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The new me: Zen Moments flying over the South Pole

Change, welcome or unwelcome, is going on all the time. Our challenge and our opportunity is to be aware of that change and use it for the greatest good. After flying my 1983 Turbo Commander for 18 hours non-stop from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the South Pole and back over some of the most beautiful, but unforgiving terrain on the planet–not knowing how my airplane would perform with ten fuel tanks and flying biofuels for the first time over the Pole at -60 degrees Celsius — I discovered that it’s impossible not have change happen inside of you. This leg of my polar circumnavigation was a defining moment that started change in motion that will have a lifelong impact on me. While it’s hard to know what the exact impact will be, it has gotten me thinking, processing and wondering how this experience will affect my present and future life and the future of the planet.

Flying over the South Pole

The impossibly big dream recognized

The first thing I thought when the big 16-ply tires of Citizen of the World touched down on terra firma was, “Oh my God! I did it! I’m alive! I made it!” I learned I am capable of going after, preparing for, and accomplishing something that was bigger than I ever thought I was capable of achieving. I really had gone after the impossibly big dream, which I had dreamed about, written about, and spoken about in my first book, Flying Thru Life.

As I prepared to leave Ushuaia headed southbound that Monday morning, December 16, 2019, I kept my self-talk as positive as I could, but underneath the bravado, I honestly wasn’t sure if I was coming back. I had assessed my chances for survival at 50 percent–not just making it to the South Pole, but a 50 percent chance of being alive after the next 24 hours.

Given all the unknowns and first-time ‘it’s been done’ modifications I had made on the aircraft, I knew I had never embarked on such a difficult journey with a higher probability of absolute failure. I thought about all the people who were counting on me whom I had talked with or heard from in the previous hours and days. Even the local hotel owner, who had been so kind to me, was on my mind. Before I left my hotel room, I packed up my things so if I didn’t make it back, they could be returned to my family without causing the owner much difficulty — he hadn’t asked me to come into his place of business and create extra work for him. This was my doing, my dream — and now, my reality and possibly, my demise.

It wasn’t a dream

Fortunately, my dream became a reality. But, I wondered at first. For the month that followed the successful completion of the South Pole leg I was still floating in the clouds. My feet were not planted firmly on the ground. I really did not believe I had done it. How could I have done it? If you applied a rational thought process, including the laws of physics, to taking a thirty seven year-old airplane that was designed to fly for seven hours and increasing its non-stop flight hours to 18 hours, it was really beyond reason and probability that it would stay in the air. After landing, I walked around in a daze for days actually afraid to wake up in the morning and found myself imagining that I was belted into a bed in a psychiatric hospital or doing meaningless work somewhere realizing I had been living a life getting by day to day having no impact on the world. Sometimes, when I would tell people what I was planning or what I had just done, they would just get a blank look on their faces, as if what I said wasn’t even within their perception of reality. Our interactions reminded me of the story of the natives in the New World who couldn’t see the early explorers off the coast arriving because it was beyond their comprehension. Like the natives, when I shared what I was doing, people would go on as if I had never said anything.

Falling in love with Citizen of the World

I know that during this trip I fell in love with my airplane, Citizen of the World. I think I know what Tom Hanks’ character, Chuck Noland, in the movie Cast Away felt like when he personified that soccer ball into “Wilson,” his best friend, after being alone on an island for so long. Citizen became more than an aircraft to me on that Polar flight.

Truth be told, I was always a little afraid of the power of this aircraft. With 2300 horsepower, a 52-foot wingspan and an enormous roar from engines that are running at 100-percent torque, this machine is a force. My previous airplane, Spirit of San Diego, was an elegant, long-bodied aircraft, but Citizen is all muscle—a brute force like a charging bull that you’re not going to be able to stop. On this flight, Citizen showed me what an old but solid airplane with major modifications is still capable of doing. I put the aircraft under so much strain–and it continued to meet my demands and delivered in such form–that I was left speechless at times. Imagine a plane sitting almost fully loaded with fuel for a South Pole Flight and not springing a leak, not blowing out the struts or bending the wing spar! I remember as I sat waiting for takeoff clearance at Ushuaia, I promised Citizen that I would never demand so much from her again.

Once I took off, the airplane climbed in a narrow channel and I performed a 180-degree turn so heavy-laden with fuel that even I doubted it could be done. Citizen climbed at almost 1800-feet-per-second like it was a walk in the park all the way up to 28,000 feet in 58 minutes. Unbelievable! This is a testament to the brilliance of engineer Fred Gatz, who designed the wing for Gulfstream and did the feasibility study.

Stronger than I could have imagined

In the process of completing this flight, I realized I was so much stronger than I had imagined. The months, weeks, days, hours, and minutes leading up to my departure were the most challenging of my life. The universe accelerated personal issues leading up to my departure. Instead of getting three problems every week they started rolling in at a rate of three per day. It was like the universe was trying to test me with enormous mental and emotional weights and see if I was strong enough — if I was worthy of being an aviation Polar circumnavigator.

On this journey, I built a level of trust in myself that I never had before. I was up for over 30 hours before I completed the mission and returned to bed. I started the flight at 2:30 in the afternoon when I normally would be winding down my day. I had almost called off departure due to the rejected flight plan, winds in the wrong direction for takeoff, permits that we were told we would not need, but actually did need, and because I didn’t want to return to a departure airport in the dark when I was exhausted.

I wondered at take-off and all throughout the flight, “How many times will I be tested on this trip? How strong must I be? What are you trying to prepare me for?” I’m still finding answers, but I know I see the world differently now. A few things I’ve noticed are that I am incredibly grateful for every breath, I walk with a little more confidence, and I believe that God kept me around for a reason bigger than me.

The plane was finally ready

During the two years leading up to departure it seemed like something would break on every flight. New systems that we installed continued to create emergency situations during test flights. All these modifications not working as promised and needed to be repaired, replaced or fine-tuned, which drained my bank account and my patience, delayed my departure three times over two years and made me lose faith in the aircraft. My friends heard me complaining about the enormous cost of this project even with the generous support of my 90-plus sponsors providing help with services, parts and their vast technical expertise. Preparing a plane to perform at a level three times what it was designed to do is a fantastic undertaking—and one I began doubting myself for doing. Miraculously, we finally did reach the point where I knew it could do a flight this big and ambitious. The airplane has worked very reliably during all legs of the flight to date and worked flawlessly on the South Pole leg with the exception of a single fuel gauge that went offline for just about five minutes.

People of the world

One of the most meaningful, enjoyable, and “in-joyable” learning elements of the trip so far is that I have gained enormous respect for all the people I’m meeting around the world. I have seen citizens in the most remote parts of the planet show compassion and respect for my efforts, for my struggle and for what seemed like an impossible mission at times. Prior to the South Pole departure, a group of four young people in Ushuaia became my friends and in the eleventh hour helped me get my permit from Chile. As I flew nine hours into the deepest part of the South Pole and was feeling so alone, I made contact with Cory, an air traffic controller at the South Pole and his colleagues, who complimented me for flying the experiments for NASA and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for the betterment of the planet. It may not seem like a lot, but it meant the world to me that my new friends wished me luck on the nine-hour flight back to Ushuaia. That encouragement reminded me that there’s still a little seven-year-old boy inside me making paper airplanes, and like all of humanity, wanting love and encouragement, a dream to grow into, and family and friends to share the journey with.

Ushuaia Team who helped me get my permit from Chile at the last minute

Change in me

One last thing, and maybe the most important, and to paraphrase social justice leader Mahatma Gandhi — I have realized that the change that is needed in the world must start with each of us. It begins in our hearts and minds and is reflected in the world around us. If we can each find inner peace within ourselves wherever we are, we can then share that peace with others wherever they are.

We are also tasked with taking peaceful action and not waiting for others to do our work for us.  It’s up to each of us to do something positive for our communities, for humanity and the planet. As the International Children’s Choir from nations all around the world has been singing every year since I was a child, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

Just before take-off from Ushuaia, Argentina to the South Pole

A rough winter

As I write this, I am home dealing with round two of a wicked cold that is wreaking havoc this year. Where I live, it has become so pervasive that schools are closing because of high absentee rates, and some are dealing with a lingering cough that lasts for weeks, if not months. On the news, all the talk is about the coronavirus, while online there are jokes about corona virus being cured with a slice of lime. Personally, I’m feeling pretty miserable, and I’m sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.

All kidding aside, this brings up the point that flying while sick is not a good idea. It can be dangerous (think: blown ear drums, vomiting, et cetera), inconsiderate, and illegal, since the FAA demands that you not do anything in violation of your medical. Certain medications may render you unable to fly for awhile as well.

Flying while sick also degrades your performance, and you never know when you’re going to need to bring your A game. While a desk-bound person or a sales rep or a number of other professions can get by with someone not feeling well, pilots may need to react to an emergency in a three-dimensional environment in very trying conditions. If you are sick or dizzy or sneezing or in a state of fatigue because  you are sick, your judgment is likely to be impaired and your reaction times diminished.

No matter where you are in your flying career, it would be a good idea to review your immunization records. In the last several years, there have been a number of sudden and unexpected changes in requirements for proof of vaccinations from certain diseases in certain countries. Recently, the Marshall Islands implemented a requirement for proof of measles vaccinations for crew members. If you’re considering a flying career that will cross borders, take the time to visit the State Department and Centers for Disease Control websites to see what shots they recommend getting for certain geographic regions. Diplomatic sites for the specific countries can also provide useful information. (This isn’t intended to start or engage in the argument of being in favor of or against the practice of vaccinations, but if crew members can’t or are not willing to show compliance with the laws of nations they may reasonably be expected to visit, then they may be denying themselves the possibility of employment, or risking a termination.)

Flying sick is also a pretty good way to make sure that you stay sicker longer. Staying home and resting is a better idea than trying to power through anything, even a common cold. When you do have to go to work, be a little more aware of basic hygiene practices such as washing your hands with soap, and using hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes. Use sick time for the intended purpose, and you’ll be fine. Back in the day, airlines—especially the regionals—were known for draconian sick leave policies. Those days are (largely) gone, as airlines now recognize that brining your illness to work is never the better solution.

Ask me how I know this…—Chip Wright

Rays of Bureaucratic Hope

I have spent enough time ranting over the years about European difficulties with general aviation. One can summarize my experiences as follows: high costs and airport aggravations that curtail aviation. While those are the most pressing realities in day-to-day flying, there are two other structures that have historically been in play: CAMOs and ATOs. I will preface with information about each and then get to the fact that Europe appears to have begun loosening things up a bit.

I have only alluded to CAMOs (Continuous Aviation Maintenance Organization) before. The gist I have gotten talking to various individuals is that there is no such thing as a freelance A&P. An aircraft must be maintained under the umbrella of an organization, which has requirements for lots of paperwork, manuals, quality procedures, and document retention. What I find, observationally, is that there are much less direct owners of general aviation aircraft, and a higher prevalence of flying clubs, which I presume are part of or closely affiliated with a CAMO. The more I try to research the concept, the more lost I get, so I confess some ignorance.

ATOs are “Approved Training Organizations,” which means no freelance flight instruction. Similar to a CAMO, an ATO is a procedure-driven organization where instructors operate as opposed to the direct model in the United States. As one can imagine, the net result is that things are harder and more costly, though the model tends to create a “flight academy” structure seemingly intended for the airlines, which I presume is what regulators had in mind.

Both of these constructs are a result of EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency), which is a creation that now has lasted over a decade. To Americans, EASA is a something of a bittersweet creation. Prior to its existence, effectively there were 28 European nations with different aircraft registers, licenses, and mechanics, operating under ICAO. That meant that Germans flew German-registered aircraft, maintained solely by German mechanics, and the like. One could see the complication attempting to rent or train in an aircraft elsewhere, to develop products for installation into aircraft, and the like, as each would have required licensure, type certification, inspection, and maintenance by professionals licensed various separate countries’ laws. For a period, JAR (Joint Aviation Regulations) existed, which were a precursor to EASA. I won’t get into them as they are obsolete.

EASA created intra-European recognition of aircraft registration, instruction, licensure, operation, and maintenance. With my EASA pilot certificate obtained a few years ago, I can walk in and rent a plane anywhere in Europe, without requiring license validation. I can take aerobatic training in Switzerland, or work on float rating in Italy, while it all feeds back to my license based in a separate nation. A Spanish mechanic could work on a Finnish registered airplane in Ireland, as long as the type certificate was honored. From a European perspective, it’s a brilliant concept which caused Europe to leap forward in aviation.

EASA is not without its difficulties. Enter in ATOs, CAMOs, and many other issues that are far more burdensome than in the United States. With the stroke of a pen, regulations spew out of Brussels that bind an entire continent into policies and procedures, good and bad. To Americans, this is not necessarily a model to pursue, as it is a union of national aviation authorities, whereas we just have one in the USA (imagine 50 state aviation agencies bound together under one umbrella). The primary difference is that electoral influence is all but moot. If a regulation from EASA eliminates the viability of a small business in Bulgaria, what is a Bulgarian member of parliament going to do about it in Brussels? Most likely nothing. Nonetheless, Europe has different points of origin, and one must remember the interoperability of the European aviation system, which is a benefit. It appears, from my point of view, that EASA initially followed maintenance and training models that worked well for the airlines: lots of manuals, procedures, quality inspections, and the like. For scheduled carrier flights, it works fine. In fact, local airport menus of fees, operating hours, and other procedures work just fine for airlines. If one knows that a flight will land on August 8th at 7:57PM, then it’s easy to plan in advance for whatever rules are thrown at the airline.

That doesn’t work for the freedom of general aviation, including private business aviation (which is comparatively much smaller in Europe than the USA).

On that note, I would like to point out some changes that have come down the pipeline for general aviation. This is the good side of EASA, where with the same stroke of a pen, change is brought into effect across an entire continent.

In 2019, “light” aviation mechanics licenses came into effect, called B2L and L-license. Prior to this directive, it is my understanding that a mechanic was licensed in a variety of categories – think “A” for airframe and “P” for powerplant – instead it is something like six verticals. To make it more complex, a mechanic would be type rated as would the repair station, with makes and models of airplanes, down to light aircraft. These new licenses are meant specifically to ease up on general aviation, changing to “systems-based” licensure, where a mechanic could work on light aircraft in certain areas (avionics, for example). More is hopefully to come in this light.

Part-DTO. With the stroke of another pen, Approved Training Organizations are no longer necessary for private pilot, LSA (LAPL in Europe), balloon, and sailplane instruction activities. Instead, a solo flight instructor files under Part-DTO with their national aviation authority, announcing the intent to undertake light aircraft instruction. Rules and requirements are much less than before, though it isn’t to the same level as the United States.

Cost-sharing flights. About two years ago, I saw some fanfare about EASA permitting cost-sharing flights, including the ability to advertise them in public online platforms. It appears that it was legal for quite a while, and some of the information I read indicated that it took a bit of time to filter into each country based on how certain air regulations propagated. Nonetheless, this is a highly rare instance where Europe is more flexible than America, allowing public advertising of private non-commercial flights, where similar pro rata cost sharing is allowed. The intent is to aid general aviation pilots to fly more hours and stay current.

After all of the shock, horror, fatigue, indignation, and now resignation after four years of flying in Europe, I figured it was time to give some credit where it was due, recognizing progress that EASA and Europe has made for general aviation, and can only hope that it continues. As an American, I am personally supportive of the existence of EASA in Europe, as I feel it’s the smartest answer to what would otherwise be 30 or more national aviation authorities creating a web of conflicting rules. I do suppose it is food for thought that what binds international aviation is the ICAO, created in the 1940s in the USA. That has formed the backbone of our basic international aviation ecosystem, and we can only hope that cross-border flying is something that can be improved.

Buddy pass tips

One of the benefits of working for the airlines is the free and reduced-cost flights for yourself, your family, or your friends. Generally called buddy passes, you can offer your friends or friends of friends tickets that are essentially stand-by for pennies on the dollar. The common misunderstandings are that a buddy pass is a real ticket (it isn’t); and you can dress and behave pretty much like a normal person while flying on a buddy pass. Not so.

Buddy passes are offered as a stand-by option, which means that if the person wanting travel isn’t too picky, he or she will get a seat on a flight, assuming that there is one. Buddy pass travelers are the last on the list of priorities, and how those priorities are prioritized depends on each airline. The rules of engagement here are important, and it’s critical that you know what those rules are. You need to be able to discuss them intelligently, and be able to answer all of the expected (and a few unexpected) questions.

First and foremost: There are no guarantees. Buddy pass travelers get a seat if one is available, and that often means waiting until the boarding door closes—and even then they can lose their seat at the last minute. In fact, they can be on the airplane, buckled in, and ready to go, only to find out that they are being pulled off for a revenue passenger.  And they need to conduct themselves with grace and dignity and not get visibly upset.

The dress code is a major area of conflict. A few years ago, United Airlines was in the news for kicking a buddy pass passenger off because the passenger was wearing a miniskirt. The airline was in the right, and Twitter was in the wrong.

Now, keep in mind, it doesn’t matter one whit if you agree or disagree with the rules of a given airline. You simply have to follow them. If you’re going to allow others to use your buddy passes, PRINT OUT THE DRESS CODE and hand it to them! Quiz them on it!

One common strategy is to list a buddy pass rider for first class, no matter what, because you can always be bumped from first down to coach, but you can almost never be bumped up from coach to first. That means telling your friends (or soon to be ex-friends) that they need to dress and be prepared for a first-class seat just in case. If your friends can’t comply, then either don’t give them a buddy pass, or don’t list them for first class.

What is frustrating is that gate agents are not always consistent in their enforcement of the rules, and some can even be a bit overly zealous. But if you meet both the spirit and the letter of the law, you should be fine.

Another important lesson is this: Make sure that your riders can carry out the listing process on their own without having to call you every time something changes. Pass riding can be very fluid, and you can’t be expected to give up too much of your valuable time trying to get someone a ride.

Passes can be great, but they aren’t for everyone. Choose wisely and choose carefully. And brief in full!—Chip Wright

Great Mentor: Level up to a new rating

This month I wanted to focus on mentoring. I think we might need to come up with a new rating for mentorship. Seriously though, take a moment and think about who mentored you in life. It doesn’t need to be an aviation mentor. Recall what this man or woman offered to you as a guide. Let’s face facts: We need more pilots coming up the ranks. One way to do this is to be an example to all, young or older, that want to learn to fly or advance to the next level. Here are some concrete things to do to achieve your next rating: “Great Mentor.”

Remember:  Mentor is a noun and a verb.

I was a lucky girl to be raised by two parents who were great mentors, and had many non-family mentors as well. I grew up as the daughter of a School Superintendent, I was taught that there were things I could and could not do because I was a Lucas. My father told me that I needed to be an example for the other children. I have to say that this was quite a bit of pressure on a kid, but I never wanted to disappoint my Dad, so I tried very hard to be an example of kindness, honesty, perseverance, and humility.

Other kids went out partying during high school; I didn’t have my first [and last] sip of beer until our senior party. Others might have ditched school, cheated on exams, and tried to take shortcuts around hard work. While I don’t recall a lot of missed classes, and had only the occasional help with trigonometry [thanks Gretchen], what I remember was a lot of hard work and fun. It might not come as a shock, that in my senior year I ran for ASB office, and won the Secretary of Publicity. It was during those early times of organizing a student body, dealing with the administration, and trying to manage school and service that I learned a lot about myself.

One example of mentorship I received was from Mr. Marshal Waller, Beaumont High School [Beaumont, California]. He was the boys’ varsity tennis coach, taught history, government, economics, and vocal arts. Those are all worthy accomplishments but here is what I remember about Mr. Waller:

  • Zest for life
  • Curious to get to know students
  • Encouraged us to think outside box
  • Was prone to bursting into song

These characteristics, perhaps minus the bursting into song, are hallmarks of a good mentor. Mr. Waller created a safe space for us to learn about life and ourselves. As pilots we can do the same for others, remembering that being a “learner” is a tender place.

Sigmund Freud theorized that in order to have a happy life you needed to possess what I call “Freud’s Four.” Part of the work that I love to do in my psychotherapy practice is to help those who are stuck in the holding pattern of life. I help clients to come up new way points and hit enter on their LIFE plan. Make sure that you can put a check mark next to each of these items.

Freud’s Four

  • Physical health
  • Do work you love to do
  • Love of friends and family
  • Passion

Passion has been described as a feeling for something [someone] which you have a hard time fully describing to others. Insert comment about how our nonflying spouses don’t understand why we can get up at o’dark thirty to go to the airport, but can’t really get to the 9:00 a.m. church service on a regular basis.

Passing the baton

As mentors we should want our mentees to pass us. Make sure that you have these way points in your life plan.

  • Make your life happen
  • Have high expectations of them and yourself
  • Hope your mentees will pass you
  • Have a happy life, share with others

As we begin the New Year, and 2020 flying season, take a self-inventory. How do you think others would describe you in terms of being an example? Check out Freud’s Four and get yourself on track. Look for opportunities to help others. Bust out your calendar and take a look at when the fun regional fly-ins, Sun ‘n Fun, the AOPA Regional Fly-Ins, and Oshkosh are happening. Consider taking someone with you that wants to learn to fly, or take his or her flying to a pro level. Be visible. Remember in regards to mentees, they can’t be what they don’t see. I am looking forward to presenting workshops at Sun ‘n Fun, all three AOPA Regional Fly-Ins, and Oshkosh 2020. See you out there!

Mountain Pass Charting: What should be on the sectionals?

Mountain passes are important features, particularly for VFR pilots on cross-country flights.  Terrain is often a limiting feature for those of us that don’t fly in the flight levels and knowing how to navigate through mountainous areas is a key part of pre-flight planning.  The indication of a mountain pass on Sectionals is one feature to look for, especially when flying in an unfamiliar area. But how well are mountain passes denoted on the flight charts?  AOPA recently raised this issue at the Aeronautical Charting Meeting, a national group that meets twice a year to consider charting specifications, and is starting an effort to review the charting of mountain passes.  Are there passes that should be charted but aren’t?  Passes charted that shouldn’t be? And what more could we do to help pilots successfully navigate major mountain passes?

Mountain Passes Missing?

An oblique view of Atigun Pass from the southwest. Pilots turning into the pass can’t see conditions ahead and may not have room to reverse course if encountering poor visibility on the other side.

Alaska has some significant mountain ranges that pilots must navigate to get around the state.  Today, the mountain pass chart symbol is the primary clue to where the “gaps” in the terrain are located, that mark significant passes.  But not all passes are created equal.  Some are pretty benign low altitude corridors, often carved out by streams, and widened by glaciers, with no big surprises.  Others are little more than gaps between mountain peaks, with sharp turns, that may be very challenging to fly.  Perhaps the poster child of the later case is Atigun Pass, in the eastern Brooks Range, and the scene of numerous aircraft accidents over the years.  It is a narrow notch, requiring the pilot to make a pair of ninety degree turns—without being able to see what is on the other side.  Yet, only seventeen nautical miles to the west is a much more friendly pass that connects the North Fork of the Koyukuk with the Itkillik River.  Charting this location would at least let pilots know there is an alternative they should check out during their flight planning activities.  Should we add this pass to the Sectional?

While Atigun Pass is charted on the Sectional, 17 miles west is an uncharted pass, at a lower altitude with more forgiving terrain that locals normally use when transiting this section of the Brooks Range.

Mountain Passes Not Needed?

In contrast, there may be passes on the charts that were imported from USGS maps that aren’t helpful to pilots. Holmes Pass, also in the eastern Brooks Range, was named by a Robert Marshall in 1930, traveling by dog sled. Should this be on Sectional charts today

At the same time we examine at this topic, are there passes shown on the charts that may not be needed, which may lure pilots to fly through them.  Passes on flight charts are typically imported from USGS topographic maps.  Recognizing that locally any notch in the terrain can serve as a route through higher terrain, the features assigned on topographic maps may have little to do with aviation.  Again looking at the eastern Brooks Range, consider Holmes Pass, about 30 nautical miles southwest of Atigun.  According to the Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, published by USGS, it was named by Robert Marshall in 1930—a time when he was exploring the area by dog sled.  (Marshall’s book, An Arctic Village provides a fascinating account of his activities and what conditions were like at the time.)  Does this pass have value for aviation purposes today?  If not, perhaps we should remove it.

The path ahead
To address these issues, AOPA is in the process of setting up a working group, with the Alaska Airmen Association and other industry stakeholders, to examine these questions.  While the effort will initially focus on Alaska, the goal is to make a recommendation back to the FAA and Aeronautical Charting Meeting which would address these topics nationally.  While this process is just getting underway, I am seeking input on these two questions:

(1) Do you know of significant mountain passes not on Sectionals today that you think should be added?

(2) Are there mountain passes charted today that you don’t believe are used, and should be removed?

Please feel free to email me ([email protected]) with any candidates corresponding to either of these questions.

Watch for more information on this topic in the months ahead!

 

[This article was originally published in the January-March, 2020 edition of the Alaska Airmen Association’s Transponder]

Luggage: Pay now or pay twice later

Early  in your piloting career, you begin making not-insignificant investments in everything from books to headsets, sunglasses to spare headsets, and everything in between. Just when you feel like you’ve already bought everything that Sporty’s has to offer, you get hired by an airline, and you’re up to the next sizable purchase: luggage.

Quality luggage is critical. You’ll be dragging a suitcase through airports, parking lots, airplanes, rain, snow, sleet, and the occasional pile of dog droppings. You’ll be jamming your bag into overhead bins, storage spots in cockpits, and places you can’t even imagine. You’ll also be using a flight bag of some sort every day. However, unlike in days of yore, you won’t be needing an old-fashioned “brain bag.”

There are three major brands of luggage that can take a beating and will get you a lot of miles. LuggageWorks is by far the most common. The bags have a metal frame, a durable cloth material, and roller-skate wheels. More importantly, they come with the backing of the company, and if you ever need to have a bag repaired—and at some point you will—the company will rebuild it for the fraction of the cost of a new one. You can also get personalized handles, so that your name is visible to anyone else looking for a black suitcase in a pile of black suitcases. The only downside to LuggageWorks is that its bags are heavy. But…they last forever.

LuggageWorks also makes an entire array of modular luggage that all works together, and it is all made of the same rugged material.

Tumi is another popular brand of luggage, but it is also—by any reasonable measure—prohibitively expensive. That said, it is rock solid; the suitcases are expandable when full; and they are effortless to roll. I mention them because a few airlines use them as “official” luggage, which means you can usually take advantage of substantial discounts. However, those discounts usually apply only to the selected units used by the airline. With the discounts, the prices are very competitive with LuggageWorks.

The third most common is Travelpro. Travelpro is made more of plastic, and it isn’t as durable. The cloth isn’t as rugged as LuggageWorks, but for the standard person it is fine. However, we aren’t standard people when it comes to travel.

Like headsets, luggage is one of those things where you can pay now or pay twice later. Get good quality in the beginning, and you’ll be glad you did. It will also behoove you to get a second suitcase at a minimum. Eventually, your suitcase will need to be repaired or fixed, no matter how well you take care of it. Either way, you need quality stuff that is rugged, well-designed, and fits overheads and cockpit storage areas.—Chip Wright

Fearing Fear Itself

For the longest time, I thought I had a very strange relationship with fear when it came to airplanes. Those who watch the product of my high-altitude flying in an aircraft that is of debatable suitability tend to exclaim that I must be some sort of fearless cowboy, incapable of noticing that impending doom lies around each corner. I tend to ignore those exclamations, as I am intimately aware of the neurosis that goes on in my mind before, during, and after each flight, and it tends to be the opposite of the cowboy mantra. I began to ask myself recently if my sensitivity to fear was getting worse.

As I sat down to address the concept of fear, it came to me that my view of fear is based on my perception of risk, which I can compare rather precisely. In a rather unusual chain of events, the PA-11 that I do most of my flying in was the aircraft in which I soloed and obtained my private certificate, 21 and 22 years ago respectively. As I have traveled the world with it, I can compare my approach and feelings about aviation in a rather controlled introspective study, as it’s the same exact airplane.

When I was a teenager, my grandfather had just restored the airplane, inclusive of obtaining an overhauled Continental O-200 engine, with all accessories at zero time. Those who saw the airplane exclaimed at its craftsmanship, often offering my father unsolicited purchase prices. That led me to believe that the machine was perfect, and absent something “crazy” like a connecting rod going through a piston wall, “nothing was going to happen.” And besides, what if it did? “We train for it, just land it in a field.” And if the plane gets damaged? “It’s insured.” Shrug.

One of the joys of being a teenager is the ability to not fully process the consequences of one’s decisions, so in that case, ignorance was truly bliss.

After an unwelcome break from aviation for eight years, I began flying in earnest in my late 20s, and I had to revisit fear again. I wasn’t worried about the ability to pilot the aircraft, as I had that ingrained into me since I was a kid. I was beginning to question the perfection of the airplane, as it was now fifteen years from its restoration, and was showing some signs of age, partially from sitting and partially from having some hundreds of hours on it. There is also the thought process, not of “its insured,” but “is the insurance enough for third-party damages?” Gone was the idea that I’d just “land it in a field.” Disability and health insurance, deductibles…..the teenage brain was no longer active, and now a responsible adult had to think these things through, inclusive of long-term consequences to a flight having gone wrong.

So how does one rationalize fear and risk? I developed a fetish that Cubs were basically an indestructible airplane that could scud run, short-field takeoff, short-field land, land in snow and mud, avoid busy airspace, fly around high peaks safely, land on the runway sideways in extreme wind….you name it, if a thought came into my mind that represented aeronautical danger, I could rationalize it away by noting some characteristic as to why the Cub wasn’t going to kill me, whereas a spam can would. In retrospect, I went through this mental exercise as I simply couldn’t accept that the airplane could crash with me in it.

That was a fine way to avoid thinking about death, until it almost killed me with a near swipe into a fence in Nebraska some years ago. After a long succession of events, including a blown weather forecast, extremely strong winds, sparse airports, and a furious crosswind in western Nebraska with no alternates in fuel range….well, suffice it to say that there is indeed a limit to how much crosswind the Cub can handle. After a near dance with a fence and a few other things, I landed on the airport lawn into the wind and now had a new problem: I became afraid of crosswinds.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this generic fear was stupid. Where I could have used fear would have been a fear about the fence before nearly flying into the fence. I now did not need a fear of all crosswinds, even if moderate. I had a long and storied history of developing skill landing in strong winds, and the reality of my feelings was not rational. Fear is a fantastic tool to fuel prevention; it does nothing when someone is edgy and panicky trying to fly a plane, as the mind punishes the pilot that he or she “should not be in this situation,” when the most pressing thing is to get out of said situation. Eventually, I slapped myself out of being afraid of every puff of wind, refined my fuel alternate planning, and put vortex generators on, so I truly can land across the runway if it’s that bad. I needed to later that year….twice.

Now that brings to the next phase of life. As middle-age approaches and my hours are getting higher, I find myself wondering what I have missed as I cannot believe that I have crossed into the threshold of immunity from accidents. After reading accident reports and talking to pilots about actual or near accidents…the set of keys, pencil, and coffee mug that jammed the controls on landing….the power line impact with a Super Cub…. I can’t tell if I prefer ignorance or if I do want to know about the multitude of things that I haven’t been thinking about. Both of them are challenging subjects to entertain. How old is that copper fuel line? Wasn’t there a pilot I talked to where his cracked and he landed in a warehouse? And those shock cords…they were installed when I was in eighth grade…shouldn’t they be replaced? Yet the reality is that one mechanic says to replace them whereas the mechanic I paid to do it wondered why I am messing with them as they are “just fine.”

As hours climb in an airplane, so does experience in piloting and decision-making, which reduces risk. However, each hour flown is another hour where something could go wrong, either mechanically or in another context, and I wonder where these dueling forces will come to equilibrium. Many times coming in for a landing, after having flown around prodigiously high glaciated peaks, I have two feelings running in my mind: satisfaction that I am back near base where things should be safer and the voice in my head that says “don’t let this landing be the one.” Just because it’s a sunny day and a successful jaunt into the Alps is coming near to a close doesn’t mean I won’t join the ranks of high-time pilots doing incredibly stupid things, earning their epitaph in a fatal accident study published in a magazine.

I would like to say that risk is ever-present, being the soulless probability of an incident, whereas fear is our response to it, and the two will always continue to be present. While I could make a textbook actuarial case for that statement, I think the relationship between the two is far more dynamic. While mechanical failure can seem to be an “act of God,” it is also the result of the sum of maintenance decisions made for the life of the airplane, mixed with uncontrollable chance. Appropriate fear, which prevents stupidity, lowers risk. Excess fear, which scrambles the mind of a scared pilot, increases risk. Experience reduces risk, mostly, whereas each additional hour in an airplane is another chance for an accident.

I think the takeaway is that fear and risk are a part of flying, are at dynamic equilibrium, and inevitably change during the life of a pilot. It would be safe to say that there is no final destination with safety and aeronautical decision-making, as humans are emotional beings, and a healthy relationship with available wisdom in light of flights taken is always changing. I suppose I shall continue to look at each nut and bolt on the airplane as a potential fatal encounter, while blissfully flying above glaciated terrain, with not a care in the world due to the beauty of it all.

Here are visuals of things that make me blissfully serene, yet ironically contain a fair amount of risk depending on who is looking at it. Transatlantic ferry pilots shudder looking at these, and I shudder even thinking about leaving gliding distance to shore.

Above the clouds, in snowy mountains, is the greatest escape on planet earth. Completely disconnected from civil society. An alternate airport was over the hill without overcast, and an orographically-induced gap was behind me.

In a close second is a sea of glaciers at 12,000 feet. 


A serrated knife blade of rock jutting into the sky (look and you’ll see one in the foreground) is quite satisfying.

It took a couple of years of writing and I have finally completed book #22: The 300 Hour Summer: Flying the Rockies in a Piper Cub. It is a travelogue of my experiences flying the Cub based in Wyoming a distance of the circumference of the earth in one long summer. The Nebraska incident, among other things, gets greater detail.

World peace vacation or expedition?

“If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” –Anonymous

This expedition is amazing and to some it could seem like a vacation because I’m living my impossibly big dream and experiencing so much joy during my polar circumnavigation in Citizen of the World.

However, for me, it is a working mission. Whether I’m wearing my immersion suit in case of a water evacuation, dressed in my flight suit with sponsor logos during public events, or dressed in casual street clothes as I stopover in cities, I have never worked harder than I am on this trip—or in the past two years preparing for and overcoming so many obstacles to be able to do this polar circumnavigation.

I fly solo for most legs, requiring intense concentration and multitasking in a highly modified airplane that involves extensive upkeep. On stopovers to 26 countries I serve as an informal ambassador for the United States and worldwide sponsors while meeting many people speaking many different languages with many different customs as we share the things that are important to all of us as “Citizens of the World.”

That’s not to say I’m not making time when I’m on the ground to build in downtime. I do. I have to—for stress management and for recovery with the schedule we keep. But there is an important distinction. The Flying Thru Life mission is all about living life with grace, ease, and joy. These qualities are experienced as a result of purpose-driven work that comes with a lot of sweat equity along the way. Through my aircraft Citizen of the World, I and my team are on a mission for peace and global sustainability for the planet. If you consider that description a vacation, then everyone should experience that kind of vacation. Our primary goal is connecting the two places on the planet where peace has always existed—the North and South poles—and everyone in between.

To do this we have a business plan, goals and objectives, 10 team members, over 90 sponsors, and thousands of followers asking to be kept informed of our plans and results.

While on this expedition, I’m writing another book about this experience titled Citizen of the World: To the Ends of the Earth and Beyond. It’s work for me because after each leg I sit down at my computer for several hours while things are still fresh in my mind and break the experience down into moment-by-moment detail. It’s difficult to see how things connect and what this expedition means without reflecting on or pondering in hindsight about the relationships between events, but it still makes sense to get the details down on paper. This will be my third book and I’m 100+ pages into it already. Writing a book is a huge commitment and involves challenges and personal growth since life often gets in the way. For me, writing is cathartic and effortful. My style is very intense and raw, involving the conversations that are going on in my head and often not spoken. It takes work to get them onto paper.

We are also filming a world-class documentary about the expedition titled Citizen of the World: To the Ends of the Earth and Beyond that is intended to complement the book and, Gods willing, to be sold to Netflix. The Flying Thru Life team has been so fortunate to attract director and cinematographer Jeremy LaZelle and production coordinator Kristin Gates to our project. Jeremy has produced and directed for National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet. Kristin is a world-class adventurer and accomplished speaker with achievements including being the first woman to hike the Brooks Range in the absolute cold of the Alaskan winter.

Our documentary involves flying all over the world in a highly modified aircraft; meeting all different types of people; and talking to them about what peace looks and feels like to them, what it means to be a “Citizen of the World,” and what advice they have for the rest of the world on how to live a meaningful life. The documentary has an aviation theme with the aircraft Citizen of the World setting world records along the way that involve taking airplane and pilot to their absolute limits.

The goal here is to show the world that we are more similar than different, and we are connected in Oneness: One Planet, One People, One Plane. We had hoped to film five terabytes of film for the documentary in six months and just six weeks into a six-month trip we are already at four terabytes. The team has been working hard and I’m so proud of the quality of their “art.”

While traveling, I am still involved via internet and voice calls in my adventure publishing company’s executive and creative decisions. We are about to release our first children’s adventure book titled The Little Plane That Could. In many ways this can be more difficult than writing a book for adults. Getting the voice correct for a children’s audience requires thinking differently and simplifying complex situations and emotions into words and images a 6-year-old can connect to. We have been working with our illustrator and are on our fourth edit with publication expected in the first quarter of 2020.

Let’s not forget the Citizen also carries some pretty cool science on board this expedition that involves communication with University of California – Santa Barbara scientists and other organizations. Did you know NASA is flying with us? We have a wafer-scale spacecraft mounted inside the airplane. It’s a proof-of-concept that opens the heavens for future space travel. It seems the best way to explore the universe in the future isn’t going to be with astronauts flown in capsules on top of heavy rocket motors using thousands of gallons of rocket fuel—but with circuit boards that will be blasted out into space using electromagnetic cannons at a rate of one every 15 minutes. It’s our quest for connecting with the possibility of life on other planets and making the unknown in outer space known that can pull us together as a planet of humans seeking peace and goodwill.

The Citizen of the World bridges the gap between earth and space with our technology as well. We use satellite communication for weather updates, phone calls, texting, and music as well as multiple GPS systems and ADS-B In and Out.

On this expedition I’m also collecting microfiber/plastic particles for the Dimitri Deheyn Lab at Scripps Institute of Oceanography led by scientist Dr. Dimitri Deheyn. I apply and reapply 3M sticky tape at four points on the airplane—two points on the nose and one on each wing tip. The samples need to be carefully placed before each flight, meticulously removed, stored, logged in a spreadsheet, and placed in storage inside the airplane at the completion of each leg. We are testing to see if microfibers exist in the air all the way around the planet including over the poles. They have been found in all major bodies of water on the planet as well as on the ground all over the world. Connecting them all to the atmosphere would be a major research outcome and another reason for everyone on the planet to pull together to sustain our home here on earth.

These experiments also support our science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) goal on this expedition. This January, while en route I will begin a virtual teaching project with Reach the World, a global network organization that transforms the energy of travelers into a learning resource for K-12 classrooms. I will appear via Skype, presenting the message of Citizen of the World for the World in classrooms around the United States to reinforce Reach the World’s mission to “help elementary and secondary school students and teachers to develop the knowledge, attitudes, values and thinking skills needed for responsible citizenship in a complex, culturally diverse and rapidly changing world.” This will involve answering questions for the kids and keeping them informed about what our team is doing and the challenges and obstacles that must be overcome to make a mission like this work.

We quickly learned when we began filming our documentary that it is the next generation that will bear the responsibility for working together to solve the planet’s major challenges like climate change, pollution, nuclear proliferation, and world peace. This is a huge job, but I’m inspired by the enthusiasm in everyone I’ve talked with. Some conversations have left me with tears of joy running down my face and given me hope for a future that we all dream of—where peace, love, and happiness guide our choices, our actions, and our lives.

Finally, there is the issue of keeping the Citizen of the World flying safely at peak performance. This 26-year-old Turbine Commander 900 aircraft is a wonder of modern technology having just completed a never-done-before 18-hour solo flight over the South Pole. Modifications to this 1983 aircraft have taken more than three years and brought other issues to the surface as we have asked more and more of it.

This airplane is my obsession and learning its systems on a level deeper than I ever imagined possible is beyond anything I’ve ever undertaken. Keeping an eagle eye on Citizen—inspecting every outer surface and part with every takeoff and landing, double- and triple-checking every instrument and unit inside the airplane, and repairing when necessary along the route—is a full-time job in itself. The twin-engine Citizen of the World is many times more complicated than an unpressurized single-engine piston aircraft with minimal avionics, and our smaller budget means that I oversee and manage all communication with service and parts replacement mechanics in our destination cities.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the challenges that an effort like this takes on the ground. Countries outside the United States are not friendly toward general aviation. It’s not uncommon to fly into an international airport that has no other GA aircraft. The handlers and ground control team see smaller aircraft as a distraction. Support facilities often charge the same fees to small aircraft as they do for commercial Boeing 737s. If you saw the invoices I get, you’d see fees including $200 for a full-sized bus to move you 100 feet from your taxied stop to the terminal, $50 for chocks (a wedge or block placed against a wheel or rounded object, to prevent it from moving) that I didn’t need, or a $300 airway fee.

At the Ushuaia, Argentina, airport, I waited three hours to make it through customs, get my bags to the airplane, and file a flight plan. When I complained, I was told they were “too busy” to deal with me. I was handed a bill for $2,800 and told if I didn’t pay with cash I could not leave. Previously, I had been quoted $600 for two locations and the handler said the difference was “extra fees.” When I reminded them that we were a not-for-profit organization on a world peace mission, there was no financial consideration and I was once again told my aircraft would be held until I paid.

To sum it up, no vacation or expedition is without challenges. Fortunately, with time we forget about many of the obstacles and focus on what brings us back to the joy that has always been inside of us. At our core each of us is an explorer working on our own personal journey. And while some of that journey may appear to be a vacation to those watching through the window or on their computer screen, to others it is purposeful work lived with a joyful heart. From the moment we take our first step we are always trying to expand our horizons. Psychologists define childhood play as serious business for growth and development. I think that’s true throughout our lives. We seek connection with others and our planet. We seek to nurture our humanity in all that we do. Whether you call that a vacation, an expedition, or work, I’m all in. I hope you are too.

Pilot applicant New Year’s resolutions

The beginning of the year is a popular time for making New Year’s resolutions. So, for those of you who might be in the process of looking for a first or a new flying job, here’s a list of things to work on:

Network: Build your network! Make contacts in as many places as possible, and keep in touch with them on a regular basis. Phone calls are always best, but emails and texts can work too. But, voice and in-person visits are the most effective way to build a true relationship (or sustain one). Your network is going to give you the best, most recent and most accurate inside information on jobs, leads, et cetera.

Logbooks/Resumes: Update your logbooks regularly, and your resume every time you add a new rating, achievement, job advancement, and the like. Your logbook should be current enough that you can show it to a potential employer at any time without being embarrassed by how far behind it is. The times should be accurate, and the writing legible (if you’re using a hand-written log).

Resumes need to reflect current as well as previous jobs. You shouldn’t need more than a sheet of paper, and all of your major ratings and times should be on there. Along with your logbook, your resume should help to sell you. Contact info needs to be current and up to date.

Letters of recommendations: This is both part and separate from networking. Letters of recommendation need to come from two sources. The professional source consists of the pilots that can vouch for you as an airman, both in skill and in professionalism. The personal source is that group of non-aviation folks that can vouch for your character: family, friends, neighbors, and the like. You don’t necessarily need to have all the letters written and immediately ready to go, but you should line up who you’re going to ask and make sure that they are on board with helping. And keep in mind that they need some time to sit down and put something on paper. A couple of weeks should be sufficient.

Applications: Job applications are tedious, time-consuming, and boring. But it is critical to get them done correctly. With so many online these days, it helps that multiple airlines are using the same application portal. That’s great for you. The one thing you need to do is ensure that yours is error-free. Print out the application, and let it sit for a day or so before you read it. Further, have someone else you trust read it  to spot any mistakes or omissions. Keep a printed copy (or two) in a safe place in case you ever need to start over or just reference it.

Experience: You need this–not just in the airplane, but in other areas of your professional work. Experience in running an office, handling the cash, jockeying the paperwork, solving the major problems—these are all skills that will make you marketable as a pilot. In the corporate world, you’ll do much more than just fly. In the airline world, they will want to know that if you lose your medical that you will still have some value. So, build up skills and talents that go beyond just flying the plane.

The airlines are in a major hiring boom right now, but you won’t get a call for an interview just because. You need to do your part, and get ahead as much as you can. Make the plans, and use them to make an action plan so that you can better your odds of getting hired not just sooner, but where you want to be.—Chip Wright

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