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SWA 1380

As I write this, Southwest 1380 has already started to fade from much of the public memory. Much has been made about the way the crew responded to such an explosive event—explosive in more ways than one. Nobody ever really anticipates or expects to deal with an engine that blows up in flight, let alone one that also breaks a window and generates a sudden decompression of the cabin.

That said, there is training for something like this. Most airlines in the United States have transitioned to advanced qualification program (AQP) training. Without getting into the nitty-gritty details, part of AQP includes flying scenarios in the simulator that represent real flights between two regular cities, with some kind of a snafu thrown in for the crew to handle. Some scenarios will force a diversion, and some won’t; some are deliberately vague enough that some crews will divert and some will not.

Southwest recently put its crews through an event that included a catastrophic engine failure in cruise  United did the same with its 737 crews a couple of years ago). I don’t know if the scenario included the decompression, but an engine failure is handled almost the same way in either scenario. Like many transport jets, the 737 is designed to fly at or near the highest MEAs on one engine, and it will level off at 22,000 to 24,000 feet at maximum weight on one engine. Obviously, in the case of 1380, that kind of level-off wasn’t possible, but the initial response is the same: Get the airplane into a descent while maintaining a safe airspeed. With the decompression, the goal is to get down to 10,000 feet as quickly as possible so that passengers don’t need oxygen.

Every airplane will respond differently to an engine failure. A wing-mounted engine will cause substantial yaw—possibly a noticeably rolling motion that needs to be addressed fairly quickly. The crew of this flight likely needed a few seconds to register just what had happened—after all, in the sim, everybody already knows what’s coming, but this was real. The immediate response to the cabin pressure change would have been to don their oxygen masks while regaining control of the plane. That means turning off the autopilot (or silencing the disconnect alarm), setting power on the operating engine, and retrimming. This is the “aviate” part of aviate, navigate, communicate.

Every airline dictates who will do what during an emergency, and the final report from the NTSB will spell out how the crew determined who would fly and work the radios versus running the checklist. In this case, there were at least three non-normal checklists that needed to be completed: the engine fire/severe damage checklist, the decompression checklist, and the single-engine approach and landing checklist. The crew at some point also needed to make contact with the cabin crew to get an assessment of the extent of any injuries or damage in the cabin. They likely also asked the flight attendants what they could see out the window as well—and this all happened while dealing with a tremendous amount of noise thanks to the hole in the window.

In spite of the fatality on board, the crew appears to have handled this event as well as or better than expected. No doubt the relatively recent sim event brought a sense of familiarity with the situation, and their years of combined experience helped produce a successful outcome. Like many, I’m already curious to see what the final report will say; expect to see it sometime next winter or spring.—Chip Wright

Is Your Equipment List Up-To-Date?

My 1979 Cessna T310R

My 1979 Cessna T310R

A funny thing happened as I was finishing up the annual inspection on my 1979 Cessna T310R back in March of 2000. The inspection was complete, and I gotten off pretty light. My IA didn’t find all that much wrong with the airplane. (This was years before I became an IA myself.) What discrepancies had been found were now all resolved. The airplane was finally back together and all closed up. The AD research was done. All that was left was the paperwork.

One of the few discrepancies had been an ELT that flunked its annual FAR 91.207(d) test—the [email protected]#$%* thing wouldn’t go off no matter how hard I whacked it—so I had yanked it out and installed a shiny new TSO-C91A unit, complete with a panel-mounted switch/annunciator module. I asked my IA whether or not a weight-and-balance revision would be necessary. It turned out that the new ELT weighed almost precisely the same as the old one, and the panel module weighed next to nothing, so the IA determined the W&B change would be negligible.

“But be sure to update the equipment list,” the IA admonished me

“What equipment list?” I replied innocently. I instantly sensed from the IA’s expression that this was not the answer he wanted to hear.

“Your POH or W&B Report is required to include an up-to-date equipment list, said the IA, giving me his best do-I-have-to-explain-everything scowl. “That list must be revised whenever equipment is added or removed,” he added.

Where’s that list, anyway?

I retrieved the POH from the airplane and flipped to the back of the W&B chapter. Sure enough, there was an equipment list. I showed it to my IA. He shook his head.

“No, that’s a comprehensive equipment list—a list of everything that Cessna might possibly have installed in a 1979 T310R,” the IA explained patiently. “It could serve as an aircraft-specific equipment list if those items that are actually installed in your aircraft were checked off in the comprehensive list. But they’re not.”

Sure enough, the equipment list in the POH had a column titled “Mark If Installed,” but that column was completely blank. There was no indication of what equipment was actually installed in my airplane.

I returned to the airplane and rummaged through my W&B documentation, finally coming up with what I was looking for. It was a yellowed and somewhat dog-eared computer printout on sprocket-fed fan-fold paper—the kind that was used back in 1979—that listed the equipment installed in my particular aircraft when it left the Cessna factory, complete with the weight and arm of each item. The only problem was that this printout hadn’t been revised since the day Cessna generated it in 1979, despite the fact that by now almost all the original factory-installed avionics had been replaced with newer stuff. Sigh.

“That list has to be kept updated to reflect what’s actually installed in the aircraft,” my IA told me said, shaking his head. “How on earth did you go all these years without someone catching this?”

A little research convinced me that the IA was correct. The best reference is the FAA’s “Aircraft Weight and Balance Handbook” (FAA-H-8083-1B) published in 2016. Quoting from this handbook:

An equipment list is furnished with the aircraft which specifies all the required equipment, and all equipment approved for installation in the aircraft. The weight and arm of each item is included on the list, and all equipment installed when the aircraft left the factory is checked.

When an Aircraft Maintenance Technician adds or removes any item on the equipment list, he or she must change the weight and balance record to indicate the new empty weight and empty-weight CG, and the equipment list is revised to show which equipment is actually installed.

Bringing it up-to-date

“Well, what do I do now,” I asked my IA. “Do you want me to mark up Cessna’s printout, crossing off the equipment that has been removed, and adding in the new equipment by hand?”

“You could do that,” said the IA, “but it might be nicer simply to make up a new equipment list on your PC and printing out a clean, up-to-date list.”

That idea appealed to me. It would be straightforward to enter all the equipment into an Excel spreadsheet. In fact, it quickly occurred to me that if the spreadsheet included weight and arm for each item (as Cessna’s original did), it would be easy to have the spreadsheet calculate the aircraft empty weight and CG. Then, when equipment was added or removed in the future, simply entering that information into the equipment list spreadsheet would automatically produce an updated W&B. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced this was the way to go.

That evening, I sat down at my computer and proceeded to enter all the equipment from the Cessna printout into a spreadsheet. There were about 125 items to enter, and it took me about an hour. My spreadsheet was structured in two sections, just like the Cessna printout: Section A contained “required equipment” and Section B contained “standard and optional equipment.”

Then, I went through each W&B amendment in sequence, removing and adding spreadsheet lines to correspond with the equipment that had been removed from and added to the aircraft over the years. To provide traceability, I did not delete any items from the spreadsheet, but simply set the “quantity” field of each item of removed equipment to zero and then added a new line for the new equipment that replaced it. All revised lines were identified with “DELETED <date>” or “ADDED <date>” entries in the remarks column

Finally, I added a third section to the spreadsheet—Section C—in which I entered the necessary formulas to add up the weights and moments for each item in Section B, add it to the standard empty aircraft weight (the weight of a fictitious aircraft with only required equipment), and calculate the actual empty weight and CG of my aircraft.

The whole project took about two hours, and the result was a very nice-looking and up-to-date equipment list.

A few (pleasant) surprises

In the course of making up this spreadsheet, I discovered a few interesting things. The first was that a few of the items of equipment that Cessna listed on its computer printout had never (so far as I could tell) actually been installed in the aircraft. One such item was “Handset & Boom Mic., Combination” (0.4 lbs.), and another was “Approach Plate Holders” (0.2 lbs.). No big deal.

Of somewhat greater significance, I found that certain items on the original Cessna equipment list had been removed from the aircraft, but apparently the removals were never recorded in W&B amendments. For example, when the original Cessna 400 transponder was removed almost immediately after I bought the aircraft and was replaced with a King KT-76A; the old transponder was backed out of the W&B, but its mounting tray (0.6 lbs.) was forgotten. The bottom line is that when the dust settled, I’d picked up a few extra pounds of empty weight for my trouble.

Legal again

After double-checking everything carefully to make sure I’d made no errors, I presented my handiwork to the IA, who triple-checked it and then affixed his signature and A&P/IA certificate number, thereby making it an official part of my Airplane Flight Manual and Weight & Balance Report in the eyes of the FAA.

I’m glad I went through this exercise, although I’m embarrassed that it took me more than a decade to discover that “my papers were not in order.” Perhaps I was the only aircraft owner out there blissfully flying around without an up-to-date equipment list, but somehow I doubt it.

Since that time, I became an IA myself and have made quite a few equipment changes to the aircraft. Having the computerized equipment list and automatic W&B calculation has repaid that two-hour effort many times over.

Next time you’re pre-flighting your airplane, you might just want to grab your POH and W&B papers and eyeball the equipment list to make sure it has been kept up to date. If it hasn’t, you might just want to do something about it before the next annual…or ramp check.

Is more leg room coming?

The general public loves to hate the airlines. Unfortunately, much of that ire is the fault of the airlines themselves. Among the numerous complaints are non-refundable tickets, oversold flights, baggage fees, and the crowded cabins— made worse with uncomfortable seats.

In the post-deregulation world, two things happened with respect to seats: People got bigger, and seats got closer. Seat pitch—the measurement between the back of the seat in front of you and your seat—has steadily shrunk, especially in economy class.

Running an airline is an incredibly expensive venture, far more so than most businesses. Once an airplane leaves the gate, the empty seats can’t be sold—there’s no clearance rack or discount shelf. The airlines argue that the layout and discomfort of the cabin is simply a reflection of what the flying public demands and will tolerate.

Given that flights are flying with record load factors, they must be more right than wrong. More than 70 percent of air travelers only fly once a year, and by some measures, that number is over 80 percent. From the airlines’ perspective, such infrequent travelers are a bit of a captive audience, and because we as a society are so price-sensitive, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for one carrier to stick its neck out and increase cabin comfort at the risk of lost revenue and profit.

That could be about to change, however, as the FAA funding bill that has passed the House includes a mandate for a new, greater minimum seat pitch, thus offering all of us a bit more leg room. (There is also talk about making the seats a bit wider, but I’m not sure the widening of the waistline will get as much attention as more legroom.)

The airlines have quietly told Congress that they’re willing to hold back on fighting seat pitch as long as the rules are industry wide and don’t single out any one company by name. Carriers, will however, be pointed out by default, as Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier are known to have some of the most cramped cabins. Forcing these carriers to remove some seats will also force them to be more price competitive with the bigger carriers.

But there’s more at play here. The big issue is passenger evacuation in an emergency. The FARs state that a manufacturer has to certify that an airplane can be evacuated in 90 seconds with one exit blocked. Apparently, some of those certification tests include computer modeling. If this is the case, and there really is concern that a 767 can’t be evacuated in 90 seconds, the potential is there for an incredibly expensive recertification process and/or modifications to the planes. It’s a no-brainer to agree to take some seats out while also addressing one of the most common complaints.
If this rule goes through—and that’s a big “if”—it won’t take immediate effect. The airlines will likely have a couple of years to comply. Seat maps will change, and yes, air fares will increase, though marginally.

On the other hand, there will be plenty of spare seats in the hangar if someone gets sick.—Chip Wright

A Different Kind of Limitation

Here we go again. Another year, another attempt at flying to Africa.

This time, I had months to plot and scheme against an adverse Iberian airport network, having researched until I was blue in the face, developing comfort mostly due to the fact that I purchased some gas cans for the back seat and had extra handles welded on for better straps. To make things even more convenient, I was already in Portugal, meaning that distance was reduced by about 60%. With April finally here, a good month to go for weather, it was time to take a crack at it again.

I had the support of a fellow pilot in Trebujena, Spain – Alfonso de Orleans-Borbón – who had originally planted this idea in my mind in 2016. He generously offered a place to stay, arranged for a free hangar, and helped with driving to a local gas station over and over to refuel, and pretty much laid out the welcome mat. Trebujena was in fuel range of Tangier, Morocco, and is a small general aviation airport that is typical of what one would see in America: hangars, a runway, and farm fields. No landing fees, aggravations, control towers or other nonsense.

Finally, toward the end of April, a window opened to fly to Andalusia. A raging Saharan sandstorm had previously blown in to southern Spain, followed by some unusual Texas-style humidity, which meant weeks of squalid haze, sometimes creating IFR conditions. I am told this is quite odd, as air is usually extremely clear. On a Thursday with the worst of the dust storm gone, I headed down in some hazy weather, crossing Portugal through the Alentejo, fueling at Évora, where I broke my avgas cost record: $17.85 per gallon. I tried my delusional consolation of “its only money,” though couldn’t help but to analyze the flamboyant pile of paperwork that accompanies a basic avgas purchase, noting a nefarious €18.75 fixed fee (plus 23% sales tax = $27.68) plus normally expensive per liter avgas charges. On a rampage at being taken for a ride, I was ready to contact Air BP and let them have it, which was not necessary, as on a return flight from Spain, I was told that it’s a “customs fee” charged by the Portuguese government on refueling stops that involve crossing the Portuguese border. Despite being against the European Union treaty on the free movement of goods, a customs fee is charged on intra-Europe aviation activities.

Arrival at Trebujena was uneventful, other than rather complex airspace in southern Andalusia. Haze was pretty awful, though it did clear the next day. Due to scheduling concerns, I flew locally for two days, heading in all directions checking out coastline, ancient fortifications, amazing water colors on the Atlantic, modern solar installations, interesting farm country, and resplendent wildflowers, wheat fields, and spring vegetation. I had been told that Andalusia is the epicenter of fraud, laziness, and most things negative about Spain (the Spanish apparently have strong regional rivalries, aside from the ever present independence bid), though I found Andalusia to have incredibly nice, relaxed, and generous people, with very beautiful scenery.

The day finally was approaching on Sunday to head over to Morocco. My original plan, which turned out to be a fantasy, was to fly some great amount of distance, though it kept getting whittled to smaller and smaller ambitions as I continued to do research. Both Alfonso and I had delved into all sorts of materials over the course of time, reading the Moroccan equivalent to the Aeronautical Information Manual, checking charts, reading up on other pilot’s stories, confirming the presence of fuel, and researching other restrictions. It turned out that VFR pilots for the most part must follow precise routings. There are point to point lines drawn all over the country, and they must be adhered to strictly, with all flights under ATC. While general aviation is possible, it is not really free.

I had heard from a Moroccan pilot that the lines aren’t mandatory. I heard from another pilot about having a Moroccan F-16 scrambled on him for not following the lines. I heard the lines could be avoided with a bribe. “So I’ll offer a 50 euro note and get it done.” “Oh no! Don’t do that!” was the advice I got. While bribes are required, they are illegal. One has to offer them but cannot, so unless a whirling dervish transnational social interaction can take place where a bribe is offered that really isn’t offered and is accepted when it didn’t really happen, those lines are the way they are. Perhaps a Moroccan can pull it off with ease, as it is their home country, though I was confused. I have a hard enough time picking up on obvious social clues in English (just ask my wife); how would I navigate the good old clandestine bribe in Africa?

The lines posed a logistics problem. Obviously, as a photographer that would rather be left alone, I was dismayed. However, if winds weren’t cooperating, routing could make things perilous with fuel range, without an alternate. Do I want to be landing on a road, in Africa? I can’t imagine that ending well.

The plan got hacked even further down when I couldn’t make headway if certain airports had avgas or not. I got conflicting information, and realized I had little choice but to go until I couldn’t go anymore, and turn around when an obstacle was severe enough. I speak neither French nor Arabic, the languages of Morocco, so a quick phone call wasn’t exactly easy. Fair enough…perhaps it shall be Tangier and then back?

My compatriot had a complication present itself and could not go. I decided I’d be ok as it was just a hop over the Strait of Gibraltar and back. As I was digging into some final requirements, I filed my flight plan 12 hours in advance as per Moroccan requirements, checking addressing based on a suggestion online. In all the years of flying, I didn’t even realize a thing called “addressing” existed. It is how to identify who gets a copy of the flight plan. SkyDemon had about 8 destinations in there already – departure ATC, destination ATC, Moroccan authorities, customs authorities, Spanish flight service – I added a few more based on someone’s writeup and clicked the button. Still not done, I had not successfully navigated the Spanish Police departure requirements, so I arranged for “handling,” a distinctly Spanish affair. Landing at a big airport, handling is frequently “offered,” which for most VFR pilots is an add-on that doesn’t do a lot. Most try to avoid it as fees are high and the service is something pilots can handle on their own. Nonetheless, I agreed to about $150 in fees to they could handle outbound immigration reporting, filing another flight plan to make the 5-mile hop from Trebujena to a controlled airport in Jerez to make the outbound journey.

By now, it was late Saturday night. I was flying for 3 days straight, was extremely tired, and something didn’t feel right. All of this nonsense kept me up late, and then…..I couldn’t sleep. I knew what the problem was, and finally had to articulate it to myself so I could get some sleep before the next day: I had lost all desire to make the trip. Eventually I dozed off, awoken by lashing hail against the window in the middle of the night, and then finally by my alarm a few hours after that.

Things were clear mentally in the morning. I wasn’t going. I added up the hours it would take to fly Trebujena-Jerez-Outbound Immigration-Tangier-Customs-Hotel. It would be 7:30PM before I arrived in my hotel in Tangier, 100 miles away. I would then hop in the plane the next morning, taking another 8 hours to reverse the whole thing. Then adverse weather would be inbound on Tuesday, and I would be stuck before getting back to Portugal. There was the fact that Spain and Morocco have some unfriendly airspace at the shortest point of the crossing, so I’d be heading out to sea with strong winds on the nose, without a life jacket or raft. I didn’t like it one bit. I may not be troubled wandering around at 15,000 feet in the Rockies in winter with the door open. This, for me, was too much.

It was very clear to cancel, which I did. I am not one to usually change my mind. I realized the whole flight had become a series of individual steps that all were undesirable, and the only takeaway was bragging rights, which interest me very little. It was time for a personal reassessment. I also decided that a trip of this complexity would be best when retired or when I don’t have work obligations staring me down as it is a must to be able to roll with a lot of complications.

Weather was somewhat ok to return to Portugal, and I was ready to get back “home” for the time being to chill out. At the airport, packed and ready to go, ten gyrocopters rolled in one after another, with a bunch of French pilots disembarking. Alfonso, a fluent French speaker, was talking with them and found out that they were heading to….Morocco….for 12 days. After a few months of waiting, they had gotten approval to tour the country on a rally. Just then, a National Police officer showed up to handle their outbound immigration concerns at a little GA airport, so they didn’t have to land in Jerez. Of all things….? By now, I had cancelled the flight plan and needed 12 hours to file another, and I was worn out anyway. It turns out the gyrocopter pilots lived about 120 miles away in Portugal, are all retired, and speak one of the Moroccan languages. The Spanish police officer aptly noted that he thought they were all lunatics for “crossing the Strait in those things.”

With a stiff headwind the entire day, it took six hours, two fuel stops, and dodging some Portuguese Outback downpours, reflecting on my motivations for flying in the first place, something I often do in this blog. Aviation is more than just flying, just like cars are more about the joy of driving. A real question is what we do with the freedom of it, and that can be personal, commercial, practical, or a combination of all things in between. In this case, it was clear I was pushing myself well beyond comfort zones, and practicality of the airplane. I do take my time getting places, taking a fiendish amount of images in the process, and in so doing, my range is somewhat limited. Even though it has taken years to get used to my range limitations due to European complexity, I have grown to accept it and enjoy what I can see inside of rational flight expectations.

Portugal’s Alentejo region in full Spring bloom.



Oddly, this solar death ray is not restricted airspace. Sanlucar de Mayor, Spain.

Andalusian countryside near Trebujena.

Salinas near Cádiz, Spain.

Punta del Boquerón, Spain

Cádiz, Spain, old city. If one wishes to test US Military anti-aircraft capabilities, Rota’s airspace is half a mile on the other side of the city. 

Rio Tinto, Huelva.

Oil tanker, Guadalquivir River, Isla Mayor. 

Castillo de Medina Sidonia.

Cape of Trafalgar. Morocco on the horizon.

Andalusians in Andalusia.

Wheat fields before harvest.


And of course, the wall of precipitation crossing the coastal hills in Portugal, requiring an uphill quartering tailwind landing on a wet, slippery, short runway.

The Sun, the Fun and a bit of Rain

The Sun, the Fun and a bit of rain: SNF18 shining example of what is right in aviation.

A few weeks ago I returned from Sun n Fun, the weeklong aviation event held in Lakeland Florida. And while it seems like we experienced every season, we all shared in the camaraderie of aviators.

Before I left California for the East Coast, I received a phone call from airshow announcer co-chair, Amy Arnold. She asked if I would like to do an interview for a new TV show that would not only be broadcast live and on the jumbo-tron, but would be online as well. She explained that Live Airshow TV created a morning show called the Preflight Show.   I was to be on with Jamie Beckett from AOPA on Saturday morning. I jumped at the chance, and am so happy I did.  (You can view the full show here; we are about minute 44)

When attending events, I typically have a broad spectrum of activities. I had work duties with AOPA and Mooney. As is my life, I juggle a lot of roles and carry a lot of boxes.

Arriving at SNF loaded down with numerous boxes for my display at Mooney, I was so happy to notice a phone number for Media assistance on the back of my credentials. That phone number gave me a lifeline in the form of a volunteer driver and golf cart. When I called I spoke with John who was super friendly and sent Sam to pick me up and take me in to the show. That phone call would repeat on a twice-daily basis for the next four days. I met at least five different drivers. Many have volunteered at the event for numerous years. I was quick to thank them profusely and eager to learn a little about their history.

Probably one of the funniest things came when I was getting my last ride of the show from the Media carts. As I mentioned, I got to know each of the drivers a bit in our five-minute drives to and from the Media lot. I called and asked for a 4:30 pick up at Mooney. I was able to see the grass lot from my table in the Mooney pavilion. I looked up and saw three golf carts, proudly placarded Media, driving in formation to pick me up. This made me laugh so hard. The thing is, I took the time to get to know the volunteers, and they got to know me. Striking up a conversation with a stranger, such a simple thing yet it yields such connection.

What I experienced at Sun n Fun is an example of how aviation folks are the best folks. I never met a stranger, always greeted with a smile and a helping hand. We had every season weather-wise from 92 degrees to rain and wind. Through it all, I saw dear old friends, made some new ones, and found inspiration in the spirit of aviation ambassadors. Count me in for #SNF19.

So this week culminates with a big weekend for those of us volunteering at Oceano Airport: Salute to Veterans. Rain, fog, wind or shine we will welcome visitors to our beachside airport. Volunteers have been working for months on our airport day. We celebrate those who have served our country and those serving now. Breakfast and lunch are free for veterans, active duty military, law enforcement and first responders. We never have an admission charge and all our events are family-friendly. We are collecting items for military care packages again this year.

As the founder of Friends of Oceano Airport my goal is that our events are as friendly, heart-felt and fun as my annual trips to Sun n Fun or Oshkosh. In our small way, we, fiercely protect our airport, welcome aviation visitors and our community members and give back to our veterans and active duty military.

My second daughter played basketball in middle school. You might ask what this has to do with GA and protecting airports. She was petite, less than five feet, a bit on the short side for point guard. What she lacked in stature, she made up for with guile. I would always say she was short, but scrappy. She was out there on the court, being a focused leader, using every gift God gave her, and I was in the stands hooting and cheering for her.

My point is that we don’t have to have the biggest events at our airports, be nationally known or have an extensive social media presence. What we need to do is be scrappy. Protect our pilot and airport resources, welcome folks to our aviation family, and be the person who shows up with a smile.

 

Early career housing options

A friend of mine is buying a house. She flies for a large regional, and her husband flies for a legacy major, and they have a young child. Talking to her was a reminder of my years as a renter, as well as someone eventually in the market for a home to own.

As you enter the airline industry, it’s important to understand the need to be flexible. Virtually every airline has multiple crew bases, some of which may or may not be in the hubs of their major airline partners. With all of the growth and movement going on in both sectors, it is not unreasonable to assume that you will change bases multiple times.

If you’re single, or married to someone with a sense of adventure and a mobile job (teacher, nurse, flight attendant, et cetera), your best decision might be to move with the job. This will eliminate the stress of commuting, it could save you money in the long run (crashpads and hotels), and it could allow you to make more premium pay money by being able to get to work quickly when Scheduling is in a jam for available pilots because of severe weather or other issues.

Renting is a short-term solution that has benefits. The down payment is usually only a couple of months’ rent (one of which you’ll get back when you return the unit in good condition), as opposed to 20 percent of the purchase price for a house. Renting also forces you to minimize your personal stuff, since you’ll need to fit it all into your car and maybe a U-Haul trailer. Upkeep and maintenance are someone else’s problem, as long as you report any issues in a timely manner. With a roommate, you can cut your payment in half and start saving for that eventual house.

The key is to rent for as short a term as possible, which is usually a year. But, you might be able to negotiate something with a flexible landlord. Going to a month-to-month situation gives you quite a bit of flexibility. Another trick is this: When you negotiate your lease, ask for a clause that lets you out of the lease without penalty in the event you get transferred or lose your job. Explain in simple terms what could happen, and emphasize that it isn’t likely, but you need the protection just in case.

Buying a home is something you should wait on until your life is a bit more settled. It generally takes four or five years to be able to sell a home and be able to walk away with no more obligation on your mortgage. That obviously isn’t universal, but it’s a good rule of thumb to use. Renting will often make more sense for a while, and by the time you’re in a position to buy, you’ll have a better idea of where you want to live, what you can afford, what you can afford if you change jobs, et cetera. After all, it’s one thing to be on the hook for 12 monthly payments, and something else to be in for 360 of them.—Chip Wright

Generation Three

I fell in love with flying more than 50 years ago. I had just graduated with a degree in mathematics from Dartmouth College, and had a summer job in Phoenix, Arizona, prior to starting work on my Ph.D. at Princeton University. As a kid, my dad introduced me to free-flight model airplanes, in high school I toyed with piston-powered control-line models, and I had occasional fantasies about flying real airplanes. So, when I found myself in Phoenix that summer where the weather is CAVU about 360 days per year, I figured it would be a great time to learn to fly. I drove to Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport one afternoon, walked into the offices of Sawyer Aviation, and signed up for my first introductory flight in a 1959 straight-tail no-rear-window Cessna 150. I was hooked and never looked back.

When the summer was over, the ink still wet on my private pilot certificate, I joined the Princeton Flying Club and started flying rental airplanes. Over the next few years, I earned my commercial and instrument rating and flew all over the eastern United States. After a few years of graduate studies at Princeton and Columbia, I moved to California to start my first full-time job as a computer scientist with a Fortune 500 company headquartered just south of LAX. That’s when I bought my first airplane.

Cessna 182 Skylane N2638XN42648 was a brand-new 1968 Cessna 182L that I picked up at the Cessna factory in Wichita, Kansas, and flew home to California. That was heady stuff for a 24-year-old. Over the next four years, I put nearly 1,000 hours on that Skylane, flying it all over the West plus at least one transcontinental trip per year. I learned a lot about weather flying, including the fact that a Skylane can carry an inch of structural ice without falling out of the sky. (Don’t ask.)

Fast forward about 25 years. By now I’d left the Fortune 500 world to start my own software company. I’d sold the Skylane (which I’m pleased to see remains on the active FAA registry), bought a 1972 Bellanca Super Viking, sold that, married a gorgeous blonde named Jan, bought my first house, sold that, moved from L.A. to a semi-rural part of California’s central coast, bought a house there, and ultimately bought my third airplane, a 1979 Cessna Turbo 310 that I’ve owned, flown, and maintained for more than 30 years and 4,000 hours and still am flying today.

Generation Two

The Cessna 310 and I found ourselves in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one day. I was en route from California to the East Coast and decided to stop in Tulsa to visit with my wife’s brother and sister-in-law. It was then that I met their 10-year-old son Justin, who seemed like a great kid, but his life seemed to lack focus. I learned he had a history of running with the wrong crowd and repetitively getting himself into hot water. On impulse, I offered to take Justin up in the 310 for his first ride in a general aviation airplane. Little did I know what an impression that would make on him, and what impact it would have on his life trajectory.

Fast forward another 10 years. Justin was a senior at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He’d joined the OSU flying club, earned his private, commercial, and instrument tickets, and was working on his CFI. He was engaged to Carrie Beth, a gorgeous blonde he’d met at OSU, and had decided to apply to the airlines after graduation for work as a professional pilot. He was hired by regional carrier Great Lakes Airlines as a first officer flying Beechcraft 1900Ds.

Justin and I occasionally kept in touch by email. From time to time over the next 10 years, we’d hear one another on Center frequency when his Beech Airliner and my Cessna 310 happened to wind up in the same sector at the same time…and we’d say “hi” to one another on frequency, violating AIM communication protocol.  Justin accumulated hours and seniority at Great Lakes, working his way up to captain and check airman, then applied to and was hired by Frontier Airlines as a first officer on the Airbus 320. Now he was spending most of his time above FL300 and we seldom heard one another on frequency. Carrie had become a senior manager at Anheuser-Busch and took a promotion that caused her and Justin to relocate from Denver to St. Louis. They had a son that they named Ethan, and another one that they named Jacob. By now I hardly heard from them at all, much to my regret.

AirVenture 2017

Three generations of pilotsLast summer, Justin reached out to me quite unexpectedly to let me know that he, Carrie, and the two boys were planning to attend AirVenture 2017 at Oshkosh—something Justin had been promising me he’d do for decades but never happened. At first, my attitude was “I’ll believe it when I see it,” but soon my anticipation grew. I was now nearly 73 years old, hadn’t seen Justin or Carrie Beth for more than a decade, and had never met their sons. When we finally rendezvoused near Aeroshell Plaza, I was thrilled.

Ethan Citrabria cockpit checkoutThe boys—now ages eight and six—glommed onto me as if I was their long lost uncle (which I guess I was), and we went whizzing around the AirVenture campus on my golf cart with big grins on all our faces. Ethan, the eight-year-old, was especially vocal about wanting to become a pilot when he grew up.

As things wound down at AirVenture, I asked Justin and Carrie whether there was any possibility of them and the kids coming to visit me in California. They said they’d love to but couldn’t commit to a date because Justin was on the verge of upgrading from first officer to captain at Frontier and couldn’t yet predict his schedule. They looked at the boys’ school schedule and told me that if everything went without a hitch, they might be able to visit during Easter break.

Captain JustinLast March, after much grilling and torture in the Airbus simulator, Justin succeeded in making captain. I learned of this when he texted me a photo of his new four-stripe shirt. Not long afterward, he texted me a photo showing him in the left seat of the Airbus with check airman Kelli Cammack in the right seat, overseeing his Initial Operating Experience (IOE) trip as Captain.

(NOTE: Kelli is the longtime partner of my good friend and JetBlue Captain Adrian Eichhorn. Aviation sure is a small world.)

I’m so damn proud of Justin!

Generation Three

Ethan by airport signYou probably already see where this is going. Justin, Carrie, and the boys did indeed come to visit me in California over Easter break. The April weather was glorious. The family walked on the beach, took part in an Easter egg hunt, even visited some local wineries to do some tasting. Then on Easter Sunday, we had a religious experience: Ethan, his dad, and I drove to the airport at Santa Maria to go flying in my Cessna 310—the same 310 in which Justin had been bitten by the flying bug—to give eight-year-old Ethan his first ride in a GA airplane.

Captain Justin climbed into the back seat and declared himself the official photographer. I took the left front seat and Ethan the right. Even with the seat cranked up to maximum height and slid to the forward stop, Ethan could barely see over the glareshield and his feet came nowhere near the rudder pedals, but that didn’t seem to bother him a bit.

Mike & Ethan flying 38XWe taxied out, took off on Runway 30, climbed straight out to the Pacific coastline and levelled off at 1,200 feet msl. As we crossed the coastline, I asked Ethan to place his right hand on his control yoke and follow me through as I executed a few shallow turns, climbs, and descents. Then I asked him if he was ready to take the controls, he smiled in the affirmative, and I released my yoke and said, “Your airplane!”

Ethan flying 38XEthan predictably overcontrolled a bit at first, but with a constant stream of voice coaching he managed to keep his altitude within 200 feet and his heading within 30 degrees. Within minutes, his performance improved to the point that he was holding within 100 feet and 10 degrees—that’s private pilot checkride standards, folks—and mind you he was flying a 5,600-pound twin, not a Cessna 150. The kid clearly had an aptitude. I was jealous. Justin was delighted.

I programmed the GNS 530 for a route up the coast to Big Sur, then east to King City, then back down the inland route to Santa Maria. I showed Ethan how to keep the little airplane symbol on the magenta course line on the 530’s moving map, and he caught on instantly (it was just like Waze). Approaching Big Sur, we climbed from 1,200 feet to 7,500 feet to cross the mountain range, then descended to 5,500 feet for the inland return leg. Approaching Santa Maria, I talked Ethan through a descent to pattern altitude, then took back the controls on downwind leg.

Ethan & Mike with 38X in hangarBy the time we shut down the engines, climbed out of the cabin, and pushed the plane back into my hangar, it was pretty obvious that Ethan had been bitten by the flying bug big time. I was teary eyed the next day as the clan drove off in their rental car, headed for San Francisco and then home to St. Louis. Justin is now seriously committed to buying his first GA airplane—very likely a Cessna 182, following in his uncle’s footsteps—so he can take the kids flying on a regular basis. The family has already made their campsite reservations for AirVenture 2018, and I’m looking forward to seeing them there in July.

I want to be a pilotNow if I can keep flying until I’m 90, maybe I’ll be able to catch First Officer Ethan on Center frequency. Would that be cool, or what?

What is a Fire Traffic Area?

Canadair water scooper aircraft. One of the of aircraft types that frequent Alaskan skies during fire season.

As wildfire season approaches in Alaska, we can expect to see the migration of fire-fighting aircraft into the state.  Only slightly behind the migrating waterfowl.  I had the opportunity to sit in on a briefing recently that described how the aircraft that are used to tackle wildfire are managed—and more specifically, the airspace around a fire that is “under attack.”  They use a structure called a Fire Traffic Area. This is not necessarily the same as a TFR, which would apply to those of us not participating in fire fighting operations.  More on that later.

Structure of a wildfire operation
Typically, first on the scene is an air attack aircraft.  Aero Commanders are used to perform this function in interior Alaska.  Onboard is a pilot and a fire-fighter.  From their vantage point overhead, they manage the air assets, which might include air tankers, helicopters, cargo planes making drops to crews on the ground, etc. They also monitor operations on the ground, and watch the development of the fire, among other things.

Fire Traffic Area Diagram. Note that aircraft may be arriving or holding in the airspace outside the 5 nm controlled area. Water scooper aircraft or helicopters may also be ferrying to and from nearby waterbodies. Monitor the tactical frequency, 128.45 MHz when flying in the vicinity of a fire fighting operation.

Fire Traffic Area
A piece of airspace five nautical mile in diameter called a Fire Traffic Area, is defined over the blaze during fire suppression operations. It typically extends from the surface to 2,500 feet above terrain.  Within this airspace, altitude zones are used to separate the different type of aerial operations (see diagram for altitude stratifications).  Aircraft involved in the operation are required to contact “air attack” when they are within 12 miles of the center of this structure, and not allowed within 7 nautical miles until they have established communication with the air attack ship.  This airspace will often, but not always, be accompanied by a TFR. When a TFR is established for fire-fighting operations, it should include a radio frequency and phone number, in case you do need to transit the airspace.

Communications
The two-person crew in the air attack aircraft not only directs tanker and other aerial activities—they also maintain communications with crews on the ground and dispatchers back at air bases.  Between VHF and FM radios and a Sat phone, they may have as many as eight com channels to manage.  If one is flying in the vicinity of a fire operation, a good thing to note is the primary air tactical frequency: 128.45 MHz.  Monitoring this frequency should give you an idea of what is happening.  If you need to transit the area, give a call.  If the frequency is extremely busy, that is a clue that you might want to detour around, and not add to the congestion they are already dealing with.  At other times, however, give a call, perhaps starting with a position report, and let them know what you would like to do.

Fire related radio frequencies that may be handy to know.

Reporting a wildfire
Depending on what part of the state you are in, either BLM or the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources will have jurisdiction over fire suppression activities. In case you need report a wild fire, two other frequencies to note are: State Forestry, 132.45 MHz and BLM Fire, 127.45.

Safety is our number one concern when sharing airspace with fire-fighting activities.  Keep these radio frequencies handy, check NOTAMs for TFR’s and enjoy the summer flying season!

GPS Testing Part of Military Training this season

Sample of the map included with a GPS Testing NOTAM. Pilots filling out online GPS anomaly reports may help develop a better understanding of the real impacts of these activities.

Military Training is a routine part of the flying season in Alaska.  Sporting the largest contiguous complex of special use airspace in the country (the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex or JPARC), military planners last week announced the dates of four Red Flag exercises over the coming months.  The thing that is a little different is that each of these 10 day exercises this year will include “GPS testing” where military forces on the ground will jam the GPS signal from participating aircraft, to test this real-world threat now faced by our armed forces.  The challenge is, it may also impact civil aircraft, outside the boundaries of the MOAs and Restricted Areas used by the military aircraft.

When/where will this happen?
The GPS testing will take place within the ten-day windows of the Red Flag Exercises.  At a briefing last week, the dates of this years exercises were shared with civil aviation operators.  We also learned that some of these exercises will have as many as 120 aircraft, participating, including visitors from several foreign countries.  These are dates you may want to put on your calendar, and pay attention to as you plan your flying activities:

JPARC Airspace Complex, largest military training airspace in the country, will be again host Red Flag flying exercises this summer.

26 April – 11 May
7-22 June
9-24 August
4-19 October

On the dates within these ranges that GPS testing is planned, NOTAMs will be issued at least 72 hours in advance, with defined date and time ranges that will limit the testing.  Even though the testing is highly directional in nature, aimed at military participants, the potential for it to disrupt GPS signals outside their airspace is significant.  As we progress into the NextGen era, where GPS is the primary basis for IFR as well as VFR navigation, this is something we all need to plan for.

What if I lose my GPS?
We still have a lot to learn about the impacts of GPS testing.  If you lose GPS signal while flying please do two things:

(1) Notify ATC, whether it be Anchorage Center, approach control, a control tower or a flight service station.  Let them know when and where you lost GPS signal, or experienced any other problems with GPS navigation. This holds for both IFR and VFR operations.

(2) After your flight, please fill out a GPS Anomaly Reporting Form to help us learn the extent and nature of impacts that may be caused by this testing.  https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/nas/gps_reports/

AOPA is working this issue on a national level and getting reports from Alaska will help define the impacts of this training activity—which influences all segments of civil aviation. Through time, we hope this will result in more accurate NOTAMs, or other accommodations to provide more precise understanding of the impacts of these training activities.

What else can I do?
As pilots, we are trained to have back-up plans.  If you are operating IFR, remembering to tune in the VOR and ILS frequencies from our “legacy” equipment.  For those of us that fly VFR, it might be a good idea to make a flight or two this summer just navigating with a good old paper chart—and re-discovering the joys of pilotage.

Uneven STARs

I’m often surprised at the widely varying quality of domestic Standard Terminal Arrival procedures. The name makes for a good acronym (“STAR”), but from an aviator’s perspective there’s precious little about them that is standard. Some are simple and pilot friendly, whereas others can be downright awful.

There are reasons why each STAR is set up the way it is. These procedures must interface with both the en route structure (aka airways) and the terminal environment while respecting terrain, airspace, and other such limitations. And you’d think between satellite navigation and modern avionics, it would be possible to fly just about anything with ease.

If only.

Bizjet pilots who fly into the NYC area will recognize this STAR. Whether they like it, however, is another story altogether…

Anyone who flies a business jet is undoubtedly familiar with the WILKES-BARRE FOUR arrival. Most of us who utilize this procedure are headed into Teterboro (KTEB), but it also serves a number of other greater New York area general aviation airports, including Morristown, Linden, Princeton, Somerset, and Solberg.

To me, the WILKES-BARRE FOUR has always been the penultimate example of a poorly designed STAR. It’s almost as if whoever conceived this procedure was unaware of (or chose to ignore) the realities of operating a high-performance turbojet.

The procedure has arriving aircraft flying east, and in this part of the country tailwinds are often quite high at altitude. In fact, they often increase rather than decrease as we descend. I’ve seen more than 150 knots on the tail while being sent direct to HOXIE, STENT, or the Wilkes-Barre VOR.

You can probably already see the first problem: My 460 knot true airspeed has combined with the tailwind to give me a ground speed of more than 600 knots. That’s nearly 700 mph. Slick airplanes don’t want to “go down and slow down” at the same time, and there’s precious little drag on a Gulfstream.

Not only is the procedure itself a problem, but the way it’s used by ATC amplifies the difficulty. Due to the quantity of arrivals into Newark, JFK, and La Guardia, we’re almost never allowed to fly anything like an optimized descent profile. Instead we’re given descent clearance either very early or very late.

If it’s early, no problem. I can fly that, although it’s very inefficient to be at low altitude so far from the airport. (Side note: I was returning to New York from Sao Paulo very early one morning and ATC had us descend to 3,000 feet msl. When we leveled, off, I looked at the FMS and noted that we were still nearly 300 nm from Teterboro. We were out of sight of land, and I was only half-joking when I told the controller, “I’m not sure who we offended, but I apologize.”)

You’d think the heavy traffic and high tailwinds would call for the WILKES-BARRE FOUR to be one of the more precisely designed and utilized STARs in existence, but it seems to be the exact opposite. Instead, we’ll sometimes be held high until well past a normal top-of-descent point and then instructed to cross MUGZY at 6,000 feet. There have been plenty of occasions when even with the power at idle and the speed brakes deployed for the entire seven mile vertical descent from cruise altitude, I still cannot make the 6,000 foot restriction because we’ve got to slow to 250 knots prior to descending through 10,000 feet.

While I understand the challenges controllers, airspace designers, and traffic managers are dealing with, there are limits to what an aircraft can physically accomplish, and this arrival procedure often pushes those boundaries on a regular basis. I’ve had to use the words “unable” more often on the WILKES-BARRE arrival than any other procedure I can think of.

The polar opposite of the WILKES-BARRE are procedures like the PUFFER FOUR arrival into Denver. This STAR has a variety of measured step downs, and it slows the aircraft to the 250 knot speed limit before pushing through the 10,000-foot barrier. If anything, it slows the aircraft a bit too early, although with the turbulence generated by the Rockies, it’s often a welcome restriction which feels tailor-made to the prevalent conditions for that area. I’d also note that this procedure allows for both north and south arrivals.

Some STARs are just a mystery. Not so much in how they look on paper, but in how they’re used in real life. As evidence, allow me to present the LYNXX EIGHT arrival procedure into Van Nuys. VNY is the west coast equivalent of Teterboro—the corporate jet and charter hub for the greater Los Angeles area.

I’ve flown this procedure a hundred times, and not once have I ever flow it as charted or been cleared to “descend via.” Even at 2 a.m., the controller will still given direct-to various waypoints and verbally provide each altitude change, often in 1,000-foot increments. I’m sure there’s a reason for it—probably north and south crossing traffic between the high desert and Los Angeles basin—but if this is to be the case, why bother designing or assigning this STAR at all?

I doubt the issue can be blamed entirely on crowded metropolitan areas with demanding layers of airspace, because one of my favorite arrivals is the DSNEE THREE arrival into my home field, John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California. I’ve almost always been cleared to descend via, and the arrival navigates the high terrain around Palm Springs as well as the crowded LAX arrival corridor and other SoCal airspace with both elegance and ease, providing a beautiful transition into what’s usually a visual approach for Runway 20R.

I always end up wondering why more STARs can’t be like that, both in how they’re designed and used by air traffic control. If a STAR is awkward and inefficient for the pilot, it’s probably no prize for the guy on the other side of the radio either.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that STARs are like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: You just never know what you’re going to get.

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