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Best Practices for Aircraft Survival Gear in Alaska

What kind of equipment do you carry as survival gear when you fly?  When flying over the vast boreal forests, endless tundra, massive glaciers and rugged mountains of Alaska, one really wants to have some equipment for the off chance of an unplanned landing, or even something as simple as not being able to get the engine started when returning from a remote location.

I regularly receive calls and emails from pilots planning to fly from the “Lower 48” to Alaska. One of the most frequent questions is: “I know Alaska is different. What do I need to bring in the way of survival gear?”  This is often the start of a discussion that explores topics such as, “When are you coming?”, “What part of the state are you planning to fly to?”, and “What type of aircraft are you flying?”  After all, a DC-3 has a lot more space for survival gear than a Super Cub.

People have also heard that Alaska has a law requiring survival gear be carried on board.  It does.  The first regulation dates back to 1943, before Alaska was a state. The regulation adopted at that time provided a short list of items to be carried. More recently, the state statute was revised which changed the requirements a bit, but is still basically a list of items, with some seasonal additions for winter operations.  It also contains language indicating that these “…are considered to be minimum requirements…” indicating that this topic is worth more attention.

More than a List
To address the requests for information, and provide some guidance for pilots, representatives from several aviation groups drafted a “Best Practices” document, intended to touch on key factors to consider when putting together a survival kit.  Elements such as shelter, signaling, fire arms, and food are covered, along with some discussion about where to carry components of your kit. This document does not include a prescriptive list of items to carry, although it has several references with more information and ideas regarding items to carry, and how to personalize your individual kit.

What is a Survival Situation?
Many of us like to go camping, hiking, hunting, canoeing, skiing, snow machining, etc.  We probably consider ourselves to be fairly handy operating in remote areas. The skill and experience gained from those activities certainly is a benefit over someone who is not comfortable in these settings.  But a survival situation has one key difference—you didn’t PLAN to be there.  Plus, the camping gear carried behind the back seat might not have made it out of the aircraft, following a forced landing and subsequent fire.  You, or some of your passengers, may have injuries. Just taking one hand out of commission makes it much more difficult to open a can of beans, or to heat water for a freeze-dried meal.  THESE are the situations we need to prepare for, both in terms of what we carry in our aircraft, on our person, and perhaps most importantly, in our minds.

Planning for an unplanned situation, figuring out in advance what equipment to have with you, and mentally preparing for a variety of situations is important to achieve a successful outcome when things go wrong.

Practice
The best practices document includes a brief discussion about the importance of training.  I would like to suggest a fun exercise you can perform to test your survival gear.  Years ago, the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation held a workshop in Fairbanks, with about a dozen aircraft participating, that executed this scenario.  Get with a few aviation friends and plan an overnight outing to a nearby back-country airstrip, or someplace you can camp.  Instead of taking the normal load of camping gear, and shopping bag of steaks to cook, fly out and spend the night ONLY USING YOUR SURVIVAL GEAR.  Construct a shelter, make dinner out of your survival food. See if the stove you carried for the past five years really works.  Make breakfast the next morning, also ONLY from your emergency supplies. No sneaking in a dozen eggs from the store!

Make some signaling devices, such as a Canadian smoke generator, and launch one of the aircraft to see what it looks like from the air.  Be sure to monitor the local CTAF frequency in case a non-participating aircraft is attracted and thinks you are really in distress.

At the end of this outing, take stock of what worked as you thought it would, and what didn’t.  Use this as a basis both to refresh supplies, and to consider ways to upgrade the equipment you carry.  It could be a fun first outing of the year, or a long weekend spent cold and hungry. Either way, it can be a great lesson in preparing your survival gear and survival attitude for the busy flying season ahead!

Thanks to the organizations that supported the effort to prepare this best practices document:

Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation

Alaska Airmens Association

AOPA Air Safety Institute

Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association

Airplanes break

What airplane doesn’t have a squawk list or things that are found during an annual or 150-hour inspection? Despite our best intentions as pilots to keep our cherished airplanes working perfectly for our safety and that families and passengers, things happen. Airplanes break. You may achieve mechanical perfection for a brief time like I hope to on the Citizen of the World when I take off on my polar circumnavigation beginning June 1, 2019, but let’s be honest: It’s a standard that’s hard to maintain, maybe even impossible.

Working the bugs out is part of the process of preparing an aircraft for a circumnavigation or even the much more difficult polar circumnavigation. Part of my preparation for my flight has included upgrading the airplane so it could fly at Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum altitudes of Flight Level 350, or 35,000 feet. For the previous 24 years, this aircraft flew at 28,000 feet. You may remember that on Jan. 11, 2019, my TPE 331-10T engines (the same type you will find on Predator drones) let me know they needed some extra love to accomplish this task. They would not respond to throttle inputs at 34,500 feet and minus 33 degrees Celsius over Arizona. And while this issue may sound like something you wouldn’t like to experience personally, in hindsight, I’m glad it happened here in the continental United States before the trip. In addition to that timing, I had the good fortune to have Rob Louviaux, a senior mechanic for Gemini Air with 30 years of experience on Turbine Commanders, sitting right next to me. Looking at all this from a metaphysical level, I believe Citizen of the World was simply letting us know what it needed to make this trip happen safely and keep us focused on our mission of “One Planet, One People, One Plane: Oneness for Humanity.”

From a safety standpoint, the engines had been refurbished and tested at sea level on a test stand for 90 hours before they were installed as required by the Honeywell MSP program managed by CTEC (Copperstate Turbine Engine Company, or what is now simply called TAE). Short of bolting the refurbished engines onto a test aircraft and flying them up to 35,000 feet, TAE’s test process probably works 99 percent of the time. The fuel controllers were not due for overhaul for quite some time, so the assumption was that they worked when they produced 1,147 horsepower and 1,150 hp on the test stand at sea level. They had not caused any problems prior to the refurbishment, and because TPE only required 1,000 hp output on each engine and these numbers were so much higher, it was reasonable to believe the engines were fine.

For the refurb, the Honeywell team and TAE’s John Phoenix went the extra distance and replaced many components that they could have let slide. The engine team had only one goal in mind, which was to ensure that Citizen of the World makes it around the planet and over the poles safely and reliably.

Since that event, we have made great progress on Citizen of the World‘s engines. Honeywell (the engine manufacturer), Honeywell MSP (the engine insurance company), TAE (the company that refurbished the engines), and Gemini Air (the mechanic) have all been amazing in helping to resolve this issue. In a meeting that involved the most senior technical advisor at Honeywell, everyone stepped up to express concern. Collectively, we came up with an immediate game plan to resolve the lack of response on the controllers. Within days, Louviaux had removed the inlet sensors, fuel pumps, and fuel controllers and sent them for testing at Honeywell. The Honeywell team cleared their schedules and checked the sensors and controllers in a temperature-controlled environment. The inlet sensors are being replaced even though they tested within the acceptable range, and the fuel controllers are being rebuilt even though the engines produced horsepower well above what was required of them on the test stand and they had time remaining on them.

This engine team is standing behind its engines 100 percent and working with me to achieve the absolute maximum performance possible at 35,000 feet even on components that were not included on the original refurbishment list. Many thanks to this dedicated team. Having this level of excellence for customer support and backing on my pole-to-pole flight gives me a welcome feeling of confidence and leaves me, my passengers—and Citizen’s engines—with smiles on our faces.

www.PoleToPoleFlight.com #TAE #Honeywell #HoneywellMSP #GeminiAir #TPE331 #CTEC #MTPropellerUSA

Delays

Delays don’t happen often, but when they do, they are a source of great aggravation and concern.

The airlines are all about customer service—or at least they are supposed to be. Most of the time, things go pretty much as advertised, but some days, for whatever reason, they don’t. Examples might be missing blankets, bundles of paper towels, broken toilets, or a catering screw-up. Catering can consist of the sodas and snacks in the main cabin, or it can consist of issues with the meals that are served in first class—which the first-class passengers have paid for and have every right to expect.

Flight attendants are required to be on duty at the majors ahead of the pilots, because boarding can start without us. In fact, on larger airplanes, this is pretty common in order to get everyone on board expeditiously for an on-time departure. Part of that early arrival is to give the cabin crew time to spot any issues as quickly as possible. It might be something mundane like some trash, or it might be something more serious such as broken seat belts or missing or damaged emergency equipment. Some of these things are obviously show-stoppers, like the emergency equipment, but most items can be deferred for later maintenance or addressed quickly with a phone call.

Catering, on the other hand, always takes time, because there are only so many catering trucks, and they don’t always have what you need. Hot meals are a great example. There isn’t much worse than having the flight attendants announce that the expected dinner is going to be replaced by breakfast, or vice versa, or that coffee won’t be available (I might be the only one that doesn’t get concerned about this, since I’ve never had coffee, but I’ve seen what happens when people don’t get it, and it ain’t pretty).

Sometimes, no matter how many times you plead on the radio with Operations, things just aren’t going to get fixed. At that point, the decision often comes down to what the flight attendants want to do, since they’re the ones who have to deal with the passengers directly. An announcement over the public address system can help, as can a personal explanation to those most affected.

Most of the time, if the flight isn’t too terribly long, the decision is made to close the door and go. Longer flights require a little more tact and thought.

Airlines have collected extensive amounts of data on just what the paying passenger expects, and as much as we all like to complain when things don’t go our way, the number one issue for passengers is getting to the destination on time. Not only is that most important, but the gap between on-time performance and every other expectation is huge. Further, when an airplane leaves the gate late, the risk is that the flight inbound to that gate is going to be delayed, and the airplane may fall behind schedule for the rest of the day. It’s one thing to be late for maintenance, but to be late for some missing meals or bottles of water is a different issue entirely.

The other form of delays that cause problems are delays off the gate going to or from the runway (going to seems to be much worse). Most of the time, these are driven by bad weather or a ground stop. It helps when the weather is right on the airport and can be seen. Passengers don’t always understand that the bad weather affecting a flight may be several hundred miles away.

Most carriers encourage openness and honesty with people when delays of any kind hit, but ground stops and weather delays are definitely no place to try and pull a fast one. In the day and age when everyone has a smart phone, you can expect that people are looking up delay data either from the FAA or from your airlines app. Consistent with safety and your company policy, keeping passengers updated with a PA every 15 to 30 minutes will go a long way to keeping people from getting restless, especially first-time or nervous fliers. You can’t do anything about potential missed connections, but you can keep them informed of any progress or updates from ATC. These announcements should be short, factual, and devoid of any jargon. Humor can go wrong, so don’t use it unless you know how.

The risk with a departure delay is that someone may insist they want to get off the airplane if they’re going to miss a connection or an event, or just get nervous. This can be a tricky situation, because sometimes going back to the gate can lead to such a delay that the flight cancels and everyone gets inconvenienced. Often, continuing toward takeoff is the lesser evil. But if they insist, the captain needs to coordinate with Dispatch to make the best decision.

Delays after landing pose their own issues. I’ve been on time or early during the beginning of a weather event, only to sit in a penalty box for an hour or more waiting for a gate to open up. International flights present a particular challenge because only certain gates are set up to funnel passengers to Customs and Immigration, and this is something that needs to be articulated to the passengers.

Other gate delays are usually (but not always) driven by weather affecting the outgoing flights. Passengers, however, start getting antsy when they feel trapped. Again, good PAs will help, as will conveying any developing situations in the cabin to Operations so that they can appreciate the seriousness of what is going on.

Delays are a part of flying for both passengers and crew. How you handle them is key. Communication is everything: the flight attendants, the passengers, and the company. You may not win all of the battles or make everyone happy, but you’ll greatly improve the odds, which will improve the odds of ensuring repeat business.

Boredomitis

Gethereitis is the most common form of in-flight decision-making disease, though my past exploits cause me to wonder if we should add a new one: boredomitis, the antics resulting in a lack of anything useful to do coupled with a desire and willingness to fly.

I suppose my first exposure to boredomitis was when I was quite young, living in New York next to my grandfather’s grass airstrip. At the time, he was in his 50s, jaded from many things in life, choosing to spend his time rebuilding Cubs in his shop, or taking local flights. While he had gone some distance in his younger years, by the time I came along, he was past the novelty of it all and had his routine: evening flight here, a burger in Great Valley, land at a few pilot’s airfields every now and then and….buzzing. When he would get frisky, he would buzz the snot out of my grandmother, my aunt (who lived nearby), my parents’ house, and other rural-dwelling friends of his. There were war stories (possibly just rumors) of an incident or two where foliage needed to be removed from the landing gear.

At any rate, I enjoyed every second of it my entire youth, and it all unceremoniously stopped about eight months before I started taking lessons on the same field. So I am told, there was a concerted conspiracy, probably led by my aviation-hating mother, to “not set a bad example.” Rest assured that I remembered his methods.

Anyhow, fast forward to the Winter of Discontent 2018-2019 in Spain. I had recently returned from Switzerland, having achieved the pinnacle of my aviation experiences, both figuratively and literally. At first, I had an initial zeal to breathe some energy into my local flying. “Every flight in Switzerland was 2.5 to 3 hours. Why not do the same in Spain, instead of these silly little flights I usually take?” Fresh with optimism, I plunged into the high country of the Pyrenees on a two+ hour flight the day after arriving back, enjoying some early season snows, thinking that this new zeal was wonderful.

Then reality struck, in the form of the weather.

Early season snows disappeared, though wind and the pernicious inversion to the south set in. So, I decided to chase them. First it was the wind, weaseling up into the high peaks in strong waves and moving clouds, deftly doing so without a problem. Another day, it was flying above a cloud deck under a strong NW flow near Pic Carlit, France, getting the snot beat out of me in orographic turbulence. That switched to chasing the inversion below. Instead of it being an aggravation that limited cross country possibilities, I decided to treat it as something beautiful, taking flights right over the rim of it, which was fine assuming the engine kept operating the entire time.

The inversions quit showing up in cloud form, though remained in haze, exacerbated by a small forest fire, which I decided to go flying around. That led to breaking my altitude record in a mountain wave, flying to 19,500’. Not to be deterred, another day I decided I was “finally going to do some aerobatics.” The legality of aerobatics is somewhat murky here. I talked to a French instructor, who said it’s a pain in the rear over the border, so they come to Spain to do it, though I couldn’t tell, as usual, if Spain was regulatorily permissive or just so disorganized so as not to care.

I climbed to altitude in the typical place, did some clearing turns, fired up the GoPro, and was ready to go for my first loop. At thirty degrees nose up, I completely wimped out. “I can’t do this!” I descended and went home, staring at 70-year-old weld joints that hold the airframe together, wondering what I was thinking. Save aerobatics for a newer, properly constructed device.

Then the unthinkable happened: 5 weeks of solid, unforgiving, nonstop blue sky and sun, right in the middle of winter, with some days as high as 72F/22C. Not a shred of snow or rain, mostly sunny from the end of January until the beginning of March. While my fellow compatriots in America will be inclined to give a speech to “count your blessings,” especially given the nature of the foul winter many have had in North America, I must note that it was especially hazy, and the surfaces were quite brown and devoid of snow, with the exception of very high-altitude locations. Cross country flights weren’t appealing given lowland haze, so I resorted to flying in a circle in the valley: touch and goes, spot landings, max performance takeoffs with vortex generators (26mph indicated) to entertain airport restaurant goers, 2000 RPM takeoffs, low approaches, and the like.

Recently, we had a clear day in the mountains, so I went up for flight over Cadí-Moixeró, and on the tediously long descent down, I decided to solve a nagging question I’ve had. When I was a student, I went to 14,000’ in the PA-11 specifically to annoy my father, who had a tizzy I went up to 7,500’ and venomously barked “never to do it again.” I made a point to go as high as I could without oxygen in a statement of teenage rebellion. On the way down to field elevation of 1,284’, I decided to pull the mixture to confirm what I had suspected: the prop still spins, though at a few hundred less RPM. Push it in and off we go.

I had since read about the aeronautics behind engine-out forced landings and the effects of windmilling, and an article made reference to a “dangerous” maneuver to slow the airplane to get the prop to stop, in order to remove the drag of a windmilling propeller. With boredomitis, the mind has a long list of things to probe, so I gave her a whirl descending from Cadí-Moixeró. At 48mph, the prop stops in about 15 seconds without anything special involved. Thankfully, I have a starter. Anyhow, the airplane does glide really quite nicely without any power. For any who think I am a lunatic, I was about a mile above the ground.

Since I rarely suffer from gethereitis as I usually pick sunny days that are good for photos, boredomitis is more likely to show up. I have a few stories of trying to cross the USA under a schedule in the PA-11, and they are filled with typical nonsense gethereitis implies. It is definitely worse to toy with weather to meet an arbitrary goal. Boredom, on the other hand, is a bit of a two-edged sword. It probably is why so many have tried new things and pushed the envelopes of aviation to new places, though could be the source of total stupidity if left unchecked. Fortunately spring is around the corner.

First flight after Switzerland, filled with optimism for the winter. Central Pyrenees, looking west.


First indication of boredom: going above the clouds with strong mountain waves.


Getting knocked around above the cloud layer near Pic Carlit, France.

Making some beauty out of inversions that usually present issues with cross country flights.


This photo appeared in my recent P&E article in the March issue of AOPA Pilot.

Rather windy and turbulent, looking over the edge. If I got sucked over, I likely would have not been able to outclimb the descending wave back into the Pyrenees.

Forest fire.


Lowland inversion presenting as haze instead of clouds. This will stay until April like this.

Going into the Andorran Pyrenees while the waves are in force. At least it prevents boredom!

Wave signature, after getting out without too much of a problem. It was turbulent.

Finally! Some clouds. Who would have thought I’d be so happy to get precipitation?

 

The Atlas Air accident

The recent crash of Atlas 3591 under the banner of Amazon is already producing its share of arm-chair investigators. Because there was weather in the area, many jumped to the conclusion that it was a weather-related accident. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t.

I’ve heard others postulate that it was a pilot suicide—an idea prompted by the apparent nose-down attitude of the airplane when it hit the water. Again, maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t.

What it was, though, is fatal. What is unusual so far is that the media is paying it more attention than most cargo accidents. This is no doubt driven by the facts that the accident took place mid-afternoon with witnesses, that it was in close proximity to an airport, and that it was affiliated with Amazon, a company we’re all more than familiar with in the world of e-commerce.

There will be a lot of attention paid to the actions of the crew, in part because of the fact that there was a third pilot riding in the jump seat. What we don’t know yet is whether that pilot was in the cockpit or riding in one of the seats that are installed in the cabin forward of the bulkhead for the main cargo compartment. If the jump seater was in the cockpit, close attention will be paid to any degree of distraction that his presence may have caused. Close attention also will be paid to any violations of sterile cockpit procedures. The NTSB has a tendency to use sterile cockpit violations as an easy out for any other causal factors, allowing them to place the blame on the crew.

Without knowing the preceding schedule of the crew, it’s hard to know whether crew rest will be found to have played a part. After Colgan 3407 crashed, FAR Part 117 was created to bring a more scientific approach to crew duty and rest issues, especially at the regionals. Cargo carriers, however, succeeded in convincing Congress and the FAA that it was unnecessary to subject them to the new rules, since any accidents would “only” result in the loss of a couple of people. The pilot associations understandably were (and are) still quite upset about this, because while cargo carriers may not carry hundreds of passengers, their pilots often work under extremely demanding conditions. They often fly entirely at night on the back side of the clock, usually in airplanes that are decades old with less restrictive Minimum Equipment Lists (MELs). The pilots are constantly in a battle to get quality sleep that, even in the best of hotels, may be hard to come by because of noise, lights, and the natural desire of the body to be awake during the day. Further, the rest facilities on the long-haul flights are not required to be as modern as those for passenger flights.

I have no idea what the cause of this particular accident might have been, but expect fatigue to get close scrutiny, along with the weather and the potential distraction of the jump seater. Like most accidents, this one is likely to take a year or more to reach a final report. Fortunately, the wreckage seems to be fairly confined. Exercise patience and wait for the NTSB to wade—literally—through the evidence to put the events in context.—Chip Wright

Champions of Aviation: Inspiring the Next Generation to Fly

Derek Rowe is a retired British military helicopter pilot who teaches the AOPA Aviation Curriculum at McGavock High School in Nashville, Tennessee. I was introduced to him through Cindy Hasselbring, senior director of AOPA’s High School Aviation Initiative, who is responsible for AOPA’s aviation program that is now being taught in 100 classrooms across the United States.

Rowe has put together an ambitious project to support the AOPA curriculum. Students are learning to virtually fly an aircraft around the world (equatorial circumnavigation) using five Redbird simulators. They will be exposed to the many challenges that flying internationally entails including fuel planning, weather, navigation, communications, and pilot fatigue in addition to experiencing what it takes just to fly an airplane.

To prepare the students for some of the real-life challenges they would experience on this kind of flight, Rowe is having the students read, discuss, and write a book report (remember those?) on my book, Zen Pilot: Flight of Passion and the Journey Within. They’ll learn how to respond to air emergencies and international travel, including my airplane’s engine failing over the Strait of Malacca at 14,000 feet, coasting without power 19.6 nautical miles while overloaded with 600 pounds of fuel and oil spraying on the 1,500-degree-Fahrenheit exhaust, getting put on trial for walking across the tarmac unsupervised in Oman, being charged $22 dollars a gallon for fuel, and clearing out full-sized crabs from under my bed before going to sleep on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

To give the kids additional incentive, I provided Rowe with five serialized “Courage Coins” and signed courage coin cards for the best five book reports. The coins are intended to be given to aspiring pilots to carry for inspiration and courage until they earn their pilot’s certificate and then “flown forward” to other aspiring pilots to encourage them to do the same. The coins can also be a keepsake to inspire people to go after their impossibly big dreams and hold at moments when they need courage to fly through the turbulence they may experience in life.

To help the kids who are afraid to fly or who are spooked by something they read in Zen Pilot, I also included my DVD jointly produced with Gleim Aviation titled, Overcoming the Fear of Flying: Unleashing Potential for Pilots and Passengers. The video helps to release pre-flight anxiety, calm racing thoughts, and transform terror into positive action so you can fly through life and the air with ease, grace, and joy.

To bring the experience together in the real world, we have planned a field trip for the kids to come and see the Citizen of the World with its two Predator drone engines, huge five-bladed nickel-tipped props, and 52-foot Twin Commander wing span while the airplane is getting the environmental system upgraded at Peter Schiff’s facility in Cookeville, Tennessee. Our hope is that the students will be able to experience firsthand an aircraft that is being prepared for the most challenging circumnavigation possible from the North Pole to the South Pole. They will be able to see what a general aviation aircraft is capable of with the latest technology, persistence, and a tremendous amount of support and love from many generous sponsors.

During the field trip we will light the Avidyne avionics panel so the students will be able to see what modern technology has to offer a pilot, including an Apple iPad Mini with Xnaut cooling, MaxViz infrared camera, L3 battery backup, Avidyne IFD 550/440 touch screen with synthetic vision/Bluetooth/Wi-Fi/glass panel touchscreen GPS, SATPhone Store satellite communications, Lightspeed noise-canceling headsets, and a STEC 2100 3-D digital autopilot.

And equally important, the kids will see that aviation is an inspiring and empowering vehicle for the following messages that can positively affect all of us:

  • “One Planet, One People, One Plane: Oneness for Humanity” – Citizen of the World’s call to action to connect the North Pole to the South Pole and everyone in between on a mission of global peace.
  • There are more similarities than differences among people. Look for the similarities and seek to understand the differences.
  • We all are Citizens of the World and stewards of our planet.

If you share our vision for changing the world through general aviation and are interested in sponsoring an event like this for a local high school or aviation group, please reach out to us at [email protected]. We need more champions of aviation to bring about positive changes in the world.

The Reluctant Aviator

Many years ago I posted on an Army Air Corps website hoping to connect with folks who flew with my Dad. I received a response a few years after I posted and began a lovely pen pal relationship with the subject of this article.

On a beautiful sunny Bay Area day I had the pleasure to record an interview my 97-year old friend about his experiences in aviation. You see Bill never really wanted to be an aviator, yet the love of flying was deeply instilled his brother who  had become a pilot. Here is the story of how this reluctant aviator’s openness to opportunity and determination to learn, led to a lifetime of flying and becoming an ambassador for General Aviation.

Bill [front seat] and Sammy Mason, circa 1927. Note control cable to the elevator

After high school Bill Mason was working as a line boy then mechanic at historic Metropolitan [Van Nuys] Airport in the early 1940s. Tex Rankin, a nationally and internationally known aerobatic pilot, was running Rankin School of Flying there. Bill’s job was to push airplanes out, start them, and warm them up. He says that it was a funky job but part of pay was learning to fly. Prior to this job, Bill hadn’t thought about aviation and didn’t have a burning desire to learn to fly, but since he was there, he did learn to fly in a J3 Cub. Bill’s brother Sammy, was already an accomplished aerobatic pilot .

In 1940 Tex Rankin was awarded a Department of Defense contract with the Army Air Corps to develop and operate a civilian primary flying school for soon-to-be cadets. Tex chose Tulare California located in the Central Valley. Tex was looking for instructors and he sent a telegram to Sammy. Sammy had been doing aerobatics and was interested in a change. Tex persuaded Sammy to follow him to Tulare, and a few months later Sammy asked Bill to head to Rankin to work as an airplane mechanic. “Then it wasn’t long I followed Sammy up. I had less than 100 hours of flight time” Bill says.

In late 1942 Sammy approached him and said “Bill they need instructors, you better go get some more time.” Bill explained “At the beginning, the requirement was something like 500 hours and Instructor’s endorsement. But with the war, events were happening so fast, and the pressure was on to find qualified instructors, the requirement went down to 200 hours, and I went over the mountains to Olancha in Owens Valley, to scrape up 100 hours in a plane; an Interstate, owned by one of the Rankin instructors.” He or his wife would come over on weekends, and drill us, while during the week; he and a buddy would sharpen their technique. He laughs and says, “That Interstate was a delightful plane to fly, as most all of my previous time was in a J-3 Cub.” Bill put in nearly 100 hours in Interstate and went into Rankin’s Instructor Refresher Course. Brother Sammy was his instructor. “You probably couldn’t have a better instructor than Sammy. He had won a national award for instructor of the year.” It was the spring of 1943 when he started instructing. Bill was very young, most instructors were much older than him, but before long he was confident in himself and teaching. With a twinkle in his eye Bill recalls the following story:

 “Such were the times, that I didn’t even have a license, when I started instructing! I don’t know how I got under the radar on that, but halfway thru the war, someone upstairs said that those few of us without should be licensed. I remember that ride with the CAA inspector, (it became the FAA after the war) a bright and warm sunny day in the valley. During the ride, he said, “ Okay, now lets see your aerobatics.” Being a lot younger than he was, and by that time well honed in my job, I pulled the loop half of the maneuver nice and tight. I looked in the mirror at that time, and he was completely blacked out, with his eyes closed and mouth hanging open. It was a beautiful Immelmann, but he never saw it! So that ride gave me a Commercial license, with Instructor’s rating, up to 450 HP, the only one I ever had.”

He describes the cadets who were mostly young adults [19,20,21 years] as gung ho, jumping to go, they wanted to learn so they could fly in combat. He received five green cadets and tried to graduate all five. Bill says he didn’t wash out too many people. I remember my Father saying the he did wash out a few. On the whole the cadets wanted to learn.

Training started with basic controls, rudder to turn etc. Soon the teaching focused on flying square patterns how to adjust for wind. This task was easier in the Central Valley with county roads and farmer’s fields providing reference lines. The instructor sat in the front seat of the Stearman. There was a mirror where you would watch the cadets. The students could hear the instructor, and vise versa, but there were no two-way communications. For the most part they used eye and hand motions. “I look back on it and think about how amazing it was, they learned quickly. Once they had 60-70 hours they were pretty good pilots.” The Army Air Corp handled the classroom ground instruction.

He was in the air instructing 5-6 hours per day, depending on where the cadets were in the program. As they became more proficient there were less hours in the plane. He recalls that after learning aerobatics didn’t have to teach them too much. When to solo was up to the instructor. He shared, “If I figured they were showing good progress, I would have them pull over, get out, buckle the belts and tell them to go. Most of them would say that they heard my voice in their head while they were up on their solo.” Cadets were with an instructor for 60-70 hours or a little over 2 months.

James Lucas, Instructor with cadets which he called, “Dodos”

Some students had better personal facilities, were more natural flyers. Bill told me of a couple of incidents his cadets had in the airplanes. He paused and said:

“Come to think of it, pilots that make mistakes and recover from it, are probably better pilots than a pilot that never made a mistake.”

Bill Mason was done flying at Rankin in 1945 and the school closed. He was given a chance to get out of service or stay on active reserve. He laughs in recalling his decision, “ I said get me out as quick as you can. This meant that the draft board picked me up and I was drafted right way.”

After discharged from the Army Air Corp Bill tried to get job as a CFI but there were no jobs. All the flyers were back from WWII and were working at airports. So Bill let go of flying for a time, took up a career, and set about raising his family.

Bill’s beloved Stearman, N65874

Brother Sammy had a Stearman in Santa Paula. In 1963 his wife saw it and bought Sammy’s plane for Bill. It was N65874. For decades Bill flew that airplane around the country particularly enjoying annual Stearman gatherings in Galesburg, Illinois.  Bill was well known for giving rides, answering questions about training in the Stearman and being an ambassador for General Aviation. As well, over the years many cadets found their way back to Bill to talk with him about their primary training, update him on their lives and military careers, and thank him for the wisdom he imparted to them.

The reluctant aviator took opportunities presented to him, showed determination in the face of being young and inexperienced, got an education, and went on to become a talented instructor. We can all learn lessons in perseverance, commitment to craft, maintaining an adventurous spirit from the Greatest Generation.

Bidding vacation

I’ve written before about the significance of seniority with respect to bidding, bases, quality of life, et cetera. When you talk to pilots about what factors into their decision to upgrade, change fleets or switch domiciles, a number of factors crop up, and one of those is vacation.

Pilots accrue vacation based on years of completed service, with two weeks for the first four to five years behind standard issue, followed by three weeks for several years, and topping out with five or maybe even six weeks a year. Every airline has to figure out a way to have a certain number of allotted vacation weeks in each seat, in each fleet, in each base, every year. For example, there might be eight slots to take vacation starting the first week of April in a given year, but there may only be six slots the first week of July, because July is the peak of the travel year.

From a pilot’s perspective, this is critical because at any airline, most anyone can tell you what kind of vacation weeks their seniority can hold. As you might imagine, summers are difficult to get because everyone wants time off during the summer. These positions tend to go senior, and if the company allows pilots to bid consecutive weeks, the junior pilots are virtually frozen out of getting a summer vacation.

There are other times of the year that cause similar issues: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Fourth of July, and the end/beginning of the school year. To make matters worse, bidding for vacation usually begins no later than 14 months from the end of the vacation year, because the bidding process takes time, and because it’s critical to get the awards for the first month of the year into the computer so that pilots can bid their regular schedule around it.

Vacation also affects training scheduling for both recurrent training and new position/equipment training. Scheduling around recurrent isn’t usually too difficult; you just can’t bid for both concurrently. Extended training events, however, can wreak havoc on vacation planning. Depending on the airline, you may be able to defer the training event for your vacation, but that might mean waiting months for your next chance to get that long-awaited time off. On the other hand, you may lose the week and see it pushed into another year (some find this desirable), or you may have to forfeit it in exchange for pay or a 401(k) deposit.

Most airlines also allow some kind of vacation “slide,” which means you can move your vacation forward or backward from the posted start date. Three days either way is fairly typical, which means that if you can’t hold consecutive weeks, you may be able to get two weeks that are six days apart, and slide them each to produce consecutive weeks, or you can try to bid the days off in between them.

Changing your current base, seat, or fleet can wreak absolute havoc on your plans. Usually, you’ll lose your scheduled vacation, because of the aforementioned allocation of slots based on staffing for each category. If you have vacation later in the year, and then take advantage of a captain position, you will have to bid for whichever weeks are left over in your new position. If there aren’t any, you’ll have to take your fate per the rules at your airline. Often, pilots who know they are planning to upgrade or change positions will do so after their vacations are used up, or start negotiating with the chief pilot to keep the week(s) off if there are plans set in stone.—Chip Wright

Fighting the Elements

There are days I don’t give enough credit to the fact that day-to-day life can be hard on aviation. I take a belief that not flying much isn’t really an option, and thankfully have the ability to configure things such that I can fly quite regularly. Motivation is usually not a problem; if something gets in the way, I take it as a matter of extreme urgency to get back in the air, if anything just because a good moment might be around the corner.

This winter has proven to be a bit different. A variety of back-to-back unpleasantries that could be summed up as “life” accumulated, and before I knew it, I started referring to the fact that I “used to” fly. Granted, that is quite dramatic, as I think something like 10 days went by, though I found myself struggling to fight uphill against this year’s Spanish winter. Usually when it snows, the wind dies down enough that I can scamper to the airport in glee, shovel in hand, defying snow piled on the runway, and make a run for it before it melts. This year has featured screaming wind during and after each storm.

Staring at the problem long enough builds up a chemical tension that demands satisfaction, so one day after a 10” snowfall, I checked the wind report online at the airport, and it showed 12mph down the runway. This reading was compared to wind gusts in excess of 50mph at the house a few miles away, though winds can be localized in this valley, so I figured I’d plow through the snow and go around the pattern.

The little voice inside knew it was futile, but alas, I went to the airport instead. Wind was far in excess of 12mph. I drove to the edge of the unplowed runway and decided to walk it to feel the snow consistency and depth. While winds were gusting over 30mph, it was down the runway, despite the fact that it was unpleasant and agitating. Walking over 1000 feet of the runway to check for drifts and hidden snow thickness, the wind picked up with such a fury that I had to lean into the wind to walk with zero visibility in blizzard conditions. Ok, forget that. I was remiss that I “technically” could have not had to worry about snow thickness due to wind, though I would have been blown over taxiing.

A few days went by before the next incoming storm, for which the wind blew a lot of snow away. It was starting to snow over terrain, curiously stalled just on the north end of the valley with NW flow, so I battled nasty wind to take off. It was, needless to say, raucous in the air, so I turned around and went back with my tail between my legs.

That storm did produce 8” in the valley, without as much wind afterward. I had a chance to get to the airport to see if I could takeoff with that much on the ground. Granted, the last storm deposited a giant drift in front of the hangar, which was in the shadow of the sun. For this problem, I negotiated with the airport maintenance guy to shove some out of the way with the tractor, as the plow truck unceremoniously died in the parking lot. Now wrangling a brutally heavy airplane parked in front out into the snow, then getting mine out, and warming up, I found that I could taxi, with quite a bit of power. I taxied up and down the whole runway, finding waves of drifted snow in what appeared to be even snow cover. A brief run a full power showed little promise of picking up speed. Since I had tightened the shoulder belts “just in case” she nosed over, I decided to pull the plug on that one as I didn’t like it one bit – if one needs the caution of such safety restraints, then one might wish to restrain the activity at hand. Perhaps some Alaska guys can weigh in on how much snow 8.50×6.00 tires can handle, though I confess 7” is the max I have done.

After some days, the sun came out, and enough snow compressed and melted to blast through it and takeoff, for which winds were still not that pleasant in the air. I was sandwiched between systems, and was angling to see some high terrain before the clouds blew in. They beat me to it, cloaking the mountain ridge ahead of me in unpleasant and overly energetic wind, for which I was forced to abort and scurry from a forming cloud layer.

Finally, high pressure came in some days later. The field was melted, and I took aim for the Central Pyrenees. These continuous storm systems had deposited over 6 feet of snow in parts of the mountains, and I went for the heart of it in the Vall d’Aran, something I realized I hadn’t yet done. In winters past, local snowfall was so shiny and enthralling that I didn’t venture as far to see it. As the photos show, it was a rewarding flight.

I do have to confess that motivation wasn’t the same this winter. Each time I shoveled a pile of snow, yanked a heavy plane over ice, battled wind, and dealt with aggravations associated with winter, I could only look back on a year ago and wonder where all that energy came from. I had unrequited glee to fight what the mountains could throw, whereas this year, well, life sometimes makes it harder. I guess for all those who park their planes and don’t bother to fly in winter in areas with foul climate, maybe this year I get it.


Snow on the north side of the valley, with nasty wind.


The PA-11 with snow jammed in all sorts of places after plowing through and giving up on taking off.

Clouds beat me to the ridge.


Finally! Escaping the confines of winter. Andorra la Vella, Andorra.

Ridge above Andorra la Vella. This rocky feature sneers at me when I go to Starbucks. Now I can return the favor.

Back in Spain, rounding the bend at Parc Natural de l’Alt Pirineu.

Aftermath of an avalanche. Vall d’Aran.

Peculiar snow patterns, which appeared in many places. I suspect it has something to do with the amount of snow that fell.


Avalanche, from source to terminus.

Vall d’Aran, looking west, with France below on the right horizon.

More interesting snow patterns.

Look out below! Avalanche made it down to the river.

Creeping up on Pico Aneto (11,168′), the tallest peak in the Pyrenees.

Pico Aneto. Just below the summit, the smooth sections contain the largest remaining glacier in the Pyrenees.

Aneto ridge, from the west.

On the way home as sunset approaches. Snow depth is less as I depart the Central Pyrenees.

The Things People Say to a Female Pilot

The following are a few of a female Part 135 pilot’s anecdotal encounters with the rest of the world. 

It was actually -23 when I started.

The outside temperature at the Talkeetna airport read minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit. It had warmed up from the overnight low, but I still struggled to make the de Havilland Otter ready for its flight to the Alaska Range. Two different winter solo climbers, bound for two different mountains, were supposed to fly out on one aircraft. One, a humble veteran of many winter ascents, and the other a young German, new to the Alaska Range. Denali Basecamp, their destination, sits at 7,200 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier. In the summertime, it is a colorful tent city of international bustle. In the winter things are different: It is a stark, windswept expanse of snow in the perpetual shade of Mount Hunter. I had been flying the Otter all week, but because of the challenging nature of the flight (landing on a dark glacier with no runway markers and minus-20-degree temperatures), my boss was driving today. I rode along happily as a support crewman.

“Did you fly this last?” he said with a laugh as he struggled to lower the cranky pilot’s seat from my impossibly high, forward position. The veteran, sitting just behind us, had known me when I was brand-new to all of this. “It’s so great that you get to fly these now,” he said graciously. And that’s when the German let out a hoot of laughter. He couldn’t hear very well under his large fur hat, and had mistaken our exchange as us joking about me flying. “No, you won’t be flying these!” He was laughing at the idea of me at the controls. And, even as the words tumbled out of his mouth, I forgave him. You see, I’m used to this kind of reaction.

Turbine Otter and my passengers on the glacier

I can think of nowhere in aviation where passengers interact so closely with their pilot. We talk to them in the air, spend time with them on the glacier, and cultivate a relationship as ambassadors to Denali National Park. The vast majority of passengers react positively when I fetch them for a flight. I’ve been called all kinds of nice things. My hand gets shaken warmly. Little girls and wives, normally destined for spaces aft, clamour to sit in the copilot’s seat. My youth and gender likely make many nervous, but they mostly keep it to themselves. Sometimes, though, bad things rise to the surface: The Korean matron that refuses to get in my Otter, the man from Alabama joking about me being the flight attendant, the guy from Seattle wondering aloud why the male ramper isn’t climbing into the pilot’s seat, the anxious woman whispering that she’d prefer a “real pilot,” the tour guide that makes a comment about my “nice body” as he’s seeing his clients off, the guy from the East Coast that I overheard calling me a “liability” as I walked past. That one hurt.

Thankfully, my coworkers are brave, intelligent men who treat me fairly. However, other pilots can fall prey to misconceptions, sometimes in hilarious ways. In my state, there are these ubiquitous macho big dudes in camo that drone on about their Cub-driving days, florid with war stories. They call me “little lady,” and tell me incriminating things about their flying that I would never disclose to a stranger. When pressed, many of them have not held a valid medical certificate for years. Those guys are always good for some silent humor. Humor is one of my ways of dealing with these things.

One time, a shiny polished-metal Beaver (I’ll leave the particular air taxi’s name out) came to a stop near the aircraft that I was fueling. After seeing his passengers off, the young pilot sauntered over. He stopped next to me, and made friendly but slightly annoying small talk. Befitting my gender, I listened politely. And then he paused. “I didn’t know they let rampers fuel the planes here.” “They don’t,” I replied. The kid didn’t get it. “Are any of the pilots around?” he asked. “Sure,” I said, barely containing my smile. “I bet there are some in the office.”

We all feel bad weather sometimes.

I don’t want my readers to think I’m complaining. As I mentioned before, the vast majority of people react positively. It’s pretty fun to be a woman “making it” in a male-dominated field. However, the negative encounters give me pause. Sometimes those things hurt. Sometimes they can’t be anulled with humor.

Truth is relative. The proponents of cognitive dissonance say that we can make ourselves think anything is true. Stereotypes exist because they are where most people’s truths coincide. They are the median perception of the collective. Because of that, I can mostly forgive the keepers of the stereotype. But occasionally, it sucks. And really, no one should have to be held in the negative thrall of one. I think the key to breaking down stereotypes may be empathy. Empathy, as defined by the Cambridge dictionary, means “…the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person situation.” Everyone I know, white males included, has been judged by their appearance.  I bet that young pilot that stereotyped me gets judged all the time for being young. We have all felt this judgement in our own way: for being too old, too young, overweight, not rich enough, not handsome enough, the wrong color, the wrong gender, etc. Though these experiences run a vast spectrum, I think that if we could all tap into the  fact that we all have them, and this is something we share, then I think it would help to break down barriers created by stereotypes. And that’s why I think it’s good to see a woman in the cockpit. Heck, that’s why it’s good to have diversity in the cockpit. I think it’d be nice to have a more open, less judgemental society. And I think everyone would benefit.

Young(ish) woman in a man’s world: pretty fun.

The stereotype that I battle is a deep one. I know this because of the cross-section of my stereotypers: In this article alone, you have heard from young guys, old guys, minorities, women, foreigners, and Americans. Even progressive liberals have stereotyped me.

One March, I was loading a Beaver with four skier guys headed for a week in the Alaska Range. After spending hours weighing and dragging and loading them and their stuff, I flopped into the pilot seat. “Y-you’re the pilot?!” one of them stammered. These guys were young professionals from Portland. I guess I had stereotyped them for being more perceptive than this. Couldn’t hold my humor in this time.

“What’d you think I was, the ramp welcoming committee?” I laughed. “Now… how do you start this thing?”

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