Flying in other countries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NASA terrain avoidance flight system demonstrated

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 22, at 6 pm Alaska Daylight Time

Microsoft Teams meeting

Join on your computer or mobile app

Click here to join the meeting

Or call in (audio only)

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

Phone Conference ID: 104 378 964#

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Regional pilot bonuses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reinventing yourself: Finding and buying a floatplane

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

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

Defining my mission

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

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

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

Getting advice from the big boys

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

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

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

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

Buyer Beware

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

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

Beaver fever

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

The Universe steps in and gives me some guidance

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

The perfect time to buy

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


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

Modding Her Up

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

Welcome to the DeLaurentis Foundation family!

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

The Halfway Point

For many of the five and a half years of flying in Europe, I have had a complex sensation of extreme foreignness, as though I was pinching myself and waking up from a dream repeatedly. While that makes sense in the beginning, and in particular when seeing something new for the first time, the feeling continued to present itself with a ferocity, all the way into the late winter of 2021. Sometimes it would arrive after a long flight in the Pyrenees or Alps, where I was nearing an airport where I might have landed over 100 times already. In the last 20-30 minutes of a waning part of a three-hour flight, I would have this profound sense of comparing my American pilot years to what I saw outside the windshield, and it was hard for it to feel real.

Some of it was indeed pure exoticism. Another part was that the airplane I first rode around in at age 15 with my late grandfather, in the late 90s, landing over a washed-out culvert and under power lines in hillbilly country, is now the same plane I am riding in after viewing something like the Jungfrau. While flying in a foreign country is one thing; flying the family Cub in a foreign country is a dimension all on its own.

It did not end there. I felt a sense of exhilaration, awe, a tad bit of dread, some fear, and a brimming sensation that the whole thing was held together by a shoestring. That was an extrapolation of the dependencies for which I was basing epic jaunts into large, foreign mountain ranges: rugged airports, rugged terrain everywhere, few alternates, precise fuel realities, minimum day VFR aircraft, an old plane, variable maintenance infrastructure, foreign languages, and a mountain of challenges to face. It would only be natural for it to feel a bit like it could end at any moment. On the other hand, I could easily face those feelings right in flight, while I was having them: of all the challenges that truthfully exist, I have bulldozed many of them and they pose little risk. In fact, should the engine fail over the Alps and I have to land in some rough terrain, well, I’d rather it be in Switzerland than deep in the Rockies, as a helicopter would have it flown to the hangar by end of day.

Suddenly in winter to spring of 2021, those feelings went away. I thought it was odd, as nothing had really changed in my circumstances, other than a decision to cease paying attention to the mountain of worries and aggravations that could ruin one’s day in the future. I hopped in the plane, went flying, and that was that.

It raised a question: when have I or will I hit the point where the majority of my flying experience is in Europe instead of America? I pulled out the electronic logbook and went at it, splicing away, only to find out that the halfway point was yet well off. I calculated at that time that I would likely reach it sometime in 2022.

So, what lead to the sudden evaporation of worry and the strange foreign feeling? In late winter of 2021, I discovered a Swiss tradition of sorts, where the national aero club creates a “Flugparcours,” where pilots fly to 10 designated airports over the course of 6 months, have each landing stamped at the airport, submit the form, and get published in a list of pilots that have done it. For reasons I still do not understand, I decided that this activity was a good idea, and began it in earnest.

One thing led to another, and I was soon halfway done with the list, while also having visited several airports not on the Flugparcours list. That exposed that I had, until this point, not really gotten over a reality for GA fields in Europe: they are complicated. When I say “complicated,” I mean that one must do quite a bit of research to understand a seemingly endless list of vagaries, rules, approvals, and other considerations. One cannot glance at the sectional, note fuel marks around the airport icon, check NOTAMs, and hop on one’s merry way. It is wise to a) read multiple page AIPs written by the national aviation authority of the country in question b) check the website of the airport c) check reviews in iPad software d) check whatever ad hoc Wikipedia style repository might be in use by pilots in that country e) call ahead to make sure someone will actually be there for fuel and f) get approval if necessary (often in Switzerland).

What does all of this mean? The reality is quite succinct: Garrett avoided landing at other airports to the extent possible. If I got exuberant, I would usually have the beginnings of a brain aneurysm partway into the research process, give up, and take a long local flight in terrain that one has no reason to dislike. It did, however, explain why things felt so brittle, risky, and “foreign.” Once I got the hang of it, which is admittedly a fair amount of work, the process got easier, and things felt normal again.

Part of the work in pushing a personal boundary is learning the reality of the field in question, while building a bit of a personal relationship with the people involved. That helps for next time. Another part of the reality is attenuating one’s skills to reconfiguring the approach to VFR general aviation which, with practice, becomes a bit easier. I no longer have an aneurysm reading AIPs and working out the web of things to concern oneself with. It also helps to gain a comfort level that anything from Switzerland east likely runs smoother and stricter, while anything west and south of Switzerland is less likely to run smoothly while also rolling with things as they occur. The fuel attendant in France or Italy might have absconded during working hours, though somebody lurking at the airport will usually work an alternative. Just add a few hours…

What is interesting is that the halfway point snuck up on me faster than I expected. Suffice it to say that I have been flying a bit lately. Tuesday morning September 7th, somewhere over the Alps near the border between Switzerland and Italy, the clock rolled over without any fanfare. I had 895.3 hours when I left the United States. Now I had 895.4 in Europe. By the end of the day, it was 902.2 European hours, for a total just shy of 1800.

I am now officially more European of a pilot than an American one, even though it still feels a bit strange. It took 18 years to complete the first half in America, and less than 6 to do the same in Europe. It wasn’t the time or conquering airspace, licensure, maintenance, hangarage, schedules, fees, borders, languages, and cultures that made the place feel normal, but the total immersion into landing at foreign airports. If I could do it all over again, I would have forced myself to dive into the airport reality in the beginning.

Roughly the halfway point: Grand Goliat, Switzerland (10,623′), with Italy on the other side of the ridge and France on the right horizon. 


Can you have too much CRM?

Pilots spend a lot of time learning about and mastering the art of crew resource management (CRM) and threat and error management (TEM). With time and practice, it becomes pretty easy to put these tools to use and maximize safety while minimizing risks. Used properly, communication is enhanced, it is more effective, more inclusive, and less intimidating, especially for new or young members of a crew.

But, can CRM ever be too easy? Can it become so easy that it ends up being harder again? I thought of this on a recent trip because I was flying with another pilot who is a good friend of mine, and we have flown together more times than we can count. We know each other well, and we always look forward to flying together, which for a while, was averaging at least once a month.

When we do our pre-flight brief, we are expected to address any possible threats, and I once jokingly said, “You and I are flying together.” That was an epiphany for both of us, and now we mention that every time. As the first officer, I know what he expects and wants to make his job easier, and as the captain, he knows that he can trust me to take care of a lot of little details that others may skip. When something comes up, it is often as though we are reading each other’s minds. This can be great, because it makes everything effortless.

But can it go too far? Can it require a new level of TEM?

It hasn’t, but it could. It’s possible that the comfort level can be so well established that short cuts get taken, that inuendo or assumptions take the place of spoken words. When this happens, something can easily get missed. A few times we have forced ourselves to slow down and be more methodical. But what if we didn’t catch that? What if we let something slide? We could. It would be so easy and, worse, so…unintentional. It’s fair to say we each take some pride and balancing the scale between being professionals with a clear sense of the chain of command while also maintaining a genuine friendship.

If you think about it, that is actually the essence of good CRM: striking the balance. CRM came about because of the once-dictatorial environments that captains would create, which would stifle input and help. To think that it might have swung to far the other way is to realize the full gamut of human relationships. There is a time for the easy banter and jokes that pass the time, but there is also a time to quietly and comfortably assume the role of professionals with an airplane full of passengers entrusted to your care.

If you have worked as a CFI, you’ve probably seen something similar with at least one student. And given that pilots tend to have fairly similar personality types, it isn’t unexpected. But it is up to each of us to honor and respect the systems and procedures in place to keep those lines clear and risks minimized.—Chip Wright 

We don’t all just fly

One of the neat things about meeting so many different people in this line of work is to see what others bring to the table besides just their bona fides as a pilot. I’ve met some folks with fascinating backgrounds and side jobs that make for some interesting stories.

A friend of mine is well known among his comrades as a competitive race car driver, good enough that he had a chance to sign with a NASCAR sponsor back in the day. It was, he said, a difficult decision to make, but he chose to focus on flying and stuck with the racing as a hobby, which he has continued to enjoy as his schedule allows. The professional racing circuit, he said, was just too demanding for any sense of normal family life.

I used to fly with another fellow who now flies for Southern Air, and his trips are 17 days long, but that means he gets a couple of weeks off when he comes home. Because he was forced to find a way to support himself during a furlough, he became a commercial truck driver, and now he owns his own 18-wheeler rig that he uses on days off to deliver cargo on the ground. He loves the travel and the itinerant lifestyle, and his posts on social media are always entertaining to read.

Quite a few pilots have come to this line of work by way of success elsewhere. For a while, it seemed like everyone I flew with had something to do with medicine or pharmacology. The fields, they said, were fascinating. The red tape…not so much. Long hours and burnout from spending so much time haggling with insurance companies helped push them to pursue the opportunities in aviation, but several kept their fingers in the cookie jar by working part time and keeping up with continuing ed requirements as a fallback.

Other pilots have been able to take advantage of their flexible schedules to pursue or create opportunities outside of the cockpit. When furloughs were happening or threatening to happen, a number went back to school to get degrees in everything from law to accounting to becoming a physician’s assistant. Another got his MBA and created what could best be described as a boutique travel agency focusing on his home country in southeast Asia.

Real estate is another common hobby, because once tenants are in place, the workload drops considerably. The flurry of activity in filling a vacancy or doing a rehab is largely contracted out, and it can take up considerable time and resources while it is ongoing, but an occupied property in the right location is a nice piece of residual income.

The moral of the story? Simple: Keep looking for lemons that need to be turned into lemonade, and if you play your cards right, one of those interesting, fascinating backgrounds could be yours.—Chip Wright 

Rotors on Takeoff

“Rotors on takeoff” is something of a nefarious phrase. Pilots are warned against it in particular airports where it is prone to occur, though nobody really talks about what happens if one finds him or herself attempting to take off in one. The general idea is to avoid it, and nothing in the conventional spectrum is said about how to manage the problem once in the rotor.

Less than 20 hours into my initial self-taught mountain flying experience based out of Leadville, Colorado in 2013-2014, I encountered my first rotors on takeoff. It was a, needless to say, “breezy” day, and I found myself at 200’, at full power, descending, with the airspeed indicator reading 40mph, 2mph above stall speed. Since it was a long runway, I had plenty of length left. Mildly alarmed, I said to myself, “well, it looks like I am preconfigured for landing again.” Within about 10 seconds, the reverse occurred. I was climbing and climbing faster than normal. About 20 seconds later, I was descending, so upon the next ascent, I decided to make a hasty exit in the opposite direction, for which I had the joy of watching pine trees scream by a little too close than I would have liked as I went back into the rotor briefly. The rest of the flight featured a first-time jaunt into mountain waves over the Rockies, where I rode the roller coaster from 12,000 to 15,000 feet and back, whether I liked it or not, no matter if it was idle or full power, or what direction I yanked the stick toward. The flight home later that day was uneventful in Leadville.

The next time something similar occurred was in Spain, at La Cerdanya. Unusually strong winds were blowing locally (and unknown to me) over the ridge to the south, and I was abruptly startled by a 200’ AGL descent at full power, this time at 3800’ MSL instead of 10,200’ MSL (with the same airplane, of all things). The descending air went away, and I carried on like nothing had happened.

The latest occurrence was an interesting one. It started with an unusual itch to go flying, though as I drove to the airport in Saanen, Switzerland, I had this nervous energy I couldn’t dispel. I thought the situation through, asking myself if I was in a good frame of mind to fly, if it was a bad day weather-wise, and I concluded that the weather was fine, and I had some lingering perseveration upon some business matters that just needed to be ignored.

Before I go any further, I should note that the same thing would happen in the Pyrenees. The weather would clear, the winds would be relatively calm, forecasts would indicate nothing that couldn’t be handled, and I would gleefully drive to the airport with this strange nervous overload. As I got slammed around by angry, snaking, localized winds in flight shortly thereafter, I came to understand that I have some peculiar ability to emotionally express the representation of my weather observations by getting anxious, while convincing myself everything was fine. Eventually, I learned to listen to that internal nervous energy and avoid certain parts of the Pyrenees if I felt that way.

Well, this wasn’t the Pyrenees, I hadn’t felt like that in ages, and I was going flying. It might have been a tad breezier than I normally would have liked, though it was down the runway, and everything would be fine. The wind situation was a rare summer “Bise,” which is a mildly humid, cold, and persistent northeast wind that funnels between the north side of the Alps and the Jura Mountains. It blows quite angrily through Lausanne to Lake Geneva, where things are open, though usually gets quite obstructed in the Oberland. I figured it would be just like other events and decided to head above the clouds as upper-level winds with the Bise usually are not turbulent, even if strong. Full disclosure: I went flying the day before, above the clouds, and upper-level winds per GPS were a smooth 40kts while the forecast said 20kt. The forecast for this day said 20kt at 10,000 feet.

Within 5 seconds of taking off, that nervous energy was proven correct. I hit the upward side of the rotor at 50’ AGL and went up like a rocket. I instantly knew what was happening and yanked the stick to milk the ride for everything I could get, which lasted a short period before cresting and descending rather startlingly for 3500’ MSL and full throttle on a cool day. With a smirk, I rode it until the next wave up, thinking I would progressively end up higher on the crest of each wave. When I started descending the second time and upward motion delayed longer than before coupled with the end of the runway approaching and a general slight increase in terrain ahead, I briefly contemplated attempting a rejected takeoff and doing a wild aggressive slip and brake screeching landing. Opting against that risk, I pressed forward, turning toward the path of least resistance, as the rotors started to even out.

That presented a progressive change in wind direction, where a headwind became a strong tailwind as the winds had to go around a massive mountain to my right. I was concerned about lethargic climb performance as that worked itself out, which was an accurate reality though not as risky. As the airplane picked up speed, I eventually began a normal climb out, proceeded above the clouds, and frolicked around towering cumulus to FL20 and mountains that reached 12,000’ to almost 16,000’, all with little turbulence and much less energy. Curiously, winds were 25kt below the 7,500’ cloud deck and 10kt at high altitudes.

The return trip was something of a question. How would these rotors work out on final approach and landing? Terrain is quite tight and interesting in this neck of the woods, with an issue that the Cub ends up too high. On final, I was alternating rapidly between idle power and 2200 RPM, with enough headwind that I had no trouble bringing it down before the numbers without a slip. That was a first in my flying career, to hop between cruise and idle power repeatedly on final.

Afterward, I blamed the scare on my underpowered airplane coupled with my intransigent insistence upon operating this inadequate aircraft from 1949 in prodigious terrain. Perhaps I ought to get a “real” airplane so stupid things like this do not happen? A charter PC-12 landed just ahead of me, so I chatted with the first officer, assuming that the PC-12, with all its power, certainly would not have had the interesting ride that I did. He confirmed that they had a similar experience initially as I did, with the rotors stopping their climb performance where they “had no choice but to ride it out.” What about final? “We were alternating between the stall warning and high amounts of power.” 100 hp vs 1200 hp. 1949 vs 2021. VFR vs IFR. EASA regulated charter operation versus vagabond foreigner in a taildragger. It makes no difference. Rotors are rotors on takeoff.

I decided to publish the video as, while actual hazards are a problem in aviation, the other half is poor decisions made when reacting to them. I have never read any sort of official, conventional, or generally accepted advice about rotors on takeoff, other than that they are bad. In my case, I have never experienced them at this airport. Why did they come out in full force on that day? When will I get surprised again?

As for what a reader might do when encountering the same problem in their aircraft, well, watch the video and decide for yourself. I am not willing to state that one should simply ride them out or do a rejected takeoff. It depends on the pilot, the airplane, the situation, and the airport. It is probably best to avoid them though.

The hiring boom is back

The pandemic may not be over, but it’s clear that people are no longer going to be as willing to lock themselves at home anymore. They want to get out, and they want to travel.

This summer has seen a major boomerang in travel demand that has strained all segments of the travel industry. In some places, getting a rental car will cost upwards of $800 per day for the cheapest car. In many places, restaurants are still struggling to reopen. And at airports, the airlines are bursting at the seams as they have gone from the extreme of parking airplanes wherever they could find a runway to land them, to suddenly scrambling for the most important of all assets: employees.

Virtually every airline did something to reduce their payrolls, and the pilot ranks were no exception. Some, however, may have gone too far. The early retirement offers and long-term leaves of absences that so many took left gaping holes in the staffing models of several carriers. It’s one thing at an company like Southwest or Spirit, where the fleet consists of one model and training can be spooled up pretty quickly, but it’s an entirely different animal at an airline like Delta or American, which fly multiple fleets, and the training has to be done in some kind of a logical sequence in order to properly rebalance the staffing numbers. The same holds true for the regionals.

Most of the domestic flying has returned, and if it isn’t back in full, most cities have had at least some of their service restored. Airplanes are full and ticket prices are increasing, both of which are good. But the impending pilot shortage that was kicking in only months ago is now very much back front and center. United Airlines has recently announced some massive aircraft orders, and while some of them will be replacement aircraft, much of it will be growth, which will necessitate more pilots. In a recently closed bid, United began to kick-start its recovery, and the airline is now hiring almost 50 pilots a week indefinitely. The bid that just closed will trigger at least a thousand training events, hundreds of which will go to pilots not yet on the property. Similar events will happen throughout the industry.

The majors all share one concern: They have a pool of what they consider to be qualified, acceptable pilots that sits at around 5,000 applicants, but that pool is pretty much the same at each carrier, since most pilots apply to multiple airlines. To use United’s projected hiring needs, that pool would be gone in two years. Obviously, some of it will be refilled with fresh applicants as they become competitive and apply, but it’s still a harsh reality that needs to be dealt with in some form.

For job applicants, this is all great news. The world has been through an event unlike anything we have ever seen, and while the work still must continue, the determination to take control of our own lives again is beginning to generate hiring cycles, which will create more economic activity and jobs. If a career as a pilot of any kind is your dream, there is no better time than the present. —Chip Wright

Ptarmigan Pass gets a new name

A popular mountain pass through the Alaska Range connecting Anchorage and McGrath just got a “facelift.”  The flight route that has for many years been known as Ptarmigan Pass is the longer, lower, and more open pathway through the Alaska Range. It provides an alternative to Rainy Pass, which is at a higher elevation along a more confined route.  As the FAA’s Aeronautical Information Services is reviewing Alaska mountain passes, discrepancies are being corrected.  During this process, two issues were discovered regarding the route formerly associated with Ptarmigan Pass, which are resulting in significant changes to features on the McGrath Sectional, including renaming and relocating Ptarmigan to Houston Pass.

Pilots flying VFR through the Alaska Range between Anchorage and McGrath for many years have used either Rainy Pass—if the weather was really good—or the longer, lower route that goes up the Happy River into Ptarmigan Valley, down Ptarmigan Creek before taking a turn to the west and following the South Fork of the Kuskoskwim River out of the mountains and on to McGrath.  This route is frequently used when clouds limit more direct pathways across the range.  The description from a 1934 Naval Air Pilot publication provides a compelling comparison of the two routes, which was probably relevant for the capabilities of the airplanes of that time– in addition to many that we fly today.

This description of the air routes between Anchorage and McGrath was published in the Naval Air Pilot, Hydrographic Office Publication No 188, published June 1, 1934. (Thanks to Marshall Severson for locating this document.)

In the interest of providing more information to pilots to improve safety, the FAA is currently looking at mountain passes in Alaska and the information presented to pilots on flight charts.  In the course of this review, two problems were discovered regarding the location that had for years been labeled as Ptarmigan Pass:

  • the U.S. Geological Survey’s recognized name for this landmark is Hellsgate Canyon, not Ptarmigan Pass and,
  • further inspection revealed that while it may be the narrowest segment of the route, it is not a pass.

Where IS the Pass?
A “pass” represents the highest point along the lowest route between two drainages.  For VFR flight planning, pilots need to know the location and elevation of that point.  Adding the altitude needed to comfortably fly the route based on their personal flight minimums, a pilot can now evaluate the weather enroute.  When flying up a valley toward a pass, a pilot encountering ceilings lower than needed to cross the pass now have a basis to make the decision to turn around—while they still have the opportunity to do so.

Changes to the McGrath Sectional as of the August 12, 2021 chart cycle. After this date, Houston Pass is added to the chart, while Hellsgate is changed to a VFR checkpoint.

Along this route through the Alaska Range, the actual pass is about 10 nautical miles northeast of Hellsgate Canyon. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s place names dictionary, Houston Pass is the name of that location.  Houston Pass has an elevation of 2,749 feet and sits in a wide valley, providing an alternative to the higher and more confined terrain along the route that goes through Rainy Pass, which sits at an elevation of 3,524 feet.  As of the charting cycle starting on August 12, changes to the McGrath Sectional include adding Houston Pass  and converting Hellsgate Canyon from a pass symbol to a VFR checkpoint.

A comparison of the elevations of three features along the Rainy and Huston Pass routes.

Looking ahead
As part of the FAA review of Alaskan mountain passes, it was noted that the pass elevation data normally found on sectionals in other parts of the country is missing for Alaska.  The FAA charting team has already added elevation data to a few passes and is working to add it to a large number of other passes across the state later this fall. For now, with regard to these passes, please make it a point to:

  • Update your databases or buy a new paper chart with the August 12 revisions
  • Note these changes and use the new placenames when making CTAF calls along the route, allowing other pilots to know your location relative to these features, reducing the likelihood of mid-air collisions
  • Help pass the word–as this represents a significant change along a route that has been used since the earliest days of flying in Alaska

When we’re talking about Houston Pass or Hellsgate Canyon, let’s help keep everyone on the same page – especially when that page is a sectional chart.  Fly safe!

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