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Author: Garrett Fisher (page 1 of 5)

Recurrent Lockdown Without a Pandemic

Before I get into the thesis of my post, I owe an update to the inglorious rant from last month. For those that got through my little post of horrors to the fourth section about my quest for the [Heli Coil] Holy Grail, I ended it on a positive note, as though the problem was solved. Well, it wasn’t. Within two hours of submitting the post, the distributor cancelled the order, even though we had spoken on the phone about it. Apparently, the package intermediary that they asked for was a problem and they washed their hands of it. I went back to the first distributor, who actually shipped it next day to the intermediary (should have used them in the first place!). Between overnight shipping to the intermediary, COVID delays, and FedEx Express to Europe, it took two additional weeks to arrive.

As is apparently customary with Swiss maintenance technicians, initial enthusiasm from the mobile Swiss A&P was replaced with a sudden reticence to schedule the job on his part now that the parts arrived. At this point, I remembered an American instructor I used in Germany in 2016, who equally had the daft idea to import and fly an airplane from America on this continent of misery. He had mentioned solving his mechanical woes not long after I left Germany, so I thought “why not see who he uses?”

I found a real solution for the long haul. A younger German mechanic, licensed under EASA and as an A&P/IA, he was billed to me as a “non-German German.” I.e., he will actually fix things instead of robotically demanding a major overhaul as a solution to all woes. The instructor said, “We’ll solve it. I’ll fly him down. That’s what pilot friends are for.” I was in such disbelief that I might have been dreaming, so I called the A&P, expecting some sort of catch. I slowly revealed my woes, progressively giving every last detail, and he said “It is no problem to do the heli-coil by hand. It will take one hour.”

Before he came, I did some more analysis, sent some photos, and we determined that the studs themselves were shot, so we pushed off another week to order them from the USA (which he did, adding to a larger order he had coming). Then the day finally came, where I could barely sleep the night before, expecting doom and misery. After all, if a mistake was made, the case would have had to go to the USA, effectively resulting in the major overhaul I was trying to avoid.

I had the jig on the cylinder, ready to go per the Swiss recommendation. The German arrived, looked at it, and said, “We must remove this as we cannot do the job with it in the way.” Ironic. Then he pulled out a bag and said “I brought some heli-coils in case we needed a different size.” He had them at his shop, rendering my month of misery acquiring them pointless. I do not have enough emotional impartiality to distinguish between my indignation at a wasted month of strife from the glee I should have that this guy already has what I need on hand for future repairs.

When it came time for actual drilling, like a parent watching a doctor perform surgery on a young child, I couldn’t watch. I paced on the other side of the hangar, and 20 minutes later: “This one is done. Now we do the other one.” What? It was that easy? 20 minutes later. “Ok, the heli-coils are in. Now we must put the cylinder on.”

While I was naturally quite pleased, it was an almost insulting crescendo. How many weeks of strife, misery, and struggle did I endure, and in the end, it was a one-hour affair? Why is it that every single maintenance technician in Europe (except this one) that I spoke to would not do it? While the German A&P did explain that EASA mechanics basically are not allowed to do such a repair on a European registered aircraft, he pointed out that it is “on the N register therefore it is allowed.” I shall mention that the last 5 mechanics I spoke to in Europe were also FAA A&Ps, who basically were repairing N registered aircraft while looking at the EASA book.

The saga with repair has continued and is mostly complete with a successful initial cylinder break in test flight completed. The whole affair took 9 weeks, most of which was spent on the phone, waiting for parts, or being told “no” by someone after previously having been told “yes.” In the end, when I add up the $6500 repair bill (many things were replaced in the troubleshooting process, and the jug was one of a few contributing factors), it cost roughly 40% more than if I was in the USA (VAT, middlemen, freight from America, nonsense). It took 6 weeks longer than if the airplane was in the States, with 85% of that delay due to Europe and 15% due to the pandemic. The single hardest problem was a lack of qualified mechanical assistance.

If any other owners of N registered aircraft in Europe are equally as frustrated, please contact me and I will arrange an introduction to this A&P. I highly recommend him. I believe that this recent misery is an investment in smoothing out future issues, as I have a fantastic resource vetted now. I also owe a huge “thanks” to my instructor friend who flew him down. One has to love the pilot community.

Now this brings us to my thesis, which is about how aviation has inflicted three “lockdowns” since 2014 with this airplane, lasting two, three, and four months. This one was the shortest, believe it or not. The longest was Germany in 2016, and the middle struggle was while in Colorado in 2014.

I traced the common thread to all of them, and it was a fusion to two issues: a very complicated, sprawling repair and a lack of a nearby qualified A&P. I.e., either a nearby A&P wouldn’t do it, or a maintenance technician simply did not exist in the area. In each of these instances, I would rely upon a complex web of removing what parts a pilot is allowed to (quite a bit) and shipping them for inspection, rework, repair, or overhaul to a willing A&P in another state, sending photos of the remaining situation, consulting extensively by phone, staging new parts, and bringing the whole thing to a finale by bringing someone in to help get it all done. In all three cases, one symptom on this old engine resulted in the revelation of other problems, or vagaries of the troubleshooting process (where the parts being replaced weren’t the problem). Untold hours are spent going to and from the airport, sourcing parts, shipping things, staring at delayed packages on tracking and the like.

In instances where major problems were resolved in a short period of time (not part of these long downtimes), professionals were close by. Two of these disastrous affairs were in Europe, which made it much worse, whereas one was in the rural Rockies. What is the lesson? If one relocates with an airplane to a new area, especially if it is extremely rural as I seem to choose, immediately begin the search for an available mechanic for an ongoing professional relationship, even if nothing is wrong with the airplane. It is one thing to fly in an existing resource, though that assumes that the airplane only breaks at annual inspection, that deferred maintenance can be caught up at that time, or that the airplane can be flown a long distance to the site of an annual. As 9 months of downtime over the last six years has taught me, it doesn’t always work that way. While most pilots in America live in a reasonable range of a metropolitan area where this problem largely doesn’t exist, a move to a rural or foreign location should treat this search with urgency as though the airplane is broken. While the Cub has gone hundreds of flying hours with minimal issues, it goes through occasional brutal maintenance and repair cycles and I cannot seem to predict when they will strike.

Many times I have wondered why I am living the life I am, and it took an hour and a half circling two miles above the airport during the test flight, gazing at the Alps, to remind me why I am willing to put up with this misery when it does happen. A great way to forget a hellacious downtime is to go flying again.

Château-d’Oex. Wandering around at 11,000 feet, in glide range of the airport during cylinder break in.

Gstaad Airport from 8,000 feet. 

 

 

 

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

Aviation Strikes Back

The last month has been, suffice it to say, the dark side of aviation. A combination of maintenance misery, coronavirus, European rules, and an airplane turned money pit has tainted the glories and freedoms of aviation with the dark, menacing cloud of a massive thunderstorm. In many instances of ranting to friends, one suggested that I write about my experience, ostensibly to point out how various byzantine Kafkaesque rules could use an overhaul. My only reply was: “It is going to sound like I am whining about the consequences of my own ignorant, ill-fated decision to voluntarily ship an old airplane to Europe and not expect to be driven insane by the rules that were well known to exist beforehand.”

Well, here I am, writing about it anyway.

Putting the Economist Hat On – Mechanics

The situation I have been facing this month devolved into a cesspit of money spending, eventually landing on a situation requiring specialized assistance, which meant finding a specific mechanic willing and able to do the job. It is always an issue to find one that will work on an N-registered aircraft, either if the person is a FAA A&P, or uncomfortable with performing the work, furnishing a work order, and having a separate FAA A&P return it to service.

After getting over those hurdles, which often means far fewer mechanics are available, I find that they are all booked solid, despite the fact that the world is flying less. This seems to be the case most of the time, and I had to ask why that is the case. In a previous post, I wrote about how EASA had changed some rules to loosen up mechanical licensure, stepping closer to the “freelance mechanic,” which otherwise barely exists here.

The problem lies in the quantity of policies, procedures, and paperwork that revolve around flight instruction and maintenance activities. It favors organizations over individual mechanics and instructors, which favors highly active flying clubs instead of private ownership. That means a small fleet of [rented] aircraft, flying quite regularly, with resources onsite in the case of a problem. If a plane is out of service, there are others to rent.

Along comes the American with a Cub, asking for some help from an organization like this, even if the European mechanic is a FAA A&P, and the answer is almost uniformly that these institutions are booked out for weeks. How could this be, that in the land where rules stifle aviation, there are thriving, profitable businesses?

When one combines paperwork and rules eliminating freelancers, pushing activity to busy clubs and repair stations, one can find that they are incentivized to run at full capacity, pushing new bookings out into the future. That is not a problem with clubs and companies with small fleets, as aircraft can be substituted. Some private owners have their airplanes “operated” by clubs, which means they are part of the system, likely getting priority. Add in that some European countries have labor laws that discourage eliminating staff, and one can see that economics + the rules and structures that be = limited organizations keeping their order books full. In the US, another A&P would be hired part-time to pick up the slack, whereas those decisions are made far more conservatively on this side of the pond. Besides, who cares if some immigrant wanders in with a broken plane?

That does contrast with the reality that I have wondered how A&Ps in America earn a good living. Many freelancers are either vintage airplane enthusiasts, work weekends for extra money, are retired, or are poor businessmen. To run a proper repair station, cover fixed costs, bear the risk of liability, and earn more than a low-end wage, fees would need to be structured not too differently than in Europe, with order books as full as possible.

I am not sure what the point of this subsection is, other than exasperation that offering to shower money on maintenance technicians seems to not produce…. maintenance activities.

Coronavirus – Get Out of Jail Free Card

It is apparent that the pandemic’s effect on supply chains is separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to competence. Unfortunately, I had two maintenance nightmares span this situation, and they both are revelatory.

The first was an exhaust stack repair early in March. I phoned an outfit in the USA, who told me they would repair it two weeks after I sent it. Noting how I would be out of service a month, I asked if we could come to an agreement and prioritize it for a fee. After some back and forth, the price was set at $250 for the expedite fee. “We’ll get to it in 3-5 days.” “From now?” “No, after it arrives. Wait….6 days. We can do it in 6 days.” “Six calendar days?” “No, 6 business days.” “Then why I am I paying $250 for it to take the same amount of time.” “We’re not shutting down our shop for you! Good day!” [click]

I called another in the USA, same deal: 2 weeks. I asked about AOG fees and these people kindly told me that “We used to do it. Everyone then pays it, and we can’t keep up.” I would say hire more people, but I digress. Maybe they figured out the European model of profitability…

I got recommendations for an excellent outfit in Germany. I called them and they said the backlog was one week. I packaged loads of customs paperwork, including that the whole aircraft is customs cleared into Germany, and shipped overnight, ok with the week delay as shipping round trip would be overnight instead of a week. After 10 days, nothing had happened, as it was still at customs. DHL said the exhaust shop was ignoring them. The exhaust shop sent signed copies of paperwork submitted to customs. A week later, I was informed that German customs was returning it “for insufficient paperwork” and it would take… a month. I would have driven up there to clear it, except lockdown began and borders were closed. “We’ve had people do that before,” said the shop.

That’s it! I am going top dollar brand new PMA!

I called another shop in the USA, agreed on $1500 for new parts, gave specifications, and they were wonderful to get it done in a few days and hurry up to ship it as lockdown was looming for them. It arrived in Europe, after $250 in express fees….and it didn’t fit. While exhaust systems can be subjective on Cubs, there is nothing subjective about the exhaust port on the cylinder and the location of the adjacent intake elbow. At this point, I found a blacksmith in town who heated and whacked the relevant portion into submission, and that problem was solved.

While it was a frustrating charade that ropes in the pandemic, it is a microcosm of everything that is miserable about attempting to keep a 1940s airplane in the air. I am beginning to lose the romance of the idea, that’s for sure.

Coronavirus woes are not over. The latest round has resulted in ordering no less than six installments of parts from the UK and USA, and each order begins with “carriers are not guaranteeing delivery times.” That actually means two things: the carrier is released from doing the job, and the parts seller now has no obligation to be dutiful in getting “overnight” orders out, communicating about it, or getting anything right. I could go on about the miseries endured, down to full on incompetence and outright fraud (charging for overnight, sending economy, refusing to credit the difference). Some carriers are delivering as promised, and some distributors get things out as promised. Some distributors indicate their fulfillment backlog clearly, others take the order and payment and ship it a week later with not a shred of understanding why that is a problem, pointing to the pandemic as a blanket excuse for blatantly failing to live up to promises. It has been, needless to say, challenging.

It would be helpful if distributors would post clearer notice as to their current situation (as some do), though I would imagine there is an incentive to hide deleterious backlogs so as to ensnare customers into making a sale that they wouldn’t otherwise make. It is interesting to watch how some keep the parts flowing as if nothing has changed, and others seem to have fallen apart.

The End of General Aviation

I woke up this morning with a headline in Swiss news. The Upper House of Parliament voted for a package to impose taxes on each passenger for commercial airline flights, for environmental reasons. I also noted that it includes “private flights where fees will be from $500 to $5000 per flight.” Come again? That caused a panicked Google search, which revealed little as to what a “private flight” meant. Stewing over breakfast, I didn’t even need to articulate the ramifications if this were true. My wife was the one to suggest living in another country if that was correct.

I didn’t think it would apply to light aviation, as it would immediately end all non-luxury general aviation in the entire country. None of these mechanics I am spending so much time talking about mentioned it, nor did it appear anywhere else, so I sent some emails, and response was that the proposed legislation apparently is limited to private flights in “jet aircraft.” I don’t know if that means jet a-1 powered flights (including diesel engines), includes turboprops, or is for turbofan engines only.

While those in the US would cringe at these fees, I must point out that they are fractional compared to the total fees paid in Swiss aviation for larger aircraft. The type of individuals that come and go in Switzerland in private jets are of the highest wealth tier globally and will likely pay the fees, with some modest decrease in utilization. The issue, however, lies with how, if that law were written poorly or incorrectly, it could, in one fell swoop, end all general aviation in the name of environmental reasons.

We talk frequently about “user fees” and other such things “creeping” into aviation in America, slowly squeezing it. We do not talk about an Armageddon where one law ends the entire thing overnight. While it is unlikely to happen, this morning’s news headline was at the very least educational. It also cemented that the battle keeping an old plane flying is losing its romantic appeal, though I can’t imagine choosing to have a life without aviation.

I suppose, much like flying a Cub low and slow in a thunderstorm (hmmm…that has never happened), the clouds eventually clear and one flies again on a sunny evening over bucolic farmland. My prefrontal cortex can intellectualize the concept, though the emotional reality of my sentience is so immersed in this misery that I can’t seem to get my head around the idea of flying before I am no longer middle aged. This too shall pass…

Addendum: The Quest for the [Heli Coil] Holy Grail

I wrote the above portion of the post roughly one week ago. While I was duly rattled and frustrated, I thought I had a solution lined up, as a friend found another Swiss A&P/IA to try, one who had lived and worked in the USA for over a decade. After we spoke, he was amenable to coming up to install a heli-coil on a stud, a problem which had derailed my entire enterprise and for which one shop after another told me that I must basically bring the engine to them for the case to be split. Interfacing with A&Ps in the USA told me a field repair was possible, although I couldn’t find anyone to do it.

Anyhow, he was “always looking for new customers” and “just needed to check if he had the tool.” Excellent! The problem will likely be solved and, to make matters better, I like the guy. The next day, I got a call and it was explained, after consulting with other staff, that it is a risky job due to the hardened aluminum of the case, where free drilling could be the wrong angle or create a crack. It would help if there was a jig, though they did not know where to find it.

So, I was back to the drawing board. I double checked with a few A&Ps in the USA to confirm if a field repair is a shop school myth, and they said it is not preferable, though it can be done. Forum hunting online pointed me to Divco in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I called them to ask if a jig exists and if I could buy it. “Not really, but if you have one, and most people don’t, you can cut a junk cylinder and use the base as a jig.” Miracle of miracles, I have a junk cylinder and I was just about to throw it out! Problem solved!

Or so I thought… I emailed the new A&P that I had developed a crush on and…crickets. If there is one thing I have learned, is that a mechanic’s confidence and the intelligence of a certain repair method are two different things. The sudden lack of interest meant that, for this repair, he is probably not the guy if he is slinking away after having announced I found the much sought after jig.

So, it was back to the “Swiss guy who travels around in a van doing repairs.” He is also an A&P, albeit quite a distance away. I had spoken before and he said that he was extremely booked out, wasn’t afraid to do it, and he didn’t have the tools for the coil installation, as he “tried to buy them once a few years ago and gave up.” Now that he was going to be the one, I called him to schedule, advising that I would be ordering the parts. His reply was: “Things are crazy with coronavirus, so I am not scheduling anything until you get the parts. Nothing is for certain.” I thought he was being persnickety, though so be it, let me get the tools ordered to get a confirmed delivery date.

And this is where my week went sideways.

I called Divco, who told me most of the details what to get. Divco, by the way, is wonderful. I phoned the distributor in California that they use, and after some back and forth, called Divco again willing to “pay them for this nonsense” and they walked me through the exact heli-coil specs. It is quite a web of what to buy. They didn’t want money (which makes them even more incredible). I got pricing final, which was about $150, and then the distributor said, “We cannot prepay and add shipping. We need a courier account number.”

Strange. Be that as it may, I phoned a client, got their UPS number and…inactive. I called another client, got their UPS number, and upon attempting to ship, that account doesn’t allow that kind of shipping. At this point, I requested some sort of way to ship it, and they said its “against company policy,” for which I raised an immortal hell and was told that they got defrauded once so, sorry, but “we will ship it to someone in the US.” I declined to mention that they should be content next time their Amazon order goes to Indonesia for re-routing instead of their house.

I took their quote and sent it to a company in the UK and Switzerland, both of which promised to get back to me. Nothing. I then looked for more distributors and found a stock function on the Stanley Engineering website and found that one other company in the USA stocks the install tool. I went through their online shop, loaded up the cart, and….requires a courier account number. I called them and asked if it is a manufacturer requirement and they said, “It isn’t. We took a US card once for an order of $40,000 of stuff that went to Africa and it got charged back, so it’s company policy. “But its $150, it’s going to Switzerland, I am a US citizen, and I will send you a copy of my US driver’s license or anything else you want.” “Sorry, company policy.” Someone else called back and recommended three other distributors. I called them all and they stock the coil but not the tool. I mentioned to one about the African fraud story and she eloquently replied, “Everyone knows not to trust when the Ethiopian prince writes you online.”

I started digging through Google searches and found that I could get an equivalent tap from a distributor in the UK. They had no tool nor coil, but I thought I could divvy this up and attack that way. The tap, by the way, is on page 562 of their massive catalog, but alas, they did not have the install tool. Eventually I found another distributor, in Switzerland, and navigated their web shop. The part numbers were not equivalent, so after digging through a mass of them, I found all three parts, although I would have to order 200 heli-coils in a bag instead of two. So be it. At 1-3 working days, I’ll take it. When I went to check out, they will only ship to Germany. I then called the Swiss office, and they said “We don’t ship from Switzerland. You must do it from France.” On to the web shop in French, load up the cart…will only ship to France.

Somehow, in my despair, I found through Google that an industrial supply company in the US had one of the parts…the elusive tool! Maybe I can get the coils from Texas, the tap from the UK, and the tool from the USA! To my surprise, they had all of them! I checked out, adding the Swiss address and my credit card and….it worked. Suspicious, I called the company, told them I placed the order, and confirmed that they would ship. “It is ‘in review,’ but if we need anything, we’ll email you.” Six hours later, just before bed, I got an email, “Thanks for your order. Due to the cost of complying with export regulations, we are cancelling your order.” At this point, I located a parcel forwarder in New Jersey, called the supplier, switched to the NJ address, and will have to swallow probably $100 to $150 in costs to forward via an intermediary, for which the parts should arrive in 10-12 days, for which hopefully this vandwelling Swiss mechanic will be willing to show up before August.

The candidate Swiss A&P did explain that European procedure is to CNC machine the case if a stud pulls. “That’s why you aren’t able to find a European mechanic to do it. It is not standard procedure here. What they do not understand is that it is a November registered airplane and we can do things the November way. It does not have to be precise, as it is an American product.” What they also fail to understand is, based on my research, how probable it is in the life of an O-200 engine that a stud will eventually pull.

So, there you have it…the dark side of exotic international flying. I will either ditch aviation and become a monk or buy a second plane as insurance against mechanical woes. Stay in America…or buy a new plane with a warranty and global service network.

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

An Evolving Theory of Mountain Flying Safety

One subject that I have grappled with over the years is the disparity between mountain flying being “dangerous” versus a pleasant flight on a sunny day. The reality is, actual mountain flying can be either, or a grade of both. It is not accurate to unilaterally state that it is nothing but dangerous; yet, a cavalier attitude has gotten many in trouble. I started, in my ignorance, subscribing to the danger model, then flirted with the idea that it’s not that big of an idea at all, and now have settled into a new thought paradigm.

It took a recent experience crossing a shallow glaciated saddle at 10,000 feet for the concept to crystallize. Nothing bad happened on the crossing, though at my most vulnerable moment, it suddenly occurred to me that I had not factored one input related to wind. If I was proven to be incorrect in my initial assumption, I would suddenly find myself in a wind shear situation, 300 feet above a glacier, with an engine capable of putting out 70 horsepower at that altitude. The chance of descending onto the shallow glacier (or coming terrifyingly close), would have been unacceptably high.

The good news is that I was correct about the wind, there was no wind shear, and the crossing of the saddle and two glaciers was pleasant and uneventful. What did occur to me in the cockpit was how, if I was at 800’ AGL at the saddle instead of 300’ AGL, the thought wouldn’t have crossed my mind at all. I asked myself why that was the case, and it led to an answer which I think balances conflicting concepts of mountain flying terror and nonchalance.

Every aircraft, day, pilot, and mountain range combined produces a combination of factors where, based on each unique situation, there is a boundary between a safe flight configuration and an unsafe one in each geographic locale. That, I think, is relatively black and white. The result is that certain flight paths can be entirely uneventful, whereas others are extremely risky.

The reality is mixed with many variables. Note how I mentioned that I wouldn’t have given the saddle any thought at 800’ AGL, yet 300’ gave me waves of angst. That tells me that the boundary between safe and unsafe was somewhere in between. Yet, that boundary would be different if winds weren’t the same, if I was loaded with a passenger, if I had more horsepower, if I was flying a spam can, if there was a cloud layer…the list of variable inputs to the equation seems endless, though the boundary of safe versus unsafe flight in the mountains is not.

If there was a visual of how this plays out, I would imagine a landscape mountain scene with red shaded areas demonstrating danger. Box valleys where turning radius is too wide, strongly turbulent areas in the lee of ridges, formation of orographic clouds, low altitudes in valleys where terrain ascends faster than aircraft rate of climb…these would all be shaded red reflecting their danger. Areas that had plenty of altitude, wide enough valleys, and a lack of deleterious winds, well, those are wonderful places to fly and enjoy oneself in the mountains.

To revert back to the technical nature of my sudden concern, there is a 5-minute video of the crossing and below I will walk through some images, explaining what I knew and didn’t know, and where I was when I figured it out.

After passing Les Haudères, Glacier d’Arolla comes into view in the distance.

My options were to head left, right, or turn around. 

While I wanted to turn right over the Col de Charmotane, I wasn’t high enough. Snuggling with the glacier made it clear that winds were coming down the glacier, which made sense as wind reports were out of the south.

I went back to the left option, which took me to Haut Glacier d’Arolla. Winds were not evident here. It is interesting how fast terrain below seems to come up toward the airplane, and what seems like adequate room suddenly feels like it isn’t. Since there are no trees or buildings and the scene is clearly majestic, one can wrongly assume that things are bigger than they seem.

On the way out from the left option, which puts the valley into perspective. Even though the glacier is descending from this angle, the valley now looks quite tight.

Back to the saddle that I would like to get over. The issue with high pressure days is that pressure differences build up on both sides of the Alps. With daytime heating, even in winter, winds begin to pick up, though they are not prevailing in the whole region as one would expect. Instead, they blow through valleys, passes, and openings various ranges, often blowing in a variety of directions. Therefore, I can presume, but not be certain, what the wind is doing. I knew it was coming off this glacier and heading down below me. My presumption was that it was blowing down the glacier in the middle left, and up the glacier on the right, both meeting and descending below.


By the time I got to the saddle, I had a sudden thought that I might have it wrong. What if the glacier to my left, which was blowing down into the valley I came, turned and was blowing forward in this image? I’d have some unpleasant wind shear. I also couldn’t tell how high above the glacier I was, as the snow was one giant soft pillow.

Looking to the left of the saddle, where I was now wondering if the winds were heading out behind me, or if they would bend to the right. It turns out my original theory was correct, and other than getting knocked a bit by wind, it was uneventful.

 

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

An Overdue Rant

The discussion started with my wife’s innocent commentary on France’s coronavirus lockdown requirements. “Can you believe that the French have to carry a piece of paper to leave the house?” Before she could say another word and to the surprise of both of us, I erupted with a diatribe: “Excuse me? So, they need a piece of paper to leave the house? How about the fact that I need to file an avis de vol or PPR prior to every flight in Switzerland, that a flight plan is needed for any border crossing inside of the “border free” European Union, or that I am required to have my Mode S transponder on, broadcasting to the world a precise track of all of my activities? If French health rules are going to be presumed to signify the dawn of authoritarianism, then try being a pilot in the free world.”

Aside from the tantrumesque nature of my fusillade, I have been brewing (ahem, repressing) an argument for a while in my mind that private aviation is treated rather unfairly compared to automobile transport, if one considers the underlying principles behind reasons for regulation of both. What works for cars focuses on safety and respects freedom, yet pilots and aircraft seem willing to put up with an overbearing and disproportionate excess of rules compared to ground transportation. It took the inconvenience of a health crisis to synthesize the argument in my mind.

The most poignant case stems from Switzerland regarding airport hours. For those who read my rantings from Germany years ago, “operating hours” rear their ugly head again, something that thankfully Spain doesn’t seem to care about. I’ll digress a moment to remind everyone that operating hours and information service requirements in Germany stemmed from the Nazi era. At present, uttering the slightest Nazi phrase in Germany can result in job loss and arrest, whereas Germans will admit that the genesis of information service requirements is from the Third Reich, and its completely ok to practice that restrictive Nazi tradition (against pilots) in modern Germany, whereas everything else has been eviscerated from their culture.

Ok, so back to Switzerland. Local communes “come to an agreement” with airports (i.e., tell them) what hours the airport can be open. Most in Switzerland are sunrise to sunset, capped at 8PM in summer. Some go to sunset in summer, others allow only takeoffs until 8PM and landings until sunset. A few allow some basic night VFR on occasion. The rule springs from noise concerns. The commune basically determines when they want to hear airplanes fly. I failed to mention that some airports have restrictions on Sunday, at lunch time, and if a funeral is occurring at a local church.

As with most things in Switzerland, they at least have a traceable origin and make a shred of sense. At the same token, when I compare to automobile traffic, I can’t help but grimace at the disparity. I personally loathe, with a vehement passion, noises from cars and refuse to live anywhere near a road, which is how I solve my personal preference regarding the ever-present miserable hum of car traffic. While I would love if local towns would regulate car noise out of my life, it is a concept that simply never crosses my mind. Yet, when it comes to aviation, occasional air traffic after 8PM is deemed excessive, while cars and trains continue to make a racket in Swiss villages, free to do so whenever they please. To me, it boggles the mind that the differential in treatment is not questioned.

Another matter, that is more prevalent in Europe, arises with regard to insurance. If an aircraft is out of annual or if the pilot has anything but a current license and medical for the flight in question, then there is no coverage, even if those matters had nothing to do with it. I have never toyed with the matter, though I would presume the same condition exists in the USA. Yet, if an automobile is out of inspection, or if maintenance was done not in accord with manufacturer recommendations, would coverage be denied for an automobile accident? Of course not! I am unsure of the situation with an expired license and insurance with a car in the US.

The irony with insurance is that “breaking any regulation” can result in the loss of coverage in Europe. I believe, though do not quote me, that causality with aviation insurance in the US is more of a factor than Europe, and may be US state specific. At any rate, are not most automobile accidents the result of breaking a regulation? Yet, “that is what insurance is for.” In the case of aviation, good faith piloting with an error in complying with a mountain of rules carries incredible weight.

For that matter, I have seared into my mind the deleterious horror of as much as being on the ramp near an airplane without one’s pilot certificate, medical, and state-issued photo identification in my possession. Fines are in the thousands of dollars, in the US, in the event of a ramp check – not if one attempts to enter and fly an aircraft being a non-pilot – but if the person left the documents at home. In a car, the police furnish a limited period to return to the police station with the driver’s license and do not squabble as much about issues as to whether it is in one’s possession.

I could go on and on, though I think the point is made that pilots face far higher requirements on all fronts, and far worse consequences. Some might argue that “aviation is different,” and I would be inclined to agree with regard to commercial and transport operations (more people, more speed, more weight, more fuel, more boom). There are strong requirements, they result in very low accident rates, and those are not in question. Yet, for a small aircraft that weighs less than a car carrying the same amount of people as a sedan, I think the corollaries are more profound than we think.

The issue with aviation is protecting the general public mostly, and passengers second. The same rule applies with cars. In fact, if an airplane crashes, the chance of it hitting a bystander or building on the ground is much less than if a car endures a crash. The amount of pedestrian deaths or, for that matter, deaths of occupants of other vehicles not at fault, is staggering in the United States. Cars routinely travel within 5 to 10 feet of opposing traffic, pedestrians, and sometimes buildings. The condition of automobile maintenance in the US can be staggeringly disregarding of the value of life, yet we culturally think it’s fine to careen down the road in vehicles weighing one to three tons with a fraction of the training, licensure, and maintenance regimentation than a private aircraft. The results speak for themselves: cars kill at an astonishing rate.

One has to ask where the root of the problem lies. Regulation is a product ultimately of democracy, which derives of looking after the interest of the majority. It is rather simple and obvious that more people drive than fly; thus, the incentive is to arrive at an equilibrium that the average citizen agrees with regarding automobiles. When it comes to airplanes, there is little reward for a non-pilot to have any sort of non-airline aviation; thus, fear and disinterest in aviation inconveniences (noise, funding local airstrips, etc.) abounds. AOPA in the US is a fantastic example of banding together as pilots and pushing back against the inevitable monster that would be the general public’s disinterest in aviation, whereas AOPA membership and therefore power in Europe is miniscule comparatively. A smaller percentage of pilots in Europe join their local AOPA, rendering the final lobbying outcome far more anemic. The results are evident with byzantine and nonsensical regulation imposed upon pilots by a web of public ignorance.

It is further interesting to analyze differences with American and European automobile training and licensure. Europe has requirements for extensive schooling, compared to the US where parents teach their [unenviable] driving habits to their children. Automobile inspections, while nothing like an aircraft annual, are far more rigorous, such that the sight of a “rust bucket” on the road is virtually non-existent. The results are clear: road deaths are significantly less in Europe, so much so that I have seen three total accidents in four years of European travels, including on packed roads that are far tighter than anything in America. As one can tell, I support the European approach to driving.

Yet, there is still a paradigm that holds true with roads in Europe, despite significant differences in training and maintenance: rules make sense. Road engineering, speed limits, and other posted signs and restrictions follow the same basic concept that exists in America: people want to get from point A to B as fast as they can without killing themselves or others. This reality is a perfect example of how precise, targeted, and effective increases in regulation can create a required investment of training, maintenance, and operating practice that pays tangible dividends for everyone involved. Many of the aviation regulations in Europe that I rail against produce no tangible dividend, other than a Byzantium of nonsense that needs to be tracked, for a purpose few probably even remember.

I illustrate the prior paragraph to demonstrate that quantity of regulation is not the sole barometer of restrictions to freedom. There is much more to do and keep track of on the roads in Europe, yet the outcome is still relatively equivalent to America, despite higher regulatory burden. Higher European regulations in aviation, on the other hand, just annoy pilots, operators, and maintenance professionals. That further cements my democratic and lobbying argument: the general public, even in Europe, would not tolerate mountains of stupidity in driving regulation, as there would be a groundswell of public rage at the prospect. Since aviation here has small numbers and its political influence is not weighty, non-pilots often devise the rules, with no feedback cycle to their lack of sense. In fact, in a recent article I posited the basis that some European aviation rules have been relaxed, due to the squashing of GA experience. It was my theory that, if rules squeezed off the pipeline of pilots to airline cockpits, then the general public couldn’t go on vacation, which is an example of democracy at work.

This rant could go on ad infinitum. I will mention, on a positive note, rules and coronavirus restrictions notwithstanding, that flying is still a tremendous unbridled joy, even during this crisis, and I treasure whatever I am allowed to do in these crazy times even if, for reasons I do not understand, some coronavirus related restrictions require enhanced fire services, thus reducing airport operating hours….

 

 

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

A Curious Lack of Crosswinds

There is an old adage about mountain flying, that “the windsock points in three different directions” at mountain airports. The prospect is appropriately disconcerting to a pilot that has not flown in mountains before, as a decade and a half of flatland flying in the East Coast taught me that, if the general wind for a region is from a certain direction, well, one can easily presume that it is blowing the same direction down the runway. Any mental gymnastics as to what could be going on to create swirling winds was not necessary at the time, and therefore was relegated to the age-old heap of reasons to be afraid of mountains.

My first landing in Leadville, Colorado, after crossing Tennessee Pass in snow showers was as advertised. Winds were in three directions as foretold, so I picked something just over the numbers, did the stick and rudder dance, and got the airplane on the runway as though death was the only other option. Then I had to taxi a half mile, noting that the wind really wasn’t that bad.

A few hundred hours of flying in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Montana confirmed the maxim that the wind is “always” in three different directions. The US West features high valleys, open spaces, and lots of afternoon wind in summer, which is thermally driven. With such vertical winds, localized chinook action, and some orographic wind funnels, it seemed to be the norm to expect something on the wild side, generally not in line with a thing called a “forecast,” and I grew to deal with it.

Fast forward to Spain and La Cerdanya, which featured more hundreds of hours of flying, and it only partially validated this maxim. With an ambient north wind, enormous waves would set up, with a wind funneling out of the Val du Carol in France, before making a turn and working themselves out over the Pre-Pyrenees. On south wind days, a small wave would set up over our house, with slamming doors and windows, bent trees, and afternoon fury, with a light breeze two miles away at the airport. As one would expect, in flight the valley was interesting as the vertical ripples sorted themselves out and found a way to transit the range, though they were predictable. I wrote the experience off as “that’s mountain flying” whereas in retrospect, I would peg the winds as about half as complex as the US West.

Now enter the Alps. A rational presumption, due to the height, severity, and density of terrain would be to expect sheer carnage, with death-dealing winds swirling undetectably around phantom summits, ensnaring pilots that dare enter the range. I can attest that I thought such a thing, and within a short period of my initial adventures in Switzerland, my illusions of sheer terror were replaced with a feline skepticism of nearly everything I saw. Now that the on and off again Swiss adventures have piled up some decent experience, I can attest that presumptions about wind that work in the Rockies are not analogous here, at least when it comes to windsocks on the field.

I arrived at these conclusions by doing one of my “its dark, I’m playing with my computer, and I can’t go flying” exercises, tallying up total landings at various home base airports. When I added up my experiences at three different Swiss “home” base airports, I came up with some very interesting conclusions:

Sion – 16 landings – 100% on runway 25
Bex – 21 landings – 100% on runway 33
Saanen – 33 landings – 91% on runway 26
Samedan – 3 landings – 100% on runway 21

In deeper consideration, I can’t recall a “crosswind” of more than 20 degrees at any of these airports on any of these 73 landings!

One has to ask, if “the windsocks are blowing in three different directions in the mountains,” how the wind is always in one direction? In the Alps, the answer is pretty simple: aside from the reality that windsocks usually are in agreement, terrain is so steep and with such vertical relief that wind channels are formed in terrain. A prevailing crosswind can be blowing at an upper level; however, with a valley a mile or less wide yet 20 miles long, with a mile or more of steep terrain acting like walls, is it really going to rush down 5000 feet, cross the runway, rush up another 5000 feet, and keep going? Winds tend to form channels that find the path of least resistance, turning left and right down steep and long valleys until reaching a pass or relief point, where the pressure can equalize by having the wind roar over a small area to the other side. In fact, passes with towering terrain often have the strongest wind, with more relaxed breezes blowing on summits above the pass. This means that sometimes the wind turns 90 degrees or more relative to general flow down in the valleys, while maintaining a single direction above the summits.

I encountered this reality a bit in the Tetons. Instead of arcing over the Tetons with a resounding fury, rancorous rotors, and a slew of mystery, the wind most of the time just blew around them. In Glacier National Park, with 30 knots of winds at summit level, the same thing happened: winds funneled like the Alps, left and right as they found channels to get to the other side. While there are similarities, I can attest that my limited experiences of the sort in the US were nowhere near as pronounced as the uniqueness of the Alps.

Here are some photos of airports to demonstrate how terrain works:

Bex, Switzerland – The airport is halfway to the horizon. One can understand why the winds are virtually always blowing from the north (toward me in the image). Below is Martigny, which is typically quite raucous as three major wind currents converge and head east to Sion.

Just north of Sion, looking east. The previous image was taken 10 miles behind me. The Rhône Valley continues for another 30 miles, meaning that winds blow most of the time west to east down the valley.

Saanen, taken north of the field, looking west. Terrain to my right, out of the image, is about as high as the left, meaning that winds blow down the valley 91% of the time (at least for me), favoring 26 unless there is a strong post-frontal northeast wind event, for which the reverse occurs.

Samedan. What is evident at this point is that I don’t have good shots of the whole airport of any of these places. That likely has to do with the fact that I do not turn the airplane 90 degrees on final to get a wide photo of what is going on. Nonetheless, the terrain that is on the other side of the airport is mirrored just behind me as I am painfully close to the trees on the right while on downwind. This valley configuration is at least 20 miles long, meaning relatively consistent wind patterns.


In separate news, book #23 is published: Mountain Texture: Glaciers of the Alps. Like my three prior aerial texture works, it features close up perspectives of the many textures and details of glaciers found in Italy, France, and Switzerland.

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

Rays of Bureaucratic Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

Fearing Fear Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

Mountain Flying: Warn and Mitigate

There are two main themes to this flight. The first one was a nagging question I had not yet answered: “How long will it take before I fly around Mt. Blanc in high winds?” In retrospect, it took 6-8 months to take my first flights in the Pyrenees with blowing snow on mountain ridges, and over two years before dabbling in controlled circumstances with winds in excess of 40 knots in the mountains.

For this flight, it had snowed, was relatively cold, and I planned on “wandering into the Valais to look at some mountains.” I assured my wife that I would “definitely stay away from wind” as it was “too much work” and it was forecast to be 40kt or so at higher altitudes. The thing is, I should know myself better. There is an intuitive little spark that fires, where I get an idea for a flight of a certain type, and I tell myself I won’t do it. The second I get in the air and assess what I think from the ground, the switch flips and I do the very thing I said I wouldn’t.

In this case, upon clearing 8,000’ and rounding the bend near Martigny, I could see highly intriguing clouds blanketing the Massif du Mont Blanc, with evidence of orographic snowfall. Clouds looked majestic, much like they do in the Pyrenees in a similar situation. Ahead of me was Grand Combin (14,154’), with clouds billowing over the lee side of the summit. With upper level winds out of the southwest, I deduced that winds were more likely to be channeling around terrain than to properly align with the ridge of the Alps. In the latter case, large waves would form, which I wasn’t in the mood to play with.

I aimed for Grand St. Bernard Pass into Italy, which is a saddle between two large ridges. Ground speeds of less than 40kt indicated winds in excess of 30kt, augmented by cloud movement and extremely dry air due to down sloping winds. I skirted Grand Combin, hitting a few bumps before I figured out how to get over the ridge, where I found a cloud deck that was a few miles long. The formation was similar to the typical north wind event in the Pyrenees, with strong waves on the leeside and an overcast cloud deck stretching almost to Paris.

From there, I was convinced I could come around the bend and catch Mt. Blanc exposed on the windward side. The Massif du Mont Blanc was largely clouded in, as were the ridges below, though based on cloud movement and past experience, I was of the belief the effort was worth it. After ten minutes over the cloud deck, I saw my first sizable gaps over Val Ferrat, Italy, a relief if the engine quit. Then Grandes Jorasses (13,806’) showed itself brilliantly. I knew my scheme would work.

Gradually I came around the end of the ridge, and indeed Mt Blanc (15,774’), in all her glory, was sticking out into the wind, while strong winds buffeted the summit, forming clouds that billowed to the northeast before eventually dissipating. I did some back and forth over Aiguille de Bionnassay (13,294’) and then made my exit over the north side of the Chamonix valley, descending as I went.

Using groundspeed calculations in both directions, winds were 35kt to 40kt, with some higher speeds during my period at 15,000 feet. During the entirety of the flight, I experienced a few moments of basic turbulence, none of which was of any consequence. For the most part, it was tranquil, though it was extremely cold.

Which leads me to part two of the flight, which is an extension of my argument in my May 12, 2019 post “On the Matter of Mountain Flying.” The flight was proof that a little Cub could fly around the tallest peak in Western Europe in 40kt winds differing little from a two-hour summer flight on an afternoon in Texas (at least as far as forces on the airframe are concerned…not temperature). While I am not advocating that suddenly general aviation toss caution out the window and start buzzing large mountains, there is a valuable lesson.

Standard instruction on mountain flying, that occurs outside of mountains, tends to focus on a binary interpretation of what will happen. Namely, follow the rules (2000’ terrain clearance, 20kt or less winds, good visibility, etc.) and everything will be fine; break them and you most certainly will die. While that is instructive to prevent stupidity, there is the nagging question of “What happens if someone ends up in a situation that they were taught to avoid?” This could apply to a number of flight theories, though I tend to find warnings without mitigation apply most poignantly to thunderstorms and mountain flying.

While it is wise to tell a student “never to go near a thunderstorm,” what about the succession of decision-making, causal factors, or simply bad luck where now one has formed over his or her head? If the ‘grand bargain of instruction’ was to warn and not mitigate, exactly what should a student do in a thunderstorm? I know that my instructor taught me to avoid them; my grandfather was the one that taught me to “throttle back and ride it out if it gets crazy” if I happen to get near or in one (he did not advocate flying in thunderstorms, for the record). This line of thinking could go on and on to many subjects.

There are two sides to warnings without education on how to mitigate. Obviously, the positive side is that the pilot would not end up in a potentially dangerous situation, with the idea that not arming a pilot with mitigation tools would heighten the probability of avoidance. The negative side presents when he or she ends up in said warned-of situation, with no training on what to do. That very warning that said not to do it would increase fear and anxiety in the cockpit, precisely when the pilot needs insight. Instead of helping, fear is now punishing, at the worst time. Perhaps flying in the mountains in 30kt winds in a spam can might work out fine, even if the pilot is ignorant. However, if alarm bells are going off in his mind, palms are sweaty holding the yoke, and the pilot gets panicky, the situation has now escalated, with the possible introduction of multiple successions of decisions that could lead to a smoldering crater.

I am an advocate of a “warn and mitigate” theory of instruction for mountain flying. Standard warnings should be issued just like they are now. However, they would be followed up with a series of relatively standard scenarios that could occur in the mountains outside of standard warnings, with some basic information on what to do. While it wouldn’t be a course in advanced mountain flying, it would be some very basic mitigation tactics to increase survival chances, which would, aside from conveying wisdom, arm the pilot with emotional reassurance that the situation is not doomed. In the end, it boils down to not overstress the airframe or smack into granite.

In the Valais, La Catogne (8,523′) in the foreground. Winds were brisk, channeling right to left, with a down sloping component. 


Combin de Valsorey (13,724′) with a bit of a breeze.

Petit Vélan (10,505′) hiding in the clouds. Now at the ridge where clouds are on the windward side and cap.

Valle d’Aosta, Italy under some clouds. 

Grandes Jorasses (13,806′) sticking out into the wind. Val Ferrat, Italy below.

Coming around the bend hoping to see Mt. Blanc. Picco Luigi Amedeo (14,662′) visible.

Picco Luigi Amedeo again. No turbulence due to being upwind.

Above Aiguille du Bionnassay, France (13,294′) looking northwest. “Haze” in the lower left is orographic snowfall from the ridge. It was a common occurrence in the Pyrenees while hiking along similar ridges: screaming wind, biting cold, and a light snow shower with sunshine.

Mt. Blanc from the northwest.


Mt. Blanc from the west.

Aiguille Verte, France (13,524′). Some turbulence showed up here as the flight path had to eventually cross the lee side of Mt. Blanc, albeit at a distance.

Swiss-French border. Original flight path in the rear left that went around the ridge in the front.

Its hard to believe that I would say it, as at the time I was convinced that Yellowstone in the Cub was excessively windy, here is a subject with less wind and biting cold. Book #21 is out, Flying Yellowstone. It differs from my ‘hot springs’ book as it documents landscapes and other features of the park.

 

 

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

Chasing Alpine Autumn

I have a whimsical illusion from my flight training days in New York that I apparently used to spend untold weeks flying every evening while the sun began to go down and the countryside was bathed in autumnal glory. While some autumn flights probably happened more than once, I know better than to think autumn near the Canadian border lasts that long. Usually it was one resplendent weekend with a maximum of two weeks that could count for anything spectacularly colorful, and that was that. Nonetheless, this mental image of putting the Cub away after a fall flight seared its way into my mind as something ideal.

It wasn’t until 2013, when we had moved to Summit County, Colorado, that I had a chance to revisit this idea. While the Cub had been stationed in North Carolina, nothing could seem to approach the glories of New York, despite the Blue Ridge and its apparently famous colors. I had expected a few aspen trees to show up elsewhere in the state of Colorado, and largely thought I had sworn off autumn in exchange for life in the Rockies.

That was until a fateful drive over a pass, where I was greeted with a colorful display of aspens that rivaled New York, and it was mid-September. I positively went on a tear, mostly on the ground, though also in the Cub, photographing what I saw and enjoying it greatly. Those flights in the Cub were challenging, as I had just positioned the airplane in the Rockies a month before and knew next to nothing about mountain flying. I was still able to get some iconic scenery of the Gore Range and parts of the areas around Summit county before autumn came to an abrupt end.

Since that autumn, I have fantasized about recreating its glories. For every single year since then, it hasn’t worked for varying reasons. 2014 I was able to get one flight with some color up in the Blue Ridge. 2015 I was in Wyoming, and while one would assume the West would explode with cottonwoods and aspens, even the locals complained how poor a year it was for color despite my persistent attempts to find it in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. 2016 and 2017 I was able to see some color in the Pyrenees, though concentration is an issue in that neck of the woods, where autumnal displays tend to accent scenery as oppose to compose the subject. Ironically, the Pyrenees put on a blanket of flowers in the spring that exceed the colors of fall. 2018 I actually expected almost nothing, as the Alps consist of rocks, snow, ice, and pine trees. “Perhaps there is some color down near Zürich,” I thought to myself, and let it be. A death in the family happened just before the larches began to turn color (interrupting flying), and in my final Swiss flight before leaving, I was greeted with an explosive display of color that I won’t forget.

Which leads me to 2019. Armed with information about larch trees – pines that change color and drop their needles – coupled with last year’s display, I expected a northeastern style explosion of color if I could time it right. Therefore, I made room to attack with it an appropriate level of viciousness. Instead of a repeat of last year, where the entirety of larch trees change color all at once, this year they have varied greatly by geographic area and elevation, with progressive change as the season progresses. I got lots of flying in before the weather turned impossible, which I am told is also normal.

Late September flight. Apparently some sort of low-growing plants turn red first. On the way to the St. Bernard Pass.

Same flight, two valleys over. Apparently not all grasses provide color. Fouly, Switzerland.


Val Ferret, Italy. Yet here the red shows up again.

Apparently its low bushes which change one at time.


October and now some early color above Trieste, Switzerland. It is a famous turbulent wind funnel and it was living up to it on this flight.


I thought colors would improve around the bend. Not exactly, though I could add a glacier in. One can see larches which are lime tone set against normal evergreens, which remain dark green.


Beneath Grand Combin. Still just a tad of color.


Yet on the same flight, I finally find some orange pine trees. This is as Swiss as it gets: mountain waves, larches, snow, glaciers, and large peaks in one image.


Next flight and I am left wondering if I will find color. Above Leukerbad, Switzerland.


Apparently I will. Above Brig, Switzerland.

Beneath Simplon Pass. Winds here had the subtlety of riding a bronco.

Next flight. Now we’re getting somewhere. NE of Martigny, beneath the Dents du Morcles.


Val d’Hérémence, Switzerland. A tad of snow mixed with larches. 

A box canyon with larches at the end. Pointe de Vouasson. Maneuvering is a tad tight with even the Cub in here.

The valley to Zermatt.


Larches mixed with regular trees,


One larch in the sun. Zermatt, Switzerland. Flight hazard to worry about: cable car wires. 


Just over the border into France at the Col du Forclaz.


Next flight. I did not imagine I would find a cloud layer mixed with larches. South of Nendaz, Switzerland.

More box canyon. The Valais is filled with them. Zinal, Switzerland. Flight altitude 7,600 feet.


Down the valley from Blatten, Switzerland.

This flight was the coup de grace. On the way to an overnight at St. Moritz. Approaching Passo della Novena. Normal pilots on a cross country would cruise at 10,000′ or more to stay above terrain. I wanted to see the trees, so I plotted a circuitous path weaving down various valleys.

Just over Maloja Pass. 

Taxiing at Engadin Airport, the “highest airport in Europe” at 5,600′.

In the air again before nightfall. A few colorful trees here before the Italian border. It reminds me of Montana and Colorado.

South Tyrol, Italy – the section where German is spoken.


Reschen Pass. Austria on the other side. One apparent challenge at sunset in the Alps is sharp shadows, particularly when flying into the sun in a tight valley.

Round the bend after my first foray into Austria. 9th country for the Cub! Austria left, Italy horizon center, Switzerland foreground.

Back in the Engadine before sunset, where my camera unceremoniously died.

Don’t worry, I have another one. Morning climb out toward St. Moritz, on the way home. 


If you made this far without giving up, my magnum opus has arrived, a book chronicling the pursuit of the 82 highest peaks of the Alps. “Above the Summit: An Antique Airplane Conquers the 4000ers of the Alps” is now available.

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

Challenging the Weather in the Alps

From the very first conversation with a European pilot to each ensuing one thereafter, I have been warned about the “Föhn.” The word is a fancy German equivalent to “Chinook,” which implies what is ultimately a simple witch’s brew of meteorological malfeasance: mountains and wind. While Europeans tend not to be as cowboyish about these subjects, the gist was to be careful, as the Föhn is a nasty beast that will devour me and my airplane.

The Pyrenees enter into the picture. With no such warnings, I plunged into the mountain range and got beat up on the first time, a sunny September day. I would then learn that the Pyrenees are a mountain wave factory, with its own Föhn. Surely, I had mastered the skill, because a Föhn is a Föhn, no matter where it happens? Oh, how little the foreigner knows! Pilots continued to warn me about the Alps Föhn, even though I was living in a factory of mountain turbulence.

The thing is, nobody gave me specific warnings about said Föhn, it was just that “it’s there” and it can’t be good. I appropriately decided to make my initial forays into the Alps with significant caution, leaving wind out of it. It did not help that there were three fatal crashes in the week of my first trip here in 2018, and there have been many since. While I read to the extent I can in depth about crashes to learn from them, the fact with most of them was some other issue was in play. Surely the Föhn didn’t cause a midair collision?

As I got a bit friskier in the later part of the 2018 trip, I found that I was bereft of deadly wind, even if I wanted to find it. Curious. The weather actually seems to be structurally good in the Alps for quite a number of days. Now fast forward to 2019, and I found a similar situation…. the wind seems not to blow so fiercely on nice days.

Bit by bit, I have been toying with more upper level wind, and have come to find that it differs little from comparable speeds when in other mountain ranges. Updrafts, downdrafts, rotors, and turbulence have the same effect on an aircraft. The secret sauce is in figuring out what invisible air is doing, navigating accordingly. I decided to translate Rockies and Pyrenees knowledge here, and it seems like it’s working well. In fact, the Alps feature something that the aforementioned ranges lack: low valleys and passes. On days with stiff upper level winds and soaring mountain wave clouds, Swiss pilots are regularly flying at the lower levels of the atmosphere, avoiding the worst of it.

I decided to catalog some of the change of seasons and meteorological exploits from the past month. It starts out with the first snow in early September.

Second week of September. First snowfall! West of Zermatt, looking southeast.


Southeast side of the Weisshorn (4505m / 14,780′). It has enjoyed morning sun, so snow is beginning to melt.


North side of Wildhorn (3248m / 10,656′) with Mt. Blanc sneering from behind. Sheer white areas to the left are a glacier.

Enough of the snow. A few days later, most of it had melted. The lesson here is the clouds. At 5:30PM, the extent of clouds is as in this photo. Spitzhorn (2807m / 9,209′).

50 minutes later, Glacier du Mont Miné. No real clouds to worry about.


Back to the Bernese Alps, and some interesting formations over the Plane Morte Glacier, but not anywhere else.


Hmmm….

Southeast of Gstaad. What is this? 50% cloud cover that was not forecasted, nor was there when I took off two hours before. I’d like to understand how this works.

A couple of days later, I discovered Switzerland’s illustrious network of webcams. There is one 5,000 feet above the house on the hill behind us, so I checked to see if the stratus layer had a top. The webcam was above it, so after 30 minutes of curvy mountain roads and a 20 min jog up a trail, I was above the clouds. Dent du Jaman (left) and Massif du Chablais (horizon right). I had left the webcam open on my computer and when I returned it showed what I thought was impossible: the entire Bernese Oberland, in the direction of the airport, was suddenly socked in overcast! In a matter of 20 minutes, the whole thing clouded over. I checked Gstaad Airport webcam, and other than a few holes, socked. I emailed a bunch of people and they basically said, “yeah, that can happen in the evening.” Note to self: carry more fuel. I would rather not return to base above a solid stratus deck.


Next flight: Simplon Pass, with Italy about 5 miles away. Now the south side of the Alps gets the cloud deck, whereas the north side is entirely clear, with no mysterious clouding over upon my return.

I know I whined for quite a while about the inversion in Spain. I take it back now! I never expected a glacier, mountains, and a glorious inversion. Still in Switzerland, with Italy as the farthest island in the sky.

Next flight. I needed to move the plane before the runway was closed for a bit. It was windier than I liked, though I could stay low if I wanted and avoid it. A high-time pilot seemed nonplussed (“There is no point flying backwards”), other than to indicate that “its usually rough over Martigny.” So I went there on the way to Mt. Blanc. Over the pass to France, I broke my record for the slowest groundspeed yet: 35kt with 39kt winds. It was smooth over the pass and upwind of terrain. Before someone gets too carried away with my apparent silliness, I got passed while in the pass (aircraft in the image below). There was a lot of air traffic for a windy day.

Blowing snow on north slope of Mt. Blanc. Just don’t get close…..or downwind of it.

Next flight. Third snow of the season. Climbing out over Dent du Morcles.

Mt. Blanc (4809m / 15,777′). Highest in the Alps. Note blowing snow below. Winds at 15,000′ were 50kt over Grenoble and 20kt over Turin. I came across another airplane and a helicopter here, all of us intelligently upwind. The wave was perfectly smooth, giving climb rates above 12,000 feet in excess of engine power at 4,000 feet. 

Grandes Jorasses (4000m+). Italy right rear, Switzerland left rear, France foreground).

This flight was the coup de grace! Massif du Chablais below (10,686′) with Mt Blanc on the horizon).

Dent du Géant rear left (4013m / 13,166′) with Aiguille du Midi below. I had dreamt of wave clouds like this since the first flight over Mt. Blanc.

While I’d like to believe that’s blowing snow on the summit of Mt. Blanc, I think part of it is orographic cloud formation. 

Above the wave, sloped to the left above the Aiguille Verte (4122m / 13,524′). It was an illustrious flight.


I have now released book #19 “Mountain Texture: The Pyrenees from the Sky.”

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.
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