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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?”

Answer honestly–or not?

A recent exchange on social media with some friends led to an interesting discussion. One of them commented that a pilot was asked in an interview with a regional whether he intended to stay with said regional for the rest of his career.

In this day and age, it’s a silly question, especially for a young pilot (as this was) just starting out in a career. It’s fair if the pilot is a late-bloomer or a career shifter who is closer to retirement, in which case the airline just wants to get back their investment. But for a young person just starting out? It’s pointless. Virtually nobody enters the regional sector looking to make a career out of flying RJs. Some do, obviously, but almost nobody plans to do that. Most pilots want to move on to more secure and stable options.

The obvious question is, how does one handle a situation in which the truth is not going to be music to the listener’s ears? And why would a regional ask a question that sets up an answer that will be feigned at best, and a lie at worst?

For the latter, I have no idea. When I was beginning my regional career, it was made plain to me that the company wanted to see us move on after a certain time. It made the company look good to produce pilots who made it to the majors, and keeping the average seniority level down kept costs down. It’s a win-win, so long as the pace of hiring keeps up with the pace of attrition.

Today, keeping up with attrition is indeed the challenge, and the current market is such that the airlines need the individual pilots more than the pilots need the individual airlines. I’m not sure what the best way is to answer this particular question, but in our discussion, we agreed that it’s best to say what you think they want to hear in order to get the job, figuring that nobody can be forced to stay anywhere they don’t want to work. If you’re prepared, you can say something like, “I will work anywhere that values my services and pays a fair wage for them.” That’s more honest, and it leaves some wiggle room, but it isn’t a firm answer either way.

The pilot in question decided he didn’t want to be dishonest, and told them as much. He wasn’t going to commit to staying for a career any more than the company was going to guarantee that it would be around until he retired. Consequently, he told them he was going to take a job with a competitor. I’m not sure either was happy in the end.

Once in a while, you will run into similar scenarios, and the best strategy is to pause and think for a second, and give an answer that is convincing, even if it’s…not entirely true.—Chip Wright

Paper versus electronic QRH

In the last several years, airlines have made the transition to electronic flight bags. Nowhere is this more common than with charts and flight manuals, and the reasons are obvious. Updates are automatic; currency of publications is assured; and the decreased weight saves fuel.

An often-overlooked issue from the past was on-the-job injuries, which were very common because of shoulder and back injuries sustained from manipulating the bags (some airplanes were worse than others for causing injuries).

But there are still some skirmishes being fought. For years, pilots have relied on paper quick reference handbooks (QRHs), which contain Abnormal and Emergency checklists. The temptation is to switch to an electronic QRH for some of the same reasons: cost, efficiency, currency, et cetera. However, there has been some strong pushback from pilots on this, and for good reason.

The paper QRH might be a last resort, and it doesn’t have a battery that can die or overheat. It also isn’t prone to fat finger dialing. Imagine, if you will, the adrenaline rush that kicks in during some of the more dire emergencies, such as a catastrophic engine failure, a pressurization issue, or some other calamity. The electronic checklists often have hot-links in them, and during a bumpy ride or one in which your nerves have your fingers shaking, it can be easy to make a mistake and tap the wrong link, which can lead to confusion. Or worse.

Another advantage of a paper QRH is the ability to pass the book back and forth, if necessary, without worrying about bumping the screen and triggering an unexpected change. One compromise that some airlines have reached with their pilot and union reps is to ensure that there is at least one paper QRH on board versus the two that some had. Pilots are usually asked to demonstrate proficiency with the tablets in the classroom or the simulator, but they have discretion as to which one to use. Most find it easier not to have to worry about toggling between multiple apps when dealing with abnormal procedures.

The electronic flight bag is definitely here to stay, as it should be. It’s a great tool, and it needs to be utilized as much as possible. Sometimes, the old adage “less is more” applies. This definitely applies, in my opinion, to the QRH. I also sometimes wish we still had paper maintenance logs, which didn’t have as much of the tracking history in them, which made it easier to find more recent trends if you needed them.

Life is much easier with the electronic flight bag, and I have no desire to go back to paper charts, revisions, or 40-pound bags of dead weight. I do miss a few of the advantages of paper, but the one tool I don’t want to lose is my paper QRH. Here’s hoping that the airlines will recognize that is a small expense to be paid for an easy enhancement to safety.—Chip Wright

Surfing the Wave

This whole idea started with an online forum discussion, pondering how high a Super Cub can really go. Sure, there is the whole published ceiling that might offer insight, though there was my rather extensive personal experience flying the PA-11 to interesting heights. I exceeded the ceiling once, with a passenger, in Colorado, getting to 16,300’. In France last summer, I came close on a warm day, reaching 16,000’ just over the summit of Mt. Blanc, but still hadn’t broken the record again in almost five years. I had even installed vortex generators since, and it was looking like the published ceiling was about it (16,000’ in the PA-11). I supposed, on engine power alone, a Super Cub would do the same thing: roughly its published limit and not too much more.

Well, that is fine on engine power. Mountain winds are another story. What goes down must have gone up somewhere else, so find the upward wind currents and see how far one can go.

On an innocent morning in the Pyrenees, I told my wife I was going for a flight (without telling her what I was up to), filed a flight plan to talk to ATC, and went to the airport. I talked to the airport manager, who is a renowned glider instructor, and confirmed exactly how to best catch the waves, and asked to borrow a nice oxygen setup.

The thing is, mountain waves are very tranquil…once in them. The transition layers beneath feature plenty of turbulence and rotors, usually enough that when about to enter the wave and have things calm down, a sensible pilot turns back. After all, he and his airplane are getting the snot beat out of it. Why risk more? I had gotten into waves a number of times in Colorado and in the Pyrenees, though it was usually a nominal altitude gain and wasn’t necessarily with the intent to ride them as far as I could go.

As it was a chilly winter morning, climb out was good. By 7,500’, I was beginning to get knocked around. At 9,000’, it got a little interesting. By 12,000’, turbulence was almost gone. At 15,000’ I really hooked the wave and was heading up nicely. At 19,500’, French ATC put an end to the party, as Class A was lurking above, and despite my repeated pleas to continue my fun and go for a better record, they couldn’t issue a variance. You know, airliners going into Toulouse and Barcelona….sigh. It took 43 minutes to get from field elevation of 3,609′ MSL to 19,500′ with full fuel and 100hp.

So that answers the musings of the mind. It was astonishingly cold, though the airplane handled as normal. Mixture was leaned quite a bit to keep the engine running, airspeed was consistent, and nothing was too terribly out of the ordinary. Some descending circles with GPS indicated upper level winds of 58kts in the wave, though I still haven’t broken my wind record. That was done at 13,500’ just east of Yellowstone in 2015 in the Absaroka Mountains.

If it’s not obvious, I’d love to go higher in the Cub.

Statistics from the Climb

Waves in the upper atmosphere from 12,000′.

13,000′. The Pyrenees, looking west from France to Spain and Andorra.

19,000′. Took a photo with the wing to prove I wasn’t faking it in another aircraft. Timberline below is 7,500′, and the highest peaks in the foreground are 9,500′.

19,500′. The highest peak in the Pyrenees is on the horizon at 11,168′.

Cockpit view. I don’t even have a 10,000′ hand on the altimeter, though the altitude from standard altimeter settings on the transponder reads FL192.

18,500′ on the way down, with the Mediterranean on the horizon. The pass beneath is roughly 5,400′.

Getting to more reasonable altitudes at 11,500′.

Note the boats in Barcelona harbor on the extreme left horizon of the image. They are 76 statute miles from the airplane.

 

 

Breaking the chain to get the job you want

Recently, I’ve had to sit on the cockpit jump seat during several commutes because of heavy loads during the holidays. It isn’t the most comfortable seat in the house, but hey, a free ride is a free ride and full airplanes bode well for my job security and profit sharing. This has led to all manner of conversations with the crew—outside of the sterile cockpit realm, of course.

Most of these commutes tend to be on Republic, which is one of the largest regionals in the country, and also the world’s largest operator of the Embraer E-170/175 series of jets. In fact, following Republic’s bankruptcy a few years ago, it’s the only airplane the company operates, having shed the older E-145 “Jungle Jet.”

Almost without exception, the conversation at some point turns to the topic of hiring at both the regionals and the majors, rumors, fact-checking, and seeing who knows who. Republic flies on behalf of United, American, and Delta, and it is a key cog for each carrier. Numerous pilots have relayed to me that it’s extremely difficult for Republic pilots to get on directly with one of their code-share partners; friends who work for Republic have told me the same thing. The conclusion and consensus is that the three “brand names” don’t want to contribute to a shortage of pilots at one of their key regional partners. That said, all three have other carriers with whom they have preferential hiring or interview programs set up, but those other regionals tend to be much smaller. and the process is tightly controlled in order to manage the flow of pilots in such a way that metal can still be moved.

I saw this when I was at Comair. For years, Delta had three regional partners responsible for over 90 percent of its regional flying: Comair, ASA, and Skywest. When Delta needed to hire, it tended to take pilots from one of the three carriers in chunks, and when that carrier called Atlanta to complain about losing pilots, the ratio would shift to favor pilots from one of the other two.

This is a bit of a simplistic explanation, but the reality was that Delta didn’t want to leave any of its regionals with a shortage that would only hurt Delta, so the company hired relatively evenly from all three. By doing so, the company also got pilots that were intimately familiar with the Delta system, so it was a win-win. Keep in mind that Delta was also getting pilots experienced in flying jets when that was a relatively rare phenomenon, unlike today.

Those days are largely over, and the pilot shortage is real enough that the majors with regional feed need to consider the ramifications of their hiring decisions on their regional partners. As a result, pilots at Republic are forced to consider “breaking the chain” if they want to get on one with one of the big legacy carriers. Essentially, this means that many are opting for a carrier such as Spirit, JetBlue, Allegiant, or one of the cargo ACMI operators like Southern or Kalitta. Many are also going to Southwest.

Once they get hired by someone outside of their brand of choice, they test the waters for a year or so and make a decision about going through the job-searching process, a new training cycle, et cetera, taking into account career goals and the disruption to family life.  As you might expect, many stay, especially with strong carriers like Southwest and JetBlue. But not all do, and they find that getting hired at UA/AA/DL is much easier when they are no longer directly tied to those carriers. Passing muster in a bigger airplane also helps.

None of this is necessarily fair, but it is the reality of the current job market, and it’s a strategy that people in other fields have been using since the dawn of time. Pilots are no different: Job One is looking out for yourself. Hopefully, Republic will enter into genuine flow or feed agreements across the board, which would benefit all parties. In the meantime, pilots at carriers in a similar position need to be willing to consider the same strategy.—Chip Wright

Dealing with pre-departure delays and jitters: What is your intuition trying to tell you?

As pilots we often rely on our technical knowledge, flight training, and experience to make critical decisions in the air and on the ground. We use this knowledge to decide if we will continue a flight when something fails, to determine if weather will affect us, how our aircraft will perform given the maintenance it has received and what our course of action will be when making go/no-go decisions.

I believe we have another decision-making tool available to us as pilots—our intuition. Call it what you will: gut instinct, a hunch, your sixth sense. Psychology Today refers to intuition as the brain on autopilot—I think of it as an inner voice that always has our back. Regretfully, no training program I’m aware of has ever told us to rely on our intuition, and yet, it offers information that could save our lives in critical decision-making moments.

Case in point: As my departure date for my polar circumnavigation looms ever closer, my airplane, Citizen of the World, has started throwing me some major curves and fits. It has been sending me some very clear messages that leave me feeling a bit uneasy in my stomach. The messages I’m receiving are clear: The airplane is not ready for departure. In fact, it’s like it won’t let me go even though my get-there-itis is pushing me to keep moving.

A lot of technology and new equipment have come together in Citizen of the World in a very short period of time including a new Avidyne Avionics panel, Max Viz infrared sensor, refurbished Honeywell turbine engines, MT propellers, and a Peter Schiff environmental system to name a few. Being an optimist and thinking that this is not my first rodeo (see my equatorial circumnavigation), I assumed the trip would roll out on time and smoothly like back in 2015. Nothing could be further from the truth. This trip is an entirely different animal than an equatorial circumnavigation and much more complex: vastly greater distances, the worst weather on the planet, extreme cold, lack of places to land, pilot fatigue issues, challenging navigation, and a more complicated/modified airplane.

To add insult to injury, for some reason the human factor is also coming into play like it never has before. It’s making my earlier trip complete with engine out at 14,000 feet over the Strait of Malacca feel like a cakewalk (see my book Zen Pilot: Flight of Passion and the Journey Within). Disagreements between contractors, health issues of key players, family issues for supporters, and my own physical challenge of dislocating a shoulder have had me on high alert. Not a great way to start a long-distance solo flight.

As my initial departure date neared, I was starting to lose sleep over these issues and my intuition kept waking me in the middle of the night saying, “Not yet! The plane needs to stabilize and needs more testing.”

The problem is, of course, that all these things result in delays for every scheduled installation or inspection, since the modifications must happen sequentially. For example, the environmental system must be installed and working reliably before the six ferry tanks are installed, which limit access to the environmental system once the tanks are installed.  All of these delays add stress to meeting my departure date.

These issues I have listed do not even account for the random events that plague aviation and life. The things we cannot predict or plan for can have a tremendous impact on us, and even greater consequences when we aren’t paying attention to our intuition or worse, choosing to ignore it. By listening to our intuition and acting on it immediately we clear the air for better solutions to rise up and ease the growing stress that is clogging our mental and emotional engines.

While flying the airplane from Tennessee to New Mexico en route to Gemini Air Group for a third look at the airplane by some very talented mechanics, I noticed the entire right side of the pilot window had cracked and delaminated. This was slightly unnerving given that I was flying 30,000 feet above ground, and that the airplane was pressurized to 6.4 psi cabin differential. I couldn’t help but think that the windshield could collapse in on me at just over 302 knots or 347.3 mph, the speed at which I was currently flying. As I watched the cracking spread to the top of the window, it was as if the Universe was talking to me and stopping me in my tracks. Coincidentally  I was close to my next fuel stop and Gemini Air Group. My intuition was again telling me, “Not ready, you have more work to do on this plane.”

Looking into replacing the window, I was told by one mechanic, “You can fly with it ‘as is,’ it just won’t look pretty.” Aesthetics and get-there-itis aside, my gut was telling me this wasn’t just a delay issue, it was also a financial, and even more important, a safety issue. Heated aircraft windows are made in small quantities and are enormously expensive, slow to manufacture and install, as well as critical for flying at the flight levels I will be flying.

In addition to the windshield delaminating, we became aware that the right engine had been refurbished using bearings for the torque sensor transducer that were potentially defective and needed to be replaced, requiring the prop to be removed and the intake disassembled. Testing the engine would require inflight investigation and shutting the airplane down in flight. Everything continued to point to a delay—but would I listen?

My intuition continued to nudge me. As the clock ticks, we have scrambled to get help from our sponsors/angels. Even more critical is that I’m losing valuable time as the temperatures at the South Pole drops 30 degrees in the month of January alone.

Despite being told countless times that turbine engines are 100 times more reliable than piston engines (I have two turbines on Citizen of the World), it has become clear to me that everything around the turbines is like any other airplane part and subject to failure regardless of what is happening with the turbine engines.

Recognizing what was happening, listening to my intuition, talking with my team, and staying focused on safety, I decided to delay the trip by about 30 days, and then six months, to give the airplane and me more time to prepare. The good news is that the uneasiness I had been feeling subsided, and things began to unfold more easily and gracefully once again—the trip fell back into alignment. Sponsors have come forward to help with some of the costs of the windshield, the mechanics are making repairs, and my shoulder is almost pain free again.

While we can’t qualify our intuition like we can other more technical facts related to flying like our personal minimums, we can still use our intuition to guide us when it comes to our safety and that of our cherished passengers. Developing your sense of intuition is time well spent and is worth consulting before flying. Two simple questions can get you started: “How do I feel about this flight?” and “If there was no stress what would I do?” Learning how to feel your feelings and listen to what your stress is telling you will lead you to the best co-pilot you will ever have. Trust your intuition.

Choosing the regionals as a career

No pilot has ever begun a career with the goal of becoming a career pilot for a regional airline. It almost always happens unexpectedly.

For some it is the result of bad timing, such as getting into aviation late in life and being held back by a series of economic downturns. For others, the lack of a four-year degree becomes an insurmountable obstacle, and others are denied a chance to move on because of a poor training history, DUIs, medical issues, or just bad luck. Most of the pilots I know who chose to stay at the regionals until retirement didn’t need the extra income that a job at the majors would provide. They often had another source of income, military pensions, a spouse with a great job, or had done well enough in previous career fields that flying for a regional was all they needed. As a percentage of the total, however, these folks represented a small group.

Most of the time, career regional pilots wake up and find themselves in the most common of situations: a mortgage, perhaps a spouse who isn’t working outside the home or works part time, kids, car payments, and numerous other trappings and obligations of a middle-class family. They decide that the move to a major isn’t for them. Many cite their current schedules, seniority, days off, et cetera, and believe that they will be too long in getting back to a similar point before the kids are grown.

Should you opt for this lifestyle, or feel forced to stay in it, keep in mind that your job security is tied to circumstances beyond your control. Network managers for your major airline partner decide which regionals come and go, how big each will get, and what you’re going to get paid. Your company controls absolutely nothing that matters.

That said, there are ways to maximize such a career in a way that will keep you competitive if you ever need to get that next job, while providing personal enrichment and satisfaction. One of the easiest is to get involved in the training department, which is larger than most people realize. Sim and ground instructors are the obvious choices, and great teachers with line experience are always valued. Becoming an examiner increases pay and responsibility and looks great on a resume. Training management experience can be parlayed into careers outside of aviation and will never provide a dull moment.

Involvement with updating manuals and procedures is another area of expertise that sounds more dull than it is. Airlines modify or tweak procedures all the time based on human factors studies, accident and incident reports, manufacturer recommendations, and more. When one thing changes, it often triggers an avalanche of manual revisions, which must be done in concert with the FAA. Working with the feds increases your contact network and can lead to great opportunities.

Safety departments also attract a certain kind of person, both on the company and the union side, and they often work hand in hand. Nowhere is this more true than with ASAP programs. The beauty of safety work is that this is an area in which the airlines freely exchange information and data, because safety is universal. There are numerous conferences every year in which safety data is discussed, analyzed, and shared (much of this also includes folks in training).

Staying with the regionals isn’t the typical choice, but for those that make it (or are forced to make it), there are ample opportunities to make a difference, and the job can be as satisfying as you want it to be. You can also stay connected with others in a way that you can use to move on if you choose or have to move on, all while staying current in the airplane. If this is you, broaden your horizons as much as possible, and dive into some of these chances. You’ll be glad you did.—Chip Wright

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