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Prisoner of Hope: Look for the positive in yourself and our aviation community

Around this time of year my counseling practice gets as busy as KOSH in July! The pressures of holiday time, changes in weather, and family commitments make a lot of folks want a little “dual” on the couch. One of the things I remind my clients of is the fact that even at our worst times, we have something to be grateful for.

Being raised in an aviation family, I always saw the world as a small place. Routinely we would travel by plane from Sutter Creek, CA to Seattle, Texas, or Indiana to see family. When I was a child struggling with life, my Dad, an instructor in the Army Air Corps, would oftentimes say to me, “Who ever said life was fair? You just need to do your best, keep moving forward, and always try to do the right thing.” In many ways that sentiment became my guiding principle and happily made me a prisoner of hope.

The aviation family is really quite small and well connected. This allows us to bicker like siblings but in the end stick together toward a common goal. Whether you are from a red state or a blue state we understand that we need everyone in our family, including our crazy uncle.

When the calendar turns to December I always reflect on the past year and compile my annual Let There be Flight video. As I look through the pictures from 2019 I realize that I am a pretty lucky girl.

An exciting part of my life is presenting aviation seminars across the country. The subject matter is the confluence of the psychology of life and the psychology of flight. From California to Florida, Texas, and Wisconsin, one comment I get from folks attending seminars is, “I really want to get a _________[insert private, instrument, commercial rating etc.] but life keeps getting in the way.” It is hard to feel positive when there is so much left on a person’s bucket list. I say, kick your bucket list to the curb. Optimism, determination, and perseverance have been shown to be the biggest factors in personal growth.

The AOPA Fly-In. Photo by David Tulis.

I love doing charitable work at airports. The impact is three-fold. First it helps the worthy charity. Secondly it illuminates the value of airports to their communities. And lastly it makes me feel good. Whenever I am having a personal pity party I think about how I can be of service to others. Service gets me out of my stresses and helps alleviate someone else’s. Join your state aviation association and your local EAA, 99s, or airport group. Volunteers are always needed on a state, local, and regional basis.

What a wonderful option that my major source of long-trip travel is by private airplane. Flying my vintage Mooney allows me to save time, do more things, and enjoy the flying. The instrument rating has been, by far, the best rating I have gotten. If you aren’t instrument rated, seriously consider starting work on it. I will be finishing up my commercial soon, and that will open my life up to even more aviation experiences.

I am always in awe of little airports that put on display days, airport days, or fly-ins. And also grateful that we have big airshows to go to such as Sun ‘n Fun, EAA Oshkosh, and AOPA Regional Fly-Ins. These large shows give a lot of exposure to the communities in which they are held as well as provide an excellent source of education, gadgetry, and social connection.

So as we ready ourselves for 2020 we should be mindful that unless we all work together the tapestry of our general aviation family could fade. Think of how you can contribute to its vibrancy. Get involved, use your voice, get in the air, and have some fun. I look forward to seeing you at Sun ‘n Fun, the AOPA Regional Fly-Ins, OSH, or some other fabulous GA location.

 

 


If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or feelings, there is a free, confidential helpline available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

1-800-273-TALK


 

Antarctica or bust!

The recent tragic disappearance of a Chilean (U.S. built) Lockheed C–130 with 38 souls onboard as it flew approximately 600 nautical miles over the water from Chile’s southern tip of Punta Arenas to Antarctica’s northern tip of King George Island, has me concerned, to say the least. My departure date to the South Pole—the southernmost tip of Antarctica and the Earth, from Ushuaia, Argentina—which is also the southernmost tip of South America, is less than three weeks out. This passage is the longest, hardest, and most terrifying leg of my polar circumnavigation and now, with this Chilean incident, it’s even more frightening.

If a military aircraft with four turboprop engines and two experienced Antarctic pilots in a type of aircraft with millions of combined miles worldwide can go down on a short 600-mile flight, then what is the outlook for me flying solo more than 4,200 nautical miles for 18 hours in an airplane manufactured in 1983 with just two turboprop engines and a pilot with zero Antarctic flying experience?

Needless to say, this compelled me to share some of the things that are flying through my mind during these remaining days and long, dark hours of the night before I embark on the biggest risk and greatest fear of my life, so far.

Mechanics

Mechanically the Citizen of the World is working well—very well, actually. Engines, five-bladed props, environmental and ferry fuel systems are all A-OK. We had some hiccups with each of these systems after their installation which required fine-tuning to achieve maximum performance. In the end, the manufacturers stood behind me, which inspired  me to dive deeper into their operations, limits, and maintenance resulting in a safer trip and greater confidence in my equipment, which will matter most when I’m sitting on Runway 07 in Ushuaia, tires bulging over max gross with the two Honeywell TPE 331-10T Predator Drone engines growling at 100 percent torque, pulling Citizen of the World toward her destiny as I release the brakes.

I’ve found once Citizen rockets into the air, this airplane just goes, and goes, and goes—higher and faster as it burns off fuel. The 2,300 horsepower produced by the powerplants are in a word awesome! Getting to altitude is slow, but when I test flew Citizen at 80 percent of ferry fuel, she climbed to 30,000 feet in just 46 minutes. That was the moment I knew Citizen would be able to leave the ground heavier than ever before, with 10 tanks of fuel.

Avionics

With respect to avionics, I’ve got everything I need through flight management systems—fuel computers, touch screens, synthetic vision, battery backup, infrared, radar, active traffic, terrain avoidance, satellite communications, music, weather, ADS-B In and Out. Today, we restored the satellite signal going to the No. 1 Avidyne flight management system, which is very similar to your average GPS unit (but more capable) and is coupled to two other systems including the L3Harris NGT 900 which provides ADS-B Out, and the EX 600 with position information and supports terrain, traffic, and weather displays.

I flew the aircraft across the Andes Mountains this week to Santiago, Chile, sidestepping off the route one more time to have Abiatronic Ltd., an authorized Avidyne repair center owned and operated by Ricardo Medina, save the day. I now have a fully functional panel for my South Pole flight.

Range

My Shadin Fuel Flow computer shows Citizen appears to be getting about 4.8 nautical miles per gallon range at altitude with 60 percent torque. If I slow the airplane down a bit with just 50 percent torque, it maintains altitude with the lower induced drag, and its efficiency increases to 5.3 nautical miles per gallon, which gives me a tremendous margin of safety. To confirm my calculations I had Robert Morgan, former senior research-and-development engineer at Scaled Composites review my test data. Using a lower fuel load than I will carry, he came up with an estimate that I will have a 27-percent extra margin of fuel.

Peace of mind/sleep

Insomnia has plagued me for the two years preceding this flight. I believe it is due to the enormous stress a polar circumnavigation creates in one’s life. The fear comes from doing something in a class of airplane that has never been done before. I’ve added new systems including engines, props, environmental system, and avionics to a 36-year-old aircraft and I’m asking it to give me three times the range that it was designed for. I’m banking on performance that can’t be confirmed until the airplane is fully outfitted. I made promises to over 90 sponsors that believe in me and Citizen. And, surprisingly I have slept through the night twice in the last week, which tells me things are on track and the planets are aligning. This is what it means to be in alignment!

Physical health

Physical preparations have definitely been a consideration on this trip. I had health issues that popped up during the two years preceding the trip that had to be dealt with so I could remain focused and present in the cockpit. Issues included a painful tennis elbow (I don’t play tennis), ingrown toenails, a dislocated shoulder, a vitamin allergy, and a cracked tooth that required emergency surgery and a titanium implant just prior to my departure. Getting my body into alignment with this mission has taken effort as well, but I felt good and healthy just before I set out on this flight. I believe that our bodies manifest some of our personal issues and clearing these things out was absolutely crucial so that I could maintain focus during the times that it is absolutely necessary.

The Gods

Since the beginning of planning this epic trip, we hit every barrier that we could—and hard. It was as if the Universe kept telling us “No, not yet.” I felt like I achieved a 7th degree black belt in being told “No,” while getting the cosmic two-by-four smacked across my forehead. The Flying Thru Life Team persisted when others said it was hopeless. We overcame obstacles of routing, equipment failure, physical injury, loss of funding, and supporters who were not really supporters. I learned to deal with rejection better, which helped me clarify my vision and draw in rock-solid people who believe in our mission and in me. We built a foundation stronger than I thought possible and we continue to rise above anything that has potentially stood in our way. Having the intention of “Flying Thru Life with Grace and Ease” is no longer just a tagline and affirmation; it’s become a moment-to-moment prayer of gratitude.

Intuition

Unlike the circumnavigation along the equator in 2015 in an airplane I named Spirit of San Diego, I’ve had many people whose wisdom and experience I respect come forward and tell me that they had a very good feeling about this trip. These Earth angels’ intuition, premonitions, prayers, and feelings have led them to trust that this trip is going to be a safe and successful one for me, which instills strength and confidence in me, especially when my mind starts to wander into turbulent emotional territory.

What you have read above may still not, in your mind (and sometimes my own) make this trip safe or risk-free, but it does include some of the conversations that have been in my head for the past two years and raging in my thoughts for the past two days. Some of you may find it more closely resembles the ramblings of a madman intent on taking chances. In my mind, the outcome of this trip has already been contractually determined with other souls long before I came into this world and now it is just a matter of allowing it to happen as it was intended. I will continue to try and anticipate every possible problem or outcome, be as diligent and detailed as possible while keeping in mind that every challenge is a learning opportunity—a “Zen Moment” that further prepares me for the positive impact I hope to have on humanity, and that humanity will have on me.

Join us on the adventure at www.PoleToPoleFlight.com.

Mountain Flying: Warn and Mitigate

There are two main themes to this flight. The first one was a nagging question I had not yet answered: “How long will it take before I fly around Mt. Blanc in high winds?” In retrospect, it took 6-8 months to take my first flights in the Pyrenees with blowing snow on mountain ridges, and over two years before dabbling in controlled circumstances with winds in excess of 40 knots in the mountains.

For this flight, it had snowed, was relatively cold, and I planned on “wandering into the Valais to look at some mountains.” I assured my wife that I would “definitely stay away from wind” as it was “too much work” and it was forecast to be 40kt or so at higher altitudes. The thing is, I should know myself better. There is an intuitive little spark that fires, where I get an idea for a flight of a certain type, and I tell myself I won’t do it. The second I get in the air and assess what I think from the ground, the switch flips and I do the very thing I said I wouldn’t.

In this case, upon clearing 8,000’ and rounding the bend near Martigny, I could see highly intriguing clouds blanketing the Massif du Mont Blanc, with evidence of orographic snowfall. Clouds looked majestic, much like they do in the Pyrenees in a similar situation. Ahead of me was Grand Combin (14,154’), with clouds billowing over the lee side of the summit. With upper level winds out of the southwest, I deduced that winds were more likely to be channeling around terrain than to properly align with the ridge of the Alps. In the latter case, large waves would form, which I wasn’t in the mood to play with.

I aimed for Grand St. Bernard Pass into Italy, which is a saddle between two large ridges. Ground speeds of less than 40kt indicated winds in excess of 30kt, augmented by cloud movement and extremely dry air due to down sloping winds. I skirted Grand Combin, hitting a few bumps before I figured out how to get over the ridge, where I found a cloud deck that was a few miles long. The formation was similar to the typical north wind event in the Pyrenees, with strong waves on the leeside and an overcast cloud deck stretching almost to Paris.

From there, I was convinced I could come around the bend and catch Mt. Blanc exposed on the windward side. The Massif du Mont Blanc was largely clouded in, as were the ridges below, though based on cloud movement and past experience, I was of the belief the effort was worth it. After ten minutes over the cloud deck, I saw my first sizable gaps over Val Ferrat, Italy, a relief if the engine quit. Then Grandes Jorasses (13,806’) showed itself brilliantly. I knew my scheme would work.

Gradually I came around the end of the ridge, and indeed Mt Blanc (15,774’), in all her glory, was sticking out into the wind, while strong winds buffeted the summit, forming clouds that billowed to the northeast before eventually dissipating. I did some back and forth over Aiguille de Bionnassay (13,294’) and then made my exit over the north side of the Chamonix valley, descending as I went.

Using groundspeed calculations in both directions, winds were 35kt to 40kt, with some higher speeds during my period at 15,000 feet. During the entirety of the flight, I experienced a few moments of basic turbulence, none of which was of any consequence. For the most part, it was tranquil, though it was extremely cold.

Which leads me to part two of the flight, which is an extension of my argument in my May 12, 2019 post “On the Matter of Mountain Flying.” The flight was proof that a little Cub could fly around the tallest peak in Western Europe in 40kt winds differing little from a two-hour summer flight on an afternoon in Texas (at least as far as forces on the airframe are concerned…not temperature). While I am not advocating that suddenly general aviation toss caution out the window and start buzzing large mountains, there is a valuable lesson.

Standard instruction on mountain flying, that occurs outside of mountains, tends to focus on a binary interpretation of what will happen. Namely, follow the rules (2000’ terrain clearance, 20kt or less winds, good visibility, etc.) and everything will be fine; break them and you most certainly will die. While that is instructive to prevent stupidity, there is the nagging question of “What happens if someone ends up in a situation that they were taught to avoid?” This could apply to a number of flight theories, though I tend to find warnings without mitigation apply most poignantly to thunderstorms and mountain flying.

While it is wise to tell a student “never to go near a thunderstorm,” what about the succession of decision-making, causal factors, or simply bad luck where now one has formed over his or her head? If the ‘grand bargain of instruction’ was to warn and not mitigate, exactly what should a student do in a thunderstorm? I know that my instructor taught me to avoid them; my grandfather was the one that taught me to “throttle back and ride it out if it gets crazy” if I happen to get near or in one (he did not advocate flying in thunderstorms, for the record). This line of thinking could go on and on to many subjects.

There are two sides to warnings without education on how to mitigate. Obviously, the positive side is that the pilot would not end up in a potentially dangerous situation, with the idea that not arming a pilot with mitigation tools would heighten the probability of avoidance. The negative side presents when he or she ends up in said warned-of situation, with no training on what to do. That very warning that said not to do it would increase fear and anxiety in the cockpit, precisely when the pilot needs insight. Instead of helping, fear is now punishing, at the worst time. Perhaps flying in the mountains in 30kt winds in a spam can might work out fine, even if the pilot is ignorant. However, if alarm bells are going off in his mind, palms are sweaty holding the yoke, and the pilot gets panicky, the situation has now escalated, with the possible introduction of multiple successions of decisions that could lead to a smoldering crater.

I am an advocate of a “warn and mitigate” theory of instruction for mountain flying. Standard warnings should be issued just like they are now. However, they would be followed up with a series of relatively standard scenarios that could occur in the mountains outside of standard warnings, with some basic information on what to do. While it wouldn’t be a course in advanced mountain flying, it would be some very basic mitigation tactics to increase survival chances, which would, aside from conveying wisdom, arm the pilot with emotional reassurance that the situation is not doomed. In the end, it boils down to not overstress the airframe or smack into granite.

In the Valais, La Catogne (8,523′) in the foreground. Winds were brisk, channeling right to left, with a down sloping component. 


Combin de Valsorey (13,724′) with a bit of a breeze.

Petit Vélan (10,505′) hiding in the clouds. Now at the ridge where clouds are on the windward side and cap.

Valle d’Aosta, Italy under some clouds. 

Grandes Jorasses (13,806′) sticking out into the wind. Val Ferrat, Italy below.

Coming around the bend hoping to see Mt. Blanc. Picco Luigi Amedeo (14,662′) visible.

Picco Luigi Amedeo again. No turbulence due to being upwind.

Above Aiguille du Bionnassay, France (13,294′) looking northwest. “Haze” in the lower left is orographic snowfall from the ridge. It was a common occurrence in the Pyrenees while hiking along similar ridges: screaming wind, biting cold, and a light snow shower with sunshine.

Mt. Blanc from the northwest.


Mt. Blanc from the west.

Aiguille Verte, France (13,524′). Some turbulence showed up here as the flight path had to eventually cross the lee side of Mt. Blanc, albeit at a distance.

Swiss-French border. Original flight path in the rear left that went around the ridge in the front.

Its hard to believe that I would say it, as at the time I was convinced that Yellowstone in the Cub was excessively windy, here is a subject with less wind and biting cold. Book #21 is out, Flying Yellowstone. It differs from my ‘hot springs’ book as it documents landscapes and other features of the park.

 

 

Human factors assumptions, part 2

The Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX crashes have brought some attention to the relatively recent concept of multi-crew pilot license (MPL) certification.

The MPL was designed as a work-around for the traditional pilot training tracks that don’t include the military. Instead of following the current private/instrument/commercial/multiengine progression that thousands of us have done in the past, the MPL works by getting some basic private pilot-like training done in a single engine airplane, with perhaps a bit of instrument training as well. But the overwhelming percentage of the training is conducted in a simulator or fixed training device specific to the aircraft that the candidate will be flying. In other words, an MPL candidate for the 737 would get the majority of his or her training in the 737, and only the 737.

On paper, this can be attractive, because a few hundred hours of dedicated time spent learning to fly and handle one aircraft can be performed in a structured, building-block methodology. Over time, more and more complex situations can be introduced and responses evaluated and repeated, if necessary.

But this also leaves a lot out. Simulators, for example, are terrible replicators of weather. Becoming weather-savvy is something that can really only be learned from experience, not from reading it in a book or watching a video. Complex air traffic control communications are also difficult-to-impossible to work into a simulator, especially if English is not your first language, or one you speak fluently.

An MPL might produce a pilot who is book-smart and a checklist-monkey when he or she gets in the airplane, but you can’t buy experience. And with such a narrow scope of knowledge from which to draw, you may not have the tricks or the know-how to handle complex events that may not have been covered in the box.

Pilots who gain experience by building time in a variety of flying opportunities are like putting together a much more valuable box of tools to draw upon when things go south. Further, they are doing so in a real-world setting that truly tests their grit, stamina, and threshold for stress. No amount of MPL simulator training is ever going to provide the same thing, no matter how diligent the efforts at realism.

If the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines accident reports come down on the validity and quality of training, even if only remotely, let’s hope that the MPL concept is at least paused or reconsidered. Additional real airplane training might cost more up front, but it will be cheaper in the long run, for there is no substitute for real experience in anything.—Chip Wright

Human factors assumptions, part 1

As I write this, the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air Boeing 737 MAX accidents are still being investigated. While we know that the MCAS system is going to get the major share of the blame, there is also a push to change the way pilots are trained. One of the topics that has come up is one that was addressed in the movie Sully, the story of the USAirways dead-stick landing in the Hudson River, and that is some of the assumptions that go into aircraft and systems design.

Engineers—both hardware and software—creating a new design need to make some basic assumptions about pilot reaction time, knowledge, and experience. Reaction time delay is one of the most difficult things to predict. Modern aircraft are so dependable and so reliable that it’s easy to take them for granted. And that’s the problem: When something does go wrong, it’s critical that the time lag of a response be given adequate consideration. As Sully showed, when the crews in the sim knew exactly what was going to happen and when, and were allowed to respond immediately, they had no trouble getting the crippled A320 back to departure airport, especially when allowed to practice several times.

In reality, though, such events almost never go so smoothly—after all, who ever anticipates losing both engines to a flock of geese? Imagine dealing with the shock of some kind of a collision, followed by a marked change in the normal noise pattern of flight, and then the audible chimes and lights and other indications of an anomaly. Then, once that has begun to set in, the brain has to convince itself that what it is seeing or hearing is real.

Media reports indicate  this happened with the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air crews. Additionally, it involved a system that the crew of the Lion Air flight was totally unaware of, and the crew of the Ethiopian Air flight was only marginally aware of. The noise of the stick shaker—which is extremely loud and distracting in the 737 by design—combined with the realization that the airplane was descending and trimming itself nose down must have been overwhelming. In both incidents, there was surely a realization at some point that the crew was unable to overcome the airloads in order to reverse the trim.

It’s one thing for designers to try to anticipate crew responses during the early phases of flight. But they also need to look at human factors from several angles, including crews that might be in the middle of a longer flight on the back side of the clock, such as a red-eye or a transcon. The effects of fatigue on sensory response need to be accounted for, which is another reason that some warnings are designed to be loud and attention-getting.

The type of fatigue matters too. Is the crew tired because it’s the last leg of a six-leg day, or is it because they are flying in the middle of the night? Crew experience also needs to taken into account. An experienced, well-trained crew is going to have a better response under virtually any circumstance, and there is reason to believe that at least one of the pilots involved in the Ethiopian Air crash may have been extremely low on the experience meter. Throw in a similar situation with fatigue or personal stress, and such an individual could easily be overwhelmed. It might impossible to account for every possibility, but realistic common denominators need to be established.

Manufacturers do what they can to test their theories and assumptions in the simulators, but there are limits to the effectiveness. Every pilot knows that during a sim flight, something will go wrong. They may not know what, or when, or where or how, but they are primed for a surprise, so even the surprise isn’t a total surprise. Further, when you know that you’re in a box, you know that you’re eventually walking away. That means that the effect of full-blown fear and panic is almost impossible to test for or measure.

There has already been much discussion about human factors assumptions moving forward as result of these accidents, and it’s a discussion that will go on for some time. Checklists and procedures are already being retested, rewritten, and studied. Pilots have complained for years that inexperienced cockpit inhabitants—usually first officers—are unable to cope with a sensory onslaught of often conflicting information. These accidents seem to bring some evidentiary data to that argument, though we must wait for the final reports to be written.

What we do know is that 346 people were killed in very preventable accidents, and the laws are written in blood. Changes will be coming.—Chip Wright

The power of courage: Finding and using It

“Courage is being scared to death … and saddling up anyway.” – John Wayne

With my departure from the continental United States on a six-month odyssey looming less than a week away, I am being pulled away from all my creature comforts including friends, family, home, car, and beautiful San Diego, while we explore the most remote parts of the planet. The National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of State are referring to Citizen of the World’s  global journey as a “Polar Expedition.” I’m reminded of a thought I had while in pitch darkness flying over the middle of Pacific back in 2015. I was heading toward American Samoa, an island that that was fogged in and surrounded by mountains, and I anticipated landing at their nontowered airport. I had just closed my eyes, and then I turned my head left toward the pilot window. When I opened my eyes  it was just as dark as with my eyes closed. At that moment, I realized I was very much alone in the middle of the Pacific with no support. That little voice in my head said “What are you doing? You could be at home in San Diego on your comfortable sofa watching TV with your girlfriend!”

The fact that I’m doing another circumnavigation with an even greater land mass and riskier weather has occasionally had me asking myself the same question when I wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat.

And I’m not the only one questioning why I’m doing this.

When some people learn that I’ll be flying an extensively modified 35-year-old Turbine Commander 900 aircraft named Citizen of the World—with dozens of upgrades including six extra fuel tanks and more plumbing than your house—a few too many people refer to my plane as a “Frankenstein” (which, by the way, is a very nasty way to refer to such a fine, fine lady).

Humor aside, this joking doesn’t add to my level of comfort despite the fact that I have had the very best people working on the airplane with hundreds of combined years of experience. They have made mistakes along the way—and so have I. So far, since we’re all still here, we’ve obviously safely recovered from the mistakes, but there’s always an element of fear of the unknown and what might happen next riding shotgun in my mind.

So, then, where do we find the courage to do things that are challenging … (and honestly scare the p*ss out of us) as we navigate the ever-present fear on our individual journeys?

“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” – Albert Schweitzer

I think courage comes from many sources. One is from the people who believe in us—the ones who support us with their time, resources, words, and faith. Because of their belief in us, we tell ourselves, “If they believe in me, I can believe in myself as well.” They see our abilities from a different and higher perspective.

For example, I was at the National Business Aviation Association convention a few weeks ago talking to the underwriter from Great American Insurance Group, which has agreed to insure my trip. I told the underwriter that I had chosen to add hull damage coverage to my policy even though most pilots on these kinds of long trips don’t carry it because of the high cost. When I explained that we had postponed three times to mitigate additional risk uncovered by more thorough preparation, I could see in the agent’s face that we had another believer. In my mind, our preparations were 100 percent complete when our 20,000-hour airline pilot and board member told me we were prepared and had done what we could—given the nature of the flight.

“Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.” – Steve Jobs

Another source of courage is from our own intuition and that of others. On my first trip around the planet East to West I had people tell me it wouldn’t go well. One person wrote on Facebook, “The Pacific is littered with planes just like yours.” My ex-girlfriend told me about dreams she had that I died a terrible death alone in the Pacific. My father said, “You are just going to get yourself killed.”

That was a hard trip, especially when my only engine failed at 14,000 feet over the ocean and 19 miles from the closest airport. As other frightening challenges arose, I felt like I was running out of my nine lives and had literally pounded way too much on death’s door. (See my book, Zen Pilot: Flight of Passion and the Journey Within for details.)

In preparation for this trip I’ve had so many very intuitive people I respect tell me it will be a safe trip and much easier in many ways, that all the problems I’ve had to date happened in advance of the trip so I could have a safe trip outside the U.S. When I pray—and I pray a lot—what I get back is that I will be safe, and things will go well. While I can’t know the future for certain, I can set the stage and choose to focus on the encouragement of people whose guidance I trust while doing everything I can to mindfully manage the negative thoughts and challenging situations that arise.

Courage also comes from experience. In my book, Zen Pilot, I talked about fear being my constant companion and co-pilot for some 26,000 nautical miles. Recalling that I had been tested to my limits and I was able to hold my course despite adversity, frustration, overwhelming fear, and financial challenges that would break most people reminds me I can do it again. And if I can do it, that courage can remind all of us in the most difficult of times that we have the resources to handle whatever the Universe throws our way. This is also known as “Faith”—faith in ourselves, faith in our equipment and yes, I will say it because it takes courage—faith in God.

On a spiritual level, I believe that courage comes from within—deep within us—maybe even from our souls. On the other side of the fear, which takes courage to pass though, is the greatest freedom we will ever feel. Getting to that freedom starts with these three courageous actions: 1) soul searching, 2) allowing ourselves to be broken down to our most fundamental selves, and 3) that critical component of persistence.

The use of persistence to activate courage is sometimes the most difficult of all qualities to muster up and to sustain. When I am all alone and there is no one there to help me at the moment when I need it most, it’s hard not to think I’m being tested. I feel exposed and vulnerable and I perceive myself as unprotected. What keeps me going, the reason I persist and can find my courage and act on it, is that I believe we are all here fulfilling a greater plan that has been laid down for us well in advance of our physical birth. We are simply fulfilling the contracts we have agreed to for this life.

And finally, embracing a mission greater than yourself inspires confidence, courage, and action. When the voices of self-doubt are screaming at me, when I feel like God is not hearing me, when I lose my focus, forget everything I have just shared with you, when I have lost my faith in God and myself, I reach into my pocket and touch my courage coin for a reminder of why I am doing this: One Planet, One People, One Plane: Peace for Humanity.

“You don’t concentrate on risks. You concentrate on results. No risk is too great to prevent the necessary job from getting done.” – Chuck Yeager

Robert DeLaurentis will be flying from the South Pole to the North Pole in his aircraft Citizen of the World, and is scheduled to depart on November 23, 2019 (Pole Gods willing), from Gillespie Field in San Diego. He will be taking 200 courage coins that he plans to distribute along the way and upon his return to inspire future generations to achieve their impossibly big dreams through the power of courageous action.

Sim seat-fill

No pilot wants to be under the scrutiny of an examiner or an instructor any more than is absolutely necessary. However, airliners require two pilots, and that means any training in the sim also requires two pilots. Most of the time, pilots are paired with another student, and each gets equal time to practice whatever is on the schedule.

But, as the saying goes, best laid plans… Occasionally, a pilot is not paired up with another student. This may be attributable to an odd number of trainees, or because one student needs to be held back for remedial training, or one quits or gets fired or is sick, et cetera. And some airlines—increasingly fewer do this, but it still happens—won’t let two pilots who have been training together take a checkride together. When this happens, the training department needs to use what is often termed a seat-fill, which is another pilot brought in to occupy the second seat and perform accordingly.

Most of the time, seat-fill pilots are stand-by instructors, but when they aren’t available, local pilots near the training center usually get the call. Sometimes the airline is required to use reserve pilots, but often, lineholders can make themselves available as well, using whatever sign-up process is available.

The immediate question is, why would anyone want to do this, and is there a jeopardy component to this? Well, yes, you are in a jeopardy situation, which means that if you perform in such a fashion that you would have failed your own checkride, you can find yourself effectively grounded until you’ve been retrained. That, however, is rare.

Most pilots volunteer for seat-fill because they consider it an easy way to make some extra money on a day off without having to go to the airport or spend a night away from home. It’s also a great way to stay sharp on procedures in the sim that you don’t get to do very often. Last, but not least, you get to know most of the instructors and examiners, and they get to know you, so when you go in for your training, you are much less nervous and more comfortable than you might otherwise have been. Taking that a step further, you might get the benefit of the doubt if you make a mistake or two during your own ride that might have been cause for concern previously.

Another benefit to doing a lot of seat-fill is the networking that can take place. If you’re interested in getting into the training department, this a great way to show your bona fides in terms of your preparation, readiness, willingness to help a new hire, and the like. The truth is, there is no downside to doing the seat-fill if you can. If your schedule is flexible, and you live near the training center, take advantage of the opportunities that seat-filling provides, especially as your own checkride approaches. Extra training, extra cash, and more confidence: It’s a lot more upside than down!—Chip Wright

Airline charters

As the calendar turns to winter, regional airlines will be doing more and more basketball charter flights, especially for colleges. RJs of all sizes are ideal aircraft for this particular mission, between the seating capacity, the ability to get into smaller airports, and the cost to operate.

From a pilot’s perspective, charters generally work in ways similar to regular flights, but there are some differences. A charter coordinator from the airline usually rides along. The coordinator is the primary point of contact between the team and the airplane. The coordinator’s responsibilities include making sure that meals are properly catered (this is a major part of a charter, and if this gets messed up, it can cost an airline the contract), that buses are arranged, and, in remote places, that the flight release is properly delivered to the crew. This last responsibility is less of an issue now with the widespread use of iPads, but it’s not unusual that a paper copy is produced as a backup.

The worst part about charters is the unpredictability, and perhaps the hours. While games are scheduled, they can go long, and when they do, things can get interesting in a hurry.

Many charters take place at night, so one of the concerns is getting the airplane in position for its next assignment. I recently worked a regular trip with a morning departure out of Miami. The airplane, however, was coming off a charter for the Tampa Bay Rays, and the game—in New York—had gone into extra innings, delaying the flight to St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, which delayed the ferry flight to Miami. We had to wait for the airplane to be cleaned, given a security inspection, and then made available to us. Our delay was more than an hour. When that happens, the delays can ripple through the day.

Baseball and basketball charters also include a lot of late-night or red-eye flying. Football isn’t quite as bad, but Thursday, Sunday, and Monday night games can be rough.

I did a NASCAR charter years ago (we were carrying a pit crew). We had a mechanical issue that we could not legally defer, and owing to a comedy of errors, it couldn’t get fixed in time. We wound up canceling the flight as our duty time expired (not so comedic), which caused all kinds of mayhem. Companies and organizations pay an awful lot of money for charters, and their patience for delays and cancellations is minimal. Throw in disgruntled employee job actions and the challenges to the airline can be steep.

Some events cause a surge in charters. The NCAA basketball tournaments, the World Baseball Classic, the College World Series, even corporate mergers all can generate a surge in charter activity. It also isn’t unusual for an organization or a college or university to request certain crew members who are known to go above and beyond in their efforts to please. I knew a captain at a major airline who was highly thought of by several of the NFL teams that he flew, and discreet efforts were made to get him assigned to those flights. He considered it an honor and did whatever he could to get the trips onto his schedule. Of course, the opposite also holds true, and you can be banned from charters, if not outright terminated.

Some charters can be a lot of fun, and others can be more tedious, but they all require a fair amount of flexibility. Charters are also guaranteed money-makers for the airline, and the contracts are valuable. Treat them like the important asset that they are and provide the best possible service you can. Heck, you might even wind up with some free tickets to a game or a concert!

Chasing Alpine Autumn

I have a whimsical illusion from my flight training days in New York that I apparently used to spend untold weeks flying every evening while the sun began to go down and the countryside was bathed in autumnal glory. While some autumn flights probably happened more than once, I know better than to think autumn near the Canadian border lasts that long. Usually it was one resplendent weekend with a maximum of two weeks that could count for anything spectacularly colorful, and that was that. Nonetheless, this mental image of putting the Cub away after a fall flight seared its way into my mind as something ideal.

It wasn’t until 2013, when we had moved to Summit County, Colorado, that I had a chance to revisit this idea. While the Cub had been stationed in North Carolina, nothing could seem to approach the glories of New York, despite the Blue Ridge and its apparently famous colors. I had expected a few aspen trees to show up elsewhere in the state of Colorado, and largely thought I had sworn off autumn in exchange for life in the Rockies.

That was until a fateful drive over a pass, where I was greeted with a colorful display of aspens that rivaled New York, and it was mid-September. I positively went on a tear, mostly on the ground, though also in the Cub, photographing what I saw and enjoying it greatly. Those flights in the Cub were challenging, as I had just positioned the airplane in the Rockies a month before and knew next to nothing about mountain flying. I was still able to get some iconic scenery of the Gore Range and parts of the areas around Summit county before autumn came to an abrupt end.

Since that autumn, I have fantasized about recreating its glories. For every single year since then, it hasn’t worked for varying reasons. 2014 I was able to get one flight with some color up in the Blue Ridge. 2015 I was in Wyoming, and while one would assume the West would explode with cottonwoods and aspens, even the locals complained how poor a year it was for color despite my persistent attempts to find it in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. 2016 and 2017 I was able to see some color in the Pyrenees, though concentration is an issue in that neck of the woods, where autumnal displays tend to accent scenery as oppose to compose the subject. Ironically, the Pyrenees put on a blanket of flowers in the spring that exceed the colors of fall. 2018 I actually expected almost nothing, as the Alps consist of rocks, snow, ice, and pine trees. “Perhaps there is some color down near Zürich,” I thought to myself, and let it be. A death in the family happened just before the larches began to turn color (interrupting flying), and in my final Swiss flight before leaving, I was greeted with an explosive display of color that I won’t forget.

Which leads me to 2019. Armed with information about larch trees – pines that change color and drop their needles – coupled with last year’s display, I expected a northeastern style explosion of color if I could time it right. Therefore, I made room to attack with it an appropriate level of viciousness. Instead of a repeat of last year, where the entirety of larch trees change color all at once, this year they have varied greatly by geographic area and elevation, with progressive change as the season progresses. I got lots of flying in before the weather turned impossible, which I am told is also normal.

Late September flight. Apparently some sort of low-growing plants turn red first. On the way to the St. Bernard Pass.

Same flight, two valleys over. Apparently not all grasses provide color. Fouly, Switzerland.


Val Ferret, Italy. Yet here the red shows up again.

Apparently its low bushes which change one at time.


October and now some early color above Trieste, Switzerland. It is a famous turbulent wind funnel and it was living up to it on this flight.


I thought colors would improve around the bend. Not exactly, though I could add a glacier in. One can see larches which are lime tone set against normal evergreens, which remain dark green.


Beneath Grand Combin. Still just a tad of color.


Yet on the same flight, I finally find some orange pine trees. This is as Swiss as it gets: mountain waves, larches, snow, glaciers, and large peaks in one image.


Next flight and I am left wondering if I will find color. Above Leukerbad, Switzerland.


Apparently I will. Above Brig, Switzerland.

Beneath Simplon Pass. Winds here had the subtlety of riding a bronco.

Next flight. Now we’re getting somewhere. NE of Martigny, beneath the Dents du Morcles.


Val d’Hérémence, Switzerland. A tad of snow mixed with larches. 

A box canyon with larches at the end. Pointe de Vouasson. Maneuvering is a tad tight with even the Cub in here.

The valley to Zermatt.


Larches mixed with regular trees,


One larch in the sun. Zermatt, Switzerland. Flight hazard to worry about: cable car wires. 


Just over the border into France at the Col du Forclaz.


Next flight. I did not imagine I would find a cloud layer mixed with larches. South of Nendaz, Switzerland.

More box canyon. The Valais is filled with them. Zinal, Switzerland. Flight altitude 7,600 feet.


Down the valley from Blatten, Switzerland.

This flight was the coup de grace. On the way to an overnight at St. Moritz. Approaching Passo della Novena. Normal pilots on a cross country would cruise at 10,000′ or more to stay above terrain. I wanted to see the trees, so I plotted a circuitous path weaving down various valleys.

Just over Maloja Pass. 

Taxiing at Engadin Airport, the “highest airport in Europe” at 5,600′.

In the air again before nightfall. A few colorful trees here before the Italian border. It reminds me of Montana and Colorado.

South Tyrol, Italy – the section where German is spoken.


Reschen Pass. Austria on the other side. One apparent challenge at sunset in the Alps is sharp shadows, particularly when flying into the sun in a tight valley.

Round the bend after my first foray into Austria. 9th country for the Cub! Austria left, Italy horizon center, Switzerland foreground.

Back in the Engadine before sunset, where my camera unceremoniously died.

Don’t worry, I have another one. Morning climb out toward St. Moritz, on the way home. 


If you made this far without giving up, my magnum opus has arrived, a book chronicling the pursuit of the 82 highest peaks of the Alps. “Above the Summit: An Antique Airplane Conquers the 4000ers of the Alps” is now available.

The One Decision your Technology can’t Make

Last week the general aviation community was thrilled when Garmin unveiled their long awaited auto land technology they call Autonomi. When used properly, the system will make general aviation safer and increase passenger comfort.  AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines wrote a great article about flying “behind” the new system, which can be found here: https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2020/january/pilot/hands-off

Right Seat Ready!© at AOPA Photo by David Tulis.

For over a decade, along with my partner Jan Maxwell, I have taught Right Seat Ready!© a companion safety seminar for non-pilots. Our goal is to educate those in the right and back seat on basic aviation, navigation and communication skills to get the airplane back on the ground safely should the left seat pilot become incapacitated. Two ancillary benefits for our attendees is the increase of comfort in the airplane and willingness to fly more often.  We also have a  proud record of turning three RSR participants into pilots and aircraft owners in their own rights.  Jan and I  have taught around the country for aviation groups, type-specific clubs and at the AOPA Regional fly-ins. The beginning part of the day focuses on the aforementioned topics. Sometime after lunch we change gears to the one decision that technology cannot make for us, the initial decision of whether to launch on a flight.

Right Seat Ready!© at AOPA Photo by David Tulis.

I am a member of MooneySpace, a lively forum of Mooniacs. After the launch of Autonomi, one member joked that Right Seat Ready!© would be out of business soon. Of course I knew they were only kidding, but it made me think about the amount of information we give our right-seaters to help assess whether their left-seat pilot is good to “go”. We train them to watch you and assess how you are doing. For much of the country, the weather is worsening, and we might be relegated to hangar flying for the next few months. Please take a look at this information and seriously consider your health and wellness. Here is a portion of the information we are teaching your right seat non-pilot, just a fraction. Please consider these items in your Go/No Go decision, the one decision that your parachute or auto land cannot make.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I love that airplanes have parachutes and auto land systems when the unthinkable happens. But as a practicing psychotherapist I also am keenly aware we can have blinders on when it comes to our own limitations. Please take a moment and read this article I wrote for AOPA Pilot on understanding the relationship between the psychology of life and the psychology of flight: https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2012/april/pilot/bouncing-back Your launch decision is the only one that cannot be made by the technology in your airplane. Your life and those that you love depends on that decision being the very best.

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