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VFR on top…and the hole closes

It is rather well established that one of my most transcendent routines is to climb above a broken or overcast layer in the mountains, flying around in a bubble of tranquility. I enjoyed a comparable experience in Yellowstone once, flying over deep snows in early winter, well away from roads and ranger stations, out of radio range of flight service, while also not in range of cell service. The Yellowstone flight was not above the clouds, though the principle was similar. There is something incredibly freeing that comes from a total disconnection from human civilization, whether it comes from lateral distance in the wilderness, or vertical separation in the case of the clouds.

I have always been aware of the risks of such gamesmanship with the clouds. This spring, I purchased a backup artificial horizon, in case I miscalculated in a bad way, ending up forced to descend through the layer. More importantly, I was concerned with an engine failure above the clouds, where the decision was made for me where I would descend below. Aside from this instrument, I virtually always have multiple successive backup plans in case the hole closed, though it never had.

That was, until a recent flight. It was a Bise wind, which typically involves a solid, raucous overcast below, non-turbulent strong northeast winds above, and a clearly delineated top of the cloud layer. They also tend to be recurringly orographic, with gaps in the clouds in certain valleys, as the northeast wind impacts various ridges, creating a rain shadow (also known as a large hole in the clouds).

On the afternoon in question, I noted typical Bise behavior for several hours. My wife thought my evening flight plans were a bit silly, and I pointed to a normal spot to the east, identifying a large area where the sky was blue. By the time I took off, that area got smaller. As I climbed to 7,000 feet, it seemed a bit tighter as I climbed in a circle through it, navigating around the moving nature of the clouds. The forecast called for the formation of some low-level waves 10 miles to the west, which was a bit unusual, though it also called for the clouds to dissipate a bit after sunset.

I hooked into one of those waves while still in the hole and rode to 10,000 feet above the clouds rather rapidly. Focused ahead, I noticed that the typical gaps over certain valleys did not exist. For that matter, the iron flat tops of the clouds were more animated, with wave signatures riding east to west over the foothills of the Alps. As I focused on riding the wave up, to avoid a fear of mine, which is to get sucked down into the clouds (hasn’t happened…. yet), I finally noticed that the hole behind me largely closed. Imagine that.

Sion was a backup, roughly 20 minutes away, which I could clearly see on the other side of the Bernese Alps was open. That was checked in my forecast, as I always either have multiple backup plans, or am intimately aware if I am leaving myself without one. Flying directly south to get away from the cloud deck as soon as possible (in case of engine failure), I noticed that the waves were rolling over terrain below, which I know quite well. While clouds topped at 9,000 feet or so, there was some activity at the tops.

My next concern was strong winds from the NE and now heading “over the edge” to the other side. Does this mean an overnight in Sion, if I could not overcome downdrafts to get back? I intuited that the winds were sideswiping the Alps, though had never crossed over the lip during a Bise. As I got to Sanetschpass, intuition was correct, and winds died down to 10 knots.

At this point, with an alternate in sight, I rode along the edge of the overcast layer east, then turned south over the wide-open Rhône valley, before turning west to enjoy some overcast clouds against the Valais Alps. My goal was to check out Evionnaz, where the cloud deck typically ends. I heard a flying club aircraft on ATC on the way back to Geneva, heading at an altitude below the cloud deck, versus going above and dropping in. Sure enough, like normal, cloud bases were 6,900 feet, with the valley floor at 1,400’ MSL. I dove in and thought the flight back would be a little slow but uneventful.

As I got to Col de Mosses, it was a bit disorienting as I expected to see a light at the end of the tunnel, which would have been the Sarine Valley. Instead, it was a bunch of menacing gloom, with Col du Pillon visible to my right. Proceeding over Col de Mosses at 6,300’, it started a steady mist, which was not forecast. Continuing along and well within the ability to turn around and alternate to Bex, I checked my fancy thermometer that I installed a year ago: 33F / 0.5C! Yikes! That was not forecast, either. Scanning aircraft surfaces, no ice had formed, though I had to cycle carb ice regularly in cruise.

Once over the pass, I descended 1,000 feet to bring temps up and landed on a long final 10 minutes later, noting that the holes remained closed, showers had moved in, and the clouds were thicker. So much for the forecast, which indicated the opposite.

What is interesting is my hike the next day. I considered flying again, and my wife insisted that I go hiking instead. The sun was out and, again, clouds were supposed to burn off, so I picked an illustrious ridge to climb that I had not visited before. I suspected that, if I played my cards right, I might see a few clouds below on the other side, though I did not hold my hopes up very high. Note that the hike in question is about 10 minutes out from the airport, where I usually have descended to 7,500’ by this point.

As soon as I got to the first ridge, I could see some clouds on the other side of the valley. I first thought they would “do nothing for my photos,” so I carried on, hiking along the auxiliary ridge. In short order, some “wisps” formed above, which turned into fog. 30 minutes later, on a ridge with some steep options on either side, I was trudging along, in the soup, before sunset, asking myself why I was bothering. “Instinct maybe?” I thought to myself. “At what point should you go back?” I thought, as I kept going forward.

Instinct was rewarded by bursting above the clouds. The scene was celestial…and telling. The whole valley where the clouds would “do nothing for my photos” was totally socked in. For that matter, Rüwlispass, which had been dry, was flowing clouds down toward the airport. “Hmmm…perhaps the wife was right.” This all happened in 25 minutes.

After enjoying utterly breathtaking views, I began to slither back to the car, which I now realized would be an after dark trek in the fog. The cloud deck was thickening everywhere. By the time darkness fell, the entire series of valleys was fully socked in. Again, it was not forecast exactly like this in this neck of the woods. The forecast called for the cloud deck to stop “where it usually does,” near Zweisimmen.

Had I been in the air, I hope I would have noticed the clouds thickening. Would I have been frolicking elsewhere? Maybe, though I usually do not venture as far in such situations, if there is a reasonable risk that the cloud deck might misbehave. In any case, on the day I hiked, Sion was still a backup, as were many other options. It is always interesting to contemplate when one might need to use one of them. It is further enlightening to be standing in the atmosphere when it plays its sneaky tricks.

Gstaad. Cloud bases roughly 7,000 feet.

An unusual perspective of Vanil Noir.

Through the hole, with the Bernese Alps straight ahead. The top is not perfectly flat.

These wavy clouds are following terrain below (which I know very well). Added power as descending part of light waves would like to suck me down into them.

Wildhorn (10,656′), on the lee side, at the border of the clouds. Winds are relatively tranquil.

Glacier de Ténéhet, under some early snows, with clouds behind, with light wave action evident.

Glacier de Plaine Morte, hiding under the clouds. 

Doldenhorn ridge.

Other side of the Rhône valley. Matterhorn is hiding in here.

Grand Combin (14,154′).

Good old Mont Blanc.

Rhône River, under the 6,900′ cloud base.

Over the pass, with mist. The camera is making it look more pleasant that it is.

Light rain showers and all holes closed….long final 08.

Hiking the next day. with a few clouds.

Where I hoped to go…

Some wisps showed up.

…which turned into an overcast deck within 25 minutes.

Clouds spilling over the left, socked in on the right (where two airport alternates exist below).

Note the clouds spilling over the pass, like water.

The ridge I hiked up is down under this river of clouds…

…which mysteriously went away…

…and came right back.

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.

Medical Events

Medical emergencies in flight are pretty rare, but when you consider the numbers, it is inevitable that some will happen.

With 50 to 350 people on an airplane, some of whom already have underlying health issues and may be experience more stress than normal because of the travel experience, someone will eventually get sick. Hopefully, it is relatively minor and not a life-threatening event, and better still if there is a medical professional of some sort on board.

In my days at the regionals, the decision to execute a diversion was almost entirely in the hands of the crew. As you can imagine, this led to a lot of second-guessing, but pilots are pilots, and not doctors. Given the choice, they will act in a conservative fashion and land so as not to risk the burden of a serious illness or death on one of their flights.

At the majors, the carriers utilize more resources. Almost every airline has a contract with a medical service that has a team of doctors on call 24/7/365 to help evaluate a situation. The pilot is expected to gather as much information as possible—passenger name, gender, age, symptoms, pertinent medical history/current medications—and relay that to the folks on the ground. During this conversation, the flight dispatcher is usually listening in. The dispatcher will coordinate with a diversion airport if necessary, and will also have EMTs and paramedics meet the airplane when necessary.

Diversions can be major disruptors to the schedule, and they are expensive. Making one unnecessarily doesn’t do anyone any good, so it’s important to make the right decision. Taking the decision out of the hands of the crew and putting it in the hands of the medical professionals takes the pressure off the crew—if not off the airline—and allows the experts to call the shots.

I’ve had a handful of medical events over the years, and the last several years it has averaged about one per year. Usually, it is someone who is just sick or doesn’t feel well. There was only one where I disagreed with the decision to press on versus a diversion, but it wasn’t my call to make. One memorable day I had medical emergencies on back-to-back flights. That was fun. The second one was on a relatively short flight, and the destination was the only real option, but it was a compressed time frame, and we were incredibly busy trying to coordinate things with ATC, the station, and the cabin crew.

International flights pose their own challenge because of Customs and Immigration procedures. Incidents over water are challenging because the ability to communicate with the company and medical folks may be limited, and the time to an airport may be longer than you’d like. I’ve experienced more than one event coming in from the Caribbean, which always leads one to hope that someone just had a bit too much fun on vacation.

Every company has their own procedures in place for dealing with and properly reporting an event. It behooves even new-hire pilots to be as familiar as possible with those procedures early on, because once the cabin crew calls with an event, the workload—and stress—can rapidly escalate. Knowing where to find your help and what to do with it will go a long way toward ensuring a favorable outcome.—Chip Wright 

Flying in other countries

Aviation is supposed to be a world with a common language, but it doesn’t always work as well in practice as it does in theory. English is the agreed-upon language, but the fact is, not everyone speaks it as a primary language, and many struggle with it.

I do quite a bit of flying in Mexico and Central America, and most of the controllers speak English fairly well, while others clearly struggle to speak with a minimal accent. When I used to fly over certain parts of Japan, China, and Russia, the problem could be compounded. Russians, for instance, use meters versus feet.

Add to this the unusual (for us) names of some of the navaids and fixes that we use in foreign countries, and the risk of misunderstanding is fairly high. The obvious solutions are easy: Speak clearly, speak slowly, and make sure that you eliminate any potential distractions when you are listening to a transmission intended for you.

Fortunately, most controllers are patient and will gladly work with you to make sure that you understand what they need you to do or where they need you to go. And once you have some experience in a particular country, you will get better at predicting what will come next—and for that matter, what won’t. Many places, for instance, insist that you fly a full approach, so getting a shortcut for a visual is usually a non-starter. Other locations with spotty radar or challenging terrain will essentially force you to fly a full arrival or departure procedure.

One of the best ways to prepare for some of these challenges is to spend some time studying whatever material your company provides for operations in various geographic areas. When you get the flight plan, make sure that you can decipher the SIDS and STARS. In Mexico and other Central American countries, there might be a large number of arrivals depicted on one page, with various transitions to choose from. You’ll likely have to study the approach page(s) as well to determine how to load the route. The other possibility is that the flight plan won’t have a STAR on it, and you will be assigned one as you get near. That isn’t the time to try to decipher odd-sounding words that could confuse you. Try to have some passing familiarity with the sounds and phonetics so that you can be sure you have the right procedure.

There are some countries and/or airports that multiple airlines treat with an even greater degree of caution because of a confluence of risk factors, such as language, terrain, weather, et cetera. Bogota, Colombia, falls into this category. Most require pilots to go in for the first time with someone who has been there, and captains often have to go in for the first time with a check airman and be specifically signed off before they can be assigned BOG routinely.

Flying to new countries is a challenge, but it’s also fun, and when you get comfortable with the procedures, it is satisfying to know that you can work the system as intended. But preparation is key, and it can’t be overlooked. Likewise, you can’t allow complacency to rear its ugly head either. Stay focused, stay ahead of the airplane, and stay safe.—Chip Wright 

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NASA terrain avoidance flight system demonstrated

NASA is developing technology initially created for fighter aircraft into a tool to help general aviation aircraft to avoid collisions with terrain.  While many of us fly today with features in our GPS that will alert us to the proximity of terrain, the basic response is, “pull up—pull up.” If, however you are in a confined location that option may not be the best response—or even possible.  While still ‘work in progress,’ NASA is hosting a live, online demonstration of their Resilient Autonomy Activity, an outgrowth of a system developed for use in the F-16 fighters.  Mark your calendar for Wednesday, September 22, at 6 pm Alaska Daylight Time, to watch a simulation demonstration in some Alaskan  mountainous terrain.

Background
Most of the terrain awareness and warning devices that we see today in our general aviation cockpits do little more than flash orange or red, depending how close we are, with the only guidance being to climb.  But NASA has been working on something better.  The NASA Resilient Autonomy Activity is developing a system that provides more options on how to escape terrain, when you get too close.  Based on work in conjunction with the FAA and DOD, they have software under development that came from their Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS), developed for, and today in use in F-16’s.

A screen shot of a simulated flight indicating that a turn to the left is the only remaining maneuver to avoid the terrain ahead.  Credit: NASA/Mark Skoog

This work is being conducted by the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center.  In an event coordinated with the Alaska Airmen’s Association, they plan to give an online demonstration of the system’s capabilities.  Instead of just directing a pilot to climb, the system uses digital terrain data to offer lateral escape routes, depending on the location.  Planned in stages, the system is anticipated to be coupled to an autopilot, and eventually into totally autonomous aircraft.

The virtual presentation will be conducted using Microsoft TEAMS, with time for questions and answers following the demo.  To check out this evolving capability, and ask questions of NASA staff,  join the meeting with the information below:

Wednesday, September 22, at 6 pm Alaska Daylight Time

Microsoft Teams meeting

Join on your computer or mobile app

Click here to join the meeting

Or call in (audio only)

+1 256-715-9946,,104378964#   United States, Huntsville

Phone Conference ID: 104 378 964#

Find a local number | Reset PIN

 

Regional pilot bonuses

If there was ever any doubt about the need for pilots, or the need to try and retain pilots, those doubts have been squarely put to rest.

In August, Piedmont, PSA, and Envoy, all of whom fly under the American Airlines banner, announced significant retention bonuses. All captains are to receive $30,000 immediately, first officers will receive $30,000 when they upgrade, all pilots who stick around for the flow to American will receive $70,000, and there will also be $50,000 biannual bonuses available, with the details to be announced.

This is a blatant admission that the pipeline of pilots is drying up. It might also be an admission of sorts by American Airlines that pilots are not sticking around to get the promised flow to the American mainline. While I don’t have the details about how this program will work, or what the catches are, this indicates that the adage that “money talks” is going to be put to a test.

For example, how long will an upgrading FO have to stay to receive and keep the $30,000 bonus? What if that FO decides to bid back to the right seat for personal reasons? What is the structure of the biannual bonus? And, perhaps most important to so many of the pilots at the three airlines: how long do they have to realistically wait to get a shot at American? If the wait is too long, the problem is not going to be solved, as those pilots who are experienced and marketable will apply to Delta, United, Southwest, et al. If I am in management at American Airlines Group, I would be trying to figure out what to say to get them to stay.

It remains to be seen whether Delta and/or United will feel compelled to do something similar. Make no mistake that while the pilots in question are flying RJs, these bonuses are approved and maybe even initiated by management, since they pay the bills. It is clear that they see a shortage on the horizon.

I recently had a pilot from American on one of my flights, and while this wasn’t yet public knowledge, the overall need for pilots is, and we were discussing the state of the industry going forward. Every major airline will tell you that they all have the same 4,000 to 5,000 who are viable candidates in their pool of applicants. What makes this such a challenge is that, for the first time ever, multiple carriers are trying to hire at least 1,000 pilots a year. Delta, United, Southwest all would love to train more than that, and JetBlue is not far behind. UPS, FedEx and the Amazon contractors (Southern and Atlas) all need experienced pilots. While the pay at Southern and Atlas is still below where it should be, there is reason for optimism that the pilots are on the verge of a new contract that will dramatically increase compensation.

It doesn’t take much to see that four airlines hiring 1,000 pilots each will quickly deplete the current pool of available talent. It’s important to realize that these aren’t just pie-in-the-sky numbers either. While the pandemic is not over, travel demand has rebounded, and people are ready to move. Airlines responded to the downturn by offering early retirement packages that helped avoid furloughs. Retirements are not going to slow down, and every carrier is ordering airplanes that will result in a net growth of their fleets. They wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t have confidence that the business would be there. In fact, in 2022, United will be taking a new airplane every three days. It’s been decades since the majors have seen that kind of movement.

This is going to create an incredible series of opportunities, but it will also put great strains on each company’s training centers. There will be positions open as instructors, evaluators, course content creators, and more. Recruiters will also be in demand. New and more airplanes will also open up opportunities for mechanics, which is another area of great staffing concern. But for us as pilots, this represents an opportunity to try as many different types of flying as you might care to experience. Ultra long haul, cargo, wide body, narrow body, charters, Boeing versus Airbus…it is all on the table. Some pilots will bid aggressively and fly every plane in the fleet, and others will find a niche and settle in for the long haul in one seat or one fleet. You certainly won’t starve.

I am curious to see the gotchas of the American Airlines Group deal with its subsidiaries, but I do think it is indicative of the state of an industry that needs to work hard to make learning to fly more accessible, more affordable, and more attractive. Let’s hope that this is just the beginning!—Chip Wright

The Halfway Point

For many of the five and a half years of flying in Europe, I have had a complex sensation of extreme foreignness, as though I was pinching myself and waking up from a dream repeatedly. While that makes sense in the beginning, and in particular when seeing something new for the first time, the feeling continued to present itself with a ferocity, all the way into the late winter of 2021. Sometimes it would arrive after a long flight in the Pyrenees or Alps, where I was nearing an airport where I might have landed over 100 times already. In the last 20-30 minutes of a waning part of a three-hour flight, I would have this profound sense of comparing my American pilot years to what I saw outside the windshield, and it was hard for it to feel real.

Some of it was indeed pure exoticism. Another part was that the airplane I first rode around in at age 15 with my late grandfather, in the late 90s, landing over a washed-out culvert and under power lines in hillbilly country, is now the same plane I am riding in after viewing something like the Jungfrau. While flying in a foreign country is one thing; flying the family Cub in a foreign country is a dimension all on its own.

It did not end there. I felt a sense of exhilaration, awe, a tad bit of dread, some fear, and a brimming sensation that the whole thing was held together by a shoestring. That was an extrapolation of the dependencies for which I was basing epic jaunts into large, foreign mountain ranges: rugged airports, rugged terrain everywhere, few alternates, precise fuel realities, minimum day VFR aircraft, an old plane, variable maintenance infrastructure, foreign languages, and a mountain of challenges to face. It would only be natural for it to feel a bit like it could end at any moment. On the other hand, I could easily face those feelings right in flight, while I was having them: of all the challenges that truthfully exist, I have bulldozed many of them and they pose little risk. In fact, should the engine fail over the Alps and I have to land in some rough terrain, well, I’d rather it be in Switzerland than deep in the Rockies, as a helicopter would have it flown to the hangar by end of day.

Suddenly in winter to spring of 2021, those feelings went away. I thought it was odd, as nothing had really changed in my circumstances, other than a decision to cease paying attention to the mountain of worries and aggravations that could ruin one’s day in the future. I hopped in the plane, went flying, and that was that.

It raised a question: when have I or will I hit the point where the majority of my flying experience is in Europe instead of America? I pulled out the electronic logbook and went at it, splicing away, only to find out that the halfway point was yet well off. I calculated at that time that I would likely reach it sometime in 2022.

So, what lead to the sudden evaporation of worry and the strange foreign feeling? In late winter of 2021, I discovered a Swiss tradition of sorts, where the national aero club creates a “Flugparcours,” where pilots fly to 10 designated airports over the course of 6 months, have each landing stamped at the airport, submit the form, and get published in a list of pilots that have done it. For reasons I still do not understand, I decided that this activity was a good idea, and began it in earnest.

One thing led to another, and I was soon halfway done with the list, while also having visited several airports not on the Flugparcours list. That exposed that I had, until this point, not really gotten over a reality for GA fields in Europe: they are complicated. When I say “complicated,” I mean that one must do quite a bit of research to understand a seemingly endless list of vagaries, rules, approvals, and other considerations. One cannot glance at the sectional, note fuel marks around the airport icon, check NOTAMs, and hop on one’s merry way. It is wise to a) read multiple page AIPs written by the national aviation authority of the country in question b) check the website of the airport c) check reviews in iPad software d) check whatever ad hoc Wikipedia style repository might be in use by pilots in that country e) call ahead to make sure someone will actually be there for fuel and f) get approval if necessary (often in Switzerland).

What does all of this mean? The reality is quite succinct: Garrett avoided landing at other airports to the extent possible. If I got exuberant, I would usually have the beginnings of a brain aneurysm partway into the research process, give up, and take a long local flight in terrain that one has no reason to dislike. It did, however, explain why things felt so brittle, risky, and “foreign.” Once I got the hang of it, which is admittedly a fair amount of work, the process got easier, and things felt normal again.

Part of the work in pushing a personal boundary is learning the reality of the field in question, while building a bit of a personal relationship with the people involved. That helps for next time. Another part of the reality is attenuating one’s skills to reconfiguring the approach to VFR general aviation which, with practice, becomes a bit easier. I no longer have an aneurysm reading AIPs and working out the web of things to concern oneself with. It also helps to gain a comfort level that anything from Switzerland east likely runs smoother and stricter, while anything west and south of Switzerland is less likely to run smoothly while also rolling with things as they occur. The fuel attendant in France or Italy might have absconded during working hours, though somebody lurking at the airport will usually work an alternative. Just add a few hours…

What is interesting is that the halfway point snuck up on me faster than I expected. Suffice it to say that I have been flying a bit lately. Tuesday morning September 7th, somewhere over the Alps near the border between Switzerland and Italy, the clock rolled over without any fanfare. I had 895.3 hours when I left the United States. Now I had 895.4 in Europe. By the end of the day, it was 902.2 European hours, for a total just shy of 1800.

I am now officially more European of a pilot than an American one, even though it still feels a bit strange. It took 18 years to complete the first half in America, and less than 6 to do the same in Europe. It wasn’t the time or conquering airspace, licensure, maintenance, hangarage, schedules, fees, borders, languages, and cultures that made the place feel normal, but the total immersion into landing at foreign airports. If I could do it all over again, I would have forced myself to dive into the airport reality in the beginning.

Roughly the halfway point: Grand Goliat, Switzerland (10,623′), with Italy on the other side of the ridge and France on the right horizon. 

 

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.

We don’t all just fly

One of the neat things about meeting so many different people in this line of work is to see what others bring to the table besides just their bona fides as a pilot. I’ve met some folks with fascinating backgrounds and side jobs that make for some interesting stories.

A friend of mine is well known among his comrades as a competitive race car driver, good enough that he had a chance to sign with a NASCAR sponsor back in the day. It was, he said, a difficult decision to make, but he chose to focus on flying and stuck with the racing as a hobby, which he has continued to enjoy as his schedule allows. The professional racing circuit, he said, was just too demanding for any sense of normal family life.

I used to fly with another fellow who now flies for Southern Air, and his trips are 17 days long, but that means he gets a couple of weeks off when he comes home. Because he was forced to find a way to support himself during a furlough, he became a commercial truck driver, and now he owns his own 18-wheeler rig that he uses on days off to deliver cargo on the ground. He loves the travel and the itinerant lifestyle, and his posts on social media are always entertaining to read.

Quite a few pilots have come to this line of work by way of success elsewhere. For a while, it seemed like everyone I flew with had something to do with medicine or pharmacology. The fields, they said, were fascinating. The red tape…not so much. Long hours and burnout from spending so much time haggling with insurance companies helped push them to pursue the opportunities in aviation, but several kept their fingers in the cookie jar by working part time and keeping up with continuing ed requirements as a fallback.

Other pilots have been able to take advantage of their flexible schedules to pursue or create opportunities outside of the cockpit. When furloughs were happening or threatening to happen, a number went back to school to get degrees in everything from law to accounting to becoming a physician’s assistant. Another got his MBA and created what could best be described as a boutique travel agency focusing on his home country in southeast Asia.

Real estate is another common hobby, because once tenants are in place, the workload drops considerably. The flurry of activity in filling a vacancy or doing a rehab is largely contracted out, and it can take up considerable time and resources while it is ongoing, but an occupied property in the right location is a nice piece of residual income.

The moral of the story? Simple: Keep looking for lemons that need to be turned into lemonade, and if you play your cards right, one of those interesting, fascinating backgrounds could be yours.—Chip Wright 

Rotors on Takeoff

“Rotors on takeoff” is something of a nefarious phrase. Pilots are warned against it in particular airports where it is prone to occur, though nobody really talks about what happens if one finds him or herself attempting to take off in one. The general idea is to avoid it, and nothing in the conventional spectrum is said about how to manage the problem once in the rotor.

Less than 20 hours into my initial self-taught mountain flying experience based out of Leadville, Colorado in 2013-2014, I encountered my first rotors on takeoff. It was a, needless to say, “breezy” day, and I found myself at 200’, at full power, descending, with the airspeed indicator reading 40mph, 2mph above stall speed. Since it was a long runway, I had plenty of length left. Mildly alarmed, I said to myself, “well, it looks like I am preconfigured for landing again.” Within about 10 seconds, the reverse occurred. I was climbing and climbing faster than normal. About 20 seconds later, I was descending, so upon the next ascent, I decided to make a hasty exit in the opposite direction, for which I had the joy of watching pine trees scream by a little too close than I would have liked as I went back into the rotor briefly. The rest of the flight featured a first-time jaunt into mountain waves over the Rockies, where I rode the roller coaster from 12,000 to 15,000 feet and back, whether I liked it or not, no matter if it was idle or full power, or what direction I yanked the stick toward. The flight home later that day was uneventful in Leadville.

The next time something similar occurred was in Spain, at La Cerdanya. Unusually strong winds were blowing locally (and unknown to me) over the ridge to the south, and I was abruptly startled by a 200’ AGL descent at full power, this time at 3800’ MSL instead of 10,200’ MSL (with the same airplane, of all things). The descending air went away, and I carried on like nothing had happened.

The latest occurrence was an interesting one. It started with an unusual itch to go flying, though as I drove to the airport in Saanen, Switzerland, I had this nervous energy I couldn’t dispel. I thought the situation through, asking myself if I was in a good frame of mind to fly, if it was a bad day weather-wise, and I concluded that the weather was fine, and I had some lingering perseveration upon some business matters that just needed to be ignored.

Before I go any further, I should note that the same thing would happen in the Pyrenees. The weather would clear, the winds would be relatively calm, forecasts would indicate nothing that couldn’t be handled, and I would gleefully drive to the airport with this strange nervous overload. As I got slammed around by angry, snaking, localized winds in flight shortly thereafter, I came to understand that I have some peculiar ability to emotionally express the representation of my weather observations by getting anxious, while convincing myself everything was fine. Eventually, I learned to listen to that internal nervous energy and avoid certain parts of the Pyrenees if I felt that way.

Well, this wasn’t the Pyrenees, I hadn’t felt like that in ages, and I was going flying. It might have been a tad breezier than I normally would have liked, though it was down the runway, and everything would be fine. The wind situation was a rare summer “Bise,” which is a mildly humid, cold, and persistent northeast wind that funnels between the north side of the Alps and the Jura Mountains. It blows quite angrily through Lausanne to Lake Geneva, where things are open, though usually gets quite obstructed in the Oberland. I figured it would be just like other events and decided to head above the clouds as upper-level winds with the Bise usually are not turbulent, even if strong. Full disclosure: I went flying the day before, above the clouds, and upper-level winds per GPS were a smooth 40kts while the forecast said 20kt. The forecast for this day said 20kt at 10,000 feet.

Within 5 seconds of taking off, that nervous energy was proven correct. I hit the upward side of the rotor at 50’ AGL and went up like a rocket. I instantly knew what was happening and yanked the stick to milk the ride for everything I could get, which lasted a short period before cresting and descending rather startlingly for 3500’ MSL and full throttle on a cool day. With a smirk, I rode it until the next wave up, thinking I would progressively end up higher on the crest of each wave. When I started descending the second time and upward motion delayed longer than before coupled with the end of the runway approaching and a general slight increase in terrain ahead, I briefly contemplated attempting a rejected takeoff and doing a wild aggressive slip and brake screeching landing. Opting against that risk, I pressed forward, turning toward the path of least resistance, as the rotors started to even out.

That presented a progressive change in wind direction, where a headwind became a strong tailwind as the winds had to go around a massive mountain to my right. I was concerned about lethargic climb performance as that worked itself out, which was an accurate reality though not as risky. As the airplane picked up speed, I eventually began a normal climb out, proceeded above the clouds, and frolicked around towering cumulus to FL20 and mountains that reached 12,000’ to almost 16,000’, all with little turbulence and much less energy. Curiously, winds were 25kt below the 7,500’ cloud deck and 10kt at high altitudes.

The return trip was something of a question. How would these rotors work out on final approach and landing? Terrain is quite tight and interesting in this neck of the woods, with an issue that the Cub ends up too high. On final, I was alternating rapidly between idle power and 2200 RPM, with enough headwind that I had no trouble bringing it down before the numbers without a slip. That was a first in my flying career, to hop between cruise and idle power repeatedly on final.

Afterward, I blamed the scare on my underpowered airplane coupled with my intransigent insistence upon operating this inadequate aircraft from 1949 in prodigious terrain. Perhaps I ought to get a “real” airplane so stupid things like this do not happen? A charter PC-12 landed just ahead of me, so I chatted with the first officer, assuming that the PC-12, with all its power, certainly would not have had the interesting ride that I did. He confirmed that they had a similar experience initially as I did, with the rotors stopping their climb performance where they “had no choice but to ride it out.” What about final? “We were alternating between the stall warning and high amounts of power.” 100 hp vs 1200 hp. 1949 vs 2021. VFR vs IFR. EASA regulated charter operation versus vagabond foreigner in a taildragger. It makes no difference. Rotors are rotors on takeoff.

I decided to publish the video as, while actual hazards are a problem in aviation, the other half is poor decisions made when reacting to them. I have never read any sort of official, conventional, or generally accepted advice about rotors on takeoff, other than that they are bad. In my case, I have never experienced them at this airport. Why did they come out in full force on that day? When will I get surprised again?

As for what a reader might do when encountering the same problem in their aircraft, well, watch the video and decide for yourself. I am not willing to state that one should simply ride them out or do a rejected takeoff. It depends on the pilot, the airplane, the situation, and the airport. It is probably best to avoid them though.

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.

Ptarmigan Pass gets a new name

A popular mountain pass through the Alaska Range connecting Anchorage and McGrath just got a “facelift.”  The flight route that has for many years been known as Ptarmigan Pass is the longer, lower, and more open pathway through the Alaska Range. It provides an alternative to Rainy Pass, which is at a higher elevation along a more confined route.  As the FAA’s Aeronautical Information Services is reviewing Alaska mountain passes, discrepancies are being corrected.  During this process, two issues were discovered regarding the route formerly associated with Ptarmigan Pass, which are resulting in significant changes to features on the McGrath Sectional, including renaming and relocating Ptarmigan to Houston Pass.

Background
Pilots flying VFR through the Alaska Range between Anchorage and McGrath for many years have used either Rainy Pass—if the weather was really good—or the longer, lower route that goes up the Happy River into Ptarmigan Valley, down Ptarmigan Creek before taking a turn to the west and following the South Fork of the Kuskoskwim River out of the mountains and on to McGrath.  This route is frequently used when clouds limit more direct pathways across the range.  The description from a 1934 Naval Air Pilot publication provides a compelling comparison of the two routes, which was probably relevant for the capabilities of the airplanes of that time– in addition to many that we fly today.

This description of the air routes between Anchorage and McGrath was published in the Naval Air Pilot, Hydrographic Office Publication No 188, published June 1, 1934. (Thanks to Marshall Severson for locating this document.)

In the interest of providing more information to pilots to improve safety, the FAA is currently looking at mountain passes in Alaska and the information presented to pilots on flight charts.  In the course of this review, two problems were discovered regarding the location that had for years been labeled as Ptarmigan Pass:

  • the U.S. Geological Survey’s recognized name for this landmark is Hellsgate Canyon, not Ptarmigan Pass and,
  • further inspection revealed that while it may be the narrowest segment of the route, it is not a pass.

Where IS the Pass?
A “pass” represents the highest point along the lowest route between two drainages.  For VFR flight planning, pilots need to know the location and elevation of that point.  Adding the altitude needed to comfortably fly the route based on their personal flight minimums, a pilot can now evaluate the weather enroute.  When flying up a valley toward a pass, a pilot encountering ceilings lower than needed to cross the pass now have a basis to make the decision to turn around—while they still have the opportunity to do so.

Changes to the McGrath Sectional as of the August 12, 2021 chart cycle. After this date, Houston Pass is added to the chart, while Hellsgate is changed to a VFR checkpoint.

Along this route through the Alaska Range, the actual pass is about 10 nautical miles northeast of Hellsgate Canyon. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s place names dictionary, Houston Pass is the name of that location.  Houston Pass has an elevation of 2,749 feet and sits in a wide valley, providing an alternative to the higher and more confined terrain along the route that goes through Rainy Pass, which sits at an elevation of 3,524 feet.  As of the charting cycle starting on August 12, changes to the McGrath Sectional include adding Houston Pass  and converting Hellsgate Canyon from a pass symbol to a VFR checkpoint.

A comparison of the elevations of three features along the Rainy and Huston Pass routes.

Looking ahead
As part of the FAA review of Alaskan mountain passes, it was noted that the pass elevation data normally found on sectionals in other parts of the country is missing for Alaska.  The FAA charting team has already added elevation data to a few passes and is working to add it to a large number of other passes across the state later this fall. For now, with regard to these passes, please make it a point to:

  • Update your databases or buy a new paper chart with the August 12 revisions
  • Note these changes and use the new placenames when making CTAF calls along the route, allowing other pilots to know your location relative to these features, reducing the likelihood of mid-air collisions
  • Help pass the word–as this represents a significant change along a route that has been used since the earliest days of flying in Alaska

When we’re talking about Houston Pass or Hellsgate Canyon, let’s help keep everyone on the same page – especially when that page is a sectional chart.  Fly safe!

Is the 50-seater done?

When the CRJ came on the scene in 1993, it revolutionized air travel. With a 50-seat jet, airlines were able to overcome the high per-seat-mile operating costs and make money because of the appeal of being in a jet versus the previous turboprops that had dominated the market for so long.

Derisively referred to as “puddle jumpers,” turboprops had a limited range of around 400 nautical miles. To stretch much beyond that was to risk schedule disruptions becasue of alternate fuel requirements, as well as reduced loads. The RJ changed that. While payloads could still be limited in some cases, the standard range of operations increased dramatically, while offering passengers a faster, more comfortable ride.

Recently, the FAA increased the standard weights of passengers from 170 pounds (this includes a bag) in the summer/175 in the winter to 190 and 195 pounds respectively. There has also been an increase in the allowed weight for personal items.

What does all of this mean? In short, it could be the death knell for the current fleet of 50-seat RJs. The increase in weight for passengers is going to take a bite out of the allowable payload. In a recent email from my local union folks, the payloads on 50-seaters are said to max out at 48 passengers. Some may even be limited to 47. For the airlines, this is going to be a problem. The RJs were already relatively expensive to operate, and this will only make it worse. The other major challenge is going to be finding a way to continue to serve certain markets that cannot sustain service from larger jets.

There have been efforts to bring the larger turboprops back, most notably the Dash-8 Q400 from Bombardier. However, it hasn’t worked on the scale needed. The passengers have voted with their wallets and opted for competitors that had a jet, which they view as safer and more reliable, not to mention more comfortable. There is also a perception that turboprop pilots are not as well-trained or as experienced.

The 50-seaters are definitely long in the tooth, and larger numbers have been parked or turned into beer cans. Unfortunately, that trend is likely to continue. There is currently no movement afoot to introduce a new model to the North American market, which means that the 70-90-seaters will be the airplanes filling that niche. Airlines are currently trying out a 50-seat variant of the CRJ-700 by taking out some seats and adding first-class service and different seating classes in coach. Only time will tell if this is going to be a long-term answer.

It’s possible that there won’t be another 50-seat jet introduced, and that some communities will indeed see a decrease in, or even a loss of, service. If so, that would be a shame. It will also be a shame to see a workhorse airplane no longer in the skies.-–Chip Wright 

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