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Outward looking mastery vs. inward looking precision

Outward looking mastery vs. inward looking precision: musings about the differences between Commercial and Instrument flight

In 2017 I decided it was the year to complete my long started, then stopped, then re-started process of attaining my instrument rating.  I chronicled the process in Gotta get that Rating.  2020 dawned with promise of the commercial certificate and we all know what happened to those promises.  Yet on July 5th 2020 I passed my commercial check ride in the beautiful Columbia River Gorge, where I learned to fly some 18 years ago.

Inward focused precision

I recently flew another round-trip to Oregon which was 90% IMC due the massive wildfires.  My route was pretty much right up the gut of California, in between the TFRs and on in to Oregon.  The situation in the Northwest wasn’t much better as wind driven wildfires began to pop up in Central Oregon.  Hand-flying 5 hours on instruments in my Mooney M20E with no autopilot is mentally exhausting.  On the way to my fuel stop I was given delay vectors and a hold for the [RNAV] approach. The airport was covered in dense smoke with visual contact only 30 feet above minimums.  I was never so happy to see a VASI.  I flew the ODP out and was happy to finally get above the smoke at 8K. The visibility on the trip home was much worse.  In the 5.5 hours of flying I only had ground reference for the first and last 30 minutes of the flight.  As I shot the RNAV into fuel stop [Yuba airport] I was just so grateful that I had great flight instruction, a solid IFR platform in the Mooney, and the ability to focus my attention [mostly] inside the airplane.

Flying in IMC requires extensive planning,  mental discipline, ability to follow instructions from ATC, and constant focus on your instrument scan.  In contrast the commercial relies on the artistry of looking outside, focusing on smooth flying and planning for the safety and comfort of your passengers.  In no way am I saying that instrument and commercial flying don’t share characteristics, but for me, it seems like I am using different parts of my brain for the nuanced differences.

Outward focused mastery

On one of the last days of my commercial training I was flying from the LA Basin [Fullerton] to French Valley [F70] airport.  I had done some of the planning for this short hop noting the location of the freeways, surrounding terrain, lake, and direction of the airport from town.  As usual, I had my IPad on with Foreflight, and the 530W proudly displaying the magenta line to F70. About ten minutes into the flight my instructor, Mike Jesch, fiendishly turned the 530 to another page and disabled the geo-referencing on the IPad.  He said, “Now what are you going to do?”  What I did next was an example of my instrument training as I slowed the airplane down, centered VORs and triangulated the location of the airport based on radials.  It took me at least two minutes of looking out, then in, out then inside.  Mike gently said, “Is there anything else you could be looking at, perhaps outside?”  Then it dawned on me to locate the freeway I was following, to identify the hills before the airport and the lake that was off in the distance. I also noted that if this was a real situation on a commercial flight, I would have let ATC know of the failure and asked for a vector to confirm what I was seeing on the ground.

When in doubt, look out

Flying to commercial standards is all about smoothness, precision, and planning for passengers.  Training was intensive and consisted of the learning and demonstration of the elements included in the ACS.  Folks had told me that I would love flying the “fun” commercial maneuvers [chandelle, steep spiral, lazy 8, 180 power off landing, steep turns, 8s on pylons etc.].  I didn’t really experience the “fun” part of it until the very last day of training with Mike.  As I was demonstrating elements for my check ride prep, I found myself zooming down during a lazy 8 and thought, “Yeah, this is fun being totally in control of this airplane.”

Yes! This is fun.

As I prepared for my Commercial check ride, there was a distinct change in my thought process from “do as you planned, or are told by ATC” instrument flying toward what I call, “Pro-Pilot” thinking. My DPE gave me the following cross-country scenario:

So much for an easy fire season– lightning has sparked a big wind-driven fire over by Sandpoint, ID, causing a bit of a panic. Newly hired by a Part 135 group that has extensive Forest Service contracts, you have been tasked to fly two Incident Commanders from your base, The Dalles OR (KDLS), to the Sandpoint airport (KSZT) in your aircraft, where they will join the hastily assembled Hot Shot crews waiting to take on the fire. You have recently noticed that your turn coordinator has been really noisy on startup, but you have not had an opportunity to have it checked out. The firefighters think they weigh around 180lbs and plan on taking roughly 60lbs of gear each. They really need to be in Sandpoint by noon, so plan accordingly.

 As a private pilot you would, of course, think about inoperative equipment, weight, fuel, weather and routing, but as a Pro-Pilot I planned around:

  • passenger comfort
  • weighing passengers and luggage
  • loading of passengers/bags for CG
  • prevailing weather, wind, smoke conditions
  • scenic , yet efficient route
  • communication with passengers re: expectations of flight
  • route with less potential for turbulence
  • instrument currency/approaches if needed
  • route near airports/highways
  • choosing alternate airports with rental cars, calculated driving distance
  • timing details to get the firefighters to Sandpoint by noon

It goes without saying that the instrument and commercial check ride differed greatly. However, knowledge of systems, safe practices, and aeronautical decision making were very much the same.  Instrument flying is challenging due to the lack of visual cues and intense focus inside the airplane.  Commercial flying is challenging because you must focus on the safety and comfort of your passengers, who see an airplane as merely a mode of transportation.

Gaining my instrument rating made me a better, safer, pilot.  The rating has increased the quality of my flying life.  The commercial certificate opens up the pro-pilot part of my flying career.  Both have changed me for the better.  Now I am focused on the multi-engine Commercial rating in late September. Then I promised myself I would get the rest of 2020 for fun flying.

Remember that a great pilot uses both mastery while looking outside the airplane and thoughtful precision while looking inside.  Whether you are thinking about getting a new rating or certificate or purchasing a plane or club ownership this time, where we are home-based might be the perfect opportunity. I hope to see you all out there in 2021.

 

 

Flying the world in living color

When I started the pole to pole mission on November 16th, 2019, which seems like a lifetime of challenges ago, my team and I were clear on our mission of “One Planet, One People, One Plane: Oneness for Humanity.” One of our primary goals was, and continues to be, to see the similarities in people, not the differences.

As I learned on my previous circumnavigation in 2015, I knew the universe would present me with many opportunities and challenges along the way that would test me and my ability to connect with people of different cultures and beliefs—along with a million other things—and hopefully expand my awareness and growth so I could be of greater service to the world.

After successfully crossing the South Pole with its many challenges I felt I had completed the hardest part of the polar circumnavigation and the rest of the trip would be the “Global Victory Lap.” As I was hit by overwhelming challenge after challenge on the South Pole leg, I kept asking myself, “How hard does this have to be? How strong do I need to be? What are you preparing me for?”

What I’ve come to realize is that the South Pole crossing merely served to break me open to be ready for what was to come. As weeks of coronavirus quarantine in Spain turned into months, it became clear that all those South Pole challenges were preparing me to respond to the coronavirus and its impact on humanity and the earth and our mission of global peace. The virus has seemed to split the world apart with great intensity. Many countries have gone it alone by closing off their borders. Isolation seems to have become the solution to our global problems. From my perspective, locking ourselves away, hunkering down, and fighting the natural order of things to move and grow has become a new normal for the world.

While traveling over the past five years to more than 50 countries and working with over 100 sponsors and numerous aircraft mechanics and governments around the world, I’ve learned global issues can’t be solved by working independently—interdependence and collaboration on a local and global level are what build and strengthen relationships and economies. COVID-19 has given humanity an opportunity to come together to find a solution. The world, unfortunately, appears to have missed this lesson and is paying the price as more issues have been created with this contraction and resistance to the natural order of life. Fear has escalated to panic and riots, business decimation, and suicides, while the expansion of political and military control worldwide has ensued.

Clearly, I’m not a political expert, nor do I pretend to be, and I don’t know how things will ultimately turn out and what we as a global community are meant to learn through all this, but I am a global traveler in the Citizen of the World with an impossibly big dream of world peace. Our vision of connecting the South and North Poles and everybody in-between is more important than ever and we hope it serves as an empowering example of connection, collaboration, and possibility in a time when it is sorely needed. As I spoke with local people in the cities I visited about what it means to be a “Citizen of the World for the World,” it has never been more apparent that we are in this together, and our shared humanity is what makes the world go round.

Another big lesson I learned, again from my first circumnavigation, is that all people regardless of their color share a common desire for safety, family, happiness, financial security, health, joy and happiness, and most importantly, love. The way to experience these things, especially when facing fear and adversity, is not by turning away or striking out against each other but by working together courageously with an intention of uniting in our similarities and appreciating our differences. This solidarity creates a better outcome for everyone that reduces fear, encourages understanding, and brings people and our own conflicted minds together in oneness with solutions-based thinking.

Shortly after a Chilean Air Force C-130 mysteriously went down over the Drake Passage on the way to Antarctica with 36 souls onboard, I was advised to wait until after the Chilean government knew what happened since this stretch of airspace was on my route to and from the South Pole. I felt fear arise while I considered the risks and the potential delays and ultimately chose to trust in my plane, myself, and our mission, and I flew. When the cyclone was about to overtake Madagascar, and I felt fear rise up again, I faced it, and again I flew. When Spain was locked down tighter than anywhere else in Europe as it became the epicenter of the coronavirus, I encountered resistance every step of the way, and continued to remind myself of our mission of global peace and that all impossibly big dreams have risks to be considered and dealt with, and then I flew. I chose to fight the urge to contract and instead focused on my purpose, expanded my love of Life and trusted in Universe to guide me.

I share all this with you, not to impress you (well, maybe a little) but in hopes of inspiring you during these contracting times to hold your impossibly big dreams close and keep working on yourself to let go of limitations and embrace your possibilities. I won’t pretend these choices have been easy for me; in fact, I’ve been terrified at times. But what keeps me going is wanting to help as many people as possible around the world overcome their fears and take the courageous action that is needed to experience all that Life has to offer.

Our Flying Thru Life team is dedicated to being a living example of what is possible when people from all countries work together. Rather than running from challenges, when uncertainty and difficult times show up, we revisit our ideals and support each other through them. This is what we stand for. This is who we are. This is what we dream of for the world.

We are all stronger together. As “Citizens of the World for the World,” we rededicate ourselves to our global community and our mission of “One Planet, One People, One Plane: Oneness for Humanity.”

Some of the new normal

As I write this, we are five months plus into the COVID-19 saga. As you already know, it has had a devastating impact on a number of business sectors, with the airlines being among the hardest hit. In response to the virus as well as the concerns of the passengers, there have been some changes, and there is a chance that some of these—if not all—will become permanent changes.

First and foremost is the way the airplanes are cleaned. Prior to COVID, the concept of an electrostatic sprayer was totally foreign to travel. Now, it is quickly becoming commonplace. In addition, more deep cleaning is taking place when the planes aren’t flying. A recent change implemented for at least two airlines calls for running the auxiliary power unit (APU) on the ground more than was the previous practice. The aircraft all have HEPA filters, and the onboard air conditioning system can cycle the air from the whole plane in a matter of minutes. The conditioned air from the jetway isn’t HEPA-filtered, although that may well change in the future as well, especially as the fuel bills for the APUs mount.

Currently, employees are subjected to daily temperature checks, and some are even expected to take their own thermometers to work in order to self-administer daily temperature checks. Chances are that this practice will go away in time, but for now, it is part of the new normal.

Due to the severe decrease in flying, aircraft are being rotated in and out of storage. Airplanes are designed to fly, and sitting doesn’t do them any good. While it is possible to catch up on any lingering maintenance issues, flying is the best maintenance of all. Not every plane in every fleet will get used, but rotating them in and out of service can keep more of them flying and ease the transition back to normal operations as demand returns.

Food service has changed as well. There are no cooked meals or any meals that require personal handling such as salads or fruit. Currently, pre-packaged snacks are the only option for most passengers, and this isn’t likely to change until there is a reasonable degree of certainty that we have reached herd immunity or widespread use of a vaccine.

The most obvious change is the requirement to wear masks. Airline employees are currently expected and required to wear masks pretty much whenever they are in uniform or on the clock. This is both for the protection of the employee and those they interact with, as well as a way to encourage passengers to wear theirs. I’m sure the mask requirement will eventually ease, but I would not be surprised if there is a requirement to have a mask handy to use in case someone shows signs of illness, even if it’s just a cold. In addition to the masks, more and more plexiglass dividers are showing up, but those may or may not remain later.

The new normal in the future will likely consist of at least the enhanced cleanings, and possibly some changes in air filtration systems. All of this will be reflected in the price of tickets, but it will all be in the name of safety. This will be especially true as scientists and doctors get more and more data about the behavior of the coronavirus. All we can do is wait and see.

Special engine out procedures, Part 2

There is an old adage that says that being a single-engine pilot minimizes your decision making in an emergency, and there is some truth in that. If your only engine fails, you’re landing.

In a multiengine airplane, you may or may not have options. In a turbine-powered airplane, assuming you have properly loaded the plane and give due deference to published performance data, you will indeed have options. This is especially true on takeoff.

In the FAR Part 121 world that is the airlines, there are certain performance criteria that an airliner must be able to meet, and one of them is the ability to comply with the four segment climb in the event that an engine fails during the takeoff. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem. A properly trained crew can lose the use of one engine, maintain control of the plane, and fly it off the ground safely and figure out where the best place to land will be.

Sometimes, though, terrain or obstacles (or both) preclude the straight-out departure. In this case, there needs to be an alternative procedure. The airlines and manufacturers work the engineers to produce viable options.

These are then tested in the simulator (and probably in a few cases in the real airplane). The procedures are then tweaked and validated and are published. However, they aren’t available in the public domain, because each procedure is ‘owned’ by the airline and/or the manufacturer. Jeppessen, which is the primary producer of aeronautical charts, publishes the procedures as “10-7” pages. And it’s possible that two companies flying the same airplane may have different procedures at the same airport.

Common airports for 10-7 pages, also known as special engine-out procedures, are Las Vegas, Phoenix, or Reno. Most of the time, the issue is terrain, but not always. In a few cases, like Washington National, there may be another issue. Departing Runway 1 at DCA, the issue is Prohibited Area 56 and the fact that a straight-out departure would put you square in the middle of the airspace that protects the White House and the U.S. Capitol.

But terrain is the most common driver of 10-7 development. When I was at the regionals, we had a 10-7 page for Reno that was incredibly complex. The only way to really fly it safely was to brief the first turn and the associated altitude, and then plan on having the nonflying pilot provide a progressive reading of the steps as the flying pilot attempted to fly. In a place like Reno or Vegas, the weather is almost always VFR, so you can plan to maintain visual separation from the rocks. But this isn’t always the case.

Here’s the rub: 10-7 pages are not something the tower is going to be familiar with, so if you have to fly a single-engine procedure, you’ll need to tell the tower that you’re going to be flying a company-specific procedure due to an engine failure. In a high-traffic area, this can get exciting. The best thing you can do is tell the tower to stand by, and do what you need to do to get to a safe altitude and a place where you can trouble-shoot and figure out your plan for getting back on the ground.

A couple of other notes about 10-7 pages: They are often used for a single-engine missed approach as well; and different fleets at airline X may well have different procedures. In fact, it’s possible that some fleets will need a 10-7 page, and others will not.

As a new airline pilot, you can expect an early introduction to 10-7 pages and how to brief them. You’ll also likely get a taste of at least one in the simulator. But, better to see it there for the first time than on the line!—Chip Wright

This is part 2 of a two-part series. See Part 1 here.-–Ed. 

Neither rain nor COVID defeats practice runway at Fairbanks

It took a little longer than normal, but despite setbacks with weather and equipment, the practice runway is set up at Fairbanks International Airport. Only five days before the start of sheep hunting season, pilots again have an 800 by 25-foot wide strip to brush up on short field operations before heading to the field.

Background
For the past nine years, a partnership between the Fairbanks General Aviation Association (the airport user group) and Fairbanks International Airport and other local aviation stakeholders including volunteers from the Ninety Nines, EAA, Alaska Airmen Association and the UAF Aviation Technology Program has provided an enhancement on the gravel runway. This gravel runway is referred to as the “ski strip” because during the snow-covered months it is used exclusively for ski equipped aircraft. During the summer, this 2,900-foot by 75-foot gravel runway sees a lot of use by tail draggers, especially those with big tires that have an aversion to pavement.  In 2011 the FAA Airports Division approved a Modification to Standards allowing the runway to be marked by painting two by four-foot rectangles on the gravel to outline a simulated much smaller “bush” runway.  The rectangles are spaced at 100-foot intervals, providing a convenient reference to estimate landing or take off distances.

Paint being applied to the runway, while other members of the crew move a second template to the next mark. With two templates, it only took an hour to mark practice runways on both ends of the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.

This year was different
Not much of a surprise that with all the other changes associated with the COVID pandemic, it took a little longer this year to get the job done.  Painting doesn’t get scheduled until the runway is graded and packed for the summer, which took longer than normal.  Added to that, interior Alaska has experienced a rainy summer, and finding a weather window was a challenge. The final hurdle was a clogged paint sprayer causing further delays.  In spite of all these impediments, during the third attempt– on August 4th— a crew of eight volunteers appeared and completed the project.

Masked crew members admiring the threshold on Ski Strip 02, after painting was complete.

Value beyond safety
While the concept of creating practice runways of this nature was born out of a desire to reduce off-field accidents, a project of this nature has other benefits.  It provides an opportunity for airport stakeholders to work with each other and airport management on a project all see as a positive contribution to the community.  Having a local airport group to coordinate the project and bring the individuals and organizations together is very helpful.  In the course of these efforts, relationships are formed and reinforced, and can carry goodwill when working on other airport issues.  Getting to know each other in this relaxed setting can make it easier to tackle other potentially contentious airport issues, which has certainly been the case at Fairbanks.

Ski Strip 02 at Fairbanks after painting is complete. Both ends of the runway are marked in this fashion.

Practice at your airport?
Five other airports in Alaska already have the “paperwork” approved to put paint on their gravel runways.  I am sure the FAA would be willing to consider issuing similar approval at other airports, after looking at the details and weighing the benefits to pilots.  It might be too late this year to launch a project at your airport, but while we are still a little constrained by the pandemic, consider talking with others about a project for next year.  For more details on the mechanics of a project like this, see the article Practice Runways: A Low-cost Pilot Proficiency Tool or the Guide to Creating a Practice Runway. And if you have questions, don’t hesitate to send me an email for more information.

Meanwhile, pilots around Fairbanks—go sharpen your skills on the practice runway!

A racket about noise

For a few months, I have had a line of thought brewing in my mind, which is a superlative form of the majesty of flight, applying it to the magnificence of the Alps and other mountain regions. As I would get close enough to make the concept emotionally tangible, something ridiculous would happen, such as my diatribes from the last two months about maintenance nonsense. While the airplane is flying and I have had some transcendent moments, I find that grasping and sharing that concept is still a bit out of reach.

It starts with that pesky reality called noise in Switzerland. I recently have had the unbridled joy of forgetting what sleep is like, as sociological changes brought on by the pandemic have created a sudden flood of people looking to squeeze themselves into flats next to ours, which has resulted in a raucous construction boom. As I laid there most certainly not asleep, snarling about the noise, I thought to myself how noise has reared its ugly head a number of times with Swiss flying.

I must first point out that patterns in Switzerland are not standard. They are unique to each airfield, necessitating looking at the Visual Approach Chart, to follow it within a moderate latitude under the risk of a fine from the Swiss authorities. The reason is due to noise, as these patterns snake around villages and other physical obstacles. To some extent, it makes sense, and it can also be very interesting, such as the approach into Saanen, which features rather sizable terrain just to the south of the field that has to be avoided.

In 2019, when I was flying for a while out of a different airfield, I got an email from someone I did not recognize. He attached a map and a photo of me flying over his house, noting that I have been “repeatedly” climbing over his house, and he is “kindly” asking me to stop doing it as he doesn’t like the noise. I thought the request was rather intrusive, as I was 1,500’ to 2,000’ above his property, choosing the path to avoid two other villages, though I couldn’t help but wonder if I was missing something. After all, it is a different country with different customs, and the guy was a pilot, noting that he “didn’t make a report to the police” and instead contacted me. I forwarded it off to another pilot friend, who said that it was incredibly considerate, as the custom is to report people and let the police handle it. At any rate, it was rather curious how the guy found me and got my email address, though I digress.

My next flirtation with noise was from a lesson taken in a PA-18-95 from an aeroclub about 35 minutes away. I decided to have a backup and be ready to go in case my aircraft goes down for maintenance again. The cost wasn’t as bad as I thought ($200/hr wet, fully insured with today’s exchange rate) and it is an aircraft rather similar to mine. I must confess that I was thrilled that this “perfect” airplane, maintained under EASA standards, smelled like exhaust like every other rag and tube Cub and had oil streaking down the belly…

Anyhow, during the course of the one-hour checkout, roughly 20% of the content of the lesson was about exactly where to point the noise coming into and out of that airfield due to very specific properties where the owner will call the police in the event of overflight. It was literally down to various houses, where the traffic pattern involved snaking this way and that, sometimes counterintuitively over a populated village to avoid a private school where an immortal hell is raised if it is flown over. The funny thing is that flying 200-500 feet laterally from the houses in question (while still rather high) is enough to sate these noise totalitarians. I am rather convinced that slant distance variation (and therefore noise reduction) is very minor from having done so. If it quiets these terrestrial dwellers, then best not to poke the hornet’s nest.

My third flirtation with noise is associated with my inherent passive aggressive reaction to fastidious and exacting rules. At all Swiss airports, like most of Europe, there is a closing time. Like Germany, it is important, so when dealing with the formula of “sunset plus 30 minutes or 8:00PM, whichever is earlier,” I start to ask my nitpicking questions. “Is it wheels down at 20:00, or pulled to a stop at the hangar with the engine shut off?” The reply was “Wheels down at 19:59, not 20:00.” Ok, so 19:59:59 it is which lead to a philosophical dilemma during a sunset flight.

After a, say, two-hour flight in the mountains, it is logical to return early enough to not trigger the collapse of the European order by landing after 8PM. Arriving over town at 7:47, I could dive in and land at 7:52 or…. I could circle and land at 7:59. Flying a really slow pattern at 45mph, nose up, behind the curve, the tires chirp at 7:58:30, leaving me quite proud of the situation. This was not the first time, though it was the closest to the appointed time.

After putting the airplane away, I was walking to the car and noticed an airplane careening into the circuit, obviously doing a full speed descent and then rapidly slowing down on short final and landing at….8:10 PM. Since it is not Germany, perhaps there is some grace and the situation isn’t the end of the world? Three minutes later, as I am loading things into my car, a Land Rover comes screeching into the parking lot, where the deputy CEO comes running over asking which airplane it was. As he lives under the approach path, it was evident to him what had occurred. He explained to me “the trouble we can get from the commune” and, before racing to address the problem, noted “I saw you come over at 7:57. Nice job.”

I explained the situation to my wife, and she asked, “Why didn’t you land at 7:50?” “Out of principle” I replied. “This silly rule drives me crazy and, since I am paying a landing fee, I am going to get every last minute I can.” “You need to stop torturing him and land at 7:50,” so said the woman who last got in my airplane in December 2014. I have to admit, she has quite a point, so I quit antagonizing the establishment. Are a few minutes worth annoying the people that own the place where I station my aircraft?

That brings me back to this duplicitous and hypocritical noise regime, where I find myself paying to not be able to sleep. “Go back to America,” the builder told me in so many words, for which I contacted the owner, a Super Cub pilot, and, well, I am sleeping again. The whole situation is one of many variables that has me in one of my cyclical states of misery (they happen every 8-20 months), where I get fed up and am ready to move back to America. So far, I haven’t done it but who knows, maybe someday I will. The mere thought of American aviation freedom is so utterly salacious at this point…..

Escaping the heat on the Italian side of the Matterhorn. They don’t care much about noise over here.

At 15,000 feet looking down on Chamonix, France. There were climbers on the ice that stopped their hike to presumably glare at the airplane making noise.

Solving the noise problem….fly above the clouds so nobody can tell who is making such an “obscene racket.”

 

 

Crossing the North Pole three times

Yesterday as I prepared for my first ever North Pole crossing things were going pretty smoothly. Almost too smoothly. I’m used to last minute surprises especially before taking off. But then I remembered I’ve had over 18 months to prepare for this leg. I thought maybe the Universe was finally going to throw me a bone. The taxi showed up on time the morning of departure, the airport manager let him on the ramp—which never happens, the new coordinates for my flight worked in the Flight Management System, I had no leaking fuel from the plane after fueling the night before, the tires held air, the emergency oxygen was near full, the nitrogen charge was still within limits…it was almost hard to believe. The Citizen of the World was in all her glory, fierce and it was a fantastic thing to see.

The good fortune continued as the airport allowed me to take off early without charging me, the tower operator showed up early and got me into the air traffic control system on the ground, and the engines fired right up as they always do. All avionics systems came online immediately, and I thought “Isn’t life wonderful!” I started down the runway like a bat out of hell with enough fuel to get me back to Alaska in the United States after being away for eight very long months. I still had six weeks to go to be back in San Diego but I was getting closer.

As I climbed above the solid cloud layer that extended all the way to Alaska things were going well. I had a great climb rate even with the extra fuel. I flew over Svalbard, Norway, which had been rejecting my departure requests for over a month. I thought skipping one stop reduced my risk and it was time to get going while the North Pole was a nice warm -43 Celsius compared to the -60C I experience near the South Pole.

About two hours out of Kiruna, Sweden, I was beyond VHF radio comms range and my luck started to change. My HF radio was not picking up anything and I was at a wrong-way altitude. My satellite phone calls to Bodo Oceanic control over the most remote part of the planet didn’t work either. I got through to Oceanic control on my satellite phone I just couldn’t hear a word they were saying, and I assumed they couldn’t hear me either. Considering I had eight hours of open ocean flying to do this was going to be a major problem.

One-hundred-fifty miles from the True North Pole things really started to happen. My two flight management systems/GPS units started to fall offline since they didn’t have a satellite signal. This was odd since this didn’t happen until about 75 miles from the South Pole. I figured there would be more coverage over the North Pole since it was a more traveled route. My autopilot would still hold in heading mode, so I made the adjustment and continued on my way using my iPad. “No problem,” I thought as this felt like old times over the South Pole!

About 25 miles from the True North Pole things got really scary. One of my Attitude Heading & Reference Systems went offline. I remember thinking, “this is why I have two ADAHRS systems.”  I flipped the switch and nothing. With the loss of the units I also lost the autopilot. The airplane jerked to one side and I began to attempt to take it offline at 30,000 feet. The yoke cutoff switch chirped but didn’t stop the turn. I was fighting the autopilot at this point and pushed the off button on the autopilot unit itself, but it still didn’t work. At this point, I felt like the Universe was conspiring against me and had a thought that this was how those 737 Max planes went down. I reached over to the left and pulled the autopilot circuit breaker with the yellow cap I had marked so it was easy to find in a jam. That was my last hope short of shutting the power completely off over the North Pole which sounded, in a word, “terrifying.” This emergency was making no sense to me. But just as I pulled the breaker the resistance faded away and I felt a slight sigh of relief.

Crossing the Magnetic South Pole I got a brief look at the snow, ice and water the ground through the clouds.

To put things into perspective, I’m five hours of flight time from land, 30,000 feet up over a cloud layer at a wrong-way altitude doing almost 400 mph over the North Pole with no comms. I was using only my iPad to navigate, hand flying in RVSM airspace (Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum) that requires an autopilot to maintain precise flight level with no autopilot and by myself. My first non-Zen words were unprintable in a family publication. So much for an easy flight across the True North Pole, the Magnetic North Pole and the North Pole of Inaccessibility!

What I did have was a visual horizon for the time being, two working Honeywell TPE 331-10T engines, two kick-ass MT 5 bladed scimitar nickel tipped composite props, and about three hours of extra fuel which could potentially just extend my misery as I flew in circles around the North Pole while my followers wondered why my track on the InReach explorer was so erratic. I had a directional gyro and knew it would hold my course for a time but as I turned from the North Pole, to the Magnetic North Pole, and finally to the North Pole of Inaccessibility, I got confused and knew it couldn’t hold a course forever.

As if to tease or taunt me, the flight management systems would periodically come online but then fall offline a short time later. This felt like cosmic torture as I had conflicting heading information from multiple points on my panel. My magnetic compass said one thing, my two flight management systems/GPS units had a different heading, my L3 backup system said something else, my directional gyro offered another heading, and my radar display showed yet another heading. “Which do I believe?” I thought. “Will I run out of fuel or fly in circles over the North Pole?”

As I was trying to hold the altitude constant in an airspace that was separated by 500 feet from opposing traffic I start shutting down and restarting the failed systems. The ADAHRS tried to realign in motion but couldn’t do its two-minute alignment. Eventually I realized the flight management systems appeared to have the aircraft flying backwards along the track for a time, then one would right and then go backwards. I was totally confused and trying to make sense out of the conflicting information.

Now I was seriously scared. I was very much alone, and the laws of physics didn’t seem to apply. There were no reference points in the cloud layer below me as far as the eye could see and a bunch of red Xs across my screen. I couldn’t help but wonder what a mess I had gotten myself into. I thought they would be talking about this for a long time. The naysayers were going to have a field day.

I took a minute to take a few deep “Zen” breaths in the midst of the shit storm that was unfolding around me. I took a personal inventory and realized I was still in the air, was straight and level, and wasn’t out of options yet. This was fast becoming a test of my faith.

As I moved between the True North Pole, the Magnetic North Pole, and the North Pole of Inaccessibility I was mostly hand-flying and occasionally overpowering the autopilot when it didn’t want to turn.

As I continued to hand fly, I realized my autopilot could maintain altitude and it seemed to fly on a heading once I set it but needed to be restarted to program a new heading. Next I realized that my Apple iPad seemed to be as accurate as it had been over the South Pole as well. How odd that a $1,000 iPad was working when $100,000 of avionics seemed totally confused. Flying like this was of course totally illegal but I had no choice. I was doing what my instructors had told me to do, which was “just fly the plane.” I was lucky to have a visual horizon above the clouds for as far as the eye could see.

I expected the failed systems to come back online in about 30 minutes but to my surprise everything stayed offline until I reached the coast of Alaska some five hours later. I literally watched as one system failed and then would come back online with the information making no sense. It was extremely stressful, and I was searching for the lesson in all of this. When the systems came back online at the coast of Alaska, they acted like the bad school kid who misbehaves when the teacher is out of the room and then reverts to becoming the perfect angel when the teacher returns. I realized that the issue was the lack of a satellite signal and not that the systems weren’t working.

Eventually as I got close to the coast of Alaska, I realized that the weather was not the broken clouds that were forecast at Prudhoe Bay/Dead Horse. Instead, I had 300-foot ceilings. Being as that I had been flying for so long and had 3.5 hours of fuel left, I decided to extend my flight for another hour-and-a-half to land in Fairbanks where I was hoping to meet my film crew the following day. As a side note, on my first call to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the director told me he could arrest me, impound my airplane and severely fine me if I landed in Prudhoe Bay where they didn’t have an agent.  When I told him my first priority was my life and that weather over vast distances was unpredictable as was aircraft equipment, he told me if I had planned better I wouldn’t be having such a problem. I hung up feeling a bit defeated. About two hours later I got a call back from the director and he said I could land in Prudhoe Bay for an overnight stay but would have to call Customs when I landed, and be in Fairbanks the next day.

It is hard to put into words how I felt when I landed in Fairbanks, Alaska. We had a mechanic and restaurant owner at the airport come over and snap a few pictures. Myself and the film crew that had just arrived by car were offered a delicious pizza lunch by the Wendy, the owner. As we ate, I stared at the plane with a blank expression on my face, exhausted, and in total disbelief of what had just transpired. I felt shock, pride, and relief all at the same time, and just wanted to sleep for a day. My focus was so narrow it was impossible to comprehend what I had just pulled off and the impact it would have on our mission—and I hoped—on the world. Calls and messages would come in for the next 48 hours congratulating me and my team. Most of them had no idea what I had been through, but I was so touched by those that reached out in the most-kind way.

One example that summed up the Citizen of the World’s challenges during the Polar Circumnavigation was from Eddie Gould, one of my handlers from General Aviation Support Egypt.

“Adventures like yours do inspire and create so much more than what you have personally achieved. Having this adventure during one of the world’s most horrific periods must rank high above many of the worthy exploits undertaken by [other] pilots.

I guess we, on the ground, have felt invested in your quest in a way that others would not. Your successes in the air are also ours. I have a massive smile, and I know Ahmed does too, when we get something approved, or a plan works out or even when you say  ‘this hotel is fantastic,’ the work we do in the background can be enjoyable, satisfying and at times…frustrating…like when you lose comms or someone doesn’t answer a phone in an office 7,000 miles away. But your adventures create the memories for us too…and this adventure is yours and our crowning glory…you took on everything the planet could throw at you, faced dangers in every corner of the globe and even had to change everything you knew about to become a Spanish recluse and then a Viking hermit!

I hope you make the book at least half as exciting as the reality was…and by the way…the aircraft was amazing and beautiful :-).”

I’m so happy to share this adventure with all of you and my hope is that it will in some way inspire you to go into the world and be a positive force in the world. To shine as brightly as you can and to allow your dreams to become your reality.

Special engine out procedures, Part 1

Every summer, it seems, there are days where the temperatures somewhere are hot enough that the media has reports that airplanes can’t take off. It is easy to scratch your head and ask how it is that an airliner can’t depart, even in a high density altitude environment. The most common place for this seems to be Phoenix.

Two things can drive this. The first is pretty simple: Hotter temps mean higher ground speeds for takeoff, and those speeds can mean that the speed limits for tires can be exceeded. Knowingly exceeding a limitation is never acceptable, and the result is usually a cancelled takeoff, or more likely, a reduced payload to reduce the speeds.

The second issue is performance once airborne. But it isn’t the all-engine performance that is the issue. It is single-engine performance, and more specifically, it is the single-engine performance that would be required when losing an engine at the worst possible time, which is right at the speed known as V1.

V1 is known as the takeoff decision speed, but more accurately, when the speed reaches V1, the crew is committed to taking off, with very rare exceptions (I know of one crew that aborted after V1 because the elevator was jammed). The FAA requires that manufacturers of FAR Part 25 certified airplanes be able to demonstrate that a takeoff can be safely continued after losing an engine at V1. They further define the climb segment as being four distinct segments, all of which have certain requirements: liftoff to 35 feet; 35 feet to 400 feet; an acceleration segment; and 400 feet to 1,500 hundred feet.

Further, all of this must be done while meeting certain climb gradient criteria without violating any of the TERPS parameters. One of the challenges comes with what can best be described as “non-standard” climbs. These can (and often are) be driven by obstacles or terrain in the departure path. This is especially true if an airport has been shoe-horned in or if the area around the field has been developed in such a way that it is no longer in compliance with FAA criteria.

When you learn to compute airline performance data, you aren’t all that concerned with all-engine performance. You are instead concerned with how to meet each of the four segments of climb. You may not know exactly where the TERPS concern is, but you know that something in the departure path is an issue, or that the runway is too short to accommodate the necessary acceleration after losing an engine at V1.

In my next post, I will discuss the work-around for some of these challenges, known as special engine out procedures. These procedures are essentially an alternate method of compliance that allow for the maximum possible payload (and revenue) without compromising safety. You don’t need to be Chuck Yeager to fly these safely, but you do need to thoroughly review and brief what the steps are, and be prepared for the unlikely to become your new reality.—Chip Wright

The humble O2 mask

Most passengers—especially frequent travelers—don’t pay much attention to the flight attendant safety briefings. That said, there is actually some good information being passed along, and as a potential professional pilot, it would be wise to start learning some of it yourself.

For instance, how much attention have you paid to the discussion about the oxygen masks falling from the ceiling? You might know that you need to put the mask on during a depressurization situation, but did you pay any attention to the particulars? If not, you should.

The oxygen that you will breathe during a depressurization actually isn’t on the airplane yet. It has to be produced, and guess who does that? You do.

Every jet uses some kind of a pressurization controller to maintain cabin altitude. If the cabin climbs above a certain setting (around 14,000 feet msl), the controller will (should) release the “rubber jungle” into the cabin. If the automatic system fails, the pilots can manually deploy the masks, but first they need feedback from the flight attendants that the masks didn’t fall. If there are a few units that don’t work, the flight attendants can use a tool to pop open the doors of the unit that is right over your seat.

Once the masks are out, there is a catch: Oxygen isn’t generated until you pull the mask toward you. You actually need to give it a little tug, because the hose is attached to a pin that needs to be tripped. When you give that mask a tug, the pin activates a chemical reaction that will then produce the oxygen that you will breathe. This is why you’re told that you should put on your mask first and make sure it’s activated. If the cabin depressurizes at a high altitude, there won’t be much time of useful consciousness, and if you can get your mask working, then you can help a child or someone next to you.

Once the canister is activated, it generates a tremendous amount of heat, so you don’t want to reach up and touch it. It can—and will likely—also produce a bit of a burning or foul odor. You don’t want to mistake that for a possible fire. It is instead a sign that the system is working as advertised. There may also be a bit of dust or smoke, both of which can generally be ignored.

What the flight attendants don’t tell you is this: The canisters only produce enough oxygen for around 12 minutes of breathing, though you may be able to get 15 minutes out of it. Worse, the oxygen is a continuous flow. It doesn’t matter how deeply or slowly you breathe. The good news with that is that if you (or a seatmate) pass out, air is available. The bad news is that if you pull down on two masks at once, you will still only have the 12 minutes of air to use. So, if you are in a row of three seats by yourself, you might have 36 to 45 minutes of air to use if you use them consecutively.

Why so little time? The assumption is that a depressurization at altitude is going to be followed by an immediate and rapid descent to (preferably) 10,000 feet. Since passenger jets are limited to 41,000 feet, the crew would be trying to lose 31,000 feet. In 12 minutes’ time, that works out to around 2,600 feet per minute, which should be very easy to do. Keep in mind that this is a worst-case scenario, because very few full jets can reach FL410.

So, next time you board, pay attention to the safety briefing. There are nuggets of information in there that really can save your life. And in this case, they will also be on a checkride if you are looking to fly professionally.—Chip Wright

Recurrent Lockdown Without a Pandemic

Before I get into the thesis of my post, I owe an update to the inglorious rant from last month. For those that got through my little post of horrors to the fourth section about my quest for the [Heli Coil] Holy Grail, I ended it on a positive note, as though the problem was solved. Well, it wasn’t. Within two hours of submitting the post, the distributor cancelled the order, even though we had spoken on the phone about it. Apparently, the package intermediary that they asked for was a problem and they washed their hands of it. I went back to the first distributor, who actually shipped it next day to the intermediary (should have used them in the first place!). Between overnight shipping to the intermediary, COVID delays, and FedEx Express to Europe, it took two additional weeks to arrive.

As is apparently customary with Swiss maintenance technicians, initial enthusiasm from the mobile Swiss A&P was replaced with a sudden reticence to schedule the job on his part now that the parts arrived. At this point, I remembered an American instructor I used in Germany in 2016, who equally had the daft idea to import and fly an airplane from America on this continent of misery. He had mentioned solving his mechanical woes not long after I left Germany, so I thought “why not see who he uses?”

I found a real solution for the long haul. A younger German mechanic, licensed under EASA and as an A&P/IA, he was billed to me as a “non-German German.” I.e., he will actually fix things instead of robotically demanding a major overhaul as a solution to all woes. The instructor said, “We’ll solve it. I’ll fly him down. That’s what pilot friends are for.” I was in such disbelief that I might have been dreaming, so I called the A&P, expecting some sort of catch. I slowly revealed my woes, progressively giving every last detail, and he said “It is no problem to do the heli-coil by hand. It will take one hour.”

Before he came, I did some more analysis, sent some photos, and we determined that the studs themselves were shot, so we pushed off another week to order them from the USA (which he did, adding to a larger order he had coming). Then the day finally came, where I could barely sleep the night before, expecting doom and misery. After all, if a mistake was made, the case would have had to go to the USA, effectively resulting in the major overhaul I was trying to avoid.

I had the jig on the cylinder, ready to go per the Swiss recommendation. The German arrived, looked at it, and said, “We must remove this as we cannot do the job with it in the way.” Ironic. Then he pulled out a bag and said “I brought some heli-coils in case we needed a different size.” He had them at his shop, rendering my month of misery acquiring them pointless. I do not have enough emotional impartiality to distinguish between my indignation at a wasted month of strife from the glee I should have that this guy already has what I need on hand for future repairs.

When it came time for actual drilling, like a parent watching a doctor perform surgery on a young child, I couldn’t watch. I paced on the other side of the hangar, and 20 minutes later: “This one is done. Now we do the other one.” What? It was that easy? 20 minutes later. “Ok, the heli-coils are in. Now we must put the cylinder on.”

While I was naturally quite pleased, it was an almost insulting crescendo. How many weeks of strife, misery, and struggle did I endure, and in the end, it was a one-hour affair? Why is it that every single maintenance technician in Europe (except this one) that I spoke to would not do it? While the German A&P did explain that EASA mechanics basically are not allowed to do such a repair on a European registered aircraft, he pointed out that it is “on the N register therefore it is allowed.” I shall mention that the last 5 mechanics I spoke to in Europe were also FAA A&Ps, who basically were repairing N registered aircraft while looking at the EASA book.

The saga with repair has continued and is mostly complete with a successful initial cylinder break in test flight completed. The whole affair took 9 weeks, most of which was spent on the phone, waiting for parts, or being told “no” by someone after previously having been told “yes.” In the end, when I add up the $6500 repair bill (many things were replaced in the troubleshooting process, and the jug was one of a few contributing factors), it cost roughly 40% more than if I was in the USA (VAT, middlemen, freight from America, nonsense). It took 6 weeks longer than if the airplane was in the States, with 85% of that delay due to Europe and 15% due to the pandemic. The single hardest problem was a lack of qualified mechanical assistance.

If any other owners of N registered aircraft in Europe are equally as frustrated, please contact me and I will arrange an introduction to this A&P. I highly recommend him. I believe that this recent misery is an investment in smoothing out future issues, as I have a fantastic resource vetted now. I also owe a huge “thanks” to my instructor friend who flew him down. One has to love the pilot community.

Now this brings us to my thesis, which is about how aviation has inflicted three “lockdowns” since 2014 with this airplane, lasting two, three, and four months. This one was the shortest, believe it or not. The longest was Germany in 2016, and the middle struggle was while in Colorado in 2014.

I traced the common thread to all of them, and it was a fusion to two issues: a very complicated, sprawling repair and a lack of a nearby qualified A&P. I.e., either a nearby A&P wouldn’t do it, or a maintenance technician simply did not exist in the area. In each of these instances, I would rely upon a complex web of removing what parts a pilot is allowed to (quite a bit) and shipping them for inspection, rework, repair, or overhaul to a willing A&P in another state, sending photos of the remaining situation, consulting extensively by phone, staging new parts, and bringing the whole thing to a finale by bringing someone in to help get it all done. In all three cases, one symptom on this old engine resulted in the revelation of other problems, or vagaries of the troubleshooting process (where the parts being replaced weren’t the problem). Untold hours are spent going to and from the airport, sourcing parts, shipping things, staring at delayed packages on tracking and the like.

In instances where major problems were resolved in a short period of time (not part of these long downtimes), professionals were close by. Two of these disastrous affairs were in Europe, which made it much worse, whereas one was in the rural Rockies. What is the lesson? If one relocates with an airplane to a new area, especially if it is extremely rural as I seem to choose, immediately begin the search for an available mechanic for an ongoing professional relationship, even if nothing is wrong with the airplane. It is one thing to fly in an existing resource, though that assumes that the airplane only breaks at annual inspection, that deferred maintenance can be caught up at that time, or that the airplane can be flown a long distance to the site of an annual. As 9 months of downtime over the last six years has taught me, it doesn’t always work that way. While most pilots in America live in a reasonable range of a metropolitan area where this problem largely doesn’t exist, a move to a rural or foreign location should treat this search with urgency as though the airplane is broken. While the Cub has gone hundreds of flying hours with minimal issues, it goes through occasional brutal maintenance and repair cycles and I cannot seem to predict when they will strike.

Many times I have wondered why I am living the life I am, and it took an hour and a half circling two miles above the airport during the test flight, gazing at the Alps, to remind me why I am willing to put up with this misery when it does happen. A great way to forget a hellacious downtime is to go flying again.

Château-d’Oex. Wandering around at 11,000 feet, in glide range of the airport during cylinder break in.

Gstaad Airport from 8,000 feet. 

 

 

 

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