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Adventures in flying

I’m always puzzled by the awe with which so many people—some of them pilots themselves—regard those of us who regularly fly to other continents.

From Day One, there was clearly nothing superhuman to me about the feat, especially given the incredible capability and redundancy of the equipment we operate. Modern business jets are as well equipped as any airliner. Sometimes better, in fact. There are backups for everything, and then backups for the backups, and procedures for dealing with even those systems, should they go south. All this on an aircraft where a failure of any consequential item is already extraordinarily rare.

As I’ve noted previously, the most challenging part of the job isn’t the flying. Rather, it’s keeping up with the varied rules and regulations for each country’s airspace. The customs and immigration procedures. The layers and layers of administrative tasks. The language barriers, time zone changes, and so on. The actual flying becomes the predictable, straightforward aspect of it all. And I have absolutely no problem with that. It ought to be boring, because that’s the level of safety expected for modern day commercial air travel.

So that’s the long way of saying I wouldn’t be too impressed by “extended range” flying. If you want impressive, let me tell you about a long-time friend and student of mine. We got to know one another when he appeared on my schedule for a primary aerobatic course, where he mastered loops, rolls, spins, and loop/roll combinations like the Immelmann, split S, and barrel roll.

I also taught him to fly tailwheel aircraft, and in retrospect it’s one of the most significant endorsements I’ve ever provided. Later, I was his CFI during commercial certificate training. The following year, he bought a beautifully restored 1929 Travel Air 4000 biplane, and I provided some instruction in that as well.

Note the concave curve to the lower wing of this Travel Air biplane

If you’re not familiar with the Travel Air, it’s a link to the earliest days of aviation. I’ve seen the original bill of sale for the aircraft: It was signed by Walter Beech. Yeah, that Walter Beech. The lower surface of the wing has a concave curve to it, as many early airfoil designs did. And although the original Wright J-6 powerplant since has been replaced by the more ubiquitous Continental W670 radial, it’s still a 90-year-old tube-and-fabric, open-cockpit antique. On a good day, you’ll get 85 mph out of in cruise.

That’s to say the airplane isn’t much good for going anywhere. Or at least, that’s what I always thought. As far as I know, my friend never ventured too far away with the Travel Air… until one day when he called and asked a few questions about international procedures, equipment requirements for Europe, VFR airspace, and charts for the Continent. I assumed he was going to be taking some lessons at a local flight school over there.

Charles Lindbergh and his Travel Air biplane

Nope. He was having his Travel Air shipped to England so he could fly it VFR across the Channel and the rest of Europe toward Greece. Then from Crete, across the Mediterranean to Egypt, and down the full length of the African continent to Cape Town, South Africa.

I’ll be honest, my first thought was, “Is this a joke?” My second was, “Are you crazy?” And my third: “How are you going to get approval for any of this?” My jet will make a trip like that, but it comes with a team of professionals to handle the permits, fees, rules, permissions, and mounds of paperwork that always accompany such a journey. I wondered what a flight risk analysis app would say about a trip like this.

On further investigation, he was joining a group of intrepid barnstormers who were re-creating the early 20th century mail routes that ran the length of Africa. They called it the Vintage Air Rally. As I remember, my friend described it to me as “a little adventure.” Boy, was it ever.

But it gets better. When the rally ended in Cape Town, the other pilots had their airplanes disassembled and shipped back home—”home” being places which were, for the most part, a lot closer to South Africa than southern California. My friend? He decided to fly back to England. On his own.

Here’s a map he sent me after reaching the United Kingdom. I stared at that image for a long time. Imagine the weather, the unimproved strips, the mechanical issues, and so on that he had experienced. I know at least one aircraft on the Vintage Air Rally crashed.

My friend regaled me for an hour with stories about being detained for days after a bit of paperwork was not where it should have been. Another time he suffered a broken crankshaft in flight. After a safe landing, he had a new engine sourced, shipped, and installed by his mechanic (who flew all the way from California and arrived at the same time the engine did) within a day or two. He had encounters with instrument conditions, extreme density altitudes, and winds we rarely see back home.

On the other hand, his tale also included moments like landing in the dirt of a remote village only to find the people there had never seen an airplane before and didn’t know what his machine was. Can you imagine giving a ride to a kid who has no concept of what an aircraft is, who has never seen even a photograph of one before?

The air rally participants received permission to make close flybys of normally restricted wonders like the Egyptian pyramids and Victoria Falls. And just by virtue of the low altitude and VFR flying, they saw things from the air I’ll never see in my airplane.

By the time he had completed the trip and was ready to crate his biplane, if memory serves he had flown something like 15,000 miles across some of the most challenging and inspiring terrain on Earth. To me, this is the kind of adventure I imagine when the word “awe” is uttered. Even the earthrounders aren’t as impressive, because they’re usually flying much more capable equipment and operate out of established airports. This air rally was barnstormers writ large, and I doubt anything will top it in the flying careers of those who participated.

I told my friend that there are pilots, and then there are aviators. His experiences made him the latter and were ones that could not be duplicated or taught. Perhaps that’s what made them so special.

As far as I was concerned, from now on, he should be teaching me. I dunno if that comment played a part in what comes next, but he’s now working on his flight instructor certificate.

Alaska pilots: Planning to fly to Canada in January? Test a new app to cross the border

January is not generally the month of choice to fly yourself from Alaska to Canada.  But if you are planning such a trip, why not help test an app to make filing your eAPIS notices easier?  AOPA is collaborating with Jeppesen and Airside Mobile to develop an app to use when filing eAPIS reports, required when you leave or enter the US.

A free beta version of the app, Jeppesen Mobile QuickClear will be tested in the next 5-6 weeks.  If you are planning a cross-border trip in this time period, and would like to provide feedback to the developers, contact Matt York at [email protected] for details.  And don’t forget that in addition to filing an eAPIS report when leaving or returning to the US, you must also contact the Canadian and US port of entry you plan to fly to, by phone, to arrange for arrival.  See AOPA’s website for details on flying to international destinations at http://aopa.org/travel#international_travel.

The other details of the job

Every job has certain aspects that are relatively unknown or don’t often go seen by the general public. Sitting in the pointy end of a plane is no different. Everyone knows that we fly from point A to point B, and some even understand how that’s done, but in addition to the flying, the flight planning, and hopefully a greaser of a landing, there’s more to it. Here’s a list of some what a day’s work often entails, all from only a couple of my more recent trips:

Wheelchair needs. Passengers are often loathe to admit when they need a wheelchair at the destination, though in some cases, they may not realize how tired they are until they get there. At the last minute when these crop up, it’s usually the pilots who have to make a radio call for wheelchairs.

Sick people. A flight this week had a young boy who got sick pretty early on. His vomiting must have been pretty bad, because it set a record for a chain-reaction event. No fewer than nine rows of seats needed some degree of cleaning, and the unfortunate cabin crew ran out of all of their cleaning supplies and sick sacks. It was only a two hour flight.

Fearful fliers. I’m not a fan of drugging Nervous Nellies. One passenger helped his elderly mother by giving her a sleeping pill right before departure. Within a few minutes, she was totally zonked out, and had to be carried off the plane by several people. What if there had been a need to evacuate? Helping her potentially put others at unnecessary risk.

Cabin supplies. This takes up an inordinate amount of time before a flight, and honestly, it shouldn’t. Flight attendants never seem to be lacking for paper towels, headsets, trash bags, and blankets, to say nothing of the improperly loaded food and beverage carts that were put on the wrong planes.

Dirty windshields. This is a major issue in the summer, but it can be one all year round, due to bugs and bird strikes. It’s a safety issue because with a dirty window you can’t see other traffic in the vicinity.

Wi-Fi issues. Airplane Wi-Fi is known to be fickle, in large part because the airplanes have a hard time keeping a signal when moving so fast. In the wired world, passengers demand on-board Wi-Fi, even though it has some pretty severe limitations. That said, we spend a lot of time trying to keep it working.

Connections. Pilots have virtually no control over passenger connection issues, and most airlines have sophisticated computer systems that do most of the decision making with respect to determining what connecting flights will be held versus those that won’t. That said, we will try to find out as much as we can as fast as we can, but there is usually nothing we can do to change the outcome.

Pets. People traveling with pets want to know where they are and if they were actually boarded. I always say something to the flight attendants when I see pet crates while doing the walk-around, but I don’t always see all of the animals that are bound for a particular flight, especially in extreme weather, since they will be brought to the plane just prior to closing the doors in order to keep them comfortable. All we get is a note that animals are on board, not necessarily which animals those are. But the track record for matching animals with owners is excellent.

This is just a partial list, but it gives a bit of an idea what else is entailed. Little details come up every flight, and all must be attended to in some form or fashion. There is more to flying than just flying!

Citizen of the World: The Bridge between Aviation and Space

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci

The flight of the “Citizen of the World,” now scheduled for June 2019, is a flight that will change aviation and quite possibly space travel. Yes, this is a bold statement and an impossibly big dream that is on the brink of coming true with the help of a brilliant team of scientists, engineers, and aviation geniuses who inspire us all to go beyond what we think is possible.

People often ask me why I’m taking on a project of this magnitude and risk. Again and again, I come back to this truth: It’s the most ambitious thing you can do with an aircraft unless you have rocket motors to get you out of the atmosphere. In many ways I’m finding with “Citizen of the World” that we are passing the boundary of the earth’s atmosphere into outer space through the technology onboard.

First and foremost, the satellite communicator in my DeLorme InReach Mini from satphonestore.com allows me to use the Iridium satellite constellation to text, email, and post to social media; get weather updates; and reach out for help if I ever need it—all this without needing cell service! Satellite voice communication is also used as a backup should my onboard and backup UHV, VHF, and HF comms develop “issues.” (But we all know that will never happen, right?!)

Second, the flight will be tracked by a new constellation of 67 Aireon satellites. A supplement and follow-on to the Iridium network, this will be the first time that global tracking is available and the first time that an aircraft will be continuously tracked from the South Pole to the North Pole. Twenty-four million subscribers and followers will be watching with the help of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast Out information. This is an exciting and important contribution to the world because it will help route airplanes around the planet more efficiently while saving time, reducing carbon emissions in the atmosphere, and reducing the cost of travel.

Third, “Citizen of the World” will be carrying a proof-of-concept Wafer Craft Spaceship designed by UCSB scientists contracted by NASA. As reported in the Flying Thru Life blog:

The Wafer Scale spacecraft experiment will consist of several small (~ 10 cm diam x 1 cm thick) “spacecraft” that are prototypes for the NASA Starlight program. Each spacecraft will be self-contained except for need a small amount of power (~ 1 watt each). All the spacecraft will be a box that is about 30x30x30 cm. Each spacecraft will have a GPS, optical communications devices to interact with each other, ultra-low power radio (optional), inertial navigation, temperature and optical imaging sensors. No dangerous or poisonous materials will be on-board. In addition to power we will need a GPS cable (RG-174 coax) to a small GPS antenna that can be mounted near a window. Data will be recorded onboard and could optionally be transmitted via a small satellite communication interface back to the US.

The “Citizen of the World” will be transmitting information continuously back to the scientists in the United States. This same experiment will next fly on the Amazon Blue Origin rocket and then eventually on a NASA mission into space in 2059!

Fourth and lastly (for now), speaking of NASA missions, “Citizen of the World” may have an astronaut on board for a leg of the flight. That’s all I can say at this time, but stay tuned and keep dreaming your impossibly big dreams—when the Greeks envisioned “space sailors,” astronauts were a twinkle in the sky, and today they sail around our planet and land on the moon.

In many ways, the boundary between two worlds has become blurred with “Citizen of the World.” Not only are its wings turned toward the sky; this aircraft will get as close to space as possible without actually going there, thanks to the Water Craft spaceship onboard and the array of satellite technology that is being activated.

Call me crazy, but it’s not only me that sees this unique connection on “Citizen of the World’s” pole-to-pole flight and mission, “Oneness for Humanity.” Aviation Weekly & Space Technology editor William Garvey wrote a commentary published online on Sept. 21, and in print in their Oct. 1 to 14 issue:

The aircraft will participate in the Wafer Scale spacecraft experiment using extremely small “spacecraft” prototypes for NASA’s Starlight program, which is exploring using large scale directed energy to propel small spacecraft that could enable humanity’s first interstellar missions.

The intersection of aviation and aerospace engineering and human creativity opens a stream of energy that can change history and expand what’s possible for humanity when we are willing to go beyond what we think is possible.

“Houston, ‘Citizen of the World’ is ready!”

Sentimental Journey

A rather unique opportunity presented itself tied to a trip back to America over Thanksgiving. I would have the chance, if weather held, to fly a 1952 Super Cub from Lock Haven, PA to the Buffalo, NY region, where all of my aviation adventures started. The flight itself turned out to be one day less than exactly three years from my last general aviation flight in the United States.

The irony about Lock Haven is that it’s 108nm from my grandfather’s airfield, which adjoined my parent’s property for my entire youth. Did we ever visit there? Of course not! Here we have a family that is infatuated seemingly solely with aircraft models that would have been produced in Lock Haven before Piper’s relocation to Florida, and yet we didn’t bother to go. It was something of a homecoming to visit the place, considering my current PA-11 left that factory in the 1940s.

The day of the flight in question was Thanksgiving, which was one of the coldest on record in the Northeast. Skies were blue, wind a bit brisk, temps holding at 10 F, and the forecast clear for the flight to Buffalo. My intention was to get it to a nearby airport to where I was staying, tie down overnight, and then position it the next day at its destination for the flight: Perry-Warsaw, NY.

I was a bit cautious as I had only a brief intro flight once around the pattern the day before. While I knew how to fly the airplane, it wasn’t my trusty PA-11, where routines, sounds, and procedures are so well memorized that I don’t have to think that hard. With 36 gallons of fuel, a cruise speed at an astonishing 110mph, and heat, I had to honestly ask what about this flight would be difficult? The airplane had all of the conveniences I lack with the PA-11.

Preflight was simple. Runup was simple. The only thing holding me back was full throttle. I decided to get it over with, gave her full power, and held on. I am astonished at what 135hp can do (with more airframe weight and fuel) that my 100hp cannot. The aircraft is a raging homesick angel. I had previously decided to play it safe and follow roads to I-390 in NY. Seeing the “Pennsylvania Wilds” (the Allegheny Mountains), I turned northwest over the most remote terrain and sped off, enjoying whiplash from the latest in early 1950s technology.

The flight was really unlike any of my flying memories from 18 years of flying in New York. Some of the winter scenery reminded me in many ways of things I had seen in other parts of the world, with textures, patterns, and intriguing little details I hadn’t come close to witnessing. After some thought, I realized a solid foot of snow on the ground meant that the PA-11 was entombed for the winter before I owned it, as nobody cleared the snow off the grass runway. I recall a few flights in February where a few inches of powdery snow fell, though that was it.

As my grandfather had recently passed away, taking the time to fly around Western New York and visit sites in many ways related to aviation was a pleasant experience and a chance to reflect on how much changes in life while much doesn’t change at all.

One may ask how flying in the USA felt after three years in Europe. Well, it felt how it should feel: easy. Departing from Lock Haven wasn’t all that different than leaving from La Cerdanya. It was the cross-country flight, quick ride for a friend in Buffalo, and ground operations at multiple airports that was magnificent and uncomplicated.

The Super Cub before powering up. A delightful machine and a delightful flying day.

Lock Haven, PA Airport – where Cubs were born.

The “Pennsylvania Wilds.”


Allegheny River, not far from the NY border.

Lake effect snow! It wasn’t forecast, though that is the nature of the beast. Somewhere in southern Wyoming County, NY.

This is the first time I got to see features like this in Western NY from the air.

Route 20A. When I was first being taught how to navigate at age 8 by my grandfather, he told me to “use the roads. That’s 20A. You know how to get home, so fly us there.” That first flight was between Perry-Warsaw, NY and his airfield following this highway.

My grandfather’s airstrip, where I soloed in the PA-11 in 1997. It is in the bottom half of the image on a diagonal.

Lake Erie, NY with Canada on the horizon.

Buffalo, NY. Canada is across the Niagara River. For some reason, I didn’t ever overfly downtown after getting my private certificate, even though the airspace is still the same as it was in the late 90s.

Larch trees. I did not know these existed in New York until a few years ago, did not recall ever seeing any of them, and recently paid some homage to them in the Swiss Alps. Oh, the ironies.

Middle falls, Letchworth State Park. This place has two distinct noteworthy events associated with it. The first was my only involuntary spin in my aviation career. My instructor used my uncoordinated practice stall as an object lesson, permitting a Cessna 150 to spin to imprint in my mind that its a poor practice. One minute I was staring at the sky, the next I was staring at this waterfall, spinning as it got closer. Oh, and the second thing. I got married beside this waterfall 4 years after the spin. 

Letchworth State Park in evening light.

Perry-Warsaw, NY airport, the destination of the Super Cub. It also happens to be where I passed my checkride 20 years prior!

Jump-seat etiquette

Most airline pilots will at some point likely have to ride in the cockpit jump seat. The jump seat is a third (or fourth) seat that is installed for the FAA or a company check airman to do observation flights. However, the majority of the time, it remains empty. Qualified pilots—in this case qualified is limited to FAA-approved Part 121 pilots—are allowed to ride in the jump seat with the concurrence of the captain. U.S. airlines use a computerized system to verify eligibility at the gate or the ticket counter, but in all cases, the captain has the final say. Nearly all airlines have a minimum dress code that is, essentially, business casual: no jeans or shorts, a collared shirt, and a professional appearance. The rider presents his company ID and the boarding card provided by the agent, and if requested, a copy of his license or medical, to the captain.

It should be noted that other qualified personnel are allowed to ride the jump seat as well, but the specifics are individual to each airline. As a general rule, pilots, dispatchers, air traffic controllers, NTSB personnel, and designated company leadership individuals all have access. The FAA and Secret Service agents trump everyone else.

You can expect a briefing from the crew if you’ve never ridden in the cockpit of the particular airplane. The briefing will consist of operating the seat, which is usually stowed, the oxygen mask, cockpit door, radio, and anything unique to that airplane (the CRJ, for example, has an overhead escape hatch). Most captains will gently remind you that you are a part of the crew, and that is a key concept to understand: The jump-seater, even if from a different airline, is considered an essential crewmember. That means no alcohol, and it means you should not request the jump seat if you’re sick.

Once underway, there are a few simple things worth remembering. The most important is the concept of sterile cockpit. Any conversation below 10,000 feet msl is to be limited to safety of flight only. No personal or extraneous communication is allowed. However, you are expected to point out traffic or other obvious safety-of-flight issues if they occur. Likewise, if you are listening to the radio—and you should, either on the speaker, your own headset, or the one provided by the crew—and you catch an obvious mistake or a missed radio call, you’re expected to point it out and help the crew. Not only is it expected, but it’s appreciated.

Riding the jump seat is also a great opportunity to just observe. Even though you may be riding in the same airplane that you fly, it may with a different carrier, and you will be shocked at how differently airlines can operate the same equipment. The checklists will vary; flows, procedures, and callouts will often be wildly different; and points of emphasis will not all be the same. That said, it’s important that you don’t question a crew’s apparent lack of action as a mistake. If you do have a concern, it’s best to try to phrase it more as a question of curiosity than as doubt.

Don’t assume anything on the jump seat. If you have food to eat, ask permission before you eat, and if possible, offer some to the crew. Introduce yourself to both pilots, not just the captain, as well as the lead flight attendant. When you arrive at the gate in your destination city, give the crew a chance to finish their checklists before talking or opening the door, and be sure to thank them. Realize that sometimes weight and balance will not work out in your favor, and you’ll have to get off. Most importantly, do not get on the airplane and announce that you’re “taking the jump seat.” It is the captain’s decision, and such an entitled attitude is one that will surely lead to confrontation or your dismissal.

The jump seat, which is hands-down the most uncomfortable seat there is in nearly every airplane, is a privilege and a great tool, but there are certain rules of etiquette that need to be followed. Learn them and follow them, and show your appreciation for the free ride home or to work.

Exiting the Hold: Utilize Community Connection

In last month’s installment of Exiting the Hold: Reaching your Aviation Goals we talked about the importance of quieting the critic, exhibiting determination and the importance of perseverance in reaching your goals. In the final installment we will focus on utilizing aviation community connections to help reach our goals.

Sun ‘n Fun 2018

In this digital age you would be remiss not to use built-in aviation community connections such as:

  • Message Boards
  • Type Clubs
  • Online Forums
  • Type-Specific Websites
  • Facebook

Utilize community connection

View isolation as an enemy in attaining your goals. When we are isolated it is easy to fall into old patterns of thought and behavior. Remember from earlier installments of Exiting the Hold, old thinking will not support new learning.

Oceano Airport Toys for Tots

Why not attend one of our wonderful aviation events? Whether large or small, these events are sure to inspire you. Gatherings are a way to network with old-timers, connect with mentors, and meet others on the same path of growth. Make sure to fully utilize the support of your friends and family.

Try putting this simple formula to work for you. First, change your thoughts. The second step is to change your language. Next comes changing your actions, and finally your experience will change. Here is an example with the goal of getting a tail wheel endorsement. Your old thinking of “I don’t have the rudder skills to fly a tail wheel” changes in to “I can learn the skills I need to fly a tail wheel.” Next comes the language piece. Tell a friend, “I am learning to fly a tail wheel.” The action part is scheduling the airplane and instruction necessary for the endorsement and completing the training. And finally, voila! you are a tail wheel pilot.

Exiting the Hold, OSH 2018

Exiting the Hold: Reaching your Aviation Goals has been a very popular presentation series over the past year as I have presented across the country from Sun n Fun, to Oshkosh, to the Capital Airshow in California. I have decided in 2019 to continue with this series in hopes of reaching even more folks who feel stuck in life, and hopefully to inspire them to move forward toward success.

Exiting the Hold: Reaching your Aviation Goals

Six Keys Summary

  • Maximize timing
  • Choose your course of study wisely
  • Let yourself be a flexible thinker
  • Quiet the critic
  • Exhibit determination
  • Utilize community connections

In early 2019 I will be partnering  King Schools to offer Exiting the Hold in beautiful San Luis Obispo California. ACI Jet will be hosting the evening seminar which will be an opportunity for us to gather together, earn FAAST credit, see the presentation, and also perhaps win the drawing for a certificate for any course King Schools offers. Look for more information soon.

It is possible to exit the holding pattern you have been flying. Acknowledge that you have been stuck, use community connections to decrease isolation, make informed choices about resources, and be determined to change your aviation future. Look at obstacles merely as challenges to overcome; in the end your flying will be safer and more enjoyable and you will be proud of your accomplishments.

 

 

 

 

Sim landings versus the airplane

Airline training is always conducted in a simulator these days because of costs and safety. Back in the day, training was done with a combination of simulator and in the airplane (prior to that, it was all done in the airplane). Sims are great procedures trainers, where much time can be saved in getting in the necessary repetition.

But one thing that simulators are not great trainers for is learning how to land. As good as the graphics are, sims don’t provide the necessary depth perception, though they have gotten magnitudes better over the years. Further, wind simulations for landings have never been very good, and so getting an accurate, realistic feel for the effects of various winds is difficult. I say this not only from my own experience of hundreds of hours of simulator time, but also from friends who are experienced sim instructors.

I’ve also seen this problem from flying with new-hire first officers who are inexperienced in the airplane. Believe it or not, the most difficult procedure to fly is the visual approach without reference to guidance from an approach source. Keep in mind that every airline wants you to use whatever approach aids are available, but there will be times when one isn’t available, and as a basic skill you need to be able to land strictly using the eyeballs.

The transition to the airplane is difficult for several reasons: It’s much bumpier (and the bumps are realistic) than the sim; the sounds are a bit different; and most of the time you won’t be the only airplane on the radio.

Engine response to thrust input may differ slightly from airplane to airplane, and unlike in the sim, you can’t always set a thrust setting and leave it there. Moreover, as I mentioned, the winds are vastly different. In the sim, when the winds are set, they are fairly universal. In other words, you won’t see a 15-knot tailwind at 3,000 feet that shifts around to a 10-knot headwind at touchdown. The effect of terrain is on wind in the sim is not there, and the gusts are virtually non-existent.—Chip Wright

The perpetually underestimated: A love affair with an underpowered airplane

The author and her BFF:  Hill-top coffee stop, Alaska Range.

Valdez 2013: my first fly-in. The weather across the state of Alaska was uniformly amazing, and there were an exceptional number of airplanes in attendance. The GPS line from Talkeetna involved crossing two mountain ranges, several large glaciers, and the jagged fjords of Prince William Sound. My merciless wingmen soon left me, the underpowered Pacer, far behind. I tried not to think too hard about the ocean beneath my tundra tires. Small beaches popped from the landscape with extra importance. Any Kodiak pilot would feel right at home, but we inland  pilots are afraid of water.

We settled into a posse near the north end of the ramp. My 10-month-old daughter crawled around, hoisting herself upright on the gear legs as I set up camp. The sea of assembled airplanes glittered in the sun. Carbon Cubs, shiny Cessna 185s, and strange experimentals that were probably worth five years of my air taxi pilot salary. And that’s when I realized they were all nicer than mine.

Most of my aviation career has taken place in the Shangri-La that is Talkeetna, Alaska. It is an aviation town through and through, with a thriving little airport and a warm flying culture. No one has much money, and the airplanes reflect that. It is not uncommon for an airplane owner to lack running water in their small, off-the-grid cabin. My PA–22/20 is totally airworthy, but pretty rough looking. With its clipped wings and small motor, it made a pretty spicy bush plane.  But I was in love from the day I’d bought it, and had failed to notice the flaws. Plus, it was all I could afford. I truly think that some airplanes are blessed with, you know, that flying spirit. This thing surely has it. It has nine lives, and we’ve been through a lot together. We are bonded.

. 

Quite a few people agreed with my post.

Soon enough, people began strolling up and down the lines of parked airplanes. Never having been to a fly-in, I was bewildered. It felt exactly like the cat shows I’d participated in as a nerdy teenager. Here you sit, by your animal, and the humans file past… and comment on it. Everyone had something to say about my plane. And it wasn’t good.

You need to extend those wings by a few ribs.”

“You need to re-do that fabric with a different process.”

“Have you thought about a longer prop?”

“Wow, only 150-horse? Do you actually take this off-airport?”

“You should cover those gear-legs.”

“Hmmmmmmmmm. Are you the pilot???”

I am fairly good natured, but toward the end of the day, I snapped. Yet another pilot was accosting me. “You don’t even know where your wingtips were manufactured? You really need to change those out for a better shape!” Using my most syrupy female voice (with the lisp even), I replied: “Sssssooooo, like, which one is yours?” And the guy began stammering: “Well, ah, well you know, I have to be back to work on Monday so I couldn’t take the chance on the weather.” I looked to the azure sky, and then I fired back. “Well, I flew here. In this plane. Over two mountain ranges, a couple of ice fields, and some jagged ocean. And you know what? I’m broke and I’m saving up for a throttle cable, ok?”

After the poor guy left, I sat down in a huff against my tundra tire. The smell of my daughters poopy diaper wafted across our campsite. I had stepped foot outside my aviation nursery and it wasn’t exactly good. Back in Talkeetna, no one questioned me or my airplane. They watched us come and go, working our way through the trials of the off-airport… and always coming back intact.

Through the fog of my grumpiness, my eyes focused on a scene taking place just down the row. An eccentric-looking kid, roughly my age and clearly Alaskan, was draining the tanks on his ancient Cessna 172. The patina of its paint matched the patina of sawdust and oil on his Carhartt pants. “Ah—are you competing in the STOL comp?” I said with incredulousness. “Yep,” he replied in the confident tone of the perpetually underestimated. “I want to see what this thing can really do.”

Denali Basecamp, April 2018 ski-mountaineering day trip. I’d laid tracks with a Talkeetna Air Taxi Beaver the previous day dropping off some of the first climbers prior to the actual installment of camp. Conditions were so good that even the lowly Pacer did just fine. Photo by my climbing partner and National Park Service climbing ranger Melis Coady.

Become a pilot aviation ambassador

As a pilot, adventurer, and AOPA member, you are also in the unique position to be a pilot aviation ambassador and have an empowering impact on the world!

You are blessed to be flying. You must have done something right. You gathered the resources and surpluses in your life to afford the lessons, fuel, instructor, medical exams, and the very precious time to fly.

You must be reasonably intelligent to learn all the concepts that go with flying—thrust, weight, lift, and drag. How about everything related to how an aircraft works? Piston/turbine engines, control surfaces, weight and balance, and radio communications. You are the conductor of an aviation orchestra of thousands of parts creating a flying symphony with an audience all around you. They just have to look up.

Have you ever considered the positive force you can be for the world as a pilot? What we are talking about is called a “noble purpose.” It is the thing that you do with the intention of making the world—your world—a better place. It not only adds to the lives of others, but equally important is what it does for you. I believe those who consciously choose to make the world a better place for everyone are rewarded with richer lives and more opportunities in this world.

When I decided to use aviation as the vehicle for my message of One Planet, One People, One Plane: Oneness for Humanity, the floodgates opened. Seventy-four sponsors came onboard and so many of what I call “Citizen Angels” appeared to help to support this mission.

Your “Citizen Angels” are in the wings waiting for you. What could your noble purpose be as a pilot? It doesn’t have to focus on sponsorship or reaching a million people—it doesn’t have to be a thousand or even a hundred. It could just be one person, and I’m guessing you already know who it is—it’s the person whose face lights up when they hear that you fly, and that you are a pilot. Young, old, boy, girl—there’s someone out there whose future as a pilot could be determined by your interest in them and your encouragement of their questions. How about reaching out?

I know who that person is for me—my accountant. Last time we met, he was full of questions from a recent Miramar airshow. Our topic that day was propellers and how they can not only change their pitch for the different phases of flight, but how some propellers can actually create reverse thrust. His face lit up, and I could see the wonder in his eyes.

Helping someone move from talking about their interest in flying to taking flying lessons and getting more actively involved in general aviation could be as simple as inviting them to go for a flight. Nine times out of 10, you have an extra seat and would love the opportunity to share your passion. God knows it’s hard to shut a pilot up when it comes to talking about airplanes. Every day there are tens of thousands of extra seats available in our GA airplanes that fly empty. Perhaps it’s time to make that call and invite someone along.

Whether you acknowledge it or not, you have a powerful opportunity to influence, inspire, and help others fall in love with the magic of flight. Every time you step into your airplane (and out of it), you have an opportunity to be a pilot aviation ambassador. Who will you share it with next?

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