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Getting ready for class

When you get the call for a new hire class, it’s quite a thrill. But it can also leave you scrambling to get ready to check out of the real world for six to eight weeks.

Getting ready for class is similar to getting ready for your interview. The first thing you need to do is a document check. Your new carrier will  want you to have a current passport with an expiration date at least six months away. You may have to pay for expedited handling, but if you’re close to that window, just get it done.

Next up is your medical. Just about every airline requires all pilots, including first officers, to maintain a first class medical. If yours is going to expire in the next two-three months, consider biting the bullet and getting it renewed early, especially if you don’t want to have to run the risk of getting an appointment with a new doctor in a new city right away. If you decide to wait, be prepared to buy a ticket to get home to your regular doctor if the training schedule gets fouled up.

Your CFI certificate. If you’re coming up on a renewal for your CFI, try to knock that out of the way as well. Even if you have no intention of teaching again, think about how hard you worked to get your flight instructor certificate. You may end up wanting to teach just to work with some favorite clientele, or you may want to pick up some pocket change. And, heaven forbid, if you should have a problem with training and need to go back to teaching, you’ll need it. Additionally, you don’t want to rule out going into the training department at an airline, which is totally different than what you’re used to. Finally, doing a FIRC is time-consuming, and once you are finished with training, the last thing you’ll want to do is sit in front of your computer and bang out all those hours of clicking “next.”

Your driver’s license and pilot certificate. This sounds so simple, but you’re required to notify the FAA when you change addresses, and if your driver’s license is close to expiration, you want to get that renewed as well, especially if there is any chance you’ll be renting a car. If you’ve been bouncing around from one place to another looking for a place to live, you’ll need a mailing address for your new company. And, because you’re going into training, you may well have an event or a ride observed by the FAA. Matching addresses on your certificate, medical, and driver’s license saves some potential embarrassment.

Doctor’s appointments. These may be dictated by your current insurance situation, but you’ll want to use whatever time you can to knock out a basic physical, a trip to the dentist,  and your optometrist if you wear glasses. Once class starts, you will be too busy to be bothered, and a cavity or some other unexpected malady is not something you want to mess with in a new-to-you city.

Packing. You’ll want to have clothes enough to wear for at least a week to 10 days between loads of laundry. The company may or may not require you to have certain equipment at certain points in the training (such as headsets), and you’ll want to take stack of blank flashcards, a notebook, laptop, and spare phone chargers. If you’re driving to class, take a printer. Yes, a printer. It’s amazing how convenient it is when you can print something in your hotel room when you least expect to need to do so. If you’re flying to training, skip the printer, but find out what is involved in using the one in the hotel business center. You may need it for everything from printing out benefits information to getting a hard copy of the fuel system diagrams.

Getting the call for class is both exciting and stressful. But with a little bit of foresight, you can maximize the excitement and minimize the stress. It’s a long slog through the grind of indoc, systems, and the sim, let alone your first flights on the line, but it’s worth it. Don’t make plans to spend time with friends or family or a love interest. You’ll be pretty consumed, and you owe it to yourself, your employer, and your future passengers to totally devote yourself to training. There will be plenty of time to play hard later.—Chip Wright

What’s wrong with this picture?

An excellent artifice to take stock of the status of one’s situation as a pilot is to focus on what one is excited about. We all know what it was like to tell war stories as a student pilot about light to moderate crosswinds, which was at the time the most exciting thing to happen in an airplane. It would be natural to assume that a regularly active pilot would have more and more adventures under his or her belt, so the level to which something becomes exciting or novel would elevate.

I would expect that proposition to be linearly true if I stayed in the United States. I would have likely dragged the Cub well into Canada and possibly Alaska by this point, ratcheting up the adventure component, not-so-ironically flying in mountains that look quite like the Alps, and then some. As that did not happen, it exposes some additional dimensions which, as I have alluded to, do not always open the mind.

The first thing that caused me to wonder if I need some sort of psychological assistance is the practice of getting excited about my monthly invoice for my home-based airport. I have various photography and logging methods that keep track of flying, which means that every one to three months, I go back and update the official logbook. Thus, I don’t precisely recall where and when I went flying; I just go and let the chips fall, which they do in this case in the form of a monthly bill. The absolute perversion is that I have gotten to the point where I am excited if the bill is higher! For the month of April, it was “only” $192.31, which meant I went flying “only” seven times. My record is $274.73, which is ten times in a month, which I seem, again, perversely determined to break.

The second thing that raised an eyebrow is how I have convinced myself that I am now Indiana Jones with my landings at non-home-based airports. As I have ranted about before, European airports as a whole, country notwithstanding, tend to have a wide variety of categories, with a cornucopia of unique rules, charges, operating hours, and aggravations. The bottom line is that one cannot do what I used to do in the US: a flight briefing checking weather and TFRs for the whole area, NOTAMs for the intended refueling point, and then change my mind in flight (checking the AF/D and NOTAMs in the air). Here, much more research is involved and, in the case of Switzerland, PPRs (Prior Permission Required) are generally the norm, except for towered airports. That means picking something and sticking to it, with its attendant planning steps.

Since the last post, I landed at three other airports. Emotionally, it feels like I am some sort of ace pilot maverick though, much like my glee at how high I can ratchet a landing fee invoice, it has a certain perversion of logic to it. I recall days in the US where I landed at more than three different new airports in a single day. For that matter, I landed at four in one day in France on the escape from Germany in 2016, and at three each day for two days in a row while crossing from the Pyrenees to the Portuguese Coast in 2018.

I did recently experience the dreaded nightmare that caused this inertia. One of the things I am afraid of is either landing at a field and realizing that I broke some rule, or down to reserve and finding some reason why I cannot get fuel. There is another reality that prevents trying in the first place: PPRs. The first PPR I ever obtained required filling out a form on the web and waiting for email permission to land. Fortunately, it came within the hour, before the intended maintenance flight later that day. Somehow, I thought they all were like this, and I thought to myself: “How on earth am I ever going to go anywhere if I must get permission the day before, or if I don’t know if and when they will reply?” In my insistence to conquer this problem in the last two months, I forced myself to deal with it and found that each airport is different. Most are a quick phone call where they jot down the tail number and are rather flexible, which resulted in getting comfortable.

Not so fast! The day in question was after a long period of bad weather, in advance of a raging windstorm due the next day. There was going to be some “south Föhn,” which is problematic where I wanted to go. I wasn’t sure how much of this Föhn was going to blow, though the intended airport of Bad Ragaz is known as the worst in Switzerland for when south Föhn is blowing. Sure enough, it was a bit frisky that morning, so I devised an alternate. That resulted in a bunch of phone tag the morning of the flight to arrange a PPR. As I thought about it, every flying club aircraft in Switzerland was in the air at that moment. A perfect summerlike day in Spring, with impeccable visibility, no wind, and good glider lift? The PPR guy would obviously be out fueling and running around managing a litany of airplanes (that got their PPR the day before). I eventually chose candidate number three, for which the same thing happened, so I found number four, that had a phone recording PPR and the AIP said avgas was available for visitors on weekends. Just in time, airport number three called back, and I visited there some hours later.

While I can be descriptive as to the logistical vagaries belying my disproportionate excitement over landing at three other airports, it really is a reminder that something is wrong with this picture that I am excited with only three in a month. Since there is nothing one can do about the airport network, I am going to have to ratchet up the determination to untangle the situation and, at times, get the motivation up to snuff to keep at it.

The third reaction this month to my flying that I found interesting relates to two separate flights: one to above the summit of Mont Blanc (summit: 15,771’ flight: 16,200’) and a second flying in and out of the upper glacial valleys of the major glacier basins in and around the Aletschgletscher. Both of those were incredibly calming and pleasant, “how flying is supposed to be.” I recently had a way to drive this point home when chatting with the airport attendant at Reichenbach. I mentioned how “flying in this very south Föhn wind at the summits does not bother me. It is the airports, ATC, traffic, and turbulence down low that is a problem.” It’s funny how having to explain it to someone else coalesces the whole thing.

Much like how normal pilots find dread from the landing fee invoice while regularly flying outside of the wilderness conveniently and safely enjoying airspace and airport services, they tend to find flying over glaciers and wind shorn summits to be mildly disconcerting. I suppose it took reviewing what I find exciting and noteworthy to take stock of the whole thing. Despite my oft stated rationale behind it, I am not an Indiana Jones pilot for landing at three new airports in a month.

One of the rare opportunities to run errands using the Cub and have it be worth the time.

Thunderbolt Display successfully delivered to the Apple repair shop. Now don’t lose an engine climbing out from Lausanne. So far, Lausanne Airport is the closest to general aviation procedurally to the USA, as it is uncontrolled and public (no PPR).

Vierwaldstättersee, the site of getting beaten by south Föhn winds in February. I flew down the lake and into the valley this time.

Tight quarters however not an issue when the wind is out of the north.

Fuel. The only thing that gives away that its not in Wyoming is the ‘propeller whacking a head’ warning sign in German. Triengen.

Why Bad Ragaz was out of the picture. A breeze over Eiger and Mönch, which was translating into south Föhn in places.

And now the relaxing stuff. Mont Blanc (15,771′) from below.

From 16,200′ with Aosta Valley in the background.

Finsteraarhorn (14,022′) from the south. 

Finsteraarhorn from the north.

 

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.

Behind the scenes

Like any other industry, aviation has a lot of stuff that happens “behind the scenes” that the average Joe isn’t aware of.

In fact, often people within that industry may not be aware of some of it either. After all, how often do you go to a restaurant and think about all the stuff that goes on in the kitchen before you get your food? Someone has to know how much of what to order, and someone has to determine how much of each food to make ahead of time based on demand and popularity.

The airlines work the same way. As you read this, the calendar will be indicating summer. And not just any summer, either, but the first summer after the strangest summer any of us can remember, along with a weird winter that didn’t seem to want to end. Many airlines already have a small team of people working on next winter’s operations. Deicing fluid needs to be ordered well in advance, with supplies adjusted based on expected fleet plans at each airport/hub, training manuals for all affected work groups need to be updated and harmonized, and equipment needs to be maintained, replaced, and repaired. Just getting the manuals updated is time consuming, because at some airports the work is contracted out to a company that handles multiple airlines, so everything has to be written as simply as possible.

Deicing equipment only gets used a few times a year, so functionality checks start early in order to find issues that result from leaving stuff sitting around for months on end. The folks who train the trainers also need to be brought up to speed early so that the training pipeline gets started, staffing can be adjusted, and schedules accommodated.

Another big behind-the-scenes area is the long-term scheduling of flights. Every airline calls it something different, but it’s basically the same: where will we be going, and with which airplanes, in 12 to 24 months. The three big seasonal peaks are Thanksgiving, which is easy (in the relative scheme) to plan on; spring break; and summer vacation, specifically the month of July.

My airline is constantly putting out communications about the next one or two summers, because those busy months drive the training schedule for pilots, and to a lesser degree, flight attendants. Big events factor in as well. For instance, last year, the Olympics were supposed to be a major focus point. COVID changed that, and this year the Games may be held with no crowds. Next year, the World Cup is on the docket, but it’s too soon to say how COVID may or may not affect that event, and that doesn’t take into account which teams may or may not qualify.

Maintenance is another never-ending cycle of planning and contingencies. Airplanes are subjected to some form of light maintenance every day or so, but they also need to be scheduled for “heavy” inspections based on the manufacturer recommendations. These checks pull the airplanes out of service for a few months at a time, and they are scheduled a year or more in advance. A majority of these events take place outside the United States, especially for wide-bodies. That is yet another variable that needs to be accounted for.

There are also unexpected events, like the grounding of the 737 MAX, which was down for two years, got released to fly, and then was partially grounded again. Airlines can accommodate some of these curveballs, but too often the only resort is to cancel flights and issue refunds.

Just like a restaurant that has to plan for a big social event, the airlines have to constantly tweak their plans, and often there are a lot of partners involved and a lot of unexpected ripples that have to be dealt with in the process. It’s part of what makes aviation such a dynamic, exciting industry: There is never a dull or a still moment. But there is always something that needs to be done.—Chip Wright

Sports charters

As we move into spring and summer, the airlines are heading into some of the busiest charter work that they do: basketball tournaments and Major League Baseball. Charters are not the money-makers that they used to be, but they still turn a guaranteed profit for the airlines, and they are an important part of the business model.

College basketball can be among the most challenging, because it is so unpredictable. Nobody knows when a team is going to be eliminated or move on to the next round, so the schedule has to take that into account. Usually, when traveling by charter, the schedule is built to take in the best possible option, which is that the team in question will make the next round. If they lose, then they usually have to sit around for a day or two or three in order to return home on schedule.

If the team is lucky, the contract with the airline can include the flexibility to leave early if they lose, but this is entirely dependent on the airline and its ability to have a crew and an airplane in position, to say nothing of the catering that must be done according to the terms of the contract. Catering and food are a big part of these arrangements, so don’t underestimate their importance.

Baseball is much easier to predict, because the schedule is laid out in advance. That said, baseball charters can be demanding, difficult work because of the hours. Most charters (of any sport) include three total flights at a minimum: one to get the airplane into position, one to actually fly the team, and one to get the airplane back into the regular schedule. The fee charged covers all three, plus whatever crew-related expenses there will be. Most baseball (and football) teams negotiate with a single carrier, and they often use different-sized airplanes based on the trip, with long flights usually requiring a bigger airplane.

For the crew, the job begins with getting the airplane into position, usually by flying it empty to the pick-up point. This is the easy part, and also the most important. It’s also where the problems usually start, because if a game goes late—or really late—it messes up the schedule.

Let’s say a baseball game goes 12 or 13 innings—not common, but not unheard of. That can easily add an hour or more to the schedule. The standard post-game order of events doesn’t change: showers, press obligations, packing, et cetera. The team loads up on buses and heads to the airport. The airplane can be loaded fairly quickly, but being late is being late.

Since most games are played at night, the flight is usually a red-eye of sorts, so the big battle is fighting fatigue. But the job isn’t done. Dropping the team off is usually even quicker than loading them up. However, because charters usually start and stop at FBOs or company hangers, that means the airplane may have to be cleaned or fueled before it can go to the gate. Or, worse, it may have to be flown empty to another city to work a flight. As a pilot who has done these three-flights-in-a-night adventures, I’m here to tell you that the last ones aren’t a lot of fun.

More than once, I finished a basketball charter pulling into the gate as the crew working the first flight of the day was showing up. It was a mad dash to get the airplane ready to go as we slogged off to a hotel or grabbed a seat in the cabin to go home, another baseball team or university (hopefully) grateful to us for a job well done.—Chip Wright

Anticipating Break-up of Alaska’s Rivers: Pilot Observations Needed

As the long, cold and dark part of the year departs, break-up of Alaska’s rivers is getting underway.  The National Weather Service expects this that year, it could trend toward more of a mechanical event, with ice jams and flooding being more likely in some parts of the state.  NWS Hydrologist Crane Johnson presented the Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center’s outlook at a webinar hosted by the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy (ACCAP).  Pilots are encouraged to consider participating in the River Watch Program this year,  sharing photos and/or pilot reports of ice conditions as we fly along the rivers between mid-April and perhaps into early June, to help monitor this situation.

Forecast for 2021
Factors that influence the nature of river break-up include thickness and areal extent of ice that formed over the winter, the quantity of the snowpack, and spring weather.   Crane was joined by ACCAP Climatologist Rick Thoman, who summarized the temperature and precipitation over the past winter and then looked ahead at the forecasts for the weeks ahead.  Based on this data, we should expect more of a mechanical break-up with the ice jams and associated flooding this year, as opposed to a gentle thermal break-up where ice largely melts in place and does not provide much resistance to the increased river flow associated with melting snows.  For more details on the processes in play, and the specifics of what areas are most at risk, I encourage you to watch the recording of the webinar, presented on April 13.

 

Breakups can vary in intensity depending on winter conditions, and how fast warming conditions develop in the spring. Based on existing conditions and forecasts, this season is expected to have more mechanical characteristics.

 Areas at Risk
Looking across the state, some regions are more at risk than others.  While ice thickness and snow cover are known to some extent, the remaining wild card is the temperature in the weeks ahead.  Based on forecast data to date, the break-up outlook map depicts an above average potential for flooding across the interior along the Yukon, Tanana and Kuskokwim drainages, as well as in the Copper River drainage and in the southeast panhandle.

The Spring Flood potential will be updated periodically. The current version will be found at: https://www.weather.gov/aprfc/floodpotential.

Historical Distribution of Ice Jams
While attention is often focused on the larger rivers, Crane also presented a map of the historic distribution of ice jams across the state.  It shows that they have occurred in more locations than just the major rivers.  Given this widespread distribution of possible locations for ice jams, observations from pilots can be particularly helpful to the River Forecast Center in monitoring break-up.

Ice jams can occur on a wide variety of rivers across the state. Consider flying segments of the smaller rivers to look for ice jams and related flooding.

What can Pilots Do?
If you are willing to devote some flight time to help the National Weather Service monitor break up this Spring, consider participating in the River Watch Program.  Initially designed to use Pilot Reports as the primary mechanism for reporting ice or flooding conditions, it now more commonly uses pictures taken with a smart phone (preferably with GPS turned on) of river conditions.  Email them to the River Forecast Office after getting back on the ground.

Information about the program, what to look for, and how to communicate results, is available on the River Watch page.  As the season progresses, NWS will update their breakup status map and indicate areas they are specifically interested in learning about–so check back periodically for updates.  Please keep in mind that not all communities are open to outside visitors; so, check the state’s Safe Travel site for local restrictions, before you plan your flights.

River Watch image on the Yukon River using the Theodolite App to capture location direction and altitude.

River Watch is a way for general aviation to contribute to the public good, while clearing out the cobwebs if you didn’t fly much over the winter.  Check out the details on the River Watch website and consider this a good reason to get airborne.  And while you are capturing river details with a smart phone, take time to file a Pilot Report or two with Flight Service when you are in locations that don’t have reported weather. Your PIREPs are appreciated!

Extracting Visibility Information from Weather Cameras

Deriving visibility information from weather cameras has been in the works for several years—and you may be in a position to help determine if it is ready for prime time.  The Visibility Estimation through Image Analytics (VEIA) Program looks at FAA weather camera images and derives an estimate of the visibility using an automated comparison to clear day images.  The FAA will be evaluating this product starting in April 2021.  They are looking for Alaskan pilots willing to help with the analysis by looking at the camera-derived visibility, examining observations and completing a questionnaire.  If successful, this program could significantly expand the number of locations across the state where visibility information is provided to the aviation community.

Background
The FAA Weather Camera Program is very popular–used by pilots, FAA Flight Service Station staff, National Weather Service forecasters, and just about anyone else interested in current weather conditions and trends.  The capability was first operationally demonstrated by a University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student’s PhD thesis project, by installing camera stations at Anaktuvuk Pass, Kaltag, and Ruby.  The demonstration was supposed to run from April through October of 1999.  Subsequently the FAA took over those three camera sites and, through several twists and turns, ramped up to the statewide operational network found in Alaska today.  There are currently over 230 camera locations, typically comprising three or four cameras per site.  The system also hosts camera data from the extensive Canadian network of stations and has integrated 13 Colorado weather cameras into the FAA Weather Camera Program through a partnership with the Colorado Division of Aeronautics.  Building on the success of the program in Alaska, the FAA is also installing 23 cameras along popular flight routes in Hawaii to enhance aviation safety and pilot decision-making.

With images updated every ten minutes and distributed through the program website, pilots may look at locations along routes they intend to fly to see if conditions are suitable for VFR operations, using this supplementary source of data.  By viewing images over the previous few hours, one can also look at recent trends in weather conditions.  Even more information is available in locations where camera sites are collocated with AWOS or ASOS stations, as this data is displayed along with the camera views. This gives the user the benefit of both visual images as well as current conditions in a textual (METAR) format as sources of information to consider in making flight planning assessments.  An example of this type of display is seen in the accompanying illustration from Ketchikan International Airport (PAKT).  But there are far fewer AWOS and ASOS stations in Alaska than weather cameras — so can we derive more quantitative weather information from the camera data itself?

FAA Weather Camera Display and current METAR. The display of weather camera observations at Ketchikan, where cameras looking in four directions show conditions and may be compared against an annotated clear day image.

Extracting Visibility from WeatherCams
A variety of techniques have been explored to derive visibility estimates from weather camera observations, including image processing and crowdsourcing techniques.  For several years FAA-funded research has been underway at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory to use image processing techniques to derive visibility from weather camera data.  Images from approximately 10 days of observations are used to develop a “best” clear day composite image. New images from the cameras are then compared with the composite image. An edge detection algorithm, using a ratio technique, is used to estimate visibility in statute miles.  The results are presented via website along with the trend showing potential changes over a maximum of six hours.  An example of the output from VEIA is shown with the weather camera views in the illustration from the Seward Airport (PAWD).  This technique only works during the day when there is adequate illumination to create suitable images, so no information is derived by VEIA during hours of darkness.

FAA Weather Camera Display and Camera Derived Visibility Estimates. This display includes weather camera observations at Seward, where cameras also look in four directions to show condition, and may be compared against an annotated clear day image. The visibility estimates are presented to the user to show the most current estimate of visibility and the visibility trends at a given location.

How can you help?
This spring, the FAA’s Aviation Weather Demonstration and Evaluation Services team will be evaluating the VEIA product.  The team is looking for a cross-section of individual end-users to actively examine and evaluate the experimental data.

The evaluation will be conducted between April and June 2021.  Participants will be provided individual accounts to access products and provided with training materials to understand the VEIA capabilities and functionality.  All participants are asked to use the VEIA system and participate in two virtual meetings to provide feedback to the evaluation team.  At the end of the assessment, each participant is expected to complete a final questionnaire.  Please consider participating in this cutting-edge research to expand weather reporting capabilities at weather camera sites and develop additional sources of weather information for pilots, dispatchers, meteorologists, and Flight Service Specialists in Alaska.  If you fit into one of the following categories and would like to participate, use the registration links below to sign up:

VEIA Registration links:

Pilot:  https://forms.gle/cZLychGHER9fgeuk9

Dispatcher:  https://forms.gle/x5UMCYBtUXxNhdJT7

Meteorologist:  https://forms.gle/VFewc2bnucnxoEfCA

FAA Flight Services:  https://forms.gle/7MQWDHdfbZkHuxmcA

If you have questions or need more information, please contact Jill Miller at [email protected] or call 609-412-9080 (east coast time zone).

If you are already a user of the FAA Weather Camera System, please consider devoting a few hours of your time to evaluate this new product, which has the potential to significantly expand the network of locations reporting visibility in Alaska.  If this technique proves to be successful, it will be a significant advancement for the network of reporting points in Alaska and a momentous innovation in extracting supplementary information from weather cameras.

 

[This article was originally published in the April-June 2021 issue of the Alaska Airmen’s Association newsletter,  The Transponder.]

Sterile cockpit

A headline of late was of a pilot in the San Jose, California, area going on a rant that was broadcast on the radio. This is not the first time this has happened, and it probably won’t be the last. The usual culprit is a stuck mic switch.

The FAA has announced an investigation into the incident, and it’s safe to say that if the guilty individual is found, there will be some kind of disciplinary action and/or a fine.

Aside from sounding unprofessional, the transmission apparently took place below 10,000 feet, when an airline crew is supposed to be honoring sterile cockpit procedures. The FAA says pilots are supposed to limit conversation only to flight-related discussion below 10,000 feet. Considering that a number of accidents have been attributed to violation of sterile cockpit—to say nothing of other incidents—the FAA is going to wield its power.

Most modern transport-category radios have an auto-shutoff feature that will shut down transmissions after a certain amount of time. This incident is the reason why—not so much because of what was said, but because a stuck mic can create a safety issue if other pilots or controllers can’t transmit and receive over the stuck mic.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of this, because the other pilot will be in the crosshairs as well for what appears to be a lack of effort to bring the conversation back to the appropriate topics.

It would be naïve to say that sterile cockpit violations don’t happen every day. They do, but that doesn’t excuse it. We all need to be aware of where we are and what we are saying, and anytime we are using a radio panel, we need to make sure that what is meant to stay in the cockpit actually does. It’s easy to miss it when your mic continues to stay hot, but a subtle indicator is the change in your own voice in your ear when you’re using the radio versus the intercom. But that’s the problem: It’s a subtle change, and all too easy to miss. Some radios also have a transmission symbol or indicator, such as a “T” or a “TX” that appears on the screen. Some … but not all.

This incident needs to be a reminder of the need to honor the sterile cockpit. It’s easy to get complacent, but it certainly isn’t impossible to comply. In fact, some pilots I’ve flown with have personally requested that anything below 18,000 feet be considered sterile, the rationale being that even the teens can have a lot of traffic and opportunities for missed radio calls. While that isn’t a necessary step, it’s not an unreasonable one either.

In general aviation, the rules are much more relaxed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come up with your own conditions that might be “sterile.” It could be an altitude or within so many miles of an airport, or some other definition that you feel will reduce the risk of an ATC mistake or error. Whatever you decided to use, just remember that whatever you say may not only be recorded, but broadcast live on the internet, and the FAA may want to discuss it.—Chip Wright

An Irrational Fear of Airports

The issue with airports in Europe has been a cumulative problem since my arrival. While I had an initial burst of enthusiasm (delusion) in Germany, the situation calcified in Spain with a near phobia of airport chaos, such that I didn’t land outside of my base airport for over six months. Eventually, I snapped out of it and settled into a middle ground.

As previously described, the problem resurfaced in Switzerland. Ironically in this case, my first forays here were met with a similar enthusiasm, where I landed at a few technically challenging locales. I was so starstruck with the Alps that I was willing to dive in and figure things out as I went. That lasted for a while, until a combination of COVID and calcification of the mind caused the problem to come back.

Sure, a slow plane with one tank coupled with legitimate extra steps for airport visits in Europe does contribute to the problem. The other is a sort of mindset that creeps in imperceptibly, where it becomes simply easier not to. While there are plenty of places to visit in a reasonably short range, over and over a line of reasoning developed: why go to these places, put up with complicated and unique procedures, and pay a bunch of fees, when I don’t really need the fuel where they are located, and I can fly in the Alps instead? Who would have thought that stunning beauty would be an excuse for lazy closemindedness?

Like Spain, where it was the month of March where a complex web of seasonality and biology likely interacted to cause an exit from “airport hibernation,” it was this month of March where I equally and suddenly snapped out it. Sure, I had visited Wangen-Lachen (LSPV) near Zürich in February (terrifying myself with south Föhn winds), though that really in my mind was an errant dose of exuberance that changed little. I had terrain I badly wanted to see and forced myself to test out the place as a fuel stop.

A funny lineage led to this new reality. I had been invited to join the Fluggruppe Saanenland, a small club of pilots in the local area. After sending in a membership form, I received audited financials, bylaws of the Swiss verein, and a small invoice; the Swiss are, if anything, orderly. After receiving a few newsletters in German, I eventually received a few small magazines from the Aero Club Berner Oberland, which is apparently the regional parent club for the small group that I had joined. Many months after that, I started getting “Flying Revue,” a magazine in German from Aero Club Schweiz, the national aero club, which is apparently higher on the totem pole than the regional club. When the second magazine arrived, I thought to myself “this is not going to be free.” Sure enough, an invoice in German came two weeks later, for which I could not tell if it was an actual bill, or one of those membership solicitations where the invoice is included for “ease of joining.” It dutifully listed my involvement in Fluggruppe Saanenland and Aero Club Berner Oberland, with specific nominal surcharges associated with each. Given the reasonable amount and my disinterest navigating the situation in German, I paid it. That resulted in the next magazine, where there was an article about “Flugparcours 2021.”

Apparently, at the centenary of Swiss aviation in 2010, there was a similar Flugparcours, where pilots would fly to ten airports in Switzerland in honor of the anniversary. It was repeated every two years since. While I am not sure if said Flugparcours is the exact same ten airports or if they vary, there is a form with all the airports, a place to enter details, receive a signoff that a visit was completed, and a deadline to get it done by October 2021. Apparently, if I do complete it successfully, I send the form in and I get added to a list.

For some reason, that did it. I decided to get off my rear and start visiting some other places, for the simple reality that landing at other airports can actually be something other than mind-bendingly complicated. Besides, if there is a national scheme to encourage landings at these places, surely they will not snarl at the idea of visitors?

I knocked two of them off: La Côte (LSGP) and Neuchâtel (LSGN). Ironically, Langen-Wanchen is on the list, so three are done. I also decided to start work on my instrument rating, so I flew to Yverdon-les-Bains (LSGY) to meet with an instructor, although it was not on the Flugparcours list. It is ironic that visiting other airports is a reminder that landing at the same base airport over and over (and nowhere else) is NOT good for making smooth landings….

While meeting with the instructor, I began snarling about PPRs (Prior Permission Required), and he had an excellent explanation, which was accented by having spent many years in the USA, so he is familiar with my American-centric perspective. Basically, all of the PPR airports are private. While they look and act like public airports (maintenance facilities, fuel, flight schools, paved runways, etc.), they are under tremendous regulatory pressure if they were to operate officially as a “public” airport, which comes with insurance, noise, and other complications. It is a form of ducking under onerous rules to operate privately. For some reason, I had deduced that the PPR requirement had something to do with FOCA statistics, and it does not. Most airports I have talked to just want a quick phone call, tail number, and aircraft type (to verify the visit is not ill advised) and that’s the end of the PPR issue.

At any rate, I have set my mind to visit the rest of the list. And, while I am at it, why not visit the ones that aren’t on the list? We’ll see.

I mistakenly pressed the wrong button and got a 10x time lapse video from my Go Pro. Below is a 4 minute rendition of the flight from Gstaad Airport (LSGK) to La Côte (LSGP).

Climbout from La Côte. Unsurprisingly, that means “the coast.”

Right hand downwind for Neuchâtel. The body of water is Lake Neuchâtel.


Climbout from Neuchâtel, with the city of Neuchâtel along the lake. In the event of engine failure, one’s options consisted of impacting a hard object or getting wet.


Climbout Yverdon-les-Bains.


Some exploits in the past month that didn’t necessarily involve other airports….

Jura Mountains from France. Geneva airport is in the center, along with the Large Hadron Collider lurking amongst all this farmland.

Bütlasse. It has been a bit cold this March in the cockpit…

Sunset on the Spitzhorn, with a 35 knot breeze.

Mt. Blanc, France (15,771′) from above Chamonix. Visiting another airport is not necessary to see this. 

Grosses Engelhorn. No airport stop necessary…

Summit of the Matterhorn (14,692′) with Dufourspitze (15,203′) in the background. This does not bother me as much as airport gymnastics.

Doldenhorn with a bit of a breeze from roughly, 12,400 feet. It is almost comical that flying in such a circumstance is rather relaxing whereas I have to reach deep down to find the motivation to overcome my reticence to land elsewhere….

Book #30 is done: Pobles de la Cerdanya. It is a photo journey of unique villages in Spanish and French Cerdanya, viewed over multiple years from the Cub.

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.

Some bright spots

As the pandemic appears to be winding down, travel is showing some signs of recovery. Flights for spring break saw some of the highest load factors seen since early 2020, and Americans are itching to avoid another summer of being stuck at home.

Several airlines, including a couple of majors, are showing signs of growth and pilot hiring. United recently announced point-to-point service for several Midwestern cities that are not typically a part of its core hub-and-spoke system. This is a significant departure (pun very much intended) for a company that is so focused on maximizing the hub part of the hub-and-spoke.

Other carriers have also been quietly making adjustments to their schedules as well, and a cursory examination of the announcements shows what was long predicted: Leisure travel is expected to rebound first.

Here’s the best part of the good news, though: Much of this added flying is being done on regional aircraft. That makes sense, because a smaller airplane allows an airline to “right-size” the airframe for the market, which in this case, is relying on zero connecting passengers. If the smaller airplanes fill up, the option always exists to bring in something bigger later or on a seasonal basis. From a pilot perspective, it means more block hours of flying, which means more jobs. Endeavor, a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta, has begun training new-hire pilots, and is expecting to hire as many as 400 before the end of the year. Spirit and United are also expected to see a net growth in pilot jobs.

This is a stark turnaround from where we were a year ago, when pilots at the majors were sweating out the possibility of a furlough. Fortunately, three significant government bail-out bills have kept the airlines afloat and allowed for some creative solutions to be crafted to minimize any lost jobs. It appears to have worked as advertised. Early separation packages got some senior folks to retire, some retraining costs were saved or totally avoided, and the ability to rebound was kept in place. On my last couple of trips, the airways and radio frequencies were jammed, and it was a great sense of normalcy in a year that has had anything but.

Pilots who are interested in stepping up to the regionals or higher need to be updating applications regularly and touching base with contacts at various carriers. Job fairs are likely to be virtual, if they occur at all. But if they do, that face time with a recruiter will be more important than ever before.

Because it stands to reason that many countries will require a vaccine to enter, getting vaccinated should be a priority for anyone looking to get into the travel industry, and pilots will be at the top of that list. The Biden administration is pushing to broaden the ability for everyone to get a shot by May 1, so if you can get one, don’t wait. The airlines have not specifically come out and said that they will require a vaccine, but at least one as hinted that it may, and they may all require future job applicants to have one. There is no point in delaying what feels like the inevitable, especially if it has the double bonus of both protecting you and gaining a leg up on future employment.

What was threatening to be a long period of recessionary activity is now showing signs of hope and recovery. While nothing is ever guaranteed, the signs are positive, and that’s far more than we could have dared hoped for a year ago.—Chip Wright

Facing your critical breaking point

Photo credit – Explorers, Jeremy Là Zelle and Kristin Gates

You have completed your expedition, pushed yourself, your team and your equipment to their absolute and total limits, risked your life, satisfied your sponsors, supporters and followers, completed your scientific experiments, written the book and simulations, filmed the docuseries (so generations can experience the sheer terror and thrill of it all without the year of counseling), declared victory, and now you are trying to figure out, “What did I learn? What the hell does it all mean?”

The answers to these questions, of course, will take time and will fall into place like the pieces of a puzzle over the years that follow. These answers will be the most valuable things you take away from your expedition.

Here are a few pieces of the puzzle I have placed and can now share with you…

The pay dirt

Let me start by saying the personal expeditions we embark on while they are rich in science and adventure are even richer in the knowledge, wisdom, and insight that we acquire along the way. The true expedition is the one that goes on inside of us, not around us. The pay dirt comes from examining the inner depths of who we are as human beings. Our inner journey forces us to examine our beliefs and redefine who we are in the world and that brings us to our breaking point, and for some, multiple breaking points. These key moments break us open on multiple levels and change the way we see ourselves and the world around us.

Your new reality

At this critical breaking point, which is both physical and mental, there is a new reality that we don’t often have access to. It’s a time when the normal day-to-day rules we live our lives by don’t exist. Our senses are heightened, time slows, our focus is laser sharp, our adrenaline is at 100% and our existence is in jeopardy. At these valuable moments in time the doors open to a new reality and we experience something truly unique. This is often when our mission becomes bigger than us. We put our lives on the line to bring about the change we want to see in the world. We become living examples for the planet. We redefine our personal limits and how we see ourselves. We are in a way being prepared for more.

These extreme moments on my Pole-to-Pole expedition to 22 countries and 6 continents occurred:

  • During test flights when critical equipment failed at 34,500 feet while flying at 300 mph
  • Over the South Pole when the air temp dropped to -60c, which was below the freezing point of my aircraft’s jet fuel and the operating temperature of its Predator B drone engines
  • Over the deadly Drake Passage when I was critically low on fuel
  • In Dakar, Senegal when my #1 ferry tank burst inside the plane and sent Jet A1 fuel into my eyes, onto my arms, legs, chest and groin, severely burning me
  • Over the North Pole when I lostall communication, the attitude heading and reference system, the autopilot, GPS units for 5 hours

During these challenging moments the tendency is to lean back on your heels and retreat to safety but it is actually the time that you must lean into your fear and discomfort—to “be with” rather than turn away. You are approaching your moment of learning. I couldn’t help but wonder during these times, often with tears running down my face, “How hard are you going to make this? What are you preparing me for?”

Breaking you open

Expedition leaders are strong and think they can do it all. They keep loading up on responsibility and tasks (PR, social media, trip preps, team building, sponsorship, permits, etc.) until not even the strongest person could possibly carry even another ounce on their shoulders.  Everyone has a breaking point.

The answer I came to realize was that the Universe was breaking me open. Breaking down my defenses. Exposing that raw side of me that was not accessible when I had my armor on. In a spiritual sense, we are broken open to heal and deeply grow ourselves. This lets the light shine in on the parts that need it.

Why did the Universe keep doing this?

Because I had more to learn…my learning was far from complete and needed to be tested. I mistakenly stated after the longest and most difficult leg of the trip over the South Pole that the rest of the trip would be the “Global Victory Lap” for me and the team. The Universe obviously had other plans in store for us. The Sufi philosopher and poet Rumi had the right idea when he wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Redefining ourselves

During this equally confusing, frightening, and magical time of transformation, we are redefining how we see ourselves in the world.  We are watching ourselves do these things from outside of ourselves, from a new vantage point. We are learning what we are capable of, how strong we are mentally and physically, and the magnitude of what we are capable.

When I reflect back on the moments I described above, the person involved in all that risk and transformation seems foreign to me. I ask myself where did that superhuman drive come from? Who was that person? Why would he or she take on those incredible risks?  I honestly feel like that must be a different person or that I could never have done that. But that person is me and I did do it, and you can too, when you align your impossibly big dreams with the courageous person that lives within you waiting for you to say “Yes.” That person, in reality, is our new self with greater strength and wider boundaries. It is the new best expanded version of us that sees the world from a different perspective—the view from 35,000 feet.

Where the drive comes fFrom

For me, this drive comes from a source that is free to dream and think impossibly big. It resides somewhere deep inside all of us. Maybe from our restless soul that can’t settle for a “normal” existence? I like to believe we come into the world with a contract to fulfill. A contract that defines our life mission that is often noble, deeply personal.

Those who doubt would say it’s our ego wanting to be seen. I know there are easier and safer ways to get ego recognition. For me, it comes from wanting more for the world and being frustrated by those that don’t deliver on their promises for a better brighter world.

Busting a move

At some point we gather up our resources, supporters, sponsors and bust our very best move out into the world. In my first book, Flying Thru Life, I wrote about when our passion and purpose come into alignment, we “accelerate” our awareness and growth. I have felt this many times. It’s powerful, it’s clear and it feels right as we connect in oneness or as we said on my Polar Expedition, “One Planet. One People. One Plane.  Oneness for Humanity.”

For those of you who are reading this and thinking, “This guy is crazy, and all of this sounds like something I would never do,” let me ask you this: if your dream doesn’t scare you, even a little, is it big enough?

The answers you seek are somewhere beyond your level of comfort and the only way to find those answers is to step outside of your comfort zone. Choose to get curious about what your critical breaking points are trying to tell you and where they’re trying to take you. Ask the tough questions and be willing to fly with the discomfort of not knowing. When your answers arrive, you may be surprised to find an inner expedition that leads you to a new reality where the best version of you resides. Who wouldn’t want to land there? It’s the “Land of I Can,” as my mentor, friend, and pilot Susan Gilbert writes. Where courageous action and impossibly big dreams meet is the ever-evolving best version of you.

Robert DeLaurentis is a successful real estate entrepreneur and investor, pilot, speaker, philanthropist, and author of the books Flying Thru Life, Zen Pilot, the children’s book The Little Plane That Could, and the upcoming book Peace Pilot: To the Ends of the Earth and Beyond. A complementary 12-part worldwide docuseries, “Peace Pilot to the Ends of the Earth,” will be simultaneously released. A Gulf War veteran, Robert received his pilot’s license in 2009, completed his first circumnavigation in 2015, and recently completed his second record-breaking circumnavigation from Pole to Pole in his aircraft “Citizen of the World,” on a global peace mission, “Oneness for Humanity: One Planet, One People, One Plane.” For more information, visit PoletoPoleFlight.com.
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