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Airline Weight and Balance

One of the basic principles of learning to fly is learning the importance of proper weight and balance and how to compute it for a given airplane. This basic skill is covered on every written test and most practical exams, and in the training world, we learn the need to ask people for their weight or to guess on the heavy side to make sure we get it right.

Airlines, however, are not about to ask everyone what they weigh. Instead, everything is based on standardized weights. Passengers are assigned a standard weight that is intended to be a realistic average across gender, height, and age. Kids below a certain age are assigned a weight, as are service animals in the cabin. Luggage is also standardized, usually into three broad groups of below fifty pounds, fifty to a hundred pounds, and over a hundred pounds. Carry-on bags are assigned a weight as well. In fact, a suitcase may ‘weigh’ one thing in the cabin, and be completely different in the cargo bin. You can’t make this stuff up.

Not every carrier uses the same formulas, however, and even within one airline things can vary. My company, like most, uses certain weights based on the season, with winter weights being higher. But we also have weights that are destination-specific or geographically specific. Island destinations usually have slightly different weights to account for the number of people who bring scuba gear, and ski destinations are different as well for obvious reasons.

Charter flights also pose issues, because luggage and even passenger weights can be out of the norm. An NFL charter may need to take into account that the players are bigger than the norm, and all of the equipment has to be accounted for. If you’ve never seen a football team travel, it’s a treat. There are dozens of trunks, duffel bags, and individual luggage to account for. Everything you see on a sideline or in a locker room on TV gets packed for the round trip, and it’s heavy. Military charters are also a challenge.

All of this is done based on the airline’s approved weight and balance program, which is coordinated with the flight standards district office that oversees the certificate. Sometimes changes are required. In 2003, when Air Midwest (Mesa) Flight 5481 crashed in Charlotte, one of the culprits was that passenger and baggage weights were no longer accurate as Americans had gotten heavier. Over the next year or so, passengers were randomly weighed in order to reset the weights. It’s probably time to do that again.

On the Matter of Mountain Flying

I recently had a realization that my perspective of mountain flying has changed a bit since I first got started. To quote a fellow pilot, “I must admit I laughed aloud at your comments about dangerous wild life in the mountains of the western US! A guy who will fly a 70-year-old 100hp airplane over some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world in less than ideal conditions of wind and weather is worried about running into a bear…” Yes, that is one of my primary concerns, if we’re talking about flying in the Rockies. As long as a forced landing isn’t in a grove of pines or straight into the side of a cliff, bears are my biggest concern afterward, which admittedly seems a little silly. Whatever mountain flying I do is a careful product of removing risks endemic to flying in high terrain, so it doesn’t worry me too much to be in the air if I am well prepared.

Contrast that with when I got started. The biggest hills were a few hundred feet high in Upstate New York, weather tended to be worse in them, and a remarkable number of pilots met their maker flying into the Appalachians. My grandfather couldn’t be bothered with going anywhere near terrain, and the rest of non-pilot family piled on that mountains were equivalent to death, so there I began my pilot days, terrified of mountains.

I finally did fly into those Appalachians, renting a plane in Charlotte, NC and flying a tad into West Virginia on a sunny day. Although terrain was roughly 3,000’ at most, I cruised at 7,500’ just to be safe, and found myself in mountain waves, alternating between full power and descent power, with airspeed going from slow flight to maximum structural cruising speed, even though I was almost a mile above terrain. “Curious” I thought, got tossed around coming over the ridge in Bluefield, and made a graceless landing, where the guy picking me up noted that he “saw every last bounce of it.”

I’d eventually poke around in the mountains of North Carolina which max at 6,674’, managing to scare myself once with downdrafts at 3,500’ over Lake Lure that exceeded full power (ahem, turn around), though otherwise it didn’t seem like too terribly big of a deal…until moving to Colorado. At the last fuel stop before entering the foothills and then the Rockies, there was a kind poster that showed menacing peaks with black clouds and in large block text “Last year, 15 airplanes went into the Colorado Rockies and never came out.” With that illustrious introduction, I climbed painfully to 12,000 feet and wedged over a pass, certain that something bad was bound to happen. I was in the Rockies after all! After an hour of playing, it was somewhat anticlimactic, and there I was.

At every step of the way, I voraciously read more than one aviation magazine, learning the general wisdom of mountain flying, inclusive of standard advice: max winds 20 knots at the peaks, adequate clearance, stay on the windward side of the valley, cross at 45 degree angles, and always have an escape plan. Talking to locals hasn’t really ever been much use; they tend to reinforce whatever negatives exist, suggesting against it in “that airplane” and go about their merry way, casting an aura that I am a retard.

It wasn’t until a few years later that someone noted that “you taught yourself mountain flying.” In retrospect, it’s quite obvious, though I didn’t see it that way at the time. I frankly didn’t think that I “taught” myself much of anything; really, I just read up on seemingly senseless airplane crash narratives, and figured out where the wind was blowing, so I could avoid getting swatted out of the sky, as the PA-11 is basically a glider with a lawn mower engine hooked to the front at 14,000 feet.

Once I was quite proficient with Colorado and Wyoming flying, an enthusiastic friend who was a student pilot at the time (while also a highly skilled mountain paraglider) couldn’t get enough of my flying around the Tetons, acting like it was some kind of secret sauce. I finally said to him: “If I were sitting in the right seat, I could verbally tell you what to do, and as a student, you could do everything I am doing. It’s not that complicated.” He wasn’t convinced, and that began the discussion that I continue to struggle to distill.

The thing about mountain flying is that flight control movements to command the aircraft in almost all situations differs little from normal phases of flight. Turbulence on average is higher, though no higher than a summer day with angry thermals in the South. Otherwise, flight movements are pretty standard. If the airframe and engine cannot handle the conditions it is facing, the pilot needs to have not gotten there in the first place, or get out. The entire dance of flying around grand peaks has been more to do with weather and wind than a mystical operation of the flight controls.

I devoted some more time to thinking about the subject, as I find discussions of mountain flying to still remain dramatic (crashes continue – I am sure its related). I thought about another mountain sport: skiing. That is something where we specifically do not shove a beginner on a black diamond and let them figure it out. It is certain they will wipe out repeatedly, if not be unable to complete the first run. Is skiing a good comparison? Nobody downhill skis on flat surfaces and then increases mortality heading into the mountains, so it is not apropos. Ok, so I thought about walking and hiking. That is something that average people have certain skills at, and I think mountain parallels are similar.

Just about every risk to a hiker on relatively flat surfaces is amplified in the mountains. The biggest danger is a person who is unaccustomed to it and is therefore physically and mentally unprepared. Colder temperatures, stronger sun, rapidly changing weather, getting lost, bears…. the list is almost the same as what a pilot faces compared to flight over non-mountainous terrain. Even in North Carolina, a remarkable amount of people manage to kill themselves on basic day hikes on geologic features that are no more than hills in my view. Some of the stories are quite impressive, as we’re talking people with extensive university education managing to fall off of cliffs and/or die of hypothermia in entirely avoidable situations. In the end, lack of familiarity is the culprit.

The real issue with mountain flying is not operation of the controls; it’s the knowledge base and therefore aeronautical decision making to proceed through terrain minimizing risk and problems. While fearmongering the dangers of mountains presented significant barriers to entry to my initial mountain exploits (theoretically translated into safety), it became counterproductive once I got into the thick of it, as it seemed that nobody knew, or they kept to the zeitgeist that mountain flying was so mysterious that it is a thing of mythology. Yet, it is certain that there are mountain mavericks, as they land on glaciers in Alaska, though it takes a short conversation with a fuel attendant at Leadville to hear stunning stories of high-altitude aeronautical stupidity…in a flat valley that merely happens to be at 10,000’.

My contention is that we need more knowledge and less fear. It is evident that an ignorant pilot heading into the mountains for the first time is in a heightened state of risk. To advertise the maxim that mountains are merely dangerous only works to the extent it causes the acquisition of knowledge or avoidance of terrain. The moment an uninformed pilot heads into terrain (ironically least qualified to determine a safe day vs a poor one), fear does not give one pivotal bit of data that said ignorant pilot needs: why it is dangerous, particularly for the airplane being flown, in the mountain range in question, with the person behind the controls, and in the weather for that flight. Mere knowledge of the “why “of the risk in question almost automatically lends to an evident solution.

The reason I mention these factors is that mountain flying can be incredibly enjoyable while also at times having virtually no added risk (or even wind!). At the same token, depending what country a pilot lives in, it might be unavoidable to some extent. The USA features enough mountains that I am surprised I wasn’t taught something other than avoidance during initial flight instruction, though I guess the Rockies were so far away nobody figured I’d take the PA-11 there.

In the latest news, I have released my 18th book, “Above the Summit: An Antique Airplane Conquers the 3000ers of the Pyrenees.” After reading this post, one should feel that it is inconsequential….


Some flying photos since the last post. It has been an active spring weather pattern, a nice contrast to a dry and windy winter.
Cadí-Moixeró with some late April snow fall.

The cloud clump was being blown out of the valley as I chased it. This is a frequent occurrence locally once a storm system clears out. There is a short window where winds aren’t too bad before the northerly waves get going.

Another day with Cadí-Moixeró producing some lee side cloud formations. One would note that I remain on the windward side.


Andorra to the left and France below. Whenever flying above overcast, I ensure there is a hole big enough in the event of a forced landing, and that I know what’s under it. In this case, I was over El Pas de la Casa, Andorra, with a hole below and about 2,500′ of space under the cloud with some fields to land in.

Also familiar terrain over Pic Carlit, France. There was an orographic consistent gap in the clouds to the right, with farms down below many thousands of feet. I could always land in the snow, except the post-forced landing survival matter would be complex given the late hour. I carry a tent, food, first aid kit, tools, and other supplies on all flights. 

Avalanche in late April snow. First I had seen one in this location.

Pedraforca with light May snowfall.

Spring in the valley.

After an early May snowfall, the north winds got going sooner than expected. This range is a bit of a fierce wind tunnel when the winds are going, so I stay on the windward side as getting sucked over would have featured severe turbulence, among a host of other problems.

France left, Spain right, Andorra ahead. Winds were light at 10,000′, with an overcast deck stuck against the north side of the Pyrenees. To my rear left was another orographic gap in the clouds, in the lee of Pica d’Estats, with a 4,000′ descent to a road below with hikers’ cars in the parking lot.

From Spain looking into Andorra. The Spanish side is in the lee; hence, the clouds dried out behind me, though they stayed in Andorra and it was precipitating on the north side, a common event. To proceed into the range would have been profusely silly.

 

 

 

 

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

Pilot tools during delays

The airlines are probably better than any other industry at angering their public. Ticket prices fluctuate wildly, flights are deliberately oversold, and schedules can change with no obviously acceptable explanation.

But, when push comes to shove, passengers only care about two things: the price of the ticket, and being on time. Once the ticket is purchased, the bar for satisfaction is actually pretty low. Sure, folks want the free drinks; and nobody likes paying to check a bag; and friendly employees go a long way toward minimizing negative social media hits. But the airlines have the data to back up one fact: on-time performance trumps all, and nowadays, the airlines are required to publish on their websites the performance reliability of each flight.

Pilots have several tools they can use on this front. Aside from getting the airplane ready on time and taking care of maintenance and other issues as quickly as possible, actually pushing back from the gate on time should be a major goal. The schedules are built with the expectation that flights will leave on time, so push-back crews, gate agents, and other support personnel are staffed accordingly. If you encounter a delay, it’s not uncommon to have the delay magnified by the need to wait for a push-back crew to take care of another flight. After all, there’s no point in making multiple flights late just to accommodate one.

Flying the flight plan is tool number two. Almost all airlines fly what’s called a cost index (CI), which is a tool for measuring the most optimal way to operate a flight. There are times when flying as fast as possible and burning the extra fuel is the most cost-effective way to fly. Likewise, there are times when flying slow and minimizing fuel burn is the best decision. Before you get the flight plan, the CI decision is made by a combination of the dispatcher and the main computer systems that track a flight. Airplanes that are behind schedule are usually flight-planned to fly fast to make up some of the time.

Flying the schedule factors in as well. When you land early, especially in a busy hub, you run the risk of a gate not being ready or available upon your arrival, and this can actually make you even later as ATC and the company move you around to kill time. I’ve had the misfortune of landing early only to find that the gate wasn’t ready, and the subsequent taxiing that took place had us actually arrive more than 30 minutes late. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do to avoid this problem, but if you can, you should.

The biggest difference we can make in the passenger experience is in the way we communicate with the passengers about what’s going on. When a crew doesn’t keep the folks who pay their salaries abreast of what is happenings, the negative comments start to show up immediately on social media. Further, thanks to smart phones, everyone has access to your company’s app, website, and other data points. Gone are the days when a crew would make multiple announcements en route to the destination, because with apps and on-board entertainment systems, just about everyone has a viewable map to see exactly where they are at any point in time.

Timely announcements at the gate prior to departure or during long departure delays go a long way, because the view out the window is so limited. This is especially true during ground delay programs (GDPs). On the other end, long taxi delays getting to a gate can be immensely frustrating to passengers because of tight connections or a need to get somewhere at a certain time. Most airlines have a policy requiring an update on set time schedules during delays.

The real go-getters are the pilots who will walk up to the gate house and make an announcement from the gate prior to boarding, especially for long delays. Not everyone is comfortable doing this, but it does make a great impression on people.

I recently flew on an airline I don’t work for, and we were delayed getting to our gate because we were early and the flight at our gate was a few minutes late getting out. The public address announcements from the cockpit were not very good. They didn’t sound polished, and they didn’t sound confident. Making good PAs isn’t hard, but it does take practice. Practice while in your car or in the shower, and do it until it doesn’t sound stilted or fragmented. You’d be amazed at just how far some solid, accurate information will go, especially for nervous flyers.—Chip Wright

What Comes Around, Goes Around; Complacency is an Enemy to Protecting airports

In early 2009 pilots in the Central Coast of California became aware of a threat to Oceano Airport [L52]. A developer from a neighboring community set his sights on bulldozing our historic airport and building condominiums.  While some folks scoffed at the threat, I took it seriously and began to mobilize local and regional pilots, gained the support of the California Pilots Association, type-clubs, Ninety-Nines and AOPA. I founded the Friends of Oceano Airport and we pretty quickly quashed the developer’s plan.

Brief History of Oceano Airport:

In the 1920s and ’30s airplanes routinely took off and landed on the California beaches near Pismo, Oceano and Grover City. Barnstormers became more popular in the mid 1940s hopping rides, and spotting schools of fish. Yet due to increased tourism, vehicular traffic, and the harsh environment at the beach, a more inland landing strip became a necessity. Oceano Airport was built in the 1950s to serve the communities of Pismo Beach, Oceano and Grover City.  This unique airport is within a short walk of the beautiful Pacific Ocean and sandy beaches.

A few months ago another threat to our slice of Paradise came from the Oceano Community Beach Association. This small group has a worthy focus, to revitalize the town of Oceano. However they commissioned local graduate students from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to generate proposals to meet their goals. We were quite shocked to learn that one of the proposals was to close our airport and re-develop it for hiking trails, and housing. We have mobilized once again, to keep our airport in the pubic eye, in a positive way.

Oceano Airport is part of a two-airport system that includes larger San Luis Obispo (KSBP), and has received FAA grant assurances. While Federal obligations mean it would take a lot to close Oceano, it doesn’t mean it is impossible [think Santa Monica (KSMO). After speaking with our County supervisor and Airport Manager, it was clear there is no intention to close the airport. Yet, we are keenly aware that complacency is the enemy of airport preservation. Protection of our GA airports needs to be an intentional and active process.

More about our Jewel:

Oceano, in addition to perhaps being the closest public airport to the Pacific Ocean, is a vital link in emergency services in San Luis Obispo County.  Life-flight, California Highway Patrol, Sheriff Aero Squadron, Civil Air Patrol, Diablo Canyon evacuation, Beach rescues, Arroyo Grande Community Hospital, and Angel Flights all make use of Oceano airport.  It is a great field for training, particularly short field, and is used by regional CFIs.  Many type clubs have their annual events at L52-Oceano such as Mooney Ambassadors  EAA Chapter 1 Sons of Beaches

California Highway Patrol pilot Joe Kingman shows visitors the helicopter

Opportunities for recreation at Oceano are bountiful; we offer on field camping, Fly ‘n Ride bicycle loan [donation basis] and are walking distance to the dunes, hotels and restaurants. Additionally several businesses are located on the field including SkyDive Pismo Beach  and Banner Airways 1942 Boeing Stearman.

The Friends of Oceano Airport (FOA),  a 501C3 non-profit organization, is committed to the preservation of this beautiful slice of paradise, Oceano Airport.  We are proud to be a chapter of the California Pilots Association, whose goal is to help promote general aviation, and to promote and protect general aviation airports.

FOA hosts three standing events per year. All events are family friendly and free-admission. Coming up, the second Saturday of May is Oceano Airport Celebration: Salute to Veterans. Our 11th annual event is May 10th and 11th. Fly-In Movie Night will be held August 24th, and Toys for Tots is the first Saturday in December, this year Saturday December 7th.

Community events bring visitors to the airport both tourists and locals. The airport is an economic engine for the area. Oceano Airport is a perfect example of how airports can be good neighbors.

US Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots, with assistance from Lambda Chi Alpha

Michael Madrid brings joy at Toys for Tots

Fly-In Movie Night

Testimonials Help

Another way to promote your airport is to get testimonials from local businesses, and publish these on your airport association websites.

“As an aviation company encompassing flight school, charter, and maintenance operations, SunWest Aviation, Inc. at San Luis Obispo [KSBP] has a vested interest in preserving Oceano Airport for our customers and employees. Oceano Airport [L52] is and always has been an extremely valuable resource for pilots and students flying out of San Luis Obispo Airport.

As an airfield with a short runway, Oceano Airport provides important real-life training on short field operations, and also provides a close-by non-towered airport for training. It’s also a close, safe place to land if students have a mid-flight emergency near our regular practice area.

Our involvement in Oceano Airport Celebration allows us to connect with the community and get valuable exposure to potential customers. Events like the fly-in movie nights are a fun way for our students and instructors to network with other aviators. The loss of Oceano Airport would not only negatively impact our company financially, but also deprive our students of valuable training.  In a community sense, it would also remove an opportunity for our students to connect with and give back to the veterans in our area, who are regular attendees at the Oceano events.  As small airports become more and more rare (especially in California), Oceano Airport provides a place where the aviators of the past, present, and future can celebrate flight.”

–Erin Hawkes, CFII

Our GA airports are in need of both protection and promotion. Complacency is the enemy. As flying season approaches for much of the country, we focus on large events such as Sun n Fun, the AOPA Regional Fly-Ins, or Oshkosh, but I would like to gently remind you that if we don’t protect and promote our local airports, they are at risk. Why not use a website like Social Flight or Fun Places to Fly  to check out local and regional airport events. Or better yet Angel Flights , Pilots n Paws , or Flying Samaritans Get in the air, support a worthy cause, and use our General Aviation airports.

Spring is in the air, you should be too!

I look forward to seeing many of you at an upcoming event. Here are some events in my flight planner:

  • Oceano Airport Celebration: Salute to Veterans, Oceano, CA [L52] May 11-12. $10 Beach Burger Fry and Dance 5/11, Free admission, Vets/LE/Active Duty/First Responders eat for FREE all day Saturday 5/12. We are collecting items for military care packages.

Collecting military care package items at Oceano Airport Celebration: Salute to Veterans

  • MooneyMAX Convention, Longview TX [KGGG] June 6-8. I will be teaching Right Seat Ready! © with co-founder Jan Maxwell. This one-day seminar is open to any non-pilot who would like to attend [not Mooney specific].
  • Father’s Day Fly-In, Columbia CA [O22] June 14-16. This year marks the 53rd annual event. Camping on field. This beautiful airport nestled in the Gold Country of California is an important part of the community. CalFire has an air attack base located at O22. The famous Moo Pool will be ready for business.

The ever-popular Moo Pool at the Mooney Ambassadors Display

  • AOPA Livermore, CA [KLVK] June 21-22. Friday I will be teaching a 3-hour condensed all-airplane Right Seat Ready! © On Saturday I will present Exit the Holding Pattern: Achieve your Aviation Goals.

AOPA Fly-In  Photo by David Tulis.

 

 

 

 

Jolie Lucas is a Mooney owner, licensed psychotherapist, and instrument rated pilot. Jolie presents aviation seminars around the country including Sun n Fun, EAA Oshkosh and AOPA. Jolie is the Vice President of the California Pilots Association. She is the 2010 AOPA Joseph Crotti Award recipient for GA Advocacy. Email: [email protected] Web: www.JolieLucas.com Twitter: Mooney4Me

Alcohol standards are tightening

Recently, other countries have adopted more stringent rules for pilot drinking, and in the United States, at least one state (Utah) has moved to lower the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) for driving to 0.05 percent.

It’s always a big deal when a pilot is arrested or implicated in an alcohol- or drug-related arrest. We are held to a higher moral standard, because of the lives we are responsible for, both in the air and potentially on the ground, on each flight.

In parts of the world, there is a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol. While the FAA still allows a 0.04 percent BAC, most airlines also have a zero-tolerance rule, so even though you may not be outside the bounds of the federal aviation regulations, you might still find yourself on the unemployment line if you test positive. In other countries, any positive BAC test could put you in jail in a legal system that you do not understand.

In the United States, the opioid epidemic has forced the addition of more drugs onto the screening profile. A positive test will result in an immediate grounding, and it could lead to a full revocation of your certificates. You may be able to go through rehab and participate in the Human Intervention and Motivational Study (HIMS) program to get back your medical, but you may be forced to reapply and re-test for all of your certificates—an expensive endeavor no matter what. If you’re at a regional airline when all of this happens, you may render yourself unemployable at a major.

I’ve known several pilots over the years who have been forced to deal with a positive test. Some walked away from aviation, believing that the lifestyle of a pilot contributed to the problem. Others traveled the long, hard road of rehab and recovery. A few were unable to stop the cycle of destruction and suffered an untimely death. All had to deal with painful fallout with family, friends, and coworkers.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying a few cold beers or a glass of fine wine on a trip. But the temptation to have more than a drink or two on a long overnight can be stronger than some of us can handle. Throw in a chance encounter with another crew in the bar or restaurant, and things can quickly get out of hand. If you find yourself unable to control your intake of either drugs or alcohol, get help sooner rather than later, and take whatever steps are necessary to avoid becoming another unfortunate statistic. Employee assistance programs are a great resource and can help you navigate the health insurance process along with any HR issues. They can also help point you toward resources that may allow you to keep flying while you seek treatment instead of playing Russian roulette with a drug test.

Pilots may be held to a higher standard, but we’re human, and we have the same fallibility and issues as any other group of people. If you need or want help, get it. You’ll be glad you did.—Chip Wright

Nostalgia of Grass

I routinely refer to the underlying purpose of taking a particular flight, as merely flying for the sake of flying is something that I do a minority of the time. This winter’s almost desert weather has featured a personal exploration into how much pattern and other work I will do for the love of flying, which is still a surprising amount. In any case, what I am doing most of the time is undertaking an adventure of exploration on some level, with the airplane as the primary platform to achieve the objective in mind. Coincident to using the Cub to get somewhere, I get whatever pent up aviation need is lurking satisfied, thinking the sole reason for the flight was the adventure.

In light of the foregoing, I go through an elaborate dance before I decide to go somewhere. After weather and photography conditions are factored, I am usually looking for some angle where I am in pursuit of something, whether it’s an itch to satisfy from staring at Google Maps, or simply a beautiful day that beckons taking flight. On this flight, I struggled as two months had gone by with hazy and unattractive weather, an itch had developed to fly, yet I couldn’t seem to devise somewhere to go. I finally discovered the ruins of an old church, sticking out above the water line in a reservoir, something I found on Google Maps yet was not evident when I flew there when the water level was maxed out two years ago. That, and there was a ridge I wanted to see again, also two years having passed by. With those two in mind, I decided to have some good old backcountry fun and land at two little dirt strips, for the sole reason that its enjoyable.

Exploration of the Pre-Pyrenees turned out to foster a few surprises. By now, I thought I had flown it all so much that there was nothing new, and I found some rock formations that I would have been duly impressed if I saw them in Wyoming or Utah. From there, it was off to Peña Montañesa, a curiously long ridge that reminds me of Cadí-Moixeró, then down to the Mediano reservoir to check out the church steeple in the water, which I did find. I landed at Coscojuelas, a grass strip used as a gyrocopter school, that sticks out on a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides.

What I found there surprised me a bit. It is a grass strip as expected, and I have landed there before, though I found myself flooded with memories of flying with my late grandfather in childhood. After thinking about it, this was the first non-asphalt landing surface that I had used since his passing, and it reminded me of his frequent preaching about how landing on grass was better. Any time we landed on asphalt, he’d shake his head when the tires would howl on touchdown, later grimacing as he repeated how turf was far better for a Cub or Super Cub, like it was its natural habitat.

The funny thing is that I find grass filings and all sorts of clippings and dirt in places I’d rather not have it. Greasing the tailwheel, pulling grass from the landing gear and behind the hubcaps….the list goes on where the stuff gets crammed, and yet I still agree that asphalt is somehow unnaturally “hard” on an airplane, logic notwithstanding. I learned on a short grass field, and that will always feel right to me.

From Coscojuelas, it was off to Castejón de Sos, a remarkable little dirt strip in the Valley of Benasque. The field elevation is a hair shy of 3,000’, lower than La Cerdanya, yet tucked prodigiously in towering terrain on all sides. I took a direct route through some impressively steep valleys that would have made the Swiss feel proud, coming upon the field, amazed yet again that the place exists. I landed there in October 2017, having already experienced typical mountain winds with tight quarters, so I knew what it was like, though it was still a treat. While I am sure some Swiss fields could give this place a run for its money, the tightness so far is the most out of any of the airports I have landed at in the USA or Europe.

After takeoff, I did the obligatory circular climb so as not to smack into rock, then explored some rocky cliff sides on the way home, with a big smile on my face, having forgotten all of those “concerns” I had about where to go and if it would have been worth it.

Muntanya d’Adons. Pre-Pyrenees.

Catalunya/Aragon border, Riu Noguera Ribagorçana.

Tozal de Sis.

Southeast of Bacamorta.

Peña Montañesa.

Church steeple sticking out of the water. Mission accomplished.

Coscojuelas airfield.

Peña Montañesa is in the rear background.

Ésera River Valley, on the way to Castejón de Sos.




Castejón de Sos airfield in lower center right (to the right of campground, along the river). The valley is rather tight.

Climbout, after doing a 360 to avoid ramming into terrain.

Pre-Pyrenees texture, on the way 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.

Be reasonable

This piece of advice no doubt applies to just about any line of work, and it isn’t limited to pilots. That said, it bears repeating.

It isn’t uncommon for pilots to have to spend money out of their own wallets for certain work-related expenses. Cabs, crew meals, and hotels fall into this category, and at some airlines, even the fuel bill can initially become the pilot’s responsibility.

Most folks will use an element of common sense in these situations. Hotels usually become an issue at the last minute when a crew has to deal with an unexpected diversion or the company hotel clerk(s) make a (monumental) mistake. Crew meals can become an issue under the diversion scenario or on holidays. The question becomes how much to spend.

It’s one thing to be stuck in a Smallville, USA-kind of place with no typical hotel rooms, and find yourself forced to take a cab to high-end Hilton or Marriott in order to get your crew (or even just yourself) some sleep. What will likely raise eyebrows will be booking your crew into the Ritz or the Waldorf-Astoria. Rest (pun very much intended) assured, this has happened. These events usually have a reasonable and even humorous backstory, and it usually comes as a result of a pilot trying to make a point about a series of issues.

But such a strategy isn’t always wise or wallet-friendly. The best bet is to find a reasonable accommodation at a hotel similar to what your company provides, and if the price is higher than normal because of local demand, so be it. But buying rooms at a thousand bucks a pop is a risk.

Meals create similar opportunities for abuse. A pilot at a major airline that provides crew meals to its crews was entitled to put in a reimbursement for a meal that didn’t get boarded. Mistakes like this don’t happen often, but they do occur. The intent in this case was for the pilot to get a meal as soon as practical for a reasonable price. What was not intended was to try and get away with expensing a meal for four in excess of a hundred bucks at Disney World (yes, this actually happened).

When you exceed any normal sense of reasonable behavior, the end result is that the rules are changed and made more punitive for everyone else. Don’t be that person.—Chip Wright

Best Practices for Aircraft Survival Gear in Alaska

What kind of equipment do you carry as survival gear when you fly?  When flying over the vast boreal forests, endless tundra, massive glaciers and rugged mountains of Alaska, one really wants to have some equipment for the off chance of an unplanned landing, or even something as simple as not being able to get the engine started when returning from a remote location.

I regularly receive calls and emails from pilots planning to fly from the “Lower 48” to Alaska. One of the most frequent questions is: “I know Alaska is different. What do I need to bring in the way of survival gear?”  This is often the start of a discussion that explores topics such as, “When are you coming?”, “What part of the state are you planning to fly to?”, and “What type of aircraft are you flying?”  After all, a DC-3 has a lot more space for survival gear than a Super Cub.

People have also heard that Alaska has a law requiring survival gear be carried on board.  It does.  The first regulation dates back to 1943, before Alaska was a state. The regulation adopted at that time provided a short list of items to be carried. More recently, the state statute was revised which changed the requirements a bit, but is still basically a list of items, with some seasonal additions for winter operations.  It also contains language indicating that these “…are considered to be minimum requirements…” indicating that this topic is worth more attention.

More than a List
To address the requests for information, and provide some guidance for pilots, representatives from several aviation groups drafted a “Best Practices” document, intended to touch on key factors to consider when putting together a survival kit.  Elements such as shelter, signaling, fire arms, and food are covered, along with some discussion about where to carry components of your kit. This document does not include a prescriptive list of items to carry, although it has several references with more information and ideas regarding items to carry, and how to personalize your individual kit.

What is a Survival Situation?
Many of us like to go camping, hiking, hunting, canoeing, skiing, snow machining, etc.  We probably consider ourselves to be fairly handy operating in remote areas. The skill and experience gained from those activities certainly is a benefit over someone who is not comfortable in these settings.  But a survival situation has one key difference—you didn’t PLAN to be there.  Plus, the camping gear carried behind the back seat might not have made it out of the aircraft, following a forced landing and subsequent fire.  You, or some of your passengers, may have injuries. Just taking one hand out of commission makes it much more difficult to open a can of beans, or to heat water for a freeze-dried meal.  THESE are the situations we need to prepare for, both in terms of what we carry in our aircraft, on our person, and perhaps most importantly, in our minds.

Planning for an unplanned situation, figuring out in advance what equipment to have with you, and mentally preparing for a variety of situations is important to achieve a successful outcome when things go wrong.

Practice
The best practices document includes a brief discussion about the importance of training.  I would like to suggest a fun exercise you can perform to test your survival gear.  Years ago, the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation held a workshop in Fairbanks, with about a dozen aircraft participating, that executed this scenario.  Get with a few aviation friends and plan an overnight outing to a nearby back-country airstrip, or someplace you can camp.  Instead of taking the normal load of camping gear, and shopping bag of steaks to cook, fly out and spend the night ONLY USING YOUR SURVIVAL GEAR.  Construct a shelter, make dinner out of your survival food. See if the stove you carried for the past five years really works.  Make breakfast the next morning, also ONLY from your emergency supplies. No sneaking in a dozen eggs from the store!

Make some signaling devices, such as a Canadian smoke generator, and launch one of the aircraft to see what it looks like from the air.  Be sure to monitor the local CTAF frequency in case a non-participating aircraft is attracted and thinks you are really in distress.

At the end of this outing, take stock of what worked as you thought it would, and what didn’t.  Use this as a basis both to refresh supplies, and to consider ways to upgrade the equipment you carry.  It could be a fun first outing of the year, or a long weekend spent cold and hungry. Either way, it can be a great lesson in preparing your survival gear and survival attitude for the busy flying season ahead!

Thanks to the organizations that supported the effort to prepare this best practices document:

Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation

Alaska Airmen Association

AOPA Air Safety Institute

Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association

Delays

Delays don’t happen often, but when they do, they are a source of great aggravation and concern.

The airlines are all about customer service—or at least they are supposed to be. Most of the time, things go pretty much as advertised, but some days, for whatever reason, they don’t. Examples might be missing blankets, bundles of paper towels, broken toilets, or a catering screw-up. Catering can consist of the sodas and snacks in the main cabin, or it can consist of issues with the meals that are served in first class—which the first-class passengers have paid for and have every right to expect.

Flight attendants are required to be on duty at the majors ahead of the pilots, because boarding can start without us. In fact, on larger airplanes, this is pretty common in order to get everyone on board expeditiously for an on-time departure. Part of that early arrival is to give the cabin crew time to spot any issues as quickly as possible. It might be something mundane like some trash, or it might be something more serious such as broken seat belts or missing or damaged emergency equipment. Some of these things are obviously show-stoppers, like the emergency equipment, but most items can be deferred for later maintenance or addressed quickly with a phone call.

Catering, on the other hand, always takes time, because there are only so many catering trucks, and they don’t always have what you need. Hot meals are a great example. There isn’t much worse than having the flight attendants announce that the expected dinner is going to be replaced by breakfast, or vice versa, or that coffee won’t be available (I might be the only one that doesn’t get concerned about this, since I’ve never had coffee, but I’ve seen what happens when people don’t get it, and it ain’t pretty).

Sometimes, no matter how many times you plead on the radio with Operations, things just aren’t going to get fixed. At that point, the decision often comes down to what the flight attendants want to do, since they’re the ones who have to deal with the passengers directly. An announcement over the public address system can help, as can a personal explanation to those most affected.

Most of the time, if the flight isn’t too terribly long, the decision is made to close the door and go. Longer flights require a little more tact and thought.

Airlines have collected extensive amounts of data on just what the paying passenger expects, and as much as we all like to complain when things don’t go our way, the number one issue for passengers is getting to the destination on time. Not only is that most important, but the gap between on-time performance and every other expectation is huge. Further, when an airplane leaves the gate late, the risk is that the flight inbound to that gate is going to be delayed, and the airplane may fall behind schedule for the rest of the day. It’s one thing to be late for maintenance, but to be late for some missing meals or bottles of water is a different issue entirely.

The other form of delays that cause problems are delays off the gate going to or from the runway (going to seems to be much worse). Most of the time, these are driven by bad weather or a ground stop. It helps when the weather is right on the airport and can be seen. Passengers don’t always understand that the bad weather affecting a flight may be several hundred miles away.

Most carriers encourage openness and honesty with people when delays of any kind hit, but ground stops and weather delays are definitely no place to try and pull a fast one. In the day and age when everyone has a smart phone, you can expect that people are looking up delay data either from the FAA or from your airlines app. Consistent with safety and your company policy, keeping passengers updated with a PA every 15 to 30 minutes will go a long way to keeping people from getting restless, especially first-time or nervous fliers. You can’t do anything about potential missed connections, but you can keep them informed of any progress or updates from ATC. These announcements should be short, factual, and devoid of any jargon. Humor can go wrong, so don’t use it unless you know how.

The risk with a departure delay is that someone may insist they want to get off the airplane if they’re going to miss a connection or an event, or just get nervous. This can be a tricky situation, because sometimes going back to the gate can lead to such a delay that the flight cancels and everyone gets inconvenienced. Often, continuing toward takeoff is the lesser evil. But if they insist, the captain needs to coordinate with Dispatch to make the best decision.

Delays after landing pose their own issues. I’ve been on time or early during the beginning of a weather event, only to sit in a penalty box for an hour or more waiting for a gate to open up. International flights present a particular challenge because only certain gates are set up to funnel passengers to Customs and Immigration, and this is something that needs to be articulated to the passengers.

Other gate delays are usually (but not always) driven by weather affecting the outgoing flights. Passengers, however, start getting antsy when they feel trapped. Again, good PAs will help, as will conveying any developing situations in the cabin to Operations so that they can appreciate the seriousness of what is going on.

Delays are a part of flying for both passengers and crew. How you handle them is key. Communication is everything: the flight attendants, the passengers, and the company. You may not win all of the battles or make everyone happy, but you’ll greatly improve the odds, which will improve the odds of ensuring repeat business.

Boredomitis

Gethereitis is the most common form of in-flight decision-making disease, though my past exploits cause me to wonder if we should add a new one: boredomitis, the antics resulting in a lack of anything useful to do coupled with a desire and willingness to fly.

I suppose my first exposure to boredomitis was when I was quite young, living in New York next to my grandfather’s grass airstrip. At the time, he was in his 50s, jaded from many things in life, choosing to spend his time rebuilding Cubs in his shop, or taking local flights. While he had gone some distance in his younger years, by the time I came along, he was past the novelty of it all and had his routine: evening flight here, a burger in Great Valley, land at a few pilot’s airfields every now and then and….buzzing. When he would get frisky, he would buzz the snot out of my grandmother, my aunt (who lived nearby), my parents’ house, and other rural-dwelling friends of his. There were war stories (possibly just rumors) of an incident or two where foliage needed to be removed from the landing gear.

At any rate, I enjoyed every second of it my entire youth, and it all unceremoniously stopped about eight months before I started taking lessons on the same field. So I am told, there was a concerted conspiracy, probably led by my aviation-hating mother, to “not set a bad example.” Rest assured that I remembered his methods.

Anyhow, fast forward to the Winter of Discontent 2018-2019 in Spain. I had recently returned from Switzerland, having achieved the pinnacle of my aviation experiences, both figuratively and literally. At first, I had an initial zeal to breathe some energy into my local flying. “Every flight in Switzerland was 2.5 to 3 hours. Why not do the same in Spain, instead of these silly little flights I usually take?” Fresh with optimism, I plunged into the high country of the Pyrenees on a two+ hour flight the day after arriving back, enjoying some early season snows, thinking that this new zeal was wonderful.

Then reality struck, in the form of the weather.

Early season snows disappeared, though wind and the pernicious inversion to the south set in. So, I decided to chase them. First it was the wind, weaseling up into the high peaks in strong waves and moving clouds, deftly doing so without a problem. Another day, it was flying above a cloud deck under a strong NW flow near Pic Carlit, France, getting the snot beat out of me in orographic turbulence. That switched to chasing the inversion below. Instead of it being an aggravation that limited cross country possibilities, I decided to treat it as something beautiful, taking flights right over the rim of it, which was fine assuming the engine kept operating the entire time.

The inversions quit showing up in cloud form, though remained in haze, exacerbated by a small forest fire, which I decided to go flying around. That led to breaking my altitude record in a mountain wave, flying to 19,500’. Not to be deterred, another day I decided I was “finally going to do some aerobatics.” The legality of aerobatics is somewhat murky here. I talked to a French instructor, who said it’s a pain in the rear over the border, so they come to Spain to do it, though I couldn’t tell, as usual, if Spain was regulatorily permissive or just so disorganized so as not to care.

I climbed to altitude in the typical place, did some clearing turns, fired up the GoPro, and was ready to go for my first loop. At thirty degrees nose up, I completely wimped out. “I can’t do this!” I descended and went home, staring at 70-year-old weld joints that hold the airframe together, wondering what I was thinking. Save aerobatics for a newer, properly constructed device.

Then the unthinkable happened: 5 weeks of solid, unforgiving, nonstop blue sky and sun, right in the middle of winter, with some days as high as 72F/22C. Not a shred of snow or rain, mostly sunny from the end of January until the beginning of March. While my fellow compatriots in America will be inclined to give a speech to “count your blessings,” especially given the nature of the foul winter many have had in North America, I must note that it was especially hazy, and the surfaces were quite brown and devoid of snow, with the exception of very high-altitude locations. Cross country flights weren’t appealing given lowland haze, so I resorted to flying in a circle in the valley: touch and goes, spot landings, max performance takeoffs with vortex generators (26mph indicated) to entertain airport restaurant goers, 2000 RPM takeoffs, low approaches, and the like.

Recently, we had a clear day in the mountains, so I went up for flight over Cadí-Moixeró, and on the tediously long descent down, I decided to solve a nagging question I’ve had. When I was a student, I went to 14,000’ in the PA-11 specifically to annoy my father, who had a tizzy I went up to 7,500’ and venomously barked “never to do it again.” I made a point to go as high as I could without oxygen in a statement of teenage rebellion. On the way down to field elevation of 1,284’, I decided to pull the mixture to confirm what I had suspected: the prop still spins, though at a few hundred less RPM. Push it in and off we go.

I had since read about the aeronautics behind engine-out forced landings and the effects of windmilling, and an article made reference to a “dangerous” maneuver to slow the airplane to get the prop to stop, in order to remove the drag of a windmilling propeller. With boredomitis, the mind has a long list of things to probe, so I gave her a whirl descending from Cadí-Moixeró. At 48mph, the prop stops in about 15 seconds without anything special involved. Thankfully, I have a starter. Anyhow, the airplane does glide really quite nicely without any power. For any who think I am a lunatic, I was about a mile above the ground.

Since I rarely suffer from gethereitis as I usually pick sunny days that are good for photos, boredomitis is more likely to show up. I have a few stories of trying to cross the USA under a schedule in the PA-11, and they are filled with typical nonsense gethereitis implies. It is definitely worse to toy with weather to meet an arbitrary goal. Boredom, on the other hand, is a bit of a two-edged sword. It probably is why so many have tried new things and pushed the envelopes of aviation to new places, though could be the source of total stupidity if left unchecked. Fortunately spring is around the corner.

First flight after Switzerland, filled with optimism for the winter. Central Pyrenees, looking west.


First indication of boredom: going above the clouds with strong mountain waves.


Getting knocked around above the cloud layer near Pic Carlit, France.

Making some beauty out of inversions that usually present issues with cross country flights.


This photo appeared in my recent P&E article in the March issue of AOPA Pilot.

Rather windy and turbulent, looking over the edge. If I got sucked over, I likely would have not been able to outclimb the descending wave back into the Pyrenees.

Forest fire.


Lowland inversion presenting as haze instead of clouds. This will stay until April like this.

Going into the Andorran Pyrenees while the waves are in force. At least it prevents boredom!

Wave signature, after getting out without too much of a problem. It was turbulent.

Finally! Some clouds. Who would have thought I’d be so happy to get precipitation?

 

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