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Airline Weight and Balance

One of the basic principles of learning to fly is learning the importance of proper weight and balance and how to compute it for a given airplane. This basic skill is covered on every written test and most practical exams, and in the training world, we learn the need to ask people for their weight or to guess on the heavy side to make sure we get it right.

Airlines, however, are not about to ask everyone what they weigh. Instead, everything is based on standardized weights. Passengers are assigned a standard weight that is intended to be a realistic average across gender, height, and age. Kids below a certain age are assigned a weight, as are service animals in the cabin. Luggage is also standardized, usually into three broad groups of below fifty pounds, fifty to a hundred pounds, and over a hundred pounds. Carry-on bags are assigned a weight as well. In fact, a suitcase may ‘weigh’ one thing in the cabin, and be completely different in the cargo bin. You can’t make this stuff up.

Not every carrier uses the same formulas, however, and even within one airline things can vary. My company, like most, uses certain weights based on the season, with winter weights being higher. But we also have weights that are destination-specific or geographically specific. Island destinations usually have slightly different weights to account for the number of people who bring scuba gear, and ski destinations are different as well for obvious reasons.

Charter flights also pose issues, because luggage and even passenger weights can be out of the norm. An NFL charter may need to take into account that the players are bigger than the norm, and all of the equipment has to be accounted for. If you’ve never seen a football team travel, it’s a treat. There are dozens of trunks, duffel bags, and individual luggage to account for. Everything you see on a sideline or in a locker room on TV gets packed for the round trip, and it’s heavy. Military charters are also a challenge.

All of this is done based on the airline’s approved weight and balance program, which is coordinated with the flight standards district office that oversees the certificate. Sometimes changes are required. In 2003, when Air Midwest (Mesa) Flight 5481 crashed in Charlotte, one of the culprits was that passenger and baggage weights were no longer accurate as Americans had gotten heavier. Over the next year or so, passengers were randomly weighed in order to reset the weights. It’s probably time to do that again.

On the Matter of Mountain Flying

I recently had a realization that my perspective of mountain flying has changed a bit since I first got started. To quote a fellow pilot, “I must admit I laughed aloud at your comments about dangerous wild life in the mountains of the western US! A guy who will fly a 70-year-old 100hp airplane over some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world in less than ideal conditions of wind and weather is worried about running into a bear…” Yes, that is one of my primary concerns, if we’re talking about flying in the Rockies. As long as a forced landing isn’t in a grove of pines or straight into the side of a cliff, bears are my biggest concern afterward, which admittedly seems a little silly. Whatever mountain flying I do is a careful product of removing risks endemic to flying in high terrain, so it doesn’t worry me too much to be in the air if I am well prepared.

Contrast that with when I got started. The biggest hills were a few hundred feet high in Upstate New York, weather tended to be worse in them, and a remarkable number of pilots met their maker flying into the Appalachians. My grandfather couldn’t be bothered with going anywhere near terrain, and the rest of non-pilot family piled on that mountains were equivalent to death, so there I began my pilot days, terrified of mountains.

I finally did fly into those Appalachians, renting a plane in Charlotte, NC and flying a tad into West Virginia on a sunny day. Although terrain was roughly 3,000’ at most, I cruised at 7,500’ just to be safe, and found myself in mountain waves, alternating between full power and descent power, with airspeed going from slow flight to maximum structural cruising speed, even though I was almost a mile above terrain. “Curious” I thought, got tossed around coming over the ridge in Bluefield, and made a graceless landing, where the guy picking me up noted that he “saw every last bounce of it.”

I’d eventually poke around in the mountains of North Carolina which max at 6,674’, managing to scare myself once with downdrafts at 3,500’ over Lake Lure that exceeded full power (ahem, turn around), though otherwise it didn’t seem like too terribly big of a deal…until moving to Colorado. At the last fuel stop before entering the foothills and then the Rockies, there was a kind poster that showed menacing peaks with black clouds and in large block text “Last year, 15 airplanes went into the Colorado Rockies and never came out.” With that illustrious introduction, I climbed painfully to 12,000 feet and wedged over a pass, certain that something bad was bound to happen. I was in the Rockies after all! After an hour of playing, it was somewhat anticlimactic, and there I was.

At every step of the way, I voraciously read more than one aviation magazine, learning the general wisdom of mountain flying, inclusive of standard advice: max winds 20 knots at the peaks, adequate clearance, stay on the windward side of the valley, cross at 45 degree angles, and always have an escape plan. Talking to locals hasn’t really ever been much use; they tend to reinforce whatever negatives exist, suggesting against it in “that airplane” and go about their merry way, casting an aura that I am a retard.

It wasn’t until a few years later that someone noted that “you taught yourself mountain flying.” In retrospect, it’s quite obvious, though I didn’t see it that way at the time. I frankly didn’t think that I “taught” myself much of anything; really, I just read up on seemingly senseless airplane crash narratives, and figured out where the wind was blowing, so I could avoid getting swatted out of the sky, as the PA-11 is basically a glider with a lawn mower engine hooked to the front at 14,000 feet.

Once I was quite proficient with Colorado and Wyoming flying, an enthusiastic friend who was a student pilot at the time (while also a highly skilled mountain paraglider) couldn’t get enough of my flying around the Tetons, acting like it was some kind of secret sauce. I finally said to him: “If I were sitting in the right seat, I could verbally tell you what to do, and as a student, you could do everything I am doing. It’s not that complicated.” He wasn’t convinced, and that began the discussion that I continue to struggle to distill.

The thing about mountain flying is that flight control movements to command the aircraft in almost all situations differs little from normal phases of flight. Turbulence on average is higher, though no higher than a summer day with angry thermals in the South. Otherwise, flight movements are pretty standard. If the airframe and engine cannot handle the conditions it is facing, the pilot needs to have not gotten there in the first place, or get out. The entire dance of flying around grand peaks has been more to do with weather and wind than a mystical operation of the flight controls.

I devoted some more time to thinking about the subject, as I find discussions of mountain flying to still remain dramatic (crashes continue – I am sure its related). I thought about another mountain sport: skiing. That is something where we specifically do not shove a beginner on a black diamond and let them figure it out. It is certain they will wipe out repeatedly, if not be unable to complete the first run. Is skiing a good comparison? Nobody downhill skis on flat surfaces and then increases mortality heading into the mountains, so it is not apropos. Ok, so I thought about walking and hiking. That is something that average people have certain skills at, and I think mountain parallels are similar.

Just about every risk to a hiker on relatively flat surfaces is amplified in the mountains. The biggest danger is a person who is unaccustomed to it and is therefore physically and mentally unprepared. Colder temperatures, stronger sun, rapidly changing weather, getting lost, bears…. the list is almost the same as what a pilot faces compared to flight over non-mountainous terrain. Even in North Carolina, a remarkable amount of people manage to kill themselves on basic day hikes on geologic features that are no more than hills in my view. Some of the stories are quite impressive, as we’re talking people with extensive university education managing to fall off of cliffs and/or die of hypothermia in entirely avoidable situations. In the end, lack of familiarity is the culprit.

The real issue with mountain flying is not operation of the controls; it’s the knowledge base and therefore aeronautical decision making to proceed through terrain minimizing risk and problems. While fearmongering the dangers of mountains presented significant barriers to entry to my initial mountain exploits (theoretically translated into safety), it became counterproductive once I got into the thick of it, as it seemed that nobody knew, or they kept to the zeitgeist that mountain flying was so mysterious that it is a thing of mythology. Yet, it is certain that there are mountain mavericks, as they land on glaciers in Alaska, though it takes a short conversation with a fuel attendant at Leadville to hear stunning stories of high-altitude aeronautical stupidity…in a flat valley that merely happens to be at 10,000’.

My contention is that we need more knowledge and less fear. It is evident that an ignorant pilot heading into the mountains for the first time is in a heightened state of risk. To advertise the maxim that mountains are merely dangerous only works to the extent it causes the acquisition of knowledge or avoidance of terrain. The moment an uninformed pilot heads into terrain (ironically least qualified to determine a safe day vs a poor one), fear does not give one pivotal bit of data that said ignorant pilot needs: why it is dangerous, particularly for the airplane being flown, in the mountain range in question, with the person behind the controls, and in the weather for that flight. Mere knowledge of the “why “of the risk in question almost automatically lends to an evident solution.

The reason I mention these factors is that mountain flying can be incredibly enjoyable while also at times having virtually no added risk (or even wind!). At the same token, depending what country a pilot lives in, it might be unavoidable to some extent. The USA features enough mountains that I am surprised I wasn’t taught something other than avoidance during initial flight instruction, though I guess the Rockies were so far away nobody figured I’d take the PA-11 there.

In the latest news, I have released my 18th book, “Above the Summit: An Antique Airplane Conquers the 3000ers of the Pyrenees.” After reading this post, one should feel that it is inconsequential….


Some flying photos since the last post. It has been an active spring weather pattern, a nice contrast to a dry and windy winter.
Cadí-Moixeró with some late April snow fall.

The cloud clump was being blown out of the valley as I chased it. This is a frequent occurrence locally once a storm system clears out. There is a short window where winds aren’t too bad before the northerly waves get going.

Another day with Cadí-Moixeró producing some lee side cloud formations. One would note that I remain on the windward side.


Andorra to the left and France below. Whenever flying above overcast, I ensure there is a hole big enough in the event of a forced landing, and that I know what’s under it. In this case, I was over El Pas de la Casa, Andorra, with a hole below and about 2,500′ of space under the cloud with some fields to land in.

Also familiar terrain over Pic Carlit, France. There was an orographic consistent gap in the clouds to the right, with farms down below many thousands of feet. I could always land in the snow, except the post-forced landing survival matter would be complex given the late hour. I carry a tent, food, first aid kit, tools, and other supplies on all flights. 

Avalanche in late April snow. First I had seen one in this location.

Pedraforca with light May snowfall.

Spring in the valley.

After an early May snowfall, the north winds got going sooner than expected. This range is a bit of a fierce wind tunnel when the winds are going, so I stay on the windward side as getting sucked over would have featured severe turbulence, among a host of other problems.

France left, Spain right, Andorra ahead. Winds were light at 10,000′, with an overcast deck stuck against the north side of the Pyrenees. To my rear left was another orographic gap in the clouds, in the lee of Pica d’Estats, with a 4,000′ descent to a road below with hikers’ cars in the parking lot.

From Spain looking into Andorra. The Spanish side is in the lee; hence, the clouds dried out behind me, though they stayed in Andorra and it was precipitating on the north side, a common event. To proceed into the range would have been profusely silly.

 

 

 

 

Pilot tools during delays

The airlines are probably better than any other industry at angering their public. Ticket prices fluctuate wildly, flights are deliberately oversold, and schedules can change with no obviously acceptable explanation.

But, when push comes to shove, passengers only care about two things: the price of the ticket, and being on time. Once the ticket is purchased, the bar for satisfaction is actually pretty low. Sure, folks want the free drinks; and nobody likes paying to check a bag; and friendly employees go a long way toward minimizing negative social media hits. But the airlines have the data to back up one fact: on-time performance trumps all, and nowadays, the airlines are required to publish on their websites the performance reliability of each flight.

Pilots have several tools they can use on this front. Aside from getting the airplane ready on time and taking care of maintenance and other issues as quickly as possible, actually pushing back from the gate on time should be a major goal. The schedules are built with the expectation that flights will leave on time, so push-back crews, gate agents, and other support personnel are staffed accordingly. If you encounter a delay, it’s not uncommon to have the delay magnified by the need to wait for a push-back crew to take care of another flight. After all, there’s no point in making multiple flights late just to accommodate one.

Flying the flight plan is tool number two. Almost all airlines fly what’s called a cost index (CI), which is a tool for measuring the most optimal way to operate a flight. There are times when flying as fast as possible and burning the extra fuel is the most cost-effective way to fly. Likewise, there are times when flying slow and minimizing fuel burn is the best decision. Before you get the flight plan, the CI decision is made by a combination of the dispatcher and the main computer systems that track a flight. Airplanes that are behind schedule are usually flight-planned to fly fast to make up some of the time.

Flying the schedule factors in as well. When you land early, especially in a busy hub, you run the risk of a gate not being ready or available upon your arrival, and this can actually make you even later as ATC and the company move you around to kill time. I’ve had the misfortune of landing early only to find that the gate wasn’t ready, and the subsequent taxiing that took place had us actually arrive more than 30 minutes late. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do to avoid this problem, but if you can, you should.

The biggest difference we can make in the passenger experience is in the way we communicate with the passengers about what’s going on. When a crew doesn’t keep the folks who pay their salaries abreast of what is happenings, the negative comments start to show up immediately on social media. Further, thanks to smart phones, everyone has access to your company’s app, website, and other data points. Gone are the days when a crew would make multiple announcements en route to the destination, because with apps and on-board entertainment systems, just about everyone has a viewable map to see exactly where they are at any point in time.

Timely announcements at the gate prior to departure or during long departure delays go a long way, because the view out the window is so limited. This is especially true during ground delay programs (GDPs). On the other end, long taxi delays getting to a gate can be immensely frustrating to passengers because of tight connections or a need to get somewhere at a certain time. Most airlines have a policy requiring an update on set time schedules during delays.

The real go-getters are the pilots who will walk up to the gate house and make an announcement from the gate prior to boarding, especially for long delays. Not everyone is comfortable doing this, but it does make a great impression on people.

I recently flew on an airline I don’t work for, and we were delayed getting to our gate because we were early and the flight at our gate was a few minutes late getting out. The public address announcements from the cockpit were not very good. They didn’t sound polished, and they didn’t sound confident. Making good PAs isn’t hard, but it does take practice. Practice while in your car or in the shower, and do it until it doesn’t sound stilted or fragmented. You’d be amazed at just how far some solid, accurate information will go, especially for nervous flyers.—Chip Wright

Is flying worth dying for?

Boeing 737MAX-8 photo courtesy of Boeing Co.

With the recent loss of two new Boeing 737 Max aircraft, the loss of one of my instructors in an airplane he flew for years, and the recent destruction of the Spirit of San Diego, an airplane I flew around the world in 2015, I’m becoming less comfortable with air travel whether I’m flying the airplane or in the passenger seat.

It’s never easy to accept the loss of life or an aircraft. When I hear about crashes due to an inexperienced pilot or poor aircraft maintenance, as heartbreaking as it is, I understand why it likely happened, but all the incidents I mentioned above involved very experienced pilots flying well-maintained aircraft.

So, how then, do we regain our confidence in the air given this rash of aviation incidents? Or do we? I’m not sure this is a situation where we can reason our way back to a point of comfort. So then, perhaps we explore it in an entirely different way.

Perhaps it’s time to deal with the bigger issue of our mortality and accept some of the risk that life involves.  What if we were to examine our mission in the world and then assess what level of risk we are willing to accept to achieve our dreams and goals?  Most pilots, including myself, really don’t like to talk about mortality and the risk of flying; even the thought of it makes us feel uneasy, which is all the more reason to open the conversation and talk about this reality directly here and now. None of us is guaranteed how long we have on the planet. There is so much out of our control, and few of us are sure of how much the role of fate plays in our lives.

As I consider my upcoming pole-to-pole circumnavigation and reflect on my first circumnavigation when I flew around the world, taking off and landing in 26 countries in a single-engine airplane, quite honestly I think about my potential mortality quite a bit. Looking out into the total darkness of the Pacific Ocean late at night with thousands of miles of water around me was a constant reminder that I was taking a calculated risk. If that wasn’t enough, I was very much aware of a father and son who attempted an equatorial circumnavigation in a single-engine airplane in similar circumstances a year before me and didn’t make it.

I want to share some of the things that gave me peace of mind and kept me safe on my journey as I experienced six inflight emergencies that made me, at times, doubt my decisions, my abilities as a pilot, and my trust in myself to recover.

Prior to the trip, I had a few signs that I struggled to interpret. Each could have been viewed as a “bad” omen by some. I resisted the urge to see them as bad or good and felt instead the universe was tipping me off that I still had some work to do.

One of these signs was at the exact moment that I decided to do my first circumnavigation. I turned on the TV and the movie Cast Away with Tom Hanks was playing. If you are not familiar with the story line, after an airplane he was in crashed, he was stranded on an island in the Pacific, talking to a volleyball he names Wilson, and eating lots of coconuts. After watching the film and tossing and turning all night, I decided I needed to get serious about my survival skills. I took classes, assembled a rock-solid survival bag, visualized and practiced getting out of my airplane long before it would submerge, which I had heard would take about a minute, and even less time if the airplane was on fire. Echoing in the background more often than I care to acknowledge were the words my father shared with me frequently before my departure, “You are just going to get yourself killed,” which I learned to meet with a Zen attitude by focusing on positive thoughts and actions that would keep me relaxed and help me respond with greater ease and grace.

Next, I decided to go a little deeper and explore my beliefs about my soul and multiple lives. I read many books on the subject and spoke to thought leaders and experts in the field. Out of all this research, I came to believe my soul was eternal, that I would actually live hundreds maybe thousands of lives, and it didn’t matter if this one was long or short because there would be another life coming along a short time later (cosmic time) so no reason to lose sleep over it. In fact, I’d probably come back a better pilot, (possibly more humble?) with a much cooler airplane. Keeping a sense of humor while being serious about my safety helped keep me grounded too. It was also about this time I was watching Star Trek and heard the young Spock talking about the old Spock when he said, “Fear is irrational when you have lived as many lives as him.” Bones then chimes in and says, “Fear is what keeps us alive!”  If you’re a Star Trek fan like I am, you know Spock was a Vulcan, which made him logical and unable to lie, except in that one episode. Knowing Spock was a movie character, I felt only slightly better, but life and death and reincarnation were starting to make sense to me and I was still excited about doing the trip.

Another significant moment is when I recalled some words that I heard a graduate level spiritual psychology classmate once say, “If it’s not worth dying for then why even do it?” In other words, what’s the risk/reward ratio?  During my flight around the world with hundreds of thousands of people pulling for me, I felt that what I was doing was very important. People were telling me they were inspired by the trip, that they were overcoming their personal challenges and that it was important for the world to see someone going after their impossibly big dreams.  In the process my aircraft, Spirit of San Diego, became a vehicle for my global message of oneness and brought considerable positive attention to general aviation. The journey allowed me to fulfill my lifelong dream of using aviation to teach us about life. It was also a way for me to share the concepts I had learned in my spiritual psychology studies to help others manifest the resources of time and money to pursue their dreams like I was able to do.

Another perspective to consider: Have you heard people say that everything happens for a reason in your life?  Maybe you have experienced this yourself?  A series of events happens for no apparent reason and then you come to realize those events needed to happen first so that something else could manifest.  Or perhaps you needed to learn something to understand the importance of some future event.  It’s quite possible the path you are on that doesn’t always make sense will ultimately help you fulfill your noble purpose in life and benefit millions in some way. I’ve learned that judging the importance of an event in the moment is only part of the story, so why put yourself through the stress?

No one has been given any guarantees about their time on the planet. Life is a temporary visit to the earth school for each of us. Reminding ourselves of this point helps us to value each moment that we are living and allows us to celebrate life. Perhaps if we focus more on living in the moment and not in the past or future we could appreciate the value of the time we are experiencing now and accept the things that we have little control over that will happen regardless of what we do. Surrendering to what is in front of us is sometimes our only option and perhaps, for those of you who believe there is more to the life you are living, the greatest demonstration of our faith and the reason we get back in an airplane and choose to fly through life with the greatest of ease.

What Comes Around, Goes Around; Complacency is an Enemy to Protecting airports

In early 2009 pilots in the Central Coast of California became aware of a threat to Oceano Airport [L52]. A developer from a neighboring community set his sights on bulldozing our historic airport and building condominiums.  While some folks scoffed at the threat, I took it seriously and began to mobilize local and regional pilots, gained the support of the California Pilots Association, type-clubs, Ninety-Nines and AOPA. I founded the Friends of Oceano Airport and we pretty quickly quashed the developer’s plan.

Brief History of Oceano Airport:

In the 1920s and ’30s airplanes routinely took off and landed on the California beaches near Pismo, Oceano and Grover City. Barnstormers became more popular in the mid 1940s hopping rides, and spotting schools of fish. Yet due to increased tourism, vehicular traffic, and the harsh environment at the beach, a more inland landing strip became a necessity. Oceano Airport was built in the 1950s to serve the communities of Pismo Beach, Oceano and Grover City.  This unique airport is within a short walk of the beautiful Pacific Ocean and sandy beaches.

A few months ago another threat to our slice of Paradise came from the Oceano Community Beach Association. This small group has a worthy focus, to revitalize the town of Oceano. However they commissioned local graduate students from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to generate proposals to meet their goals. We were quite shocked to learn that one of the proposals was to close our airport and re-develop it for hiking trails, and housing. We have mobilized once again, to keep our airport in the pubic eye, in a positive way.

Oceano Airport is part of a two-airport system that includes larger San Luis Obispo (KSBP), and has received FAA grant assurances. While Federal obligations mean it would take a lot to close Oceano, it doesn’t mean it is impossible [think Santa Monica (KSMO). After speaking with our County supervisor and Airport Manager, it was clear there is no intention to close the airport. Yet, we are keenly aware that complacency is the enemy of airport preservation. Protection of our GA airports needs to be an intentional and active process.

More about our Jewel:

Oceano, in addition to perhaps being the closest public airport to the Pacific Ocean, is a vital link in emergency services in San Luis Obispo County.  Life-flight, California Highway Patrol, Sheriff Aero Squadron, Civil Air Patrol, Diablo Canyon evacuation, Beach rescues, Arroyo Grande Community Hospital, and Angel Flights all make use of Oceano airport.  It is a great field for training, particularly short field, and is used by regional CFIs.  Many type clubs have their annual events at L52-Oceano such as Mooney Ambassadors  EAA Chapter 1 Sons of Beaches

California Highway Patrol pilot Joe Kingman shows visitors the helicopter

Opportunities for recreation at Oceano are bountiful; we offer on field camping, Fly ‘n Ride bicycle loan [donation basis] and are walking distance to the dunes, hotels and restaurants. Additionally several businesses are located on the field including SkyDive Pismo Beach  and Banner Airways 1942 Boeing Stearman.

The Friends of Oceano Airport (FOA),  a 501C3 non-profit organization, is committed to the preservation of this beautiful slice of paradise, Oceano Airport.  We are proud to be a chapter of the California Pilots Association, whose goal is to help promote general aviation, and to promote and protect general aviation airports.

FOA hosts three standing events per year. All events are family friendly and free-admission. Coming up, the second Saturday of May is Oceano Airport Celebration: Salute to Veterans. Our 11th annual event is May 10th and 11th. Fly-In Movie Night will be held August 24th, and Toys for Tots is the first Saturday in December, this year Saturday December 7th.

Community events bring visitors to the airport both tourists and locals. The airport is an economic engine for the area. Oceano Airport is a perfect example of how airports can be good neighbors.

US Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots, with assistance from Lambda Chi Alpha

Michael Madrid brings joy at Toys for Tots

Fly-In Movie Night

Testimonials Help

Another way to promote your airport is to get testimonials from local businesses, and publish these on your airport association websites.

“As an aviation company encompassing flight school, charter, and maintenance operations, SunWest Aviation, Inc. at San Luis Obispo [KSBP] has a vested interest in preserving Oceano Airport for our customers and employees. Oceano Airport [L52] is and always has been an extremely valuable resource for pilots and students flying out of San Luis Obispo Airport.

As an airfield with a short runway, Oceano Airport provides important real-life training on short field operations, and also provides a close-by non-towered airport for training. It’s also a close, safe place to land if students have a mid-flight emergency near our regular practice area.

Our involvement in Oceano Airport Celebration allows us to connect with the community and get valuable exposure to potential customers. Events like the fly-in movie nights are a fun way for our students and instructors to network with other aviators. The loss of Oceano Airport would not only negatively impact our company financially, but also deprive our students of valuable training.  In a community sense, it would also remove an opportunity for our students to connect with and give back to the veterans in our area, who are regular attendees at the Oceano events.  As small airports become more and more rare (especially in California), Oceano Airport provides a place where the aviators of the past, present, and future can celebrate flight.”

–Erin Hawkes, CFII

Our GA airports are in need of both protection and promotion. Complacency is the enemy. As flying season approaches for much of the country, we focus on large events such as Sun n Fun, the AOPA Regional Fly-Ins, or Oshkosh, but I would like to gently remind you that if we don’t protect and promote our local airports, they are at risk. Why not use a website like Social Flight or Fun Places to Fly  to check out local and regional airport events. Or better yet Angel Flights , Pilots n Paws , or Flying Samaritans Get in the air, support a worthy cause, and use our General Aviation airports.

Spring is in the air, you should be too!

I look forward to seeing many of you at an upcoming event. Here are some events in my flight planner:

  • Oceano Airport Celebration: Salute to Veterans, Oceano, CA [L52] May 11-12. $10 Beach Burger Fry and Dance 5/11, Free admission, Vets/LE/Active Duty/First Responders eat for FREE all day Saturday 5/12. We are collecting items for military care packages.

Collecting military care package items at Oceano Airport Celebration: Salute to Veterans

  • MooneyMAX Convention, Longview TX [KGGG] June 6-8. I will be teaching Right Seat Ready! © with co-founder Jan Maxwell. This one-day seminar is open to any non-pilot who would like to attend [not Mooney specific].
  • Father’s Day Fly-In, Columbia CA [O22] June 14-16. This year marks the 53rd annual event. Camping on field. This beautiful airport nestled in the Gold Country of California is an important part of the community. CalFire has an air attack base located at O22. The famous Moo Pool will be ready for business.

The ever-popular Moo Pool at the Mooney Ambassadors Display

  • AOPA Livermore, CA [KLVK] June 21-22. Friday I will be teaching a 3-hour condensed all-airplane Right Seat Ready! © On Saturday I will present Exit the Holding Pattern: Achieve your Aviation Goals.

AOPA Fly-In  Photo by David Tulis.

 

 

 

 

Professional pilot health risks

I recently had the opportunity to work at a high school career fair, and it was fun to hear what the kids’ first questions were. The most common one was “Why do this?” That’s pretty easy to answer, as the job is fun and provides great travel opportunities. But the most interesting question by far came from a young lady who asked me if the job had any health risks or hazards, which caught me off guard because it isn’t something I’d expect a high schooler to be overly concerned with.

That said, I was honest with her, and it also got me thinking about those very risks. As I explained to her, there are two that immediately come to mind: exposure to high-altitude radiation, which gives pilots an elevated risk of skin cancer, and the effect of numerous sleep disruptions. More airplanes than ever are being equipped with window shades that allow for an FAA-approved means of blocking the sun while keeping the cockpit cool. In airplanes not so equipped, pilots have learned how to fashion window shades using checklists, folders, flight plans, sandwich wrappers, you name it. Some pilots—not many, but a few—also use sunscreen to lower the risk of potential cancer.

Sleep disruption is a major health issue. Cargo pilots are obviously exposed to this to a greater degree than others, but we all have to deal with time zone changes at some point. Long-haul and ultra-long-haul pilots get the benefit of relief pilots and crew bunk rooms to allow for an adequate amount of rest. The rest of us are forced to use more conventional strategies, starting with trying to stay on the same time zone as much as possible, but this is easier said than done. I’m based on the East Coast, and I find that one night on the West Coast isn’t that hard for me to cope with, but if I have to spend two nights in the Pacific or Mountain Time Zones, I have a much harder time getting reacclimated to my regular sleep hours, no matter how hard I try to stay on Eastern time. Throw in the occasional hotel fire alarm or miscellaneous hotel noise, and sleep becomes a precious commodity.

Diet and exercise are two other major issues. Today, airport food options are better than they used to be, but fast food on the run is still fast food on the run, and a deliberate decision needs to be made to make sure you’re eating well and not just eating yummy. Diet goes together with sleep because it can be tempting to eat a late meal, which only compounds the sleep issue while adding to potential weight control problems.

Exercise must be deliberate and often planned in advance. Some hotel fitness centers are great, and some are…not so much. Resourceful pilots can often find a local gym to use for a per-use fee (some hotels prearrange this), and others take advantage of outdoor opportunities. I personally like to walk as much as possible, and I don’t mind taking the stairs. In fact, some folks will run stair wells in hotels as a form of exercise. Even simple steps like walking versus using moving walkways can help. Others will focus on getting their cardio work in while traveling, and focus on weights or strength training in their regular gyms, where the equipment is known and predictable.

Piloting, unfortunately, is often a sedentary lifestyle, and it’s easy to find yourself gaining weight and taking the easy way out. Make it a priority to keep in shape, to watch your diet, and to maintain a regular sleep schedule. Your livelihood and your medical depend on it.

Alcohol standards are tightening

Recently, other countries have adopted more stringent rules for pilot drinking, and in the United States, at least one state (Utah) has moved to lower the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) for driving to 0.05 percent.

It’s always a big deal when a pilot is arrested or implicated in an alcohol- or drug-related arrest. We are held to a higher moral standard, because of the lives we are responsible for, both in the air and potentially on the ground, on each flight.

In parts of the world, there is a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol. While the FAA still allows a 0.04 percent BAC, most airlines also have a zero-tolerance rule, so even though you may not be outside the bounds of the federal aviation regulations, you might still find yourself on the unemployment line if you test positive. In other countries, any positive BAC test could put you in jail in a legal system that you do not understand.

In the United States, the opioid epidemic has forced the addition of more drugs onto the screening profile. A positive test will result in an immediate grounding, and it could lead to a full revocation of your certificates. You may be able to go through rehab and participate in the Human Intervention and Motivational Study (HIMS) program to get back your medical, but you may be forced to reapply and re-test for all of your certificates—an expensive endeavor no matter what. If you’re at a regional airline when all of this happens, you may render yourself unemployable at a major.

I’ve known several pilots over the years who have been forced to deal with a positive test. Some walked away from aviation, believing that the lifestyle of a pilot contributed to the problem. Others traveled the long, hard road of rehab and recovery. A few were unable to stop the cycle of destruction and suffered an untimely death. All had to deal with painful fallout with family, friends, and coworkers.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying a few cold beers or a glass of fine wine on a trip. But the temptation to have more than a drink or two on a long overnight can be stronger than some of us can handle. Throw in a chance encounter with another crew in the bar or restaurant, and things can quickly get out of hand. If you find yourself unable to control your intake of either drugs or alcohol, get help sooner rather than later, and take whatever steps are necessary to avoid becoming another unfortunate statistic. Employee assistance programs are a great resource and can help you navigate the health insurance process along with any HR issues. They can also help point you toward resources that may allow you to keep flying while you seek treatment instead of playing Russian roulette with a drug test.

Pilots may be held to a higher standard, but we’re human, and we have the same fallibility and issues as any other group of people. If you need or want help, get it. You’ll be glad you did.—Chip Wright

Nostalgia of Grass

I routinely refer to the underlying purpose of taking a particular flight, as merely flying for the sake of flying is something that I do a minority of the time. This winter’s almost desert weather has featured a personal exploration into how much pattern and other work I will do for the love of flying, which is still a surprising amount. In any case, what I am doing most of the time is undertaking an adventure of exploration on some level, with the airplane as the primary platform to achieve the objective in mind. Coincident to using the Cub to get somewhere, I get whatever pent up aviation need is lurking satisfied, thinking the sole reason for the flight was the adventure.

In light of the foregoing, I go through an elaborate dance before I decide to go somewhere. After weather and photography conditions are factored, I am usually looking for some angle where I am in pursuit of something, whether it’s an itch to satisfy from staring at Google Maps, or simply a beautiful day that beckons taking flight. On this flight, I struggled as two months had gone by with hazy and unattractive weather, an itch had developed to fly, yet I couldn’t seem to devise somewhere to go. I finally discovered the ruins of an old church, sticking out above the water line in a reservoir, something I found on Google Maps yet was not evident when I flew there when the water level was maxed out two years ago. That, and there was a ridge I wanted to see again, also two years having passed by. With those two in mind, I decided to have some good old backcountry fun and land at two little dirt strips, for the sole reason that its enjoyable.

Exploration of the Pre-Pyrenees turned out to foster a few surprises. By now, I thought I had flown it all so much that there was nothing new, and I found some rock formations that I would have been duly impressed if I saw them in Wyoming or Utah. From there, it was off to Peña Montañesa, a curiously long ridge that reminds me of Cadí-Moixeró, then down to the Mediano reservoir to check out the church steeple in the water, which I did find. I landed at Coscojuelas, a grass strip used as a gyrocopter school, that sticks out on a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides.

What I found there surprised me a bit. It is a grass strip as expected, and I have landed there before, though I found myself flooded with memories of flying with my late grandfather in childhood. After thinking about it, this was the first non-asphalt landing surface that I had used since his passing, and it reminded me of his frequent preaching about how landing on grass was better. Any time we landed on asphalt, he’d shake his head when the tires would howl on touchdown, later grimacing as he repeated how turf was far better for a Cub or Super Cub, like it was its natural habitat.

The funny thing is that I find grass filings and all sorts of clippings and dirt in places I’d rather not have it. Greasing the tailwheel, pulling grass from the landing gear and behind the hubcaps….the list goes on where the stuff gets crammed, and yet I still agree that asphalt is somehow unnaturally “hard” on an airplane, logic notwithstanding. I learned on a short grass field, and that will always feel right to me.

From Coscojuelas, it was off to Castejón de Sos, a remarkable little dirt strip in the Valley of Benasque. The field elevation is a hair shy of 3,000’, lower than La Cerdanya, yet tucked prodigiously in towering terrain on all sides. I took a direct route through some impressively steep valleys that would have made the Swiss feel proud, coming upon the field, amazed yet again that the place exists. I landed there in October 2017, having already experienced typical mountain winds with tight quarters, so I knew what it was like, though it was still a treat. While I am sure some Swiss fields could give this place a run for its money, the tightness so far is the most out of any of the airports I have landed at in the USA or Europe.

After takeoff, I did the obligatory circular climb so as not to smack into rock, then explored some rocky cliff sides on the way home, with a big smile on my face, having forgotten all of those “concerns” I had about where to go and if it would have been worth it.

Muntanya d’Adons. Pre-Pyrenees.

Catalunya/Aragon border, Riu Noguera Ribagorçana.

Tozal de Sis.

Southeast of Bacamorta.

Peña Montañesa.

Church steeple sticking out of the water. Mission accomplished.

Coscojuelas airfield.

Peña Montañesa is in the rear background.

Ésera River Valley, on the way to Castejón de Sos.




Castejón de Sos airfield in lower center right (to the right of campground, along the river). The valley is rather tight.

Climbout, after doing a 360 to avoid ramming into terrain.

Pre-Pyrenees texture, on the way back.

Be reasonable

This piece of advice no doubt applies to just about any line of work, and it isn’t limited to pilots. That said, it bears repeating.

It isn’t uncommon for pilots to have to spend money out of their own wallets for certain work-related expenses. Cabs, crew meals, and hotels fall into this category, and at some airlines, even the fuel bill can initially become the pilot’s responsibility.

Most folks will use an element of common sense in these situations. Hotels usually become an issue at the last minute when a crew has to deal with an unexpected diversion or the company hotel clerk(s) make a (monumental) mistake. Crew meals can become an issue under the diversion scenario or on holidays. The question becomes how much to spend.

It’s one thing to be stuck in a Smallville, USA-kind of place with no typical hotel rooms, and find yourself forced to take a cab to high-end Hilton or Marriott in order to get your crew (or even just yourself) some sleep. What will likely raise eyebrows will be booking your crew into the Ritz or the Waldorf-Astoria. Rest (pun very much intended) assured, this has happened. These events usually have a reasonable and even humorous backstory, and it usually comes as a result of a pilot trying to make a point about a series of issues.

But such a strategy isn’t always wise or wallet-friendly. The best bet is to find a reasonable accommodation at a hotel similar to what your company provides, and if the price is higher than normal because of local demand, so be it. But buying rooms at a thousand bucks a pop is a risk.

Meals create similar opportunities for abuse. A pilot at a major airline that provides crew meals to its crews was entitled to put in a reimbursement for a meal that didn’t get boarded. Mistakes like this don’t happen often, but they do occur. The intent in this case was for the pilot to get a meal as soon as practical for a reasonable price. What was not intended was to try and get away with expensing a meal for four in excess of a hundred bucks at Disney World (yes, this actually happened).

When you exceed any normal sense of reasonable behavior, the end result is that the rules are changed and made more punitive for everyone else. Don’t be that person.—Chip Wright

Best Practices for Aircraft Survival Gear in Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation

Alaska Airmen Association

AOPA Air Safety Institute

Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association

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