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A rough winter

As I write this, I am home dealing with round two of a wicked cold that is wreaking havoc this year. Where I live, it has become so pervasive that schools are closing because of high absentee rates, and some are dealing with a lingering cough that lasts for weeks, if not months. On the news, all the talk is about the coronavirus, while online there are jokes about corona virus being cured with a slice of lime. Personally, I’m feeling pretty miserable, and I’m sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.

All kidding aside, this brings up the point that flying while sick is not a good idea. It can be dangerous (think: blown ear drums, vomiting, et cetera), inconsiderate, and illegal, since the FAA demands that you not do anything in violation of your medical. Certain medications may render you unable to fly for awhile as well.

Flying while sick also degrades your performance, and you never know when you’re going to need to bring your A game. While a desk-bound person or a sales rep or a number of other professions can get by with someone not feeling well, pilots may need to react to an emergency in a three-dimensional environment in very trying conditions. If you are sick or dizzy or sneezing or in a state of fatigue because  you are sick, your judgment is likely to be impaired and your reaction times diminished.

No matter where you are in your flying career, it would be a good idea to review your immunization records. In the last several years, there have been a number of sudden and unexpected changes in requirements for proof of vaccinations from certain diseases in certain countries. Recently, the Marshall Islands implemented a requirement for proof of measles vaccinations for crew members. If you’re considering a flying career that will cross borders, take the time to visit the State Department and Centers for Disease Control websites to see what shots they recommend getting for certain geographic regions. Diplomatic sites for the specific countries can also provide useful information. (This isn’t intended to start or engage in the argument of being in favor of or against the practice of vaccinations, but if crew members can’t or are not willing to show compliance with the laws of nations they may reasonably be expected to visit, then they may be denying themselves the possibility of employment, or risking a termination.)

Flying sick is also a pretty good way to make sure that you stay sicker longer. Staying home and resting is a better idea than trying to power through anything, even a common cold. When you do have to go to work, be a little more aware of basic hygiene practices such as washing your hands with soap, and using hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes. Use sick time for the intended purpose, and you’ll be fine. Back in the day, airlines—especially the regionals—were known for draconian sick leave policies. Those days are (largely) gone, as airlines now recognize that brining your illness to work is never the better solution.

Ask me how I know this…—Chip Wright

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.

Buddy pass tips

One of the benefits of working for the airlines is the free and reduced-cost flights for yourself, your family, or your friends. Generally called buddy passes, you can offer your friends or friends of friends tickets that are essentially stand-by for pennies on the dollar. The common misunderstandings are that a buddy pass is a real ticket (it isn’t); and you can dress and behave pretty much like a normal person while flying on a buddy pass. Not so.

Buddy passes are offered as a stand-by option, which means that if the person wanting travel isn’t too picky, he or she will get a seat on a flight, assuming that there is one. Buddy pass travelers are the last on the list of priorities, and how those priorities are prioritized depends on each airline. The rules of engagement here are important, and it’s critical that you know what those rules are. You need to be able to discuss them intelligently, and be able to answer all of the expected (and a few unexpected) questions.

First and foremost: There are no guarantees. Buddy pass travelers get a seat if one is available, and that often means waiting until the boarding door closes—and even then they can lose their seat at the last minute. In fact, they can be on the airplane, buckled in, and ready to go, only to find out that they are being pulled off for a revenue passenger.  And they need to conduct themselves with grace and dignity and not get visibly upset.

The dress code is a major area of conflict. A few years ago, United Airlines was in the news for kicking a buddy pass passenger off because the passenger was wearing a miniskirt. The airline was in the right, and Twitter was in the wrong.

Now, keep in mind, it doesn’t matter one whit if you agree or disagree with the rules of a given airline. You simply have to follow them. If you’re going to allow others to use your buddy passes, PRINT OUT THE DRESS CODE and hand it to them! Quiz them on it!

One common strategy is to list a buddy pass rider for first class, no matter what, because you can always be bumped from first down to coach, but you can almost never be bumped up from coach to first. That means telling your friends (or soon to be ex-friends) that they need to dress and be prepared for a first-class seat just in case. If your friends can’t comply, then either don’t give them a buddy pass, or don’t list them for first class.

What is frustrating is that gate agents are not always consistent in their enforcement of the rules, and some can even be a bit overly zealous. But if you meet both the spirit and the letter of the law, you should be fine.

Another important lesson is this: Make sure that your riders can carry out the listing process on their own without having to call you every time something changes. Pass riding can be very fluid, and you can’t be expected to give up too much of your valuable time trying to get someone a ride.

Passes can be great, but they aren’t for everyone. Choose wisely and choose carefully. And brief in full!—Chip Wright

Luggage: Pay now or pay twice later

Early  in your piloting career, you begin making not-insignificant investments in everything from books to headsets, sunglasses to spare headsets, and everything in between. Just when you feel like you’ve already bought everything that Sporty’s has to offer, you get hired by an airline, and you’re up to the next sizable purchase: luggage.

Quality luggage is critical. You’ll be dragging a suitcase through airports, parking lots, airplanes, rain, snow, sleet, and the occasional pile of dog droppings. You’ll be jamming your bag into overhead bins, storage spots in cockpits, and places you can’t even imagine. You’ll also be using a flight bag of some sort every day. However, unlike in days of yore, you won’t be needing an old-fashioned “brain bag.”

There are three major brands of luggage that can take a beating and will get you a lot of miles. LuggageWorks is by far the most common. The bags have a metal frame, a durable cloth material, and roller-skate wheels. More importantly, they come with the backing of the company, and if you ever need to have a bag repaired—and at some point you will—the company will rebuild it for the fraction of the cost of a new one. You can also get personalized handles, so that your name is visible to anyone else looking for a black suitcase in a pile of black suitcases. The only downside to LuggageWorks is that its bags are heavy. But…they last forever.

LuggageWorks also makes an entire array of modular luggage that all works together, and it is all made of the same rugged material.

Tumi is another popular brand of luggage, but it is also—by any reasonable measure—prohibitively expensive. That said, it is rock solid; the suitcases are expandable when full; and they are effortless to roll. I mention them because a few airlines use them as “official” luggage, which means you can usually take advantage of substantial discounts. However, those discounts usually apply only to the selected units used by the airline. With the discounts, the prices are very competitive with LuggageWorks.

The third most common is Travelpro. Travelpro is made more of plastic, and it isn’t as durable. The cloth isn’t as rugged as LuggageWorks, but for the standard person it is fine. However, we aren’t standard people when it comes to travel.

Like headsets, luggage is one of those things where you can pay now or pay twice later. Get good quality in the beginning, and you’ll be glad you did. It will also behoove you to get a second suitcase at a minimum. Eventually, your suitcase will need to be repaired or fixed, no matter how well you take care of it. Either way, you need quality stuff that is rugged, well-designed, and fits overheads and cockpit storage areas.—Chip Wright

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.

Pilot applicant New Year’s resolutions

The beginning of the year is a popular time for making New Year’s resolutions. So, for those of you who might be in the process of looking for a first or a new flying job, here’s a list of things to work on:

Network: Build your network! Make contacts in as many places as possible, and keep in touch with them on a regular basis. Phone calls are always best, but emails and texts can work too. But, voice and in-person visits are the most effective way to build a true relationship (or sustain one). Your network is going to give you the best, most recent and most accurate inside information on jobs, leads, et cetera.

Logbooks/Resumes: Update your logbooks regularly, and your resume every time you add a new rating, achievement, job advancement, and the like. Your logbook should be current enough that you can show it to a potential employer at any time without being embarrassed by how far behind it is. The times should be accurate, and the writing legible (if you’re using a hand-written log).

Resumes need to reflect current as well as previous jobs. You shouldn’t need more than a sheet of paper, and all of your major ratings and times should be on there. Along with your logbook, your resume should help to sell you. Contact info needs to be current and up to date.

Letters of recommendations: This is both part and separate from networking. Letters of recommendation need to come from two sources. The professional source consists of the pilots that can vouch for you as an airman, both in skill and in professionalism. The personal source is that group of non-aviation folks that can vouch for your character: family, friends, neighbors, and the like. You don’t necessarily need to have all the letters written and immediately ready to go, but you should line up who you’re going to ask and make sure that they are on board with helping. And keep in mind that they need some time to sit down and put something on paper. A couple of weeks should be sufficient.

Applications: Job applications are tedious, time-consuming, and boring. But it is critical to get them done correctly. With so many online these days, it helps that multiple airlines are using the same application portal. That’s great for you. The one thing you need to do is ensure that yours is error-free. Print out the application, and let it sit for a day or so before you read it. Further, have someone else you trust read it  to spot any mistakes or omissions. Keep a printed copy (or two) in a safe place in case you ever need to start over or just reference it.

Experience: You need this–not just in the airplane, but in other areas of your professional work. Experience in running an office, handling the cash, jockeying the paperwork, solving the major problems—these are all skills that will make you marketable as a pilot. In the corporate world, you’ll do much more than just fly. In the airline world, they will want to know that if you lose your medical that you will still have some value. So, build up skills and talents that go beyond just flying the plane.

The airlines are in a major hiring boom right now, but you won’t get a call for an interview just because. You need to do your part, and get ahead as much as you can. Make the plans, and use them to make an action plan so that you can better your odds of getting hired not just sooner, but where you want to be.—Chip Wright

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.

Human factors assumptions, part 2

The Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX crashes have brought some attention to the relatively recent concept of multi-crew pilot license (MPL) certification.

The MPL was designed as a work-around for the traditional pilot training tracks that don’t include the military. Instead of following the current private/instrument/commercial/multiengine progression that thousands of us have done in the past, the MPL works by getting some basic private pilot-like training done in a single engine airplane, with perhaps a bit of instrument training as well. But the overwhelming percentage of the training is conducted in a simulator or fixed training device specific to the aircraft that the candidate will be flying. In other words, an MPL candidate for the 737 would get the majority of his or her training in the 737, and only the 737.

On paper, this can be attractive, because a few hundred hours of dedicated time spent learning to fly and handle one aircraft can be performed in a structured, building-block methodology. Over time, more and more complex situations can be introduced and responses evaluated and repeated, if necessary.

But this also leaves a lot out. Simulators, for example, are terrible replicators of weather. Becoming weather-savvy is something that can really only be learned from experience, not from reading it in a book or watching a video. Complex air traffic control communications are also difficult-to-impossible to work into a simulator, especially if English is not your first language, or one you speak fluently.

An MPL might produce a pilot who is book-smart and a checklist-monkey when he or she gets in the airplane, but you can’t buy experience. And with such a narrow scope of knowledge from which to draw, you may not have the tricks or the know-how to handle complex events that may not have been covered in the box.

Pilots who gain experience by building time in a variety of flying opportunities are like putting together a much more valuable box of tools to draw upon when things go south. Further, they are doing so in a real-world setting that truly tests their grit, stamina, and threshold for stress. No amount of MPL simulator training is ever going to provide the same thing, no matter how diligent the efforts at realism.

If the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines accident reports come down on the validity and quality of training, even if only remotely, let’s hope that the MPL concept is at least paused or reconsidered. Additional real airplane training might cost more up front, but it will be cheaper in the long run, for there is no substitute for real experience in anything.—Chip Wright

Human factors assumptions, part 1

As I write this, the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air Boeing 737 MAX accidents are still being investigated. While we know that the MCAS system is going to get the major share of the blame, there is also a push to change the way pilots are trained. One of the topics that has come up is one that was addressed in the movie Sully, the story of the USAirways dead-stick landing in the Hudson River, and that is some of the assumptions that go into aircraft and systems design.

Engineers—both hardware and software—creating a new design need to make some basic assumptions about pilot reaction time, knowledge, and experience. Reaction time delay is one of the most difficult things to predict. Modern aircraft are so dependable and so reliable that it’s easy to take them for granted. And that’s the problem: When something does go wrong, it’s critical that the time lag of a response be given adequate consideration. As Sully showed, when the crews in the sim knew exactly what was going to happen and when, and were allowed to respond immediately, they had no trouble getting the crippled A320 back to departure airport, especially when allowed to practice several times.

In reality, though, such events almost never go so smoothly—after all, who ever anticipates losing both engines to a flock of geese? Imagine dealing with the shock of some kind of a collision, followed by a marked change in the normal noise pattern of flight, and then the audible chimes and lights and other indications of an anomaly. Then, once that has begun to set in, the brain has to convince itself that what it is seeing or hearing is real.

Media reports indicate  this happened with the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air crews. Additionally, it involved a system that the crew of the Lion Air flight was totally unaware of, and the crew of the Ethiopian Air flight was only marginally aware of. The noise of the stick shaker—which is extremely loud and distracting in the 737 by design—combined with the realization that the airplane was descending and trimming itself nose down must have been overwhelming. In both incidents, there was surely a realization at some point that the crew was unable to overcome the airloads in order to reverse the trim.

It’s one thing for designers to try to anticipate crew responses during the early phases of flight. But they also need to look at human factors from several angles, including crews that might be in the middle of a longer flight on the back side of the clock, such as a red-eye or a transcon. The effects of fatigue on sensory response need to be accounted for, which is another reason that some warnings are designed to be loud and attention-getting.

The type of fatigue matters too. Is the crew tired because it’s the last leg of a six-leg day, or is it because they are flying in the middle of the night? Crew experience also needs to taken into account. An experienced, well-trained crew is going to have a better response under virtually any circumstance, and there is reason to believe that at least one of the pilots involved in the Ethiopian Air crash may have been extremely low on the experience meter. Throw in a similar situation with fatigue or personal stress, and such an individual could easily be overwhelmed. It might impossible to account for every possibility, but realistic common denominators need to be established.

Manufacturers do what they can to test their theories and assumptions in the simulators, but there are limits to the effectiveness. Every pilot knows that during a sim flight, something will go wrong. They may not know what, or when, or where or how, but they are primed for a surprise, so even the surprise isn’t a total surprise. Further, when you know that you’re in a box, you know that you’re eventually walking away. That means that the effect of full-blown fear and panic is almost impossible to test for or measure.

There has already been much discussion about human factors assumptions moving forward as result of these accidents, and it’s a discussion that will go on for some time. Checklists and procedures are already being retested, rewritten, and studied. Pilots have complained for years that inexperienced cockpit inhabitants—usually first officers—are unable to cope with a sensory onslaught of often conflicting information. These accidents seem to bring some evidentiary data to that argument, though we must wait for the final reports to be written.

What we do know is that 346 people were killed in very preventable accidents, and the laws are written in blood. Changes will be coming.—Chip Wright

Sim seat-fill

No pilot wants to be under the scrutiny of an examiner or an instructor any more than is absolutely necessary. However, airliners require two pilots, and that means any training in the sim also requires two pilots. Most of the time, pilots are paired with another student, and each gets equal time to practice whatever is on the schedule.

But, as the saying goes, best laid plans… Occasionally, a pilot is not paired up with another student. This may be attributable to an odd number of trainees, or because one student needs to be held back for remedial training, or one quits or gets fired or is sick, et cetera. And some airlines—increasingly fewer do this, but it still happens—won’t let two pilots who have been training together take a checkride together. When this happens, the training department needs to use what is often termed a seat-fill, which is another pilot brought in to occupy the second seat and perform accordingly.

Most of the time, seat-fill pilots are stand-by instructors, but when they aren’t available, local pilots near the training center usually get the call. Sometimes the airline is required to use reserve pilots, but often, lineholders can make themselves available as well, using whatever sign-up process is available.

The immediate question is, why would anyone want to do this, and is there a jeopardy component to this? Well, yes, you are in a jeopardy situation, which means that if you perform in such a fashion that you would have failed your own checkride, you can find yourself effectively grounded until you’ve been retrained. That, however, is rare.

Most pilots volunteer for seat-fill because they consider it an easy way to make some extra money on a day off without having to go to the airport or spend a night away from home. It’s also a great way to stay sharp on procedures in the sim that you don’t get to do very often. Last, but not least, you get to know most of the instructors and examiners, and they get to know you, so when you go in for your training, you are much less nervous and more comfortable than you might otherwise have been. Taking that a step further, you might get the benefit of the doubt if you make a mistake or two during your own ride that might have been cause for concern previously.

Another benefit to doing a lot of seat-fill is the networking that can take place. If you’re interested in getting into the training department, this a great way to show your bona fides in terms of your preparation, readiness, willingness to help a new hire, and the like. The truth is, there is no downside to doing the seat-fill if you can. If your schedule is flexible, and you live near the training center, take advantage of the opportunities that seat-filling provides, especially as your own checkride approaches. Extra training, extra cash, and more confidence: It’s a lot more upside than down!—Chip Wright

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