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Professional PAs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 Ways to Combat Fear in a Cockpit

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

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

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

Stay focused in the moment

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

Silence your mind

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

Overcome your fears by going deeper into them

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

Whose fear is it? 

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

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

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

Close your eyes and visualize handling different emergencies with ease

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

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

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

Override your reptilian brain and make decisions with your prefrontal cortex

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

Use a simulator

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

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

Airports that are the same, but different

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Biggest of Many Things

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

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

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

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

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

The Swiss adventure isn’t quite over yet.

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

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

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

Taxiing at Samedan.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Alaska Governor’s Forum focused on Aviation

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

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

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

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

Say it right

There seems to be a spate of bad radio use lately, and I don’t know where it comes from, but it needs to stop. The FAA is very clear when it comes to proper radio phraseology. In fact, it might be the only thing that they are so clear about, and the requirements apply to them (in the form of ATC) and us.

At airports around the country, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of pilots who are dropping the ball when it comes to reading back hold-short clearances. If the controller says, “Airman 123, right on Echo and hold short of Runway 22 at Golf,” you are required to read back the clearance verbatim.

What I’ve noticed—and increasingly agitated controllers have noticed as well—is that pilots are reading back the clearance in an abbreviated format, such as, “Hold short at Golf.” Or, “Airman 123 right on Echo to Golf,” or some other variation. None of those is sufficient. The proper read-back must have the hold-short point as well as the full call sign. It is the only way for controllers to verify that their instruction was received and understood.

This is particularly important at airports where runway crossings are unavoidable. Newark, Orlando, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Washington Dulles, San Francisco, and Seattle are a few that come to mind. All have parallel runways, and the general convention is to use the innermost runway for departures and the outermost for landings. Controllers need to keep the flow moving, so they will usually line up a number of airplanes at various crossing points for the departure runway, and when those points are full, a slew of airplanes will be cleared to cross.

The proper read-back does two things: First, it ensures that a crew doesn’t enter an active runway, and second, it makes sure that there is not an inadvertent back-up at one of the crossing points. This can be critical at an airport like San Francisco or Newark, where two airplanes may be nose to tail, and the trailing airplane may not be totally clear of the landing runway.

Seattle is an airport where the hold-short call is important for another reason. There are three parallel runways (34 and 16 L/C/R), and the controllers will frequently direct a crew to cross the center runway immediately after clearing the arrival runway…but not always. It’s also important to remember that you will never be granted permission to cross two runways in the same transmission. ATC is required to wait until you cross the first runway before clearing you to cross the second.

Radio shortcuts are fairly common. Pilots make these transgressions more frequently. Controllers have little patience for poor hold-short clearance read-backs. Besides, they have the big picture of what is going on at the airport.

Another area where pilots get lazy or rushed is the proper phraseology of a “climb via” or “descend via” clearance, which can also be a gotcha because of potential intermediate altitude requirements. Your best bet? Skip the shortcuts, and transmit correctly on every call. This is basic IFR airmanship.

Flight training is no place for self loathing

The following is a story about dealing with the ups and downs of learning to fly a bigger airplane. 

It was a chilly spring morning in Talkeetna, Alaska. An uncontrollable shiver racked me as I walked up to the gleaming Garrett Turbine Otter. Set against a pale sky populated by thin cirrus, the white airplane seemed huge, remote, and utterly imposing. This was to be my first session of flight training in the beast, with the intent of culminating in my first IFR 135 checkride. As a mountain guide on Denali, I’d been a passenger in the Garrett Otter before becoming a commercial pilot, and was well aware of their capabilities. To me they’d always seemed like the mightiest weapon in the off-airport kingdom: a fire-breathing steed that behaved like a Super Cub at 8,000 pounds…yet also was able to fly through the clouds, cruise fairly fast (for a STOL airplane), and ascend to the 20,000 foot summit of Denali with ease. It seemed like a big jump for a low-time pilot like myself. My shiver, I realized, was born of nervousness and not the cold.

The mighty mountain ship in its natural habitat. Denali Basecamp, Alaska. Photo by author. 

Our two check airmen are merciless in their flight training and testing. The FAA would be proud. The main instructor is a powerful CFI and one of those pilots that has that “touch.” It’s hard to argue with such talent. He typically employs the method of negative reinforcement. We have been good friends since far prior to my employment at the air taxi, but every spring we set aside our friendship until after the checkride. My hands were shaking as I climbed into the cockpit with him. He sat there in the co-pilot’s seat, clipboard and pen in lap, sunglasses on, his jaw set sternly. And then I began my very first engine start. As I was toggling the fuel enrichment switch, he remarked “…I don’t know how you’re getting it to do this, but you’re moving the whole instrument panel with the switch. Light touch, OK? Don’t white-knuckle it.” Get a hold of yourself, I thought.

The moment I’d been waiting for: takeoff. I’d seen it done many times. Now I was the driver. The whole ship shuddered and ripped into the sky after only a few hundred feet of takeoff roll. All of a sudden we were at 6,000 feet, maneuvering above a glistening scattered layer with the emerald valley below. The session went unbelievably well. My nervousness turned to sheer joy. I’ve got this.

Due to scheduling, a week passed before my next session. My hands still shook as I climbed into the cockpit with my fearsome friend, but I was more excited than nervous. However, things went poorly from the start. I couldn’t even taxi the thing. There were about a million people out on the ramp that day, and they were all watching me, the “girl pilot,” struggle. Everyone on the field has always been very accepting of me, but I do think that I get watched more closely. “You’re not inspiring confidence in anyone,” said my instructor as he looked over at the watchers. A harsh but apt observation. It took all I had just to get the thing to the runway. Inevitably, the distraction of the difficult taxi led to me making more mistakes. We sat in silence on the runway after I’d taken the active before completing the pretakeoff checklist. I listened to the powerful, rich hum of the turbine at high idle, ready to launch into the sky. “What do you think you should do?” he said. After a few seconds, I pulled the condition lever back. “I think we’re done for today,” I replied. He nodded silently. After a fight to get the airplane back to its parking spot, we shut down the engine. “What do you think you could have done better?” The classic CFI question. “I think something is broken on the plane,” said I. His thoughts were written on his face: excuses. I don’t get this.

I lay awake all night, contemplating my failure. A terrible voice played in my head: You think you’re a pilot? You want to fly like the best? Well, you’re nothing but a little girl, and you can’t even get the thing to the runway. And you’re a terrible instrument pilot. How are you ever going to take a checkride in this thing? But another, softer voice spoke through the murk: Maybe something really is broken on the airplane. Taking chances can lead to occasional failure. If you didn’t love the thrill, you wouldn’t have chosen this path. As fate would have it, a bushing in the tailwheel was the culprit. The thing steered beautifully after its replacement. It was time to rebuild my confidence.

When I began to write this, I had intended to share some advice on exactly how I managed to come back after such doubt. But in the process of writing, I realized I was joining the ranks of self-help articles. During my troubles, I read close to a million of those things on rebuilding confidence…and unanimously found them to be annoying and inapplicable to my situation/personality. So I’m not going to proffer any advice. All I can say is this: I simply decided that flight training is no place for self loathing. The line between confidence and arrogance is thin, and one that I’d probably taken too seriously. The doubt was degrading my performance. Standing in front of the airplane before my next session, I decided to let it go. It was an experiment in personality alteration…but what did I have to lose? And that’s when things started going really well for me.

A stiff crosswind was blowing the day of my checkride. The check airman was also the owner and director of operations, a fact that I found rather intimidating. Though an affable boss, he is every bit as stern with our flying as his henchman the instructor. With my new mantle of confidence, I managed to keep it together as I preflighted the dragon. “Just remember,” said one of my colleagues as I walked out the door, “…if you don’t pass this checkride, you won’t have a job and it’ll be really hard to find another one!” And, because I had chosen to be a confident pilot, I simply laughed.

Post-checkride and fully operational.

Exiting the hold by letting yourself be a flexible thinker

In last month’s installment of Exiting the Hold: Reaching your Aviation Goals we talked about understanding what type of learner you are to maximize your educational experience. This month we will focus on the importance of being a flexible thinker.

Neural pathways are like goat trails in the brain. We establish well-worn patterns of thinking and develop neural pathways, which become default ways of thought behavior. Thought, experience and behavior about events form schemas, a cognitive framework, that helps us to interpret and understand our world, and can be predictive in nature.

Humans naturally prefer to filter new information through an old “thought box” [schema]. Take a look at this video and see the concept in action: 

The habit of assimilation means that we often times take new information and try to make sense of it through trying to relate it to old learning or ways of thinking. However many times information or experience won’t fit in an existing schema. In those times we have to accommodate the information into a new way of thinking. An example would be a young child that knows what a dog is [four-legged animal], but when sees a cow incorrectly identifies it as a dog. This child will have to accommodate the information of a large four-legged animal into another thought box to know it is a cow.

As an adult, it is sometimes difficult to allow yourself to be a learner, yet that is what we need to do to reach our goals. Brain research in decades past pointed to brain development being completed in stages of childhood and remaining relatively fixed until death. However in the late 90s research began to show evidence of neural plasticity, the idea that your brain isn’t completely hard-wired. Through experience and training, we can re-wire or alter the brain’s functioning, forcing a cortical and neuronal re-wiring. Breaking out of a cycle of inaction or inactivity requires action. If we default to old ways of thinking we will do ourselves a disservice.

Flexible thinking is key to getting out of a holding pattern. Practice makes practice, and through practice you will gain mastery.   Having one achievement opens up the belief that you can do more. Learn from the best, and let yourself make mistakes, give yourself grace, and marvel how education can change your brain.

Right Seat Ready! at AOPA Camarillo, CA. Photo credit: David Tulis

I am getting ready to head to Longview Texas to teach Right Seat Ready! a companion safety seminar I co-founded with my teaching partner Jan Maxwell.  This national Mooney conference called MooneyMAX takes place October 10-14. The one-day Right Seat Ready! seminar is open to all non-pilot companions in single engine airplanes.

Jan and I toured with AOPA last year offering an abbreviated version of Right Seat Ready!.  It never fails to amaze me how much anxiety our students have at the beginning of the day.  You see, at the beginning of the day they are trying to fit all the new information into the old thought box that is labeled, “I am not a pilot.”  However, by the end of the day the anxiety is gone, replaced by excitement of new learning, smiles, practice and encouragement. Before long the old thought box is replaced with one labeled “I am Right Seat Ready!”

Right Seat Ready! at AOPA Camarillo, CA. Photo credit: David Tulis

 

What happened to Alaska’s Department of Aviation?

While still a territory, and well before achieving statehood, Alaska had a dedicated aviation department.  Acknowledging the Alaska pioneers’ foresight in creating a dedicated department speaks to the importance of aviation in Alaska’s past. And with regards to Alaska’s future, the question most importantly asked is—what happened to it?  After some digging in the shelves at the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, the answers to these and other questions are starting to see the light of day.  Along with some hopeful thoughts about the future.

Communications and weather came first
Going back to the 1920’s, airfields developed organically as individuals or companies acquired airplanes, and needed a place for them to take off and land. Often a ball park or agricultural field was pressed into service for early day aircraft operations, which eventually turned into a dedicated “airfield.”  While considered a luxury in some parts of the country, in Alaska airplanes were appreciated from the beginning for their potential to reach remote locations quickly—places previously only serviced by water ways, or trails.  The Territory of Alaska first invested in aviation infrastructure in 1929, when it appropriated funds to “…purchase, install and maintain radio-telephone station equipment for the larger towns.” This task was conducted under the direction of the Territorial Highway Engineer, who was soon overwhelmed, given the existing responsibilities to develop roads and harbors. At the time, this was a one-person operation, responsible for an area a fifth the size of the lower 48 states.

The Alaska Aeronautics & Communications Commission was established in 1937 to oversee installation of weather stations and radio equipment. This allowed weather reports and other information to be transmitted between communities, and to weather forecasters. In its first few years, recognizing the importance of communications, the commission also adopted regulations requiring airplanes to install radios, and to carry survival gear. https://blog.aopa.org/aopa/2018/03/14/alaska-aviation-infrastructure-history-p1/

Funding to build Alaska airports—almost
In 1946 Congress approved 10 million dollars to build or expand airports in Alaska over a seven-year period. The funding formula provided 75% of the cost of construction, requiring a 25% match by the territory or municipality that owned the airport. While that sounds like a lot of money, it was recognized by the Aeronautics Commission as “a drop in the proverbial bucket to properly expand our airfield program in a new, undeveloped country having an area equal to six western states…”.  But there was a catch.

The territory had to adopt new enabling legislation to allow the money to be accepted, either by the territorial government, or individual municipal airport owners.  This legislation was introduced but not passed in 1948. At the time municipalities could own and operate airports, but their authority did not extend from year to year, which was a requirement to enter into an agreement with the federal government for airport funding.  Frustration in the Aeronautics Commission report from 1947-48 clearly expresses this sentiment, “…the foregoing explains why Alaska has not received five cents of the ten million dollars allotted to the Territory under the Federal Airport Expansion Program…”.

Federal Funding for Alaska Airport: then and now
$10 million dollars was a significant resource for the Territory in 1946. In today’s dollars, that is about $127 million, spread over 7 years, or an average of $18 million/year.
In comparison, presently Alaska receives over $220 million/year from FAA’s Airport Improvement Program to improve airports across the state.

Territorial Department of Aviation established
The Alaska Aeronautics Act, passed by the Territorial Legislature in February 1949, finally solved this problem and established the Alaska Department of Aviation, a peer organization to the Department of Highways, effective June 1st of that year.  Revenue for the department came from allocating one third of the 2 cent tax on motor fuels then in effect.  The first report from the department, covering just six months of operation, reported 73 projects started “improving existing airports and seaplane bases, and building new air facilities.”  Having lost three of the seven years to invest the federal funding, the department was ramping up to develop airports that would support transport category aircraft operations, which were typically DC-3s at that time.

Dedication of the new air-carrier runway at Seward in 1952, from the Alaska Department of Aviation Biennial Report.

Golden Age for Aviation
By 1953, fifty years since the Wright Brothers demonstrated powered flight, the Alaska Department of Aviation was in full swing, developing the airport system across the Territory. In the biennial report for 1951-52, the Department had a hand in building many of the 360 airports and 73 seaplane facilities existing then.  The report summarizes the accomplishments of the department over the first 3½ years of operation.

A new seaplane base at Juneau was one of several similar facilities constructed in southeast Alaska by the Alaska Department of Aviation with a combination of federal and territorial funding.

Having grown from a short, type-written report to a type-set 65 page document, it contains descriptions and pictures of many of these facilities.  This document (link above) provides a flavor, not only of the range of projects, but the enthusiasm shown by the department for expanding Alaska’s airport network.  In addition to significant work on “air carriers” runways, they were building seaplane bases, emergency airstrips, and installing radio beacons. Provisions were also made for snow removal and general maintenance at the airports and seaplane bases in the Territory.

Documented in the Territorial Department of Aviation 1951-52 Biennial Report, the Alaska Department of Aviation constructed aviation infrastructure needed to support the entire system. In this case constructing an emergency landing strip east of Fairbanks, in support of the Fortymile and Chicken mining districts.

Alaska was well on its way to expanding the network of aviation facilities needed to provide access across the Territory. Alaska was on the path to become a state by the end of the decade.

Aviation under the State of Alaska
Alaska became the 49th state on January 3rd of 1959, and with that, transitioned from territorial to state government.  The territorial Alaska Department of Aviation now became the Division of Aviation under the State of Alaska, Department of Public Works.  It continued to plan, design, build and operate airports across the new state.

A relic of the Alaska Division of Aviation still exists at the Cold Bay Airport. Photo by Harold Kremer

By 1973, the division reported operating 235 airports, and had recently taken over operation of the Kodiak airport from the Navy.  This unit of state government continued to improve the aviation infrastructure across the state, until a major re-organization in state government lead to the structure more familiar to us today.

After eighteen years, the Division of Aviation was re-organized when the Department of Public Works and the Department of Highways were combined. Executive Order No. 39, signed by Governor Jay Hammond, created the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF), effective July 1, 1977.  The aviation functions previously managed under a single division were now spread across many of the seventeen divisions in the new organization. In addition, more emphasis was given to regional geographic divisions. There were five regions at the time, which have been consolidated down to only three today; Northern, Central and South Coast Regions.  Each region is managed by a Regional Director, and has separate staff who perform planning, design, construction, maintenance and operations functions.

The regional divisions of the modern Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities.

Needs for the Future
Today aviation roles are largely spread across the structure of the three regions that dominate our modern DOT&PF (often pronounced dot-puff).  The functions of planning, airport design, construction, and maintenance and operations are managed jointly for highways and airports—separately in each region. As an aviation advocate, it is challenging at times for a community member served by an airport to figure out where to go to address an issue. Entirely different teams from DOT&PF typically interact with a local community during the life-cycle of a project.  This is not to in any way fault the employees of the department—but is a consequence of the organizational structure.  Another difficulty with this structure is that each transportation mode has its own highly technical set of rules, regulations, and standards—defined largely by the FAA for airports.  Expecting the professional staff of the department to keep up to date on both airport regs and rules as well as highway requirements and standards is a tall order.

AOPA, along with the Alaska Airmen and other aviation organizations, has long advocated for a true division of aviation within the DOT&PF.  During the past few years, the department has taken some steps in this direction. The oversight of leasing and safety functions for the rural airport system has moved from the regions into the Statewide Aviation Division.  Lead by the Deputy Commissioner for Aviation, this group also conducts aviation system plans, and develops spending plans for the federal funding that builds and improves airports. Headquartered in Anchorage, it has staff that are based in each of the regions.    Also, under the current administration, DOT&PF is prototyping the use of cross-functional teams to work on projects in specific geographic regions, which may improve communications both within the department and for local stakeholders.

AOPA would like to see other functions become specific to transportation mode, allowing staff interested in airports to pursue that career path.  There will probably always be staff shared between highways and airports in the field, however, having the planning, design and operations performed by employees focused and trained on airport rules, regulations, and standards should help the aviation users, as well as the local communities served by each airport.

Look for more advocacy on this front in the months and years ahead!

Fix It Now!

Sometimes I just can’t fathom what makes aircraft owners do some of the things they do. Particularly amazing to me are some of the mechanical problems that aircraft owners elect to live with rather than fix.

Now I’m just as averse to spending money as the next guy (and probably more than most). In fact I’ve made something of a crusade out of saving money on aircraft maintenance, and for the past 10 years my company has helped aircraft owners save millions of dollars by avoiding unnecessary and excessive maintenance.

On the other hand, when it comes to my own airplane, I have always had something close to a zero-tolerance policy about mechanical problems. When something isn’t right on my bird, it drives me nuts until I fix it. Almost always, I fix such problems right away rather than putting them off.

My five decades as an aircraft owner has taught me that it’s usually cheaper to fix a problem sooner rather than later…sometimes a great deal cheaper. Not to mention that continuing to fly with a known mechanical deficiency can sometimes be hazardous to your health as well as your wallet.

Fuel LeakFuel leak

Some aircraft owners apparently don’t share my fix-it-now philosophy. Check out this email that I received from an aircraft owner:

Shortly after I bought my airplane last year, I noticed a drip coming from under the aircraft which pooled just to the left of the nosewheel. The drip occurred with the frequency one drip probably every five seconds while the aircraft sat static with the fuel selector on either the left or right tank. Obviously one of the very important shutdown tasks for me was to turn the fuel selector off in order to stop the leak. I never established whether the fuel leaked while the engine is running.

After not flying for the past month, I went out to my airplane last week. The aircraft was leaking fuel despite the selector being in the off position. There was a big pool of avgas beneath the airplane, and the fuel gauges indicated that I had lost almost all the fuel in my tanks…at $4.75 a gallon!

Not understanding why the fuel now leaked regardless of fuel selector setting, I started the aircraft, taxied it around to warm-up the engine and then left it at the maintenance hangar.

I am being told by the very competent maintenance supervisor that originally it was simply a fuel selector gone bad. However, they are now telling me that given that the aircraft now leaks in any position, it’s also a bad engine driven fuel pump. Usually I’d say let’s fix the selector and see if that resolves the problem altogether but I am concerned about the fuel pump going out at some critical time. Please advise.

Here we have an owner who knowingly flew his airplane for a year with a known significant fuel leak in the engine compartment. He only brought it to the attention of his mechanic when he could no longer stop the leak when the aircraft was parked by turning off the fuel selector. Now he’s asking whether it would be okay to fix the fuel selector and continue flying with the fuel leak in the engine compartment unaddressed.

Good grief! I cannot imagine operating my LAWNMOWER with a known fuel leak, much less my airplane. What is this owner thinking?

Exhaust LeakExhaust leak?

While still scratching my head over that one, I heard from the owner of a cabin-class pressurized twin Cessna that made me start scratching my head again:

I don’t push the engines hard, running at 65% power or lower most of the time. However, despite a published service ceiling of 27,000 feet, the engines really don’t perform well over 15,000 feet. I routinely fly over that altitude, but the cylinder head temperatures get a little high, and the engines burn more oil.

Sometimes I have trouble with the wastegates functioning properly at altitude, too, and I get some bootstrapping of manifold pressures (needle separation), which is unpleasant at best (because the props get out of sync), and is dangerous at worst (because the bootstrapping could be due to an exhaust manifold leak). So as a practical matter, I only climb over 21,000 if it is absolutely necessary.

It baffles me how this owner can be sufficiently knowledgeable to recognize that his aircraft has a turbocharging problem that prevents it from operating properly at altitude, and even understands that the problem could well be due to an exhaust leak, yet continues to fly the aircraft with that known deficiency.

Doesn’t he understand that turbocharged twin Cessnas have a ghastly history of exhaust-related accidents, many of them fatal? Doesn’t he know about AD 2000-01-16 that requires repetitive inspection of his exhaust system every 50 hours, and pressure testing at every annual inspection? What is this owner thinking? (For that matter, what is his mechanic thinking?)

Starter drive adapter slipping

The beat goes on. Here’s a post I saw on a popular Internet aviation forum:

On my departure from Pensacola on Sunday afternoon, I turned the key to start the engine (a Continental IO-520) and I could hear the starter motor, but the prop wouldn’t turn. It did twich slightly, but then just sat there.

I have noticed frequently in the past that the prop turns a little and then stops and then a second or two later it continues. Once the prop starts turning, the engine usually fires on the first turn and starts right up.

On my previous airplane, my A&P told me to turn the prop until I hear the click and it would help to start. So, I turned everything off, got out of the plane and turned turn the prop by hand until I heard it click. I turned it again until I heard it click a second time just for good measure. I then got back in the plane and it fired right up like normal.

When I stopped for fuel at Zephyrhills on the way home, the engine started right up with out having to do the prop trick.

I figured I would monitor it and if it acted up again to call in my A&P for a surgical procedure, but after thinking about it this morning I thought I would come to the forum here and see what others have to say.

Continental Starter Drive Adapter

Replies to this owner’s post explain that he was suffering from the classic symptoms of a Continental starter drive adapter (SDA) that is severely worn and slipping. What bothers me is that the owner’s description makes it obvious that he’s been aware of this slippage problem for a long time yet did nothing about it. Even after the slippage got so severe that he nearly found himself stranded in Pensacola, his first thought was to “monitor it” and only bring it to the attention of his A&P “if it acted up again.”

This owner’s approach was clearly to do nothing about the SDA slippage until it becomes so bad that he simply cannot tolerate it any more. This is truly a “penny wise, pound foolish” attitude because every time a Continental SDA slips, it “makes metal” inside the engine. If the owner is lucky, most of that metal will be caught by the oil filter and won’t circulate through the engine and contaminate the bearings and plug up the small passages in the hydraulic valve lifters. If he’s not so lucky, he could find himself buying a $30,000 engine overhaul.

Yet this owner is hardly alone. Countless owners of Continental-powered aircraft have slipping SDAs, but elect to live with the problem until it gets completely intolerable, rather than fix it. That’s not smart.

Fix it now!

I could go on and on, but I’m sure you’ve got the idea. Any time you become aware of something on your aircraft that isn’t quite right, the smart thing to do is to bring it to the attention of your mechanic pronto. If the mechanic agrees that the problem is one you can prudently defer fixing until the next scheduled maintenance cycle, fine. But it’s often the case that the fix-or-defer decision is a “pay me a little now or pay me a lot later” proposition.

An exhaust leak at an exhaust riser flange might be solved with a simple gasket if addressed early. If left unaddressed until the cylinder exhaust flange has been severely eroded, the jug will probably have to come off for expensive rework or replacement.

A slipping Continental starter drive adapter if caught early can usually be fixed for several hundred dollars or so by installing an undersize spring. If allowed to continue slipping until the shaftgear is worn beyond limits, you’re looking at thousands of dollars to repair—or if you get unlucky, a new engine.

A fuel leak caught early can often be fixed by tightening a B-nut or replacing a chafed line. If ignored, it can cause a fire, loss of the aircraft, and perhaps even loss of life.

So, don’t just scribble the discrepancy on a post-it note so you can squawk it at the next annual inspection. Fix it now—or at least discuss it with your mechanic before making a fix-or-defer decision. That’s the smart thing to do.

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