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Navigating the COVID-19 airline world

I’ve been tooting the horn on progress in the airline industry for several years now, so you can imagine my shock and dismay at the developments in the economy since mid-March.

The C-19 pandemic has obliterated the prospects of a thriving industry that just a few months ago didn’t have enough pilots, airplanes, runways, or cheap fuel. Now, billions of dollars are being lost as the airlines are forced to park hundreds of airplanes, while the ones they are flying are largely empty.

I was asked recently what a day at work looks like now, and in a word, it’s surreal. I haven’t flown in three weeks because my trips have either been cancelled, or I can’t get to work because there are no flights.

When I was last there, the airports were empty. I’ve seen terminals that had more people in them at 3 a.m. than I’m seeing at 3 p.m. There are more employees than passengers. Restaurants are closed or have a limited menu. The retail shops are completely locked up.

You don’t realize how big even the smallest terminals are until you see them completely empty. Miles of security line barriers look silly and out of place now. The TSA personnel are bored to tears. Some flights are so empty that the gate agents don’t even use the PA system to announce boarding. I’ve had as few as 10 people on one of my own flights, and I’ve ridden on flights of multiple carriers that only have one paying passenger on board.

For years, I’ve had to endure periodic memos and initiatives on saving fuel and being on time to minimize clogging up either airspace or taxiways. Saving fuel now consists of carrying an extra 30,000 pounds—up to five hours’ worth—because the fuel farm at the hub has too much fuel and can’t store any more. Never in my career did I see that coming.

When the flights are only carrying a few people, it’s natural to want to push back 20 to 30 minutes early, but we’re being asked not to because of busy gate space. That sounds laughable, but the issue is real. So many airplanes have been grounded that some airports are out of room to store them. Many are stored at the gates, and airlines are minimizing the number of gates they are using. So, being early is still a problem.

Some large hubs are using runways to store airplanes. Right now this isn’t a problem, but it could be. Not only might the runways be needed, but airplanes are so big that if you need to move the one in the middle of a row of twenty, it could literally take all day to rejuggle everything.

As I sit here, the outlook on bookings isn’t good. The airlines that took CARES Act funding have to maintain staffing through the end of September, but based on what we see now, there is likely to be a bloodbath of furloughs come October. It will take some time to work through all of the pilots, since there will be so much training involved.

The feeling is that the flying public needs to regain confidence in travel, and they are looking for one of four things to happen: a treatment, a cure, a vaccine, or herd immunity. None of those are looking great right now, though a vaccine may be closer than we had hoped.

The other piece of this pie is that people need to have something to fly to. The Florida amusement parks are talking about staying closed until 2021, and restaurants will take a while to return to normal, either in capacity or on the menu. Food shortages are possible as well.

This is going to be a challenging recovery. Two airlines—Trans States and Compass, both under the Trans States Holdings umbrella—have gone out of business, as has Jet Suites. Overseas, South African, and Flybe have shut down. Others are likely to follow, and all of the legacy carriers in the United States have acknowledged that they will be substantially smaller come fall. It’s clear that they are now hoping to save the holiday travel seasons. But with billions in debt, soon to be made worse, it’s possible that there will be some more consolidation.

On the positive side, governments at all levels are doing everything they can to help keep the global economy alive. There is a clear goal of trying to let the economy regain some traction in hopes that it restarts relatively smoothly, if not quickly. Only time will tell if that’s going to work.

So what is a prospective pilot to do? Some things are simple: keep applications up to date, making especially sure they are accurate. Stay in touch with your network. Fly when you can, and at least stay legal. If you can provide any aid to those in need with an airplane, do so. And most important, stay healthy. Odds are the airlines are going to offer early retirement packages to senior pilots, and a number of them will jump on the opportunity. That will move things along, especially since retirements are just now picking up.

There will be some “right-sizing” at the regionals as well, and it will bear watching to see exactly how they retool their operations. But there will be room for opportunities for the RJs as well, since they can go to cities with lower demands and help restore a market for their partners. In other cities, they can hold the fort until the majors can bring in larger equipment.

We’ve all heard that we will recover from this, and we will. But it will take time, patience, and fortitude. But a recovery will happen.—Chip Wright

Weathering the C-19 pandemic, part 2

I’ve been flying during the sudden contraction in air travel caused by COVID-19, and the sudden changes have been jarring, to say the least.

I had to leave home as the bottom was falling out, and that meant being prepared for just about any contingency. First, I packed some extra clothes in case I got stuck somewhere. That’s already happened once, and it may happen again.

Second, I’ve tried to keep up with options for getting home if I get stuck somewhere. There are myriad sources a pilot can use to see what flight options might still be on the table if your own airline cuts service or pulls out of a city temporarily. I use Flight View Free, as well as apps for each airline I might use. There are also a few groups on Facebook that airline employees can use to check loads and options.

Third, a number of people began carrying their own food on trips. I did add a few snacks to my bag, but I opted not to take a lot of extra food. Instead, I’ve been using Uber Eats, which has eliminated a lot of delivery fees in order to encourage folks to support local restaurants. Grocery stores are still open, and they are a great option. I’ve also bought food from airport vendors to take with me.

Fourth, my wife and I have been in constant touch, and in a bind she can drive a day to come get me if I can’t get home. On the few occasions that I’ve been too far away for that, we have been tracking rental car availability and pricing. I’ve also reached out to a pilot or two with their own airplanes who may be able to come get me.

This is an unusual time, to say the least, and when you’re at work, there isn’t much you can do but ride it out. In cities where I know people, I’ve reached out to see if I can stay with them if push comes to shove. I know the company will do whatever it can to get me home, but they are overwhelmed right now, and it may well be faster and easier for me to solve my own problems.

I’d like to say that everything always works like a well-oiled machine in times like this, but we all know that isn’t the case. It wasn’t the case after 9/11, and it isn’t now. But with a little forethought and some ingenuity, you can find a way to work around this. And where determination isn’t enough, patience will have to be.—Chip Wright

An Overdue Rant

The discussion started with my wife’s innocent commentary on France’s coronavirus lockdown requirements. “Can you believe that the French have to carry a piece of paper to leave the house?” Before she could say another word and to the surprise of both of us, I erupted with a diatribe: “Excuse me? So, they need a piece of paper to leave the house? How about the fact that I need to file an avis de vol or PPR prior to every flight in Switzerland, that a flight plan is needed for any border crossing inside of the “border free” European Union, or that I am required to have my Mode S transponder on, broadcasting to the world a precise track of all of my activities? If French health rules are going to be presumed to signify the dawn of authoritarianism, then try being a pilot in the free world.”

Aside from the tantrumesque nature of my fusillade, I have been brewing (ahem, repressing) an argument for a while in my mind that private aviation is treated rather unfairly compared to automobile transport, if one considers the underlying principles behind reasons for regulation of both. What works for cars focuses on safety and respects freedom, yet pilots and aircraft seem willing to put up with an overbearing and disproportionate excess of rules compared to ground transportation. It took the inconvenience of a health crisis to synthesize the argument in my mind.

The most poignant case stems from Switzerland regarding airport hours. For those who read my rantings from Germany years ago, “operating hours” rear their ugly head again, something that thankfully Spain doesn’t seem to care about. I’ll digress a moment to remind everyone that operating hours and information service requirements in Germany stemmed from the Nazi era. At present, uttering the slightest Nazi phrase in Germany can result in job loss and arrest, whereas Germans will admit that the genesis of information service requirements is from the Third Reich, and its completely ok to practice that restrictive Nazi tradition (against pilots) in modern Germany, whereas everything else has been eviscerated from their culture.

Ok, so back to Switzerland. Local communes “come to an agreement” with airports (i.e., tell them) what hours the airport can be open. Most in Switzerland are sunrise to sunset, capped at 8PM in summer. Some go to sunset in summer, others allow only takeoffs until 8PM and landings until sunset. A few allow some basic night VFR on occasion. The rule springs from noise concerns. The commune basically determines when they want to hear airplanes fly. I failed to mention that some airports have restrictions on Sunday, at lunch time, and if a funeral is occurring at a local church.

As with most things in Switzerland, they at least have a traceable origin and make a shred of sense. At the same token, when I compare to automobile traffic, I can’t help but grimace at the disparity. I personally loathe, with a vehement passion, noises from cars and refuse to live anywhere near a road, which is how I solve my personal preference regarding the ever-present miserable hum of car traffic. While I would love if local towns would regulate car noise out of my life, it is a concept that simply never crosses my mind. Yet, when it comes to aviation, occasional air traffic after 8PM is deemed excessive, while cars and trains continue to make a racket in Swiss villages, free to do so whenever they please. To me, it boggles the mind that the differential in treatment is not questioned.

Another matter, that is more prevalent in Europe, arises with regard to insurance. If an aircraft is out of annual or if the pilot has anything but a current license and medical for the flight in question, then there is no coverage, even if those matters had nothing to do with it. I have never toyed with the matter, though I would presume the same condition exists in the USA. Yet, if an automobile is out of inspection, or if maintenance was done not in accord with manufacturer recommendations, would coverage be denied for an automobile accident? Of course not! I am unsure of the situation with an expired license and insurance with a car in the US.

The irony with insurance is that “breaking any regulation” can result in the loss of coverage in Europe. I believe, though do not quote me, that causality with aviation insurance in the US is more of a factor than Europe, and may be US state specific. At any rate, are not most automobile accidents the result of breaking a regulation? Yet, “that is what insurance is for.” In the case of aviation, good faith piloting with an error in complying with a mountain of rules carries incredible weight.

For that matter, I have seared into my mind the deleterious horror of as much as being on the ramp near an airplane without one’s pilot certificate, medical, and state-issued photo identification in my possession. Fines are in the thousands of dollars, in the US, in the event of a ramp check – not if one attempts to enter and fly an aircraft being a non-pilot – but if the person left the documents at home. In a car, the police furnish a limited period to return to the police station with the driver’s license and do not squabble as much about issues as to whether it is in one’s possession.

I could go on and on, though I think the point is made that pilots face far higher requirements on all fronts, and far worse consequences. Some might argue that “aviation is different,” and I would be inclined to agree with regard to commercial and transport operations (more people, more speed, more weight, more fuel, more boom). There are strong requirements, they result in very low accident rates, and those are not in question. Yet, for a small aircraft that weighs less than a car carrying the same amount of people as a sedan, I think the corollaries are more profound than we think.

The issue with aviation is protecting the general public mostly, and passengers second. The same rule applies with cars. In fact, if an airplane crashes, the chance of it hitting a bystander or building on the ground is much less than if a car endures a crash. The amount of pedestrian deaths or, for that matter, deaths of occupants of other vehicles not at fault, is staggering in the United States. Cars routinely travel within 5 to 10 feet of opposing traffic, pedestrians, and sometimes buildings. The condition of automobile maintenance in the US can be staggeringly disregarding of the value of life, yet we culturally think it’s fine to careen down the road in vehicles weighing one to three tons with a fraction of the training, licensure, and maintenance regimentation than a private aircraft. The results speak for themselves: cars kill at an astonishing rate.

One has to ask where the root of the problem lies. Regulation is a product ultimately of democracy, which derives of looking after the interest of the majority. It is rather simple and obvious that more people drive than fly; thus, the incentive is to arrive at an equilibrium that the average citizen agrees with regarding automobiles. When it comes to airplanes, there is little reward for a non-pilot to have any sort of non-airline aviation; thus, fear and disinterest in aviation inconveniences (noise, funding local airstrips, etc.) abounds. AOPA in the US is a fantastic example of banding together as pilots and pushing back against the inevitable monster that would be the general public’s disinterest in aviation, whereas AOPA membership and therefore power in Europe is miniscule comparatively. A smaller percentage of pilots in Europe join their local AOPA, rendering the final lobbying outcome far more anemic. The results are evident with byzantine and nonsensical regulation imposed upon pilots by a web of public ignorance.

It is further interesting to analyze differences with American and European automobile training and licensure. Europe has requirements for extensive schooling, compared to the US where parents teach their [unenviable] driving habits to their children. Automobile inspections, while nothing like an aircraft annual, are far more rigorous, such that the sight of a “rust bucket” on the road is virtually non-existent. The results are clear: road deaths are significantly less in Europe, so much so that I have seen three total accidents in four years of European travels, including on packed roads that are far tighter than anything in America. As one can tell, I support the European approach to driving.

Yet, there is still a paradigm that holds true with roads in Europe, despite significant differences in training and maintenance: rules make sense. Road engineering, speed limits, and other posted signs and restrictions follow the same basic concept that exists in America: people want to get from point A to B as fast as they can without killing themselves or others. This reality is a perfect example of how precise, targeted, and effective increases in regulation can create a required investment of training, maintenance, and operating practice that pays tangible dividends for everyone involved. Many of the aviation regulations in Europe that I rail against produce no tangible dividend, other than a Byzantium of nonsense that needs to be tracked, for a purpose few probably even remember.

I illustrate the prior paragraph to demonstrate that quantity of regulation is not the sole barometer of restrictions to freedom. There is much more to do and keep track of on the roads in Europe, yet the outcome is still relatively equivalent to America, despite higher regulatory burden. Higher European regulations in aviation, on the other hand, just annoy pilots, operators, and maintenance professionals. That further cements my democratic and lobbying argument: the general public, even in Europe, would not tolerate mountains of stupidity in driving regulation, as there would be a groundswell of public rage at the prospect. Since aviation here has small numbers and its political influence is not weighty, non-pilots often devise the rules, with no feedback cycle to their lack of sense. In fact, in a recent article I posited the basis that some European aviation rules have been relaxed, due to the squashing of GA experience. It was my theory that, if rules squeezed off the pipeline of pilots to airline cockpits, then the general public couldn’t go on vacation, which is an example of democracy at work.

This rant could go on ad infinitum. I will mention, on a positive note, rules and coronavirus restrictions notwithstanding, that flying is still a tremendous unbridled joy, even during this crisis, and I treasure whatever I am allowed to do in these crazy times even if, for reasons I do not understand, some coronavirus related restrictions require enhanced fire services, thus reducing airport operating hours….

 

 

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.

Weathering the C-19 pandemic, part 1

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a great reminder of how interconnected the world economies are. For airline employees, this has been like reliving the post-9/11, SARS, and the Great Recession all at once.

In 24 years of airline flying, I have never seen anything remotely like this. On my last couple of trips, I flew so few people that if I consolidated all of the passengers on one trip, I’d be lucky to fill one airplane. I certainly wouldn’t need more than two.

Aviation has always been a topsy-turvy industry—one that, until a few years ago, had lost more money than it had ever made. Profits really only became a sure thing after 2012, as the economy rebounded and airlines began to a la carte the pricing model after realizing that they had been giving away the store for decades. In the last few years, employees were able to reap the benefits of this with record amounts of profit-sharing, and for pilots, record levels of compensation after so many years of subpar pay (especially at the regionals).

What we have seen since the end of February has been a gut punch, to say the least. It should also bring home a point that is easy to forget when times are good: Never, ever live at or beyond your means. No matter what you make, especially as a pilot, you should always live some degree below that, and put the difference into the bank or into a debt reduction plan.

There is no telling yet what this will do to jobs across the industry. The stimulus bill will provide a bit of a bridge to get employees through the summer, but two airlines have already shut down (Trans States and Compass, both owned by the same holding company), and as I write this at least one other (Miami Air) has filed for bankruptcy, with speculation about others doing the same. The majors are doing everything they can to avoid any furloughs, but they are all offering early separation packages, which almost always means that furloughs are imminent.

The advice offered here is true for anyone, but some industries are more vulnerable than others, and airlines are among the worst. It’s often said that when the economy gets a cold, the airlines get the flu. That said, here are some suggestions for those new to the industry to consider moving forward:

Create your own safety net. Save as much cash as you can, and not just for a C-19 event. You may need to take a pay cut to further your career or to move. You may get sick or injured. Money in the bank is the first line of defense against any kind of economic uncertainty.

Avoid the captain house. Buy smaller than you might want when the time comes so that the mortgage is always affordable. Pay it off early. Not only will the lack of a mortgage give you great peace of mind, it will also free up some cash flow that you can save, invest, or put toward other debt. When my previous carrier went out of business, I was nearly sick at the thought of losing my house during the recession, when prices were bottoming out and neighbors were filing for bankruptcy or just walking away. I was able to keep my home, and now it is paid for, and the difference in my mindset as a result is night and day.

Eliminate debt. Better yet, avoid it altogether if you can, but if you have student loans or credit card debt, make it a priority to pay them down and pay them off. Don’t borrow for vacations. Pay your car off early and drive it for several years while you pay yourself what you were paying for a car loan so that you can pay cash (or nearly so) for the next car.

Invest in yourself. This is a two-pronged approach. Create a fallback plan to make a living if your lose your job or the industry craters around you. If possible, stay in that line of work part time. A friend of mine is a computer programmer, and his flying income supplements his code-writing, not the other way around. Another pilot became a physician’s assistant during the last downturn and practices on the side. Others have gone to law school. A recent captain I flew with owns several franchises. All of them can live off that other income.

Secondarily, put more money into your 401(k) and IRAs than you think you can afford. Mandatory retirement will be here sooner than you can imagine, and since we are living longer, you need to save for a retirement that might be longer than your working career, especially if you have a medical issue that grounds you.

Finally, hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Be realistic about various scenarios, and be careful with your major life decisions and the money you plan to spend. Make sure that your spouse and family are on board with financial conservatism. In the long run, they will thank you for it, and you will sleep better at night.—Chip Wright

Monitoring guard

During the basic course of primary instruction, we learn about the use of the emergency radio frequency of 121.5. We’re generally taught that 121.5, also known as guard, is the frequency we use during an emergency or when we need to get immediate hold of ATC and don’t know what other frequency to use. And…this is all true.

But one other angle to guard is that we should be making a better habit of monitoring the frequency on the number 2 radio. Just as we can use the frequency to reach ATC, ATC uses the frequency to find pilots who have either lost contact or have potentially put themselves into a violation. One thing I’ve learned in a two-decade-plus airline career is how often ATC needs to call flights on guard. Most of the time, they are looking for an airline flight that has missed a frequency change, but a few times a week, I hear them trying to call a 172 or a Bonanza or such that has either missed a frequency change or is encroaching on restricted or prohibited area.

As an instructor, I admit that I wasn’t too diligent about monitoring guard, which, unfortunately, means that my students missed the learning opportunity as well. I knew about it, and I told them about it, but only as an emergency use frequency.

Nowadays, in the post-9/11 world in which the slightest deviation from a known flight plan makes everyone jumpy, there is really no excuse to not monitor 121.5. Even if you’re not the target of ATC, it’s possible in a local area that you will recognize the call sign of the airplane, and you can reach them on a CTAF or unicom frequency, or call the local flight school where the airplane is based and let them know that ATC is looking for them.

Whether or not you’re thinking of getting into professional or airline flying, you should make it a habit of monitoring guard. You may be the first to hear an ELT going off (report it to ATC, and if you’re not getting flight following or flying IFR, make a note of your position when you first heard it, and any trends in the signal strength). You may also hear an airplane in distress and be able to help the pilot.

However, one troubling trend the last few years that has gotten worse is the number of pilots who inappropriately use guard. Invariably what happens is someone inadvertently transmits on guard, and those monitoring can’t refrain from a series of catcalls and jokes. A simple, “You’re on guard,” or “Check your frequency” transmission is all that is needed. The never-ending jokes and silly comments have gotten the attention of the FAA, because controllers are monitoring guard, which means that they too are trying to handle at least two frequencies, and pilots acting like children just makes their jobs harder.

If you’re not in the habit of monitoring 121.5, try to get into the habit , and watch the temptation to jump on the bandwagon of idiots who use it inappropriately.—Chip Wright

Travel tips from a pro

Here are some generic travel tips that a prospective pilot or even a frequent traveler might want to consider. Some of these are ones that I came up with or discovered on my own, and others are some that I’ve picked up from talking to friends along the way. This list is by no means all-inclusive for every possible idea, and it may not even pertain to every trip, but it will give you some place to start.

Money. Always have a bit of cash in your pocket, as cash is always king, and a few places are still cash only. Not many, but a few. Also, make sure you a have a credit card that doesn’t charge international transaction fees, because these add up. If you plan to continue to use your current credit card, call the issuing bank, and make sure that they are aware of your travels so that the card isn’t turned down on suspicion of being stolen.

IDs/Passports. I never go anywhere without my passport, because I need to present it at the gate to access the jumpseat on another carrier. It’s also a great back-up to the drivers license, and if you ever need a second form of government issued ID, well, voila. That being said, it’s easy to lose or not think about if you’re not in the habit of carrying it, so if you do travel with it, take some pictures of it to keep on your phone and also email them to yourself or store them in a cloud-based account so you can access them from anywhere.

Don’t leave anything behind. Pack your suitcase the same way every single time. It doesn’t matter where in the back you put underwear vs. tee shirts vs. dirty clothes, so long as you always do it the same way. This makes it easier to see that something is left behind or out of place. Use an old grocery bag or dry cleaning bag for dirty laundry. Force yourself to turn the lights off in the bathroom as you take your toiletries out (and don’t turn the light off until you do). For anything of any value, put your name and phone number on computers, tablets, etc. I use packing tape over a typed sheet of paper, and on my phone and tablets, the home screen has my name, phone number and email so someone can contact me.

Phone/computer chargers. I keep my phone charger in one of my sneakers in my bag, and I don’t put both shoes in my bag if the charger is out. Of all of my tricks, this has been the most reliable one.

Storage in the room. Whether it’s food in the fridge or items in the safe, put something in there that you absolutely can’t leave without. Put a work shoe in the fridge or the safe to make sure you don’t walk out the door without your food or wallet. Speaking of the safe, test it with the door open before you close it and lock it. I learned this the hard way when I closed the safe and locked it, only to watch the battery die.

Incidentals. Always get a copy of a receipt when you leave a credit card at the desk, even if you don’t use it. It will help with any dispute with the airline as well as with the hotel.

Protect your room info. Never carry the envelope with your room number on it. Stories abound of people losing a key and finding out they were robbed because someone found the key and used it. If you’re afraid of forgetting your room number, take a picture of the envelope or text the info to yourself.

Bedbugs. Bedbugs can be found in a five-star hotel as easily as in a half-star dump. The quality of the hotel doesn’t matter. Bedbugs often are found in clusters in cities. The best bet to avoid getting them into your luggage is to not put your bags on the bed or the floor, since the bugs seek warm, cloth environments. Use the luggage racks or a desk or table.

These are just a few tips based on years of experience. There are others you will find and can use. But starting here will help, and if my experience helps you, all the better!

Finding Joy: The tale of a restless soul

I’ve visited almost 20 countries in the last three months, talking with countless people about what it means to be a “Citizen of the World” and how we can find peace within us and share it with those around us. I’ve met with Zulu rangers, triathletes, musicians, artists, pilots, dancers, government officials, dog sled mushers, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, scientists and many more.

I even met a monk who locked himself away in a cave deep inside the Gheralta Mountains for 70 years for the purpose of evolving so he could move along to the next realm in peace.

Surprisingly, three months into this six-month pole-to-pole circumnavigation, the happiest people I’ve observed so far are those I met in northern Ethiopia’s rural environment. Removed from all the culture, technology, and consumer activity that we enjoy in our first-world life, it was hard to believe what I was experiencing. To give you an idea of how removed they are from a metropolitan area, it was not an easy place to get to. I flew Citizen of the World to Addis Ababa, caught a regional airline to the Tigray region and from there took a two-hour car ride into the remote northern Gheralta Mountains. It was a full day of travel far away from what I would call “civilization.” I felt transported back into another time.

What caught my eye as I traveled into northern Ethiopia was that people were happy and smiling. Some I would even describe as joyful. Most memorable was seeing three little boys, all about the same size, looking to be about six or seven, lined up next to each other on the side of the road, with big smiles on their sweet faces and their thumbs out pretending to hitch a ride. They had their routine down and not a cell phone to be seen on any of them.

Over the next few days I came to learn that these boys, their families and their community had very few material possessions. Their houses and their land were well manicured. It was obvious they took pride in their ownership. But interestingly, their houses had no furniture—at least, the way I think of furniture. They slept on straw mats on the dirt floor. They ate sitting on the floor. If the weather was bad, they would bring their animals inside to protect them from the weather or more often, from hyenas prowling for an easy target.

The land around them was beautiful with the Gheralta Mountains singing out grandeur, God and nature. The mountains were so high they reached up and touched the sky. It was the sort of beauty that made you want to stop and watch a sunset and get up early, even when you were dead tired, to watch the sun rise. The people were nourished by the land. The river was a direct source of drinking water. You could see young boys herding their goats, cows, and donkeys that fed on vegetation that grew naturally. There were no delivery trucks bringing in bags of feed or bottled water. One boy sitting in a tree nearby called out, “These are my goats! I take care of them and then I go to school in the afternoon.” His smile was so big and his delight and pride in his responsibility were hard to miss.

Children were playing and singing and waving in small groups everywhere we passed. They weren’t worried about what happened in the past or what was going to happen in the future; they were rock solid present in the moment.

I could see these people were living in their joy, not searching for happiness. In the “civilized world,” many of us equate the pursuit of happiness with new possessions: New clothes, a new car, a new job, a new house, etc. After a short time, these things don’t make us happy anymore and we need to replace them with newer things. Happiness is fleeting. Joy is with us from the day we are born but it’s difficult to access because we build walls and create distractions that prevent us from feeling this joy.

When I arrived at Korkor Lodge, where we stayed for a week while filming our documentary, I sat with the owner, Luigi, and talked with him about the area. I felt like I was in the presence of a very wise old soul. He said, “Robert, maybe these people are onto something. They may be more evolved than us. Have our modern lives really made us happier or just created more problems for us?”

“I’m not sure they have made us happier,” I said.

My mind wandered back to my life before I took off on this mission of “One Planet, One People, One Plane: Oneness for Humanity.” All our responsibilities. All our things. All the products we consume. All the silly things we do to be better than the next person. I thought about how important our clothes, cameras, cars, dishes, cell phones, sunglasses, shoes, and other items. are to us and wondered, “Why?”

At that point, I brought myself back to the moment. I could see I was beginning to go down the rabbit hole and I said to Luigi, “We must have something that is equally as valuable as the simple joys of these ‘evolved’ people—at least modern medicine is something we can be proud of. What about our ability to use radiation and lasers on precise points on our bodies to prevent “dis-ease,” improve our vision, perform surgery, etc.? Surely that counts!”

Luigi had an answer to this as well. “The locals live to be very old and when they get sick, they go and drink water from the well.”

When he said that, I couldn’t help but wonder if all the issues that modern medicine fixed were the ones that we created from our lifestyles filled with stress, chemicals, ambition, worry, and plastic everything? I clearly had some deeper thinking to do about what it means to be a “Citizen in the World” for the world.

During a two-hour walk through the country I was most impressed by a little girl we met who carved emblems into small stones. In addition to the stones, she showed us a piece of paper with her original design work for creating the artwork. I thought it might be a school project until I realized she was setting up shop when she saw us coming—a budding entrepreneur for sure.

We continued our stroll and entered a 2,000-year-old church about a quarter mile away. When we exited the sacred building, the little girl had relocated to another spot we would pass. She was all smiles when we met her eyes a second time. As a gesture of good will, my friend Susan gave her some local currency. The little girl reached down into her basket and gave Susan the biggest stone carving she had made. Susan asked if she could have one more for a friend. The little girl smiled joyfully and handed her the next biggest stone. Susan ended our time with the little girl by telling her how beautiful she was and how wonderful her stones were. I could feel their souls bonding as they both smiled ear to ear at each other. We later learned that the amount of money Susan gave this girl was more than the girl’s father made in a week.

I felt the little girl knew more about business than most of the people I went to business school with … and maybe even more about the “school of life” that was currently in session for me. She and Susan showed me there are no boundaries when generosity, gratitude and appreciation are present.

After a few days at the Korkor Lodge I couldn’t help but think that we in first-world countries have totally missed this thing called joy as we live our very efficient twenty-first century lives. Joy is available to all of us just as it was for the little girl with her stones, the little boy with his goats, as well as the three boys pretending to hitch a ride. We don’t need to wait to be happy until we get that promotion. We don’t need to wait until we have that dream house or car. We don’t have to wait until we lose those 10 extra pounds to decide that we are whole, complete, and a “success.”

Maybe we are enough just as we are. Maybe we don’t have to keep postponing our joy. Maybe interactions with these earthbound angels are meant to teach us that we already have what we need to be happy. Maybe slowing down and taking the time to notice— with gratitude and appreciation—what is already available to us will help us remove these self-created limitations so we can live a fully joyful life.

Robert DeLaurentis is a successful real estate entrepreneur and investor, pilot, speaker, philanthropist, and author of Zen Pilot and Flying Thru Life. A Gulf War veteran, Robert received his pilot’s license in 2009, completed his first circumnavigation in 2015, and is currently flying 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.

A Curious Lack of Crosswinds

There is an old adage about mountain flying, that “the windsock points in three different directions” at mountain airports. The prospect is appropriately disconcerting to a pilot that has not flown in mountains before, as a decade and a half of flatland flying in the East Coast taught me that, if the general wind for a region is from a certain direction, well, one can easily presume that it is blowing the same direction down the runway. Any mental gymnastics as to what could be going on to create swirling winds was not necessary at the time, and therefore was relegated to the age-old heap of reasons to be afraid of mountains.

My first landing in Leadville, Colorado, after crossing Tennessee Pass in snow showers was as advertised. Winds were in three directions as foretold, so I picked something just over the numbers, did the stick and rudder dance, and got the airplane on the runway as though death was the only other option. Then I had to taxi a half mile, noting that the wind really wasn’t that bad.

A few hundred hours of flying in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Montana confirmed the maxim that the wind is “always” in three different directions. The US West features high valleys, open spaces, and lots of afternoon wind in summer, which is thermally driven. With such vertical winds, localized chinook action, and some orographic wind funnels, it seemed to be the norm to expect something on the wild side, generally not in line with a thing called a “forecast,” and I grew to deal with it.

Fast forward to Spain and La Cerdanya, which featured more hundreds of hours of flying, and it only partially validated this maxim. With an ambient north wind, enormous waves would set up, with a wind funneling out of the Val du Carol in France, before making a turn and working themselves out over the Pre-Pyrenees. On south wind days, a small wave would set up over our house, with slamming doors and windows, bent trees, and afternoon fury, with a light breeze two miles away at the airport. As one would expect, in flight the valley was interesting as the vertical ripples sorted themselves out and found a way to transit the range, though they were predictable. I wrote the experience off as “that’s mountain flying” whereas in retrospect, I would peg the winds as about half as complex as the US West.

Now enter the Alps. A rational presumption, due to the height, severity, and density of terrain would be to expect sheer carnage, with death-dealing winds swirling undetectably around phantom summits, ensnaring pilots that dare enter the range. I can attest that I thought such a thing, and within a short period of my initial adventures in Switzerland, my illusions of sheer terror were replaced with a feline skepticism of nearly everything I saw. Now that the on and off again Swiss adventures have piled up some decent experience, I can attest that presumptions about wind that work in the Rockies are not analogous here, at least when it comes to windsocks on the field.

I arrived at these conclusions by doing one of my “its dark, I’m playing with my computer, and I can’t go flying” exercises, tallying up total landings at various home base airports. When I added up my experiences at three different Swiss “home” base airports, I came up with some very interesting conclusions:

Sion – 16 landings – 100% on runway 25
Bex – 21 landings – 100% on runway 33
Saanen – 33 landings – 91% on runway 26
Samedan – 3 landings – 100% on runway 21

In deeper consideration, I can’t recall a “crosswind” of more than 20 degrees at any of these airports on any of these 73 landings!

One has to ask, if “the windsocks are blowing in three different directions in the mountains,” how the wind is always in one direction? In the Alps, the answer is pretty simple: aside from the reality that windsocks usually are in agreement, terrain is so steep and with such vertical relief that wind channels are formed in terrain. A prevailing crosswind can be blowing at an upper level; however, with a valley a mile or less wide yet 20 miles long, with a mile or more of steep terrain acting like walls, is it really going to rush down 5000 feet, cross the runway, rush up another 5000 feet, and keep going? Winds tend to form channels that find the path of least resistance, turning left and right down steep and long valleys until reaching a pass or relief point, where the pressure can equalize by having the wind roar over a small area to the other side. In fact, passes with towering terrain often have the strongest wind, with more relaxed breezes blowing on summits above the pass. This means that sometimes the wind turns 90 degrees or more relative to general flow down in the valleys, while maintaining a single direction above the summits.

I encountered this reality a bit in the Tetons. Instead of arcing over the Tetons with a resounding fury, rancorous rotors, and a slew of mystery, the wind most of the time just blew around them. In Glacier National Park, with 30 knots of winds at summit level, the same thing happened: winds funneled like the Alps, left and right as they found channels to get to the other side. While there are similarities, I can attest that my limited experiences of the sort in the US were nowhere near as pronounced as the uniqueness of the Alps.

Here are some photos of airports to demonstrate how terrain works:

Bex, Switzerland – The airport is halfway to the horizon. One can understand why the winds are virtually always blowing from the north (toward me in the image). Below is Martigny, which is typically quite raucous as three major wind currents converge and head east to Sion.

Just north of Sion, looking east. The previous image was taken 10 miles behind me. The Rhône Valley continues for another 30 miles, meaning that winds blow most of the time west to east down the valley.

Saanen, taken north of the field, looking west. Terrain to my right, out of the image, is about as high as the left, meaning that winds blow down the valley 91% of the time (at least for me), favoring 26 unless there is a strong post-frontal northeast wind event, for which the reverse occurs.

Samedan. What is evident at this point is that I don’t have good shots of the whole airport of any of these places. That likely has to do with the fact that I do not turn the airplane 90 degrees on final to get a wide photo of what is going on. Nonetheless, the terrain that is on the other side of the airport is mirrored just behind me as I am painfully close to the trees on the right while on downwind. This valley configuration is at least 20 miles long, meaning relatively consistent wind patterns.


In separate news, book #23 is published: Mountain Texture: Glaciers of the Alps. Like my three prior aerial texture works, it features close up perspectives of the many textures and details of glaciers found in Italy, France, and Switzerland.

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.

Airline-owned flight schools

United Airlines recently announced that it has purchased a flight school in order to train its own future pilots. This isn’t a new concept. Lufthansa has been doing this for years in Arizona, and Comair, the since-shuttered Delta Connection carrier, ran its own Academy in Florida for well over a decade. It was incredibly successful. An overwhelming majority of Comair pilots came from the Academy, which was sold a few years after Delta purchased the airline.

Is United’s move the beginning of a trend? It’s too soon to say, but it’s an idea that shouldn’t be ignored. While part of the goal is obviously to make money, the main motivator is for the airline to be able to exercise quality control over pilot trainees while introducing them to the airlines’ way of operation. When the Comair Academy was in existence, the manuals, checklists, procedures, et cetera, all mimicked the airline, and common sense says that the same will happen again. From day one, students will get used to using an airline dispatch process, maintenance write-up procedures, and the like. While a number of large schools already do this, in this case, it will be done to mirror the mother ship.

Getting their eyes on students from the beginning allows the airline to study their progression in both skill and maturity, as well as to try and determine if the student is cut out of the airline lifestyle. Bad habits can be avoided, good habits instilled, and solid decision-making skills developed. Those that show promise will be noticed, and may find themselves with an inside track to more desirable job openings at the airline in management, training, or other departments.

Other major aviation colleges and universities are working with airline partners to tailor curricula to suit the needs of their partner companies. The risk for the airlines in these partnerships is that the student may opt for a different carrier because of myriad reasons. When an airline owns its own school, it has a chance to choose the students and also embed them in the culture of the parent brand, thus making a defection much less likely, though a few will undoubtedly occur.

I can’t say for certain that this will be the beginning of a trend, but I would be more surprised if it doesn’t. The market for pilots is tight, and all of the airlines are competing for the same individuals. The sooner that a carrier can get that individual under their umbrella, the better. It becomes one less position that needs to be filled later, and being able to program that individual from the beginning is a huge advantage.—Chip Wright

A rough winter

As I write this, I am home dealing with round two of a wicked cold that is wreaking havoc this year. Where I live, it has become so pervasive that schools are closing because of high absentee rates, and some are dealing with a lingering cough that lasts for weeks, if not months. On the news, all the talk is about the coronavirus, while online there are jokes about corona virus being cured with a slice of lime. Personally, I’m feeling pretty miserable, and I’m sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.

All kidding aside, this brings up the point that flying while sick is not a good idea. It can be dangerous (think: blown ear drums, vomiting, et cetera), inconsiderate, and illegal, since the FAA demands that you not do anything in violation of your medical. Certain medications may render you unable to fly for awhile as well.

Flying while sick also degrades your performance, and you never know when you’re going to need to bring your A game. While a desk-bound person or a sales rep or a number of other professions can get by with someone not feeling well, pilots may need to react to an emergency in a three-dimensional environment in very trying conditions. If you are sick or dizzy or sneezing or in a state of fatigue because  you are sick, your judgment is likely to be impaired and your reaction times diminished.

No matter where you are in your flying career, it would be a good idea to review your immunization records. In the last several years, there have been a number of sudden and unexpected changes in requirements for proof of vaccinations from certain diseases in certain countries. Recently, the Marshall Islands implemented a requirement for proof of measles vaccinations for crew members. If you’re considering a flying career that will cross borders, take the time to visit the State Department and Centers for Disease Control websites to see what shots they recommend getting for certain geographic regions. Diplomatic sites for the specific countries can also provide useful information. (This isn’t intended to start or engage in the argument of being in favor of or against the practice of vaccinations, but if crew members can’t or are not willing to show compliance with the laws of nations they may reasonably be expected to visit, then they may be denying themselves the possibility of employment, or risking a termination.)

Flying sick is also a pretty good way to make sure that you stay sicker longer. Staying home and resting is a better idea than trying to power through anything, even a common cold. When you do have to go to work, be a little more aware of basic hygiene practices such as washing your hands with soap, and using hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes. Use sick time for the intended purpose, and you’ll be fine. Back in the day, airlines—especially the regionals—were known for draconian sick leave policies. Those days are (largely) gone, as airlines now recognize that brining your illness to work is never the better solution.

Ask me how I know this…—Chip Wright

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