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Experimental Alaska weather product predicts clouds along routes

Update: October 10, 2019–This experimental period has been extended another 30 days, and will be available through November 8th.

A new generation of weather satellites is making it possible to help Alaska pilots anticipate weather along their route of flight.  An experimental Cloud Vertical Cross-Section (CVC) Product shows the estimated extent of cloud cover along a route, as well as whether the clouds contain ice, liquid or supercooled water.  These products are available on an experimental basis from September 11th to October 11th.  Check them out, and help provide feedback!

Background
Imaging sensors on new NOAA weather satellites are supporting R&D activities by NOAA and Colorado State University’s Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere to create a number of new weather products for Alaska.  While the rest of the country relies primarily on geostationary satellites, parked some 22,000 miles above the equator, they don’t provide very detailed information as you go toward the poles. At Alaska’s latitudes, we are better served with polar-orbiting satellites that make multiple passes per day sweeping over the state a little more than 500 miles overhead, capturing swathes of imagery as they fly by.  Image data from these passes are extracted, processed and used to create a new generation of weather products for Alaska.  Starting in mid-September, one set of these products is available to users for evaluation.

Entry page to the Experimental Cloud Vertical Cross-Section Product. Click on the highlighted link on this page to see what satellite passes covered Alaska.

Cloud Vertical Cross-Section (CVC)Product
Shortly after a satellite passes over a portion of the state, data from the sensors is extracted and processed to created a cross-section product.  Four routes that have been defined, to estimate cloud conditions between the cities of Anchorage and Bethel, Fairbanks and Juneau, plus a route from Fairbanks to Barrow (Utqiagvik).  With each satellite pass that covers some or all of these routes, a cross-section product is generated and made available through a website:

http://rammb.cira.colostate.edu/ramsdis/online/npp_viirs_arctic_aviation.asp

This window shows an animation of satellite passes over Alaska, used to create the CVC Product. It also provides an overview of synoptic weather pattern motion.

Navigating the CVC Product
To get a sense of how these products work, click on Pop-up Loop on the Overview with Flight Routes panel.  This animated loop will show the progression of satellite passes that covered the state, and which passes cover the defined routes.  It also provides a good depiction of the cloud cover over the last day or so. Use the controls on this window to change the animation speed, or to step through individual frames for an overview of weather system motion across the state. Times are listed in both UT and Alaska Daylight Time for your convenience.

A sample product from Anchorage to Fairbanks, depicting cloud conditions expected along the route.

Using the Route Product
After pursuing the overview, select a route of interest.  Either the HTML5 Loop or the Pop-up Loop launches an animation that steps through the products available for the route you picked.  Here too, the animation speed can be adjusted.  Or one can hit STOP and step through each frame individually.  This product is highly derived and is pulling data from several intermediate products that estimate cloud height, the cloud base, as well as the type of cloud they think will be present (water, ice or supercooled liquid).  Notice that at times there is missing data, color coded as light gray. In this case the product is not able to make a prediction.  The cross sections also have a backdrop of the terrain along each routes, and an estimate of the freezing level.

How you can help
As described, these are experimental products, and your help is needed to validate them.  First and foremost, please file Pilot Reports when you are flying anywhere within 50 miles of these routes.  During this experimental period, PIREPs are needed to help the science team learn about their accuracy.  Since they forecast the cloud base, as well as top, PIREPs for better than forecast conditions are needed, as well as those associated with icing, and cloud tops.  In addition, if you have questions or specific feedback, there is a Feedback link on the site which will put you directly in touch with the researchers involved in this effort.

This is an exciting step forward in providing weather information for aviation.  Please try out these new products during the 30 day experiment, and do all you can to help the science team understand how their products are working!

Alaska’s Fire Season isn’t over yet: Check for TFRs

With the unusually dry weather in south central Alaska, and rash of late season wildfires, Temporary Flight Restrictions are again popping up in different areas.  DNR has observed numerous light aircraft flying thorough TFR’s along the Parks Highway.

Please check TFR’s and stay clear when they are active.  While sources like SkyVector.com and tfr.faa.gov make it easy to see a visual representation of TFR’s and the scheduled active times, give a call to Flight Service for the current status.

The mid-air collision (or FAA infraction) you avoid, may be your own!

An example  TFR display on SkyVector.com showing the associated active times. Check with FSS for current status.

GA Safety in Alaska: A conversation with Robert Sumwalt and Richard McSpadden

Robert Sumwalt, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, is himself a pilot with extensive experience in the airline world.

The Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation and Alaska Airmen Association are continuing their Hangar Talk seminar series with a conversation on general aviation safety in Alaska. Taking advantage of having NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt and AOPA Air Safety Institute Executive Director Richard McSpadden in Alaska, you are invited to join us for a discussion on this topic. Moderated by the Airmen Government Affairs Liaison, Adam White, this session provides an opportunity to explore how Alaska aviation safety compares with the rest of the country, the unique challenges we face, and possible mitigations to help increase aviation safety in the state. It also provides a chance to understand how NTSB and the AOPA Air Safety Institute function and address aviation safety challenges. Bring your questions and join the conversation!

Richard McSpadden, Executive Director of the AOPA Air Safety Institute, has a strong background in GA, corporate and military aviation.

The session will be held on Thursday, Sept. 5, 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Alaska Airmen Association Building on Lake Hood.   Refreshments will be served. The session will also be broadcast by the Airmen on Facebook Live.

This event precedes the NTSB Roundtable: Alaska Part 135 Flight Operations, which takes place the following day, Sept. 6.  For information on that event see the NTSB Notice.

From How to Wow: Saying Yes to Opportunity

Welcome to Oshkosh 2019

2019 was my tenth year attending EAA Airventure in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I have flown commercially twice, but normally fly myself in my 1965 Mooney M20E, Maggie. It never fails to amaze me that I can leave the beaches of the Central Coast of California fly over the desert, up and over the Rockies, through the Great Plains, and then in to rich farmlands. What a gift to have the freedom to fly.

Kick your Bucket List to the Curb

I love brain stuff.  I study motivation, personality, flexible thinking and communication in order to help folks lead their best lives. I like working with people who are feeling overwhelmed, have high stress, or are unable to do the things in life that they want to. I know it can be daunting to live a life that is out-of-balance. So I help my clients around the country get ready for the next phase of their life. In my presentation Exit the Holding Pattern I explain how to identify new way points,  set a new course, and hit ENTER on your life plan.

In life there are “How” people and “Wow” people. Wow people are passionate, excitable, full of energy and see possibilities in life without knowing exactly how they are going to get there. How people are the folks who like to plan, measure, follow procedures and manage. Sometimes the How person gets stuck because they cannot see the path to their goals. I believe strongly that we are all given gifts. It is our job to determine the best use of those talents. For me, I had to change my experience of How into Wow for Oshkosh. Let me explain. A few weeks before I was to leave I found out that about 80% of my work had vanished. So I was left with the reality of having a pretty empty schedule and pocketbook from purchasing stock for my booth. After an initial, “What the heck?” I decided to re-calibrate my gyros and take advantage of opportunities that in years past I had to refuse because of work duties. I decided to turn the “how”, as in “How am I going to afford a week off work, paying for the apparel purchased, and expectations from others into a “wow?” Well it turned out that the Wow was pretty spectacular. I thought I would share some of the events that can only happen through aviation. Airplane people are the best people. My hope is that you might be inspired to strive to make more Wow moments in your life.

En route: Santa Maria, CA- Banning, CA-St. Johns AZ-Borger TX-Kansas City.MO-Middleton, WI

I was invited to a cool party called Rock the Ramp [Middleton, WI] by Cory Robin. Cory is a founding member of the STOL group the Flying Cowboys. The Cowboys are aviation ambassadors, no doubt about it. And from the looks of it, Wow people.

I had never been to Middleton, and never been to a party featuring the fun-loving Cowboys, so I did what every person committed to saying “yes” does. I booked a room at Middleton and flew IFR to the quaint airport just outside of Madison.

Chris Muntwyler and me

The airport was hopping, mostly with high wing bush planes. But soon enough I had landed and taxied up to the FBO. It was about 93 degrees and 100% humidity, but inside the FBO was air-conditioned and comfortable. The crew car was out, but I called the hotel and they said they would come and get me in the next 20 minutes or so.

Sitting on the couch was a friendly looking fellow with a European accent and next to him a younger fellow with a long beard. As is the case in most airports, a conversation ensued, and business cards were exchanged. My card has a photo of my airplane taken over OSH on a pro photo shoot. Chris Muntwyler, the Swiss living mostly in Sweden, said, said, “This airplane looks just like a Swedish girl I know.” I said, “Pia Bergqvist? She is one of my best friends. Our planes were both painted by ArtCraft Paint in Santa Maria, CA.”  Chris has an extensive aviation background having served on the boards of Swiss Air and Pilatus. We took a selfie for Pia.  Just like that, with a smile and a selfie, a new friendship was sealed.

Rock the Ramp

Rock the Ramp was a total blast. What a slice of GA. The fire department had a couple of different engines on display, there was a great BBQ, lots of bush planes, helicopter tours were buzzing, and a Polka band was playing. I got to visit with Chris bit more and he gave me a tour of an Aviat Husky. I also met up with Scott Lysne who is a long-time volunteer at Oshkosh. He asked if I wanted to volunteer on the smoke-oil team for the airshow performers. Guess what my answer was.

The Aviat Husky

Approach in to Appleton in Actual

 

 

This year I decided to fly into Appleton and park at Platinum Flight Center for the week. This was another IFR flight in actual conditions. There was a combination of very unstable air, turbulence and clouds. I asked for the ILS to runway 30. Little did I know but this would be my first approach in actual down to minimums. I know it has been said before, but when I looked up and saw the clouds part, and that runway right in front of me, it was like OH YEAH.

Mother Nature

Several years ago, I flew into OSH with the Mooney Caravan mass arrival. I made my own tie downs using 12-inch tent stakes nailed, crisscross, into angle iron and tied with ratchet straps. Maggie was parked in the number one grass spot just behind a hangar row, and there was a culvert right behind. There were about a half dozen airplanes tied down my row.  We knew a storm was brewing, but not the magnitude. Mother Nature was going to give us a show.

I headed over to OSH thinking I would be announcing the Mooney Caravan arrival, but the impending storm kept them safely on the ground in Madison. I went by the Mooney booth, dropped off a few things, then the storm hit. I was in the car backing out when cement blocks started flying, and sheets of rain pounded down. After lunch, the storm had passed and I felt I needed to drive back to Appleton to check on Maggie. I was greeted at the door by the same line guy who helped me tie down. “Maggie is fine” he said. One look at his face told me that something was terribly wrong. Arriving at the line, indeed my airplane was still firmly tied down. The story for the brand new XCub and Carbon Cub was not a happy one.

They had become airborne in their tie-downs when the wind shifted direction. Both planes tore loose and flipped over into the culvert. He said several of the line guys were trying to hold the airplane down until the wind changed direction. The owners of the planes were out surveying the damage and watching the mission to get the airplanes back on their wheels. Everyone was in good spirits, all pitching in. Metal and fabric could be replaced.

Smoke Oil Team

I met Scott Lysne at the Weeks Hangar [where many of the air show performers are located]. I received some safety equipment and a briefing and we were off. We filled up the Aeroshell Aerobatic Team, Sean Tucker, Kyle Franklin and a few more. It was such a hoot to be driving down the taxiway and to meet some of the performers. I know the thousands of volunteers needed for an event as large as Oshkosh, but it never occurred to me that smoke oil delivery was one of them. I ran in to Julie Clark at the Weeks Hangar and told her I what I was up to, “God bless you!” she said. Julie’s last performance at Oshkosh was stunning and moving. Since she is retiring from airshows, she told me she wanted to become more active in California Pilots Association of which she is a life-time member.

Toot Sweet: EAA Airventure Concert Band

I have played alto sax in the EAA Concert band for 8 or 9 years, I have lost count. There were 70 of us this year. Directed by Elton Eisele the band performs before the Tuesday airshow and have a Wednesday evening concert. We played music from the Greatest Showman, Captain America and the Avengers among others. I suppose my favorite part of being a volunteer in the band is when we perform Salute to America’s Finest a medley of all the armed forces hymns. As we play their tune veterans rise and the audience applauds. I always tear up and sometimes it is hard to continue playing. The camaraderie in the band is beyond compare.

Exit the Holding Pattern

The birthday girl, on her way to getting her PPL.

For the past few years, I have presented a one-hour workshop This fast paced, multi-media presentation explores human factors, brain science, and personality in decision-making, motivation, and follow-through. I had a lively audience at AOPA on Saturday, full of folks who wanted to become a pilot, get an airplane, earn a new rating, or make a business move. Exit the Holding Pattern has generous support from King Schools and Lift Aviation for door prizes. Malonie Ayers, who works at Sun ‘n Fun attended and it happened to be her birthday. She has always wanted to become a pilot, but as with many of us, the How got in the way. Malonie received a Wow birthday gift from King Schools in the form of a certificate for her Private Pilot course.

My computer decided that the 90 degree weather was just a bit much and it started lagging. I am pretty picky about my audio visuals, sound etc. with any presentation. The gremlin that was plaguing my system wasn’t about to give up. Instead of fretting, I decided to make the flaw an example of how humans prefer to think in known-patterns. Flexible thinking can be quite difficult. Our brains like to go down well-worn goat trails of thought. “Practice what you preach”, my Dad used to say to me. So with sweat on my brow, we laughed and soldiered on, saying yes to experience even when it wasn’t my preference.

Infinity and Beyond

Prior to Oshkosh I planned to go on holiday sometime in September. One of my best buddies from Oregon was going to come up with three possible destinations. Her only marching orders were: 1) must use passport; 2) must be beautiful; 3) cannot be Mexico or Canada [too close to home]. As the result of saying yes to life, friendships borne of Oshkosh, and generosity of my aviation family, we received a lovely invitation to go to Switzerland, do some GA flying in an Aviat Husky and maybe a Mooney,  tour the Pilatus factory and head to the South of France to stay in a 200 year-old farmhouse. We leave in early September. If that isn’t wow, I don’t know what is.

A lesson in “Diversity” for every pilot

Diversity: Understanding that each individual is unique, and recognizing our individual differences

With 7.71 billion people on our planet it’s hard to imagine we are all unique, especially when you consider that everything in the universe came from one unimaginably small singularity—the Big Bang. Even so, most of us look, sound, and act differently than anyone else.

Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) equipped aircraft are similarly unique, as each has an individual identification code derived from the aircraft’s registration number. This code is transmitted by each aircraft’s ADS-B device, along with position, altitude, speed, direction, and other data. This information is received, processed, and retransmitted by dedicated ground stations, allowing others to recognize and follow us wherever we go. The Citizen of the World will be tracked globally during her polar circumnavigation using ADS-B.

Neil Aviation, San Diego

Matt Desch, the CEO of Iridium, explained that in order for the Citizen of the World to be tracked at all times during her world peace mission connecting the South Pole to the North Pole and everywhere in between, she will need “diversity.” Diversity is implemented by installing a second ADS-B transponder antenna on the top of the airplane in addition to the antenna installed on the bottom. This will allow her to be tracked over the oceans (and any other location where there are no ground stations) by the constellation of 66 Iridium NEXT low earth orbit satellites that came online earlier this year.

Allow me to nerd out for a brief second. Real-time flight data is sent from the ADS-B transponders to the Iridium NEXT satellites, and through a partnership with Aireon the data is sent to ground stations for use by air traffic control and other entities. This data is also used by our friends at FlightAware.com, a website where you type in an aircraft’s registration number and can track its altitude, speed and location. Iridium NEXT has made possible a “100 percent” global air traffic surveillance system that will increase safety, enhance efficiency, improve predictability, expand capacity, and lower costs. These benefits will, in turn, result in a significant reduction of carbon in the atmosphere—the equivalent of removing 300,000 cars a year from the roads. This is a true win-win situation.

To showcase this capability, the Citizen of the World will be the first aircraft to be tracked globally using ADS-B during a polar circumnavigation.

Now do I have your attention?

While this seems simple enough in concept, in practice it is not. Although very few transponders are currently capable of diversity, the Lynx NGT-9000 from L3 is. It’s a very compact, yet robust system that provides ADS-B Out functionality along with ADS-B In traffic and weather. It has a bright, high resolution touchscreen and also offers terrain avoidance and active traffic. The NGT-9000 is packaged as either a transponder-sized panel mounted instrument or a remotely mounted box. Amazing!

Canada will soon require that all aircraft operating in specified airspace have ADS-B Out with diversity. This will enable them to use Iridium NEXT for air traffic control without the expense and complexity of ground radar installations and the associated infrastructure. You can see the writing on the wall. It’s just a matter of time until every country on the planet requires this.

Adding diversity capability to the Citizen of the World will not be straightforward because the antenna installation must pass through the pressure vessel, requiring extensive documentation by an FAA Designated Engineering Representative. These documents will be then be submitted to the local FAA Flight Standards District Office for approval.

Acquiring the ADS-B diversity equipment and designing and documenting the installation are relatively easy. The hardest part these days is finding an avionics shop that has time for an installation. Most shops are already booked to the end of the year with aircraft trying to meet the January 1, 2020 FAA mandate for ADS-B Out.

Neil Aviation in San Diego installed the panel on my former airplane, the Spirit of San Diego, as well as the Avidyne panel on the Citizen of the World. The owner, Garrett Neal, has stepped up once again to help me with diversity. Garrett saw the importance of our mission of One Planet, One People, One Plane, and realizes that the Citizen will have very high visibility as it undertakes its unique journey. He went out of his way to make time for this project. For that, I am incredibly grateful.

Is there a downside to ADS-B In/Out besides the initial time, cost, and frustration to install? There is speculation that the data collected might one day lead to changes in how the airspace system operates but we’ll need to wait awhile and see.

With respect to being unique, there are certainly advantages and disadvantages for both airplanes and for people. Only time will tell if the benefits outweigh the costs.

Errands at 15,000 Feet

To understand this flight, it becomes necessary to dial things back to last summer spent in Switzerland. I had a very specific list of things I wanted to fly to: the 82 peaks over 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) in the Alps, located in France, Italy, and Switzerland. I thought I had successfully completed the task, except when I went to work on writing the book, I noted that two were missing, and a third clump of peaks would be better suited with different photographs. How could I have come this far, photographed everything large I saw, and missed two? Well, I did that in Colorado back in 2014 when I chased the 58 fourteeners; I missed one and fortunately was able to get it before moving the airplane to North Carolina (it happened to be the closest one to the airport). The nefarious peaks in question in the Alps shared a characteristic of the lone peak of Colorado: They were some of the smallest on the list, thus appearing inconsequential when surrounded by their larger brethren.

I concocted the brilliant idea to get all three in one flight. The Aiguilles du Diable in France (4,074 meters/13,366 feet), Punta Giordani in Italy (4,046 meters/13,274 feet), and the Dürrenhorn in Switzerland (4,035 meters/13,238 feet). It should have been doable in theory, except there was this pernicious reality called an overcast over the Oberland. I figured it would be touch and go to get back to Saanen, so I planned on fueling in Sion if things delayed and that I’d sort it out if the overcast didn’t lessen as planned.

When I got to Gstaad Airport, there were plenty of airplanes flying around, including a PC-24 doing touch and goes. Given that it’s a VFR-only field, there must have been some egress out of the Oberland. I took off, planning to go west via Les Mosses, though there was a business jet up to something I wasn’t sure of, so I turned south over Gstaad, continuing to Gsteig, where a tiny hole in the overcast appeared. It was far too amorphous to climb through, so I continued west over the pass to Ormont-Dessus, then Leysin toward my escape to the sunny Rhône valley. From there it was a full power climb all the way to the Mont Blanc Massif, then eastbound past Grand Combin (4,314 meters/14,154 feet). Clouds were 40 percent coverage over the high peaks, requiring flying around them at 13,500 feet, with relatively clear skies elsewhere, meaning that they were orographic summer lift. I had originally hoped to blast straight to the Dürrenhorn from Saanen, except I now had to reverse the plan.

I came across the Matterhorn (4,478 meters/14,692 feet) in its illustrious cloud-forming glory, then had some angst that the Monte Rosa Massif appeared to be covered in clouds on the south side where Punta Giordani was hiding. It then occurred to me that there were clouds the other handful of times I swung by, and I probably didn’t notice this smaller peak because it was hidden. Thankfully, the clouds parted for a minute on the Italian side of the ridge, so I got my photo and moved on.

From there I went north back into Switzerland toward the Mischabel Group, in pursuit of the Dürrenhorn. Yet again clouds were billowing up, with Dom visible, though not Dürrenhorn below. Perhaps again the same thing happened? Well, no, upon recollection it was completely clear when I flew here last. The problem is the Dürrenhorn is not exciting compared to massive ice caps nearby.

I went over the ridge between two peaks shrouded in clouds, distracted a bit by the beauty of the scene, hoping I could come around the north side and swoop down to get the peak. Fortunately, the clouds were clear from the angle of the Nadelhorn, so after some fancy footwork around moving clouds, I got a shot and moved on.

Rhône Valley, clear of clouds. Altitude roughly 8,000 feet.

Massif du Chablais (10,686 feet). I showed my [nonpilot] wife this photo, and it might as well have been an image of an airplane crash.

Aiguilles du Diable, France (foreground), Mt. Blanc (ice cap-covered background). One can understand why, when I spent my time above the highest summit, that I didn’t notice these rocks below.

The Matterhorn (14,692 feet), from Italy.

Punta Giordani, Italy, yet again below. Signalkuppe (14,940 feet) was above and behind me.

Dom, Switzerland (14,911 feet) in the clouds, a pleasant surprise.

That meant Dürrenhorn (13,238 feet – how piddling) would be at risk of being shrouded. Fortunately it was clear enough to sneak a view.

Now that my errands were done, I had to figure out what I was going to do about getting back to base. I could see that the entire Oberland and Swiss Plateau were socked in from above, with no holes. I decided then that I’d burn off my excessive altitude by cruising west along the Bernese Alps and land at Sion. I requested permission to cross the TMA, which was granted, and then my ability to transmit stopped working.

I did the whole triple radio battery swap. No change. Tried other frequencies. No change. I could hear, just not speak. If I did the squawk 7600 routine, I’d be let into Sion, though likely not out until the radio was fixed. What a bother! I thought a bit about trying to make a go at Les Mosses and land at Saanen, where a radio was not needed. If the pass was open and no further problems developed, it would work, though that’s it, with no buffer for fuel. That was as dumb of an idea as it sounded, so I opted for Bex, a short grass strip which technically requires prior permission. I landed without incident and found that the radio problem was the mic connection dislodged lightly.

For the flight back into the Oberland, it was evident Les Mosses was open, as well was the overcast in the process of clearing. Since I know little about the vagaries of poor weather in Switzerland, I wasn’t going to play with all the things that could go wrong in high, steep terrain with overcast. At any rate, after almost four hours of technically challenging, ice cold, unpredictable flying, I decided that the flight was a silly idea. Did I really need to hit them all up in one binge session? “There is no reason this needs to be difficult. The next flight I am going to make enjoyable, period.”

Is this idiot whining about flying in the Alps? No, just disapproving of my own unrealistic ambitions. The mere fact that I have flown to these peaks in the past doesn’t make them easy in the future.

The view from 12,500 feet of the Oberland. Home base is in the distant right. 

Approaching the Rhône valley for landing at Bex, 9,000 feet below the cloud deck. Bernese Alps, Switzerland in the foreground, Mont Blanc, France (15,774 feet) in the background.

Les Mosses pass, flight altitude 5,600 feet.

I definitely lived up to my decision on the next flight five days later. Münster is a small field located high in the Goms Valley of eastern Valais (known as the “Texas of Switzerland”). It is open for June through August and is located at 4,400 feet in a deep valley. I contacted the airport manager, got permission (once I described my mountain experience), confirmed fuel, and set off.

Weather was uncharacteristically dry. There were almost no clouds or haze in the Oberland, which is unusual, with glorious blue skies. I had a rough idea of where I might go, though was only constrained by arriving at my destination before the fuel ran out. In flight, I saw that terrain on the northern edge of the Alps was completely clear, so I hung out at 7,700 feet and photographed major terrain from below, as I had hoped to do for last month’s post (and ended up above the clouds at 13,500 feet instead).

The flight was positively glorious.

I continued east over the Sustenpass, south to Andermatt, west to Furkapass, then down the Goms Valley, eventually to land at Münster once the glider traffic jam cleared up. Münster is practically heaven. Scenery was exquisite, with the sound of the turquoise rushing Rhône River alongside the airport, blue sky, remaining snow from last winter on a few peaks, and illustrious green trees and grass. If the airport was open year-round, I would have moved to that valley.

The airport manager asked where I was from, and when I said Upstate New York, he said he has relatives in Rochester. I pointed to the Cub and told him that “I soloed that airplane 45 minutes from Rochester.” Another pilot came over and we chatted for over 20 minutes. He did some training in Cubs in the Swiss military when he was young and was raving about how wonderful the airplane was. Some advice he was taught: “Make sure you come at a peak with the proper altitude in advance, as the airplane does not have the power to climb.”

He articulated his surprise that I showed up. “Who would imagine a Piper from America, here in Münster?” Well, I concur! I never imagined that this Piper would end up in the Valais, either.

I was going to head west and figure out a way to get over the Bernese Alps on the way back to Saanen. The problem was that there were a few orographic clouds, and wind was bumpy over the passes. I wasn’t sure about how to get over without getting beat up, so I decided on climb out to head over the Grimselpass. That was the right call as there was a fair amount of wind per the lakes at the pass, though no bumps. I then descended down to 1,000 feet agl over the Brienzersee, cruising right over Interlaken, then back into the Oberland for landing before the 8 p.m. deadline.

I had some time at the airport afterward, as I needed to change the oil and there were some aggravations to sort out, typical of being in a new place. That afforded a classic hour in evening light after a long day of flying. I was the happiest I have been since I can remember after a flight, rating it probably in the top ten of all time. I suppose the difference is merely perspective.

Golitschepass (7,148 feet) in the foreground in the Oberland, Bernese Alps in the background.

Oeschinensee (5,177 feet surface elevation). I am usually 6,000 feet or more above it after a Jungfrau binge.


Lauterbrunnen (below) with Mittelhorn, Schreckhorn, Eiger, Mönch, and the Jungfrau (left to right). Flight path was a bit right, straight ahead, then left beneath the peaks in the back.

Jungfrau (13,641 feet) from 7,700 feet altitude. To get a wide angle vertical of something so high above a high-wing airplane, it is necessary to bank 50 to 60 degrees to the left.

Across from Grindelwald, I came across an interesting opening in the mountain range.

So I went into it and found a veritable cathedral. 

Ischmeer, with Grosses Fiescherhorn (13,280 feet) in the rear. A bit of katabatic wind off the glacier, which is normal apparently when I get that close and they are that big. Still figuring that part out.

Ober Ischmeer. This was a very tight situation, even for a Cub. I could not discern my agl visually, as there were no trees, people, or buildings, so everything is subjective. Looking at Google Maps on terrain mode later, I figured out I was 500 feet above the glacier. 

Out of the cathedral. Rather vertical rock above Grindelwald, continuing east.

Three layers of mountains in the foreground. The valley to the Grimselpass eventually opens to the right. Winds got frisky in here.

Andermatt.

Grimselpass, from the south.

Münster, looking south. I was nearly scraping the trees on the other side of the airplane. It’s a Swiss thing….

Münster, looking north, scraping the trees behind me again.

Climbing out uphill…slowly. Goms Valley.

More altitude…still in the Goms Valley, with the Rhône River below and its headwaters on the horizon.

Grimselpass. A forced landing would be better suited with floats.

Interlaken, looking back up toward Jungfrau.

Climbing into the Oberland.

Gstaad, about to enter the circuit. 

The long wait to get home

I’ve touched on the challenges of commuting before. I recently endured a nightmare of an experience in trying to get home after a trip, and all I could say to myself is that I have been pretty lucky of late with respect to the (relative) ease of my commute to and from work. I was due for a “[t]here I was …” story, and this one more than filled the bill.

I finished a two-day trip at 12:15 p.m. in late July, and just missed a flight that was leaving at about the same time I was finishing. Not that it would have mattered, as it went out full with a jumpseater, but … still. I recognized a few of the names on the list of standby passengers, and I knew who would be trying the same strategies as me. Still, I headed to a different terminal for a different airline, hoping for the best. Unfortunately, one of the said pilots was already at the counter waiting for an agent so that he could list for the jumpseat on the 2:00 p.m. flight. All I could do was hope for the best. Unfortunately, this flight also left full.

My next option was a 3:45 p.m. flight, at my own carriers’ terminal. So, back I went and I was listed for the jumpseat. I should mention at this point that when I checked flights the night before the passenger loads weren’t great, but I was fairly confident about getting home. Unfortunately, that confidence was misplaced. Overnight I’m not sure what happened, but the loads went completely to pot, and getting home was going to be a challenge at best. The next day wasn’t much better.

In the meantime, I looked at alternative airports where I could either rent a car or have my wife drive and pick me up. They were even worse, with jumpseaters already listed (access is first come, first serve if it isn’t your own airline) and loads that were well over-sold due to flight cancellations.

Back to the 3:45 p.m. flight. Weather was the main threat, but I found out that the auxiliary power unit (APU) was broken, and while that normally would just be uncomfortable, in this case, it would be much more than that. Temperatures were in the upper 90s, which meant that the airplane would be well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Keeping passengers locked up for a long delay would be unconscionable. But, if they could fix it, I was assured of the jumpseat as long as the weight and balance didn’t become an issue on the E-145. I wasn’t the least bit confident that it would work out in my favor.

And then the weather hit. Rain. Monsoon-like rain. The airport ground to a halt. The 5:00 p.m. flight had no jumpseaters listed, and there was a possibility of one open seat. The downside is that it was far enough away that I was ultimately going to have to choose and gamble. I decided to go list for the 5:00 p.m. jumpseat, with the idea of coming back to the 3:45 p.m. flight in my back pocket if that would work out. Realistically, I knew I was basically changing my plans, but I had to get to that realization later.

Luckily, I got the jumpseat on the 5:00 p.m. flight, just beating out a friend of mine. About the time that occurred, the airport closed, and every flight was taking delays of no less than forty-five minutes. Then the weather went from bad to worse to nobody-may-be-going-anywhere worse. Rain, thunder, and lightning were the story of the day, but I’ll say this about the weather affecting the three New York area airports: Newark gets hit first, but it also reopens first. Finally, there was a break, and the public address systems were echoing with panicky gate agents trying to get wayward passengers back to their gates in order to board and leave. My flight was no exception, and we began boarding a bit after 8:00 p.m.

In the meantime, passengers that stayed the night or made alternative arrangements (thanks to a bribe) had left. Somewhere in the midst of all this my gamble paid off, as the 3:45 p.m. flight was canceled. My flight (the third option, if you’re keeping score) began to board, and I got on and introduced by myself to the captain, who it turns out was on his first trip as a captain and under the watchful eye of a line check-airman. My first question to them was how much duty time they had remaining. It turned out that they were legal until 3:00 a.m. the next morning. “The pilot in me feels your pain,” I said, “but the commuter in me is thrilled!” That got a knowing chuckle.

Oddly enough, there were enough seats that my buddy got on, as did a flight attendant who was also trying to get home, and I even got a seat in the cabin—I didn’t have to sit in the jumpseat! We weren’t entirely out of the woods yet, though, as we had to sit on the ramp and wait our turn to taxi, which took well over an hour. The ride was better than I anticipated. When I landed, the temperature was no longer pushing 100, but was instead struggling to hit 75 degrees Fahrenheit. I got home around 12:30 a.m., which meant that I had spent over 12 hours just trying to get home, eight of which were spent just trying to get on an airplane.

The adage was proven again: Don’t give up until you can be sure the aircraft will leave without you. There are three of us who can vouch for that.

Deficiencies in emergency training

I try to be pretty positive about life at the airlines, and for the most part, I am. This will be one of the few times I criticize both industry and the FAA.

Airline training is pretty intense, and some of it can be done in mind-numbing, excruciating detail. However, there are a few areas in which the training required by the FAA is all that is provided, and as a result, the training provided often is lacking. One of those areas is dealing with a water landing or a ditching.

Fortunately, such events are rare. Unfortunately, as a result of this rarity, and also as a result of the relative ease of US Airways Flight 1549 (the so-called Miracle on the Hudson), emergency water training for pilots has not been made a priority. The airlines usually only do the minimum required with respect to training because of the cost.

Flight attendants often get better training than pilots on ditchings, since the assumption is that they are the ones who will conduct the bulk of the actual evacuation. Flight attendants at major carriers are put through training in a pool with a raft and given an opportunity to get hands-on experience with life vests and other emergency equipment. Pilots…not so much.

So what is missing, and what to keep in mind? In a perfect world, where the flight deck crew finishes the landing with minimal or no injuries, and is able to actively participate in the evacuation, the following are points to keep in mind:

The life rafts are stored in the ceiling. In six years of training at a major, I’ve never seen what they look like when they are packed and sealed. I have no idea how heavy they are (I’m guessing about 80 pounds minimum), or how awkward they would be to move from the ceiling and out the door to the water.

Once in the water, there is no “upside down,” as the rafts are designed to be used no matter which side faces up. That said, the sides are fairly high, so I can only speculate what it must be like to try to get in one of these rafts from the water while wearing a full uniform or even a coat. Add to this the possibility of dealing with frigid water temperatures and you can imagine how smoothly this isn’t going to go in real life.

There are ways to work together to get into the raft and once one or two people are in, they can help the rest get in relatively quickly. Getting those first couple in may prove challenging, especially in rough water.

With respect to some of the other equipment that is available, like portable radios, knives, first aid kits, flashlights, et cetera, we are shown them in a classroom, on tables, but we are never given a chance to use them, and we aren’t forced to find them in the airplane. Given how poorly humans respond in situations of great stress, this is a huge shortcoming.

Some of the emergency evacuation training deficiencies go beyond just water landings. In almost 23 years of airline flying, I’ve never had to partake in a simulated evacuation of the cabin. As mundane as this would be in normal circumstances, imagine what it would be like trying to do this while putting on a protective breathing equipment hood in a cabin that is filling rapidly with smoke. Now imagine being forced to help a passenger with a serious injury try to evacuate—someone with a broken leg or even unconscious. We are exposed to none of this. Further, none of our training is done jointly with the cabin crews.

Airline training covers a gamut of scenarios, and most of what we do is done well, but some of the emergency possibilities are extremely limited. It comes down to each of us to think through some of these scenarios to determine the best courses of action, with the realization that some people will freeze and others will panic. The possibility of a water event strikes close to home for me because I spent a few years doing nothing but overwater flying. Even now, I spend a lot of my time on Atlantic routes, and I fear for the day when an airplane is forced to ditch and a crew begins to realize just how poor their training for such a scenario has been.

If I had my druthers, water and emergency training would be required for every new hire, for each airplane change, each upgrade, and every two years that follows. That training would take place in a wave pool and in a simulated cabin fire, and it would require the use of as many pieces of emergency equipment as possible. Further, pilots would be required to learn and demonstrate basic CPR skills, which we don’t have to do currently (flight attendants do).—Chip Wright

Switzerland

We decided to head to Switzerland again for the summer, which presented the obligation of flying the Cub there. The first weekend I chose had the unfortunate reality of being infernal heatwave in Europe, where temperatures in France reached 113F and 102F in Cerdanya, exceeding the previous high that I had experienced in the Pyrenees of 95F. It is generally a temperate place without extremes, so this was pretty warm. After my punishing trip to Texas in the heat, humidity, and thermals of an early Southern heatwave a month prior, I wasn’t in the mood to repeat myself, so I delayed.

A window showed up to go a week later, with sunny weather in the Pyrenees, France, and the western Alps, so I took my chances, even though it was supposed to be warm.

As the day approached and I undertook flight planning exercises, I noted a trepidation brewing, which caused me initially to do a thorough check of the airplane a couple of days before leaving. Was this some sort of deep intuition about a problem that I was ignoring? On careful examination, it occurred to me that I had pause crossing France, which I didn’t understand, as I had done it five times in the past. One factor is that, each time, I insist upon going a slightly different way, as the southern half of France features a wide variety of things to see in a narrow band of 75 miles. That adds technical burden to the flight, some of which I forget about each time, inclusive of a French fuel card, special military zones to be checked, flight plans, a byzantine web of restricted areas unlike anything in America, fuel status of airports, landing and handling fees, language restrictions, and a flight plan for customs clearance into Switzerland.

Now I knew what my problem was: crossing France is a tremendous amount of work where lots can go wrong. One could easily find himself marooned at an airport with no ability to fuel and not enough fuel to make an alternate, meaning an early night in a hotel.

The departure out of the Pyrenees was interesting, as a morning inversion developed, which I could clear easily, only to plunge into MVFR Saharan dust that was in a layer 6,000 feet and higher, a first where the haze is only at high altitude. At one point I was concerned it would go IFR, and then it suddenly cleared to a hot and hazy summer day over the French foothills. Proceeding north, it was quite hot, so I stayed up at 5,000 feet, descending slowly once I got past some Mediterranean hills. As I approached a control zone, I asked for clearance from flight following to get through it (something they usually will relay). I was handed to Rodez Info, who told me there “is a strike today in Clermont-Ferrand, so there will be no Info service.” I tried calling the tower and was too far away, so I ducked under the cake, now tossed around in heat and thermals.

This went on awhile as I approached the highlands of the Massif Central near the Cantal Mountains. It is a dormant stratovolcano which has partially eroded away, creating some interesting faux above timberline terrain. Since Info service was on strike, I couldn’t get status of the restricted area, which meant I couldn’t quite see the peak I wanted to overfly. Hot and sweaty after my low altitude jaunt around Rodez, bumped by thermals, wishing I was at my destination, I began to lose faith in the gospel of aviation that ‘more flying is better.’

Fuel was at Saint-Flour, then off to the eastern Massif Central timberlands, down to the Rhône River for my ceremonial crossing, a reflection of past stories while sneaking by Grenoble’s airspace, glancing at fertile farmlands that I recall distinctly from the flight down from Germany in 2016.

Cantal Mountains, France. Maximum elevation 6,086′.

Timberlands in eastern Massif Central. Trees look quite healthy and there is some logging activity.


Crossing the Rhône River.

Farmland in the Rhône River valley.

Fuel was a GA airport outside of Chambéry, choosing a non-controlled field to avoid the mile walk required to pay a 5 euro landing fee at the larger airport north of town. Instead the field was a “French only” airport, a reality one must contend with in places in France, where all radio communication is strictly in French. It was a poor day to arrive, as gliders were swarming like gnats. I waited until traffic subsided, slipped in for fuel, noticing a very specific indifference by individuals on the ground, and after 15 minutes of glider winch activity and landings, found a window to takeoff for the final leg into Switzerland.

My questions about whether I was enjoying myself went away once I began cruising in the Pre-Alps a few minutes later. It is technically a separate mountain range that looks like the foothills of the Alps. Elevations tend to top out in the 4,000’ to 8,000’ range, with thick pine forests, exposed rock, and occasional ridges that look like the Alps.

The Pre-Alps gave way to the Chablais Alps at the border of Switzerland, and my disposition went from fatigue to pure joy. Vertical spires of rocks, small glaciers, remaining June snow, and thunderous waterfalls abounded. I climbed to about 8,000 feet to swing by the Massif du Chablais, a ridge that taunts us from the chalet in Switzerland, and from there swung by Les Diablerets and made my cruise into the Bernese Oberland, to land at Gstaad Airport, where the airplane will spend the summer.

Col de Bornette in the French Pre-Alps. I came from the left and crossed this same pass when flying to Switzerland last year.

Mont Fleuri, France, still in the Pre-Alps (8238′ / 2511m).

Mont Blanc in the background.


Switzerland, how I love you.  Les Dents Blanches (8533′ to 9042′ / 2601m to 2756m).


Massif du Chablais.

Bernese Oberland.

I was extremely content with my choice of location, and after literally “planes, trains, and automobiles,” I was back in Cerdanya the next day, and we drove to Switzerand the day after that. A few days after arriving a nice day was forecast, at least with respect to the fact it is sunny. I am still trying to figure out why one front means clear air, or another means a sunny day with incredible haze, or it means haze in one elevation or area, yet not in another.

Anyhow, I hoped to photograph Lake Geneva in summer light angles, though the morning showed sunny skies with horrific haze. I decided to go up anyway and “swing by the Jungfrau but at an altitude that isn’t 14,000 feet.” Given that it was to be sunny, I figured I could get some angles that never really made sense to try while based in Sion, as terrain is something quite severe and takes a lot of fuel to climb Sion over the Alps, back down to where humans live, then back up over the Alps, and quickly back down to normal elevations.

It didn’t take long in the air to decide I needed to clear the clouds over the Oberland, which I did in a hole over a massive waterfall in Adelboden. From there, the clouds were 50% coverage and clearly went to 11,000 feet, so I’d have to clear them. I wanted to see the Jungfrau, and it would be even better if it was sticking out above the clouds. Snaking east, I climbed as I went, hugging terrain, avoiding clouds, and thoroughly enjoying myself. Eventually I popped out at 12,000’ north of a sizable glacier, noting that the clouds were effectively piling up on the north side of the Bernese Alps and getting pushed to higher altitude, drying out on the south side. I finally did get to see the Jungfrau, after climbing to 13,500’, staying on the north side due to a stiff breeze. The air at altitude had perfect visibility, and stunning views.

On the way back west along the ridge, I noted that the clouds had thickened significantly, with less holes and higher heights. It was still clear to the south via the passes, and north out of the Oberland. Eventually I found a hole between Adelboden and Frutigen and corkscrewed down 3,000’ and popped over the pass towark Lenk-Simmental. Humidity and haze had increased greatly under the cloud deck causing carb ice at cruise RPM, though it was restricted to where it piled up against the Alps, indeed an interesting microclimate, as things were dry on the other side in the Rhône valley near Sion and drier 10 miles north of the base of the Bernese Alps. Anyhow, I cruised along the menacing looking ridge before slaloming around Oberland peaks and finally joining the circuit over a rather vertical rock just north of the airport.

While the first flight was one of technical requirement, to get from one point to another, it turned out to be the best and the worst at the same time. I think I can, at this point, finally declare that I do not like cruising at low altitude in thermals on hot summer days (it has taken long enough to cement that preference) yet alongside that displeasure I find the utter transcendental bliss of flight above glaciers well above 10,000 feet, which is simply the most enjoyable thing I have ever done in an airplane.

Rüwlispass (5636′ / 1718m).

Waterfalls above Adelboden.

Gemmipass (7447′ / 2270m).

Hockenhorn, hiding in the clouds (10803′ / 3293m). I gave up trying to climb over it, went to the right in the lee of the pass, and climbed above the clouds in the distance.


Et voila! Üsser Talgletscher. 

Same glacier, looking the other way.

Eiger (13024′ / 3970m). So much for the plan to “photo from below on a clear day.” Its not like I find this disagreeable.

Jungfrau (13642′ / 4158m).

Bernese Alps with clouds backed against them to the north.

And down through the hole above Adelboden.

Cruising along the ridge, where my O-200 turned into an ice machine.

CFIT poster.

Beneath Les Diablerets.

Entering the pattern for Saanen. Standard procedures call for flying above an enormous rock, then making a square pattern around Gstaad. Its a wild airport.

Pilot on-the-job injuries

Every job has its hazards, and airline flying is no different. You wouldn’t think that something as benign as flying could at times be so risky—and I’m not even referencing the possibility of an accident. In twenty-three years of airline flying, I’ve seen both predictable and unpredictable on-the-job injuries, all of which call for some increased vigilance. Here are some examples.

A fellow first officer was getting out of the cockpit seat of a Brasilia, which has a very narrow space between the center console and the seat. There was an art to placing your inside foot in such a way that you could stand, pivot, and turn to get out. This guy’s foot got stuck in the worst place at the worst time, and as his weight shifted forward, his foot stayed still. He shredded several ligaments in his knee, which required extensive surgery and a lengthy rehab and absence from work. It was more in line with what you’d see in a bad football injury, but it forever changed the cavalier way in which any of us who were there that day get in and out of a seat. The pain on his face as he sat waiting for an ambulance is hard to forget.

In the pre-iPad days, with flight bags that routinely weighed more than 40 pounds fully loaded, shoulder injuries were very common. Bag stowage in the flight deck was often a secondary consideration of the manufacturer, if it was a consideration at all. Too often, in the interest of expediency, pilots would just reach around their seats and heft the bag out of its location, and anyone could see the potential for an injury. Repeat this act several times a day, and the risks just magnified. At my regional, it was even worse, because the bag had to be picked straight up at least 6 inches just to clear the hole it sat in. Imagine twisting your body 90 degrees, using the outside arm, and trying to get the leverage to lift 40 pounds straight up before pulling it toward you and twisting some more. While shoulders were the most common problem, lower backs and elbows were also affected. It became so expensive in terms of health costs that the parent airline began to work toward a transition away from such heavy bags, and those costs are a common argument made by most airlines as a driving force toward electronic flight bags.

Speaking of bags, several pilots suffered injuries while trying to do more than just their jobs. In an effort to help mitigate the impact of delays on both the company and the passengers, pilots have taken it on themselves to help load or unload luggage, especially valet-tagged bags that passengers are eagerly awaiting before they move on to their connections. Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished, and several pilots have been hurt. To add insult to the literal injury, the company refused to honor workers compensation or to cover the medical expenses because the pilots were outside the bounds of their jobs. While most of these refusals of help result in such a loud cry of outrage the company is forced to reverse its decision, it doesn’t always work out that way, especially after the warnings are given. If it isn’t in your job description, think twice before you do it.

When regional jets were first introduced, very few used jetways, so boarding and deplaning required the use of air stairs on the door. When it rains, air stairs get wet and slippery. Imagine the potential with the aforementioned 40-pound flight bags while trying to navigate the air stairs during a driving rainstorm. I’m here to tell you that it’s a hoot and a half—until somebody gets hurt. More than one pilot and flight attendant has fallen (either forwards or backwards) from the air stairs, sometimes resulting in broken ankles, mangled knees, or even head injuries, to say nothing of torn uniforms. You didn’t even need to be carrying a bag, as the steps are steeper than standard, and slipping was all too easy.

One injury that didn’t take place on the job, per se, occurred in a hotel during a layover, when a pilot was asleep in a hotel and suffered a bite on his ankle from a brown recluse spider. It was right before his alarm was scheduled to go off, so he got dressed and decided to work the flight home. By the time he landed, nearly three hours after the bite, his foot and ankle were so swollen he had to take his shoe off and needed emergency transportation to the hospital. His delay almost cost him his foot, but he eventually made a full recovery and returned to work.

The most avoidable injuries seem to occur in vans and cars taking crews to and from hotels. While accidents are relatively rare, they do happen, and most of the injuries come from not wearing seat belts. A crew getting a ride to the airport on a foggy morning was involved in a single-vehicle accident when the van driver lost track of his location and took the van over the curb. The van driver suffered no injuries, but all of the crew did, as none of them were wearing seat belts.

Pilot on-the-job injuries often come from the files of the absurd, silly, or even humorous, but those affected are rarely laughing. You need to keep your vigilance up, keep a comfortable cushion of hours in your sick bank, and if your company offers short-term disability insurance, you should have it. When you see a situation in which the potential for injury is clear or obvious, use the appropriate means to report it and suggest changes. If the company refuses to consider your suggestion and something happens, you can at least have it on record that you tried to make a positive change.

If nothing else, always wear your seat belts and be careful in the rain.—Chip Wright

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