are all one. We are all are made from the same cosmic stuff and we want the same things—like safety and security for our families, health, financial security, joy, and unity.

Impact on the world. Our mission of “One Planet, One People, One Plane: Oneness for Humanity” has the potential to change mindsets for the better and is already having tremendous impact on the world. Articles, interviews, and partnerships have been documented globally in over 20 magazines, newspapers, and internet sites. The flight will be tracked in real time globally by over 12 million followers on FlightAware.com using Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast Out (ADS-B Out). Our videos are scheduled to be seen by over 20 million people on various TV networks including NBC, ABC, CBS, Dish, Apple TV, Sling, and 36 others starting in November.

Life-changing. The trip will be transformative and packed with lessons that only come from pushing one’s limits, taking calculated risks, dreaming impossibly big and then overcoming all resistance and making it happen (or going with the flow and letting it happen). I recall when I first spotted San Diego after my first trip around the world along the equator back in 2015—it felt like my first step toward what I was put on the planet to do. While I pray for ease and grace, I often find that struggle is what I must overcome. Never have I struggled so hard with professional relationships, timelines, patience, equipment, and technical issues. I find comfort and deeper connection because these challenges also seem to be what helps others see how hard someone is willing to work to make the world and themselves better—and hopefully it will motivate them to do the same with their own lives.

Ultimately, we find that our journeys are best shared with others. We go out into the world, overcome obstacles, persist when our goals seem so far away, learn what we can, and then come back and share what we have discovered. It’s my hope that some of these Zen Moments will help inspire you to stretch and grow beyond your comfort zone and not only go for your impossibly big dreams, but keep going when you want to give up because what you believe in is so much bigger and brighter and life-affirming than what you’re afraid of or struggling with. My prayer is that in the end humankind realizes we all breathe the same air and are, in fact, all connected as one —One Planet, One People, One Plane. Oneness for Humanity.

Challenging the Weather in the Alps

From the very first conversation with a European pilot to each ensuing one thereafter, I have been warned about the “Föhn.” The word is a fancy German equivalent to “Chinook,” which implies what is ultimately a simple witch’s brew of meteorological malfeasance: mountains and wind. While Europeans tend not to be as cowboyish about these subjects, the gist was to be careful, as the Föhn is a nasty beast that will devour me and my airplane.

The Pyrenees enter into the picture. With no such warnings, I plunged into the mountain range and got beat up on the first time, a sunny September day. I would then learn that the Pyrenees are a mountain wave factory, with its own Föhn. Surely, I had mastered the skill, because a Föhn is a Föhn, no matter where it happens? Oh, how little the foreigner knows! Pilots continued to warn me about the Alps Föhn, even though I was living in a factory of mountain turbulence.

The thing is, nobody gave me specific warnings about said Föhn, it was just that “it’s there” and it can’t be good. I appropriately decided to make my initial forays into the Alps with significant caution, leaving wind out of it. It did not help that there were three fatal crashes in the week of my first trip here in 2018, and there have been many since. While I read to the extent I can in depth about crashes to learn from them, the fact with most of them was some other issue was in play. Surely the Föhn didn’t cause a midair collision?

As I got a bit friskier in the later part of the 2018 trip, I found that I was bereft of deadly wind, even if I wanted to find it. Curious. The weather actually seems to be structurally good in the Alps for quite a number of days. Now fast forward to 2019, and I found a similar situation…. the wind seems not to blow so fiercely on nice days.

Bit by bit, I have been toying with more upper level wind, and have come to find that it differs little from comparable speeds when in other mountain ranges. Updrafts, downdrafts, rotors, and turbulence have the same effect on an aircraft. The secret sauce is in figuring out what invisible air is doing, navigating accordingly. I decided to translate Rockies and Pyrenees knowledge here, and it seems like it’s working well. In fact, the Alps feature something that the aforementioned ranges lack: low valleys and passes. On days with stiff upper level winds and soaring mountain wave clouds, Swiss pilots are regularly flying at the lower levels of the atmosphere, avoiding the worst of it.

I decided to catalog some of the change of seasons and meteorological exploits from the past month. It starts out with the first snow in early September.

Second week of September. First snowfall! West of Zermatt, looking southeast.


Southeast side of the Weisshorn (4505m / 14,780′). It has enjoyed morning sun, so snow is beginning to melt.


North side of Wildhorn (3248m / 10,656′) with Mt. Blanc sneering from behind. Sheer white areas to the left are a glacier.

Enough of the snow. A few days later, most of it had melted. The lesson here is the clouds. At 5:30PM, the extent of clouds is as in this photo. Spitzhorn (2807m / 9,209′).

50 minutes later, Glacier du Mont Miné. No real clouds to worry about.


Back to the Bernese Alps, and some interesting formations over the Plane Morte Glacier, but not anywhere else.


Hmmm….

Southeast of Gstaad. What is this? 50% cloud cover that was not forecasted, nor was there when I took off two hours before. I’d like to understand how this works.

A couple of days later, I discovered Switzerland’s illustrious network of webcams. There is one 5,000 feet above the house on the hill behind us, so I checked to see if the stratus layer had a top. The webcam was above it, so after 30 minutes of curvy mountain roads and a 20 min jog up a trail, I was above the clouds. Dent du Jaman (left) and Massif du Chablais (horizon right). I had left the webcam open on my computer and when I returned it showed what I thought was impossible: the entire Bernese Oberland, in the direction of the airport, was suddenly socked in overcast! In a matter of 20 minutes, the whole thing clouded over. I checked Gstaad Airport webcam, and other than a few holes, socked. I emailed a bunch of people and they basically said, “yeah, that can happen in the evening.” Note to self: carry more fuel. I would rather not return to base above a solid stratus deck.


Next flight: Simplon Pass, with Italy about 5 miles away. Now the south side of the Alps gets the cloud deck, whereas the north side is entirely clear, with no mysterious clouding over upon my return.

I know I whined for quite a while about the inversion in Spain. I take it back now! I never expected a glacier, mountains, and a glorious inversion. Still in Switzerland, with Italy as the farthest island in the sky.

Next flight. I needed to move the plane before the runway was closed for a bit. It was windier than I liked, though I could stay low if I wanted and avoid it. A high-time pilot seemed nonplussed (“There is no point flying backwards”), other than to indicate that “its usually rough over Martigny.” So I went there on the way to Mt. Blanc. Over the pass to France, I broke my record for the slowest groundspeed yet: 35kt with 39kt winds. It was smooth over the pass and upwind of terrain. Before someone gets too carried away with my apparent silliness, I got passed while in the pass (aircraft in the image below). There was a lot of air traffic for a windy day.

Blowing snow on north slope of Mt. Blanc. Just don’t get close…..or downwind of it.

Next flight. Third snow of the season. Climbing out over Dent du Morcles.

Mt. Blanc (4809m / 15,777′). Highest in the Alps. Note blowing snow below. Winds at 15,000′ were 50kt over Grenoble and 20kt over Turin. I came across another airplane and a helicopter here, all of us intelligently upwind. The wave was perfectly smooth, giving climb rates above 12,000 feet in excess of engine power at 4,000 feet. 

Grandes Jorasses (4000m+). Italy right rear, Switzerland left rear, France foreground).

This flight was the coup de grace! Massif du Chablais below (10,686′) with Mt Blanc on the horizon).

Dent du Géant rear left (4013m / 13,166′) with Aiguille du Midi below. I had dreamt of wave clouds like this since the first flight over Mt. Blanc.

While I’d like to believe that’s blowing snow on the summit of Mt. Blanc, I think part of it is orographic cloud formation. 

Above the wave, sloped to the left above the Aiguille Verte (4122m / 13,524′). It was an illustrious flight.


I have now released book #19 “Mountain Texture: The Pyrenees from the Sky.”

State of Alaska Capstone Aviation Loan Program to Sunset

Alaska may be the only state in the nation to make financial loans available to encourage aviation safety.  This unique Capstone Program helps individual aircraft owners and aviation businesses finance avionics upgrades to take advantage of ADS-B and the WAAS GPS instrument approaches that have become key elements of the NextGen air transportation system.   After being available for a dozen years, however, only 20 loans have been approved, and the program will sunset on July 1st 2020.  It may still be worth considering, if you are planning upgrades that meet the program criteria.

Information on the loan program is available at: https://www.commerce.alaska.gov/web/ded/FIN/LoanPrograms/CapstoneAvionics.aspx or google “Alaska Capstone Loan”

Background
The Federal Aviation Administration’s Capstone Program pioneered the use of ADS-B and other technologies to improve aviation safety.  From the time the demonstration project became operational in 2000 until 2006, the program demonstrated a 47% reduction in the accident rate for aircraft operating in southwest Alaska that were equipped with ADS-B, WAAS GPS navigators, and moving map displays compared to the non-equipped aircraft.  Those technologies along with the installation of additional weather stations to support instrument approaches in the area contributed to this change.  But it was recognized early on that the cost of equipping aircraft would be an issue. While the demonstration equipment had been funded by the FAA, subsequent equipage would be a financial burden on aircraft owners and operators.

On the strength of these results in accident reduction, to encourage use of this safety equipment in the state, the Alaska Legislature established the Capstone Avionics Loan Program in 2008.  For the past 12 years, the program has made it possible for Alaskans to obtain a 4% fixed rate loan that will pay for 80% of the cost of installing ADS-B, GPS/WAAS navigation equipment and a multifunction display in aircraft that are principally operated in Alaska.

Not Many Takers
During the life of the program, only 20 loans have been approved. Seven of those went to private individuals and the remaining were taken out by businesses.  I was one of the individuals that used this program to install ADS-B, and a WAAS GPS in my aircraft.  The loan application process was straight forward. It required filling out a financial statement, information about the aircraft, providing a copy of my preceding year’s tax return and a $50 application fee.  One detail that is worth noting–many people that are making upgrades choose to change out other components of their panel at the same time. In my case, I installed a Garmin G5 attitude indicator and directional gyro so I could ditch my vacuum system.  It was no problem to have the avionics installer split the items that were eligible on a separate invoice from those that were outside the scope of the loan program.  Once approved, the check was sent directly to the installer, and I only had to come up the remaining 20% at the time the bill was due.

Loan Program Sunsets Next July
The legislation that established the program has a sunset clause, and unless further action is taken it will be terminated on July 1st 2020.  There are two important details related to that deadline:

First, if you haven’t yet equipped with any of this suite of equipment, there is still time.  But don’t put it off much longer, as it does take time to have a loan application reviewed and approved.  I would recommend calling the folks that run the program at the Division of Economic Development and review what you are planning, to figure if it fits your circumstances.  They have offices and staff in Anchorage and Juneau that are a phone call away.  They can be reached at (800) 478 5626 (toll free in Alaska) or (907) 465-2510 and ask to speak with one of their loan officers.  Their office hours are 7:30am – 4:30pm,  Monday – Friday.

Second, the low use of the program makes it hard to justify an extension.  Please take the one-question survey to express your needs regarding this program:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/323WWR2

If you are considering purchasing ADS-B or WAAS GPS navigation equipment for your aircraft, this opportunity may be worth exploring.  Don’t let a lack of current funds stop you from making technology upgrades that can help keep you and your passengers safe.

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This article was initially published in the Alaska Airmen Association’s Transponder

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