Opinion & Commentary (122)
July 2015 -
I’ve always found the aviation community to be an exceptionally friendly and helpful one. Aviators go out of their way to help one another.
This community also reaches out beyond its borders to help those in need. I know that many of you reading this volunteer your time and airplane for various causes and groups.
Well, I have good news for you.
In 2013 UnitedHealth Group commissioned a national survey* of 3,351 adults and found that the overwhelming majority of participants reported feeling mentally and physically healthier after a volunteer experience.
Here are some of the findings:
76 percent of people who volunteered in the last 12 months said that volunteering has made them feel healthier;
94 percent of people who volunteered in the last 12 months said that volunteering improved their mood;
78 percent said that volunteering lowered their stress levels;
96 percent reported that volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life;
and about 25 percent reported that their volunteer work helped them manage a chronic illness by keeping them active and taking their minds off of their own problems.
Isn’t it great to know that when you are helping others, you’re also helping yourself?
And now I have an additional volunteer opportunity for you. We are looking for volunteers to help out at our booth at AirVenture and to help represent PFA at other aviation shows throughout the year.
It’s a great way to help grow the association, while you get the opportunity to meet fellow Piper flyers and attend some fun aviation events.
We’re offering some incentives for those volunteers as well. I’ll post more details on our online forums, or call us at 800-493-7450 if you are interested in volunteering.
I hope we get a chance to see many of you at upcoming shows—and maybe a few of you will be on “our side” of the booth!
*Source: “Doing Good is Good for You: 2013 Health and Volunteering Study” by UnitedHealth Group. Available at http://www.unitedhealthgroup.com/~/media/UHG/PDF/2013/UNH-Health-
July 2015 -
I was born in New York City, just down the street from the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport (KLGA). That heralded spot had been the home of the Pan American flying boat operation of the 1930s and ‘40s.
Even though the Clipper water flying operation was already long gone when my father took me for an occasional visit around the airport in the early ‘50s, I vividly recall the remnants of those earlier water flying days at the Marine Air Terminal.
I would wander around that nostalgic spot with its very distinctive architecture and memorable Art Deco accoutrements—all recognizable from photos of the early days of the Pan American Clipper ships—and stand in awe. This was where it was all at.
Pan American’s international operation had moved to the other end of LaGuardia Airport when land airplanes replaced their water-based machines. Eventually, the airline moved its operations to the newly renovated Idlewild Airport (IDL).
Years before that, my family had moved just about the same distance. I spent my teenage years living four miles from IDL, near the Runway 22L outer marker. I spent my high school days watching Pan American piston airliners crossing overhead on their way back from London, Paris, Rio and San Juan. The thought of those Clipper skippers doing their thing was, in my youth, always my thing.
I had been introduced to a few Pan American mechanics who lived in my neighborhood and, to indulge an enthusiastic teenager, these kindly men sometimes took me out to the airport to hang out. I have so many good memories of those days that they crowd each other.
What bubbles to the top are the several occasions when I was given free run of a Pan Am DC-6B or a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser parked on the maintenance ramp for the day. I would sit in the left seat and imagine what it would feel like to command something as magnificent as these multi-engined behemoths.
Within a few years, the first Boeing 707s were arriving at IDL (what a sight!), and I would hitch a ride from the hangar to the terminal building on the Pan Am employee bus to watch the launch of the morning flight to Europe.
One day in particular I recall the captain climbing onboard the brand-new Boeing 707 that was Pan American Flight One, with the Sunday New York Times tucked under his arm. He waved at me, and I waved back. I didn’t budge another inch from my position at the terminal window until he had taxied away and taken off. Amazing.
Years later, I was an airline copilot for Mohawk Airlines, flying Convair 240s out of the same airport that had in the meanwhile transformed itself from IDL to JFK. On a long and boring day, four of us copilots talked ourselves into marching down to the Pan Am hangar for a job interview.
We managed to get in to see one of the chief pilots. Pan Am was massively hiring in those days and it was indicated to us that as Mohawk copilots, we were more than qualified and should apply immediately. Three of us sent in an application. Two of us were hired and soon left Mohawk for Pan Am.
But I didn’t. After much soul-searching, I came to the right answer for all the wrong reasons. Pan Am had just ordered the new widebody Boeing 747 jumbo jet and the airline was also indicating lots of interest in either the Anglo-French or a future American version of the Supersonic Transport.
After drawing myself all sorts of graphs and charts to depict what I thought the ultimate impact these new ultra-big and speedy airliners might represent, I decided to let my Pan Am dream go.
At Mohawk, it was prophesized I would be a captain in another three years; at Pan Am, I expected to be a copilot nearly forever. Pan American meant a great deal to me; being a captain meant more. I stayed with the ‘Hawk (which eventually morphed itself into US Airways).
Yet Pan Am was still there for me. There was at the time a magazine ad from that worldwide carrier that said the only continent you couldn’t get to on Pan Am was the Antarctic. In fact, I used Pan Am on an interline pass to eventually get to that exact spot: Pan Am to Santiago, Chile, then by ship to visit the southernmost spot on the planet.
A few years after that, I went to Moscow on Pan Am, riding behind an obliging captain in the jump seat of a Boeing 727 out of Frankfurt.
As years went by, more Pan Am riding opportunities arose—particularly as reciprocal jump seat privileges became more formalized. One of the most precious photos on my wall is of me standing on the ramp in Warsaw, Poland with a Pan Am Airbus behind me and the Clipper skipper’s white hat on my head.
That was the nearest I ever came to actually having my own Clipper skipper’s white hat, but as it turned out, events in the future would bring me infinitely closer—in a manner of speaking—to sitting in the left seat of Pan American World Airways flights on their way around the globe.
(Next time: Up close and personal with some of the heroes of my youth.)
To my great disappointment I’ve turned out to be a crotchety old fart. As a young man, I regarded older people who ended up with a poor attitude later in life as something I never wanted to become.
Still, here I am.
I’ve had to put on glasses just to be able to sit here and see well enough to write, and even though I’m in a state-of-the-art Herman Miller Aeron chair, my back hurts, my knees hurt and one of my fingers does not always respond to my commands.
How did this happen?
I’m crotchety in part because I have to go out next week and do a flight review, which, short of getting another rating, is something we all have to do every couple of years—which is why we used to call it a biennial flight review—but now don’t, even though we still do it every two years. To me that name change sounds pretty silly, but I’m sure it’s for good reasons I don’t understand.
This year I’m being particularly fussy about having to go do it. I mean, it feels like I’ve had to do this so many times that it qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. I know, I know; it’s important that we all be able to keep our skills honed… but it’s such a pain the derrière.
Yes, I can still make turns without gaining or losing much altitude, I understand the rules of the road concerning Class Bravo airspace (though I thought the term TCA was perfectly fine), and the last instructor I flew with suggested I get a preflight briefing online instead of on the telephone, where I was perfectly happy talking to a real live human being.
Like it or not, the day is coming when I won’t be able to pass muster. Maybe a decline in my motor skills, cognitive skills, maybe a failed medical—or all of the above. None of us get to fly forever.
But when I try and stop being a crotchety old man and look back over all the years I’ve gotten to fly airplanes back and forth across the hemisphere, I can’t help but get this huge smile across my face. Man, have I been a lucky guy.
And I really, really mean that. Flying has made more of an impact than virtually anything else in my life. I have crystal clear memories of being in the air at first light, the sun flashing back at me from the silver flying wires of a Stearman…
Or how about those IFR flights where your clearance puts you just inches above the undercast and you’re zinging along at what looks like a billion miles an hour, just skipping along over the cloud tops at sunset?
In the old days, before the flood of airspace restrictions above the Grand Canyon, I hear tell that pilots used to just drop way down below the rim—way down below the rim—and fly the twists and turns of the Colorado River with the throttle shoved to the firewall.
Of course, I never did that. But this example serves to remind us just how lucky we all are, how wonderful the privilege of flying is, and how we get to do things mere mortals only dream of.
Not only did flying change my life, it made my life. In many ways I’ve gotten to be an aviation version of Charles Kuralt, the CBS journalist who crisscrossed the country in his motor home in the 1960s and ‘70s, stopping to report wonderful little vignettes of Americana. (Better yet, he got to do it on somebody else’s dime!)
I’ve been that lucky. I’ve set down floatplanes in the flooded calderas of volcanos in Alaska, eased onto the Greenland ice cap in a ski plane, yanked and banked in an F/A-18 with the Blue Angels over the Caribbean, landed on the glaciers around Mount McKinley, circled herds of elephants in Botswana, and so, so much more.
That’s how incredibly lucky I’ve been. Those are the things aviation has allowed me to do, things only possible because the world has given me the chance to fly.
And even better than the places I’ve gotten to visit were the people that aviation brought me to meet. I was lucky enough to get to learn to fly from a man who flew bombers in World War II, fighters in the Korean War and helicopters in Vietnam. In addition to some flying skills, can you imagine the insight into American history—if not the world—he gave me?
I got to sit face-to-face with Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbits and listen to him tell entertaining stories about flying the Supreme Commander Dwight David Eisenhower across northern Africa—stories that I can’t repeat here—stories that gave me a more than personal picture of the man who would become our 34th president. Wow, was I lucky.
More importantly, I got to look into his eyes when he explained that in his heart of hearts, he truly believed that when he gave the order to drop Little Boy on the city of Hiroshima that he was helping bring World War II to an end and thus save the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers, both American and Japanese.
I got to see real tears in the eyes of a young A-10 Warthog pilot when she tried to describe how much she loved her country and how much she appreciated the opportunity to serve across the deserts of Iraq.
I got to hear the squeals of high school kids when they saw the airplane they’d built make its first flight.
I’ve orbited a pod of gray whales who were spy hopping to look back at me.
I’ve gotten to meet men who have walked on the moon, landed on the Hudson and flown at 3.3-plus Mach.
I even got to have lunch with Gloria Winters, whom many of us remember as Penny on “Sky King.” (And yes, she was still hot!)
All this merely because I fly.
Thankfully, my experiences are not all that rare. Most of us who’ve been flying for a while have lots of wonderful stories and experiences, many of you more than I do.
Some stories may be simple, though just as inspiring… like that time a pilot loaned you his car to get into town, or gave you a place to stay when your airplane was sick.
Or that time when you took the neighbor kid for his first airplane rider ever, and listened to him giggle with glee as you circled his house.
These are truly the things that give meaning to our lives. And I mean that with all my heart.
Still, I’m crotchety about having to go do a flight review next week. (The poor CFI that has to fly with me!) But I’m looking forward to getting the green light for another two years, and a renewed membership in the club—those luckiest people on the planet, those of us who get to fly.
Last time we were together (Full Circle, July 2015) I spoke about the audio productions of two of Robert Gandt’s nonfiction books, “SkyGods : The Fall of Pan Am” and “China Clipper: The Age of the Great Flying Boats.” Gandt engaged me do the audiobook productions and narrations of these aviation books which are available at Audible.com, Amazon and in Apple’s iTunes Library.
Doing the narrations not only rekindled my love for Pan American, it made me remember quite clearly three of the most memorable discussions that I ever had with fellow pilots.
When my close friend, the late Capt. Jim Poel of American Airlines, mentioned that he personally knew one of the Pan Am captains who had flown the big boats, I knew that I wanted to meet this man. Then, by coincidence, the entire event turned into something even more special.
A few days before my meeting with the retired Clipper captain that Jim Poel knew, another friend mentioned to me that an ex-neighbor of his, who many years ago retired from Pan Am, would be visiting his house. He wondered if Sharon and I would be available to come over for dinner and a chat.
Capt. Stewart Doe, Beech Mountain, N.C., had retired from Pan American in 1978 at the age of 60. While our wives chatted, I pressed Capt. Doe for the details of his career.
He had hired on with Pan Am in 1941 at the age of 23. At the time, he had less than 200 hours total flight time, which wasn’t terribly unusual in the early 1940s. (Back then, airlines were having trouble getting new recruits since the military was taking so many.)
Stewart Doe started out as a copilot on the boats, flying Commodore S40s, S42s and S43s until he got a captain’s position two years later. Doe’s initial captain position was on a Consolidated Commodore twin-engine flying boat in the Caribbean.
From there, he moved on to DC-3s in Alaska and eventually, to piloting a larger flying boat—the Boeing 314—across the Atlantic.
After the war, Doe moved down to Rio de Janeiro and soon was flying Boeing 377 Stratocruisers. Finally, he came back to the New York base and flew the last Stratocruiser flight out of Europe. He transitioned to the Boeing 707 in 1960, then the Boeing 747 in 1970.
“I liked the 747,” he said. “It was the easiest.”
Of the old flying boat days, he said, “We navigated by celestial or dead reckoning. If you missed your destination by much more than 30 miles, you couldn’t pick up the radio beacon. Then you had to improvise. Most of the time, we looked out the cockpit windows to pick up the drift, figure the winds, eyeball the headings.”
When I asked Capt. Doe how he learned to do this or that, he was complimentary of Pan American’s training: its standards were high, with lots of cross-checks. “Also,” he added, “being a captain meant more then. You were really in charge, really responsible for everything that happened. Not like today.”
Capt. Doe went on to say that there was “increasingly no difference between procedure and technique, a trend that began around the era of the 747.
“It might somehow be better for aviation, but it sure is lots worse for the pilot,” he commented. Capt. Doe was 20-plus years away from the airline flying business, yet he still had an unmistakable captain’s bearing about him.
Finally, he started telling stories from the old days about the things that interested me most: rebuilding a flying boat’s engine at the mouth of the Amazon River over a four-day period while a PBY seaplane ferried in the parts; making an emergency descent into Bangor, Maine with a Boeing 747 after receiving a bomb threat.
Then Stewart Doe got an idea and made a telephone call. My afternoon the next day was suddenly all set up.
Unknown to me, living not very far away, was Capt. Kim Scribner, another retired Pan Am veteran who had held line flying and chief pilot positions. I met Capt. Scribner at his apartment in Daytona Beach, Fla. and we spent the afternoon looking at the memorabilia—photos, plaques, models, magazine and newspaper clippings—that lined his walls and filled his scrapbooks.
Also hired in 1941, Scribner was in that fortunate batch of people who spent only a couple of years as copilots, then the remainder of their careers as captains in a wide array of equipment. Capt. Scribner was one of the few civilian pilots that Pan Am had hired at the time.
“In the old days,” Scribner told me, “we had to figure out everything for ourselves. We had very minimal facilities. The cockpits of the old flying boats leaked so bad that we put away all our maps and put on rubber coats before we flew them through the rain,” he recalled.
“Westbound across the Atlantic, we sometimes flew as low as 100 feet to avoid the winds, and we flew with the landing lights on and pointed down so we wouldn’t descend into the sea. Each journey was unique; on many an occasion we would turn back.
“We had eight men in the cockpit of a Boeing 314, and I started out as Fourth Officer. Eventually, after a great deal of time and much training, I became what was designated as a Master Pilot of Ocean Flying Boats. I was the last Pan Am pilot to qualify as a captain of the Boeing 314,” Capt. Scribner explained.
“I still can’t get over how the United States government let Pan Am go under after all that the airline had done for this country,” he added.
Capt. Scribner talked about his landplane days—flying aural-null low-frequency approaches into Rio in DC-3s; flying through thunderstorms in DC-4s; making a record-setting flight into Paris in a DC-7C.
He declared that the change to the Boeing 707 from the piston airliners that preceded it was the most dynamic of the changes that he made in his career.
What made it even more difficult was that all their training in the Boeing 707 was in the airplane itself—there were no suitable simulators at the time. There were, Scribner recalled, quite a few teething problems with the first 707s.
Finally, he talked about the Boeing 747—which he flew on its inaugural run to Paris. He retired off the 747 in 1977 at the age of 60.
Twelve hours after I left Capt. Scribner, I was sitting in a restaurant in Stewart, Fla. with Capt. Chuck Bassett and my friend Jim Poel. Capt. Bassett retired from Pan Am in 1975, yet continued to fly his Republic Seabee for many years. Of the three retired Pan Am captains I interviewed, Bassett was the only one who was still an active pilot.
Hired by Pan Am in 1940, Bassett had already accumulated 788 hours and had served one year of active duty in the military—all a pilot could hope to get in those budget-strapped prewar days.
Capt. Bassett originally flew DC-2s and DC-3s. He even had a short stint on the lone Ford Tri-Motor Pan American still owned. A year later he went back to New York to check out on celestial navigation and was assigned as Second Navigator on the Boeing 314 flying boat.
Nine months later he was ready to advance to First Officer on the 314, so he had to go back to New York to learn water flying techniques. Training was done out of the marine terminal at La Guardia, and it took six flights off Long Island Sound for Bassett to get qualified.
Capt. Bassett said that the 314 was the finest water airplane he ever flew (the 747 was the finest land airplane, he said) and he was particularly fond of the cockpit, which was the same size as the cabin on a DC-3. The airplane was so big that mechanics routinely got to the back side of the engines in-flight through a tunnel through the wings in order to change accessories and spark plugs.
World War II changed everything for Pan American and its pilots. Capt. Bassett still had his Army Air Corps commission, but he was now flying for the U.S. Navy in a civilian airplane. Now a Master Pilot of Ocean Flying Boats, he flew the 314 to South America, Africa, Europe.
“The captain had all the authority,” Bassett said. “Pan American had almost no communications with us after the New York departure. We did whatever had to be done.”
Piloting the big boats was rigorous. Flight controls were so heavy it sometimes took two men to move them. The captain did most of the takeoffs and landings; the copilots might get one out of four.
Before a long trip, the captain would go to the Pan Am office a day early, take a physical, then take the airplane out for a short hop to see if it was ready. As part of the wartime regime, the captain wouldn’t tell the rest of the crew where they were going until they were airborne on the first leg.
Long trips were scheduled for 27 days and 210 hours of flying—and that would often stretch to five weeks or more. You could leave New York before the World Series began and not return until basketball season was over. The longest nonstop flight Bassett ever made was 24 hours, 16 minutes.
When the war ended, Capt. Bassett went to DC-4s, which he didn’t particularly enjoy—even though he admitted they were a lot easier to fly than the old boats. Eventually, he transferred to Constellations, DC-6s, DC-7s and Stratocruisers.
Capt. Chuck Bassett flew the 747 for the final five years of his career. It was like a multi-engine J-3 Cub, he said. “Redundancy was fantastic,” he told me. “Easy to handle, taxi, land; good visibility. The best landplane I ever flew.
“Everything has generally gotten better over the years, except for crew fatigue problems: jet lag has made the problems worse, and the onboard accommodations are far less than what we had in the 1940s. Deterioration of command authority is increasingly a problem—it’s gone steadily downhill since the early days,” he said.
The time I spent with these three men had been a great pleasure for me. This trio of pilots was representative of the Clipper skippers that I had held in such high admiration for so long, and I was gratified to see that their histories were everything I had hoped they would be.
As a friend of Capt. Scribner told me, “These men were in a unique situation, doing a special thing at a special time. They saw it all and did it all. These were the men that lived many men’s dreams.”
Preparing for a coast-to-coast trip in the summer of 2015.
Eleven years ago, in the debut of Left Coast Pilot, I wrote about my experiences flying from California to West Virginia. I’m planning to do that trip again later this year, at my wife’s request—which makes it an appropriate time to review how previous trips went.
Back in 1999, I took a three-week vacation and spent it flying N5142L, a 1967 PA-28-180, from Modesto, Calif. to Parkersburg, W.V. (my parents’ hometown) and back, taking a southerly route over New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. In 2003, I made the same trip—but this time took a more northerly route with a stop to attend AirVenture.
Both times, I started my flight planning over a month before departure. For that first trip back East, I had to send away for a trip kit of paper charts—I got World Aeronautical Charts (WACs) and IFR Enroute charts for the entire route (plus extras to cover possible diversions) and either Sectional or Terminal Area Charts for every place I expected to land, plus approach plates.
The charts alone filled one of my bags, and a ritual at each overnight stop was sorting through them to find the charts I’d need for the next leg. One major problem was that all of my IFR charts expired during the trip, so I would check in at FBOs and pilot shops along the way, buying new charts when I could find them.
In 2003, I had a slightly more sophisticated setup. I was flying a 1973 PA-28R-200, and I’d just bought a Motion Computing M1200 Tablet PC, which was sort of an early version of what Microsoft now sells as the Surface tablet. I had Jeppesen’s JeppView and FliteMap software installed on the tablet, which gave me an electronic database containing the equivalent of all the paper charts I carried back in 1999.
Alaska is a place where the small airplane still rules.
Last winter, a friend out of Fairbanks invited me to come work as a volunteer for the Yukon Quest sled dog race, where intrepid mushers guide their teams over a thousand-mile course through the Yukon in the dead of winter. (Think Iditarod on steroids.)
For a million reasons, the volunteering part of the trip didn’t materialize, but I did get a good look into how people use their airplanes in what is truly The Last Frontier.
For us folks in the Lower 48, Alaskan aviation is mind-boggling. With General Aviation air traffic dwindling in most American flyways, you’d never know it by looking into the skies over Alaska. Aviation is a huge part of living in America’s 49th state.
It’s hard to go anywhere in Alaska and not find yourself in the company of at least someone who’s earned a private pilot certificate. There are more pilots per capita than any other state, and probably the world. It’s not unusual to find yourself in the midst of half a dozen pilots, even when standing in line at the post office.
Part of the reason aviation is alive and well in Alaska is plain and simple: there just aren’t any roads. Sure, there are lots of car thoroughfares around the few larger collections of civilization, like Anchorage or Fairbanks or Juneau. In these towns, you can drive around all you want, visit the grocery store, pick up your mail, even get yourself a speeding ticket if you’ve a mind to.
But you often can’t leave those towns in your car. The state capital of Juneau, for example, is not connected by road to the rest of the North American highway system. You can only come and go by ferry or by airplane.
And even if you could drive to other destinations, maybe you wouldn’t want to. The distances are great. Alaska is the largest state in the United States in land area at 663,268 square miles—over twice the size of Texas, the next largest state. Alaska is larger than all but 18 sovereign countries.
Decades ago when I was flying as copilot in a Convair 240, I made notes for a future use that I never got around to.
Here is the final installment of the fragmented creations from decades ago when I was flying the original piston airliners—notes I’d made for a future use which I never got around to. These observations from my earliest years of driving airliners provide a sense of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking in those days.
The Convair 240 piston engine airliner droned on through the thick, wet night sky, the clock on the panel measuring off the quiet minutes in their progress toward Boston.
“Any delays?” the flight attendant asked after having stood silently at the rear of the cockpit for a short while. The sound of her voice yanked both pilots’ attentions back to the moment.
“Probably,” the copilot answered quickly to fill the void. Too quickly, perhaps; the captain had said nothing yet. The copilot glanced to his left. “What do you think, Skipper? Delays?”
“Shouldn’t be bad,” the captain had answered in a low, disinterested voice, keeping his eyes straight ahead, staring intently at the black nothingness on the far side of the cockpit windshield.
“Back to work,” the flight attendant mumbled as she turned and headed back to the airliner’s cabin.
They flew another 15 minutes in silence before the pertinent radio call to them was sent. They would hold at a radio fix up ahead and expect further clearance in 20 minutes. The copilot acknowledged, then held his microphone up toward the captain. “Call company?” he asked.
The captain nodded.
Widespread fog prompts a change of heart about personal minimums on departure.
I have never been a fan of personal minimums—the idea that you should set limits for yourself short of what’s required by the FAA. Particularly for instrument flying, if you aren’t prepared to shoot an approach to minimums as specified on the chart, you shouldn’t file, because you’re going to have to deal with whatever weather develops.
That’s one reason for the “1-2-3” rule about specifying an alternate if the weather isn’t forecast to have at least a 2,000-foot ceiling and three miles visibility for one hour before and after your planned time of arrival.
But I’ve had a change of heart, at least in one respect: I’ve now set personal minimums for visibility and ceiling when departing on an IFR flight. That came about as a result of planning for a flight to Los Angeles with my wife during the fog season.
We were in a relatively wet winter season here in California’s Central Valley, which makes fog common. When there’s no frontal weather, radiation fog is common most mornings and indeed sometimes builds up to persistent tule fog that can cover fairly large areas.
Most of the time, the fog will burn off as the sun comes up, but deep in the winter you get a condition where the fog never completely burns off—it just rises into a low stratus, then settles back on the ground at night.
Periodically, a weather system moves through and disrupts the stable pattern, but between those systems, morning fog is the rule here until spring. It’s just something we learn to live with, and one of the reasons that an instrument rating really helps.
That had been happening the week before we were due for our trip: on Thursday, visibility stayed at one-quarter of a mile with an indefinite ceiling at about 100 feet until about 4:00 p.m.—and even after that, never got better than half a mile. That caused me to do some hard thinking.
For noncommercial flights conducted under Part 91, there are no minimum visibility or ceiling requirements for instrument departures; if you can see to taxi your airplane, you can get a clearance (which may include the highly significant words “at your own risk”) and take off.
I’ve never been fool enough to do that, but up to now, my departure minimums were basically the instrument minimums to get back into the airport. At my home base of Modesto, Calif. (KMOD), that’s one-half mile visibility and a 200-foot ceiling for the ILS approach.
What got me to thinking, though, was that the fog was so widespread. The whole valley was socked in.
I have flown in these conditions before, and usually there are just a couple of minutes in the soup on climbout, and then gorgeous clear air above. No problem at all—provided nothing goes wrong. If something does go wrong, with widespread fog and low ceilings, where can you go?
I did a Google search and found some really interesting discussions connected to old magazine articles on departure minimums. Then I picked up the phone and talked the whole subject over with my good friend and longtime flight instructor Larry Askew.
I finally decided that my personal departure minimums are basically the same as commercial pilots use: at least one mile visibility and a 500-foot ceiling. That’s enough that you’d have a fighting chance to live through an engine failure on takeoff.
Fortunately on our departure day, the weather cooperated and the fog lifted by noon. We had a great ride down with a 20-knot tailwind. I was a little nervous as there were multiple AIRMETs (and even a SIGMET) for severe turbulence mainly over the Sierras, but all we got was a mild mountain wave after we crossed the first big ridge near the Lake Hughes (LHS) VOR.
I had a Stratus ADS-B receiver running, and actually saw a fair amount of traffic from it on my iPad—enough to make me wonder if I may have been seeing the benefit of flying near another airplane equipped with ADS-B Out.
I took a few screen grabs, and after looking at those, it was clear we were following a PC-12. Since the tail number showed up, I’m betting the pilot was running an ADS-B compatible Mode S transponder, so ground stations were relaying transponder traffic to him, and while nearby we were picking it up.
That illustrates why you need installed ADS-B Out equipment (a 1090 MHz Mode S transponder or 978 MHz UAT) to get reliable ADS-B traffic. With just the receiver, you sometimes see traffic and sometimes don’t.
I also noticed a few scattered areas of light precipitation—evidently the fog or mist was dense enough to show up on ground-based radar, which is relayed by ADS-B ground stations along with traffic.
The only problem with the flight was that we’d gotten out about half an hour late, so we arrived just at dusk—which put the sun in my face on our long straight-in approach to Hawthorne (KHHR) Runway 25. I was almost blinded and got on the gauges, telling Kate to look for traffic.
Fortunately the sun went down when I was still joining the localizer, which let me flare without squinting.
One odd thing: the final approach controller announced, “Cleared into Class B airspace via the Hawthorne 25 localizer; report the airport in sight”—which was ridiculous as I’d been in the Class B airspace for a good 10 minutes at that point.
I replied that I was IFR. He cleared me for the visual approach.
Two days later, I again had to wait for the fog to start lifting before departing for home. I also decided to fly a slightly different route: instead of directly over the mountains into the valley, I planned to fly up the coast, turning inland at Morro Bay.
The MEAs for the route were all 8,000 feet or less, which eliminated any need to use oxygen. The route is also a bit prettier and kept us away from the fog as long as possible.
However, the route that I filed was pretty complex: KHHR HERMO V23 LAX SMO V107 SADDE V299 VTU V25 RZS V12 GVO V27 MQO V113 PRB V113 ROM V113 PXN KMOD 13GPH 8000FT
The routing was complicated enough that I saved it to Notes on the iPad, and hand-wrote it on my clearance pad.
When I called for my clearance, I received this: “Cleared to Modesto via left turn heading 210; radar vectors Ventura [VTU]; then as filed. Climb and maintain 3,000. Expect 8,000 in five minutes…” and the usual departure control and squawk.
ATC’s vectors were pretty close to what I asked for, except that it didn’t hug the coast quite as much, and probably put us four to five miles out over the water, but by that time we were at 6,000 feet, so I was still comfortable.
It was a pretty flight with no turbulence at all, and no more than a 15-knot headwind. Turning inland we could see low stratus and heavy haze filling the valley. Modesto was reporting four miles and clear below 12,000 feet, but I asked for and flew a full ILS and was on the gauges from about 1,500 feet.
I still don’t believe in setting arrival minimums higher than those for the best available instrument approach. If I’m not up to flying a full ILS, I need to get more practice. But taking off into widespread low fog strikes me as an unnecessary risk.
I’ll add that when I’m planning a flight into an area with widespread fog, I pay a lot of attention to the local weather trend and get very serious with my alternate planning. There’s no sense taking off until—and unless—the trend is improving; otherwise you run the risk of being unable to get in, and if that’s a serious risk, then I want an alternate that’s CAVU.
Fortunately, in N4696K we have long-range fuel tanks, so I usually have a lot of good options.
We and our airplanes are just getting older.
For a lot of us there was surely that one moment when you caught a glimpse of yourself in the mirror one day. OMG! you may have said. How did this happen?
Day by day, we all get a little older, though we may be no better at accepting the realities. We all love to banter around those cute little sayings about getting older, my favorite being the old Bette Davis line, “Growing old is not for sissies.” The older I get, the more truth I find there.
And if you think your body is showing the wear, what about the poor Piper Cherokee which has lived its life at the hands of countless student pilots, slammed and jammed on to runways for decades?
At the turn of the millennium (that’s 15 years ago, thank you very much) the FAA noted that the average age of the nation’s 150,000 single-engine fleet was more than 30 years old. By 2020, the average age could approach 50 years. Five years from now. 50-year-old airplanes. Average. AVERAGE.
Take a ride in a DC-3 at the next airshow; that airplane made its maiden flight 80 years ago. Let me say that again: 80. (Just so you know, the average age of jet airliners is a prepubescent 11 years old.)
Will there be a giant resurgence in General Aviation where wads of pilots just run out and buy wads of shiny new airplanes so that the average age of the our fleet will come back down? With the price of a 2015 Archer starting at $345,000, maybe not so much. Just like all of us continue to get older, so will the GA fleet.
So what are we gonna do with all these aging airplanes? Well, fly them, I guess.
Fragments of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking in those early days when I flew as a copilot in a Convair 240.
We are back again at my archeological dig, wherein old boxes of aviation notes had been ferreted out of deep storage and dusted off. These are fragmented creations from decades ago when I was flying the original airliners I had laid my hands on—notes made for a future use which I never got around to.
These piles of observations from my earliest years of driving airliners have been put into a semblance of order to provide a sense of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking in those days. Here is part two.
The Convair 240 splashed through the puddles as it swung from the gate. The columns of churning wind behind the propellers had swept a spray against the empty terminal. The agent, who knew better, had already hustled inside to watch from behind thick glass as the lights of the airplane moved across his rain-smeared view and disappeared around the corner.
“Three-eight-six, ready for your clearance?” The controller’s voice was clear and it filled the pilot’s headphones with a friendly closeness, as if the controller were sitting at the next barstool. Damp and dreary weather on a quiet night would somehow become the glue that bound together all those who used the frequency.
“To Boston,” he began in rounded tones, then continued on with his measured litany as he recited the electronic route that had been reserved for them.
The copilot wrote what was said in cryptic shorthand on a clipboard in his lap. The clipboard was lit by a narrow arc of light from above his head. The copilot wrote quickly but carefully, the mechanical pencil etching out the routing in neat numbers and letters on the blank side of their flight plan.
He paused for a moment after he finished writing, then reached for his microphone and read back what he had put down.
The Convair was slowly traveling down the stretch of blacktop that led to the runway. The airliner responded to the motions of the captain’s hand on the nose steering control, and the noises from the hydraulic valves floated up from beneath the floorboards to add a steady and nearly eerie undercurrent to the quiet in the cockpit.
The flight attendant had silently come up to the cockpit and without a word, handed the load slip to the copilot. He examined the paper she had given him: 19 passengers, 500 gallons of fuel. With the cargo, the gross weight was 41,200 pounds.
“Nineteen in the cabin,” the copilot announced. The captain said nothing.
After a medical leave of their own, John Ruley and his wife Kate have resumed their volunteer work for medical missions in northern Mexico.
From my notebook:
Nov. 7, 2014, Hotel La Herradura, El Fuerte, Mexico – I can’t recall ever being so tired at 7:45 p.m. A couple of margaritas probably had something to do with it, as did nine hours flying yesterday and today…
We started out from Modesto, Calif. (KMOD) yesterday. It was a nice flight down with surprising weather: marginal to IFR in the valley (three miles at surface, a lot less at pattern; tops 1,500) and clear in the Los Angeles basin (at least, as clear as it gets). I didn’t see Hawthorne (KHHR) approach lights until we were five miles out.
We were met by a friend who took us out for dinner and we bedded down for the night at a house owned by the Mission Doctors Association (MDA), where we met our passenger for departure the following day.
Our departure was almost an hour late, compounded by the FBO failing to fuel the airplane overnight. We made up some of that lost time when ATC gave us shortcut vectors, and instead of setting our usual 21 inches of manifold pressure at 2,300 rpm, I looked at the performance charts and bumped up the power to 22 inches at 2,400 rpm for 75 percent power at 9,000 feet. That increased our fuel burn to over 14 gph, but we picked up about five knots ground speed.
I wasn’t sure what to make of Mexicali International Airport (MMML). This was my first arrival ever at a Mexican airport where we weren’t met by an armed soldier or Marine, which I found a bit disconcerting.
The folks at the local Dirección General de Aeronáutica Civil (DGAC) office at Mexicali did their best to be helpful but with customs and immigration stops, the process still took an hour—and the fuelers wouldn’t take a credit card, so I burned a bunch of cash.
He’s not really my uncle and, matter of fact, we’re absolutely no blood relationship to each other at all. I started calling him Uncle Nelson when my kids were very small, because that’s what they called him. He’s been in and around my life for 55 years so far, so I guess it’s fair to say that we know each other pretty well.
Nelson DeMille—the best-selling, world-acclaimed novelist—has been my good friend since we first met in school back so many years ago that it’s a wonder that we can remember those early days at all, yet somehow we do. We’re talking about a relationship that began in second grade and continued without pause all through elementary, middle and high school. As young adults we went our separate ways along some wandering career paths, but we always stayed in touch.
Where did I begin? Where did I get my start as an aviation-oriented, crazy-about-everything-having-to-do-with-flying kind of guy?
Like many a romantic movie starring Ryan O’Neal, it all began at a quiet little airport in Lakeland, Fla. called Drane Field in the early part of the 1970s. Drane, now Linder Airport, was an ex-bomber training base from World War II that morphed itself into a General Aviation field.
Here in California’s Central Valley, we’re blessed with good weather—most of the time. A lot of local pilots get along without an instrument rating. That works for about nine months of the year. In the winter and spring, though, they can’t fly all that much.
From the end of November through the middle of February, more often than not, the valley is shrouded in fog—frequently, very thick fog. My wife jokes that we’ve had our share of white Christmases since moving here, but in our case the white starts about two feet above the ground…