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Storm Operations

As I write this, the remnants of Hurricane Harvey are still working their way towards Tennessee and Kentucky. Houston is underwater, and the totality of the destruction is just beginning to be understood. I was on the ground in Houston as the rain began to fall, and I flew around the storm on my next flight to go south towards Central America. The next day, the weather up and down the east coast was effected. And as the storm dissipates, all eyes are wearily turning toward Hurricane Irma, which is still a week away and forecast to become a Category 4 fury of wind and rain.

In addition to the personal preparation and, in too many cases, the aftermath, companies and businesses have to cope as well. The airlines all had their own strategy, some borne of experience, and some based on the particular dynamics of the storm. Harvey developed very quickly, and didn’t provide a lot of time for contingency planning.

As the track of the storm became more certain, airports were shut down. Houston Hobby (HOU), which is further south, was shut down first. At Intercontinental (IAH), the initial plan by United, the main stakeholder, was to run a full schedule through the storm. In order to allow the employees to tend to their personal situations, Southwest and United flew in employees from around the country who volunteered to work in Houston. However, the storm stalled, and like a well-planned military invasion, the plans were drastically altered as soon as the first shots were fired.

Both companies began flying evacuation flights to move as many people as possible, and eventually shut down operations. IAH sits at an elevation of nearly one hundred feet, and is north of the city, so it had less exposure to the brunt of the storm and the rain, and as soon as the airport authorities felt it was safe to allow people to and from the airport, it was opened. The first flights in were humanitarian, bringing back stranded flight and cabin crews, food, water, and other critically needed supplies. In the meantime, damage assessments must be made of the terminals, parking garages, etc. From a navigation standpoint, the ILS antennae, VORs, etc. also need to be checked, and possibly flight-tested.

The recovery from the storm—any storm of this magnitude—takes even more work. Planes are stranded, and may be out of their normal maintenance schedule. Crews are all over the planet, and many of them just want to get home to help their families. Hotels in and around the two airports are full, assuming they can even open. Crews that live and are based in Houston may not even have uniforms they can wear to work.

Behind the scenes, hundreds of people are working extra shifts, flying extra flights, and doing the jobs of three people, all while trying to juggle the disruption to their own personal lives. Passengers, after all, still have tickets, and extra seats are hard to come by on other carriers.

And all eyes are turned east, to the Atlantic, hoping that Irma will turn to the north, but knowing that if she doesn’t, that this scene may be repeated in just a few short days.

The Big Lie: ATC Stuck in the 1960s

The debate on so-called “ATC privatization” is not a new one. A Google search of the phrase yields 171,000 results, many of them news articles going back more than a quarter century.

AOPA, EAA, NBAA, and most other alphabet groups are pushing back against the most recent iteration of this idea, probably because of the current administration’s support for the concept and the feeling that unsteady funding from Congress is causing some people to take another look at it.

I’m highly opposed to privatization for a number of reasons. In general, I prefer a competitive marketplace where possible, as this provides the best product at the lowest price for the consumer. But there are some areas where multiple vendors just aren’t an option. Air traffic control, it seems to me, is one of those. But I’ll leave the argument against ATC privatization to the pros. The folks at AOPA, EAA, etc. have articulated that far better than I ever could.

What I’m concerned about right now is the patently false idea that air traffic control in this country is somehow mired in the 1960s. I’ve read recent articles from the Reason Foundation, Steve Forbes (who, as a major user of general aviation, ought to know better), the Orange County Register, and a number of other publications proffering this claim. It’s fake news – demonstrably false. Whoever peddles this stuff either has no idea what they’re talking about, or is intentionally putting forth a lie.

I spent the early part of the 1980s living in Alaska, frequently hanging out at the Anchorage ARTCC because my cousin worked there. I used to take flight data progress strips off the huge dot matrix printers and put them in those little plastic holders and run them to the various sectors. I saw the vacuum tube powered computer equipment they were using. I flew with my cousin in those round gauge equipped airplanes, and marveled at the sophistication of Silver Crown avionics.

Today? Visit any Center and you’ll find modern computers have replaced all that old stuff. From trainers to airliners, we’re flying almost exclusively based on satellite navigation. That didn’t even exist in the early 80s, let alone the 1960s! Our airways were defined solely by ground-based navaids. VOR navigation was a luxury, and NDB usage was ubiquitous. People were still flying around using four course ranges!

Today, T and Q routes are rapidly supplanting the old stuff. When I’m up high enough to get over traffic, I will often be cleared direct from coast to coast. That would’ve been impossible in the 1960s.

Does this look like 1960 to you?

Does this look like 1960 to you?

Our arrival and departure procedures are optimized for routing and traffic. We’ve got radius-to-fix segments on approaches, satellite overlays for many of the remaining ground-based procedures, and even GPS-based precision approaches which require almost no equipment beyond that which exists in orbit.

As I understand it, air traffic control weather radar, to the extend they had it 50 years ago, was a marginal mish-mash of green shades providing information which was difficult to interpret and limited in scope. Today they’re using ASR and NEXRAD-derived WARP systems which provide infinitely better weather data to controllers and, by extension, aviators. Heck, over the past 20 years I’ve noticed the marked improvement in the way controllers are able to route traffic around weather. They aren’t doing that with divining rods.

Back then, ATC’s radar network was limited and ground based. That system is being replaced by satellite-based ADS-B technology which provides better coverage, faster updates, and many other benefits – including traffic and weather data beamed directly into the cockpit.

The list goes on and on. How about the ATC towers? We’re starting to utilize “remote” towers which don’t even require the physical presence of a controller at the airport. Would that have been possible in the 1960s? Of course not.

Let’s talk about filing flight plans. In the 1960s, you had to physically go to an airport to visit a weather specialist to find out what Mother Nature was doing. Then you’d write out a flight plan by hand on a piece of paper and give it to the FSS specialist, who would do… well, something with it. Within a half hour, you might be able to obtain your clearance. That was pretty speedy for 1960!

Today, you get all that information on a smartphone and can file a flight plan with that same app. I’ve seen a clearance show up within 30 seconds after filing. Part of that is due to the advance of computer technology, but a big piece of it is also the way our ATC system is able to interact with the modern internet. From NOTAM and weather dissemination to airspace design, virtually nothing of the old system is still in use. VHF voice communication represents one of the few exceptions, but even that is being supplanted, especially on oceanic routes.

The bottom line here is that our air traffic control system is NOT stuck in the 1960s. Those who believe it is should talk to a few pilots and controllers. Sure, we have plenty of traffic delays in aviation. Much of that is due to weather – something no ATC “reform” is going to fix. The rest of the congestion is due to a lack of runway and airport capacity. Remember all those airports which were closed? They were called “relievers” for a reason. All those runway and airport expansion ideas which were quashed? You see the result every time you’re #10 in line for departure at a major airport.

Equating delays with ATC is as illogical as claiming the freeways are congested because of faded highway signage. If people want to support ATC “privatization,” I can respect that viewpoint. But letting hyperbole, sensationalism, and misinformation into the conversation serves us all poorly.

If you want to look at facts — and I hope you do — then the answer is clear: America’s air traffic control system is the largest, safest, most efficient, and modern one on Earth.

Alaska Governor recognizes role of aviation

Governor Bill Walker has declared September to be Aviation Appreciation Month in Alaska.  In his proclamation, the Governor recognized some of the ways that aviation stands out here:

  • Providing access to 82 percent of the communities in the state—that are not connected to our sparse road system
  • As operating 242 airports across the Alaska, more than any other state in the nation
  • Supporting the economy, not only by providing basic transportation infrastructure, but by generating almost 17,000 jobs tied to the airports at Anchorage and Fairbanks alone.
  • Including backcountry airstrips among the components of the aviation infrastructure important to Alaska

Please join us in celebrating aviation during the month of September, with thanks to the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities staff who plan, design, build and operate airports; municipal governments that manage airports in their communities; maintenance facilities, parts suppliers, flight schools, aviation organizations and many other stakeholders that keep us flying!


The Shameful Lycoming Rod Bushing AD Affair

In late July, as tens of thousands of GA aircraft owners were converging on Oshkosh for AirVenture 2017, Lycoming published Mandatory Service Bulletin 632 titled “Identification of Connecting Rods with Non-Conforming Small End Bushings.” This was a very nasty service bulletin affecting Lycoming engines of all models that were built, rebuilt, overhauled or repaired during the past two years. Lycoming quickly published two revisions (632A and 632B) in rapid succession.

SB 632B addressed a problem with small-end connecting rod bushings (part number LW-13923) that were used in Lycoming factory new and rebuilt engines and shipped by Lycoming to overhaul shops and mechanics between November 2015 and November 2016. It turns out that there was a quality assurance problem with these bushings, and many of them had an outside diameter that did not conform with specifications. These bushings are pressed into the small end of Lycoming connecting rod assemblies using a hydraulic press. If the bushings are too small in diameter, the press-fit isn’t secure and the bushings can migrate out of the connecting rod when in service. That’s exactly what seems to have happened to a relatively small percentage of these non-conforming bushings, hence the mandatory service bulletin.

Lycoming Rod Bushings: Good vs Bad

Lycoming rod bushings.

Lycoming used these bushings in-house to build connecting rod assemblies, some of which were sold to overhaul shops and mechanics between November 2015 and February 2017, and most of which went into Lycoming factory new and rebuilt engines. Any engine that has these non-conforming bushings, whether built by the factory or overhauled or repaired in the field, are affected by SB 632B.

Why is SB 632B so nasty?

SB 632B requires that all engines that might possibly contain these non-conforming bushings have all their cylinders removed within the next 10 hours. With the cylinders removed, the securing of all small-end connecting rod bushings then must be tested using a special tool (“ST-531 Connecting Rod Bushing Press-Out Verification Tool”) to apply a calibrated force to each bushing to see if it can be displaced. If the bushing moves during this press-out test, then the connecting rod assembly must be removed from the engine and sent to Lycoming, and a new connecting rod assembly with a known-good bushing must be installed. Lycoming initially estimated that the press-out test will have approximately a 20% flunk rate, but from what we’ve been hearing that estimate may turn out to be way too optimistic.

Lycoming ST-531 Connecting Rod Bushing Press-Out Verification Tool

Lycoming ST-531 Connecting Rod Bushing Press-Out Verification Tool

As someone deeply involved in piston GA maintenance, I find what SB 632B requires to be a horrifying prospect. The requirement to remove all cylinders within 10 hours is bad enough; there is a long history of catastrophic engine failure after removal and replacement of all cylinders in the field that I’ve written about extensively. But the prospect of having 20% or 30% or 40% of the connecting rods removed and replaced in the field represents a far greater risk, because the majority of mechanics have never before performed this operation (notably tightening rod bolts to a specified stretch using a special micrometer). The rod bolts are the most highly-stressed component in the entire engine, and tightening them properly is ultra-critical. In my opinion and the opinion of every highly experienced A&P/IA I’ve spoken with, this is NOT work that should be attempted by line mechanics in the field working on engines mounted in airplanes. It really should be done only by an experienced technician in an engine shop with the engine mounted on a stand with unencumbered access.

In short, I quickly concluded that that the cure called for by Lycoming would very likely be worse than the disease, and that it’s likely that there may be more catastrophic engine failures caused by maintenance errors in performing SB 632B than would be caused by the migrating bushing problem that SB 632B addresses. After conferring with a few very experienced A&P/IAs who have much more experience maintaining Lycoming engines than I do, I also concluded that there is a far less invasive and risky and expensive method that would effectively detect bushing migration and mitigate the safety risk without creating a bigger one in the process.

Owner organizations respond

While in Oshkosh, I spoke to several Lycoming executives who indicated that they expected the FAA’s New York Aircraft Certification Office (ACO) to start the wheels in motion to issue an emergency Airworthiness Directive the following week that would mandate compliance with SB 632B. I then sought out AOPA’s David Oord, with whom I’d recently worked so successfully on dealing with the Continental camshaft gear issue. Dave and I discussed that the FAA had not issued an Airworthiness Concern Sheet (ACS) about this Lycoming bushing issue in order to solicit input from the affected aircraft owner associations, something they had promised to do when we met with the FAA Engine and Propeller Directorate at a GA engine summit meeting in 2015. Dave and I agreed that it would be appropriate for AOPA to ask the FAA to do that so we would have a reasonable time to research this issue and provide the FAA with a thoughtful response before their AD process began, and Dave promised he’d make some calls as soon as he returned to his office.

On Tuesday, Dave phoned to tell me that that he’d heard back from the FAA, and that they said they would not be able to issue an ACS because they considered the issue too time-critical. Dave pressed for input to the process from the aircraft owner community, and the FAA agreed to try to set up a conference call between aircraft owner representatives, key FAA personnel, and representatives of Lycoming. That sounded better than nothing.

The next morning, I was awakened by another phone call from Dave, who told me that the FAA was willing to do a conference call, but it had to be TODAY. Yikes! We identified several other qualified aircraft owner representatives to be on the call to represent Cessna and Piper owners, and all agreed to participate.

The call was scheduled for 3 pm Eastern. I spent two hours drafting a bullet-point document containing our questions, concerns, and proposed alternative solution to SB 632B, and emailed it to Dave, who sent it to all the participants expected to be on the call from the FAA, Lycoming, and the owner associations.


The conference call took place as scheduled and lasted for an hour. However, Lycoming declined to answer ANY of the questions we posed to them, telling us that the information was proprietary and Lycoming was sharing it solely with the FAA and no one else.

Lycoming would not tell us how many displaced bushings have been found, how many connecting rod failures had occurred due to bushing displacement, what the distribution of engine times was when bushing displacement was detected or connecting rod failure occurred. They would not tell us how many engines they expected to be affected. They would not even tell us how much the special ST-531 press-out tool would cost, or how soon they could get enough of these tools out in the field to perform the required test.

The FAA would not tell us, either, saying that they were not permitted to release any of this information without Lycoming’s permission (which clearly was not forthcoming). We spent the better part of an hour asking questions but got no answers. It was absolutely exasperating.

We spent the rest of the time on the call trying to convince Lycoming and the FAA that there was a far less invasive and risky and costly way to deal with the displaced bushing problem, and we described it to them in detail. But it became clear that Lycoming and the FAA had already decided that SB 632B was necessary, despite the maintenance-induced failure risk, and that they were not interested in considering any alternatives.

As the call concluded, I felt totally disgusted with the total lack of cooperation exhibited by Lycoming and the FAA. I have been involved in working with the FAA on numerous Airworthiness Directives during the past two decades, and this was unquestionably the most unreasonable performance I’ve seen.

Shameful and disturbing

On Thursday, we worked with Dave to create a formal joint letter to the head of the FAA’s New York ACO. In it, we expressed our disappointment in how the FAA seemed to be dealing with this issue, and included the bullet-point document I’d created outlining our questions, concerns, and recommended alternative to SB 632B. In the letter, we specifically asked the FAA to approve our proposed minimally-invasive alternative as an Alternate Means of Compliance (AMOC) as outlined at the end of the document.

Needless to say, the New York ACO convened a Corrective Action Review Board (CARB) that rubber-stamped Lycoming’s requested corrective action in record-breaking time. On August 9, the FAA issued AD 2017-16-11 mandating compliance with SB 632B and putting numerous Lycoming-powered GA aircraft on the ground and their owners in jeopardy both moneywise and (IMHO) safetywise.

I find this whole sorry episode very disturbing for several reasons.

In discussing this situation with companies like Rick Romans and Aircraft Specialties Services and Zephyr Aircraft Engines who are in the business of re-bushing Lycoming connecting rods in the field, it appears that the problem with these loose Lycoming connecting rod bushings has been well-known by industry insiders for more than a year. Several of those firms told me that they stopped installing Lycoming-supplied rod bushings many months ago in favor of PMA-equivalent bushings from Superior Air Parts that fit properly. Given that this problem has been known for quite some time, it seems to me that the FAA could and should have taken a bit more time to solicit and consider input from folks who would be most affected, especially alternative methods of addressing the problem in a less risky fashion, before publishing an emergency AD.

Furthermore, I find it unconscionable for the FAA to justify such a draconian rulemaking action on data that it refuses to disclose to the very people who will bear the burden of that rulemaking. I understand that if a manufacturer provides information to the FAA that the manufacturer identifies as proprietary, the FAA is not permitted to disclose it. But it seems to me that the FAA should be forbidden from using such proprietary data to justify issuing an AD. The federal Administrative Procedure Act (APA) guarantees that members of the public who will be affected by federal rulemaking shall have a say in the rulemaking process. I’m not a lawyer, but clearly rulemaking made in the kind of secret “star chamber” fashion that characterized AD 2017-16-11 makes a mockery of the spirit (and perhaps the letter) of the APA.

Come on in, the water’s fine: Flying, Family and Fun at EAA Seaplane base

Flying, Family and Fun at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh Seaplane base

Experiencing the Seaplane Base at EAA/OSH for the first time was at once thrilling and relaxing. I have attended EAA AirVenture nearly every year since 2008. On Monday morning of convention, I found myself with a few “unscheduled” hours. So, I mentioned to my friend that I wanted to go to the Seaplane Base. A few minutes later we were pulling up to the parking lot having a good time teasing the gate attendants, who thought we were sisters, about whether they were brothers. After years of pulling into to various EAA parking lots, the vibe at the base was noticeably different. The area is lush and green; the trees were swaying in the breeze as we followed a bark path to the base. A few weeks before I had posted on Facebook that I was hoping to get a seaplane ride this year. I was pleased to get an offer from Don Smith to come out and get a tour and a flight in his 2015 Husky.

Pontoon Boat Tour Captain

Once arriving to the base you are met with warm smiles and a great view of airplanes bobbing up and down at their tie-downs. Nearly immediately, we were asked if we wanted a pontoon boat tour of the lagoon, which we quickly accepted. During the boat, tour the history of the seaplane base was shared as well as the details about how the base comes together once a year through the labor of a team of dedicated volunteers.  According to The Story of AirVenture Seaplane Base by Richard A. Steeves since the early 30’s the Vette family has owned over 27 acres of lakefront land along the shore of Lake Winnebago. “John Vette Jr. was one of the “Early Birdmen,” who flew and owned quite a variety of aircraft, including the amphibious Duck for the navy during W.W.II. After the war, he opened a business south of Oshkosh, near the family farm. Among his employees, an engineer named Al Ziebell developed a friendship with Bill Brennand, with whom he enjoyed fishing for walleyes along the lakeshore. By 1949, they decided it would be much easier if they had a boathouse near the shoreline for storing their gear, so Bill bought 1.9 acres of Vette land around the inner harbor. In 1957 Bill bought a Piper J3 on floats, and with help from Al and others, built some ramps for seaplane storage when they were not off on fishing trips to Canada.” In the early 70’s EAA’s Paul Poberenzy began negotiations to make the Seaplane Base a part of EAA’s annual convention. According to AirNav, the owners of 96WI continue to be the Vette family with John and his sister Burleigh.

Much like Burning Man’s 88NV Blackrock City Airport, 96WI the Vette/Blust Seaplane Base is active only one week a year and is created and maintained by volunteers. The rest of the year the Seaplane Base reverts to 20 plus acres of serene lakeside woodlands. Starting with a work party on Memorial Weekend and ending shortly after convention, the Seaplane Base welcomes hundreds of airplanes and visitors.

Don Smith

There are educational seminars daily including topics from the FAA, the Coast Guard, and the Department of Natural Resources. Women Soar You Soar also brought many aviation- minded girls out to the base for a tour and a ride. From karaoke night to the famous Watermelon Social sponsored by Wipaire, there is something going on at the base every day at AirVenture.

A quick walk around the grounds led us to Don Smith, a longtime volunteer.  Don has an enthusiasm for aviation and the base that is just infectious. It was such a pleasure to be able to fly with someone that knew every detail about the seaplane base and Lake Winnebago. We taxied out past a controller in the OSH pink shirt. He waved as we came out of the lagoon area to the lake-proper.

A different kind of tower controller

The lake was a bit choppy which made take off a little bumpy, but within a minute or so, we were airborne over the lush landscape. I have flown in a seaplane only once before in Northern California. Don was quick to point out methods for determining wind direction and speed. Although he offered to let me fly, I chose just to be a passenger to soak up the sights and sounds. Flying over the water and the farmlands took me back so a simpler time. I could easily imagine what it would have been like to fly in the 40’s and early 50’s. On short approach to final, I could see folks sitting on the beach and under the trees enjoying the show. Don had a great landing and we taxied back to his spot buoy #1.

Later in the week, I had the pleasure to attend the Watermelon Social sponsored by Wipaire. I had been at convention all day where the pace is more hurried and busy. It was so lovely to be able head to the base and just relax and renew. It is hard to describe the vibe at the lakeside, I suppose the best way to put it is everyone operates on “island time.” I can say that I never met at stranger while there, from the fellow working the first aid stand who gave me a cold bottle of water on a hot day, to the folks working in the booths that dotted the path.

Rod Machado once said to me, “Airplane folks are the best folks.” I have to agree with that. The volunteers who annually build this paradise should be proud of themselves. Visitors are greeted warmly, educated, and engaged. The scenery is stunning and the warm camaraderie greatly appreciated. A big thank you to Don and the gang at the seaplane base. The memories will be with me always and I will be coming back next year.







Picking a domicile

One of the never-ending challenges in the airlines is deciding which domicile to choose. This is not to be confused with choosing the airplane you want to fly, since, as a new hire, you’re usually not given much choice. Besides, you can be “frozen” in an airplane for a while, but you can still move from domicile to domicile in that particular airplane.

There are a couple of factors to consider when choosing your base. For most pilots, the first consideration is getting off of reserve and getting a regular line. A line means more money, more days off, and peace of mind knowing what you’ll be doing and when, versus waiting for the phone to ring—which is what reserves do. Generally speaking, the best way to get off of reserve is to pick the largest domicile.

Larger domiciles also offer the best variety of flying, as you’ll see a combination of longer and shorter flights, trips that may range from one day to four, and trips that offer report times that suit your personal preference.

Pilots also pick domiciles based on how easily they can commute to and from work. If a domicile is in a major hub, commuting usually is pretty easy. If it’s at an out station or a smaller “focus city,” the commute may be much more difficult.

When I was at Comair, we had a small base  in Greensboro, North Carolina. The base existed because the company had built a hangar there, but it was a challenging commute, since direct service was offered to only four or five cities, and not all of those had a great deal of frequency. Most of the pilots tended to live within driving distance.

Our Cincinnati, New York, and Detroit bases had a number of options for getting back and forth to work. Taking multiple flights to work is never a lot of fun, and it greatly diminishes your enjoyment of the job.

The last consideration that usually comes into play when choosing a domicile is the time it takes to upgrade to captain, or, to take that a step further, to have the best schedule as a captain. At the regionals, that upgrade is critical so as to accumulate your pilot-in-command time as quickly as possible. Ironically, a smaller or less-desirable domicile can be the best option for upgrading quickly. It depends on the carrier.

Generally speaking, if you’re considering a base that isn’t a hub, you should consider it a base that is forever at risk of being closed down. The economy can change, and a viable outstation base can suddenly be losing money. Hubs tend to stay hubs.

Picking a base is not always as cut and dried as it seems, but it usually comes down to one or two factors that drive the final decision. This is especially true if you’re going to live in base.—Chip Wright

Europe: The Case Against ATC Privatization

The mail here in Spain is a bit slow; thus, I get my AOPA Pilot magazine much later than in the United States, allowing for matters of aviation public discourse to blow over before I can offer my expatriate perspective. In the case of ATC privatization in the United States, I figured the proposal would evaporate, and ignored it, except for one sentence written by Congressman Bill Shuster (R-PA, Chairman of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee), who is pushing an ATC privatization effort: “While separating air traffic services from the safety regulator is commonplace and a best practice worldwide…” The words “best practice” have been ringing in my head for a few months, and I can’t forget them as I continue to experience some of the most ridiculous aviation shenanigans flying in Europe.

While separation of ATC from aviation authorities happens with some frequency, it is not unilateral here in Europe. Eurocontrol’s list of air traffic service providers indicates that the list is mixed where ATC is split off from regulatory agencies in Europe. As for the statement that this is somehow best practice, I will share a recent experience dealing with privatized ATC and privatized airport management in Spain, and allow the facts to speak for themselves.

Before I begin, I will note that Spain’s privatization structure is unique in that it represents the purity of a private for-profit entity mixed with a publicly owned hybrid corporation that purportedly represents the public’s interest over shareholders. This is the model that is being promoted in the United States: a non-governmental, hybrid, semi-profit interest entity split off from the FAA. ENAIRE is owned by the Spanish government, and is a separate corporation that is charged with all Spanish ATC services. ENAIRE, in turn, owns a 51% stake in AENA, which is an airport management firm that handles just about everything in passenger terminals and all towered airports in Spain, as well as performing similar services in many other countries. The rest of AENA ownership is publicly traded, which in theory makes this structure the absolute golden child of the privatization model: public interest mixed with the beauty and efficiency of free market capitalism.

My flight in question took me to Reus airport in Spain, situated outside of Tarragona. I intended to photograph the rice fields and salt ponds of the Ebro River Delta, as they are in prime season in the middle of summer. The day was fresh and cool in the mountains, with a Chinook (föhn in Europe) wind off the coastal hills, creating hot and dry conditions with a land breeze blowing Saharan dust and Mediterranean humidity out to sea. In other words, it was as good as it was going to get given that the delta is only green in the heat of summer, when haze is usually awful. I had made arrangements to meet up with an Irishman at the flying club in Reus for refueling, where we would fly together around the delta, and then I would refuel again for the flight home to the Pyrenees. While I do not like towered fields, I figured the minor amount of aggravation was worth it.

I had no idea what kind of nonsense I was getting into.

La Cerdanya, with strong mountain waves over the Pyrenees.

Muntanyes de Prades, coastal hills creating Chinook/föhn effect at the coast.

Waiting way too long for fuel. AENA: “We have jets. We don’t need you.”


Clearance to land was standard procedure into Reus, a single runway airport with some basic jet service for passengers and a small terminal. The Irishman had arranged “stand 34” for fueling, something I found odd, though I made a point to tell the tower I had a reserved stand for fueling, for which I was directed to follow the marshaller (wondering how much this would cost) to stand….13, one mile from stand 34. What followed was 15 minutes of phone calls and radio calls back and forth between the marshaller, operations, and the fuel truck, alternating between granting the approval for stand 34, back to staying at stand 13, to 34, to 13, and eventually… I waited 30 minutes in the sweltering heat, for which a fuel truck arrived at stand 13. After 15 minutes of filling out paperwork, I received fuel, and then had to wait another 15 minutes to complete payment: $14.26/gallon, and it took 90 minutes in baking heat for this nonsense. I then had to contact the tower for permission to taxi to the flying club, where the Irishman awaited near the gate, as AENA had designated the flying club outside of the security zone, requiring a motorized gate to access the taxiways.

I went in to the aero club to file my flight plan, as Spanish rules require a flight plan for all flights interacting with a control zone. I also filed the flight plan for later in the day for the return home, to make things simpler. Nowhere in this entire process did anyone mention a landing fee, and at this point, I was so annoyed that it was the airport’s problem if they didn’t communicate where to pay one, if it existed.

Departure consisted of taxiing over one mile, as the tower would not approve a takeoff at the B intersection (with half of the enormous runway), resulting in oil temps climbing from 100F to 160F by takeoff. Thankfully I was climbing only to 1000 feet AGL, so overheat would not be a concern, which it often is crossing mountainous terrain in the summer.

The flight itself was easy enough, as it was in uncontrolled airspace for the most part: two and a half hours of flying over the Mediterranean coast, and then back to Reus. Traffic was only mildly busy, with three airplanes at most in the circuit at any point, and a 737 lining up for a long approach. The winds were favoring runway 07, though the tower chose 25 out of convenience for the jets, creating a slight tailwind in a relatively stiff crosswind configuration. It was right on the border of the maximum I was willing to accept, and after the landing, I promised I wouldn’t do one again. There is a reason quartering tailwinds are a bad thing – they are unsafe, though the tower did not seem accommodating, and I was not in the mood to ask and get placed in a holding pattern for 20 minutes.
Costa Dorada, Spain

Heading out to sea to avoid nuclear power plant. 

Approaching the Delta.

Mussel harvesting.

Rice paddies.

Western end of the Delta – very similar to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Salt evaporation ponds.

Delta, again.

Apparently a sod farm.

Terminus of Ebro River, in infrared.

Terminus of Ebro River, visible spectrum.

Tarragona, Spain – old city. Note amphitheater in the coastal center. They are Roman ruins, as Tarragona was a provincial capital in the Roman Empire.

This time, I taxied right to the flying club, where we decided to arrange for fuel from there instead of while baking on the tarmac. As I was introduced to various flying club staff, I was told that the operations desk tried to cancel my flight plan due to nonpayment of a landing fee, and the flying club had stopped it for our prior flight, telling them that a member was onboard and it was a flying club flight. According to the lady behind the desk, this is the first time they had ever heard of such a thing. Basically, they would have cancelled the flight plan and the tower would have told me to taxi back, power down, and go in the office to pay. Excuse me, but where do I pay this fee? It involved a half mile walk, on a busy highway, outside the airport, back in via the passenger terminal, up an elevator, down a maze of corridors, to a room where three people were doing busy work, all in sweltering heat. The bill: $46.49 for two landings. Recall that nowhere was I told that there was a fee – not in the ENAIRE guide for the airport, not by the marshaller, not the fuel attendant, nor the tower. Even worse, the location to pay was simply impossible to find without hand holding by a kind soul, and even then, can we not see the punishment taking place? Obviously general aviation is not wanted.

I asked operations to delay my flight plan, as I was now in risk of cancellation, and had not fueled. It was 6:15PM, 45 minutes after landing. Surely 6:45PM should be enough, with an additional 30 minutes before it is cancelled?

From the flying club, stand 31 was reserved (there were no airplanes in any stands), and the Irishman walked out to open the gate so I could taxi and then park, standing in my required safety vest, which only made a hot day hotter. As I taxied by, a Frenchman was waiting near the gate for it to be opened so his friend could eventually taxi through, and he so poignantly stated: “This place sucks.”

I was assured by the flying club and the Irishman that fuel would be quick, as the fuel service promised it. I did not see a fuel truck for 45 minutes. I called the tower to delay my flight plan, again, and the tower told me to talk to operations. I asked the tower handle it, as by this point I was irritated, sunburned, hot, and at risk of not being able to get home by sundown. After calling operations multiple times, the fuel truck finally came, which meant 15 minutes of paperwork. I asked why there was paperwork, as I just did it earlier in that day, and the excuse was that his colleague “had not done it properly and now he has to enter it in the computer.” I asked why he had to enter it in the computer, as I have filled up at two other airports serviced by this company and clearly it was in one of the computers because I was charged on both my MasterCard and German Air BP card on the last fuel stop, even though I did not furnish my Air BP card.  “Yes, I see you filled up at Castellon, as its in here.” “Then why are you entering it again?” “Because I have to.” I expressed my discontent with how long I had been waiting, how long it took for him to show up, and how close I was to missing the flight home, and asked what he was doing for 45 minutes, as he clearly wasn’t filling up other airplanes. He insisted he only got one call and came running over, for which I asked why the tower, operations, and the flying club all confirmed they had relayed the request for fuel. “That’s AENA” was the reply I got.

After round one of the paperwork and my total lack of diplomacy was complete, along with turning the pump on, pulling out the ladder, and suiting up, the attendant looked at the tires and said, “I can’t fuel without wheel chocks!” “Wheel chocks? What are you talking about?” “I can’t fuel this plane without chocks!” “Do you have any?” “No.” “What kind of retarded thing is this? I didn’t need them earlier or at any other airport serviced by this company.” “They all did it wrong. I must have wheel chocks.” At this point, I turned into the ugly American that so stereotypically ruins it for everyone and unleashed a venomous vitriol (in Spanish), dramatically pulled out my portable aluminum wheel chocks, childishly slammed in them into the tires and told him: “There are your [insert uncouth descriptor] wheel chocks! Now fill up this [I won’t repeat it] airplane! This is the most incompetent crap I have ever dealt with, I am paying a personal record for avgas, and I am about to miss my chance to make it home!” Now actually aware there might be consequences for incompetence, the excuses started rolling out as the avgas was transferred into the tank, about how he is only doing his job, and so on, and he got quiet when my searing death glare was pointed at him. I waited another 15 minutes for the payment process, and got the heck out of there, barely making it home before sunset.

$14.26/gallon. 4 hours to fuel twice. $46.49 in fees. It took 9 hours to fly 75 miles, fuel, fly 2.5 hours, fuel, and fly 75 miles home, at a cost of nearly $300… a Cub that burns 4.2gph at full cruise. That flight would have cost $100 in America, and would have taken a little over 5 hours instead of 9.

Awaiting takeoff after second fueling. By now, the romance is gone.

Catalunya – on the way home as the sun is beginning to set. Infrared.

I am going to have to clear those clouds somehow with marginal daylight and poor flight service options. This is why I tried to leave hours earlier!

Around the clouds, up over an 8,500′ ridge, and we’re in La Cerdanya, where AENA has no influence.

This is not the only incident with AENA. Barcelona airport, the second largest airport in Spain, has had a scourge of up to 4 hours of security delays for passenger screening, for months on end, because they haven’t figured out how to schedule enough security staff. After grueling transatlantic crossings, passengers have had to wait up to 3 hours to clear customs, and AENA’s response to not scheduling enough officers is that ENAIRE did not tell them flights were coming into Barcelona. Recall that ENAIRE owns a majority interest in AENA, and AENA is publicly traded with accountability to public shareholder money.

ENAIRE controllers can make north of $200,000 per year in salaries. One group or another of AENA staff is on strike roughly 40% of the time my wife and I use Barcelona airport, including this week, where security staff have decided to strike, making hours long delays worse. This is international “best practice” where a special purpose entity separates ATC and airport management from the safety regulator, and where free market forces keep incompetence in check.

Supporters of ATC privatization would likely point out that this is simply a Spanish aberration. While culture is a factor in all countries, Spain is the most visited country in Europe, and the forces of global and European capitalism, much less publicly traded scrutiny and European heavy handed regulation have not been able to curtail the sheer stupidity. Germany has privatized ATC and flight service, and while they are organized, landing fees are high, iPad navigation services from all providers are expensive due to fees to DFS (German ATC provider) as sectional maps are not in the public domain, and flight service comes with a fee. I suggest reading prior blog posts to understand how Germany restricts freedom in other ways. France manages ATC through their civil aviation authority, and they are the nicest and most accommodating country I have flown in Europe so far. Yes, the French, who supposedly hate Americans, do everything they can, without fees, to accommodate an American barreling through their country in an N-registered airplane without speaking a word of French. The only I time I have been told “no” by French ATC is when my request conflicts with military operations.

Free market economics cannot punish Spanish stupidity, and civil aviation authorities managing ATC in France overcomes a prejudicial disdain for Americans. That should tell you something about the nature of these aviation management structures.

I should also point out that Europeans speak of American aviation as the best in the world, stated as a universally acknowledged fact. The rest of the world is looking to us as the model, and now there is a political movement brewing to copy global incompetence and stamp out American aviation supremacy. I don’t understand it.

There is also the matter, assuming this change would go through, of the economics. Privatizing a vast section of publicly-owned American assets demands the question of what they are worth. If a maximum price is earned during a sale to do the American people justice (as well as pad the federal budget), then the high amount of capital invested by shareholders will demand a competitive rate of return, determined by the marketplace, which will have to be recouped from consumers of the National Airspace System. That can only mean increased fees, which is unlikely to be offset by cost savings of such miraculous quantity necessary to equalize the difference. If, on the other hand, this section of the NAS is auctioned off at below market price, how can that be justified to the American people?

There is a misconception about Europe, particularly in America, that it is a quasi-communist nanny state with extremely high taxes and extreme government control, where basic needs are spoon fed to the masses. What people fail to realize is the privatization model is more prevalent here, especially with roads. In America, most roads are free of tolls. For me to drive to Barcelona and back to take a commercial flight, road tolls are in excess of $50. To cross France in a passenger car from Germany and return home costs over $150. These are free market private concessions, operating on the privatization efficiency model, and the fees are astronomical. Europe is filled with these kinds of structures, and anywhere they creep up in aviation, there is one surefire reality: high user fees and poor service.

Free market efficiencies from private industry require competition and a sufficient liquidity of customer base in order to engage the Corporate Maturity Cycle and push down prices. Concessions for commercial aviation offer no such competition, as we can see with the recent scourge of FBOs charging silly fees, and also with our case study of AENA. There is one AENA, and they simply don’t care. Secondly, general aviation will always have a fractional share of passenger traffic and flight operations relative to airline travel, which means that the volume of GA activities is inadequate to furnish cost savings, much less competition. Prices would only go up, access to GA would be restricted, or both. This is the reality of free market forces on public service in general aviation.

America is a world leader in publicly-owned national resources. National parks, roads, airports, coasts, much of the West, national forests, our airspace, and the like is owned by the public, with no fee for use for much of it, and that’s that. In my opinion, it is the vastness and open access to our national wealth that makes America “free” as we know it. To follow the model of densely populated nations with privatization models would give us the results that these nations have.

What I would suggest instead is that any lawmaker who is a pilot and thinks copying the European model is good thing come over here, rent a plane, and try to fly 500 miles in the land of “best practice” and see if they are still willing to sign their name to such an ill-founded and flawed idea.



Know thyself

I’ve met so many people on my journey in aviation. Some of them were ridiculously happy, thankful every day for the ability to go to work as a pilot. Others were jaded and surly, giving the distinct impression that they’d rather be scratching their fingernails along a never-ending chalkboard than be anywhere around an airplane or airport. Sometimes those two people were even the same age, doing the same job at the same company and making the same money!

Now we all have our good days and our bad ones. But how could their outlooks on life in aviation be so divergent? Is it just a matter of perspective? I’m sure sometimes that’s part of it. But as the years have passed, I’ve come to wonder if perhaps one of them is simply in the right place and the other one is not. A square peg in a round hole, if you will.

It brings to mind my salad days, which were spent in concert halls and theaters. Most of my formal training is in the arts, and that kind of career involves a lot of auditioning. Even when you’ve got a job, the need for another one is never far behind. Much like a student pilot waiting on the weather to improve sufficiently for a solo cross country, it can wear on you after a while.

Say what you will about life as a pilot, at least we’re not interviewing for a gig a hundred times a year!

Anyway, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received from my years in the performing arts field came from a well-known casting director. She said it was important to “know thyself.” In other words, the odds of success were much higher if we went after the jobs which best fit our skills, background, and natural talents. Beating the odds meant ensuring your time and energy were directed at the right gigs.

If this sounds self-evident, keep in mind others don’t always see us the way we see ourselves. Sometimes we think we’re heeding this advice, only to learn much later that we were not. I recall doing a lot of navel gazing after that pep talk. But in the long run, it was great advice and helped me tremendously.

The same is true for a professional pilot. There are as many different flying jobs as there are stars in the sky. Setting aside the irony of being asked if I ever want to be a commercial pilot when I’m already earning six figures doing just that, most people equate “commercial pilot” with only one thing: a white shirt with epaulets and a bunch of people in the back going to grandma’s house for the holidays. But that only scratches the surface of what’s out there. Just because an airline job is many people’s idea of the brass ring doesn’t mean you have to make it yours.

I’ve met more than one person who was completely dissatisfied with a $200,000+ job flying top-of-the-line business jets to exotic locations. I knew a guy who had probably 20 days off each month on top of it all. And he still didn’t like it. Eventually he quit and went off to sell insurance. Or maybe it was real estate. I was too dumbfounded by the whole situation to focus on that part. Either way, the point is that he worked harder and made less money at the new job—and yet he was markedly happier.

Perhaps some of these folks would be better served by teaching, crop dusting (don’t laugh—those guys can make great money), flying for a scheduled airline, or owning their own business instead of working for someone else. Maybe they belong in the bush. Or on the side of a glacier. Or giving helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon. Flying airshows. Ferrying airplanes. Zipping around the San Juan Islands in a floatplane. Working for law enforcement. Or doing any one of a hundred different things.

“Shiny jet syndrome” isn’t just a cute phrase. Sometimes the equipment, the lifestyle, the paycheck, and/or the Instagram feed can lead us down the wrong path. There are only 24 hours in a day, and we spend a third of that sleeping. The remaining hours are largely spent at work. Life’s too short to do something you hate all day, even if it comes with golden handcuffs.

There are a lot of flying jobs out there, and today an up-and-coming aviator has something rare: choices. Before leaping into a particular segment of aviation, take the time to look inward and really figure out what makes you tick.

You’ll thank yourself for it.

The non-memory-item memory items

Just about every airline or corporate flight department—and for sure the military—has a certain number of checklists that are considered to be memory items. That is, they are considered so important that, when needed, the pilot doesn’t have time to look up the checklist and go through it line by line. Therefore, the checklist must be committed to memory. Some of these are fairly obvious, such as certain fire warnings, sudden cabin depressurizations, or a rejected takeoff.

Most of the time, the carrier determines the checklists that are designated as memory items, and there is usually a bias toward certain items based on the experience of the company, or of the fleet manager. Sometimes, the memory items are determined by one of the local FAA oversight personnel—again based on his or her past experience and/or unfamiliarity with a particular airplane—and sometimes by the manufacturer. Some carriers take things overboard and have far too many memory items.

But what about non-memory-item checklists? Are any that are not memory items actually memory items? Yes. A common example is the rejected takeoff.

Considering the speeds at which a rejected takeoff can take place, this makes sense. In nearly every jet airplane, the speed brakes should extend when the thrust levers are brought to idle, thus killing the lift of the wings and getting the weight of the airplane back on the tires, which improves stopping performance. The operative word is “should.”

Some operators have a specific rejected takeoff memory item that includes checking or manually deploying the handle, and thus the speed brakes. This shouldn’t really be necessary, because you can feel immediately if the speed brakes have deployed, but somewhere, somebody decided this is a good idea. And so it is.

Another non-memory-item memory item is the wind-shear recovery procedure. Again, this is something that is occurring in a fast-paced, dynamic environment, close to the ground. Considering the severity of the situation, it isn’t the time to be pulling out a manual to look something up.

Generally speaking, a memory item is something that you only have one chance to get right, and survival may depend on the outcome. But, as I mentioned, airlines can go overboard with this as well. At my first carrier, we had to memorize an unnecessarily complex emergency evacuation procedure that was too easy to mess up, and would have been difficult to perform correctly in the stress of an emergency with adrenaline pumping and your mind racing. A good memory item is one with only a couple of steps, and when possible, it is similar to other checklists to ease its recall.

However, the procedures that are not necessarily referred to as memory items but need to be committed to memory are just as important. Learn them, commit them to memory, and review them, so that when you need them, your performance is flawless.

Alaska Backcountry Airstrip Survey Results

Earlier this spring, Alaska pilots were invited to take part in a survey regarding backcountry airstrips. I am pleased to report that 245 of you took the time to respond – thank you to those of you that responded. This information helps provide some measure of the importance of these airstrips to Alaska’s transportation system. The people who participated also shed some light on their concerns regarding these assets, and many reported that they are willing to help maintain them. Before digging into the survey results, let’s define what a backcountry airstrip is and what it isn’t.

What is a backcountry airstrip?
Conventional public airports are typically developed with FAA funding, and operated either by the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF), a municipal government or the military. Alaska also has quite a few airparks and private use airports, developed and owned privately.  However, there is another type of aviation infrastructure that is important to many Alaskans. These are often just a runway, with no other facilities, defined as backcountry airstrips or landing areas, rather than airports. These may or may not be charted, or listed in the Alaska Supplement, but they were developed for use by aircraft, and represent an important component of our aviation transportation system.

Tolovana Hot Springs: A landing strip that has been improved for aircraft operations, and would be considered a backcountry airstrip for purposes of this survey.

To go one step further, we need to distinguish between backcountry airstrips and off-field operations that use landing areas that are not recognized as airstrips. Beyond the established backcountry airstrips, people often land on gravel bars, ridge tops, tundra benches or other locations which are not otherwise improved or modified specifically for purposes of landing or take off.  This survey did not cover true off-field operations.

A spike camp on a gravel bar on the North Slope. This would be considered an off-field landing location and NOT a backcountry airstrip.

Backcountry airstrips may be the destination themselves, especially in cases where people have cabins or camps nearby. In other cases, the backcountry airstrip is the gateway to off-field operations, and serves as a staging area, or an emergency refuge when weather moves in.

Backcountry working group
In 2006, the Governor’s Aviation Advisory Board passed a resolution that called attention to the value of backcountry airstrips, and called for DOT&PF to take action to recognize and protect this component of our aviation infrastructure. Late in 2014, as part of the FAA-funded Alaska Aviation System Plan, the department established a working group to explore this subject. The group created a definition for backcountry airstrips and conducted this survey. Other planned activities include creating a partial inventory of backcountry airstrips, and identifying potential future strategies to preserve and maintain them. Look for more on these topics in the future, but for now, back to the survey.

Survey Results
A survey was conducted online and by hard-copy from early April to mid-May 2017, and was publicized by DOT&PF, AOPA, the Alaska Airmen’s Association, the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF), and Alaska Air Carriers Association. Here are some of the results:

  • Of the 245 pilots responding, 91 percent said they used backcountry airstrips in Alaska.
  • The frequency of use was very evenly distributed among those that used them just a few times per year, on a seasonal basis, or regularly year-round.
  • When asked about concerns regarding backcountry airstrips, the leading issue was loss or closure (42%), followed by physical condition, maintenance and safety issues (35%).

Just over half of the respondents said that the airstrips they generally visit are in need of repairs or maintenance. Some of the comments included “Growth of brush and trees that hinder approaches and ground taxi operations” and “Lack of maintenance. Overgrown approach and departure.”  I was most encouraged to see that almost 80% of these pilots said they would be willing to volunteer to help maintain these facilities. One respondent summarized this issue as follows, “Backcountry airstrips are some of our only access point[s] in a state that sports a vast amount of land with no roads.”

Recreation, emergency use, hunting and general access were the most frequently cited uses of backcountry airstrips in this survey.

Word of mouth from other pilots was the most frequent method of collecting information on backcountry airstrips.

Where do we go from here?
There is clearly more to do regarding identifying, preserving and maintaining backcountry airstrips.  On June 3rd, RAF Alaska State Liaison Al Clayton organized a work party at Jake’s Bar, in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  Nine volunteers flew from Clayton’s airstrip near McCarthy to the 1,000 foot airstrip along the Chitina River and trimmed or removed trees along the airstrip. This work was coordinated with the National Park Service in advance–working with the land-owners on efforts like this is one of the ways we can continue to protect and maintain these valuable facilities. Kudos to the RAF for undertaking this effort. I invite you to check them out and see how you can become involved

Stay tuned for more on this topic in the months and years ahead as we promote and support pilots’ access to backcountry Alaska.

Note: This article was originally published in the July-September Issue #105 of The Transponder, the Alaska Airmens Association’s newsletter.

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