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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

Different airplanes of the same type

Flying for an airline is obviously different than flying general aviation. The airplanes themselves are much more complex, and even when they are the same…they are different.

You likely have some familiarity with this in the GA world. After all, there are multiple models of the 172. Some have flaps that go to 40 degrees, but most don’t, and a few didn’t require waiting for the white arc to extend the first 10 degrees of flaps. There are also as many radio combinations as there are pilots with money to spend on radios.

Airlines do what they can to maximize fleet commonality, because it’s cheaper and safer to do so. When I flew at the regionals, the airplanes were exactly the same for the most part. The differences that existed were more behind the panels, and the few that were not didn’t really matter.

But there were a few differences, notably in the max takeoff weight of two variants of the CRJ. It was hard to miss this, though, since it was on a (big) placard in the cockpit, and our flight release always noted the heavier airplanes. The landing weights were the same, which helped.

At the majors, the differences can be more stark. I fly the Boeing 737, and my airline has four basic variants: the -700, the -800, the -900, and the -900ER. Some of the differences are obvious: The -700 is smaller and the -900 and -900ER are much bigger; the wingspans vary a bit as well; and the -700 has much better overall performance. In the cockpit, the -700 has a different temperature control system than the larger airplanes. There are some significant details that must be committed to memory when it comes to the -900 autoland system, which isn’t something we use a lot—which makes remembering those details even more important. Further, every airline operates airplanes differently, which means that procedures in use at Southwest may not be common at United, and vice versa.

There are other, smaller differences, most of which are transparent to the pilots. During an emergency, it becomes important to read the notes in the quick reference handbook (QRH) checklist, because sometimes the checklist will stipulate different procedures based on the serial numbers of the airplane. This is especially common when the manufacturers have made significant changes or upgrades to the electronics or the avionics.

The introduction of the 737 MAX has added some new wrinkles. The MAX looks different (although it has the same shark-tooth engine cowling as the 787), and the cockpit has been drastically altered, so there is no mistaking which airplane you’re flying. The start procedure is different—it takes twice as long per engine, and it must be done correctly to prevent an auto-shutdown. There are some system changes and enhancements as well, all of which required some form of training. The airlines operating the MAX also provide cheat sheets that summarize the differences for the pilots, especially since the small fleet size of the MAX means opportunities to fly it will be rare.

Fortunately, there is a movement underway to eliminate the requirement that copious quantities of information be memorized, as was done in the past. Now, the FAA encourages airlines to provide written guides whenever possible. There are too many minor variables involved, especially after the round of mergers that took place in the past 15 years. Throw in airplanes purchased from airlines overseas, and it just makes sense to provide up-to-date guidance whenever possible.

However, none of this alleviates the pilots’ responsibility to be aware of those differences, even if they don’t have to memorize all of them. Limitations still need to be recognized and respected.—Chip Wright

The Alps: From the Pyrenees to Switzerland

Switzerland is a funny thing. On one hand, it has been a dream for longer than I can remember. On another, I have done my best to avoid actually going there or taking the Cub on its maiden voyage in the Alps, despite having installed a Class 1 transponder in 2015 specifically for such things. My bizarre motivation aside, it took a pilot friend who lives near the Alps to see the dream flickering inside and invite (convince) me to finally come up here. With plans arranged, it came time to make the flight from the Pyrenees to the Alps.

I have mastered planning transit flights in advance of ground movements, so I can make go/no-go decisions on the same day. I set a Friday target a week prior based on weather forecasts, and it held up as the best day to go. A heat wave had begun to set in with lots of thunderstorms in Spain day in and day out, with a day appearing to open up. I expected to hit afternoon weather, which is common, in the Alps and wait it out.

The day in question turned out to be better than I had hoped in that bad weather chances were very low, though it would be quite hot and haze would be less than pleasant. I opted for an inland route over the Massif Central of France, an area somewhere between the Adirondacks and Appalachians of North Carolina in height, noteworthy for its effect on weather though forgotten as its sandwiched by bigger things. I had previously taken the Mediterranean route on clearer days. While the famous Tramontane and Mistral would not be blowing, a sea breeze was coming inland, which made haze particularly displeasing.

As the day approached, I got more and more neurotic, to the point that my wife asked why it was such a big deal. “Didn’t you just fly 6 hours the other day across the Pyrenees and back, slightly longer than this flight?” She was right, I flew the highest terrain of the Pyrenees with some weather to dodge, and it was relaxing and no big deal. This flight, equal in length to the Madrid to Cerdanya run, shouldn’t amount to much, yet my stress level was oddly high.

Western Pyrenees on a flight 10 days prior – no stress here, yet a basic cross country is reason for angst?

The flight out of the Pyrenees was uneventful. Haze was oozing in from the Mediterranean, so I stayed high overflying Carcassonne, entering the first terrain of the Massif Central, which turned out to be interesting. Haze gave way to clearer air in about 30 miles, with rich forest scents coming up from the hills below.

Once getting through French military zones, Information Service went quiet and the flight turned into typical Cub flying about 1000 feet above the ground. Terrain started to get more interesting – generally not severe, with a touch of rolling hills of New York and Utah vegetation and rocks. Landing at Mende was a trip sitting a thousand feet above the nearby town on a mesa with pines typical of the Rockies.

Massif Central of France – west of Millau.


Landed at Mende, France for fuel and found a Super Cub parked there. The PA-11 is behind it. I spent my youth flying with my grandfather in PA-18 just like this one.

Taking off to the northeast, I realized I could avoid Information Service as the web of restricted zones allowed a corridor out. There was a reception issue in that neck of the woods, so that problem was averted. I expected to hop on again over the Rhône River to cross a control zone, though I had some time to enjoy myself until then.

The Massif Central remained interesting, with this combination of bucolic farmland and vegetation that reminded me of Mediterranean Spain (or Utah, depending on one’s perspective). I was puzzled until it occurred to me that terrain on the plateau below is the same height as La Cerdanya, elevation being a very significant factor with weather in the Mediterranean region.

As I approached the exit of the Massif Central, some towering cumulus clouds were developing, which is a nice spice to keep flights interesting. Why have completely clear blue sky for the first time into the Alps, when more unknowns can be mixed in? At any rate, the Rhône was clear (though infernally hot), and I had another fuel stop planned at Chambéry, France, with plenty of alternates. I was also happy to discover that I could avoid flight following if I changed course a bit to avoid Grenoble’s control zone.

In so doing, I overflew some vertical rock that I had fantasized about flying near when we first drove from Germany to Spain in 2016. The highway system makes a jog north of Grenoble, presenting the first view of the “Pre Alps,” which like the Pre-Pyrenees are not quite foothills, but rather stark terrain that doesn’t qualify as the actual mountain range itself.

What is a pilot to do if some towering cumulus doesn’t show up? Turns out the weather cooperated.


First sight of the Pre-Alps with rock formations below that I saw from the highway two years prior. North of Grenoble, France.

From there, I turned northeast, requiring a bit to sort out radio reception with a giant piece of rock between me and Chambéry Airport, set inside of a Class D control zone. Cleared to enter via Sierra Whiskey, it was interesting to come over a rather sizeable mountain ridge and descend a few thousand feet down to the airport, with temperatures getting quite hot at 35 C / 96 F on the ground.

There were a number of machinations on the ground typical of the mixed bag of European airports. While Mende featured a self-serve pump that worked, no landing fees, and a snarling waitress who denied access to the only bathroom unless I ate lunch there, Chambéry featured an angry wasp nest on the fuel grounding line, a self-serve pump that needed some love taps from staff, a nearly mile walk to the office to pay fees, 20 minutes of paperwork to calculate and pay a €5.47 fee, air conditioned bathrooms, and a menacing security guard who demanded to see my pilot’s license after urinating, convinced that it was illegitimate. Upon my return to the aircraft, a tow pilot walked over and furnished a lecture that my aircraft was 18 inches from its ideal parking location, and despite an enormous tarmac devoid of any other aircraft, it made taxiing the Pilatus “difficult.” When faced with absurdness, I put on an aura of obsequiousness, which seemed to irritate the guy even more, which made me happier.

I filed a flight plan into Switzerland, took off to the northeast, and climbed to 5,000’ to cross some impressive Pre-Alps. After the engine cooled down to cruise temps from the hot climb, I gave it full power to climb in some ascending air near Megève, getting to 11,000’ without much trouble. From there, the Massif du Mont Blanc was in front of me.

Pre-Alps after Chambéry, France fuel stop. View from 5,300 feet…


And the view from 6,000’….

My typical routine in new mountain areas is to nibble progressively at new things, getting closer and closer to some sort of forbidden fruit like Grand Teton, or in this case, Mt. Blanc, which is the highest peak in the Alps at 15,774’. I made up my mind to skip the melodrama this time and go for it. While I wouldn’t do something silly the first time, I wanted to close the gap from the periphery to the subject, and the weather was cooperating, so I got as close as I could despite a combination of airspace restrictions, cloud bases in places at 12,000’ and terrain. Satisfied with my endeavors, I made a long descent into Sion, Switzerland, my intended destination for a while.

Since arriving now on the ground, I have had a chance to fly once more in the Alps, beginning my process of understanding the vagaries of weather and terrain. The Alps may as well take my adventures to date and multiply them in just about every factor: weather, terrain, altitude, complexity…..There are years of things to do in an airplane, so this extended trip ought to be filled with some intrigue.

Glacier d’Argentière, France




Glacier du Tour

Aiguille du Dru foreground (12,316′), Aiguille de Rochefort (13,127′) background. Mt. Blanc was obscured in clouds and would be off the image to the right.


Why not have a paraglider at 11,000 feet?

Rhône River, Switzerland, just before landing in Sion.

And from my next flight…. Massif du Chablais, Switzerland.

Mt. Blanc, from 2,000′ beneath. The summit (15,774′) still remains obscured, and my measly 100hp struggles this high when its 90F on the ground. Still working on this one.


Glacier du Trient, Switzerland. It is quite steep, which the photo shows poorly.

 

 

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.

Loss of the turboprop

Recently, Hinson Airways, a small regional airline on the East Coast, flew its last flight in the venerable Bombardier Dash 8. The Dash, as it was commonly called, was once a popular turboprop, a 30-seat puddle jumper that connected small cities to airline hubs, often by making stops in other small cities on the way. Such flying now represents a largely bygone age.

While Horizon Air still operates the Dash 8 Q400, a larger version of the airplane, the company is the only regional still flying turboprops for its major airline partners. Everyone else has committed to some form of the regional jet.

This is not an insignificant development for pilots who want to fly for the airlines. Back in the day, turboprops were the backbone of regional flying, with Saabs, Brasilias, ATRs, Jetstreams, and Beech 1900s—the airplane everyone loved to hate—providing a large chunk of the lift from Smallville, USA, to the hubs to connect to jets (or, God forbid, another turboprop).

These airplanes were often a major stepping stone for pilots who had not yet been exposed to flying a turbine aircraft. The training could be challenging, especially since a lot of it took place in the airplane itself, usually in the middle of the night. In time, more sophisticated simulators came into play (the simulator for the EMB-120 Brasilia was said to have cost more than the airplane, but the gain in safety more than offset the financial cost).

Nowadays, pilots from the piston world have even fewer opportunities to get entry-level jobs flying turboprops for Part 135 operations or smaller commuter airlines, as they were called. That means the big leap is no longer from a piston twin such as a Piper Seneca or Aztec to a Beech 1900. It’s from a Piper Seminole to a jet. The transition is eased by the fact that so much of general aviation is using avionics that equal or exceed what RJs have. However, it’s a large leap from a piston twin that might fly 140 to 160 knots to a jet that can have a true airspeed of more than 400 knots.

Speed is probably the biggest challenge associated with moving into jets. Everything happens much faster, except for slowing down, which takes forever. As a result, speed and energy management are real challenges, and training and practice are critical. Unfortunately, the sterile environment of the simulator does only so much to prepare a pilot for all the various curve balls that the real world can throw your way. Tight turns to final, weather deviations, high speed aborted takeoffs, and even ATC mistakes will all be in a day’s work.

It’s both a shame and a blessing that turboprops are gone. They provided great experience, a great stepping stone, and in the airplanes with no autopilot, they made for phenomenal instrument pilots with well-developed decision-making skills. The work was exhausting (six to eight legs a day in airplanes with minimal air conditioning, followed by short nights), often in the worst of the weather, and words of thanks were relatively rare, but quality of the pilot produced was first rate. The blessing, of course, is that jets are much faster, more comfortable and, with the proper training, safer.—Chip Wright

Improving Backcountry Airstrips: New Windsock at Gold King

If you fly into Gold King (PAAN), look for the new windsock on the north east corner of the field.  The old windsock remains at the other end of the airport, giving pilots an additional “tool” to evaluate the wind before landing on this backcountry strip, on the northern flank of the Alaska Range.  While it might not seem like a big deal, this represents a collaborative effort between a small group of stakeholders that rely on the airstrip and the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT), who owns the facility.  AOPA Airport Support Network Volunteer Dave Pott helped coordinate between DOT and the locals, to accomplish this upgrade to the airfield.  While it took over a year and two work parties to complete, this is a success story about improving a backcountry airstrip.


New windsock flys on the north east corner of the Gold King Creek airstrip.

Background
Gold King is not a typical “community airport” operated by DOT&PF. It fits into the realm of backcountry airstrips, generally located off the road system that provide access to public lands across the state.  Each backcountry airstrip has its own story, and Gold King is no exception.  Established in 1959 as the Gold King Creek Radio Relay Station, it housed a microwave radio relay tower, equipment building and ~2,000 foot airstrip. The station connected the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) at Clear Air Force Base (35 n miles west) with a chain of stations that linked defense radar stations, known as the White Alice Communication System.  These radio relay stations stretched across Canada ultimately providing communication to the NORAD headquarters in Colorado.  The unattended facility was powered by diesel generators with fuel flown in to the airstrip.  Satellite communications eventually replaced the need for the ground-based system, and the facility was closed in 1988.  When the Air Force returned the land to the State of Alaska, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources made some of the surrounding property available to the public, which resulted in construction of a number of summer or year around homes in the area, with the airstrip serving as the principal source of access.

Beyond meeting the needs of local property owners, Gold King serves a much larger role in the north central Alaska Range.  Today listed as a 2,500’ airstrip, Gold King satisfies a number of needs. Due to the access provided by the airstrip, the University of Alaska utilized it as a location to locate a seismic sensor.  The Bureau of Land Management has established a Remote Automated Weather Station (RAWS) there, to help monitor fire danger.  Because it is situated on gravel deposits underlain by bedrock, the airstrip is quite stable, making it a good staging area for aircraft hauling gear or supplies into mines, cabins or recreation sites with smaller airstrips or off-field landing areas.  It becomes a popular staging area during hunting season in the fall.  Finally, the airstrip serves as an alternate place to land and wait when weather keeps aircraft from getting to their planned destinations.

Almost lost as an Airport
After the Air Force suspended its use of the relay station, the federal government transferred the land to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  While they made the land around the airstrip available to the public for homesites or recreational cabins, keeping the documents current for the airport was not a priority. When the Fairbanks Sectional Chart was published in 1998, Gold King had completely disappeared from the map!  Fortunately, in response to aviation industry requests, the airport was transferred from DNR to DOT, and slowly re-appeared—initially in 2003 as a “closed” airport, with unknown runway length or condition.  Today the chart and entry in the Alaska Supplement, reflect more complete information, including a CTAF to use when operating in the area.

Under Air Force management, Gold King was charted as a private airstrip. After the Air Force shut down the facility and transferred it to the State of Alaska, it briefly disappeared from the charts. After the airport was transferred from DNR to DOT, it has been more completely described.

 


Local equipment was used to excavate a spot for the new windsock at Gold King.

New windsock
Dave Pott is the Airport Support Network Volunteer at Gold King. He is retired and spends the majority of the year living just off the airport.  Working with other land owners, a volunteer group keeps an eye on the airport, and has banded together to do limited maintenance on the field.  Last year, he reached out to DOT and requested their assistance to replace the windsock, which was in a state of disrepair.  DOT responded by supplying a new windsock assembly. They had it delivered to the airport in the fall of 2017, along with bags of cement to properly anchor it, deep in the ground.

Volunteer crew placing the form for the base.

In early June, the locals held a work party to start the installation.  The volunteers provided a back hoe to excavate a hole for the base and flew in a cement mixer to support the project.  On July 5th, a second work party took place to put the stand on the base and raise the windsock.

We owe both DOT and the Gold King volunteers a big THANK YOU for working together to keep this

Work party two: mounting the windsock stand on the base.

airstrip in good condition.  In these times of tight budgets, collaborative efforts between stakeholders will be essential to keep our backcountry airports across Alaska in good working order.  Look for projects in your part of the state, and if possible, lend a hand!

Glaciers of the Rockies

For a while I have wanted to reminisce in writing about the “good old days” flying back in America, and a subject has surfaced that affords an opportunity to compare the two modes of flying. Perhaps European readers will find some of the details about flying in the West educational, and for everyone else, it might be interesting to note how the differences between both continents are made large by very small changes.

The project at hand is the publication of my magnum opus, “Glaciers of the Rockies.” Just before moving to Europe, I undertook an ambition to fly to every remaining glacier in the United States Rockies, during annual snowmelt, with the intention of photographing them before they disappear. Scientists estimate that could be as soon as 2030 for storied Glacier National Park, with varying results for other ranges. Given the time frame of a decade and a half and a looming move to the other side of the world, this project took front and center stage in the final summer before leaving, as it was logical to wonder if I’d be back again in that part of the world, with the PA-11, in sufficient time.

The project was undertaken while living at Alpine Airpark in Alpine, WY, roughly in the middle of the glaciers I intended to see. They were strewn along mountain ranges from northwest of Boulder, Colorado to Glacier National Park at the convergence of Montana, Alberta, and British Columbia, a linear distance of nearly 800 miles. For facts’ sake, what few glaciers in other Rockies states that existed have melted in the past few decades, so it was down to a list of ranges in those states. California, Oregon, and Washington have glaciers in the Sierras and Cascades.

Locations of the glaciers spanning 800 miles.

From the remaining glaciers in Colorado….

To the Wind River Range of Wyoming….

To Glacier National Park, Montana.

I had a short window to fly them all, and got it done between roughly August 10thand September 23rd, having flown about 50 hours just for the project, hitting the highest peaks of 11 mountain ranges, which was no small feat in a 100-horsepower airplane. In the middle of this 43-day period, I lost about 20 days to thick smoke, and had to get the rest done in small windows where air was clear and winds slack enough to fly close to such high terrain. As far as mountain flying goes, the primary enemy was wind, as many of the glaciated ranges are near the Great Plains, which makes them windier than interior mountains. Five of the eleven ranges featured more wind that I would have preferred, and they all were part of a continued learning experience.

Late season smoke didn’t help. Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana. On one of two active flight plans for the project as there is not one single shred of civilization in this image.


Neither did early season snows obscuring the glacier beneath. Absaroka Range, Montana, with Great Plains to the left. It was rather windy.

Longs Peak, Colorado (14,259′) while in pursuit of remaining Colorado glaciers. At this altitude so close to the Plains, there is always unwanted wind.

As the project was done in America, the biggest issue was time, distance, weather, and wilderness, and not rules or regulations. I had recently installed a radio in the Cub, so I had that added resource; however, I did not have a starter or transponder. During the course of the adventure, not one single area of airspace that I needed had a restriction. I landed at three towered Class D airports, two of which were chosen due to convenience; the rest were uncontrolled. I filed two flight plans: one for the flight over Glacier National Park, given its harshness, and another over the Bob Marshall Wilderness, equally as much given its remoteness. I was able to maintain flight service position reports in Glacier, whereas the Bob Marshall Wilderness was in a radio shadow. Both flight service professionals accurately predicted in advance where I’d be able to talk to them. In all other wilderness terrain flying, I basically expected to be on my own should the worst happen. I paid one landing fee at Jackson Hole. The entire project required one flight service resource (online and by phone), and my iPad software was flawless and accurate.

If this same project were being done in Europe, 70% of it would be possible whereas 30% simply would be excluded. Of the remaining 70%, 30% would be an enormous aggravation due to small changes, and the rest would be similar to America.

Let’s for a moment draw the same line I had from Glacier National Park to Alpine, WY, then down to Rocky Mountain National Park, CO, except here in Europe. 800 miles with the home airport roughly in the middle. If that were the case here, we’d go from the mountains west of Madrid, here to La Cerdanya, and northeast to the center of the Swiss Alps, equally 800 miles. While there are not glaciers in every mountain range, the presence of various ranges is somewhat similar, so let’s pretend for a minute that I am chasing figurative glaciers in the highest parts of all mountain ranges in this line.

West of Madrid would be fine, including fuel. As the mountains head north of Madrid, it would be almost impossible due to restricted airspace and would require flight plans for the portions that would be doable. The high country south of Zaragoza would be possible, though a massive aggravation due to lack of airports and fuel, requiring carrying jerry cans in the back seat and 24-hour fuel reservations at Teruel. Here in the Pyrenees, fuel tends to work for the most part and airspace is rather open, with the exception of two Spanish national parks where overflight requirements are about 2,500’. On the French side, the location where the actual glaciers of the Pyrenees exist (there are a few in reality!) is all restricted, requiring 3,300’ AGL overflight. Remember that the Pyrenees comprise the border of two countries, so that is a healthy dose of complication. Also, three airports on the French side require the old French Mountain License, which has now been superseded by the EASA Mountain Rating. Those that do not are quite low, so descent to fuel and climb again is lengthy.

Yes, there are actual glaciers in the Pyrenees, and not all of them are restricted (like the below beneath Pico Aneto, Spain 11,168′).

Though some places are. Monte Perdido, Spain (straight ahead) is quite restricted. The French border is to the right, and small glaciers hiding there are also restricted airspace.

Continuing on, the Massif Central of France is a complete hodgepodge of continuous and chaotic military zones, requiring either flight plans or flight following. Many airports are restricted to members of certain flying clubs. A few others, despite being pretty low, are angled and therefore require the Mountain Rating. There are a few park areas, meaning that crossing the Massif Central requires heading to 3,300’ AGL in a few places. This results in few fuel options. From there, the next stop is the foothills of the Alps and then the highest part of the Alps, before terminating in the middle of Switzerland. All airports in the French Alps that are not down at the bottom of valleys (at 2000’ or less) are altiports, meaning that the Mountain Rating is required. That means a new license or the choice of descending 11,000’+ feet for fuel and climbing back up. The biggest glaciers of the French Alps have a combination of park areas, with a variety of restrictions ranging from 1,000’ AGL to 3,300’ AGL. The highest peak in the Alps is restricted, which it is possible to get permission. Crossing into Switzerland requires the clearing of customs on the ground. There are also a few noise restrictions, though far less than on the French side.

Three foreign languages would be encountered in this hypothetical project. iPad navigation software and national charts could not be relied upon as final information; advanced phone calls and coordination to airports would be required in Spain to make sure airports actually exist. Schedules for fuel would need to be checked. Some airports would only take fuel cards or cash. All of them would charge landing fees. For each country, entirely different preflight services would have to be sorted out to navigate NOTAMs and weather. A radio and transponder would be absolutely required for a good portion of the exercise. Many flights would depend on clearance through restricted zones, which may or may not happen on that day.

I ask myself what it would take to pull off something similar if it were here in Europe, spread out so far, and I get nauseated thinking about it. It would take years. There is no way, in the same airplane, that I could do such a thing in one summer! In fact, I haven’t considered doing the glaciers of the Pyrenees due to restricted areas over them. My primary concern with the American airspace system was the availability of fuel, which was splendid. A secondary concern was services in the event of a forced landing. Absent a happenstance ability to radio an overflying aircraft, I was entirely dependent on the ELT in the USA. There was next to nothing owing to remoteness, whereas Europe has far more radar coverage, radio coverage, and other services available due to population differences.

In both countries, the airplane needs to be airworthy, the pilot licensed, and the weather suitable for the intended flight. Pattern operations and actual flying is relatively similar. Europe differs from America in having less airports and imposing small requirements that on their own are not that big of a deal. When those small requirements are added against other factors, then the amount of flights that one could or would want to take drops quickly.

A bigger difference is the feeling of flying in each place. There is something incredible about the openness of America that is hard to put to words. Once leaving the “density” of the East Coast and crossing the Mississippi, it is an almost poetic experience to cross the Midwest, wander the Rockies, explore the deserts, and yes, chase glaciers. Whatever the spirit of America is, if one could reduce it to something simple, I could feelit when flying such great expanses in a Cub. Ever since coming to Europe, I have been working on a number of books that resulted from ambitions while flying in the USA, and each time I dive into my photo archive, it is an immersive experience, not just in the specificity of American landscape, but a zest I can’t seem to put my finger on. While Europe from a Cub is hard to put to words also, they are two completely distinct personal experiences in the air and I often find myself longing to have them both.

Why does this (Sawatch Range of Colorado, September)……

….feel so different in the air from this (October in Central Pyrenees, Spain)?


Or does this (Hungry Horse Reservoir, Montana with 10,000′ peaks in Glacier National Park)…..


….feel so different from this (La Cerdanya, Spain with 8,600′ Cadí-Moixeró)?

Europe has a way of making aviation feel elitist, under constant threat, and somehow wrong. It’s somewhat of an illusion, as the rules on the books and the economics of the situation allow the flying I do, just as the rules and economics in America allow flying that is pretty similar. Both places have something worth seeing. In the US, it tends to be expansive beauty whereas in Europe, it tends to be a mix of the old and new, natural beauty mixed with centuries of deep cultural impact and caretaking. The air molecules and how the airplane flies are the same.

I think I am venturing into the philosophies of growth as a pilot as well as what flying has meant to humankind from the time we yearn to soar like birds, to the moment we can use iPads for navigation. Inside of this existential personal exploration of the ruggedness of the West versus the complex magic of Europe, there is my growth from a low time pilot to a more experienced one. When I arrived in Colorado in 2013, I had 371 hours as a private pilot. I arrived back East in 2014 with 466 as a commercial pilot, and then arrived in Wyoming for the “real” western stint in 2015 with 568 hours. By the time I left later that year for Germany, I had 871, and I now have 1263 total time, which means that my flying career can be broken into even thirds: East Coast, Mountain West, and Europe, with similar totals in each.

Despite the challenges Europe offers, there is still more growth on the horizon. When I was installing a list of expensive equipment in late 2015 in the Cub for its operation in Europe, I had a decision to make about which transponder to install: Class 2 (up to 15,000 feet) or Class 1 (up to 50,000 feet), which cost a few hundred dollars more. With my dreams set on Mt. Blanc in France, the highest peak in Western Europe at 15,774’, I installed the Class 1 transponder. The Alps were an instinct even as I was wrapping up the glaciers of the Rockies, and it remains a more tangible goal. Stay tuned for some glacier exploration in Switzerland that will make the biggest glaciers in the US Rockies look small.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Per diem

One of the less discussed, but still critically important, aspects of a career involving travel is the issue of food and expenses. In the working vernacular, this is shorthanded as per diem.

In nonflying occupations, employees get a certain per diem allowance each day, and it usually covers hotel and food expenses. At the end of a stint of travel, expense reports are submitted, and once they are verified by the accounting personnel, the employee is reimbursed.

The airlines do things a bit differently. Per diem is paid by the hour, starting with the official report time for the trip. It ends whenever the pilot is considered done with the trip, be it a one, two, three, or even 15-day assignment. So, if a pilot reports at noon on the first day of a trip and goes home on day four at noon, he will have logged 96 hours of what is called time away from base (TAFB). If his airline pays $2 an hour per diem, he’ll receive $192 in per diem expenses, which is intended to cover the cost of meals and incidental expenses; the company pays for the hotel directly.

At the majors, there is almost always a slightly higher rate for international trips to cover the higher cost of food in those locations. Per diem is usually paid on the second check of the following month, which allows the folks in payroll time to conduct due diligence on the record keeping.

Under the tax law, if a pilot flies a one-day trip, the per diem is taxable as regular income. If the trip has any overnights, the per diem is not considered taxable. For this reason, it’s common practice at the regionals for pilots and flight attendants to take a lot of their own food on trips, which allows them to pocket per diem as though it were extra income.

The downside to the way the airlines pay per diem is that the rate is always the same. That means that you’re getting the same allowance for dinner in an expensive city such as San Francisco as you’re getting in a less expensive town such as Cedar Rapids. Until the tax law changed this year, pilots and flight attendants could use the IRS meal and incidental expense (M&IE) tables to determine how much they were entitled to in each city, and their accountant or tax software would compute how much of the difference they were entitled to. Under the 2017 tax law, early interpretations are that this allowance has been eliminated, thus increasing the cost of eating on the road.

If the early interpretations of the tax law changes hold, it’s possible that per diem will paid and computed differently. Either way, as an employee, it’s up to you to verify that your per diem is paid to you properly, as well as understand how the rules apply to you and when.—Chip Wright

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