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An Eye on 2021: Wings and Wheels

As the flying season closes for a lot of the country, and the promise of a COVID vaccine on the horizon, I ask you to consider what your airport can do to encourage visitors to come to your home ‘drome.  Hopefully in 2021 we will fly more frequently for pleasure, business, recreation and charitable purposes.  Wouldn’t it be nice if after the wings are done flying we had some wheels to get us to a nice restaurant for lunch, or to our hotel or nearby scenic attraction?  My hope is that after reading my little blog a couple dozen of you might add to the list of airports that have bicycles available for pilots flying in.

At L52 Oceano Airport in California we are one of the closest public airports to the Pacific Ocean. Long ago bikes were available for guests.  They were painted orange and said “Oceano Airport.”  They were leaned up against the fence and folks would take them and ride to Pismo Beach for some clam chowder or a walk on the pier.  I was told that if any of the bikes were found in town abandoned, someone would throw them in a truck and bring them back to the airport.   Fast-forward to 2010.  Friends of Oceano Airport in conjunction with an airport-based business Empirical Systems Aerospace brought back the Fly ‘n Ride, only this time contained in a Rubbermaid shed that is locked to keep children from accessing without parent supervision. The bikes have combination locks, and there are helmets and a tire pump in the shed.  Our Fly ‘n Ride works on a donation basis.  Folks are pretty generous, dropping a few bucks in the bucket, which allows us to buy tubes and tires as needed.  We have a liability waiver that we ask folks to sign.  Although it was years ago, I distinctly remember the conversation with the risk management lawyer of San Luis Obispo County.  Initially she wanted us to insure the bikes, in case someone was injured or even died.  I asked her, “If your friend loaned you a bike and you fell off and broke your ankle, would you sue your friend?”  She said, “Yes” and I said, “Then you do not understand the culture of General Aviation and G.A. Airports.  When we fly to some airports and you need a ride into town someone will throw you keys to the courtesy car, with no questions asked.”  We compromised with the waiver.  It basically says if you fall down, you are in charge of getting your own Bactine.

Our local University and Sheriff department collect hundreds of bicycles every year that are abandoned, recovered or impounded.  Initially we applied for several of those bikes, which were free. For our purposes however a multi-gear bike with hand brakes was way too much maintenance for a beach-side airport.  Now we have three or four beach cruisers for our airport guests.  Yes, I call them guests.  I think we should all treat folks who fly into our airports as guests.  Make them feel welcome, speak to them, offer a ride to town.  Better yet, why not set up a Fly ’n Ride at your home airport.  It really doesn’t cost much, and it will increase not only traffic to your local businesses but will increase your airport’s goodwill factor.  Below is a table of the airports that I know about around the country that have bikes available.  If your airport has them and is not on the list, please take a moment to put the details including identifier, name/state and any notes in the comments section.

I grew up in the right or back seat of a Bellanca then a Mooney. While the bikes wouldn’t have worked for a family of four necessarily it would have been something fun to do while waiting for my Dad to do the pre-flight or fuel up.  We can all do something at our airports to make it more welcoming to our guests.  If you come into L52 Oceano California, make sure to grab a bike head left out of the airport and make your first left on Pier, a few blocks down is one of the prettiest beaches in the world, our little slice of paradise. Cheers to a healthier, more connected 2021!

 

 

Is Flying in the Alps that Dangerous?

Before I delve into my thesis, I must preface that I find narrow proclamations in aviation to be quite dangerous. I recall in 2015 saying to myself that I “hadn’t found a crosswind I couldn’t handle yet.” A few weeks later featured nearly flying into a fence….during a crosswind that I couldn’t handle. Such binary conclusions about one’s skill are unlikely to be true across the board; thus, I preface this concept of alpine flying lacking serious danger or difficulty as a relativistic proposition versus aviation dogma.

I have considered this subject before, in a lighter sense, as years of mountain flying have ticked by. It has grown to seem so, dare I say it, easy. When I say “easy,” I mean that pulling off a tranquil and pleasant flight, whether above 15,000 feet in terrain or down lower, on a windy day or not, does not require operating the controls of the aircraft like it is an F-16 in battle. The actual inputs to the controls on a typical mountain flight, inclusive of those that are of technical complexity, are relatively similar to a flight along the coast or over farm country. The only issue that complicates the matter is the presence of large vertical rocks in the way.

I approached the Alps as though they were the cream of the crop of danger and difficulty, at least with regard to the type of mountain flying that I do. I haven’t ventured to Alaska, Patagonia, or the Himalayas, so we’re talking about mountains that max out at just shy of 16,000 feet. While not the tallest, there are not too many ranges that exceed that height, so my determination is at least reasonable.

At any rate, drama around the “Föhn,” Europe’s equivalent to chinook winds, along with glaciers, sizable terrain, and a seemingly regular stream of fatal aircraft accidents cemented my view that the Alps were superior to the Rockies in Pyrenees in difficulty, danger, and height. The problem with my view surfaced from another pilot, a Czech individual who has been all over the world. While he wasn’t as enthused about mountain flying as I am, I asked how he was going to “handle” the Alps getting from Spain back to Eastern Europe. He replied, “It is not a big deal. There are two passes and I can go pretty low and it doesn’t take long to cross.” That reminded me of the only German that I spoke to in 2016 that openly dismissed the apparent doom flying into the Alps: “You can cross the Alps flying as low as 6,500 feet.” Considering that I had been based at 9,927’ MSL in the USA, that seemed to make a mockery of my presumptions.

It didn’t prevent an appropriate amount of dramatic and sometimes neurotic fear, until one day I asked myself where the fear went. Now, many readers will likely proclaim: “See! He is getting overconfident. The idiot is going to crash!” No sooner than I posited the question to myself did I decide to go flying on a nice sunny day. I wanted to get to the vineyards of the Rhône Valley in the Valais of Switzerland, to fly relatively low at 3,000’ MSL to see them in autumn color. At 5,500’, still in the Pre Alps, I managed to encounter 40 knot winds. Knowing that the funnel at Evionnaz and the turn at Martigny would be like the spin cycle of a washing machine, I gave up on the idea.

Therein lies what makes the Alps easy versus what makes them difficult. The ability to look out the window, see the sunshine, glance at the clouds, and have an intuition that “today will be a good flying day” means that a good read on weather and the sum total of alpine characteristics has been learned. After a confirmatory flight briefing, the question beckons: what is so dangerous about flying around on a sunny day with almost no wind, even if it is in the mountains?

Below I will break down some of the characteristics of mountain flying as some of them are very real, some are hyped, and some are contingent on the pilot and aircraft in question. Mountain flying is not unilaterally equally as dangerous in all circumstances; I would venture that, in certain circumstances, risk could be quite similar to flatland flying.

Dangers of Calm, Sunny Day Mountain Flying

  • Emergency landing locations. Either locations are poor, there are less of them, or they are far from civilization. It depends on the situation whether this factor is worse than other types of flying (certain hilly and populated coastal locations are worse than mountains).
  • Terrain Height. If the terrain exceeds the service ceiling of the aircraft, then terrain becomes a literal obstacle, which can introduce loads of complications. If an aircraft can fly above the range in question, dangers differ.
  • “Calm, sunny day flying” can turn into something else, such as clouds, wind, and thunderstorms. While that is a risk anywhere, the problem is worsened if a pilot is thrust into a situation above his or her skill level in high terrain.
  • Distance from Airports. Most mountain ranges of significance mean a greater distance from airports, which means less in the way of alternates.
  • If down in terrain, flight service is often out of radio range, and flight paths can become curvy and more complex.

Showstoppers

  • Some pilots do not perform well physically in high altitude. Others may perform entirely normal, though not have much in the way of experience to understand what those thresholds are and if they are a problem. If the altitude in question requires expensive oxygen that the pilot does not have, then the point is moot.
  • Aircraft Limitations. I was flying a Cessna 152 once in Virginia and decided to head above the clouds. When the airplane wouldn’t climb anymore at 9,200 feet, I thought there was a problem, so I emailed the flight school upon my return. “That’s as high as she’ll go.” If the airplane in question won’t climb or climbs terribly, then that might put an end to ambitions for some mountain ranges.
  • Density Altitude. DA is the most pernicious when it comes to takeoff performance. Many airports in the US West are found at 4,000’ to 8,000’ (or higher), coupled with hot summers whereas the highest flat airport in Europe is at 5,600’, with average cooler summer temps than the US West. A spam can aircraft that needs 6,000 feet of runway to get off the ground is a serious problem. DA shows up when trying to climb at high altitude and unable to do so, though it is only problematic if coupled with another problem (inability to escape (below) or wind).

Situational Differences

  • Aside from skill and aircraft limitation, this is one of the biggest points that is missed. A spam can at 12,000’ entering a mountain bowl too low and too slow may end in death (I watched a video on just such a fatal accident outside of Telluride). A PA-11 or Super Cub in the same bowl can turn on a dime and leave. The difference between end-of-life and exploring another mountain feature (even if having miscalculated) boils down to the airplane. A fast cruising airplane near surface ceiling with no climb ability left is terribly dangerous if approaching terrain from below without enough room to do a 180. Sadly, this kind of accident repeats itself all too much.
  • Wind energy in the mountains is about 10 times as complicated as flatland wind energy. It creates rotors, waves, and also different wind directions. A prevailing westerly wind will snake through terrain, locally changing direction as much as 90 degrees either way, before rejoining the prevailing flow on the other side. These winds over passes and down valleys can be stronger than at higher altitude (or not). Wind also tends to be associated with orographic lift and localized precipitation.

If there isn’t a situational or structural factor that categorizes a proposed flight as dangerous or impossible, then the difference between aviation in a large mountain range being easy and safe or difficult and dangerous boils down to one factor: knowledge. When I speak of knowledge, I am talking about it in the sense that, if a pilot knows what is happening in the mountains and knows how he and his airplane will respond, then a dangerous flight can be made safe and easy. The problem, however, is that only so much can be taught in a classroom setting. Most mountain knowledge is acquired through experience, as it is a complex art.

The ability to have a mountain flight take place with minimal turbulence and normal control inputs, including around the summit of the highest mountain in Europe with 50 kt winds, boils down to knowledge. There are places on that day where the airplane would likely be shredded by the wind or hurled into something inanimate. There are places on that same day, where the strong wind has no turbulence, and the flight is like touching heaven. The barrier between the two isn’t separated by much, which means knowledge is the difference between life and death, serenity and terror, general aviation and a crash statistic.

While an extreme factor, most mountain flying dangers are localized issues that lurk in specific, predictable places, with consequences from light turbulence all the way to catastrophe. Those things change day in and day out, as wind direction and weather systems come and go. One evening might present a physical impossibility for flight, whereas the next morning might be serene, where later that day news of a plane crash in the same area could be heard. I have personally been in the air in each of the Alps, Pyrenees, and the Rockies while someone has crashed within 10 miles of my flying location, which unfortunately is the most extreme manifestation of the localized nature of mountain flight danger. All of those days were partly to mostly sunny with light wind.

For me, the most salient takeaway some years into my mountain flying endeavors is the lack of an underlying neurotic terror. While I love flying in the mountains more than anywhere else, I have done it for years with a hyper tuned sensitivity to the dangers that lurk a few miles or less from where I am flying. Certainly, additional flying experience helps, as does reading more and more weather forecasts (to compare to reality), as well as hiking to many of these locations. Many valleys, ridges, and summits are no longer new to me, including the village, open area, or other emergency landing location below that I previously flagged mentally. Despite the passage of time, I am resistant to the idea that flying in the Alps is somehow deprived of danger. Perhaps it is less work for me to pull it off now, though that won’t be the reason I nearly fly into my next metaphorical fence.

Les Diablerets (ridge in front), Mt. Blanc (center horizon). What could go wrong?

This is actually one of my fears: an inversion socking in while in flight. This image taken while hiking.

Book #24 has been published, “Alps in Monochrome.” It is a compendium of aerial photographs taken in the style of Ansel Adams, landscapes in vivid black and white.

Paper alternates

If you’re reading this, chances are you are an instrument-rated pilot, or at least considering becoming one. Under instrument flight rules, if the weather, plus or minus an hour of your ETA, is expected to be worse than a 2,000 feet ceiling and visibility of less than 3 miles, you need to file an alternate (this is known as the 1-2-3 rule).

The airlines use the same criteria, though there are several exemptions that the FAA will grant that allow for different alternate determination rules and alternate selection rules. It depends on the airline, its equipment, safety record, et cetera. But even then, everything starts with the 1-2-3 rule. And often the alternate that is given is not always the best choice.

Nobody ever wants to divert. Diversions are inconvenient, and whether you are a general aviation guy in a Cessna 172 or an airline, diversions also cost money. When the fuel is Jet A at a relatively low altitude, the costs add up quickly. Further, carrying any extra fuel also costs money. Therefore, it stands to reason that when an alternate is listed, it should be as close to the destination as possible, right? Not necessarily.

Back in my regional days, I was based in Cincinnati (CVG), and when the weather was low enough to require an alternate, the company would frequently use the nearby Lunken airport (LUK). This was a “paper” alternate, in that it satisfied all of the regulatory requirements.

However, there was never any intention that we were going to land at LUK. The point of listing it was to minimize the cost of carrying alternate fuel for a more realistic station (in our case, typically Dayton, Indianapolis, Louisville or Lexington). We didn’t serve LUK, and the airport had no TSA presence, so deplaning passengers would have created a nightmare. We also didn’t have a fuel contract there, so getting fuel would have been expensive.

I’ve seen this issue in more than one metro area. Airlines going to New York will use another airport in the New York area—Islip, White Plains, Stewart, to say nothing of the more common JFK/LGA/EWR trio—that they don’t serve just to minimize costs. And most of the time, this works. Dispatchers don’t typically use one of these paper alternates unless they a) have to, and b) are confident that the weather won’t go much lower than the 2,000 and 3 that requires an alternate in the first place. But still…things can happen.

When you see one of these scenarios develop, you have to decide whether to go along with the eternal optimism of the dispatchers that things will work out as planned, or call them and discuss a more realistic option. Since the captain and dispatcher both have to sign off on the flight, you do have some leverage. Or, you can take your chances and land at a small podunk airport and watch the show as everything unravels—for which you will be blamed in some way, shape, or form.

Know the rules. But also know the options, and don’t be afraid to exercise them.—Chip Wright 

Short-notice emergencies

Pilots don’t deal with emergencies nearly as much as the people in Hollywood would have you believe. The majority of flights are uneventful, and most of the ones that are eventful fall that way because of the weather, not because of an engine fire or a hijacking.

In my career, I’ve had a number of issues both mechanical and human to handle in flight. Mechanical ones are usually pretty straightforward, as there is a checklist for just about everything (“just about” being the caveat). A few of the more challenging scenarios have involved medical issues with passengers, and the most challenging have been those that occur with relatively short notice before either a descent to the destination or the landing.

Three stand out. One was a pregnant lady who went into labor as we were turning final, and two were passengers who got sick in flight (different people, different flights, same day—you can’t make this stuff up). It’s often said that the holy trinity of flying is aviate, navigate, communicate, and never is that more true than when dealing with a compressed time frame and a medical scenario that may require immediate help. No matter what it is, you need to ensure that safety of all passengers, and you can best do that by actually flying the airplane. Sounds obvious, right? But it sometimes gets lost in our innate desire to help someone.

The first task is to figure out if a diversion is even an option or necessary. The captain and the first officer may disagree on this, but the FO has an obligation to respectfully assert an opinion, and the captain has an obligation to respectfully listen and consider that input.

If a diversion is not in the cards, then it is imperative to split the workload in such a way as to ensure continued safety while addressing the problem. On the second of my two medical emergencies in one day, the passenger was deteriorating rapidly, and the captain had me take over all of the flying duties while he coordinated with the cabin crew and the folks on the ground. This particular event began below 18,000 feet on our descent, so things happened quickly.

Normally, sterile cockpit procedures would apply, but there was reason to believe that this person might not survive, and time was of the essence. While I flew, the captain got as much information as possible from the flight attendants and passed that on to our station on the ground, so that they could pass it on the EMTs on the airport. We did the checklists together, but in between, he was getting updates from the cabin.

When we checked in with the tower, they had to be told what was going on, as preparations were still coming together on the ground. ATC had some idea of what was going on, but they didn’t know the full extent of it. Once we told them, they gave us a better runway and promised us an expedited taxi to the gate. This conversation went on until just a short distance from the runway.

On the ground, the captain taxied the airplane as quickly as he safely could while I took over ATC duties, and when we got to the gate, the paramedics were on the jetway with a stretcher waiting to remove our sick passenger.

Unforeseen emergencies like this don’t happen often, but when they do, it seems to be at the worst possible time. The workload and the stress increase, but the obligation to stay professional and on task never changes. This passenger survived, and part of that was the coordination that took place to make sure that emergency personnel were in position and had the information they needed. But that would not have mattered if we had not aviated first, navigated second, and communicated third.—Chip Wright

Personal lessons learned on the Pole to Pole Flight

 Taking yourself and your aircraft to their absolute limits can teach you things you never knew about yourself, your aircraft, and those involved in the operation of your airplane. While we strive for perfection in our training, the maintenance of our aircraft, and the planning of our missions realistically we will never achieve any of those. That doesn’t mean we should ever stop trying. This art form I’m describing is called flying and can be our greatest source of joy but also at times be the most frustrating and the riskiest thing we will ever do. It is my hope that these lessons learned will help you enjoy your practiced art form while keeping as safe as possible.

Take your time preparing

Don’t rush your preparations for flight. This is a vitally critical time where you get into the zone and begin your transition from being a two to three-dimensional being. Methodically pre-flighting and thinking through your flight can help you avoid making dangerous mistakes. If you are hurried, tell whoever is waiting for you, counting the seconds, that it’s going to be a while longer, and you will be delayed. Take the stress off and take time out of the equation. If you feel like spending 30 minutes with the instruction manual on that new piece of equipment, pushing buttons on your panel, studying the approaches, walking yourself through the emergency checklists, or just sitting for a minute and being quiet then do it. This time is well worth it and will make your experience flying more enjoyable.

When I was in Sweden, I was instructed to park in a particular location that ended up partially blocking the taxiway. In my rush to move the plane the following day, I forgot to take one of the exhaust covers off the pilot side engine. After shutdown, I found the burnt-up exhaust cover 25 feet behind the Gulfstream Turbo Commander 900. I ran to the front of Citizen of the World to see if I had removed the intake cover knowing if I hadn’t, the engine would need to be removed, shipped to a repair facility, and inspected at great cost and delay.

Listen to what your inner voice is saying to you!

If you keep thinking about a nagging problem on your airplane or a concept you don’t quite understand you need to delve deeper into the issue and find out why the Universe keeps tipping you off. I couldn’t help thinking about the environmental system that I ran hard during my polar expedition. I flew the airplane at altitudes higher and colder than it was originally designed to fly while simultaneously using the environmental system to heat the ferry fuel stored in the cabin. When I got back to the United States, we found two stainless steel bleed airlines that had been cooked and burst from long flights of up to 18.1 hours in duration. When the Universe talks, listen!

Hyperfocus

While a Polar Circumnavigation can be extremely complicated organizing sponsorship, speaking engagements, social media, and repairs to the plane when it’s time to fly, your focus should only be on that. Erik Lindbergh said it best before I left the U.S., “You have only one mission and that is to stay alive!” None of the other things that you have going on in your life that are unrelated to aviation will help your decision-making skills in the cockpit. Your ability to stay 100% at the moment will allow you to do the best you can. If you are feeling distracted by something major in your life, visualize taking the issue from your mind and put it into a little wooden box that you will open when you are back on the ground and have the bandwidth.

Never give up on your passion

There are times when things went terribly wrong on my Polar Circumnavigation and I could have quit. One of those moments occurred when my #1 ferry tank burst inside the airplane in Dakar, Senegal, due to a misalignment of the valves, and sprayed fuel in my eyes, on my legs, stomach, arms, chest, and groin. I could have stepped back and watched the airplane be destroyed, packed it up, and called it quits. Instead, I splashed water in my eyes, deflected the fuel out of the plane by cutting a fuel line and using a plastic bag, and did what I could to save it while others around me watched in disbelief. Once the leaking tank drained, I tossed my clothes in the garbage can, showered, had a meal, went to sleep, and left the following day. I skipped the judgments and got on with the mission.

Have faith in your ability to accomplish the impossible

For 18 months I had been told by the industry flight planning leader that they would be able to get me permits to fly to the South Pole. Two days before my departure from the United States, they told me they were unsuccessful, and based on some calls they had made to the Chilean government I would now need permission from their scientific community a process that would take six months.

I recall getting this news standing on the ramp in Las Vegas feeling defeated and betrayed. After 18 months of making promises to 95 sponsors, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, and working harder than I ever had in my life—things looked very grim. I turned to the U.S. Department of State and they refused to help me despite the fact that the Antarctic Treaty permitted all member nations free movement in the airspace over the continent.

Within 24 hours my team and I shook the setback off and shifted into high gear. Our senior scientist Dr. Dimitri Deheyn from Scripps Institute of Oceanography reached out to the senior scientist for Chile asking for an exception. General Aviation Support Egypt reached out to a British military base in the Falkland Islands asking for permission to depart from there and famed circumnavigator Michel Gordillo reached out to his contacts in Ushuaia, Argentina . In the end, we got approval from all three countries and pulled off what the industry leader could not.  It was an epic win for our team and a testament to what was possible when you choose faith over fear.

Get used to stretching your comfort zone on every flight a small amount

If you aren’t growing, then you are stagnating. It’s an easy space to slip into and before you know it you are afraid. I’m not suggesting taking major chances, but I am suggesting trying new functions on your panel, simulating different emergency procedures, and memorizing the location of critical circuit breakers.  With time you will become a more confident and skilled pilot. You may feel uncomfortable at times, but my guess is you have felt a little awkward during your training and worked through the issues only to be rewarded with a heightened sense of accomplishment and confidence.

Mitigating the risk of flight

Every flight is an opportunity to identify and mitigate the risks that you will encounter. Before each flight, you need to sit for a moment and ask yourself what risks will you encounter on this flight? What can you do to improve your chances of success? Most flights offer different challenges like weather, distance, terrain, day/night, foreign countries, corruption, runway length/surface, and pandemic considerations. One of the most challenging risks I had to mitigate on my Polar Expedition was extreme cold. To mitigate the risk, I flew at the warmest time of the year, installed additional temperature sensors, installed a new environmental system with higher heat capacity, heated my fuel inside the cabin of the plane, wore a survival suit, used Prist and biofuels with a lower gel point, spoke with people that had flown my type of aircraft in the extreme cold and even considered burning avgas in my turboprop engines which is permitted on occasion. How far are you willing to go to make your flight safe?

While the Pole to Pole flight of the Citizen of the World did many things in support of STEM Education, aviation, science, and world peace I am most proud of what I have learned and shared what I hope will make flying safer for each and every general aviation pilot. As a community working together to share what we learn in our areas of expertise we can make everyone safer and our flying experience more enjoyable.

Bouncing Back: A psychotherapist’s guide for pilots

Some of you may know that I am a licensed psychotherapist. Since March of this year most  counselors have been able to see clients virtually to address mounting mental health issues from the pandemic. I could probably work 24/7 right about now. I truly have never experienced anything like this in my 29 years of practice.

Last week I read a recent study Mental Health Disorders Related to COVID-19–Related Deaths by Naomi M. Simon, MD, MSc1; Glenn N. Saxe, MD2; Charles R. Marmar, MD3 published in the Journal of the American Medical Association [JAMA]. It noted that since the onset of COVID -19 the percentage of Americans who have a diagnosable mental health condition has doubled. Pre-COVID about 20% of the population in the United States was affected by a thought, mood, anxiety or substance abuse disorder. The survey taken in June 2020 now indicates that number has jumped to 40.9%. A stunning part of the excerpt below is that 10.7% of respondents who revealed serious suicidal thoughts in the last month.

A June 2020 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of 5412 US adults found that 40.9% of respondents reported “at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition,” including depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and substance abuse, with rates that were 3 to 4 times the rates 1 year earlier.2 Remarkably, 10.7% of respondents reported seriously considering suicide in the last 30 days.2 The sudden interpersonal loss associated with COVID-19, along with severe social disruption, can easily overwhelm the ways individuals and families cope with bereavement.

As our flying started opening back up [with precautions] this summer I thought back to a piece I wrote for AOPA many years ago on recovery from trauma. I have included the article below. My hope is that as you get back in the airplane you will seriously consider a mental health checklist in addition to the checklist for the airplane you will be piloting.


Bouncing Back A psychotherapist’s guide for pilots

It was a beautiful day in the Columbia River Gorge. Hood River Airport is located in a picturesque valley, surrounded by mountains. A pilot was in his backyard garden enjoying the sunshine. He heard an airplane engine start to sputter, then quit, and listened to the sound of a loud impact in the neighboring vineyard. He jumped the fence and raced to the crash scene. There he found an aircraft nose down between the rows of red grapes. A quick glance in the cockpit revealed his deepest fear: the loss of a life.

As a psychotherapist who specializes in recovery from trauma or traumatic loss, I saw this pilot in my office four days later. “I am having a hard time. I keep hearing the engine quit, then the sound of the crash. I keep seeing the wreckage in my mind, over and over again. I run to him, but I know it is too late. He was still warm. I held him in my arms until the paramedics came.” When I asked him how often the movie is playing in his head, he said it was about 20 times per day. He had disturbed sleep, lost his appetite, and felt very hopeless about the intense flashbacks.

Over the course of our work together, I was able to help him understand how the brain reacts to trauma, and how professional care could speed recovery. In the end my client understood that while he was seeing the movie in his head hundreds of times, the pilot who perished only experienced it once.

Exposure to trauma

We all experience trauma in our lives, and as pilots, with medical certificates at risk, how we deal with it can be especially important. After exposure to a traumatic event, most people go through four distinct stages. The first is shock—a sense of disbelief or cognitive fogginess. During this stage a survivor may experience flashbacks, or mental movies of the event. Let’s also surmise that the person watched the news, listened to audio, saw photos, and viewed video of the event—thus re-exposing himself to the initial trauma. The re-exposure to the brain is essentially the same as the initial exposure. Should the person not get appropriate care, especially in the weeks or months after the event, an anxiety disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder could develop.

Next comes a return to a “feeling” state and also a time to tell the story. When I worked at the Vietnam Vet Center, my supervisor—a combat vet and a psychotherapist—said, “Every trauma survivor has a story to tell and retell, and it is in the retelling that the healing is found.”

The third stage is when a person’s energy typically rebounds and a sense of focus develops. This energy could take the form of volunteerism, donating time and money, contact with rescuers, or helping other survivors.

Finally, reintegration must take place. A person must accept life on life’s terms now. Meaning is incorporated in life, in absence of what they lost. This is a time where we hear, “I have a new lease on life,” or “Life is precious.”

How does this apply to our ability to pilot an aircraft? One study says that intellectual power is decreased 50 to 90 percent when you are in the midst of the first stage. It is important not to make big decisions at that time. When we perform a preflight on our aircraft before launch, we are careful to consider all the aircraft systems. The effects of exposure to trauma cannot be underestimated. In our go/no-go decision, we should carefully reflect on our emotional health and how that will affect the flight. After all, we want to be able to fly the airplane instead of it flying us.

Pre-Flight Checklist

Here are some simple ways to put you and your emotional health on the pre-flight checklist, as well as some ideas on when to get support if needed.

Mood: Think back over the past week. Rate your mood on a scale of one to five, with one being the lowest, and five being a happy mood. What is your average? Has anyone told you that you look tired, depressed, or nervous? Sometimes our spouse or families are our greatest mirrors—we might not see our mood, but to them it is written all over our faces.

Sleep: Have you been sleeping well? The average person in a lab setting will sleep a six- to seven-hour stretch and take a one- to two-hour nap in the afternoon. Think back and check whether you have had any difficulties falling or staying asleep. Deep, restorative sleep typically happens well into an uninterrupted sleep cycle. Think about performing a go-around on every approach—when sleeping we simply cannot get down to Delta if the cycle is continually disrupted.

Energy: Has your get up and go, got up and went? Do you find yourself drinking coffee or energy drinks just to get through the day? Some pilots find they have too much energy and are unable to relax into a healthy focus. Between the tortoise and the hare, somewhere in the middle is the most efficient.

Anxiety and Worry: Someone once told me that worry is interest on a debt we don’t yet owe. An interesting study on worry shows that it can be healthy in small doses. Worry is a high-brain function—one that can help us sort through possibilities and strategies. Too much worry shuts down the function and we can find ourselves in a state: fight, flight, or freeze. Thirty minutes of worry once per week is effective. How many minutes this week have you racked up?

Concentration and Focus: Particularly important for the pilot in command is the ability to concentrate and stay focused. If you are noticing that your mind is wandering or you are distracted by worry, it might be best to keep yourself and the aircraft on the ground.

Sex drive: This might seem a strange item to have on your personal checklist, but a person’s sex drive can be indicative of emotional health. A lack of desire can suggest a mood problem.

Appetite: Does your favorite food taste good to you? Are you eating for comfort or to excess? Healthy food is fuel for the brain and the body. Make sure that you do not fly without fuel onboard.

Bumper sticker: If you had to summarize your attitude about life to fit on a bumper sticker, what would yours say? Is your bumper sticker upbeat and optimistic, or doubtful and negative?

When to get some “dual”

As a practicing psychotherapist and trauma survivor myself, I have come to believe in getting some couch time when you need support. The addition of the pandemic, isolation, uncertainty and lack of currency necessitates a closer look at your check list.  If we do not take care of our mental health, it might end up taking care of us. Think of a licensed counselor as an advisor, or life coach. It truly is a gift to be able to talk with someone you trust about things that you might keep from others. Sometimes my clients think that they can tell me something that I have not heard before. That is simply not the case. We all have many of the same core insecurities, wounds, and doubts. The difference is in how you deal with them.


Recently I was flying a large turbine aircraft with a more powerful engine than I was accustomed to. When I was about 50 miles out, I began a descent, thinking about each thing that I was going to do next. As I began the approach I thought, “I am going to fly this airplane and make it do what I want it to do.” Imagine if I were instead plagued by doubt, anxiety, or insecurity, or maybe I did not sleep well the night before. Who would be PIC—the airplane, or me? Make sure that when you are in the left seat you are flying the airplane. The only way to do that is to consider yourself on your personal checklist.

If you want or need help, reach out. Most insurance companies are offering free or low-cost counseling visits virtually.  Let’s make our return to the skies as safe, joyful and fun as possible.


 

2.Czeisler  MÉ, Lane  RI, Petrosky  E,  et al.  Mental health, substance use, and suicidal ideation during the COVID-19 pandemic: United States, June 24-30, 2020.   MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020;69(32):1049-1057.

 

Aircraft lessons learned during a Polar Circumnavigation

Flying Citizen of the World to the South Pole and then the North Pole can create stresses on the aircraft that it was never designed to endure. Furthermore, taking a stock aircraft and modifying it in over 50 ways and hoping all those systems will work in perfect harmony for 8 months and 23 days over 26,000 nautical miles is total insanity. But somehow, we did it. Along the way, we learned a lot about what a 1983 Gulfstream Turbine Commander is really capable of when supported by some of the most talented and skilled mechanics, engineers and aviation enthusiasts. Below I’ve shared the most important of these lessons in hopes that you will be able to operate your aircraft in the safest and most reliable way possible.

Be protective of your plane

Before anyone puts a wrench to my airplane, I want to make sure that they are in the mental state to focus 100 percent on the job at hand and have lots of experience. If they are dealing with a major life event or anything that will distract them, then they need to resolve their issues first. Pilots must be in a good mental state of mind to fly, so why shouldn’t the person who you are trusting to keep your machine running over oceans, mountains, in the dark, and in bad weather not have the same requirements? I know the aviation industry says the most likely cause of flying accidents or incidents is pilot error, but I would disagree. New mechanics today are taught component replacement not the critical thinking skills like diagnosing and the repair of problems.

Critical aircraft components fail regularly

If you think you will be lucky and never experience a major component failure in flight then you are in for a few surprises. Airplanes are machines and all machines eventually fail. In fact, the more we ask from these systems the shorter their lifespan. With just 2,000 hours flying time I’ve had engines, avionics, hydraulics, props, environmental systems, tires, fuel tanks, batteries, and even windows fail at critical moments. Using the very best mechanics and equipment money can buy didn’t stop it from happening as well.

The thing that surprised me in preparing for my flight was that new parts could fail as well. I experienced this test-flying my new high-tech environmental system at 34,500 feet. I lost pressurization when the turbo charger blew out with just six hours of life on it. The problem was eventually traced to a sound resonance issue the designer/installer didn’t detect during the test flights.

Install multiple redundant systems

As I watched my flight management systems, attitude heading and references systems, and autopilot fail while flying over the North and South Poles, the importance of having backups never became more important. Redundancy and not becoming attached to any one piece of gear for any critical phase of flight can save your life. Luckily, different types of backup avionics systems are plentiful and relatively inexpensive today. With just an L3Harris ESI 500 with battery backup, an iPad, and an Icom handheld radio, you can pretty much fly your aircraft if you lose the rest of your panel. Having these independent backup systems allows you to troubleshoot when things get difficult.

Go high-tech and low-tech

Technology offers us so many advantages but let’s not forget about our heavier, older, and oftentimes rock-solid steam gauges. I have both in all the aircraft I fly and while it makes for a busier panel that may not look as cool as all glass, you are covered in an emergency. Additionally, just about any avionics shop in the world can change out old-school steam gauges.

In preparation for the Polar Circumnavigation of the Citizen of the World, we reinstalled a directional gyro that was crucial to navigation over both poles as well as an ADF that is required for flight in Europe. Both of these systems likely came with the airplane when it was built back in 1983.

Planning your flight may be the most critical component

Every minute you spend on the ground planning out your flight—and responses to critical issues that can come up during the flight—can save your life. When you are on the ground and thinking calmly, and not under stress, is when you will do your best planning. Spend extra time reviewing your approach plates, writing down the frequencies you will use, studying the weather, selecting alternates, and thinking about the “What if’s?”

When I was in Madagascar two days before departure, I spent time reviewing the weather patterns in this area of the world. I saw the winds starting to swirl between the mainland and the island. It was the beginning of a cyclone and caused me to leave a day early which saved my airplane and possibly my life.

During moments of crises focus on what is working

When I was flying over the North Pole without comms, autopilot, attitude heading and reference systems, or flight management systems, it would have been easy to fixate on the avionics that had gone offline and try to fix them. Instead, in a moment of clarity, I decided to search for what was working and use it. At the time, the iPad was working perfectly, I was above the cloud deck with a reference to the horizon, and the 1,150-horsepower Honeywell TPE 331 engines outfitted with five-bladed props were perfection in motion.

Check the work of your mechanics

I usually allow a half-day after a major maintenance period to look over the airplane with the mechanics. Take a wrench to the fittings that have been worked on. Run the systems, stress the aircraft. You are the pilot in command and the one who’s life is on the line. With the exception of High Performance Aircraft Inc. in San Diego, I don’t know any repair facility that takes the airplane up in the air after major work to test it for the customers. This alone is reason to pay a premium for the work that is done on your aircraft.

In my nine years of flying I’ve never had a truly perfect flight. If you think you did, I can almost guarantee that you missed something. For this reason, aviation is a great place to hone your skills, refine your aircraft, and learn valuable lessons about life on every flight. See your aircraft as a training ground, a place to grow your mind, body, and soul to better experience all the wonders that are available for you! In the process this will make your experience safer and more enjoyable knowing that you are prepared for anything that may come your way.

Decoding Transcendence

On most flights taken in the Cub, I come back a much happier person. However, on certain flights, I am in a transcendent state of happiness for much of the rest of the day afterward. I have often wondered why it was the case, initially ascribing my feelings as proportional to the majesty of the experience. Having taken the Cub to so many mountain ranges and countries has allowed for quite a number of tremendous experiences, which makes it easy to compare how one flight might be old hat whereas another could be something that left me nearly speechless.

Hanging around the Alps has complicated the assumption about the relationship. The scenery is generally world class no matter what the specific flight is like, though sometimes I am merely happy, and other times I am utterly transcendent as described above. I tried to explain it away as an issue with novelty, as I am more prone to stay within 50 miles of the airfield as the Alps are filled with more terrain than one knows what to do with. Was I tiring of seeing similar things?

That theory went out the window when the pandemic made the world smaller. Repeated flights over similar areas are actually increasing in majesty, even though the reality of the pursuit of novelty could be argued either way. While it is possible that I have changed my perspective, there is still a reality that some flights are utterly spectacular, whereas others are merely pleasant.

Since inversions are a regular part of European weather, particularly around terrain, I supposed that flying above the clouds might have something to do with it. It is an age-old sense of bliss, to be in massive terrain, with mountains poking up here and there, and a stratiform cloud deck below (ideally not entirely covering a safe glide range to the valley below). Separated from human society by the cloud layer, one finds himself soaring in the heavens, literally, with the inability to see human influence. It is nothing short of stupendous.

The problem with that theory was that I have had this differential of feeling on flights where clouds were not involved. While I can place a bookmark in the idea that soaring above the clouds constitutes something special, I think that there is more to the story as evidenced by my experience.

The next theory that I had is a more significant one. Aviation has many elements where we often find in magazines and other pilot communications something to the effect of “only with aviation can you see…” where the item in question is some sort of resplendent experience. I find that those experiences can be grouped into two main categories: the sheer majesty of being in the air, and the speed that aviation affords. To fly any kind of airplane and change states, countries, vegetation, or climate zones in orders of magnitude faster than a car is something that we clearly cherish in an aircraft. At the same time, “low and slow” Cub flying is cherished equally as much (if not more, depending on who is rendering the opinion). “Low and slow” is the embodiment of the majesty of being in the air, irrespective of the purpose behind it.

With a pokey old Cub, it is very hard to experience the theory of going anywhere fast. If it is Kansas, then one might as well drive. In the mountains, it is a mixed signal as the Cub can certainly beat a car, sometimes by a wide margin. The world on one side of a mountain range is often different than that of another, so some mix of the two can happen in such an occasion.

I thought I had the problem solved when I figured this reality out. Since I have been flying around mountains for the majority of the last 7 years in this airplane, I have had plenty of opportunities to experience this phenomenon. As the mountain ranges have gotten steeper and taller, the world on the other side has grown significantly more different, including now often meaning that it is a different country on the other side.

It took a few recent flights to furnish some clarity. Not only did I fly over mountains, into other countries, and into what felt like other worlds, I also landed somewhere else. COVID-19 has accentuated a problem that I knew had shown up when I came to Europe: I am far less likely to land at an airport that is not my home base (wherever that happens to be) if I am in Europe compared to the United States.

The opportunity to shut down the engine, step out, take in the scenery, and let the reality of where I stand sink in is one that contributes greatly to the sense of transcendence which remains in my psyche long after the flight has completed. Something about merely flying over to the other side of the range and then turning back, even if it is a full tank three-hour flight, is not the same as the silence that comes from a parked airplane. This reality held true in the semi-arid regions of Spain, where mountains may have only been incidental to the flight at hand. Something about landing elsewhere makes it all sink in.

So, the question becomes, how much has my flying changed since I came to Europe? I did some gymnastics with my logbook and tallied total hours, by year, where the entry included “Local” as the destination compared to those where it did not. Some simple division furnishes the percentage of local flights, where I return to home base compared to a flight where I landed elsewhere. I did not differentiate between the FAA definition of “cross country”; I merely added total hours of the flight if it included going to or coming from a landing at another airport. The chart is not my total flying career, but basically the point at which I became active again and acquired the Cub.

The results are quite interesting: 43% of flight hours in the United States started and stopped at the local airport, whereas 68% in Europe did so. The underlying reasons are pretty simple (to me): there is more paperwork and aggravation to coordinate a flight elsewhere, so I do not do it as much. To make matters more complex, the pandemic has added additional layers to daily life, which means that 90% of my flights in 2020 have been local.

Motivational incentives are lined up to the contrary. I am not bumming around my grandfather’s grass strip in an area that I lived since I was born, nor I am floating around over the Piedmont of North Carolina, which is relatively repetitive. I am in a foreign continent filled to the brim with things to see and do and yet I still find myself motivated to fly locally more than ever. I think that reality, coupled with the added layer of pandemic restrictions, made some recent landings elsewhere stand out entirely. Flying took on a more transcendent dimension, merely by making concrete on a mental level the magnitude that aviation affords. The freedom is immense and hard to quantify, when we have a chance to use it.

 

Hotel issues

When you are making a living by living on the road, you will become an expert on certain issues that can arise. In our case, we don’t often rent cars, so most of our problems will be with hotels.

There are several things that stand out as common areas of distress when it comes to hotels. While everyone might have a few other things on their list, and may order them differently, this is mine, and I’m willing to bet that most would easily agree on it.

Transportation. This is less of an issue for me than it used to be. At the regionals, we almost always stayed in a hotel that provided the transportation to and from the airport, and getting the vans to show on time seemed to be a never-ending challenge. Many of them claim to run on a schedule, but unless that schedule is whenever-we-want-to-o’clock, it isn’t one you will recognize. Somehow, every time I would call for a van, I would be told that “it just left the airport.” At some point you realize that this is code for “we don’t really know where it is.” The wait and frustration were always at their worst when it was cold, late, or the end of a long day with a short night ahead.

Transportation companies tend to be more reliable, and hotels themselves are better than they used to be thanks to the proliferation of the smart phone and apps that they can use to know exactly when you’ve arrived. This is a major consideration when you are unusually early or late.

Temperature control. Hotels are a constant source of complaint when it comes to getting the room temps to be comfortable. A few—not many, but a few—still only have a central control for the entire hotel, which means that they might have the heat on when the temps are just starting to drop, and that can lead to an uncomfortably warm room. Malfunctioning air conditioners are by far the most common reason I’ve ever had to call the front desk, and they’ve also led to me changing rooms more times than I care to remember. I have a couple of hotels on my personal list that I dread staying in because the A/C is just unable to produce a comfortable room temperature. Some pilots will just go to another hotel altogether, but while I’ve come close to this, I haven’t actually done it.

A few hotels have a certain A/C system that you can override to set a lower temperature. It’s called a VIP setting, and it will let you turn the room into an icebox if you want to. It will hold that setting for up to three days. But you didn’t hear that here.

Food. The biggest issue here is usually a lack of options or price. Or both. This is usually only an issue late at night or in the time between breakfast and lunch if you got in late and need to sleep. It can also be an issue when the restaurant is closed for a renovation. These days, it’s an issue because of COVID. My company has been forced to change a number of our hotels because of a lack of dining options. What helps these days are services such as Uber Eats, Grub Hub, et cetera.

Noise. This isn’t as much of an issue as it used to be, but noise can still be a major problem, especially during holidays or festive occasions when people tend to get drunk and act like idiots. Large events with kids—sports tournaments, kid-centric conventions, et cetera—can also be a problem. A number of hotels try to put crews on the same floor or floors in order to keep the noise at bay, but they can’t always do that. Not everyone can sleep through noise or fall asleep after having been jarred awake. This may require calling in fatigued, but most pilots don’t resort to that.

Noise outside the hotel, such as fireworks or sirens, usually isn’t something the hotel can do anything about, and you can’t do but so much complaining. But if it is on the hotel property, then you should by all means complain if necessary. Live music or a loud deejay is a pretty common complaint. In time, you get pretty adept at figuring out which rooms are noise-sensitive: overlooking pools, near elevators and ice machines, stairwells, fitness rooms or supply closets.

There are myriad other common items that come up in hotels, such as keys that don’t work, fire alarms in the middle of the night, or a lack of hot water, but these are the biggest issues that you will face on a regular basis. And the truth is, 99 percent of hotels do everything they can to minimize the issues, because they don’t want to lose the contract or disrupt your rest. A hotel is a home away from home, so you should be (and deserve to be) comfortable.—Chip Wright

Sick at work

We are well into the COVID-19 pandemic, and my airline just sent out a memo reminding everyone that flu season is coming while imploring us not to come to work if we are sick.

In the past, this would only happen if the flu was running rampant, but this year there is an added sense of urgency. And, because we have to have our temperature checked every day, it begs the question of how to handle an illness of any sort while on a trip.

Nobody wants to be “the reason” for a cancellation or stranding a planeload of passengers somewhere. But that said, sometimes you just don’t have a choice. I was on a trip once many years ago, and I woke up in the middle of the night with a case of food poisoning that was so bad that the flu would have been a welcome improvement. The vomiting and diarrhea were so bad that I quickly became dehydrated and it was at least an hour before I could stay on the phone long enough to call the company and my crew. I felt awful for nixing the flight, but I was just in no shape to fly.

So, what do you do if you do get sick? Or if someone in your crew is sick? First is to let someone know: the front desk, the company, a fellow crew member. You don’t need to offer drastic details, but you need to tell someone. A crew member can call Scheduling for you and can work with the front desk to arrange for you to keep your room. If you decide to call the company, don’t commit to anything with respect to when you will be ready to return to work, and don’t try to self-diagnose anything. Just tell them that you’re too ill to fly, and get off the phone.

If you’re the healthy member of the crew, you can call the company on behalf of your partner and explain that they are sick, and even if they wanted to fly, you’re not going to let them.

Once you call in sick, you’re sick. You can’t allow yourself to be talked back into going to work. The FAA will have you for lunch. If your partner is clearly ill, you need to help them determine if they need to get to a hospital. Most of the time, the answer will be no, but if you aren’t convinced that they are doing well, then you should make arrangements to get them to an emergency room. Going to the ER in the middle of the night is never any fun, but I can tell you from too many experiences that it is the best time of day to go, since it will be pretty quiet and slow. You can be in and out fairly quickly, or quickly attended to and admitted. If it is your crew member, somebody from the crew should try to accompany them.

In addition to the company, it’s also critical that you notify the spouse of the ill person, because the company might try to beat you to the punch. You also need to get word to the rest of the crew, though company policy might dictate that Scheduling handle that. If everyone is on the same floor at the hotel, you can slide notes under the doors. You might also need to coordinate with the front desk on keeping the rooms. If the hotel is in a busy period such as a convention or a trade show, then you need to get on this lickety split and be prepared to change hotels if they are sold out.

Getting sick on the road is no fun, but if you do this long enough, it will happen to either you or someone on your crew. Be ready so that you can minimize the disruption and keep the sick person comfortable.—Chip Wright

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