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Improving Backcountry Airstrips: New Windsock at Gold King

If you fly into Gold King (PAAN), look for the new windsock on the north east corner of the field.  The old windsock remains at the other end of the airport, giving pilots an additional “tool” to evaluate the wind before landing on this backcountry strip, on the northern flank of the Alaska Range.  While it might not seem like a big deal, this represents a collaborative effort between a small group of stakeholders that rely on the airstrip and the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT), who owns the facility.  AOPA Airport Support Network Volunteer Dave Pott helped coordinate between DOT and the locals, to accomplish this upgrade to the airfield.  While it took over a year and two work parties to complete, this is a success story about improving a backcountry airstrip.


New windsock flys on the north east corner of the Gold King Creek airstrip.

Background
Gold King is not a typical “community airport” operated by DOT&PF. It fits into the realm of backcountry airstrips, generally located off the road system that provide access to public lands across the state.  Each backcountry airstrip has its own story, and Gold King is no exception.  Established in 1959 as the Gold King Creek Radio Relay Station, it housed a microwave radio relay tower, equipment building and ~2,000 foot airstrip. The station connected the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) at Clear Air Force Base (35 n miles west) with a chain of stations that linked defense radar stations, known as the White Alice Communication System.  These radio relay stations stretched across Canada ultimately providing communication to the NORAD headquarters in Colorado.  The unattended facility was powered by diesel generators with fuel flown in to the airstrip.  Satellite communications eventually replaced the need for the ground-based system, and the facility was closed in 1988.  When the Air Force returned the land to the State of Alaska, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources made some of the surrounding property available to the public, which resulted in construction of a number of summer or year around homes in the area, with the airstrip serving as the principal source of access.

Beyond meeting the needs of local property owners, Gold King serves a much larger role in the north central Alaska Range.  Today listed as a 2,500’ airstrip, Gold King satisfies a number of needs. Due to the access provided by the airstrip, the University of Alaska utilized it as a location to locate a seismic sensor.  The Bureau of Land Management has established a Remote Automated Weather Station (RAWS) there, to help monitor fire danger.  Because it is situated on gravel deposits underlain by bedrock, the airstrip is quite stable, making it a good staging area for aircraft hauling gear or supplies into mines, cabins or recreation sites with smaller airstrips or off-field landing areas.  It becomes a popular staging area during hunting season in the fall.  Finally, the airstrip serves as an alternate place to land and wait when weather keeps aircraft from getting to their planned destinations.

Almost lost as an Airport
After the Air Force suspended its use of the relay station, the federal government transferred the land to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  While they made the land around the airstrip available to the public for homesites or recreational cabins, keeping the documents current for the airport was not a priority. When the Fairbanks Sectional Chart was published in 1998, Gold King had completely disappeared from the map!  Fortunately, in response to aviation industry requests, the airport was transferred from DNR to DOT, and slowly re-appeared—initially in 2003 as a “closed” airport, with unknown runway length or condition.  Today the chart and entry in the Alaska Supplement, reflect more complete information, including a CTAF to use when operating in the area.

Under Air Force management, Gold King was charted as a private airstrip. After the Air Force shut down the facility and transferred it to the State of Alaska, it briefly disappeared from the charts. After the airport was transferred from DNR to DOT, it has been more completely described.

 


Local equipment was used to excavate a spot for the new windsock at Gold King.

New windsock
Dave Pott is the Airport Support Network Volunteer at Gold King. He is retired and spends the majority of the year living just off the airport.  Working with other land owners, a volunteer group keeps an eye on the airport, and has banded together to do limited maintenance on the field.  Last year, he reached out to DOT and requested their assistance to replace the windsock, which was in a state of disrepair.  DOT responded by supplying a new windsock assembly. They had it delivered to the airport in the fall of 2017, along with bags of cement to properly anchor it, deep in the ground.

Volunteer crew placing the form for the base.

In early June, the locals held a work party to start the installation.  The volunteers provided a back hoe to excavate a hole for the base and flew in a cement mixer to support the project.  On July 5th, a second work party took place to put the stand on the base and raise the windsock.

We owe both DOT and the Gold King volunteers a big THANK YOU for working together to keep this

Work party two: mounting the windsock stand on the base.

airstrip in good condition.  In these times of tight budgets, collaborative efforts between stakeholders will be essential to keep our backcountry airports across Alaska in good working order.  Look for projects in your part of the state, and if possible, lend a hand!

The Human and the Pilot: A Story About Irrationality

The follwing are a low-time bush pilot’s thoughts about her irrational side… and when her greatest phobia somehow found its way into the cockpit. 

I recently read an online article titled “I Hate to Admit it, but Women Pilots Make Me Nervous.”  The piece was written and published for a periodical in the United Kingdom, and penned by a woman. And no, it was not from the 1970s: The date on the article was August 16, 2017. In it, the author acknowledges that her viewpoint is inflammatory and outdated, and apologizes for “…being an antiquated old sexist.” She goes on to list her own instabilities, and attributes them to her gender, expressing concern that a female pilot would also fall prey to such emotional vagaries. For example, she writes, “…I become a terrible driver at certain times of the month.  Might my pilot be flying when she’s pre-menstrual? Arguing with our teenagers can leave me distracted and upset for days. Could she be prone to getting flustered?”

Of course, we, as pilots, know this cannot be true. And, as a fellow female, I have never experienced the symptoms she is describing. There is no place for fluster in a cockpit, regardless of age, sex, outside stressors, and pretty much everything else. Part of being a pilot means maintaining a cool, calm, collected demeanor, especially in times of crisis. It means constant mindfulness, hyper-aware vigilance, and logical, succinct decision making. Though all the pilots I know display these traits on the job, I doubt if any of them are wholly unshakable. We may keep it together in the cockpit, but perhaps we allow unfiltered emotion and irrationality into other aspects of our lives.

I for one, am not unshakable. I was born an artist, with a free, impulsive spirit and not what you’d call a linear way of thinking. Over the decades, I have engineered a different personality inside of my mind: the pilot. I have grown to respect and admire this person: the cool, calm, competent decision maker. The PIC. And the PIC is unshakable in the cockpit (as a few crises have determined). However, the irrational side still exists, and it needs an outlet.

There is a large, black beetle that inhabits the boreal forests of my Alaskan home. And I am absolutely terrified of them. They have been my bane since childhood. Attracted to heat, they make for my dark hair as it warms in the sun. To my dismay, there seems to be a large population on our ramp. I learned to bribe the rampers with tip money to swat the beetles away from my safety briefings so my phobia would not become apparent to my passengers. My co-workers find this behavior hilarious, and query me about it often. In trying to explain it, I say that it helps me be a PIC…  because I allow this irrationality an outlet. I compartmentalize myself, keeping the pilot separate from the person that runs screaming from the beetles. It’s a harmless way to be a flustered person, I tell them. And the two shall never meet.

Last year, while on short final, my passenger started swatting at his neck. And swatted a big, fat, black beetle right onto my leg. It stuck there, looking up at me with its awful pincers and its unimaginable horns. And I realized that my phobia had somehow found its way into the cockpit. The next few seconds seemed to stretch out into eternity as the two sides of my personality faced off. The PIC won, of course, flicking the beetle down by the rudders and landing the Beaver quite nicely (despite the weird wind). My passenger never knew that he’d almost changed the outcome of the flight. However, as I was putting the  cap back on after fueling, I heard a loud “brrrrrzzzzzzzzzzzzzppp.” And there a beetle was, stuck to the airplane by the filler neck. And the PIC in me just shrugged her shoulders as the flustered person ran screaming for the hangar.

You can’t make this stuff up

Part two of a three-part series. Read part one here. 

ATC wouldn’t change runways despite the fact that nobody could use the runway being advertised. While all of this was going on, the airport was effectively ground stopped, during which time the departures were shut down. The weather that had been north of the airport had circled around to the east and south, and a new set of cells was forming to the north.

My opportunities to commute home that night were quickly evaporating. With the extra time to kill, I began tracking my options on the company app, hoping the inbound flight that made up my flight would be late as well (airplane…crew…I didn’t care, as long as one was late and my flight was delayed enough for me to get on).

In the span of time that we were sitting there at the gate, the passengers were boarded because we wanted to be able to get off the gate in short order. With 12 years of captain experience, I knew this decision was fraught with peril. It can make one look like a genius, or it can be a disaster.

This one, unfortunately, was option B. We announced the delays, and before long we were on our fifth flight plan. I was ready to just delete everything on my iPad and be done with it, especially when the dispatcher told the captain we’d need substantially more fuel.

The new route had us taking off and flying west for almost 30 minutes, and then turning north and staying north, flying over Milwaukee and into Canada to join an arrival usually used by European inbounds. The flight time was scheduled to be 30 minutes longer, and because we needed an alternate, we needed an extra 5,000 pounds of fuel, which was going to take some time. It was clear that our route options were limited, and ATC and the company were both working to keep us north of a line of weather that extended from just east of Denver all the way to the East Coast.

In time, the passengers began to get jumpy, especially those who were going to miss international connections. One passenger wanted to get off to go find a place to smoke, and another wanted to get off to buy a cell phone charger. You can’t make this stuff up.

Others just wanted to get off, and several did…but then a few new ones from a later flight got on. This led to some confusion later with respect to getting our final passenger count and weights, which had to be accurate to determine our runway options, flap setting, and speeds. As a friend of mine would sarcastically say, “Good times.”

The captain muttered at some point, “I think I’ve lost control of this situation.” I could only laugh, especially since the app showed I could still, in theory, make my flight home. I knew that wasn’t likely, and I had basically given up hope. Knowing I had no chance took away the stress of trying to make it, but I missed my own bed.

To compound the problem, we were starving. We were scheduled to get a meal on the flight, and neither of us had gotten off to eat in Denver, because Murphy’s Law says that if we had, we would have missed a chance to leave. The stop-and-start nature of the efforts to get out of the gate also kept us from eating at the gate. To top it all off, we were facing some FAR 117 legality issues if we waited much longer.—Chip Wright

In the third part of this three-part series, Chip’s aircraft is number 30 for takeoff. Will the crew time out before they get off the ground? 

Sometimes you just can’t get a break

Part one of a three-part series

I often joke about certain things at work by saying that “This was not in the brochure!” People often imagine pilots on layovers sitting on a beach somewhere with an umbrella drink while they bask in the glow of their career and enjoy the scenery and the sun. And that does happen—but certainly not every day, and not for every pilot.

I recently had one of those “not in the brochure” days, and as a pilot who commutes, it took on even more meaning (and misery).

The day started easily enough, with a leg from San Diego to Denver, but getting into Denver was the beginning of the end of any kind of schedule. Storms in the area meant we had to hold for the better part of 20 minutes. Progress was measured by the descents in the holding pattern just east of the Rockies. Initially, we couldn’t get below 25,000 feet, but eventually we were brought down to the teens. For us, fuel wasn’t much of an issue, as our dispatcher had given us quite a bit of extra fuel in anticipation of the weather. Other crews, however, were beginning to talk about diverting. We kept updating the weather on our iPads to see what was going on not only near the field, but also on our anticipated route home.

We could see the weather moving on the radar as we flew circles, and it was moving fairly fast. However, a sizable area was affected, and I was already worried about our outbound flight to Newark. After all, I only had about an hour on the ground in Newark to catch my flight home, and hey, we all have priorities, especially with a week off coming up after having been home one night in the previous two weeks.

At long last, we began getting vectored to the final for Runway 8. Just north of the field, we got a visual on the weather. It was big, and it was ugly. That said, we could see a few places where we should be able to take off and get through the line before it closed up.

On the ground, the ramp had just opened up after a brief closure for lightening, another sure sign that we weren’t out of the woods. When we downloaded the flight plan, the route looked pretty straightforward: We’d go a bit north, and then beeline east to join the arrival. If only…

Soon enough, a message came over the ACARS (sort of an in-flight email/fax/texting device) telling us that we needed call clearance for a reroute. When I dialed in the frequency, it was jammed, so I patiently waited. I waited so long that I finished the USA Today crossword puzzle. Finally, I got a word in, and I got our new route, which I was immediately told was no longer any good.

Three out of the four departure gates were closed, and the one runway that ATC insisted on using was causing all kinds of problems for everyone. It was too warm to use because of Denver’s elevation and the tailwind. For reasons I still don’t understand, they wouldn’t change runways despite the fact that nobody could use the runway that was being advertised.—Chip Wright

In the second part of this three-part series, the weather gets worse and Chip wonders if they will get off the ground in time. 

Health risks for business jet crews

It’s long been known that flight at high altitudes exposes flight crew and passengers alike to greater levels of radiation than they normally experience on the surface, but a recent Harvard study on the prevalence of cancers among flight attendants has brought the subject into the spotlight once more. It’s been picked up by a wide variety of publications from outside the aviation world. To be honest, I’m a little surprised at their interest in the health of flight crew members.

If you’re flying a real (aka light GA) airplane rather than a modern, automated turbojet, you might not have given the subject much thought. But turbojets operate near or above the tropopause (which varies in altitude from 23,000 to 65,000 depending on location and time of year). This places them well above most of the Earth’s protective atmosphere, and therefore at greater exposure to direct sunlight, cosmic ionizing radiation, and so on. Unfortunately, the preventative measures we use on the ground – sunscreen, long shirts, hats, sunglasses, etc. – don’t provide protection from all of these perils.

For an occasional passenger, the risk is fairly negligible. But for those of us who make their living working on an aircraft, the conclusions offered by this paper are quite concerning. The Harvard study, which has been ongoing since 2007, found the following:

“Despite low smoking and obesity levels indicative of positive health behaviors, we report that flight attendants have elevated rates of several cancers, especially breast, melanoma, and non-melanoma skin cancers. These results are consistent with previous findings regarding flight crew health. Ours is the first study to report an elevated rate of non-melanoma skin cancer in a U.S. flight attendant cohort (consistent with European studies). Some of these cancers were also related to tenure as a flight attendant, overall or within subgroups of parity in the case of breast cancer.”

They also note that “…cabin crew have the largest annual ionizing radiation dose of all U.S. workers (e.g. 3.07 mSv vs. 0.59 mSv for U.S. Department of Energy workers). These exposures can easily exceed guidelines released by the NCRP or the International Commission on Radiological Protection.”

The authors of the study don’t claim to fully understand the impact of each risk factor, but I was impressed by their inclusion of other carcinogens flight attendants may be exposed to: pesticides, jet fuel, various chemicals found in uniforms, fire-proofed soft goods, and so on. They also noted the constant disruption to normal circadian rhythms as a risk factor for cancer.

As anyone who’s worked in the industry can probably tell you, the circadian issue is a major one when it comes to the adverse effect on fatigue, quality of life, and long-term health. Other studies have documented how an abnormal circadian rhythm disrupts the body’s ability to fight of illness and disease at a cellular level. The body simply cannot work as designed when work schedules alternate randomly from night to day and back again.

Even when the schedule is steady, if it’s a constant diet of night flying, the body suffers. I once asked a former long-haul cargo pilot if he ever got used to working at night all the time. His response: “Not really. You can always feel it sucking the life out of you.” This anecdotal evidence is backed up by scientific studies which have led the International Agency for Research on Cancer to classify shift work which disrupts normal circadian rhythms to be classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Anyway, I’ve been asked about the Harvard study by several coworkers, who wonder about the correlation between flight attendants and the pilots up front. While the study did not address aviators directly, there’s no reason to suspect the folks in the cockpit are any better off when it comes to radiation exposure.

However, it seems logical to assume there may be significant differences in pilot risk depending on the kind of flying being done. A typical domestic Part 121 airline pilot might log 900 hours per year, whereas a charter pilot will only fly half that amount. There are plenty of Part 91 operators who fly 200 hours a year. Or less. Fewer hours at high altitude translate into reduced exposure to radiation.

On the other hand, some business aircraft fly much higher than a typical airliner. A Boeing or Airbus will ply the mid 30s, while many bizjets will climb directly into the low 40s, and can eventually reach as high as 51,000 feet if the weather requires it.

The trend with new business aircraft seems to be toward higher altitudes and longer ranges. While this capability is a boon for safety, it also means even greater exposure to radiation aloft. And as supersonic aircraft enter the inventory, it wouldn’t surprise me to see these airplanes cruising around 60,000 feet.

It’s an exciting time to be part of the aviation industry, but the incessant march toward higher/longer/faster flying comes with risks, some of which may not yet be fully appreciated by those of us who will fly them.

Glaciers of the Rockies

For a while I have wanted to reminisce in writing about the “good old days” flying back in America, and a subject has surfaced that affords an opportunity to compare the two modes of flying. Perhaps European readers will find some of the details about flying in the West educational, and for everyone else, it might be interesting to note how the differences between both continents are made large by very small changes.

The project at hand is the publication of my magnum opus, “Glaciers of the Rockies.” Just before moving to Europe, I undertook an ambition to fly to every remaining glacier in the United States Rockies, during annual snowmelt, with the intention of photographing them before they disappear. Scientists estimate that could be as soon as 2030 for storied Glacier National Park, with varying results for other ranges. Given the time frame of a decade and a half and a looming move to the other side of the world, this project took front and center stage in the final summer before leaving, as it was logical to wonder if I’d be back again in that part of the world, with the PA-11, in sufficient time.

The project was undertaken while living at Alpine Airpark in Alpine, WY, roughly in the middle of the glaciers I intended to see. They were strewn along mountain ranges from northwest of Boulder, Colorado to Glacier National Park at the convergence of Montana, Alberta, and British Columbia, a linear distance of nearly 800 miles. For facts’ sake, what few glaciers in other Rockies states that existed have melted in the past few decades, so it was down to a list of ranges in those states. California, Oregon, and Washington have glaciers in the Sierras and Cascades.

Locations of the glaciers spanning 800 miles.

From the remaining glaciers in Colorado….

To the Wind River Range of Wyoming….

To Glacier National Park, Montana.

I had a short window to fly them all, and got it done between roughly August 10thand September 23rd, having flown about 50 hours just for the project, hitting the highest peaks of 11 mountain ranges, which was no small feat in a 100-horsepower airplane. In the middle of this 43-day period, I lost about 20 days to thick smoke, and had to get the rest done in small windows where air was clear and winds slack enough to fly close to such high terrain. As far as mountain flying goes, the primary enemy was wind, as many of the glaciated ranges are near the Great Plains, which makes them windier than interior mountains. Five of the eleven ranges featured more wind that I would have preferred, and they all were part of a continued learning experience.

Late season smoke didn’t help. Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana. On one of two active flight plans for the project as there is not one single shred of civilization in this image.


Neither did early season snows obscuring the glacier beneath. Absaroka Range, Montana, with Great Plains to the left. It was rather windy.

Longs Peak, Colorado (14,259′) while in pursuit of remaining Colorado glaciers. At this altitude so close to the Plains, there is always unwanted wind.

As the project was done in America, the biggest issue was time, distance, weather, and wilderness, and not rules or regulations. I had recently installed a radio in the Cub, so I had that added resource; however, I did not have a starter or transponder. During the course of the adventure, not one single area of airspace that I needed had a restriction. I landed at three towered Class D airports, two of which were chosen due to convenience; the rest were uncontrolled. I filed two flight plans: one for the flight over Glacier National Park, given its harshness, and another over the Bob Marshall Wilderness, equally as much given its remoteness. I was able to maintain flight service position reports in Glacier, whereas the Bob Marshall Wilderness was in a radio shadow. Both flight service professionals accurately predicted in advance where I’d be able to talk to them. In all other wilderness terrain flying, I basically expected to be on my own should the worst happen. I paid one landing fee at Jackson Hole. The entire project required one flight service resource (online and by phone), and my iPad software was flawless and accurate.

If this same project were being done in Europe, 70% of it would be possible whereas 30% simply would be excluded. Of the remaining 70%, 30% would be an enormous aggravation due to small changes, and the rest would be similar to America.

Let’s for a moment draw the same line I had from Glacier National Park to Alpine, WY, then down to Rocky Mountain National Park, CO, except here in Europe. 800 miles with the home airport roughly in the middle. If that were the case here, we’d go from the mountains west of Madrid, here to La Cerdanya, and northeast to the center of the Swiss Alps, equally 800 miles. While there are not glaciers in every mountain range, the presence of various ranges is somewhat similar, so let’s pretend for a minute that I am chasing figurative glaciers in the highest parts of all mountain ranges in this line.

West of Madrid would be fine, including fuel. As the mountains head north of Madrid, it would be almost impossible due to restricted airspace and would require flight plans for the portions that would be doable. The high country south of Zaragoza would be possible, though a massive aggravation due to lack of airports and fuel, requiring carrying jerry cans in the back seat and 24-hour fuel reservations at Teruel. Here in the Pyrenees, fuel tends to work for the most part and airspace is rather open, with the exception of two Spanish national parks where overflight requirements are about 2,500’. On the French side, the location where the actual glaciers of the Pyrenees exist (there are a few in reality!) is all restricted, requiring 3,300’ AGL overflight. Remember that the Pyrenees comprise the border of two countries, so that is a healthy dose of complication. Also, three airports on the French side require the old French Mountain License, which has now been superseded by the EASA Mountain Rating. Those that do not are quite low, so descent to fuel and climb again is lengthy.

Yes, there are actual glaciers in the Pyrenees, and not all of them are restricted (like the below beneath Pico Aneto, Spain 11,168′).

Though some places are. Monte Perdido, Spain (straight ahead) is quite restricted. The French border is to the right, and small glaciers hiding there are also restricted airspace.

Continuing on, the Massif Central of France is a complete hodgepodge of continuous and chaotic military zones, requiring either flight plans or flight following. Many airports are restricted to members of certain flying clubs. A few others, despite being pretty low, are angled and therefore require the Mountain Rating. There are a few park areas, meaning that crossing the Massif Central requires heading to 3,300’ AGL in a few places. This results in few fuel options. From there, the next stop is the foothills of the Alps and then the highest part of the Alps, before terminating in the middle of Switzerland. All airports in the French Alps that are not down at the bottom of valleys (at 2000’ or less) are altiports, meaning that the Mountain Rating is required. That means a new license or the choice of descending 11,000’+ feet for fuel and climbing back up. The biggest glaciers of the French Alps have a combination of park areas, with a variety of restrictions ranging from 1,000’ AGL to 3,300’ AGL. The highest peak in the Alps is restricted, which it is possible to get permission. Crossing into Switzerland requires the clearing of customs on the ground. There are also a few noise restrictions, though far less than on the French side.

Three foreign languages would be encountered in this hypothetical project. iPad navigation software and national charts could not be relied upon as final information; advanced phone calls and coordination to airports would be required in Spain to make sure airports actually exist. Schedules for fuel would need to be checked. Some airports would only take fuel cards or cash. All of them would charge landing fees. For each country, entirely different preflight services would have to be sorted out to navigate NOTAMs and weather. A radio and transponder would be absolutely required for a good portion of the exercise. Many flights would depend on clearance through restricted zones, which may or may not happen on that day.

I ask myself what it would take to pull off something similar if it were here in Europe, spread out so far, and I get nauseated thinking about it. It would take years. There is no way, in the same airplane, that I could do such a thing in one summer! In fact, I haven’t considered doing the glaciers of the Pyrenees due to restricted areas over them. My primary concern with the American airspace system was the availability of fuel, which was splendid. A secondary concern was services in the event of a forced landing. Absent a happenstance ability to radio an overflying aircraft, I was entirely dependent on the ELT in the USA. There was next to nothing owing to remoteness, whereas Europe has far more radar coverage, radio coverage, and other services available due to population differences.

In both countries, the airplane needs to be airworthy, the pilot licensed, and the weather suitable for the intended flight. Pattern operations and actual flying is relatively similar. Europe differs from America in having less airports and imposing small requirements that on their own are not that big of a deal. When those small requirements are added against other factors, then the amount of flights that one could or would want to take drops quickly.

A bigger difference is the feeling of flying in each place. There is something incredible about the openness of America that is hard to put to words. Once leaving the “density” of the East Coast and crossing the Mississippi, it is an almost poetic experience to cross the Midwest, wander the Rockies, explore the deserts, and yes, chase glaciers. Whatever the spirit of America is, if one could reduce it to something simple, I could feelit when flying such great expanses in a Cub. Ever since coming to Europe, I have been working on a number of books that resulted from ambitions while flying in the USA, and each time I dive into my photo archive, it is an immersive experience, not just in the specificity of American landscape, but a zest I can’t seem to put my finger on. While Europe from a Cub is hard to put to words also, they are two completely distinct personal experiences in the air and I often find myself longing to have them both.

Why does this (Sawatch Range of Colorado, September)……

….feel so different in the air from this (October in Central Pyrenees, Spain)?


Or does this (Hungry Horse Reservoir, Montana with 10,000′ peaks in Glacier National Park)…..


….feel so different from this (La Cerdanya, Spain with 8,600′ Cadí-Moixeró)?

Europe has a way of making aviation feel elitist, under constant threat, and somehow wrong. It’s somewhat of an illusion, as the rules on the books and the economics of the situation allow the flying I do, just as the rules and economics in America allow flying that is pretty similar. Both places have something worth seeing. In the US, it tends to be expansive beauty whereas in Europe, it tends to be a mix of the old and new, natural beauty mixed with centuries of deep cultural impact and caretaking. The air molecules and how the airplane flies are the same.

I think I am venturing into the philosophies of growth as a pilot as well as what flying has meant to humankind from the time we yearn to soar like birds, to the moment we can use iPads for navigation. Inside of this existential personal exploration of the ruggedness of the West versus the complex magic of Europe, there is my growth from a low time pilot to a more experienced one. When I arrived in Colorado in 2013, I had 371 hours as a private pilot. I arrived back East in 2014 with 466 as a commercial pilot, and then arrived in Wyoming for the “real” western stint in 2015 with 568 hours. By the time I left later that year for Germany, I had 871, and I now have 1263 total time, which means that my flying career can be broken into even thirds: East Coast, Mountain West, and Europe, with similar totals in each.

Despite the challenges Europe offers, there is still more growth on the horizon. When I was installing a list of expensive equipment in late 2015 in the Cub for its operation in Europe, I had a decision to make about which transponder to install: Class 2 (up to 15,000 feet) or Class 1 (up to 50,000 feet), which cost a few hundred dollars more. With my dreams set on Mt. Blanc in France, the highest peak in Western Europe at 15,774’, I installed the Class 1 transponder. The Alps were an instinct even as I was wrapping up the glaciers of the Rockies, and it remains a more tangible goal. Stay tuned for some glacier exploration in Switzerland that will make the biggest glaciers in the US Rockies look small.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preparing The Citizen of the World for Polar Circumnavigation

The Citizen of the World, a 1983 Gulfstream Turbine Commander 900

To extend the range of the Citizen of the World from its existing 2,000 nautical miles to 5,000 nm, which is necessary for a polar circumnavigation, it was pretty clear that I would need to make some extreme modifications to the aircraft. I was looking for anything that would squeeze an extra nautical mile out of it. It also made sense to do what I could to improve the safety of the aircraft as long as I could do it without adding significant weight.

The first no brainer was to improve the efficiency of the old three bladed Q-tipped props. I went to my friends at MT and asked them to design a propeller specifically for my mission. They suggested putting one of their five-bladed, composite (wood with composite covering), nickel-tipped, scimitar propellers on the Turbine Commander. It had never been done before and would need field approval, but they were confident it could be done and would increase the climb and cruise speeds while starting faster, which would be easier on the batteries. Added benefits would include the props being quieter, creating less vibration, and having more ground clearance for the gravel runways I would be flying off of at King George Island at the tip of Antarctica and throughout Africa.

The next part of the airplane that could be improved was the engines. The Honeywell TPE 33-10Ts (Formerly Garrett) had 4,900 hours on them, which were 500 hours from their 5,400 hour TBO. They were still producing good horsepower, but a refurbishment would increase their power in the flight levels, which would give me more range and fuel efficiency. Honeywell had also made improvements to the engines, so it made sense to upgrade and get the best power possible out of them. Copperstate Turbine Engine Company (CTEC) did the refurbishment and replaced several major components to include the second stage impeller and wheels, combustion cases, combustion liners, and the crossover ducts.

One of the primary reasons I had selected the Turbine Commander was for the geared drive engines that were remarkably efficient compared to the free spinning turbines. They burn roughly half what the nearest competitor does with a TBO 1,900 hours higher.

Mechanics Steve Rodriguez and Morris Kernick from Commander Services 
working hard to get the “Citizen of the World” back in the air

Now that I had more power and some kick-ass props, I wanted to take the airplane higher where it could fly faster with less fuel. I went to AeroMech and bought the STC for RVSM (reduced vertical separation minimum). Along with a backup altimeter and some other components, this would allow the Citizen to fly very precisely (plus or minus 50 feet) at 35,000 feet, which is 7,000 feet higher than the airplane was originally designed. At this altitude, Citizen of the World will burn only 60 gallons of Jet A an hour compared to the much thirstier engines without geared drives. Flying higher helps to avoid weather and allows the airplane to glide farther and fly more efficiently. Altitude is life, especially over the South and North Poles!

The Turbine Commander’s 52-foot wing with winglets, MT’s five-bladed custom propellers, and the two Honeywell geared drive TPE331-10T engines give Citizen of the World tremendous global efficiency and range.

Gulfstream 52-foot wing, MT Propeller five-bladed custom prop 
and two Honeywell geared drive TPE331-10T engines

For safety improvements, we outfitted the aircraft with Whelen LED lights for increased visibility, reliability, and reduced electrical load.

We also will install an AmSafe airbag system. I had these on my Malibu Mirage, the Spirit of San Diego, on my 2015 equatorial circumnavigation, and while they were never deployed, I knew I had a better chance for survival with them. With these airbags, I could potentially avoid breaking ribs that would make twisting out of my seat during an emergency egress extremely painful, and I could exit much faster.

Since the tires are the most likely point of failure on the airplane, to increase safety, we increased the number of tire plies on the main gear from 10 to 16 and on the nose wheel from six to 10 with the help of Desser Tire. Increasing tire plies is required so the tires don’t come off the rims on takeoff when flying at 40 percent over max gross weight.

To increase reliability, the batteries were upgraded with Concorde sealed lead acid batteries, which have been successfully used in arctic environments and had longer life and cranking power than the existing batteries.

To determine just how heavy I could fly the airplane, where we could put fuel, and how much I could carry, I had a feasibility study done by Fred Gatz, the original designer of the airplane’s 52-foot Gulfstream wing. Gatz determined that we could increase the fuel load from 474 gallons of Jet A to 1,402 gallons, putting the Citizen 40 percent over its maximum gross weight. An aircraft with the same wingspan has been flown this heavy without issues, giving us confidence that my airplane can do this as well.

This November, Flight Contract Services will install six aluminum fuel tanks to more than double the airplane’s range to a previously thought impossible 24 hours of flight and 5,000 nautical miles. This is the same distance as flying from San Francisco to Hawaii and back nonstop!

Flight Contract Services owner and ferry pilot Fred Sorenson, the highest-time ferry pilot in the world with over 500 Pacific crossings, will install the ferry tanks detailed above and an old school High Frequency (HF) radio. This radio will allow me to talk to air traffic control from a range of 1,000 to 2,000 nm based on atmospheric conditions.

Since I’m a self-proclaimed button pusher in the air and on the ground, I had a great excuse to load the airplane up with the latest avionics of the day. This included a Bluetooth connection between GPS units and an iPad, a ground circuit, L-3 synthetic vision with battery backup attitude indicator, glass panel GPS units, satellite weather, active traffic, terrain avoidance, X-naut iPad cooler, Lightspeed noise-canceling “Zen” ANR technology. We are currently working to get field approval for a Max-Vis Enhanced Vision System (EVS) infrared camera to help turn night into day at the North Pole where it will be dark most of the day.

At the same time, it made sense to install some old school equipment as well. We put in a directional gyro for navigating over the poles where GPS and magnetic compass do not work, as well as an ADF, which is required for an Atlantic crossing; proof that the best, most reliable panel includes the new technology as well as the old. While dramatically more expensive integrated systems existed, they weren’t in the budget and are difficult to get fixed internationally. Replacing individual components is often an easier solution.

An additional motivation for the upgrades was to make the aircraft one of the best video games on the planet so no kid or aspiring pilot could resist. This was a great opportunity to promote aviation to the world and this panel would be part of the billboard.

Upgraded avionics panel by Randy Morlock of Eagle Creek

In the months ahead I will share insights on our mission, scientific experiments carried, our team, route, and anticipated global challenges. For more detailed information you can go to FlyingThruLife.com/pole-to-pole/plane-modifications as well as PoleToPoleFlight.com.

What Are The Odds?

I just returned from a 5,300-nm cross-country flight in my Cessna 310.

I love trips like this. It’s one thing to FLY an airplane for fun or sport, and quite another to USE an airplane as a serious traveling machine. I’ve always been a USER, and typically fly at least one transcontinental trip per year, and sometimes two or three.

This was the first of three such trips that my partner Nona and I had planned for 2018. Our itinerary first took us from our home base in California to West Virginia to attend and speak at the Flying Physician’s Association annual meeting at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Spings, West Virginia. Next stop was Rhode Island, where we spent a lovely week of sightseeing in the beautiful Ocean State. Then we headed westward to Montana, where I met up with my colleague Paul New to teach an all-day owner maintenance course at the AOPA Regional Fly-In in Missoula, Montana. Finally, after two-and-a-half weeks on the road, we returned home flying a somewhat circuitous route via Medford, Oregon, to avoid an area of convective weather developing in Nevada. What a fabulous trip.

Mike's X-C Route

Flight planning

This was Nona’s first long cross-country via GA. Most of her previous flights with me lasted an hour or two at the most. She was predictably a bit apprehensive about making a trip of this magnitude in a small plane, so I decided to plan the trip in a way that would hopefully minimize her stress level and physiological discomfort. I vowed to break up the trip into legs of no more than three hours duration (instead of the four- and five-hour legs I often fly when I’m solo), and to choose a route where the minimum IFR altitudes were no higher than 13,000 feet so Nona wouldn’t have to deal with supplemental oxygen (instead of crossing the Rockies in the low Flight Levels as I often do when I’m solo).

We decided to start off flying to Wichita, Kansas, and remain there overnight before continuing eastward. Although I’ve occasionally made it nonstop to Wichita from my home base—the plane carries six hours of fuel—I decided for Nona’s sake to stop for lunch, fuel and restrooms about halfway to Wichita in Show Low, Arizona. Here’s a bit of interesting trivia…

According to legend, the city’s unusual name resulted from a marathon poker game between Corydon E. Cooley and Marion Clark. The two men were equal partners in a 100,000-acre ranch; however, the partners determined that there was not enough room for both of them in their settlement, and agreed to settle the issue over a game of “Seven Up” (with the winner taking the ranch and the loser leaving). After the game seemed to have no winner in sight, Clark said, “If you can show low, you win.” In response, Cooley turned up the deuce of clubs (the lowest possible card) and replied, “Show low it is.” As a tribute to the legend, Show Low’s main street is named “Deuce of Clubs” in remembrance. —Wikipedia

What Are The Odds?

About two hours into the three-hour flight to Show Low, I heard Nona asking me over the plane’s intercom, “What this?” I glanced over and saw her pointing at the vacuum gauge on the extreme righthand edge of the instrument panel. One of the two red balls had popped out, signifying that one of the airplane’s vacuum pumps had failed. The other pump was working fine, and the vacuum reading remained at 5 in. hg., right in the middle of the green arc.

RAPCO 442CW Vacuum Pump

442CW Vacuum Pump

I explained this to Nona, quickly adding that there was nothing to worry about because the airplane has dual vacuum pumps—one mounted to each engine—so the loss of one vacuum pump was only a minor annoyance, and something I’d experienced quite a few times during the 31 years I’d owned the Cessna 310. I further explained that because these vacuum pumps always seem to fail during long trips, I always carry a spare pump in my wing locker, together with all the tools necessary to remove the failed pump and install the spare. I figured we’d do this at some convenient point during the trip, perhaps during our vacation week in Rhode Island.

Nona seemed slightly shaken by the pump failure but reassured by my explanation. Fifteen minutes passed. The GPS showed us less than 30 minutes out from SOW. Then Nona called my name over the intercom and once again pointed to the vacuum gauge. I looked at the gauge. Now both red balls were popped out and the needle read zero. I’d experienced a double vacuum pump failure!

What are the odds? I’d never before experienced the loss of both vacuum pumps during one trip, much less one leg. I believed the odds of this happening were close to infinitesimal. But it happened. Apparently, the Laws of Probability had been trumped by Murphy’s Law.

Truth and Consequences

I quickly sized up the situation. With no vacuum, the vacuum-driven attitude gyro would quickly spin down, roll over, and play dead. The attitude-based 400B autopilot would dutifully follow the dying attitude gyro and put the airplane into a graveyard spiral unless I disengaged the autopilot and hand-flew the airplane—which I promptly did. No big deal, since Show Low was now just minutes away and the weather was typical for Arizona: severe clear and windy.

However, the consequences for the rest of the trip were dire. My personal minimums say that a non-functioning autopilot is a no-go item for flights exceeding one hour. Furthermore, I was flying a VFR-only airplane on a trip where significant instrument weather was forecast in the eastern half of the country. Continuing the trip without pneumatics was infeasible. But canceling the trip was unthinkable. So clearly, I was going to have to replace one of the failed pumps at Show Low before launching for Wichita and points east.

Tarmac Transplant

Failed Pump Innards

Failed Pump Innards

The landing at SOW was turbulent. The surface winds were gusting to 25 knots. We parked the airplane close to the fuel trucks, went inside to place a fuel order, eat some lunch, and use the facilities (not necessarily in that order).

I asked the fueler if there was a maintenance shop on the field. He said no. I asked if there was some kind of maintenance hangar I could use for an hour or two. He said there wasn’t. I quickly concluded that I’d have to replace the pump myself on the tarmac in a howling 25-knot wind. Are we having fun yet?

I asked Nona if she was willing to help me, and warned that she would probably get her hands dirty. She was game. I pulled my traveling toolkit out of my wing locker and borrowed a small stepladder from the fueler. Nona and I gingerly removed the top cowling of the left engine, making sure the wind wouldn’t catch it and wrest it from our grasp. We carefully set the cowling on the tarmac under the wing, hoping it would stay put while we worked on the pump.

The pump transplant itself took us about three hours, twice as long as normal. We were working under battlefield conditions, the wind whistling in our faces, the sun in our eyes. Finally, with the sun low in the southwestern sky, we finished the job, secured the cowling, and started the left engine for the “smoke test” of the newly installed pump. It worked. The left red ball was sucked in, the vacuum gauge needle moved to the middle of the green, and the attitude gyro erected normally. We were back in business, albeit one pump shy of a full load. It was enough.

I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was. I was an A&P. I carried a spare pump. I had all the necessary tools to install it. Had any of those three things not been true, I’d have been in a real pickle and the whole trip might have been in serious jeopardy.

Epilogue

We took off for Wichita nearly four hours behind schedule. As a result, what was planned as a daytime flight wound up being a nighttime flight. That spooked Nona a little, as she’d never flown at night before, and much of the flight was over desolate terrain with very few lights to provide a visual reference. She was very relieved when we touched down at Wichita’s Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport, were marshalled into the Signature Flight Support ramp, and quickly whisked to the DoubleTree by Hilton on the airport.

First thing the next morning, I went online and ordered two vacuum pumps from Aircraft Spruce, to be shipped from their Atlanta warehouse to The Greenbrier. One pump would be used to replace the still-failed pump on the right engine, while the other would become my new spare.

We flew our next three-hour leg to Lexington, Kentucky, in IMC conditions, rented a car, toured around the beautiful bluegrass horse country, and stayed overnight. The next morning we made the short but seriously IMC flight to Greenbrier Valley Airport. The vacuum pumps from Aircraft Spruce arrived during our Greenbrier stay. We considered installing one of the pumps on the right engine before departing West Virginia, but ultimately decided to defer that until we got to Rhode Island.

Nona and I also performed the second pump transplant on the tarmac at Quonset State Airport, but there wasn’t much wind and we got the job done in about one hour flat. Nona proved to be a terrific mechanic’s helper, handing me exactly the right part in exactly the right order like a top-notch surgical nurse.

The remainder of the trip to Montana and California went off without a hitch. After returning home, I researched my maintenance logs to find out when the previous vacuum pumps were installed and how long they lasted before failing. Turns out the left pump lasted for 8 years and 700 hours, while the right pump lasted for 9 years and 800 hours.

What were the chances they’d fail within 15 minutes of one another? Obviously greater than I thought. Hmmm…

Exiting the Hold: Reaching your Aviation Goals

Timing: Part 1 of 6

Fly for a minute, turn for a minute, fly for a minute, turn for a minute. In instrument flying you might be instructed to enter a hold because you cannot land due to weather being below minimums, inbound traffic congestion, or runway unavailability. At some point you must assess whether landing at the intended destination airport is feasible or flying to the alternate is more prudent.

Much like flying an actual hold, there comes a time in every pilot’s career where an honest assessment of performance, desires, and goals needs to happen. Are you one of the many pilots are stuck in the hold, unable to complete your aviation goals?

For the next few months I will be highlighting one of the six keys to exiting the holding pattern and reaching your goals. If you plan on attending EAA AirVenture/Oshkosh this year, please come and see my multi-media presentation on Exiting the Hold on Saturday July 28th at 11:00 a.m. at the AOPA Pavilion. The presentation is fast paced and lively. You might also win the door prize of a King Schools IFR course.

#1 Timing

The two Greek words for the measurement of time are chronos and kairos. Chronos describes linear, chronological time such as minutes, hours, days, and years. In regard to aviation, chronos timing would be calendar or time-based. For example, an 18 year old getting a PPL and attending a university aviation program would expect to complete instrument, commercial and CFI in a certain number of months.Contrasted with the other Greek word for time, kairos, meaning the indeterminate moment that is propitious for action and this instant of time must be seized with great force. A decision based on kairos would be a gut feeling, or a chance opportunity that presents itself.

Many pilots stuck in the hold are waiting for the “right time” [chronos] to pursue their next goal, or rating or hopelessly feel like time has passed them by. However, they don’t realize that they can make a decision based on opportunity and effort [kairos].

Winged Statue of Kairos

 

Here is the inscription on the statue of Kairos above, which explains the Greek myth of Kairos.

And who are you? Time who subdues all things.
Why do you stand on tiptoe? I am ever running.
And why you have a pair of wings on your feet? I fly with the wind.
And why do you hold a razor in your right hand? As a sign to men that I am sharper than any sharp edge.
And why does your hair hang over your face? For him who meets me to take me by the forelock.
And why, in Heaven’s name, is the back of your head bald? Because none whom I have once raced by on my winged feet will now, though he wishes it sore, take hold of me from behind.

“Kairos becomes a fleeting moment, one that must be grabbed forcefully as it passes. But it is also a dangerous moment, one with razor-thin margins. It is both dangerous to any who are unprepared to meet it and dangerous to those who may be subdued by them who wield it successfully. Even more danger lies in kairos as the fountainhead of regret—once kairos has passed by, opportunity closes its door forever.”  [http://www.mzhowell.com/seize-the-day/]

Time is really on your side. Take chances when they present themselves. Be prepared. Keep an open mind. Your history does not have to define your aviation destiny. If you are at Oshkosh next month, come by Mooney, or my presentation at AOPA and say hello, if you have the time!

 

Per diem

One of the less discussed, but still critically important, aspects of a career involving travel is the issue of food and expenses. In the working vernacular, this is shorthanded as per diem.

In nonflying occupations, employees get a certain per diem allowance each day, and it usually covers hotel and food expenses. At the end of a stint of travel, expense reports are submitted, and once they are verified by the accounting personnel, the employee is reimbursed.

The airlines do things a bit differently. Per diem is paid by the hour, starting with the official report time for the trip. It ends whenever the pilot is considered done with the trip, be it a one, two, three, or even 15-day assignment. So, if a pilot reports at noon on the first day of a trip and goes home on day four at noon, he will have logged 96 hours of what is called time away from base (TAFB). If his airline pays $2 an hour per diem, he’ll receive $192 in per diem expenses, which is intended to cover the cost of meals and incidental expenses; the company pays for the hotel directly.

At the majors, there is almost always a slightly higher rate for international trips to cover the higher cost of food in those locations. Per diem is usually paid on the second check of the following month, which allows the folks in payroll time to conduct due diligence on the record keeping.

Under the tax law, if a pilot flies a one-day trip, the per diem is taxable as regular income. If the trip has any overnights, the per diem is not considered taxable. For this reason, it’s common practice at the regionals for pilots and flight attendants to take a lot of their own food on trips, which allows them to pocket per diem as though it were extra income.

The downside to the way the airlines pay per diem is that the rate is always the same. That means that you’re getting the same allowance for dinner in an expensive city such as San Francisco as you’re getting in a less expensive town such as Cedar Rapids. Until the tax law changed this year, pilots and flight attendants could use the IRS meal and incidental expense (M&IE) tables to determine how much they were entitled to in each city, and their accountant or tax software would compute how much of the difference they were entitled to. Under the 2017 tax law, early interpretations are that this allowance has been eliminated, thus increasing the cost of eating on the road.

If the early interpretations of the tax law changes hold, it’s possible that per diem will paid and computed differently. Either way, as an employee, it’s up to you to verify that your per diem is paid to you properly, as well as understand how the rules apply to you and when.—Chip Wright

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