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Rage Against the Machine

While maintaining a 1940s aircraft powered by an ancient engine can be packaged into a marketable experience, most of the time the truth is that it is a real aggravation. Some recent experiences are educational, and more than likely confirm why I am one of a handful of Americans that come to Europe to fly. While I tend to like going against the crowd, perhaps this time the crowd had some wisdom…

The first thing one notices in Europe is that few own their own aircraft. The vast bulk use flying clubs and rent per hour, which I thought was silly and inane, and then explained it away with the fact that most things in Europe are costly, and it’s simply cheaper to rent per hour for the average general aviation pilot. Only real diehards who exceed a critical threshold can push average hourly operating costs below flying club rates by overcoming high fixed costs. While that is true, it is not the whole story.

Apparently, there is this thing called a “CAMO,” which is something I only recently found out about. I believe it stands for “Certified Aviation Maintenance Organization,” and is required for standard category aircraft. I am not sure of the specific vagaries of each country, though the idea is that instead of an A&P and IA handling required maintenance and inspection duties, these are relegated to membership in an organization with defined compliance roles and some level of type certification on the part of the A&P that touches the aircraft. Costs and aggravations, as one could imagine, increase. The same principle exists with instruction; there is no such thing as a freelance CFI. All instructors are part of an “Approved Training Organization,” which operates in a similar way. I have a lot to learn about both philosophies, so I will not purport to offer a journalistically vetted overview.

However, the existence of the ATO and CAMO structures logically points toward flying clubs, as they can take on required expertise and certification roles in aircraft specific to the club, and therefore handle required instruction. Many that do own aircraft have them “operated” in one fashion or another by a club, and therefore the CAMO umbrella applies to them. This also explains why my next problem is made more annoying, as the European supply chain is geared toward a different structure.

The problem I have been facing today dates back to a slew of part installations that took place before moving to Europe. I was told that a starter was required at certain airports in Germany, and that transponder mandatory zones abounded. That resulted in the need to install a ground charge battery, basic electrical system, and starter, which was done in America. Normally, I take “owner assisted” to the maximum level I can, and in this case I opted to pay an A&P to do the entire job. I didn’t want the emotional burden of figuring it out, and it was too sensitive of an installation.

Well, some problems from the installation presented in 2015, and I thought they were solved (recall the irony of disavowing the “owner assisted” part). With warm weather operations resuming in Spring 2016 in Germany, it became apparent that the problem was not fully solved, for which I needed to order some parts. In Europe, the price was $850 versus $500 in the USA, and the wait time in Germany indicated they were merely shipping it from America. An A&P friend of mine suggested shipping it to him in America, where he packaged it in ghetto packaging, labeled it “Metal Parts $0” on the customs form, and a month later, it deposited itself back in his mailbox, rejected by German customs, with my plane out of service the whole time. We then did the FedEx route for a bunch more money, and managed to sneak it through for a $50 brokerage fee. That was not enough, so another expensive part had to come over, which we were able to sneak through my “household goods” initial moving exemption, saving $250 in tax. Meanwhile, the plane was out of service for 4 months.

In this 2016 saga, the engine had to be dismounted to be moved forward a few inches for the replacement of a part. After all was said and done, there was this strange but very slight “wobble” as I described it. All engine indications were acceptable, including runup results. The wobble triggered the mental reflex that the engine had an issue, though it clearly didn’t by all other measurements. After 10 test flights around the pattern, nobody, including my A&P could source it, and eventually I was given advice that Lord engine mounts can take 15-20 hours to settle into place, and to give it some time. There was no question that multiple A&Ps thought I was making it up as it performed “just fine” for them.

Alas, it was given time, and two things happened: the wobble continued, and the engine and all oil samples were completely fine. It still drove me nuts, and I was convinced it had something to do with the dismount and remount process. I also hold a disposition that, if the airplane didn’t do something before, and its doing it now, we have a problem. Most A&Ps tell me in response that it’s an old airplane, it’s in tolerance, and to quit being neurotic.

There were a few pieces of mount hardware that looked suspicious, so I assumed these had to be contributing to the overall equilibrium equation of mount tension, and set about to find some replacement parts. The problem was, nobody really seemed to understand where to find these small pieces as they seemed unusual, so after a conversation with the Lord engineer, my grandfather who restored the airplane, and Univair, and after taking a bunch of measurements as reality seemed to not match blueprints from 1957, it came to my attention that the airplane has a unique mount conversion kit and is therefore not standard (the engine is a field approved installation). I ordered the parts from Univair, plus a slew of other things I thought I would need in the future to be safe – $350 in parts, $120 in shipping, $150 in Spanish VAT and tariffs, despite a regulation that aviation parts not manufactured in the EU do not get tariffed. Sigh.

Those little hardware parts got changed, and, well, no change. Perhaps the “wobble” is ignition related, despite no clear misfiring, and no mag test problems? It was worsened at certain RPMs in descent (indicating mount), though improved slightly on the right mag only in cruise (indicating ignition). I decided it must be coming from somewhere left magneto ignition system, and therefore had a decision to make, as the Bendix mags were coming up for 500-hour inspection. Do I do the mags first, or go for plugs and wires, even though all three were done in 2014?

I decided to go for plugs. They needed to be removed and cleaned, and under Part 43, I can swap them. I took them off, and drove over to France to a flying club to have the plugs tested on their fancy and expensive machine. At that point, the French CFI apologized for misunderstanding our conversation in Spanish and advised he has no “autonomy.” I couldn’t understand what he was talking about, so he walked me to some dank and miserable shed, for which a V-8 car engine was bolted to the floor with an exhaust pipe to the roof, connected to a generator. Despite a robust French electrical grid, the flying club was operating off of a car engine, and it was broken and no one knew when it would work; therefore, the expensive test rig was out of commission.

Horrified by the Summer of Discontent in Germany, I decided to buy new plugs instead of waiting on the French V-8 generating station. The Germans were the only ones that had them, at the price of $400 for a set, instead of $240 in America. Add express shipping so I don’t have to wait two weeks. Sigh.

New plugs were installed, and no change. By now, a concerted and well-planned maintenance cycle was approaching, so I decided it was time to schedule some personal travel while taking the magnetos off and having them sent to a certified shop in France for the 500-hour inspection. I was told the bill should be “a few hundred euros” and they wouldn’t know the amount until they opened them. A few days later, I got an invoice: $1500! Expressing my surprise, I was corrected when I referred to the $1500 number, as it lacked French 20% VAT and shipping (page 2 hadn’t been scanned). When it was all said and done, nearly $1900 was out of the door, and the rationale was that the “prior guy didn’t do a good job” but “now you only need a 500-hour point inspection for the next 2,000 hours or 12 years.” The irony is that the “prior guy” had noted a few years ago that the guy before him did a crappy job on the mags. When I reviewed the EASA Form 1, issued by the French, it contained a variety of Bendix service bulletins, that the first and second idiot had done according to the logbook. I confess that I did get a “revision generale” (overhaul) as opposed to 500-hour point inspection. And, of course, the French kindly painted the exterior of the mags so they look pretty.

The mags were installed, other work done, and aircraft placed back into service, being out of service for a month and not four. No change in the wobble, and not too much of a discernible difference in magneto-induced combustion. I can, however, recalculate my weight and balance as any cash I had left in my wallet is gone and therefore I am lighter. At this point, I deferred to the German PhD and Irish pilot friend, who both said to get new wires some time back. I reiterate that all engine indications were in tolerance. The only person who had a problem with it was me, though I have been the sole pilot in this airplane since 1996 when it was restored, so that nagging voice has some authority.

Be that as it may, I decided after the little $1900 magneto debacle that ignition leads couldn’t be that pricey. I recall buying them for something like $400 in the USA, so I figured it would be $200 in America and $300 in Europe for one side only. How wrong I was! Shopping around until I was blue in the face, the replacement for the left side only was $550, and had a six-week lead time. I decided to call a distributor in the UK, who asked the American-born English speaker where I was calling from, and transferred me to a lady who spoke Spanish. Indignant that I was calling the UK, I demanded to speak in English (for which she obliged), and she kept asking “who maintains my aircraft” and to get them to call. At this point I was irritated, and finally encountered the CAMO bit, where they couldn’t understand why a pilot-owner would call for parts and not the CAMO, and I made clear N registered airplanes have an A&P, and he only calls if the pilot wants to pay for concierge service. Eventually after convincing her I wasn’t committing fraud, she poked around and found an alternate part number: a kit with both sides in stock: 500 GBP. Sigh. $700 with shipping. Ok, I’ll place the order. Oh no, that didn’t include 20% VAT (prices are supposed to include VAT in Europe by regulation). $900+! Now I was on a rampage and refused.

That resulted in a saga of searching around Europe, settling on some Belgians, who then recommended an alternate part number, which was an education Continental makes wire harnesses and they do so at a lower price. At this point, it wasn’t so much about market analysis as who had the parts in Europe without having to wait until 2019. After a call to the TCM engineer in Alabama to confirm spark plug to cowling clearance (this engine is extremely tight), the invoice came to $640.

After getting them installed, the wobble is gone.

I am not sure what the lesson is here. Perhaps it is the almost spiritual relationship a pilot and mechanic must have with a carbureted engine, petting and serenading it to find out what mood it is in? Is it the warm and nostalgic remembrance of working in the shop with a grandfatherly figure in childhood, the beautiful “simplicity” of old airplanes (while grandpa pays the bills, deals with the FAA, and curses at the machine that won’t work)? Is it the lesson that things in Europe take twice as long and cost twice as much for no seemingly discernible logic? Or is it the progressive beauty of the EU single market, where I can freely spend my money on airplane parts in an alarming array of countries without border tariffs?

While these realities are all true, any remaining rage against the machine subsides when I get in the air. No matter how annoying it is, flying is worth it.

Rainbow over the Val du Carol, France. I suspect it matches the mood of the magneto shop after I paid their exorbitant invoice.


La Cerdanya Aerodrome, under some snow. The PA-11 handles snowpack quite well.

Some basic flying around La Cerdanya after a snowstorm. 


 

 

 

 

 

 

FAA plans to decommission NDB’s at Glenallen, Mekoryuk and Noatak: User feedback requested

The FAA has issued Letters to Airmen outlining plans to decommission the Nondirectional Beacons (NDBs) at the Gulkana (GKN), Mekoryuk (MYU) and Noatak (WTK) airports.  In all three cases, the decommissioning’s are for navaids that have failed, and have been out of service for some time.  Even though they are non-functional, they serve as fixes that are part of the airway structure, or are components of instrument approaches.   If the removal of these navaids impacts your operation, please let the FAA know, using the contact information provided below.

Moving to Space Based IFR Infrastructure
While the FAA is moving to a space-based IFR system, NDBs in some locations are still serving not only as the basis for instrument approach procedures, but as anchor fixes for IFR airways.  Last year AOPA was part of an industry group that looked at the IFR Enroute infrastructure in Alaska.  Working with the Alaska Air Carriers Association, Alaska Airmen Association, National Business Aviation Association and other organizations, the group delivered formal recommendations to the FAA. The topics covered in the report were wide ranging including sections acknowledging the role NDBs play in the enroute environment, and expressed concern that some GPS based T-Routes have a much higher Minimum Enroute Altitude than the NDB-based colored airways. One of the recommendations called for the FAA to consider operator impacts before decommissioning any airway supported by NDBs.  Responding to a Letter to Airmen is one mechanism that the FAA uses to collect user feedback.

 

This specific working group was only tasked to look at the enroute infrastructure, but acknowledged that NDBs in some locations still serve an operational role in the terminal environment, which should also be considered before these stations are decommissioned.

User input needed
The FAA is struggling to move into the space-based, NextGen era, balancing the need to keep existing “legacy” systems in place, while obtaining funding to stand up new infrastructure.  AOPA and others are pushing FAA to expand the network of ADS-B ground stations in Alaska, to provide a “minimum operational network” across the state.  Decommissioning legacy navigation aids is one way to free up resources, but only after the operational needs of the users have been considered.  FAA is asking for our feedback on these three stations. If you fly to these areas, let the FAA know if removing these NDBs impacts your operations.  Please contact:

Mark Payne, NISC III contract support
Operations Support Group
Western Service Center

Phone:  425-203-4515

Email:    [email protected]

Please send copies to AOPA at: [email protected]

Links to the FAA Letters to Airmen:

Glenallen NDB OSGW-36 (003)

NANWAK NDB_DME OSGW-35 (003)

Noatak NDB Decommissioning OSGW-33

Buddy passes

The buddy pass is one of the perks of working for an airline. It is just what it sounds like: a pass for a buddy to fly for a rock-bottom price. Virtually every airline offers them to employees, and at first glance, they sound great. You can take a friend or a family member on a trip and do so for a fraction of the price of a regular ticket. But, as with every airline ticket, there are catches.

The most important caveat is that a buddy pass is a space-available seat, meaning that your friend—or soon-to-be enemy—is only getting on if there is an empty seat and there isn’t a weight and balance restriction. In this day and age, with planes flying 80 to 90 percent full, an empty seat is hard to come by. I always tell people that the only thing a buddy pass guarantees is a positive space trip through security. That’s it.

That’s because, in terms of priority, buddy pass riders are listed behind revenue passengers; revenue passengers trying to change flights; employees being moved around by the company, employees that are non-revving; and, in some cases, retirees (a few airlines put retirees after pass riders). There is usually an exception in place if the pass rider is traveling with the employee, and that can be a significant advantage. Pass riders on their own truly are the last ones on the airplane.

Boarding last creates other issues along the way. The gate agents’ first concern is getting the flight out on time, and they’ve been known to leave some pass riders behind on occasion. Second, if you have a bag of any consequence, the overhead bins are likely to be full, and your rider may or may not be charged to check the bag, potentially increasing the cost of the trip.

Back in the day, pass riders had to rely on the employee to create the listing. Today, most airlines provide some avenue for a pass rider to look up loads and explore connecting options. As an employee, it’s up to you to make sure that the buddy can navigate the process without any help from you.

Buddy passes are charged based on either a zone formula (so much for traveling within a zone or a radius of a certain amount) or by charging so much a mile. And this is the rub, because it’s possible for the ticket price to climb to a point where the gap in price of a buddy pass and a positive-space ticket is close enough that a positive-space ticket will make more sense and provide the peace of mind of knowing you’re going to get on a flight.

Here’s an example: A friend of mine wanted a quote for a buddy pass to go to Australia. The first class rate (more on this below) for a round-trip ticket was $1,300, and around $700 for coach. But, there was a sale fare of $1,000 round trip, and my suggestion was to just buy a ticket, especially since it was such a long trip with few options. Speaking of paying for a buddy pass, most of them are payroll deductible, so make sure you get paid ahead of time, and settle up after the flight if the price varies.

But the biggest issue with buddy passes is making sure that everyone understands the rules (including you, as the sponsoring employee).
Unfortunately, too many people don’t seem to understand the limitations of flying stand-by.

In certain markets, giving someone a buddy pass is almost cruel (think Florida for spring break, or Hawaii any time). Flexibility is key, and the rules vary from one airline to another. For example, some airlines will allow you to list for a first-class seat, but they’ll put you in economy if that’s the only section with seats, and charge you accordingly. However, you may not be allowed to list for coach and then go to first class if a seat opens up there. This happens a lot on international flights, so pay attention to the rules for listing.

Dress code is important as well. United made the news about a year ago when a couple of pass riders were denied boarding because they were in violation of the dress code for pass riders. Most of these rules are available in a PDF format, so print them out for your buddies and also email them so that they can reference them as the get ready for the trip.

If your buddies don’t get on a flight, some systems will automatically roll them over to the next flight to that destination—but some won’t. The agent may manually do it for them—but they may not. It’s ultimately the buddy’s responsibility to figure that out.

Having flown for the airlines for more than 20 years now, I’ve learned that the best piece of advice I can give you about buddy passes is this: Don’t use them. Too many things can go wrong, and too often somebody says they “have to get there,” and that’s a sure-fire sign they need to buy a ticket. And too often the buddy doesn’t understand or respect the rules, and the person who gets in trouble is the employee.

The one exception I make is that I will give buddy passes to someone who used to work for an airline or has used them and is familiar with the process, the risks, and isn’t going to lose any sleep if they don’t make their flight.

If you insist on using buddy passes, be aware of the rules. And don’t say that I didn’t warn you.—Chip Wright

New drug tests

Drug testing is a fact of life at the airlines. You can count on being tested as a new hire, and then you’ll be subjected to random testing for the rest of your career. The FAA requires that 25 percent of pilots, chosen at random, get tested annually. The airline handles the details, or perhaps the testing company it contracts with to process the sample collections.

The standard profile calls for alcohol, marijuana, and several illegal recreational drugs. Recently, however, natural and synthetic opioids were added to the list. This is clearly in response to the national opioid epidemic, but it isn’t really a surprise. Used as intended, opioids such as Percocet, Oxycontin, et cetera, are extremely effective anti-pain medications used to treat various injuries or to ease recovery from some surgical procedures.

Unfortunately, these medicines are also extremely addictive, and as evidenced by the large number of deaths the last several years, they are too easy to acquire (in fact, NBC News did a segment showing how easy it was to order synthetic opioids online and have them shipped to your home). The FAA has added such testing not so much to catch pilots in the act, but as a deterrent. In my experience, most pilots are tested after they are finished flying. I’ve yet to see a test administered before a trip. It wouldn’t matter in the sense that it takes several days to get the results back, but if a pilot is tested before he or she flies and then comes up positive, it could create a public relations nightmare for the company.

If you’re ever prescribed one of these medications, you can minimize the risks of a positive test fairly easily. First, ask if something else might work just as effectively. If not, ask for the minimum number of pills that you might need, and then only take them when you absolutely need them. Second, ask detailed questions about how long you need to allow the remnants of the last dosage to leave your system. Whatever that time is, added another 48 hours before you return to work. Third, read the enclosed literature, or search the manufacturer’s website for more detailed information. Better yet, contact the manufacturer directly and ask them how long you need to wait to ensure a passed drug test.

If you’re flying internationally, you should also be aware that some countries have far more rigid rules with respect to the presence of alcohol. The United Kingdom is famous for this, and they’ve recently added some enhanced procedures to prevent pilots from flying under the influence. Keep this in mind if you plan to imbibe a bit while you’re on a trip.

There is very little leeway for flying with any hint of drugs in your system, and the rules can vary wildly from one country to the next. Play it safe, and if there is any chance you might have any in your system, ground yourself until you can be sure you’re completely clean.—Chip Wright

I Don’t Fly Enough

It’s not how much we fly that matters, it’s how much we don’t

The average owner-flown GA airplane flies less than 100 hours a year. I fly my Cessna 310 more than that, at least 120 hours a year. But I don’t fly it enough.

Take 2017 for example:

  • In April, I flew to San Diego to give a talk at a FAASTeam safety event.
  • I also made another flight to Camarillo to teach at the AOPA Regional Fly-In.
  • In June, I flew from California to Knoxville, Tennessee, to attend and speak to the annual convention of the Flying Physicians Association and visit friends.
  • Over the July 4th weekend, I made a quick trip to Los Angeles to attend a Pentatonix concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
  • In late July, I made my annual pilgrimage to Oshkosh for AirVenture week, roughly 2,000 nm each way.
  • In August, I was supposed to make a trip to Dallas for an expert witness deposition in an air crash case, but it was cancelled at the last minute when the case settled.
Mike's 2017 trip

My 8,500 nm trip during Fall 2017.

Then in September and October, I went on an amazing nine-week transcontinental trip that took me from California to:

  • Norman, Oklahoma for the next AOPA Regional Fly-In;
  • Lawrence, Massachusetts for a two-day GA Engine Summit meeting with the FAA;
  • Nashville, Tennessee to speak at the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association annual migration
  • Jackson, Tennessee where I performed an annual inspection on the aircraft at the facilities of Tennessee Aircraft Services;
  • Back to New England to visit my sisters in Boston and teach at the AOPA Regional Fly-In at Groton, Connecticut;
  • Outer Banks of North Carolina for some quiet time to work on my book and write some articles;
  • Raleigh and Charlotte to visit with friends and relatives, and to fly with another CFI to obtain my Flight Review and Instrument Proficiency Check;
  • Florida to visit with friends in Ft. Lauderdale and teach at the year’s final AOPA Regional Fly-In in Tampa;
  • Charlotte, North Carolina to pick up my brother-in-law;
  • Jackson, Tennessee to drop of my colleague Paul New who’d taught with me in Tampa;
  • Amarillo, Texas for fuel and sleep; and finally
  • California to drop my brother-in-law at Chino, then have lunch with a friend at Hawthorne, and finally return to home base at Santa Maria.

In early November, less than a week after returning home from this amazing 8,500 nm trip, I flew to Las Vegas, Nevada for my company’s annual corporate retreat…my final flight of 2017 in the Cessna 310.

I didn’t fly enough

Months I didn't fly

Months I didn’t fly my airplane during 2017.

If you were paying attention, you’ll see the problem: I didn’t fly the plane at all during January, February, March, May, August, or December. The airplane just sat in its non-climate-controlled hangar located at KSMX roughly 8 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

During those periods of extended disuse, the oil film had plenty of time to strip off the cylinder walls, cam lobes, and lifter faces of the two Continental TSIO-520-BB engines, exposing them to corrosive attack. The interior of the Cessna 310’s airframe—which is mostly shiny aluminum with no protective primer or paint—was also so exposed. This is not a good thing for the longevity of my airframe and especially my engines.

I suspect my pattern of seasonal use is not uncommon. I suspect many GA airplanes based on less benign and temperate climates than what I have on the central coast of California might fly even more seasonally. Certainly, airplanes based in humid coastal regions like Florida and the Gulf Coast are at even higher corrosion risk during their downtime periods.

This problem is more serious than many aircraft owners realize. The #1 reason that piston aircraft engines fail to make TBO is cam and lifter corrosion, the presence of which almost always results to a premature engine teardown.

This is a problem that’s almost exclusively confined to owner-flown GA airplanes. “Working airplanes” in flight schools, air charter, freight hauling, pipeline patrol, aerial surveillance, and similar kinds of operations almost never fail to reach engine TBO and often greatly exceed it. That’s because working airplanes fly every day or at least a few times a week, so they never lose the protective oil film that protects critical engine components from corrosive attack.

Defenses

Suit of armorRecognizing the risk created by my irregular pattern of flying, I’ve taken a few defensive steps to help mitigate the corrosion risk. I use a thick singe-weight oil (Aeroshell W100) that has the consistency of black strap molasses at room temperature and adheres to parts better than multigrade oils that are much thinner at room temperature (think Aunt Jemima Light). I use ASL CamGuard, which is the most effective anti-corrosion additive I’ve found (based on oil analysis results). In 2014, I installed nickel-carbide-plated cylinders on both engines, because they don’t rust like standard steel cylinders do. I keep my airplane hangared during periods of disuse. I fog the interior of the airframe with ACF-50 corrosion preventive compound every few years.

There are additional defenses I could take. A good one that is inexpensive would be to use an engine dehumidifier during periods of disuse, such as the “Engine Saver” available from Aircraft Spruce. Another one that is vastly more expensive would be to insulate and heat my hangar to hold the atmospheric temperature constant and eliminate the diurnal temperature cycle that is responsible for “morning dew.”

All these things are helpful in mitigating the corrosion risk, but none are as effective as flying the airplane every week or two. So, my New Year’s resolution is to try my best to fly at least once every two weeks during 2018.

Care to join me?

Increase Your Service Ceiling

Sunday was a great GA day for me. It started off as a Pilots and Paws rescue flight for a one-eyed cat named Gio. Since I was headed up to the San Francisco Bay Area, I thought I would contact my 96 year-old pen pal/friend William Mason [Army Air Corps Flight Instructor at Rankin Field [Tulare, CA] with my Dad, and brother to uber famous Sammy Mason] to see if we could meet up for a burger at the 29er Diner. The combination of a charity flight, using a friendly small airport and meeting with a WWII aviator makes for a perfect GA day.

As a recently minted instrument rated pilot I was excited to get a little “actual” with the smoke and haze from the horrible Thomas fire. I completed all my flight planning with Foreflight, Skyvector, and the NOAA site for weather… severe clear except for smoke in vicinity of departure airport, Santa Maria, CA. I filed the flight plan online and got an email from Foreflight that it was received by flight service [she thinks “What a rock star I am for using all this wonderful technology.”]

Originally Pilots and Paws had requested Santa Rosa Airport, which is a wonderful larger airport, but, as anyone who has flown with me to Oshkosh knows, I love to go to small GA airports and support more “mom and pop” FBOs. So I asked for Petaluma and received that as a final destination.

When I left the house in morning the sky looked like dusk instead of dawn due to the smoke. I could see that San Luis Obispo was clear, so I thought at most, I would be in the smoke [IFR] for a few minutes. Opening the hangar door I could see a fine layer of ash all over my airplane cover. As I loaded up the plane I looked out and saw the tiniest of tiny suns trying to burn through the smoke. [Gio was not able to make it to Santa Maria due to the high winds and turbulence in Riverside, but I decided to head north anyway.]

I got my taxi clearance and asked tower for my IFR clearance to Petaluma. The next bit of news was not so happy “6619U I have no IFR flight plan for you in the system.” Drat! I mentioned that I had even gotten an email confirmation. Hmmm. I let the lovely tower folks [really they are, no sarcasm there] know when I was done taxiing I would figure it out. Figure it out I did. Guess who filed the plan for a WEEK from today? Me, yup me. Duh. Luckily I had the routing, so no worries, got it put into the system. I departed on the obstacle departure procedure and up to the Bay Area. The smoke was maybe 800 feet above ground level… maybe. I was in the smoke, I mean in the smoke. Could not see anything, nothing but white. “Okay sister, this is what you are trained for, instrument scan, track the course, you can do this. Probably won’t be but a minute or two.” Yeah—no. Just under thirty minutes later I come out of the smoke right over the Paso Robles airport. I knew that my VOR tracking was not the best while in the smoke. I was disappointed that I sort of got flustered but I was able to just regain my composure and soldier on.

I flew up the Pacific coast and the CAVU day was spectacular. ATC was super busy and very helpful. I asked for the Bay Tour [as did about a hundred others] and was grinning ear to ear flying over the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Angel Island and the San Francisco bay. After the tour and the photos, I turned to Petaluma [O69].

There were six other airplanes in the pattern at O69/Petaluma. There were a few students working the pattern, a Waco buzzing around, two helicopters practicing taxiing, and even another Mooney landing right before me. The fuel price is one of the best in the Bay Area/wine country. I taxied to a transient tie down and then struggled a bit to push Maggie back into the spot. Before I knew it a local named John was there asking if I needed a hand, which I gladly accepted.

We got on the waiting list for indoor seating at the 29er Diner and the next few hours were spent with Bill and his daughter. We got to enjoy a great lunch, catch up, talk about aviation and some of his glory days. Bill owned a Stearman for many years, which he flew across country with his wife.

When it was time to leave I made sure to check the date and time on my flight plan and hit “File”— voila it went through. I did get vectored in a way from ATC that reminded me of an old high school cheer “lean to the left, lean to the right, stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight.” The routing on the way home was offshore quite a bit. I don’t know about anyone else, but I swear I hear every single engine hiccup when I am over water. On the way home I was at 9000, and got a beautiful and enduring view of the sunset off my right side. I knew that the smoke would be formidable on the approach into the Central Coast. I descended down from 9000 to 8000, then down to 5000. Under the smoke it was black as night. I requested a precision approach from ATC. I thought it best to fly an approach I had practiced many times that took me right to runway 12.

Between the black of night, and the ash build up on the windscreen, and the general haziness from the smoke, the approach was challenging. I did have a little bit of an optical illusion just above the aim point. It was hard for me to tell how high I was above the runway to begin the flare. I should have maybe looked out the left window, but I didn’t. Landing was rock star– which is so wonderful. All in all I had an hour of actual.

We are so fortunate to have many ways to give back in service to others with our airplanes and airports. I try to remember all these aspects when I am planning a trip. Am I flying an empty airplane? Is that the best use of the space? Perhaps there is someone who would like to come along, or better yet a Pilot n Paws, Angel Flight, LightHawk or other charitable cause. What is your destination airport? Where will you be spending your dollars for fuel, lodging and food? The day cost me a couple hundred dollars in fuel. I look at this as money spent buying memories. That is really money well spent. I have the memory of my first flight into IMC, connecting with a WWII aviator, of wanting to help a little one-eyed kitty and of course being part of a great big GA family.

As this year comes to a close it is a good time to reflect on the past and look toward the New Year. Maybe 2018 will be the year you add that endorsement, or get your instrument rating, or get serious about buying into a club, or donate your time in service to others.

Applying the news

The past few months have seen a number of high profile people lose their jobs following allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault. Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, and most recently, Matt Lauer, all have been forced aside. If public figures are being exposed for illegal behavior, I have no doubt that average people are now beginning to deal with the same thing.

Working at the airlines means working in a very dynamic environment in which the potential for getting in trouble is most definitely there. Most pilots are male, and most flight attendants are female. Gate agents and ramp agents tend to be a mix. There is tremendous opportunity to meet a lot of great people, and it’s very easy to begin flirting or joking around, especially when you’re part of a crew that will be together for several days at a time. You share a work space, and when the day is over, you head to the same hotel, and often end up eating together. Things happen.

In 20 years as an airline pilot, I’ve seen and heard things I wish I hadn’t. A first officer I flew with groped a flight attendant on an overnight—in Canada. The same FO groped another flight attendant on an elevator in an airport. There were no witnesses, but his behavior was well known; one flight attendant I knew would not be alone with him on the airplane. I knew of flight attendants who had reputations that may or may not have been deserved, and of pilots who were known to push the limits of acceptable social behavior.

I’ll be surprised if every airline doesn’t mandate some form of sexual assault/harassment training. In 16 years at a regional, I never received any. But it’s time that we all get it. We work in close quarters with each other, and too often a joke or a gesture is ill-received or goes too far, and it too often puts someone else in the middle, uncomfortable and unsure of what to do. And just as important as learning what is and is not OK, it’s also important to discuss and train employees about the ramifications of making false accusations. This, too, is something I’ve unfortunately seen run its course, and it has no place at all in any work environment.

I’m not one to suggest that pilots shouldn’t date each other, or that pilots and flight attendants shouldn’t date or marry. But it’s critically important that proper boundaries be respected, and interpersonal behavior be kept totally professional in the work place, with any romantic interest (or disinterest) clearly stated and understood. If a relationship doesn’t work out, both parties need to be able to walk away and remain professional.—Chip Wright

Scheduling nightmare

As I wrote this, American Airlines was dealing with a crisis of its own making. Due to a computer glitch, they had a scenario in which more than 15,000 flights might not have been staffed between December 17 and January 1—one of the most important travel periods of the year. How, you might ask, does this happen?

Every airline has some form of trip trading, drops, pickups, et cetera, that pilots and flight attendants can use to adjust their schedule when the monthly lines come out. Some airlines are more flexible than others, but all have rules, policies and procedures in place to ensure adequate staffing.

Each airline defines “adequate” differently, and what one company feels would be a razor-thin or negative staffing model might be one that another embraces. Generally speaking, the models are based on known assumptions as well as a few guesses. Companies will use historical data to figure out how many employees are likely to call out sick, how many of those sick calls will come from line holders versus reserves, how many will run into issues with commuting, and how many extras are needed based on potential bad weather. There is also a bit of plain guessing involved.

As long as the computer software shows that staffing will be sufficient, a fair amount of leeway will be given in schedule modifications. Crews can drop, add, and trade based on the rules in a particular union contract. I don’t know all of the details involved in the American fiasco, but somewhere a human being screwed up, and those flights suddenly were understaffed by at least one pilot.

Every union contract has language in it that deals with scheduling snafus after the schedules are awarded, and generally the company has to eat the mistake. This situation, however, is different. Nobody can afford to have thousands, or even hundreds, of flights get cancelled over Christmas. It’s in the best interest of both sides to work out a deal that entices pilots to pick up as much of the flying as possible. Some won’t, as they may never have been off for Christmas or are certain they won’t be home for Christmas next year. But many will come in, especially if a monetary incentive is offered.

This story is a big deal because of the scope of the problem and the time of year, but it’s by no means unique or unheard of. I was at Comair in 2005 when the scheduling software failed, and more than 1,100 flights were cancelled (also over Christmas). I’ve also seen other issues come up that threatened scheduling integrity, and I’ve learned that the software that handles all of this is incredibly complex, and sometimes, a problem comes up because of a hole in the code that simply needed the right circumstances to become known.

I’m sure American will power through this, but it’s a lesson all can learn from: Take nothing for granted, and when it comes to the holidays, always ask for them off. You just never know when something will work in your favor.—Chip Wright

Before and After

I admit that I did not expect to change my perspective about flying when I came to Europe. Having lived as an expat over a decade prior, I was well aware that personal growth and changes in viewpoint would occur, though I thought flying is flying and that’s that. It was recently that my wife undertook some research and shared that “hating everything is a sign of culture shock” that caused me to step back and ask myself what was going on. After all, we’re getting close to the two-year point in Europe; one would think culture “shock” would be a thing of the past.

This period of introspection coincided with the most intense moments of the independence movement here in Catalunya. As those who watch the news would note, the fervor and levels of civil angst have dropped dramatically, consumed by an upcoming regional election that will tell us what the next phase holds. In the interim, things are calm, and I decided to ravenously attack some coastal and lowland flying.

As readers of my posts may note, I have railed against the unpredictable, stagnant, and irritating nature of maritime air masses that hang out on the other side of the hill. I have also rampaged about an anemic Spanish airport network, prolifically variable microclimates, and sheer incompetence at what few airports have fuel. One could hear a guttural scream beneath all of it: “Why can’t this just be like America?”

Well, it takes a little reflection on what kind of flying I did in America just before leaving that would influence this disposition. One might assume that I did some basic leisurely flying in the Cub, low and slow over farmland, “merely” shipping it to Europe so I could triple my costs but throw a few castles and European countries beneath. That would be incorrect. 2015 featured a manic explosion of flying, the most I had done in one year since I started hopping in my grandfather’s airplanes at age 2. I flew 346 hours in 2015 in the Cub, mostly in an 8-month period, featuring a flight from the Outer Banks to Idaho, all of the glaciers of the US Rockies, most of the 14ers in Colorado, and a large swath of quite amazing Western wilderness. To add to the mania, I was living on an airpark, and tried where possible to integrate having an airplane as part of daily life, inclusive of justifying a grocery run as equivalent in time and money as the car.

Somehow in my narrow minded, hair-brained nature, I assumed I would do something like that in Europe. No wonder it has been a “process” to accept differences! It appears in retrospect that the independence unrest was enough to break American expectations out of my mind.

It is worth noting that I have met very few people that own an aircraft outright that is not a ULM/LAPL (European equivalent to Light Sport), nor that own one without being part of a club. I will share more in the future, as I discovered an anachronistic misery about owning standard category aircraft on European registries that may explain it. Nonetheless, it is not a normal part of European aviation to use an aircraft as a regular mode of non-recreational transportation. Nonetheless, I continue to do my best to buck the trend and blast forward.

So, what has been accepted about flying in this neck of the woods? A few months ago, I finally solved the puzzle of automobile gas. No one knew if ethanol was present in fuel here, and nobody seemed to care. Eventually a Spanish pilot reminded me that fuel can be tested, and I confirmed it in the STC paperwork for my airplane. I dusted off the tester, bought two liters from the local station, and voila, no ethanol. That is not surprising, as I have seen very few corn fields. Result: I can fly using Spanish mogas at the hourly cost of American avgas, a savings of 50%, though that leaves unsolved a displeased wife when the car interior smells like auto fuel…

There is the matter of that pesky Spanish airport network, or lack thereof. Research proved that Spain can actually be innovative when it comes to regulation, as they made a change allowing regular aircraft to land at ULM fields, for which there is a flourishing abundance. Some carry mogas, which thanks to my recent discovery, is now useful. In other cases, in an elaborate system, I carry some spare in reserve and make a transfer upon arrival. Result: my world just got bigger, and I don’t have to go crazy with flight plans and two hour fueling routines! Note to self: check runway length, as some of these fields are 500 feet or less.

Using the inversion to my advantage…


La Cerdanya can have its own inversions, too.

What about that nasty inversion that drove me nuts last winter? It occurred to me that I had not before flown in a climate zone similar to the Mediterranean. It truly defies my conventional meteorological wisdom, as New York, North Carolina, Colorado, Wyoming, and Germany shared one thing in common: a cold front is a pilot’s best friend. Haze, humidity, usually clouds get blown away and photos are good. Not here! A front can mean anything, so I decided to put my thinking cap on and use every available resource I can get my hands on what is actually going on before getting moody that the weather isn’t cooperative. To take things further, I decided to use soupy weather to my advantage and start making art out of it.

Another fix for the inversion: the infrared camera. Montserrat.

In retrospect, I ended up with a change that I did not expect: a heightened sensitivity to possibility of things going wrong. While living in a state of existential “getthereitis” in Wyoming, there was this sort of bleak acceptance that remote wilderness flying came with a certain possibility of danger. Life in the West has a certain aura like that: avalanches on highways, blizzards, extreme cold, mountain lions and bears in the backyard, distance from emergency services, and a culture of wild outdoorsy behavior. Living there meant accepting those realities, and it was something I was fine with. Here, I don’t necessarily find a culture of safety in Spain; rather, I would say Spanish bravado is the inverse. On the other hand, each flight seems like an accomplishment filled with wonder and amazement, having flown to a new mental frontier. Linguistic, cultural, regulatory, and terrain differences are so stark that I often feel like a grand achievement has been had just because I finished a flight successfully. I suppose that, just because wild animals are not prevalent here, I don’t go crawling into bear caves to stir up the risk. Equally, there is no need to go looking for Wyoming-style wilderness flying and its associated challenges if they don’t exist.

I am not sure why I am so dramatic about getting down to the coast. Elaborate sea wall with calm waters west of Barcelona.

Mountain waves make interesting sunset tones. Masella.

Maybe mountain waves aren’t so bad after all? Just a few bumps.

A final aspect where I am undergoing a European transformation is this strange idea of planning an entire year of my life in advance. In the USA, I would get some crazy idea and hop in the plane a week later and attack something 500 miles away by air. There was no point in waiting, and I wasn’t interested in hypothesizing years away. Here it is common for pilots to plan a trip months in advance to see something, whether towing a glider behind the car, reserving a vacation at a flying club, or taking their own aircraft. Thus, I have finally decided I am going to take the five hour flight to the Alps later this summer, and get it over with. Yes, 5 hours, and I feel like I am crossing a continent, which makes no sense, at all. Then again, I might just be afraid of the Alps and have been hiding behind European bureaucrats. Stay tuned…

I was just saying something about not looking for wilderness. Pyrenees, French side. This is an engine of mountain waves.


I have finally released my first European book: “The First 100 Days: Flying in La Cerdanya.” In a new style for me, the book contains one or two photos from each of the first 100 flights in La Cerdanya, always including one local photo and a photo of wherever I went, no matter how far away it was.

Medical events

I recently worked a flight on which a passenger fell ill. Actually, the passenger fell down, as in passed out. The phone call from the cabin became the first of many, and it kept us pretty busy as we flew to Vegas. Medical events don’t happen every day for each crew, but they’re pretty common.

As you might expect, the flight attendants immediately asked the passengers if a qualified medical professional was on board. In this instance, there were two of them. After the passenger was returned to her seat and regained consciousness, they questioned her about how she felt, her overall health, and any medications she might have been using. This took several minutes, but once they had some useful information, they called us. We, in turn, contacted the company and had them patch us through to MedLink.

MedLink is a service provided by contracted medical professionals to the airlines. When a medical event develops on board, the doctors at MedLink will talk to the pilots, collect the information they need, and make a recommendation about either diverting or continuing to the destination. This service can be used 24 hours a day, seven days a week, anywhere on the planet. The doctors also have a database handy that will allow them to quickly determine which medical facilities might be available for a particular issue. On a domestic flight, this might seem like overkill, but on international flights over sparsely populated areas or third world countries, this information can be critical.

In our case, it helped that we had medical professionals on board whocould help process the information from the passenger and provide an objective, professional analysis of her condition. In our case, we split the various communications duties between us. I handled ATC communications and took the calls from the cabin while the captain handled communications with the company and MedLink. Had the ATC workload become too great, I would have simply asked them to stand by. Once the company and MedLink were taken care of, I stuck with ATC and the captain took over all secondary communications.

MedLink and the folks in the cabin recommended that we press on based on the passenger’s condition. We consulted with the company and the doctors on the ground to determine the best diversion alternates for our situation if the need might arise. We were flying over an open array of farmland with no large cities immediately available. For several minutes, the best option would actually be behind us. Beyond that, we could at least deviate forward.

I’ve been lucky. My medical events have been relatively rare, and in all cases, we’ve been able to make it to the destination. Eventually I won’t have any choice but to divert. But, with the help from the doctors on the ground, I can make sure the airport I choose will give my passenger the best chance of a good outcome, and I won’t have to make that decision alone.—Chip Wright

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