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Going West

If someone asked me what a version of heaven in an airplane would be, I’d probably choose flying in the Alps in October. October has a majesty to it that I can’t get enough of, and the Alps, well, they’re the Alps.

I had met a new friend who spends part of his time in Gstaad. An American pilot, he loved the Cub, so we arranged that I’d fly over from Sion to Gstaad. From there, we’d head to Interlaken, on to the headwaters of the Rhône River, and then wander along the Bernese Alps before descending into the Bernese Oberland back to Gstaad, where I’d make the quick hop over the ridge (9000’ or so) back to Sion.

On the flight over, I went around the bend, crossing a section of the Oberland that I had not visited before. Upon entering left downwind over a massive piece of rock (Swiss patterns are intriguing), I noted a proliferation of old airplanes on the tarmac. After powering down, I noted a number of L-4s and other old aircraft, a result of some sort of group that happened upon the place. It was quite nice to see a pile of Cubs on a picture-perfect day in the Alps, so I snapped a shot before refueling for the next leg.

The flight over Interlaken is something I hadn’t yet done, even though it had been a dream for a long time. I used to use Google Earth’s “flight simulator” mode, specifically in this neck of the woods in the Alps, flying the F-16 over all sorts of precipitous terrain, stunned at what I saw on my computer screen. How could it be that glaciers spill thousands of feet down, or that proceeding over a mountain ridge, the ground could drop more than a mile? Today would be the day to experience it in real life, 10 years beyond my initial fantasies.

Interlaken was as stunning as expected. We were a bit high owing to the fact a 100 hp airplane doesn’t climb so well when loaded, and I didn’t want to drop down only to lug ourselves back up. Besides, we were heading to a famous Swiss pass, for which I later hoped to get above 12,000’ if we could, to enjoy some of the higher terrain. It’s a debatable presumption in this airplane unless it’s the dead of winter.

Battling a wind funnel that was not in our favor, we finally got over Grimselpass, turned west, and then let the terrain and wind lift us up. Unexpectedly, I got as high as I wanted to go, circling some enormous peaks, overflying those glaciers and mile-deep mountainsides that I had hoped to see. From there, it was a fun ride along where the Oberland and Alps meet, before the descent back into Gstaad for fuel. As the sun was getting low and the Swiss take time quite seriously, I got out of Dodge, went over Pas de Cheville in brilliant evening light, descended over vineyards in autumn color, and landed at Sion. The last in the hangar, the Cub was parked in front of four business jets, leaving me with a feeling that such a flying day is as heavenly as it gets.

Looking back toward Sion before rounding the bend, Rhône River near Martigny.

Not too far before left downwind for Gstaad.

Two other Cubs on the ground at Gstaad. Even better.

Interlaken!

Brienzersee.

Grimselpass.

Rhône Glacier, source of the Rhône River. In summer 2017, the Cub went to where the Rhône meets the Mediterranean.

Schreckhorn.

Top of the Aletschgletscher.

Jungfrau, looking north.

Along the Bernese Alps looking into the Oberland.

Descending toward Gstaad.

Climbing out of Gstaad.

Bernese Alps in evening light before heading over the pass.

Larch trees near timberline in evening light.

Pennine Alps in the distance from the Sion control zone.

PA-11 in Sion, parked as it should be! A perfect flying day….

When I got home, my wife greeted me with: “Your grandfather is dying.”

Before I go any further, this is the grandfather that took me for my first ride in a J-3 at age 2, that began teaching me to fly the Super Cub at age 8, and restored the PA-11 for my flight training at age 16. The airplane I use for this blog is the same plane that I used for my solo flight, and it was done on his grass strip, which was next to my parents’ property. Aside from that, he had a Cub and Super Cub restoration shop on his property, for which I spent most of my youth admiring aircraft in various stages of restoration, watching the process or just hanging out in the shop because that’s where I’d rather be.

He had made it clear for a long time that he was not going to deal with the disabilities and inconveniences of old age. Sure, we all say something like that, though this guy always meant business when he spoke. Within a few hours of arriving back from my flight, he was on the way to hospice, where he died a few hours later at age 87.

In the following days, my sister offered to send over some scanned photos. I thought the idea was silly. Hadn’t I seen them all? Well, “why not” I thought and agreed to it, for which I got a pile of photos and saw the whole story in a different light. Whether it was my late father at age 5 in the 1950s standing next to a Super Cub, or me sitting in the backseat in the 1980s with my sister as a J-3 was being started, or a long series of crashed airplanes that he brought home for repair and restoration, I noticed some things I hadn’t seen before. For one thing, the Cubs and Super Cubs look alike. The Ford pickups in the background are like a lineage of Americana, changing with the times as the airplane in front of it doesn’t change at all. Then there was the matter of my sister, for which the photos seemed to indicate she was quite happy back in the 80s, sitting in the airplane, more so than I remember. We recently talked, and I discovered that she was going to become a pilot twice, and various major life stages got in the way, even though he had taught her how to land the Cub. How can one grow up together and miss such obvious things? At least it puts a smile on my face that I am not the only descendant to take to aviation in the family.

My late father with my grandfather and his Super Cub. 1950s. Note the old pickup.


Advance to the mid 1980s. That’s me sitting with a big smile on my face (it looks the same when I fly today), while my grandfather hand cranks the J-3. The Ford in the background is newer….

And my grandfather.

Now its 1997. I have gotten a lot bigger, and watch puzzled as my grandfather hand cranks the PA11 I now have. He had a relatively new Super Cub with a starter and I wondered why this airplane lacked one (teenagers…). There is yet another newer Ford in the background yet the Cubs are still Cubs.

This was a big part of my youth: my grandfather sourcing crashed airplanes for repair. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

I decided to exercise some caution and hold off on flying for a bit. My wife aptly asked if my first flight could “not be around Mt. Blanc” (15,774’), for which I agreed. As we had to return to Spain due to running out our immigration allowance in Switzerland, I chose to take a flight on a blue-sky day to scope out my feelings, and, well, like my grandfather, flying is a great way to lift the mood. When my father had terminal brain cancer and I visited a decade ago, my grandfather thought that it was a great time to ride in the Bell 47. While conventional wisdom said I shouldn’t have, I too couldn’t resist and hopped in.

My grandmother often said that when I was young, I was a little version of him. It’s hard to describe him in words, as on one hand, he is unassuming, and yet on another, he did whatever he wanted and didn’t let anything stop him. I am quite aware that my inspiration for my present approach to life can be credited to his influence and giving me the gift of aviation. Everything about this paragraph is an understatement.

I had expected him to live into his mid-90s based on his robust health, and therefore hadn’t thought too much how I might feel about aviation once he was gone. There was some concern that my motivational equilibrium might change, and I found myself having to face the question sooner than expected. The flight to Spain from Switzerland was both functional and uneventful, though I have been flying quite a bit since. Each time I get in the plane, I feel alive and it feels like a bit of him is alive, and I think the best answer to how I feel is…..more flying.

My wife at one point said that she felt awful for “ruining such a good flying day,” and I wouldn’t have it any other way, other than to have been in New York instead of 4000 miles away. Whether it was the picture perfect skies, flying the Cub he restored, the litany of old airplanes at Gstaad, fulfilling a dream in the Alps, or the Cub sitting in front of a bunch of business jets, everything about the day was a culmination of so many factors that started when my grandfather saw a Piper Cub advertisement in 1939, drew them in grade school, walked to a gas station to work in his early teens to save up for lessons, and bought his first J-3 in the 1940s. From those early days to the decades that passed into my flying career, it made that day in the Alps possible, and will hopefully lead to more dreams being fulfilled for others in the future, for that is the gift of aviation.


Test flight on a nice day to make sure my equilibrium is kosher. Larch trees in full color. While conflicted, its refreshing to fly.

Over Grenoble, France on the way to Spain.

Wandering around the central Pyrenees.

Another day over Andorra.

And some mountain waves over the convergence of Andorra, France, and Spain. I guess I can say I’m back in the saddle.

 

 

 

 

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.

Fuel planning

Like any other business, airlines are hawkish about keeping costs in line. The biggest expense for an airline is fuel. Recently, oil prices have climbed, and as a result, airlines predictably have begun to re-emphasize fuel-saving strategies that often are allowed to wane. Single-engine taxi operations, minimizing APU usage, and flying a cost-efficient flight plan are all common ways to stretch the company dollar.

Balancing the pilots’ needs with those of the bean-counters to save money is a never-ending source of tension. In general aviation, it is standard procedure to fill the tanks and go, no matter how short or how long the flight is. Preventing water condensation in the fuel is a common rationale for this, especially for an airplane that doesn’t fly every day.

But in a jet, topping of the tanks is almost never an option. Most of the time, this will cause a landing weight that exceeds the limit. Further, it’s very expensive. Roughly 3 percent of the fuel on a jet is used to carry the fuel on a jet, and that is a number that adds up. Dispatchers, who actually file the flight plans, will take into account the anticipated weather and regulatory needs and fuel the flight accordingly. Each airline has a different policy when it comes to planning fuel, but most will plan to land with the legal reserve plus a small cushion.

Further, every airline keeps extensive records on fuel burn. Historical burn data is tracked for each route, flight, time of day/month/year, individual aircraft, each engine, and even for each captain—and the accuracy of the data is uncanny. Analyzing this info allows an airline to keep fuel costs in check without comprising schedule integrity or safety.

One of the most common data points used is the frequency of a diversion based on the amount of extra fuel carried. For example, an airline knows that a given flight has a normal completion percentage of X. For every so many minutes of extra fuel, the completion percentage needle may move incrementally upward. At some point, no amount of extra fuel is going to make a statistical difference, but it will harm the bottom line. And, once that point is reached, the success of other flights (the connections) comes into play, because if one airplane diverts for weather, odds are that a whole bunch will divert.

For pilots, there is almost never too much fuel, but there does need to be an acceptance that you can’t save every flight, and sometimes a diversion is the best option for all involved. Over time, the cost of carrying extra fuel begins to exceed the potential savings. As a result, it is incumbent upon us to realize that we need to think of fuel in terms of extra minutes. How many extra minutes of fuel do I need or want, based on weather, anticipated routing delays, et cetera? What amount of fuel am I comfortable landing with at the destination? There is nothing wrong with adding some extra fuel, as long as it is done with the big picture in mind. Adding extra fuel for the sake of adding it is a waste and only hurts the bottom line, and it runs the risk of driving up ticket prices and chasing away your passengers.—Chip Wright

Professional PAs

One of the most overlooked skills in being a professional pilot is using the public address (PA) system. Few pilots are natural performers; most of us are not. While a few give their PAs while standing in full view of the passengers, most of us do not.

Airlines usually require the pilots to give a PA anytime the seatbelt sign is turned on, and some require a PA at the beginning of the flight. Outside of that, much discretion is given to the crew. The general rule is that one should be given just prior to departure, one just prior to the top of descent (TOD), and during any weather encounters.

The PA at the beginning of the flight should be a genuine welcome, along with a quick summary of the flight time, the expected quality of the ride, and perhaps a note about the destination weather. Also worth noting might be certain items that are not working on the airplane that could affect everyone, such as problems with the air conditioning, the on-board WiFi, or unusually long taxi delays caused by weather. The Passenger Bill of Rights also plays a role in this, as does common courtesy. The passengers, after all, pay our salaries, and once the door closes, they’re trapped in a vacuum with little to no information.

Turbulence expectation announcements serve two purposes. First, they let the passengers know that it may not be safe to get up, and they should keep their seatbelts fastened. Second, it lets them know that the flight attendants may not be able to conduct their service in full or in part, or may have to delay it. This is an area that has received a lot of attention in the last few years, because changes in weather patterns have made turbulence encounters more frequent and more dangerous. Injuries to flight attendants who are standing have increased, so the airlines are responding in kind.

I’ve always made it a point early in the mornings to limit my PAs as much as possible because passengers are trying to sleep. When I can, I give them a heads up that we will say as little as possible to avoid disturbing them. That said, it’s important to do a PA prior to the TOD so that passengers who are standing, or need to use to the lav, or return something to the overhead bins, can do so safely. I also try to pass on updated arrival gate information on flights that have connecting passengers. When I can, I tell them where the airplane we are on is going, unless it doesn’t make sense (for instance, if the flight is from ABC to XYZ, and the airplane is going back to ABC, the odds are good that nobody is reversing course after an hour on the ground).

Prior to onboard screens and apps, sightseeing announcements were popular, but that’s no longer the case, especially if someone is watching a movie or a show on a TV screen that will be interrupted by the PA. But…sometimes a good sight-seeing announcement is warranted. On longer flights, the TOD announcement should include the remaining flight time and the weather, along with any anticipated bumps in the descent.

Announcements need to be professional and courteous, not to mention reasonably brief. A great way to practice is to practice giving them while you’re driving or in the shower.

Develop a general outline that you can follow and stick to it. If the flight will be delayed or even cancelled by a mechanical problem, be honest without going into so much detail that you overwhelm your audience. Tell them what you know, and tell them what you don’t know, and don’t make anything up.

Avoid using humor that may fall flat. Over time, you will learn when you can lighten the mood or how to do so in a way that isn’t going to make you look foolish for doing so, but tread lightly. Even on flights to happy places, there may be somebody on board who is going to a funeral or dealing with tremendous personal stress. Try to respect that.

PAs are a great way to make a positive impression, and done right, you will. Practice until it is second nature to hit all the key points. Be genuine, as well as professional. Learn to enjoy them, and recognize that nervous flyers are counting on you to set them at ease. Your PAs may be the reason passengers buy tickets on your airline again. And, they may be the reason that they don’t.—Chip Wright

Airports that are the same, but different

It’s all supposed to be done the same, but it often isn’t. Worse, nobody seems to be able to say how the differences came about or why the old ways are still in place.

I’ll give you an example. In nearly every airport, when an airline crew is ready for push-back, they call the ramp tower, if there is one, or they call ground control and advise they are ready for push. Ramp or ground then makes sure the area is clear and grants permission for the push-back to begin, possibly following with a specific disconnect point. It’s pretty straightforward.

A few airports have their own way of doing things that are not immediately obvious. Boston (BOS), for example, requires a crew to call clearance delivery with the ATIS code and the assigned transponder code—even if the same controller just read the clearance and the assigned transponder code to the crew. If you try to call ground, you will be sent to clearance delivery, but not for a clearance. Worse, do you know what clearance delivery will do? He or she will tell you to monitor ground control, and then lean over to the ground controller and say, “Hey, this one is ready.”

Other airports use what is called a metering frequency, but this one makes a bit more sense. Think of metering as an intermediate buffer between the ramp and ground. O’Hare (ORD) is a great example. Ramp control issues the push and immediate taxi clearances. The crew then moves to a designated spot, where they call metering. Metering then verifies that the crew has the right transponder code (the transponder will be on), and tells the crew to monitor ground. However, during bad weather, metering can pass on to the crew that they need to go to clearance for a new route, or pass on other information that will avoid cluttering up the ground controller’s frequency, such as runway changes, et cetera. Used properly, metering frequencies are one of the FAA’s better inventions, and some airports that don’t have one should get one (I’m looking at you, LGA).

Some airports don’t have controlled ramps, and crews are responsible for pushing back on their own with the marshallers and the tug drivers ensuring that the ramp is clear. Orlando (MCO) does this for some terminals, while others have a ramp control, so there are odd differences even at one airport. What is frustrating is that some of this information is either not published, or was published so long ago that nobody knows where, or worse, it’s sometimes published incorrectly by an airline in its internal manuals. It’s become institutional knowledge, and controllers tend to think that every pilot has been to their field every day.

Most of the time, the standardization efforts made by the industry are honored and they work. But like secret local traffic patterns, some airports continue to defy convention. Pay attention out there!—Chip Wright

The Biggest of Many Things

Part of why it took so long to come to the Alps had to do with the expectation that sheer size of the mountains was directly correlated to how dangerous things must be. When I took the flight here from Spain, I expected to get involved with a death-dealing ordeal pushing the limits of me and the airplane. It has turned out that instead of being a thing of brutality, it appears that it is the culmination of years of mountain flying, as it has all gone off without a hitch, and has not been as dangerous as I thought.

I set out to attack a specific goal, which I can happily state that I recently achieved: photographing all 82 peaks over 4000m (13,123’) in the Alps. Similar to my flying bender last summer going at it 83 days in a row, and the 65-hour flying month of September 2015, it has been two months of razor-sharp focus on the high peaks, which meant that I only went flying if I could fly at those altitudes. While it turned out to not be death-defying during every flight, it was a project consisting of a tremendous amount of effort.

Spread from France, to Italy, and almost to the border of Austria, these peaks take about an hour of climbing to get to altitude, leaving 2 hours before I need to be back on the ground. Therefore, flying has been in 3-hour full-tank increments and has also taken me a number of places. With the focus of my project done, I have also had the chance to fly for the sheer fun of it, which has meant visiting some more interesting places.

Switzerland flows pretty smoothly when it comes to aviating. Dare I say it, the “system” here runs fairly close to American aviation, albeit at about three to four times the price. I get my dose of American flying in Spain by simply checking out of the system and doing things the backcountry way, which is both a joy and tiring. Here, it’s a nice mix, as the Swiss restrict airspace near congested areas, leaving the mountains for fun.

In visiting other airports, it has been quite interesting to partake of Swiss traffic patterns. Instead of a standard box pattern, most that I have come across are custom, taking terrain into account. The size of some of the terrain here, wedged inside a traffic pattern, is quite a treat. Even in a Cub, I feel a sense of nervousness, with trees whizzing by one wing, and the runway wedged down below on the other. I couldn’t imagine doing some of these things in a fast aircraft.

The Swiss adventure isn’t quite over yet.

Aletschgletscher, the largest glacier in Europe. It is 14 miles long and is almost 3,000′ deep at some of the upper points.

Roughly 1,000′ above the Aletschgletscher, looking downhill. 

Left-hand downwind for Samedan, Switzerland, airport. At 5,600′ elevation, it is advertised as “Europe’s highest airport,” though the designation may be dubious. Landing here required the completion of an online course and requires carriage of the certificate.

Taxiing at Samedan.

The natural order of things has been restored. I have achieved getting above Mt. Blanc, France (15,774′), the highest peak in the Alps. Previously, I could only get close and the Cub just couldn’t do the rest due to unfavorable winds.

North slope of Mt. Blanc. This kind of thing puts a smile on my face.


Forbidden fruit of Courchevel, France. Located at 6,587′, at a length of 1,761′ and a gradient of 18.6 percent, it is an “altiport” requiring a special signoff. As one can see, it is strictly one way in, and no go around after short final.

Aiguille du Midi (12,604′ – to the left). It is Europe’s steepest gondola. Yes, you can ride a gondola to the rock with a pointy antenna on it.

Glacier d’Argentière, France. My first flight near it was from quite far away. This is a better way to see a glacier.

Megève, France. Note the short, angled airport to the right. It is truly a field with no go around located at 4,840′ elevation. Mt. Blanc lurks to the left.

While Gstaad Airport isn’t overly crazy when it comes to landing, it does evoke a certain sense of being one of the most expensive European destinations available. Landing was a tad over $25 and fuel was market price. Left-hand downwind is over the rocks in the back of the image, which tower to incredible heights.

In the middle of this project, I have birthed Winds of Change: An Aerial Tour of Rocky Mountain Forests, a tour of forests in their varying conditions in the Intermountain West. It was a pleasant project to put together, taking me back quite immersively into my Wyoming flying days.

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.

Say it right

There seems to be a spate of bad radio use lately, and I don’t know where it comes from, but it needs to stop. The FAA is very clear when it comes to proper radio phraseology. In fact, it might be the only thing that they are so clear about, and the requirements apply to them (in the form of ATC) and us.

At airports around the country, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of pilots who are dropping the ball when it comes to reading back hold-short clearances. If the controller says, “Airman 123, right on Echo and hold short of Runway 22 at Golf,” you are required to read back the clearance verbatim.

What I’ve noticed—and increasingly agitated controllers have noticed as well—is that pilots are reading back the clearance in an abbreviated format, such as, “Hold short at Golf.” Or, “Airman 123 right on Echo to Golf,” or some other variation. None of those is sufficient. The proper read-back must have the hold-short point as well as the full call sign. It is the only way for controllers to verify that their instruction was received and understood.

This is particularly important at airports where runway crossings are unavoidable. Newark, Orlando, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Washington Dulles, San Francisco, and Seattle are a few that come to mind. All have parallel runways, and the general convention is to use the innermost runway for departures and the outermost for landings. Controllers need to keep the flow moving, so they will usually line up a number of airplanes at various crossing points for the departure runway, and when those points are full, a slew of airplanes will be cleared to cross.

The proper read-back does two things: First, it ensures that a crew doesn’t enter an active runway, and second, it makes sure that there is not an inadvertent back-up at one of the crossing points. This can be critical at an airport like San Francisco or Newark, where two airplanes may be nose to tail, and the trailing airplane may not be totally clear of the landing runway.

Seattle is an airport where the hold-short call is important for another reason. There are three parallel runways (34 and 16 L/C/R), and the controllers will frequently direct a crew to cross the center runway immediately after clearing the arrival runway…but not always. It’s also important to remember that you will never be granted permission to cross two runways in the same transmission. ATC is required to wait until you cross the first runway before clearing you to cross the second.

Radio shortcuts are fairly common. Pilots make these transgressions more frequently. Controllers have little patience for poor hold-short clearance read-backs. Besides, they have the big picture of what is going on at the airport.

Another area where pilots get lazy or rushed is the proper phraseology of a “climb via” or “descend via” clearance, which can also be a gotcha because of potential intermediate altitude requirements. Your best bet? Skip the shortcuts, and transmit correctly on every call. This is basic IFR airmanship.

Major life events

Getting married and having a family is a big deal for anyone, and pilots are no exception. There are, however, some other considerations that come into play.

As with any other big event, planning ahead is a big key to success. When I got married, my airline acted like nobody had ever been married before, and that my wedding was going to cause the entire operation to shut down. Fortunately, friends had given me some advice about how to broach the subject.

Because everything a pilot or a flight attendant does is based on seniority, the first order of business is to figure out how much vacation time you have. Since most companies let their employees accrue vacation time in advance, theoretically you should be able to count on your annual VA allotment for the following year. If you have the seniority to be able to hold the desired week(s) off, better still.

Once the engagement is set, it’s time to start a dialog with your chief pilot—not the assistant CP or the secretary or anyone else. You need the chief pilot on your side from the beginning.

Plan a reasonable and realistic amount of time off for the pre-wedding events such as the rehearsal, the ceremony, and the honeymoon (if you’re taking one right away). If a move of any sort is required as well, factor that in, and also plan to give yourself two or three days off before returning to work so that you’re not totally exhausted. Two weeks is usually pretty easy to get, and three weeks is not unrealistic. If it’s any more than that, then you may need to plan to ask for an unpaid trip drop, which means you also need to plan to lose a week’s pay.

Every chief pilot starts with one simple request: Bid for the time off you need, first, then come talk to me. The easiest way to do this is to plan on your events taking up the last part of one month and the first part of another. That minimizes staffing hits and makes it easier for the CP to justify giving you time off you may not be able to get with vacation accruals.

If the wedding is several months out, keep in touch with the CP office as a courtesy. If other pilots come in with similar requests, you want to be at the head of the line when it comes to getting days off you need.

In addition, you need to contact your human resources office early to start the process of adding your soon-to-be to your benefits, especially if you’re planning to use your flight benefits on your honeymoon. (Free advice: Don’t plan to use your flight benefits for your honeymoon—buy tickets for the peace of mind.) This is an easy thing to forget, but it’s an important step—especially if one of you is planning on a name change. Airlines have had to deal with dishonest employees abusing flight benefits, so expect to be required to produce what seems like an onerous amount of paperwork to prove that your intentions and actions are pure.

Part of this process is getting your future spouse on your health insurance and as a named beneficiary for your life insurance and retirement savings plans. The health insurance is especially important if you’ll be traveling outside the United States after the wedding. If a stepchild is also part of the package, address those needs as well.

Planning for childbirth is also a bit different. For starters, you may be on a trip. Once the pregnancy is underway and appears to be headed to term, have a discussion with the CP about contingency plans if you’re on a trip and need to get home. Most of the time, all you’ll need to do is make a phone call, and the wheels will be set in motion. However, if you’re on a trip to a fairly remote location and an emergency crops up, you may need to operate a flight to get out, which may have you flying in the opposite direction of where you want to go.

When it comes to having a baby, you can use FMLA provisions to take time off of work before and after the child is born, and generally you can use VA time to cover lost pay (until the VA bank is empty). Being financially prepared for the initial arrival of the baby helps. You should plan to be off the week before the due date, and for as long after the delivery as possible. Fortunately, pilot schedules make this easier, since most of us only work 12 to 15 days a month.

On the flip side, there are plenty of women who are pilots who also want to have children. Their planning situations will be a bit different. The FAA doesn’t specify a specific point in the pregnancy for a woman to stop flying. In theory, as long as the pregnancy doesn’t interfere with the pilot’s ability to do her duties, she can fly. However, this point in time will vary for each individual, and most airlines have a point at which the pilot must provide weekly or bi-weekly doctor approval to continue flying, and some will require the pilot to take time off starting around 30 to 32 weeks. Many suggest not flying at all in the third trimester.

Considering that most folks are going to want as much time off as possible, a new mother also may be facing an expiration of landing currency, or missing a scheduled training event. To the extent possible, phone calls should be made about the preferred method for handling these as soon as is feasible to minimize the headaches in returning to work. Nursing issues, day care, and other day-to-day concerns should be addressed as fully as possible before the downtime begins, with the realization that curve balls will likely follow. All the jokes about a lack of asleep aside, returning to work just for rest is not a good idea. You need to be well-rested, so coming up with a strategy with your partner to share night time duties as much as possible will be necessary to ensure your performance at work is up to par.

As with the wedding planning, you’ll need to get in touch with HR early on the get the FMLA paperwork filled out and approved. This is key, because many airlines use different forms for pilots and flight attendants than they do for hourly or salaried employees. The last thing you want is a delay in approval or pay because you didn’t get the paperwork right.

State and local laws vary with respect to FMLA, and of course, the federal law also applies. If you’re not based where you live, make sure you know both your rights and the rights of your employer. Because FMLA issues are commonly addressed in a collective bargaining agreement, touch base with a union rep early on to help guide you through everything—they’ve seen this before, and they’ll know which buttons to push.

Whether it’s a wedding or a childbirth, or even a death, major life events happen, and most will involve some help from the chief pilot and the staff. Once it’s all over, take the time to send a note and make a phone call to personally thank them for any accommodations they may have made. If the event is a baby, include a picture!—Chip Wright

Getting Used to the Alps

The Alps. What can I say? It had been relegated to the realm of dreams, and now that it is in hand for the time being, it’s hard to put into words. I’ll start with a few of the aeronautical details.

Switzerland has relatively free airspace in the Alps, other than some military activities which require a quick check on a national map issued by the Swiss authorities. Those restrictions come and go and are a lot like TFRs in the US. Flight service is run by private companies, for which the subscription is $50 per year. My navigation software offered the “official” VFR aerodrome charts and documentation for about $45 per year, and I gladly took them up on that offer. Avgas is $10/gallon, depending on exchange rates, a bit cheaper than Spain.

When it comes to landing fees, Sion charges roughly $18 for my aircraft, a combined fee for ATC and landing. That fee will increase by $7 if I land and have to clear customs, as Switzerland is not in the European Union for goods, though they are for Schengen. That means, in an odd arrangement, that customs is only for the airplane and contents, not the pilot or passenger in the event of entering the country from a departure point within Europe.

Noise fees rear their ugly head again, a throwback to my days getting smacked around in Germany. Switzerland has a national classification of make/model/engine configuration, with grades of A through D, and each airport has a matrix of weight and letter grade for applicable landing fees. My model is not listed, so the airport intended to charge $2 more per landing, and I was able to whip out my “noise certificate” and negotiate that the cowling and engine are exactly the same as some PA-18 models (labeled as classification A). The airport quickly assigned my file a grade of A, and I got a credit of $6!

Sion is a Class D towered airport, due to heavy traffic, occasional airliners, and lots of heavy metal coming in with paying passengers. They have a unique requirement where all flights must have a flight plan or avis de vol (flight announcement). The rationale is due to the severity of the Alps and the desire to have an indication of where a pilot was heading in the event of no return. While I like my ideological freedom, I have managed to work all of these requirements into my workflow and stay ahead of them. One thing about the Swiss is that they are very orderly with a relatively common-sense approach to processes. Things flow pretty well.

Other than my stint in Germany based in airspace with mandatory information service, this is the first time I am based for a period at a towered airport. Recall that I got a radio 3 years go for this airplane, so there was a bit of caution as it’s a new environment. In short order, I am pretty sharp with the process. I cannot find any distinguishable differences with Swiss ATC and controllers in the USA. It’s pretty common sense, GA friendly, and everybody works well together to be accommodating on all fronts, considering that there are usually gliders, business jets, helicopters, and general aviation aircraft swirling around most of the time.

When it comes to flying, I have almost exclusively been going to 14,000 feet or more on each flight. There was one where I wandered along Lake Geneva before seeing Mont Blanc in France gleaming in the sun, so up I went to 14,000’ to make a crack at the summit. The rest have been focused on a project of mine: the 82 peaks over 4000 meters (13,120’) in the Alps. It’s an official list published by a well-regarded mountaineering organization. As of today, I have completed 78 of the 82, so it has been some hard work figuring out massive mountains in a brand new area. Once I get the last 4 done, I might go cruising over some Swiss farms and do something easy.

A very strange thing about the Alps is the fact that they tower so high, have a timberline at 7,500’, and yet valleys plummet extremely low. The only place in America such a thing happens is where the Sierra Nevada in California plummets to Death Valley, or some of the massive ranges in Alaska. Otherwise, the Rockies tend to have high elevation valleys, which means someone is truly “in” the Rockies when visiting. My wife noted that “you don’t go in the Alps, you go through them.” To cross from one peak at 14,000’ to another across the valley may require dropping to the valley floor at 5,000’ or less over a very narrow valley. In the case of Sion, I am taking off at 1,582’ while looking at 10,000’ peaks in the Bernese Alps to the north and 7,000’ foothills to the Pennine Alps to the south, which then tower over 15,000’. Every 2,500’ of climbing, the climate zone distinctly changes.

It is a bit Mediterranean in Sion due to a microclimate. Reaching 4,000’, thick deciduous forests cling to the mountainsides. By 6,000’, that has transitioned to towering evergreen and larch, which are deciduous pines. 7,500’ is timberline, which is followed by grassy terrain until roughly 9,000’. Glaciers can begin at 9,500’, with soil noticeably disappearing at this level. On the north faces of mountains at 11,000’ it can be full “ice cap” terrain, which is more than just a glacier – it’s a massive pile of ice hundreds of feet thick that tumbles down in the summer, creating glaciers beneath. When one is flying in the Alps, the question is not only the specific location, it is the altitude and what world one is in.

I am still figuring it out, as the first time around the Matterhorn, I didn’t bring gloves and had such wicked pain holding the camera with bare hands, while also absolutely freezing cold in the cockpit. Then again, why would I bring winter gear in August, when it was 80F at takeoff, 30 miles to the north? Lesson learned….

Competition on the taxiway at Sion.

Airliner ready to takeoff. Makes sense my downwind turn was requested to be completed early.

East end of the runway, looking east down the Rhone River Valley with the Bernese Alps as a backdrop.

Struggling to gain altitude beneath L’Epaule. It would be ideal to have more than 100hp. Altitude: 11,000 feet.

Getting knocked around by wind, trying to corkscrew up in a lee side rotor. On the Italian side at 13,100 feet, looking up at Mt. Blanc, France (15,774′).

Looking eye to eye at the Matterhorn, from Italy toward Switzerland (14,672′).

Bernese Alps, 10,000 feet with Pennine Alps on the horizon and the Rhone River Valley (with Sion Airport) in between.

August snow, south of Interlaken, with the Jungfrau on the far left.

Classic image of the glacier line. 12,200′ altitude, west of Zermatt, Switzerland, looking east.

The Matterhorn playing hard to get in the clouds, south of Zermatt, Switzerland.

Looking up at the terminus of the Hohwänggletscher.

Ice cap, north slope of Dufourspitze (15,203′), the highest peak in Switzerland.

Dufourspitze and a few other peaks from Italy.


North side of Mt. Blanc, France, the highest peak in Alps and in Europe (15,774′)

 

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.

Reviewing cold weather operations

As summer comes to a close, it is worth remembering that in some places, colder weather will hit while the rest of the country stays warm. In the northern climes, the onset of fall means colder temperatures at night, and that means there is a distinct possibility of frost. This may mean deicing, even though you can still wear shorts in the afternoon.

Even though it is still hurricane season, this is a great time of the year to begin reviewing cold weather operations. Believe it or not, most airlines start planning for winter ops around the first of June. There is a lot of background work that needs to be done. Deicing trucks need to be tested and maintained. Fluid needs to be ordered and strategically placed (in some places, this is handled by the airport, but not always). Employees need to be trained, equipment needs to ordered—the list goes on, and everything starts with an honest review of what did and did not work well the last couple of seasons.

On the pilot front, most airlines issue flight manual updates in the fall, and these almost always include updates to deicing procedures. In 2017, many airlines began using a new liquid water equivalent (LWE) concept that takes into account multiple variables at one time. In the past, deicing ops were predicated mostly on precipitation intensity or type. LWE takes into account temperature, dew point, and humidity as well to more accurately predict the hold-over times that can be used while deicing. The result is longer holdover times without compromising safety, which minimizes the risk of re-deicing—a time-consuming, expensive process.

Updates will also consist of new procedures—will the flaps be up or down for deicing this year?—that might be specific to the fleet, the airline, or the airport. Pay attention, because we can easily forget the details, and sometimes the changes are significant and dramatic.

A review will also make it easier to find quickly the sections of the manual needed when something is out of the ordinary, such as an inoperative APU. A lot of the updates will be buried in the company-specific pages of the Jeppesen charts, and while most airlines do a good job of communicating these, inevitably something will get through the cracks.

I always make a point to review cold weather ops just after Labor Day. This year will be no different. It’s a great habit, and having done it now for almost 20 years, I’d feel naked if I didn’t. Ice can be deadly and dangerous, and it deserves respect. Company procedures need to be followed. As always, two heads are better than one, and a good captain appreciates a first officer who is on his or her game.—Chip Wright

FAR 117 challenges

Prior to the advent of FAR 117, the FAA held airlines primarily responsible for violations of its scheduling rules. In theory, the pilots also were accountable for what happened, but the FAA was well aware that airlines—especially smaller commuters and regionals—would lie, cheat, and steal to get their flights completed.

Further, the airlines had computers that were supposedly infallible, and when problems were occasionally found, it was because the airlines had created the problems. Because most airlines record conversations between pilots and schedulers, it usually didn’t take much to catch the airlines in the act—especially when the incriminating tapes would suddenly go missing, which they too often did.

FAR 117, however, has changed things. Now pilots are held to a much higher standard—but so are the airlines. The problem is that FAR 117 was supposed to make things simpler, and that wasn’t always the case. A series of tables was produced for both augmented and unaugmented flights, and the maximum hours on duty and hours flown was supposed to be as simple as using a table to get the magic number. The rules varied some for reserves, but even those rules were supposed to be easier to understand.

Unfortunately, there have been a lot of valid questions and concerns brought up over the years that required some interpretations from the FAA. Questions have been posed by the unions, the airlines, and individual pilots. The result was a lot of confusion. Most of that confusion has been eliminated, but some is still there.

I had a recent example of an easy mistake that could have led to a violation. My initial report time was changed because of a flight cancellation. My new flight left later, but it also ran late because of late-arriving passengers and a traffic jam at the runway. My next leg was a transcontinental flight, which created a problem. Even though the initial early report time was changed, the start of my duty time remained the same, because a phone call to me prior would have triggered a mandatory new rest period, so I was notified with an email that I got when I woke up.

I didn’t put all of the pieces together until we got ready to do the transcon and the gate agents were trying to get us airborne. Because of the confusion, we called the company to get a clarification. Fortunately, I could agree to an extension of my duty time, which I did in the interest of not stranding a jetload of passengers.

But, had we just assumed that we knew better and taken off, I would have been in violation of 117, and unlike the old days, the FAA would have come after me, possibly for certificate action. But under 117, both sides are equally responsible, and both are vested in getting it right. All of our Ts were crossed and our Is were dotted.

If you move into the 117 world, there are a number of resources you can use to ensure compliance with the rules, including some FAQs that have been compiled based on FAA interpretation and real-world experience. There are also apps for your phone. Know what your resources are, but more important, don’t be afraid to make some phone calls if you’re in doubt. Once you know you’re legal to operate, then—and only then—can you go. There is often more to the table than meets the eye.—Chip Wright

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