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Ferry Flight Decision Patterns

Ferry Flight Decision Patterns

Safely traversing the U.S. and crossing the Rocky Mountains in a single-engine aircraft requires a pilot to manage an ever-changing slate of risks. This is a first-person account of a ferry pilot who crosses the Continental Divide using his wits and 150 horsepower.

Ferry flying is never a sure thing, especially in a VFR-only airplane over mountainous terrain with rapidly-changing weather.

I’d planned to ferry a Piper PA-22/20 Pacer from Wooster, Ohio to Nampa, Idaho, in mid-October. On the day of the first ferry flight attempt, the winds were at 18 knots, gusting to 30 knots, from variable directions. I did a familiarization flight with the owner, Don, and even he had a difficult time keeping the aircraft on the runway. 

Don was donating the Pacer, his perky white-and-blue baby, to Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). Don owned two airplanes—a Cessna 190 and the Pacer. He decided to trim his fleet to just one aircraft and elected to donate the Pacer. Don’s Pacer resembles a famous MAF aircraft—a Piper PA-14 Family Cruiser—destroyed in the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle in 1956. It’s also the same model aircraft that Asas de Socorro (an MAF affiliate) first flew in Brazil. So, in addition to the tax benefit, there was a historical connection behind the gift.

We waited a day, but the winds remained the same. The forecast for the next several days showed no change as well. So, I decided to try again later. It did cost an extra airline fare, but that seemed cheaper than a broken airplane.

The Pacer’s panel while cruising west at 6,500 feet. 
Monday

A few weeks later, I returned to Wooster to ferry the Pacer to Nampa. This time, conditions looked better, though late October could always hold surprises.

• Good news: Light wind, clear skies from Ohio all the way to Idaho. 

• Bad news: A fast-moving system approaching the Pacific Northwest. 

• Dilemma: Go now and maybe get stuck en route, or wait?

• I’ll go now.

My job was to fly the Pacer to its new home. Don removed his stuff from the cockpit. I put mine in, claiming the territory. For the next few days, the Pacer was mine.

I closed the door, reviewed checklists, then started the engine. Don raised a palm toward me, completing the transaction. I nodded, released the brakes and taxied up the grassy slope to the end of the strip. More checklists. 

A clearing turn uncovered no unannounced traffic. I added full power and the Pacer moved immediately. Tail-up trundling turned to spritely, ever-lighter bounces. I eased the yoke back, wheels left turf and I rose above the trees. 

Although usually thought of as a slow airplane, the Pacer climbed quickly to 6,500 feet. Dark blue sky above faded to a thin, white haze line on the horizon. 

Trimmed to fly level, I steered with occasional rudder pedal taps. Then, I cycled through the pilot’s pattern: Look for traffic. Check engine gauges. Confirm heading and altitude. Verify position. Call ATC for flight following. Scout alternate landing sites. Compare previous forecasts with the view out the window. Search current forecasts for the route ahead. Repeat.

After a quick-turn at Kankakee, Illinois (KIKK), I climbed back to 6,500 feet and pointed west to Atlantic, Iowa. The Pacer cruises at 105 knots and holds four hours of gas. Subtracting a one-hour fuel margin yielded a no-wind range of 315 nautical miles—not very far when crossing a continent. 

Got a quick-turn from the great folks at Kankakee, Illinois (KIKK).

I hoped to reach North Platte, Nebraska (KLBF), by nightfall, but when I’d reached Atlantic, Iowa (KAIO), body, brain and lowering sun agreed I was done for the day.

Dawn on the North Platte ramp, ready to continue west. 
Tuesday

Pre-dawn light revealed a gray sky over a gray ramp. 

• Good news: Light wind, good visibility.

• Bad news: A line of low ceilings and rain crossed my route.

• Dilemma: Go now, or wait?

• I’ll go now.

At sunrise, I headed west and climbed to 6,500 feet. My Stratus-enhanced iPad showed the north-south line across my path. Already, drops peppered my windscreen, streaming back in long silver ribbons. The ceiling lowered, dropping gray columns like dirty sheer curtains bending in the wind.

• Good news: The worst rain lay south. The Pacer was equipped for basic IFR.

• Bad news: The Pacer’s IFR certification had expired, so I was VFR-only.

• Dilemma: Go on, or land and wait? 

• I’ll give it just a bit longer…

Rain drummed on fabric wings and fuselage with a deep, resonant note. Streams across the windscreen increased. Drops formed inside door edges and ran down side windows. 

• Good news: Reports showed good weather 20 miles ahead. Conditions remained VFR. 

• Bad news: I faced a 12-minute gauntlet that threatened to reduce visibility to zero.

• Dilemma: Continue, or land and wait?

• Almost ready to turn around…

I eased the yoke forward to stay under the ceiling and leveled at 4,500 feet. Below me, farmers’ pickups no longer raised dust. Parents called kids inside. The translucent rain veil glowed gray, not completely hiding field and town. 

A newly-wet highway shone silver, pointing a gleaming arrow westward. Sherman Reservoir near Loup City, Nebraska, hung within visibility’s edge at 8 miles. Slowly, the ground beyond the reservoir came into view. Then, the drumming grew louder and the ground ahead faded. 

Suddenly, brilliant sunshine. Tree and road sparkled from their recent bath. North Platte crowned a bluff 60 miles away in bright air. But this bright air was also frisky air and demanded my full attention. 

At North Platte, I asked the FBO for another quick-turn, then, still hopeful, went inside to check weather. I wanted to reach Rawlins, Wyoming (KRWL) before I called it a day.

• Good news: Clear skies.

• Bad news: Wind gusting to 30 knots along the entire route, forecast to continue all day. 

• Dilemma: Go, wait or try an alternate route?

• Better to be on the ground wishing I was in the air… than in the air wishing I was on the ground.

The only other path for a Pacer traversing the Rocky Mountains lay a full day’s flying south. Updated reports and forecasts offered no encouragement, so after haunting the FBO for a couple hours, I called the hotel van. 

Wednesday

Before first light, the Weather Channel on the hotel’s breakfast bar TV agreed with Flight Service.

• Good news: Wind a little better.

• Bad news: Rain, snow, low ceilings. 

• Dilemma: Go, or wait?

• Going to wait this one out…

One aviation mantra says, “Time to spare? Go by air.” What’s left unsaid is that such a pilot with time to spare must always be ready to go. The pattern continued: Check reports and forecasts. Look for options. Wait an hour. Repeat.

By 3:00 in the afternoon, the North Platte wind whistled. The western sky darkened. 

“It’s heading this way,” locals and forecasts said. “Could be snow tonight.” 

“Snow?” I asked.

“Yeah. Can happen this time of year.”

I put the Pacer to bed in a heated hangar and returned to the hotel for mine. 

Thursday

Next morning, I watched the Weather Channel over breakfast. I could reach Nampa, Idaho, that day if I started immediately. 

• Bad news: All the weather stations along my route toward Salt Lake City reported rain, snow, obscured mountains, 200-foot ceilings, visibilities 1 to 2 miles.

• Good news: Casper, Wyoming (KCPR), north of my planned route to Rawlins, reported clear skies and operable winds. Forecast was the same all day. 

• Dilemma: Go to Casper, or wait? 

• Let’s fly…

North Platte was cold, but Pacer slept warm in a hangar with the big boys. As the eastern horizon turned deep yellow, the Pacer’s 150 hp engine started, settling into a nice chuckle. After takeoff, I turned left toward Casper. It wasn’t the most direct route, but Casper was at least a move in the right direction.

Heading southwest out of Casper, Wyoming (KCPR). The last bits of the previous day’s clouds still hung around. 

Morning sun painted North Platte trees and roofs orange, their long shadows hiding streets and yards. Sharp glints flashed as new light touched windshield and window. No motion below, just me passing slowly overhead, a white bird pushed by the dawn.

At first, I stayed at 4,500 feet to avoid the worst headwind but soon climbed with rising terrain to 6,500 feet. Real mountains lay ahead. Already I could see the main chain of the Rockies jutting up, advancing from the south. Ground speed dropped to 87 knots, but trucks weren’t passing me—yet.

• Good news: Clear, smooth air.

• Bad news: Strong headwind. I could just reach Casper with a one-hour reserve.

• Dilemma: Continue or return?

• Stay low, under the winds…

Sky stayed clear. I stayed low. I passed Crescent Lake Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska, bent north around the restricted area near Guernsey, Wyoming, then farther north to follow the skirts of the rising Laramie Range. I flew over Douglas, Wyoming, then followed the North Platte River into Casper.

On the ground, I fueled and checked weather. Neat lines and numbers implied I could still reach Nampa that day, but they did nothing to move the messy air mass.

• Good news: Casper remained clear. Operable wind. 

• Bad news: Rain, snow, obscured mountains covered my route.

• Dilemma: Go? Where?

• With nowhere to go, I’ll call it a day.

I waited an hour, but a second call to FSS confirmed Casper was the limit of that day’s travel. Local forecast snow prompted another night’s hangar space for Pacer. 

A hotel van came, again. I checked into a room, again. Connected to the internet, again. Put the muted TV on the Weather Channel, again. And tried—again—to guess what might happen tomorrow.

Crossing the Mississippi River near Henry, Illinois. 
Friday

Dawn not yet showing, breakfast bar TV and iPad aviation weather reports looked workable. If I could refuel at Logan, Utah (KLGU), I could reach Nampa with just one stop. Refueling any sooner would add more landings.

• Good news: The front passed. Clear skies. Logan was forecast VFR.

• Bad news: Salt Lake reported stratus and fog. Headwind continued.

• Dilemma: Go, or wait?

• Into the wild blue…

I took off just as the sun crossed the eastern horizon, then I turned southwest. Flat ground rose steadily in broad valleys punctuated by abrupt mesas toward peaks 150 miles ahead. I climbed to 10,500 feet. 

Near Preston, Idaho, at 12,500 feet, passing well south of Oxford Peak.

Vestiges of yesterday’s clouds remained as fog clung to shaded valleys, white shards hovered in scattered layers over flat-topped mesas, and broad flowing strands followed the upward curves of draws leading to higher mounts. The air shone diamond-clear, but ragged, torn cloud edges warned of wind.

I recalculated. Logan remained within reach. But if it didn’t open by the time I arrived, I’d have to cut into my reserve to find an alternate. An hour later, Logan was still below minimums. 

• Good news: Good visibility east of Salt Lake.

• Bad news: Salt Lake remained IFR. Strong headwinds continued.

• Dilemma: Time to refuel, but where?

• Let’s stay out of the clouds.

I diverted to Kemmerer, Wyoming (KEMM), the last spot on the eastern, good-weather side of the mountains. The airport sat atop a mesa barely big enough to contain its three runways and building cluster. 

Nothing moved except the windsock dancing straight out. The radio remained silent, but the directory said they had fuel. I landed with my hour reserve still in the tanks.

• Good news: I found fuel pumps. 

• Bad news: No fuel pump controls visible. 

• Dilemma: Backtrack and add a day, or try to fuel here?

• They’re supposed to have fuel…

Inside a small but new building, warm air, fresh paint, new carpet and comfortable chairs greeted me. A guest sign-in sheet lay on the counter. No people appeared. Outside, scattered puff clouds raced across clear sky and the wind whistled like the soundtrack to a Clint Eastwood western.

Back at the fuel pumps, I found neither card reader nor switches. But a small sign pointed to a shed down the ramp. Inside, controls hung near a small table. The door rattled. The wall groaned. The motivation for putting gloves-off controls indoors became clear. 

I entered the data, swiped the card, then fueled the Pacer. Still alone, only windsock and clouds moved. 

The Pacer wanted to point into the wind, but with flight controls and brakes I managed to reach the runway, complete the checklist and do a clearing turn while keeping all wheels touching pavement. I pushed the throttle in, barely moving before leaping from the earth. 

At first, 10,500 feet seemed fine. But over Bear Lake, just west of where Wyoming, Idaho and Utah meet, heading for the 9,200-foot ridge on the far side, my scan revealed dropping airspeed while holding altitude along with disappearing terrain beyond the ridge—both signs of sinking air. 

• Good news: Clear air above and scattered clouds below.

• Bad news: Air coming across the ridge sank faster than the Pacer climbed.

• Dilemma: Return to Kemmerer and wait, hunt for a better route, or shop for lift and climb?

• Up, up and away!

Over the west shore of the lake, I spotted a cluster of ragged clouds taller than the rest with bases well above the ridgetop. Perfect. I turned toward them and a moment later felt a bump. The VSI needle jumped above zero, so I turned right to stay under the cloud. 

The climb rate increased immediately, rewarding my guess. I stayed in the spiral up to 12,500 feet, then continued west.

Crossing the ridge 20 miles north of Logan, the entire Salt Lake City basin lay under the low clouds which forecasts had failed to predict. Ahead, valleys and ridges cleared, but now an overcast formed and thickened, following lowering terrain down. 

I started a cruise descent, calculating I could reach Nampa with 30 to 45 minutes of fuel left. 

• Good news: Good visibility below the overcast. 

• Bad news: Overcast sprouted scattered showers. Headwind increased.

• Dilemma: Stop for fuel again, or stretch the last leg?

• Time for one last stop…

The heavy overcast and scattered showers darkened midafternoon skies as I entered the broad valley dominating southwestern Idaho. 

On the ground at Burley (KBYI), despite cold wind and spitting rain, I received a gracious quick-turn. 

Another takeoff, followed by its landing an hour and 50 minutes later at Nampa, Idaho (KMAN), completed the Pacer’s patterned journey.

The author introducing the Pacer to its new home in Nampa, Idaho (KMAN).

Jim Manley is a former FBO owner, U.S. Forest Service air attack pilot and Amazon jungle pilot with commercial, SEL, MEL, CFI and CFII ratings. He now works as a freelance writer in Meridian, Idaho. Send questions or comments to .

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The Paradox of Choice: Airplane Edition

The Paradox of Choice: Airplane Edition

There are thousands of used airplanes on the market, and no two are exactly alike. The range of choices available to a buyer is both a blessing and a curse. Defining your mission, purchase goals and a budget can help methodically pare down the list of potential candidates. A systematic approach also offers the side effect of decreasing pre-purchase anxiety as you zero in on The Right Airplane For You.

If you comb through hundreds of classified ads, looking at as many different airplanes as possible, you’re increasing your odds of finding a great deal on The Right Airplane For You, yes?

Not so fast.

As you view more and more choices, each with their pluses and minuses, choosing between all the available options can become more challenging. They may all just seem to blend together, differentiated by a few hours here and a little damage history there.

The process of choosing becomes more difficult, and that difficulty produces anxiety. Airplane buying just went from a fun and exciting adventure to an anxiety-producing marathon.

Anxiety about choices and their respective consequences can discourage us from prompt, decisive action. We may avoid making the tough choice and instead run away (i.e., give up entirely) or opt to find a different, easier choice to make.

This behavior is the basic premise behind Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book, “The Paradox of Choice.” It’s a fascinating read about modern consumer behavior in an era of multitudes of poorly-differentiated products. I highly recommend it.

Here’s a real-world example. When I was growing up, we received four TV channels over the air. Three were national networks, and one was public broadcasting. It didn’t take more than a few seconds to flip the dial to see what was on. A typical choice on a weekday evening would be between a sitcom, the world news, a baseball game and a documentary about rabbits. That was tough enough. I usually gave up and put on “Top Gun” (yes, on VHS tape).

Contrast that to today, when—if I subscribe to cable or a satellite service—I can have hundreds of channels at my fingertips. There’s also on-demand video from Netflix, Amazon Prime and others. YouTube alone gives me the option to choose one of 5 billion (yes, billion) videos.

Don’t ask me to choose. I give up. I’m going to go read a back issue of Piper Flyer.

The same expansion of choice has occurred in the used airplane market in the Internet Age. Though the number of airplanes changing hands hasn’t varied substantially over the years, the visibility of the choices available to buyers has changed dramatically.

Once upon a time, airplane transactions were guided by word-of-mouth and flyers on airport bulletin boards. There would be a few options available, and you might dig up a half-dozen more if you started asking around the airport. A broker might be able to do some of the legwork for you by calling his or her friends.

Though you certainly can still find a solid bird on the bulletin board, now we have Barnstormers, Trade-A-Plane, Controller, online broker inventory, Craigslist, Facebook groups and myriad type-specific forums (each with their own classified section). A quick search can pull up thousands of airplanes for sale.

The sheer number of choices is intimidating, especially for first-time buyers.

So, how do you start weeding through these thousands of candidate airplanes to find The Right Airplane For You?

It’s simple (sort of)

Just answer this single question and we’ll have you on your way to finding the best new-to-you airplane: What do you want?

Well, I personally want a Northrop F-5E Tiger II with a Soviet Air Force paint scheme. I watched that “Top Gun” VHS tape…a lot. And I speak Russian (poorly), so I’m sure I’d make a great “enemy” pilot.

But, by asking myself a few more basic questions, I can tell that acquiring and maintaining that F-5 isn’t practical.

The mission: who, what, when, where, why and how?

Who is going to be in the airplane with you? What do you want to be able to do with your airplane? When/how often/how far will you fly? Where will you go? Why do you want to be an owner? How much can you afford to spend on this endeavor?

If you can answer these questions, you’re well on your way to defining your mission. The F-5 obviously doesn’t work for me. It fails on “who”—you can’t safely fit two people and two dogs into a fighter jet. 

Additionally, as much as I’d love to scream around at 400 knots while listening to “Danger Zone” through my fancy Bluetooth headset, I can’t find a way to make the “how” work without robbing a bank or three.

For a more realistic example, let’s check out a recent post on the Piper Flyer forum. The author, Eric, explains his plans:

My story is that I’m 40, in information technology, and have decided to change careers to pursue my dream of flying professionally. I successfully got my private pilot certificate in April in a Cessna 172. Now I want to work through all of my ratings up to CFI.

Congratulations, Eric, on your new certificate!

Eric has a solid idea of what his new airplane will need to do, and he also understands that this isn’t a short-term purchase. He says he’s a “firm believer in [the philosophy of] buy your last plane first.”

That’s a good start.

He goes on to answer the who, what, when, where, why and how. In his words, he’s looking for:

1. Stable IFR platform I can complete my instrument rating and commercial certificate in.

2. Capable cross-country cruiser that can take two people (myself and a passenger) and some luggage comfortably. I am anticipating at least one cross-country trip a month of over 300 miles, with some even longer. So, decent performance would also be a plus.

3. If possible, I’d like to get something that is auto fuel STC capable. This is not a hard requirement, but a nice-to-have.

4. I am anticipating flying 200 to 300 hours a year.

5. Budget would be up to $60,000, but I would like to stay below that as much as possible.

Most readers are probably starting to come up with a few ideas for Eric. It’s easy to help spend someone else’s money! But let’s not get too far ahead. This is a good time to do a sanity check, especially for first-time buyers and those who must stick tightly to a budget.

It’ll often be tough to find a perfect airplane for all your possible missions without breaking the bank. Set a realistic goal of fitting 80 to 90 percent of your mission profile. You can always rent or borrow an airplane, drive or fly commercial for the remainder of the missions.

Rather than immediately going down the rabbit hole of online listings, talk to a trusted and experienced aviation friend, mechanic or airplane broker—or better yet, several of each.

Your guiding question is basic: “Do airplanes that can do 90 percent of what I want exist for around the price I want to pay?” In case you haven’t noticed, aviation people like to talk. You’ll get plenty of opinions. Keep this discussion simple—you just want to find out if ownership is a good option for you.

If the consensus answer is “Yup, you can find that,” continue.

The Piper PA-24 Comanche is a speedy and comfortable cross-country machine.
Many vintage panels have steam gauges and older IFR avionics. 
Purchase goals

With a mission in mind, it’s time to start thinking about what The Right Airplane For You looks like. Don’t worry about specific airplanes just yet—we’re looking to outline the makes and models that fulfill the mission criteria.

We’ll call these criteria our purchase goals. For Eric, it plays out something like this:

Goal No. 1: Budget of $60,000 for initial acquisition.

• Eric’s budget is clear: $60,000 or very near.

• Other expenses may decrease the amount available at closing. State and local taxes, pre-buy expenses and other acquisition costs can quickly add up.

• It’s also smart to have a significant amount in reserve for deferred maintenance items that may become apparent in the few months after purchase. I’ve heard recommendations of anywhere between 10 and 50 percent of the purchase price. Also, make sure you’re accounting for any upgrades that will be done soon after purchase.

• Like with real estate or cars, the asking price for an airplane isn’t always the sales price. It typically won’t hurt to make offers, but it’s a seller’s market for piston singles right now, and most sellers won’t move tens of thousands of dollars on price. It would make sense for Eric to limit his search to airplanes with asking prices of less than approximately $70,000.

Goal No. 2: Decent performance.

• Eric says he wants to do 300 nm cross-countries. For the sake of discussion, we’ll assume he’ll be best served by an airplane that cruises at 120 knots or better.

• To get this sort of speed, he will want to look at high-performance (200-plus hp) and/or retractable-gear airplanes. Some fixed-gear 180 hp and 200 hp airplanes can deliver this speed as well.

• Ensure that the make and model airplane can get into and out of the airports you want to use without undue worry. A pilot who will be flying into backcountry strips in the Rockies will need a different airplane than someone whose home base has 8,000 feet of pavement at sea level. Eric states that he may be flying in New Mexico a bit and would welcome additional high-and-hot performance.

• Given the need for some speed and high-and-hot performance, a 200-plus hp airplane makes good sense for him. A sleek 180 hp airplane would also work.

More horsepower usually equals more speed and greater useful load. Of course, this comes at the cost of more fuel and additional maintenance. 

Goal No. 3: Predictable and reasonable operating and maintenance expenses.

• Since Eric plans to fly frequently and build hours in a short time, he wants an airplane that won’t always be in the shop.

• Simple, proven systems will help limit ongoing maintenance expenses. There’s a reason that most shops charge more for an annual inspection on a complex (retractable-gear), high-performance airplane than, say, a 180 hp fixed-gear single. These complex airplanes are just as they sound—more complex! Similarly, an engine with more cylinders has more cylinders that can have problems, not to mention that it will usually burn more fuel.

• Generally, the rarer a make and model, the more difficult it is to find replacement parts.

• It would be wise for Eric to choose a make and model with simple systems, and one which is widely supported, with good parts availability to limit maintenance expenses and downtime.

Goal No. 4: Must have a range of 300 nm minimum, with IFR reserves.

• Assuming a 120-knot cruise speed and legal minimum IFR reserves, Eric’s airplane will need a range of 390 nm (3.25 hours).

• Let’s look at a few Piper piston singles to get an idea of what is considered standard range. A Piper PA-28-161 Warrior II carries 48 gallons and burns around 7.5 gph at cruise for a maximum endurance of about six hours and a range of 525 nm. A Piper PA-28-235 Cherokee 235 carries more fuel; 84 gallons. It burns about 13 gph, has an endurance of about six hours and a range of 710 nm.

• Eric needs a range just shy of 400 nm. This should be well within the range of most four-seat piston singles with full tanks.

“If it fits, it ships,” or so say many Piper PA-28-235 Cherokee 235 owners. Early models have useful loads of more than 1,400 pounds. 

Goal No. 5: Cross-country comfortable for two people, with sufficient baggage capacity.

• Few two-seaters offer enough useful load to allow for long cross-countries with two people, three-plus hours of fuel and baggage.

• A two-seat Piper PA-38 Tomahawk, for example, probably won’t be able to complete Eric’s mission. The useful load of the PA-38 is around 500 pounds. With two 200-pound adults and 40 pounds of baggage, you only have 60 pounds left over for fuel. You won’t get far on 10 gallons of Avgas. The math is, of course, better with smaller passengers.

• In addition, comfort is often lacking in many two-seaters. 

• Thus, a four-seater is going to provide the most flexibility for Eric’s intended use.

Goal No. 6: IFR-equipped.

• Though technically a single nav radio with glideslope will suffice for “IFR equipment,” if Eric plans to become a professional pilot and wants to learn how to fly real-world IFR, a WAAS GPS is practically mandatory.

• A modern, coupled autopilot would also be a nice-to-have.

• Acquiring an airplane with avionics already installed is much cheaper than retrofitting them after purchase.

• Eric’s budget will have him looking at older airplanes, where the avionics may have been replaced several times. Though choosing an airplane with appropriate avionics is important, avionics tend to be specific to an individual airplane (rather than make and model). Installed avionics are not an important criterion for filtering by make and model, but are incredibly important when looking at individual airplanes.

Goal No. 7: Auto fuel STC capable. 

• Though many Piper singles are eligible for auto fuel STCs, the complexity of the STC varies. Some airplanes can use auto fuel after a paperwork-only STC, while others require expensive modifications to the fuel system.

• If this is an important factor in keeping operating costs down, Eric will want to consider a model with paperwork-only auto fuel compatibility.

Goal No. 8: An airplane I can fly (and be insurable in).

• Eric recently earned his private pilot certificate and just under 70 hours, primarily in Cessna 172s.He does not have a multi-engine rating, so he’ll be limited to singles.

• The transition from a Cessna 172 to, say, a Cherokee 180 is not a difficult one. Conversely, the jump from a 172 to a twin-engine Piper Navajo would be quite challenging.

• Additionally, a low-time private pilot might find it difficult or impossible to obtain insurance in an airplane which requires more pilot skill. In addition to high premiums, the insurer may also require a significant amount of dual instruction for the owner prior to solo operation.

• Should you (or Eric) consider a taildragger? First, can you fly one? Next, can you be insured in one? I received a quote on a high-performance taildragger a few years back. Though the hull wasn’t expensive, my relative lack of tailwheel time combined with a high-risk model pushed the premium to over $3,300/year (and 25 hours of dual required before solo!). That’s a lot of Avgas.

• Eric received a quote on a Cherokee 235 and found that the premiums and training requirements were quite reasonable: $1,100/year and a two-hour CFI checkout.

• Eric must consider insurability and insurance premiums to limit his ongoing costs.

Goal No. 9: An airplane that I’d like to own.

• Do you prefer a specific make and model based on looks, reputation or personal experience?

• Do you have opinions on what constitutes “too old” or “too new,” either in terms of calendar age or airframe/engine times?

• How much work do you want to do on a new-to-you airplane? Some people love reclamation projects; others just want to fly.

• What degree of importance do you place on cosmetics (paint, interior, etc.)?

• What are your opinions on standard aluminum construction versus tube-and-fabric versus composite?

• Eric doesn’t say much about this, but these are an important consideration for many buyers.

Cosmetic refurbishments, like the fresh paint on this 1964 Cherokee 235, can make a vintage airplane look factory-new. 
Prioritize purchase goals

In Eric’s purchase, budget is a major factor, whereas an auto fuel STC is a nice-to-have.

You’ll want to make a list (actually, three) with your nonnegotiable items, nice-to-haves and lastly, unlikely luxuries. This outline will serve you well when you start evaluating makes and models, as well as specific candidate airplanes.

When I purchased my most recent airplane, I wasn’t initially looking for a Piper. I’d set my sights on a Cessna 177B Cardinal. I thought the Cardinals were sexy, modern-looking airplanes. I loved the big doors and spacious interior.

As I got more serious with defining my mission and assessing various makes and models, I realized that a nicely-equipped Cardinal was going to cost tens of thousands more than a comparable Piper—yet the Piper would deliver the same performance.

Passing on the Cardinals meant I wouldn’t be flying as sleek of a bird, but if I went Piper, I could get a low-time four-seater with decent avionics… and would still have a bit of money to spend on upgrades after the purchase. 

I found a nice Cherokee 180, and the rest is history. As it turns out, in addition to checking all my must-have boxes and most of my nice-to-haves, I even ended up with a few unlikely luxuries. 

Still, if cost had been less of a consideration for me, I might’ve gone ahead and bought a Cardinal (or a Comanche!). It’s hard to put a price on the toys we desire.

Shortlisting makes and models

Publications like Trade-A-Plane and Controller are great tools for coming up with a shortlist. Online versions work too, but there’s something uniquely satisfying about applying a highlighter to a paper magazine.

For a shopper like Eric, his search starts at the beginning of the single-engine piston airplane section. He might pare down the list by first looking at only common makes and models (a nod to parts availability and ease of maintenance). Next, he might note all the four-seaters, then, of those, just airplanes with 180 hp or more. From there, eliminating the aircraft outside his budget will trim down the results even further.

The first-time buyer, especially one who is new to General Aviation, will need to do some research at this stage. It’s likely that there will be models you’re not familiar with—there might be a lot of Piper PA-22/20s on the market in your price range, but do they match the goals you’ve defined?

With any luck, you’ll quickly winnow down the list to a handful of makes and models which fit most, if not all, of your purchase goals.

Expert advice

You’ll want to do some follow-up on the makes and models you’ve identified to ensure there will be no nasty surprises after your purchase. There may be a reason a specific make and model is so cheap.

What are common complaints and maintenance issues? What do owners love about their airplanes? How many ADs apply? How many of these are recurring? How expensive is insurance?

Yes, it’s again time to talk to people—and not just the pilots who gather at the airport on Saturday morning for the free doughnuts and coffee. You want to talk directly to people who have owned, operated and maintained the makes and models you’re considering. You might also get some tips on other makes/models which would fit your mission from these aviation sages. Heck, they may even know of a good airplane or two for sale.

It could be the woman who owns the flight school which operates a fleet of Piper Arrows. It could be the guy who maintains that fleet. Or perhaps it’s the experts who frequent the Piper Flyer forum.

It’s also wise to get hands-on time with each make and model you’re considering. Flying them is best, of course, but even sitting in the cockpit will give you an idea of whether the airplane is a good physical fit for you.

Zeroing in

From here, your job is to find the specific airplanes that have all (or most) of your must-have features. Don’t restrict yourself to print publications—now that you have a search image in mind, it’s time to revisit Barnstormers, Facebook groups, type-specific forums and so on. Except now, rather than digging through thousands of airplanes for sale, you can quickly home in on the few that fit your needs.

Here’s another suggestion: post a wanted ad—either at your airport or online. Some owners may be considering selling their airplanes, but don’t want to deal with the tire-kickers that come with posting an airplane for sale publicly.

I recently sold my airplane to someone who had posted a “looking for…” ad. It was quick and easy for both me and the buyer. I got a painless sale; he got a great airplane for a few bucks less than market value.

Speaking of market value, as you look through advertisements, you should keep a keen eye on pricing. For example, what is an average late 1960s Cherokee 235 listed for? How does that change with airframe and engine times? What sort of adjustments are being made for installed avionics? Is there a regional adjustment in price for that make/model? Though you won’t have access to final sales data, you can get an idea of what a fair deal is—and then be ready to pounce when you see one.

Geography becomes important at this stage, too. It’s much easier to look at candidate airplanes which are within a few hours’ drive or flight. For the most common makes and models, there’s likely to be several for sale nearby. For more rare airplanes, you may need to be willing to travel.

Though it is certainly possible to buy an airplane with dated avionics and upgrade them yourself, you’ll be money ahead if you buy an airplane with a “dream panel” already installed. 
Targets acquired

Eric identified a few prospective airplanes in his forum post: a 1958 Piper PA-24-180 Comanche 180 and a 1964 PA-28-235 Cherokee 235. Both were priced near his budget. Both airplanes had an IFR GPS installed. The 235 also had ADS-B Out and an autopilot.

Neither airplane fit all of his stated goals. Eric had questions about the cost of ownership on the Comanche; the 235 had an asking price slightly above budget. But both appeared to be very good candidates which would do 90 percent or more of the missions he’d outlined.

Since Eric had done his homework, the choice was now about which would be the best airplane—not whether these candidates would minimally suffice.

A compelling argument could be made for either airplane, though they are fundamentally different craft. Piper Flyer contributing editor Steve Ells said it well on the Piper Flyer forum: “You might consider the Comanche as a well-mannered and good-looking sedan while the Cherokee 235 is a small SUV.”

The Comanche is more economical in terms of fuel burn (8.5 gph versus 13 gph) for 130-ish knots. It has a Lycoming O-360—about as bulletproof a four-cylinder engine as there is.

On the other side, the Cherokee 235 can lift practically anything you can fit inside it, has broad parts availability, and nearly any mechanic can wrench on one. It’s not as pretty on the ramp as the Comanche (in my opinion), but it performs well and has a reputable six-cylinder engine.

A 200 hp PA-28R Piper Arrow (or Turbo Arrow) comes to mind as another good Piper option. In fact, there was a slick little PA-28R-201T on my home airport’s ramp last week with a For Sale sign in the window for around Eric’s budget.

A PA-28-236 Dakota would’ve been a nice match for the mission, but a Dakota equipped for modern IFR would be cost-prohibitive. Some of the 180 hp models like the Cherokee 180, Archer or Arrow could have worked too, though they won’t ever be confused for speed demons.

Out of the two airplanes he’d identified as candidates, Eric decided to opt for the Cherokee 235 as it had a few more “nice-to-haves,” in addition to fitting much of his mission profile.

Good airplanes which are priced right are selling fast in today’s market, so don’t be surprised if you miss out on a few. I’ve been watching for-sale postings closely over the past few months and have seen several pristine high-performance Piper singles go under contract within hours; sometimes even minutes. Still, by knowing exactly what you want and how much it should cost (and having your financial house in order), you can be that buyer who jumps on a good deal when it comes up.

“All used airplanes have fleas”

Remember, used airplanes have been in service for some years and hours and not everything will be as factory-new. To quote my mechanic, “All used airplanes have fleas—you just want to find one where the fleas won’t eat you, too.”

Your next step is to figure out if your chosen candidate has the kind of parasites that will feed heavily on your pocketbook. This is another spot where you’ll want to enlist expert help.

Piper Flyer has published several articles in the recent past about conducting effective pre-buys. (See Resources for a list of titles and where to find them. —Ed.) I’ll say this: read up on pre-buys and be sure to have a thorough one done. It’s money well spent.

On my last purchase, I walked away from a couple of airplanes after conducting (rather expensive) pre-buys. One of these airplanes experienced a left main landing gear failure about four months after the pre-buy. The accident resulted in significant injuries to a passenger and a total loss of the airframe.

My mechanic had advised me not to buy the airplane because of a problem he observed at the left main gear attach point. The seller (and seller’s mechanic) didn’t think it was an airworthiness issue. He said he’d just sell it to the next buyer in line (which he did). Sure enough, that attach point is where the failure occurred.

A pre-buy inspection from a trusted A&P with experience with the make and model is essential. Don’t hesitate to walk away if you find that the fleas keep multiplying as you dig deeper into the aircraft records or mechanicals. Paperwork issues (missing logs, 337s or STCs) may not cause safety problems, but they can be a huge headache when it comes time for resale.

The receipt of a satisfactory pre-buy inspection from your expert of choice should be exciting and confidence-inspiring. You’ve done your research. You’ve identified the right make and model. You’ve found an airplane that fits your budget and your purchase goals. After a good pre-buy, you’ve got the option to purchase a beautiful, thoroughly-inspected example of The Right Airplane For You.

Now, all you have to do is write the check and fly it home. Enjoy!

Scott Kinney is a self-described aviation geek (#avgeek), private pilot and instructor (CFI-Sport, AGI). He is associate editor for Piper Flyer. Scott and his partner Julia are based in Eugene, Oregon. They are often found buzzing around the West in vintage airplanes. Send questions or comments to .

RESOURCES >>>>>

ADDITIONAL PRE-BUY ARTICLES PUBLISHED BY PIPER FLYER

“Start with the Right Airplane” by Dennis Wolter, August 2018

“Deciphering Logbooks: Pre-Purchase Maintenance Record Review” by Kristin Winter, December 2017

“Hazardous Attitudes in Aircraft Purchasing” by Kristin Winter, November 2017

“Buying Power: Take Control of Your Next Plane Purchase” by Steve Ells, August 2017

“Pre-Purchase Particulars: What You Should Know” by Kristin Winter, December 2016

“The Do’s and Don’ts of Buying and Selling a Plane” by Michael Leighton, April 2015

“Pre-Buy Prop Inspection” by Tim Kern, August 2012

These articles and many others can be found on PiperFlyer.org under the Magazine tab. Select the issue you’re seeking under “Online Magazines,” click on the cover image and open or save the PDF file to your device. Note: you must be logged in to view online magazines.

PFA MEMBERS-ONLY AIRCRAFT (AND PARTS) BUYING AND SELLING

“For Sale/Wanted” section of Piper Flyer forum
ADDITIONAL AVIATION BUYING AND SELLING WEBSITES
Barnstormers
Controller
Craigslist
Facebook
Trade-A-Plane

FURTHER READING

“The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” by Barry Schwartz.
Harper Perennial, 2004.

 

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The High and the Writey: With a Lot of Help from My Friends

The High and the Writey: With a Lot of Help from My Friends

A sincere reflection about a lifetime’s worth of aviation friends and mentors.

January is the time of year is when we all look forward, not back, but I hope you’ll indulge me for few moments here as I turn my gaze around 180 degrees and check out my “six.” Piper Flyer is heading into its 15th year, and like all anniversaries, it makes me think of the past a little more than usual.

I think I have been writing for this magazine, off and on, almost as long as it has been in existence. My time here has been the most enjoyable and fulfilling of any writing gig I have ever had. You just won’t find a nicer group of people than Jennifer, Kent, Heather and the others that make all of this possible. You have read my stuff and know that it takes a special group of people to put up with me and my kind of writing.

These people are friends.

As I continue to gaze backward into the depths of my aviation and writing career, it occurs to me that my upbringing in both businesses has been literally stuffed with friends, mentors, helpers and generally nice people. 

You won’t find many pilots these days who are as self-made as me. I used to pride myself on the fact that nobody paid a cent to help me with my flight training, college or my developing writing career.

For example, the first formal ground school I ever attended was at my airline after they hired me to be a pilot. I had taught ground schools, but had never taken one. Books were cheap when I was a kid wanting to fly. I read them, studied them, and then took FAA written exams.

I paid for my flight lessons by working at various jobs, starting when I was 14. By 16, I was working at the airport as a lineboy and with the employee discount, I could buy a half-hour of dual every couple of weeks. 

I could go on with this schmaltzy, Horatio Alger-like story of a “boy who worked hard and made it on his own,” but that, for me, simply wasn’t true. I did not, ever, do it on my own. I had friends who helped me, pushed me and loved me into the career of my dreams. There is none of my do-it-myself myth that I could have done without enormous amounts of help from others.

The reason I did not need to go to formal ground school was because of the thousands of hours I sat around the airport when I was a kid, talking flying with the patient people and friends who would put up with all my questions and incessant chatter about airplanes. I learned more from an hour with a local Twin Beech cargo pilot or a tired but patient A&P than I could have learned in a dozen hours of classroom time.

Talk about friends—I sometimes wish I could go back and spend a few hundred more hours with the guys I hung out with at the airport when I was a kid. We spent our young lives talking airplanes, cleaning airplanes, towing airplanes, fueling, re-oiling, pushing, vacuuming out, windshield-cleaning and bathroom-dumping various airplanes. I can say with pride that there is not a single disgusting job having to do with airplanes that I have not done.

You can’t appreciate flying captain on a Boeing 767 until you have cleaned out the bathroom of a Cessna 411 with its trash-bag-based lavatory system. Sitting in the cockpit of a 727 at O’Hare in winter waiting to push-back was much more luxurious to me because I had spent years with my friends outside on ramps, hot and cold, doing the scut work that makes aviation possible.

I can’t speak for my old ramp friends, but I absolutely loved it. All of it. I enjoyed complaining about being cold, or wet, or tired. A bad day on the ramp was better than any good day in any other non-aviation job I could think of. It was all great because I was surrounded by friends of mine that were almost as into aviation as I was.

My “up by my own bootstraps” story is full of examples of people helping me when they had no real reason to do so. I am thinking now of Harry Marpole, an instructor working at Lakeland Flying Service, who spent two of his days off teaching me my commercial maneuvers, all at no charge. I remember Shawnee Lander, a hippy-dippy kind of guy who saw enough in me to sign me off for my CFI when I was a sweaty 19-year-old know-it-all lineboy with no future and no money.

You want to talk friends? How about George Warren? George was a Vietnam helicopter combat vet who had no logical reason to hire me for his one-airplane flying school when I was a not-so-experienced CFI trying to get though my college education at Florida State University. George worked with me to get my instrument rating, again at no charge, just because he was a good guy and saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. 

It turned out that you needed an instrument rating to be an airline pilot. George should have been an airline pilot instead of me, but getting hired by an airline was (and still is) all about timing and luck. His help pushed me along to a career that he deserved, but I got.

Another generous soul, Warren White, deserves a lot of thanks for his friendship. Warren owned and operated Trans Air in Tallahassee and gave me my first flying job that included operating airplanes bigger than a Cessna 150. It was at Trans Air that I got to fly twins, charters, banners, turtle surveys, forestry and other General Aviation missions to build my time up to an airline-worthy level.

Warren helped train me and make me a good pilot by giving me access to all kinds of professional flying. Then, when I became a good pilot, the airline hired me, and I scooted away in a flash. By the time Delta took me on, Warren White had sanded and polished off some of the weather cowardice and low standards which I had been guilty of as I grew up. 

I was in my early twenties when I joined the airline, but I was an old man in terms of aviation experience and wisdom thanks to the opportunities Warren and George gave me.

I never would have gotten through my first few months as an airline pilot if it hadn’t been for various roommates and friends at Delta who helped me along. It still boggles my mind to think back on the patience they showed me as I foundered though my 727 flight engineer training and initial experience. Talk about friends—I flew with hundreds of my best friends at Delta.

When I retired and moved over to being a mostly General Aviation pilot and writer once again, my friends in that area welcomed me back and reminded me of why I loved flying—any kind of flying—so much. 

It turns out I had not changed much from that sweaty but sincere lineboy. Sitting around hangars and flight school pilot lounges is my comfort zone. My best friends are still those out at the airport, in the sky and reading this magazine column right now.

We are not friends in the sense that you call me every week to see how I am, and I doubt that you got a holiday card from me or a note on your birthday. We are friends because I am willing to bet that if we meet on an airport ramp somewhere, or at next year’s Gathering at Waupaca, we will have lots of things to talk about and we will enjoy each other’s company.

I will steal a line from Bogart here and say that the 15 years of writing about flying with my friends here at Piper Flyer has been the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Kevin Garrison’s aviation career began at age 15 as a lineboy in Lakeland, Florida. He came up through General Aviation, retired as a 767 captain in 2006 and retired from instructing airline pilots in 2017. Garrison’s professional writing career has spanned three decades. Send questions or comments to .

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The High & The Writey: When Did your Life Change Forever?

Remembering why we fly.

“I’ve owned 41 airplanes. A few of them would talk with me. This little seaplane, though, we’ve had long conversations in flight. There’s a spirit in anything, I think, into which we weave our soul. Not many pilots talk about it, but they think about it in the quiet dark of a night flight.”

—Richard Bach 

Why do you fly? I am asking a serious question. What was the reason after you took your first flight that you decided you needed to keep flying? 

Flying isn’t an inexpensive hobby, like Frisbee throwing or collecting pencils. It isn’t something you can put in a drawer for 10 years and ignore while the rest of your life trundles on its merry way. At some point in your life you told yourself that flying was something you really wanted to do, and at that point your life changed forever.

Think back and try to remember that moment.

My decision point came when I was 12 years old and was on my red three-speed Schwinn bike. The realization that I wanted to spend my life flying occurred to me as I turned my bike onto my street after a long and hot ride back from the airport in Lakeland, Fla.

This wasn’t my first round-trip six-mile bike ride up and down Drane Field Road. I had been doing it every weekend for quite a few months. This day was different because I had finally gotten a free airplane ride. It was short and hot and was in an Ercoupe. 

I was biking home on that humid day and right when I leaned into the turn to Polk Avenue, I spotted three people standing on the sidewalk. Then this thought hit my brain: “Those people didn’t get to go flying today.Their lives must be awful.”

From that point on, I never understood how some people could live their lives without going flying—without even thinking about going flying. 

Can you imagine that? Some people don’t even like flying. Some people hate the idea of flying! What kind of life is that? 

I have learned how to live in a world that contains non-flying people. Some of them are my friends. Some of them are family members. Living with non-flying people does not mean that I in any way understand them. How can you be truly happy in this world when you know flying exists and you aren’t doing it?

Some of you may have been flying for so long that you have forgotten the thrill you had when you decided that you had to fly. You may look on your plane as something that can get you somewhere at a great amount of speed. You might think of it as a business tool that saves you time and money. Flying might have reduced itself in your life to punching buttons on your flight management system and complaining that you don’t get enough days off from your piloting job.

This can happen with any endeavor, no matter how wonderful. I know that it has happened to me from time to time. For example, back when I was flying Boeing 777s for a large airline, this thought actually crossed my brain one day: “Oh, crap. I have to fly to Paris again?”

This disconnect from the love of flying can be a way to cope when spending time with non-flying people. Who of us hasn’t been at a party and gotten asked by a non-flying acquaintance, “Flying is expensive, right?” 

Your stock answer was most likely something to do with how much money your airplane makes you, or saves you. You were attempting to use concrete terms to explain something that is too awesome for words. 

I suggest that we stop trying to explain the inexplicable to people who think that flying is something uncomfortable that they have to do in order to visit Aunt Thelma in Shreveport. 

Maybe a better answer to the flying question should go something like this: “I fly because I can’t imagine doing anything else.” Or, we could quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who said, “I fly because it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things.” I’d leave it at that, and then gently change the subject to something that party-goers commonly talk about—like taxes, losing weight, or football. 

Meanwhile, in your own mind, you can remember how that golden sunset looked that evening when it was calm and quiet and comfy while you were flying your plane. You can remember the feeling as you sit in your cockpit after a flight and listen to the tic-tic-tic of your engine cooling down and the slowing whirr of your instruments winding to a stop.

I am not sure you can express to your party friend in words that the reason you have made flying such a big part of your life is because you love it. 

We love almost everything about it. I am not saying that we love checkrides or memorizing FARs or dealing with the FAA. That stuff is clerical debris, and it is the price we have to pay to do what we hold dear. 

I certainly don’t begrudge you the fact that your airplane can save you time, nor do I want to diminish the pride you might have from memorizing all of those FARs. I just hope that from time to time—maybe as you metaphorically ride your bicycle home from the airport—you consider that the true reason you spend all of your time and treasure on flying is because you simply love it.

Kevin Garrison’s aviation career began at age 15 as a lineboy in Lakeland, Fla., and he retired as a 767 captain in 2006. Currently Garrison is a DC-9 simulator instructor and a 767 pilot instructor. Send questions or comments to .

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Full Circle: A380 Lessons

A lifetime of learning contained in a story about Capt. Richard de Crespigny and his Qantas Airways crew.

When I began narrating audiobooks several years ago, I naturally found myself committing a good deal of my time to aviation subjects. I’ve produced a number of aviation titles into audio, from aviation-themed novels on through various technical and how-to books. 

When I finally wrap up one of these aviation books, I invariably find myself walking out of the audio booth with more knowledge about that particular aeronautical subject than when I walked in.

My most recent example of “in-the-booth training” came courtesy of part three of airline captain Eric Auxier’s series, “There I Wuz.” Auxier provided me with an up-close and personal interview with a very renowned airline pilot: Capt. Richard de Crespigny. 

What this man has to say about how to handle a really big problem in a really big airplane is packed full of good information for anyone who finds themselves behind the controls of any size airplane that has developed difficulties.

First, let’s meet Capt. de Crespigny. He flies the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the Airbus A380, for Qantas Airways. On Nov. 4, 2010, on Flight QF32 from Singapore to Sydney, he and his crew suffered what is called a “black swan event”—an event so rare as to be statistically unpredictable, that comes with major consequences. 

 

Capt. de Crespigny’s black swan came from a massive engine failure; at least, that was the beginning of the dilemma. To quote the captain: “We were flying from Singapore to Sydney, and seven minutes after takeoff, engine number two (the A380 is the world’s largest passenger airliner, it has two decks and four massive engines) exploded. 

“It was the turbine disk itself that exploded. It broke off in three pieces. Two pieces missed the airplane, but one piece hit the airplane with shrapnel, a bit like a cluster bomb or a grenade going off at each of those spots. Some 500 impacts on the airplane and on the fuselage were later detected. 

“It also created major holes in the aircraft, and it cut over 650 wires and damaged 21 out of 22 systems—only the crew oxygen system was unaffected, and that was something we didn’t need at our low altitude.”

Okay, so your big jet has lost one-quarter of its engine power and suffered some other difficulties, you say? But, surely, that can’t be as bad as having to feather one of the engines on a light twin, right?

Wrong. Here’s why, from the captain’s story: “The failure of the engine was not the critical problem. The problem was the loss of the systems, so we had to assess what we had left of the computerized aircraft and find the best way on how to get it down on the ground. 

“It was a very difficult time in terms of decision-making, and the process took us two more hours in the air, and later, on the ground, there was another two hours of decision-making to really guarantee the safety of the passengers. Ultimately, we got the passengers off, they all got home, and there were absolutely no injuries for our black swan event.

“There are a lot of lessons that came out of all the things that we did, which is really an amalgamation of all the skills learned through osmosis in a flying career. I’ve been flying for almost 40 years now, so you learn things during that career and all the decisions you make are a culmination of the knowledge that you assemble, the experience and training you bring to the event, and the teamwork.

“Speaking of teamwork, there were five pilots in the cockpit that day, so we had the culmination of over 150 years of piloting experience. But we all had to put our heads together to get that airliner down on the ground safely.”

As I narrated this tale, here are some of the highlights that came out of this black swan event that every pilot needs to appreciate, understand, and put into their own bag of tricks.

1) This enormously automated aircraft was continuing to function just as it was designed, and the highly automated cockpit screens were producing exactly the proper checklists, procedures and parameters that the onboard sensors told it to. But this data was in many instances wrong, because too many wires and sensors were cut and shorted out for the brains of this Airbus to know what the true situation was. 

Had the crew simply followed the checklists and proposed parameters, they would have undoubtedly crashed. The pilot’s lesson here is to always make sure that what you’re about to do makes good sense and “feels right” for your situation!

2) When you don’t have to rush, don’t rush. And fly the airplane, first and foremost. Once their A380 was stable and it was determined that there was no immediate rush to get on the ground (that is, there was no onboard fire, nor any progressive structural failure), the crew took their time to thoroughly understand and evaluate their situation. 

Faced with so many points of failure and so much erroneous data from the automated systems and checklists, they decided to do what the Apollo 13 crew elected to do during their enormous off-the-charts emergency: stop looking at what had failed and, instead, begin evaluating and cataloging what systems still worked.

By shifting their mental thinking, this crew turned a complex A380, with four million parts and with 1,225 checklists and 250,000 sensors into something far more basic and easy to deal with: they turned it into hardly more than a Piper on steroids, and at that point their decisions became simpler.

3) Always be ready for some—or even ALL—of your “magic” to fail. As airplanes large and small become increasingly automated, pilots have an increasing obligation to really understand the basic nature of what they’re operating and what they would do when those electrons suddenly evaporate into the ether.

As Capt. de Crespigny explained, “We’re dealing now with highly computerized systems, and if you don’t make an effort to get to understand the core of these systems, then you might become a victim or you might think the airplane is flying you. 

“So, if you want to go to a high-tech aircraft that is run by computers, there is a responsibility to understand the underlying systems if you want to use them. Because when those systems fail—and they do fail—it’s up to the pilot now to recover an aircraft that is very complex and much more sophisticated.”

This is as true in a Piper as it is in the A380. The bigger airplane might have grander and fancier automation and other “onboard magic,” but to the extent that the pilot is addicted to and totally dependent on that automation/magic, is the extent that the pilot has become just another passenger. In a nutshell: use it, but know how to lose it!

4) Some final sage advice from Capt. de Crespigny: “Aviation regulations are written in blood. They protect us from incidents that have taken thousands of lives of our predecessors. But that is not enough.

“Professional pilots need to commit to a lifetime of learning. Even with thousands of hours logged in numerous aircraft types, we learn something new every time we fly. Politics change. Economics, technology and companies change. Pilot roles don’t. We are the last line of defense.

“The best lessons happen unexpectedly. We never know when we will next be challenged and when some tidbit of information, however small, is going to become useful to resolve an emergency or abnormal situation. 

“So we read books, study manuals, “armchair” fly and do deliberate hard practice in simulators. We study human factors and involve ourselves in safety management systems. With years of study and practice, we hope we are prepared to expect the unexpected.

“Failure is not an option. The price for failure in aviation is high. We strive to improve and learn from our own mistakes and the stories of those who flew before us. Every story contains pearls of wisdom and experience. Sometimes pilots’ errors are tragic. Other times we escape with only our egos damaged. The best pilots know a tarnished ego is the cheapest price to pay on the path to resilience.”

A special thanks to Capt. Richard de Crespigny and Capt. Eric Auxier for sharing piloting stories that can help us become better at the tasks at hand. 

For the complete story of this noteworthy Qantas flight, see Richard de Crespigny’s book “QF32,” and any of Capt. Eric Auxier’s aviation books. The titles are available in hard copy at Amazon.com (and, of course, in audiobook versions).

Editor at large Thomas Block has flown more than 30,000 hours since his first hour of dual in 1959. In addition to his 36-year career as a US Airways pilot, he has been an aviation magazine writer since 1969, and a best-selling novelist. Over the past 30 years he has owned more than a dozen personal airplanes of varying types. Send questions or comments to .

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The High & the Writey: The Future is Mostly Ahead of Us!

 

Kevin Garrison ponders all of the futuristic stuff going on out there and wonders why it has passed him by.

Thirty years ago, we all used VORs or looked out of the window to navigate, and thought that having a DME was the height of modern flight technology. Now, my antique airplane has dual AHRS and three GPS units: my watch, my iPhone, and my Stratus. The Stratus shows me weather displays that I did not have on the Boeing 777 when I flew it a few years ago.

Today I was watching the news and they were reporting about Domino’s Pizza in New Zealand delivering the first pizza by drone. The drone hovers and a wire lowers the pizza to the hungry customers. 

In addition to their plans to deliver various things by drone to our homes and businesses, Amazon.com has a new fleet of old 767s that it plans to use to enter the instant cargo business.

Elon Musk is deeply involved with sending people permanently to Mars and the planets beyond in a quest to ensure humanity’s survival by spreading our species around the Solar System. 

Solar-powered aircraft are no longer an idle dream. They exist and work quite well. 

So, very exciting things are happening in our world of aviation—and yet, here I sit in my cold office this month not doing very much. My plane is in its T-hangar with snow blocking the door, which is okay by me since the winds are too high to go flying anyway.

Gray skies, cold weather and a nagging long-term head cold have left me pondering all of the futuristic stuff going on out there and wondering why it has all passed me by. I haven’t droned, explored Mars, or built an electric airplane. All I have been doing lately is working, sniffing and waiting for spring. 

And I suspect that more than a few of you out there are not doing the same things I am not doing. There is a brave new world coming to life out there, and we are huddled under our blankets. We need to get out and embrace the future! We should grab a piece of the interplanetary future of flight that the rest of the world is developing! 

I have come up with a plan that will not only get me through the next few months without getting cabin fever to the point of shooting my refrigerator, it will make me a with-it member of the futuristic aviation tribe. 

Kevin’s plan to dominate the future of flying

1. I will start my wintertime renewal by watching every single episode of “Firefly” at least twice. This short-lived television series depicted a universe (or “verse,” as they said it) that has already finished Elon Musk’s program of planetary settlement. 

Since I “plan to do some misbehaving,” it is a perfect start in my quest to get modern—and it doesn’t involve getting out from under this blanket.

2. AOPA has a wide variety of free-for-the-taking, computer-based courses on just about any aviation subject you care to name. I’m saying free, as in costs you nothing but time. I want to learn more about the modernistic things I’ve been missing and here is a no-cost way to get my gray matter up to speed while my office thermostat continues to eat up every bit of my winter flying fund. 

Speaking of free education, have you noticed all of the You Tube videos on aviation education subjects that are free for the watching? Have you seen all of the FAA materials that are free for the taking? 

The days of having to spend thousands of dollars to learn about flying are over. Much like cat videos on the internet, there is almost no end to the no-cost aviation resources for us out there. All we need is the desire to learn and the time to do it.

3. New Agers have been saying for some time that we all live in the universe that we choose for ourselves out of an infinite number of possibilities. Many of these visionaries have been on the Oprah show, so you know they have to be legit. If you focus your attention on a life path or situation you want, you can get it, because the universe is all about making you happy. 

This theory is most likely a steaming and rancid bucket of moldy prop wash, but it would not hurt for me to test it out this winter. As I huddle under a blanket this winter doing my, ahem, daily meditation, I will focus on being in a universe where I own and fly a Spitfire Mark V. 

4. My General Aviation brain bag is in dire need of a futuristic update—and possibly a disinfecting steam bath of some sort. I need to get rid of the two-year out-of-date paper charts in my flight kit and buy futuristic “current” charts. I’ll also bring my handheld GPS into the future by getting a database update.

Since we are talking about a brave and modern world in which a pizza can magically fall from the sky, I might do away with my flight bag all together. Why, all I need is my GPS wristwatch and my smartphone in order to navigate the skies of the land of the free! 

The only problem with thrusting my flight kit into the future by making it disappear is, where do I put the snacks, drinks and toys that I have in it now? Maybe the future will be one in which I lose weight and pay more attention to flying the plane. And that would not be a bad thing.

5. The final futuristic activity I will practice during this dark and dank winter is to stop talking about how great things were in the past. I will practice not saying things like, “we used to have to do arithmetic in our heads or with little wooden sticks called ‘pencils.’”

I won’t go on and on about hand-propping airplanes because “we didn’t believe in having that newfangled electricity in our airplanes that you youngsters seem so stuck on.” 

Of course, when I was a kid, all of us built kites out of newspaper, sticks, glue and string. We built our airplanes in our garages and flew out of grass fields with no transponders, ADS-B or an “interweb” of any kind. It was great, but the past is past—and this winter will be all about getting in the right frame of mind to enjoy the future of flying.

Two things are sure in this world: first, the future of aviation will occur—tomorrow; and second, at my airport it is cold, soggy and depressing—today. 

These are scientific facts, like the principles of fluid dynamics. Why disrupt the cosmos? Tomorrow is when I plan to do all of the things I listed to get ready to be modern.

 

Kevin Garrison’s aviation career began at age 15 as a lineboy in Lakeland, Fla. He came up through General Aviation and retired as a 767 captain in 2006. Currently Garrison is a DC-9 simulator instructor and a 767 pilot instructor; his professional writing career has spanned three decades. He lives with the most patient woman on the planet on a horse farm in Kentucky. Send questions or comments to .

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Destination: FOREVER HOMES

Destination: FOREVER HOMES

 

With the help of Lassie, a faithful Piper Saratoga, Matt Kiener and FlyPups, Inc. transport at-risk dogs to animal shelters where they can be adopted into permanent homes. 

 

How many dogs can you fit in an airplane?”

It sounds like the start of a corny joke, doesn’t it? 

Well, at Sky Manor Airport (N40) in New Jersey, the answer is 40.

No, seriously, 40 dogs. Just ask Matt Kiener. 

He’s the founder of FlyPups Inc., an organization that uses General Aviation aircraft—primarily, his own Piper Saratoga—to relocate dogs in danger of being euthanized. Kiener and volunteer pilots fly these endangered pets from “kill shelters” to doggy foster homes where they’ll live until they are adopted.

At first there was just one dog, not 40. Squire, a 17-year-old beagle, was the longtime companion of Kiener, a property manager from Pottersville, New Jersey, who also happens to be a pilot and CFII. 

Kiener was satisfied with just one dog until a summer day in 2011 when a friend asked him to fly five dogs to a shelter. He said he couldn’t carry five dogs, as he only owned a Cessna 150 Aerobat. Assured that they were puppies, Kiener accepted the mission. 

He now says, “It was a pivotal moment for me; a day when you know your life just changed. That flight opened my eyes to how many dogs were being destroyed.” 

“I say ‘destroyed,’ not ‘euthanized;’ that’s a term for dogs that are sick or dying,” Kiener explained. “These animals could be saved by the simple act of moving them from overcrowded shelters to ‘no-kill’ shelters and foster homes.”

“Anyone who owns a dog knows how special a dog can be,” he added.

Every year 670,000 shelter dogs are destroyed in America. Although 1.6 million dogs are also adopted each year, to FlyPups’ volunteers, that isn’t nearly good enough. Every good dog should have a good home.

Six years of saving lives

Kiener returned from that first flight with one of the puppies for himself, which he named “Piper” to remind himself to focus on his new mission of saving at-risk dogs. 

In 2012, he purchased a 1996 Piper PA-32R-301 Saratoga specifically for the task. Developed from the Piper Cherokee Six, the six-seat Saratoga design underwent many modifications and upgrades throughout its 34-year production run. One important thing that carried over to the Saratoga from the Cherokee Six was the ability to haul a large useful load.

Kiener went into debt to buy his Saratoga. “It’s essentially another mortgage payment for me,” he said. Yet the utility of the aircraft is exceptional. “It was as if Piper designed the Saratoga with this purpose in mind. It’s truly ideal for my mission.”

“The back seats and console can be removed in less than three minutes, providing almost 90 pounds more useful load and an incredible amount of space for crates. The large double doors of the Saratoga allow loading of crates big enough to hold a Great Dane,” Kiener noted. 

With the seats removed, there’s cargo space for as many as 20 pet carriers. Each carrier can hold multiple dogs (depending on the dog’s size). With an allowance for one pilot, one passenger and full fuel, this single-engine retractable airplane can carry a full cabin of dogs up to 1,100 nm without refueling.

As always, weight and balance needs to considered. “The vet weighs the dogs and notes it on their health certificates before they leave, and I know the weight of the crates,” said Kiener. “But the dogs and cages are not so much heavy as bulky.”

“The record number of passengers on one flight was 40—but they were small dogs and puppies.” 

A more typical mission is the one Matt flew April 12, 2018, from Greenville, Mississippi (KGLH), to Sky Manor. On that day, Kiener flew 10 carriers filled with 29 dogs and puppies just over 1,000 miles. 

The larger dogs rode first-class, one to a carrier; but the puppies were in economy, with up to six in a carrier. “The dogs must have given me good karma, as I had a 58-knot tailwind and arrived more than an hour earlier than planned,” said Kiener. 

 

The flying dog pound 

“The Saratoga is the perfect plane for this mission because it’s reliable, has good speed and range, and the passenger door opens wide, which makes it easy to load the pet carriers,” said Kiener. 

“I wanted an airplane with good cabin ventilation, so the dogs wouldn’t get overheated, especially while on the ground before takeoff. The Saratoga, which is equipped with air conditioning, has two large vents on the passenger cabin floor and a row of vents running along the cabin ceiling, so I’m not afraid to stack the pet carriers up to the ceiling. Everyone gets enough fresh air.”

“The altitude doesn’t bother the dogs,” he continued. “A vet told me their ears are built in a way that the changing air pressure doesn’t affect them. Generally, they go to sleep by the time I get to cruising altitude. But, once I transported 24 Chihuahuas, and 23 slept while one yapped the whole way.”

“The Saratoga is also very well soundproofed, so much so that some of my human passengers will remove their headsets during a flight. I’m certainly not worried about the dogs’ hearing after one flight—not in this Saratoga,” said Kiener.

“For myself, I use a Bose A20 noise-canceling headset, which is put to the test during taxi and takeoff when the dogs are really howling. It works great. I can hear the radio clearly but only catch a few of the barks and growls.”

“Now, if Bose made a smell-canceling headset,” he joked, “I’d pay for that. A cabin full of dogs can get pretty ripe sometimes.”

Like an airline pilot, Kiener considers the comfort of his passengers. He accelerates slowly, flies gently and makes shallow turns. He also seeks the best altitude to avoid turbulence and plans for a gradual descent. And as on today’s airlines, these are no-meal-provided flights. 

“Our flight legs are not that long, four or five hours at the most, so we don’t give the dogs any food or water in their crates; we don’t want to increase the chance of them getting airsick. And, we keep the air moving—fresh air is vital for a pleasant flight.”

“I usually put one crate on top and just behind me, so I can let one or two lucky dogs out during a flight,” said Kiener. “I put the airplane on autopilot and hold a dog so we can watch the scenery go past together. They seem to enjoy that.”

Kiener flies as many rescue missions as he can, primarily transporting dogs from shelters in southern states where overcrowding is an ongoing issue. These shelters often are forced to euthanize dogs because of a lack of space. 

Dog advocates—that’s human advocates for dogs, not advocates with wagging tails—spend their time matching dogs from overpopulated shelters with no-kill shelters that have vacancies. Once a match is found, the advocates contact Kiener.

Kiener works out the scheduling and other logistics and launches a rescue flight. To help ease the transition between shelters, volunteer foster families often take in arriving dogs until they find new long-term loving homes. 

 

FlyPups, Inc.

Unfortunately, the appreciation and thanks of dog lovers don’t pay the bill at the fuel pump, and many missions are unable to be completed due to lack of funds. 

However, Kiener’s efforts to save these dogs were noticed by other pilots around the airport and he soon had plenty of volunteers looking to help out. In order to raise funds and act in a businesslike fashion, FlyPups Inc. was formed.

During the past six years, Matt Kiener and volunteer pilots—most from Sky Manor Airport—have transported about 1,000 dogs of all ages. Like the airlines, FlyPups needs to fill the plane for a flight to make economic sense, so he must wait for a full load of animals to transport.

“The exception to this rule,” said Kiener, “is when a veteran wants a dog. FlyPups has partnered with veterans’ associations to deliver service and companion dogs. These trips are special, emotional, and while they don’t meet the ‘cost-per-dog ratio’ we aim for, they are quite necessary.”

In August 2017, when Hurricane Harvey struck Texas and Louisiana, many people were forced to leave their pets at a shelter or abandon them in the midst of the storm. Overwhelmed by the influx of dogs, local shelters quickly became overcrowded. 

FlyPups flew in to help. They assisted by delivering donated supplies and flying out dogs that were known to be homeless, so recently-displaced dogs could occupy the limited shelter space. Human flood victims needed time to find their canine friends and be reunited; that couldn’t be done if their dogs were flown to another state.

 

Flights with a purpose

Airplanes greatly decrease the travel time in rescuing and rehoming dogs, sometimes from days to hours. Some of the dogs were previously abused; one dog on the aforementioned flight from Greenville had been shot in the head, but is recovering nicely. 

And while they are typically healthy, shelter dogs are often in a fragile mental state, so a short flight is better than a more stressful long drive. 

Loading and unloading the dogs takes very little time. Once the dogs are in the aircraft, Kiener said, “the soundproofing, ventilation system, big windows and shades work together to provide a relaxing space for the dogs.”

The 300 hp fuel-injected engine pulls the Saratoga along at a cruise speed of 162 knots at 65 percent power. You may think that the dogs would be stressed by the engine noise and vibration of the flight, but Kiener says they seem to be oblivious that they’re hurtling through the air. 

“The Saratoga’s speed and stability provide a most comfortable ride for all on board. As a pilot, the Saratoga—or Lassie, as we call her—is a dream to fly. She’s truly honest; no surprises, no trickiness. She’s a very generous, stable and predictable plane,” said Kiener.

“I’m most grateful for all that she allows us to accomplish.”

“I don’t begrudge anyone the $100 hamburger, I’ve done that myself and will do it again, but when there’s a chance to put real meaning into a flight, it makes the years of study and training to become a pilot all worthwhile.”

 

Dennis K. Johnson is a writer and a New York City-based travel photographer, shooting primarily for Getty Images and select clients. He spends months each year traveling, flies sailplanes whenever possible and is the owner of N105T, a newly-restored Piper Super Cub Special. Send questions or comments to .

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FlyPups,Inc.

 

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The High and the Writey: Young Heroes, Yesterday and Today

A conversation next to a B-17 can reach across generations.

I asked Steve, a local teenaged ramp rat, to go with me to the airport to look at two World War II bombers that were visiting for the weekend. I’m a student of—and at my age, damn near a remnant of—that period of flying.

Today’s display models visiting Lexington, Kentucky were a B-24 and a B-17. Exquisitely restored right down to their machine guns, these aircraft gave the ramp some much-needed class. Warbirds are a big deal at our airport, where it’s much more typical to see a Piper doing touch-and-goes on a nice afternoon. Tangible reminders of air combat are almost never on our field.

We bought our tickets and sauntered out to the ramp where this seasoned pilot did something he hadn’t done very much of during the past decade or so: I walked around a big airplane. 

See, in the world of airlines where I spent my professional life, the captain rarely does a walkaround or preflight. That is flight engineer or copilot territory. For the type rating and subsequent recurrent training sessions, captains like me had to display knowledge of and the ability to do a walkaround, but to see a captain out on the ramp for a preflight is rare.

On this bright, sunny day, with Steve in tow, I started around the B-17. I noticed that the public, while seeming to like the aircraft, didn’t seem to get much out of simply being around it. I think this is because people nowadays look upon warbirds like the B-17 as some sort of idealized toy. They have no idea what the people who flew them went through. 

I stopped under the right outboard engine and pointed to the turbocharger that was attached to the bottom. It was gray and innocuous—not something that the public would notice—and I wanted Steve to see it. “This device made high-altitude bombing possible,” I explained.

My statement prompted Steve to give a “humor the old pilot” shrug, so I resisted the urge to tell him about constant-speed props, fuel vents, hydraulics, the Norden bombsight, ADF loop antennas, Rosemount probes and the vital importance of Jimmy Doolittle establishing 100 octane fuel as the military standard before the war.

The public perception of flying today is that it is a way to get to Seattle in a hurry and on the cheap. Over the past few years when I’m riding in the back with passengers, I’ve noticed that one of the first things most window-seat travelers do is close the shade so they can’t see outside. 

It seems that flying at eight-tenths the speed of sound seven miles up is a cause for boredom instead of wonder. Flying to most people is now a commodity, like chicken strips or low-fat sour cream. The magic is gone for them because they have forgotten just how miraculous it is.

Most people today think of World War II-era aircraft as clean, shiny appliances that represent a time they barely comprehend. They see the machines, but they do not smell the cordite, the blood or the fear the crews experienced.

My companion Steve is a victim of this video game mentality about the war as well, and he began to fidget as he thought of the hundreds of other, more fun things he could be doing right now instead of following a geezer around some airplane.

“Steve,” I said, “look around you—what do you see?”

“A bunch of old-looking geeks wearing polyester ball caps,” he said.

“You’re right. Most of these old-looking guys are probably here because either they flew aircraft in the war or knew people who did. It was over 70 years ago, so these guys are pretty ancient. But do you know what I see?”

“That girl over there wearing that
tank top?”

“What I was going to say is, what I see when I see these old men limping around this bomber is how they see themselves, even to this day: a bunch of brave teenagers who are about to save a planet from the worst of fates—a totalitarian nightmare. If Hitler and Tojo had won the war, we’d still be feeling its effects, or would not be alive at all.”

“The old guys that you are looking at left their homes when they were very young. They did not sign up for the promise of a college education, to learn a trade, or to receive a welcome-home parade. They signed up for ‘duration plus six months,’ meaning they were in the war until they were dead or we had won.”

“After undergoing harsh aerial training that killed way too many of them, they flew these unpressurized bombers over enemy targets bristling with guns and fighters.”

“Most of these teenage bomber commanders had less than 300 hours total flight time when they were put in charge of their planes and crews. Their instrument time was limited to whatever training they had gotten in the States and a few scant practice sessions after deployment.”

“With less instrument time than the average PA-28 instrument pilot school graduate, they were flying four-engine bombers in formation through the clouds and very nasty weather, often at night.”

“More than 55,000 of these teenagers never came back. Every loss of a B-17 meant that 10 crewmembers were gone as well. If they survived parachuting over Europe, they faced starvation and worse in a prison camp. If they bailed out over Japan or anywhere in the Pacific theater, they faced torture, death and possibly becoming a meal for sharks.”

Steve just looked at me. “I haven’t seen you so worked up over a subject since they stopped loading the M&Ms you like in the FBO candy machine,” he said.

I could tell that he still hadn’t made the connection between the bombers, the old guys and himself. “Steve, most of these guys were the age you are right now when they went to war. The odds of them completing all the missions unhurt or uncaptured were completely against them.”

“They knew every morning when they rolled out of their bunks in the predawn to eat breakfast and go bomb Europe or Japan that, statistically, they had no chance of going home alive.”

“When the lucky ones got home from the war, there was no professional flying for them to do. The airlines hired a few veterans, but there was no flying gig for the tens of thousands of other qualified pilots returning home. General Aviation as we know it today was just getting started. These returning pilots quietly hung up their goggles, got jobs in factories or on farms, and raised their families.

“Now the few that are left are out here on the ramp, looking at these bombers in a way that you or I never will.”

“When I look at a B-24, I might notice that the navigator’s station has a temp probe sticking out of the window. A veteran remembers what it was like to sit in that metal box in the freezing cold, hearing shrapnel from flak tearing his aircraft apart.”

“People today look upon these aircraft as quaint reminders of when a B-17 was considered a heavy strategic bomber; these guys remember washing the blood off the floors after a mission or watching another bomber crew—friends of theirs—spin in over Belgium with no chutes sighted.”

Steve nodded and wandered off to talk to the tank top girl. I was left to talk to myself for a while. Luckily, in today’s world of cell phone solo-talkers, nobody thought it strange that I was standing out in the sun, mumbling to myself on the ramp while speaking to no one:

It is the survivors who always get the last word on a subject. These old guys wandering the ramp can speak of the war of their youth and describe a little bit about what it was like back then, but the 55,000-plus guys who are buried in veteran cemeteries and small plots in Europe and the Pacific are permanently stuck in time as teenagers, full of potential that was never used. How many pilots that could have cured cancer or averted the Vietnam War died in the skies, never getting to lead their lives?

Steve came back after I’d been standing by myself for a while. He had a shy grin on his face. “What happened, Steve? Did you get a date with her or something?”

“No,” he said. “She told me she was here with her great-grandpa. I got to talk with him for a few minutes and he said that when he was my age, he’d just met a girl at his training base in the U.S. when his unit was called up and sent to fly B-29s over Japan. They’d promised to stay in touch, but he’d lost track of her and never saw her again.”

“I got to thinking—what if I had to go fight in North Korea or somewhere just after I met a girl I was meant to be with, and then never saw her again because I died or was hurt? Things are not really any different today, are they?”

I think he was starting to get the picture.

Kevin Garrison’s aviation career began at age 15 as a lineboy in Lakeland, Florida, and he retired as a 767 captain in 2006. Garrison retired from instructing airline pilots in 2017. Send questions or comments to .

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Full Circle: Wind Dilemmas

Lessons learned about wind and mountain waves.

As I sit to write this, the major theme in my life these past few weeks has been wind. I say that because, first and foremost, we are right now involved in cleaning up our Florida horse ranch from the effects of Hurricane Irma—which, thankfully, amounted to only a half-dozen fallen trees and, literally, an infinite number of tree limbs scattered across our acreage. 

The second reason these past few weeks have involved wind is that I was concurrently producing an audiobook version of Harrison Jones’ nonfiction book “Miracle on Buffalo Pass: Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217.” Reading for the audio version got me to thinking about experiences with wind-induced dilemmas from my own aviation past.

The book itself is an in-depth analysis and interview with nearly all the survivors of the Rocky Mountain Airways Twin Otter turboprop that crashed in a blinding blizzard at the very top of one of the most inaccessible spots between Denver and Steamboat Springs, Colorado on Dec. 4, 1978. 

We follow the passengers and crew through their experience, and then the bands of rescue personnel who mobilized immediately to attempt to locate the wreckage and any potential survivors before they would invariably freeze to death on that desolate mountaintop.

As the NTSB later concluded, the Rocky Mountain Twin Otter encountered an unforeseen severe mountain wave which, when combined with some airframe icing, prevented the commuter airliner from climbing above 13,000 feet (the MEA in that area was 16,000 feet) and the airliner was then gradually forced down into the terrain, just barely clipping the top of the mountain at Buffalo Pass. 

The first miracle was that everyone survived the initial impact with the crest of the mountain, but if rescue folks didn’t locate them quickly (no one knew for sure where they had gone down, and it was the middle of the night in a driving blizzard), none of them would survive.

As the NTSB pointed out in the accident report, one of the things that disguised what was happening was that the mountain wave the flight was involved with was quite smooth. With no wind-induced turbulence to tip the crew off, the initial symptoms of decreasing climb performance seemed to be more related to either engine power output or airframe icing. When the pilot in command is not understanding why something is happening, it’s far more difficult to come up with a reasonable plan to correct the problem. 

My own experiences with mountain waves were certainly nowhere near as dramatic, but they were personally attention-getting. Being more of a flatland pilot, my initial exposure to the effects of wind across undulating terrain came from those small bumps in the earth around Kentucky and West Virginia that we Easterners call mountains.

About 50 years ago I was skittering around Eastern Kentucky in, if my memory serves me correctly, a Piper Pacer with a 90 hp engine. It was a breezy day—nothing too outlandish—and I was giving a student some dual in the art of crosswind landings at an outlying grass field we often used. 

After a half-dozen acceptable takeoffs and landings in the quartering wind that was 20, with maybe gusts to 25, we left the airport for a little local flying up higher to get away from the bumps. 

After a few steep turns and whatever else I thought the student could use, I figured that we’d top off our day with a simulated engine failure, then head back to the barn. I chopped the power and announced: “Engine failure.”

The student picked a field below in a reasonably wide valley between two rows of hills, and set up an approach to a large pasture. Down to about 300 feet everything looked fine, so I announced, “The engine is working again; just go around and head back to the airport.” The student complied.

Sort of. 

He did everything right. So did the airplane. But Mother Nature did not. The student pushed the power up to max; 90 horses surged into the prop, and he turned us toward the airport that was on the far side of the next ridgeline. But we were, I figured out later, on the leeward side!

At max power and max climb speed, we were barely holding altitude—and the ridgeline in front of us was getting nearer! I was getting less comfortable with every passing moment, until I finally said, “I’ve got it.” 

Suspecting there was something now wrong with our engine, I did a snappy one-eighty to head back for our simulated emergency landing field—one that I figured we might need for real. Partway back—and, it turns out, away from the effect of the downward wash of wind over the ridgeline—we began climbing normally again. We climbed to a higher altitude, then crossed that ridgeline far above the mini-mountain wave effect beneath us.

Many years later I was in a light twin flying between northern Colorado and Montana, where there are some real mountains by anyone’s standards. It was a breezy, clear day and I was flying at the MEA, enjoying the view of the ridgelines and canyons that passed below. 

What I noticed first was the airspeed slowly trickling away as the autopilot kept pitching us up a little more as it tried to hold our altitude. Again, my first thought was that something was wrong with the power output from the engines, or at least one of them.

Yet all the engine gauges were middle of the green. They sounded fine, too. So what could be happening? It took me a few moments to see the obvious: the line of higher mountains to the northwest of my location were at a right angle to the prevailing wind. We were apparently in a downwash of wind from them. 

I requested a higher altitude from ATC, pushed up climb power and while the rate of climb was a little lower to begin with, a few thousand feet of climb later, the performance numbers went back to normal as we got above the downward effect of the distant mountain wave.

But don’t think that only smaller airplanes are susceptible to this sort of wind-induced dilemma. About 30 years ago I was the captain of a Boeing 737-400 headed westbound to San Francisco over the middle of the biggest rocks in the Rockies. We were at FL310 on a windy day, with our ground speed being clobbered by the constant westward flow. Still, the sky was smooth—so all was well, right?

First clue: the sense of the airliner trying to climb, the autopilot rolling in nose-down trim and pulling off engine power to keep us at altitude. I commented to the copilot something insightful, like, “What the hell?” 

I disconnected the autopilot, reduced the power on both engines until they were back at idle—and we were still being propelled upward at over 2,000 feet per minute! It was hard to believe what the gauges were saying. I pulled out full speed brakes, and still we were climbing! 

The copilot told ATC that we couldn’t hold altitude; that we were being pushed up. We got to 35,000 feet and I began to seriously worry because, even thought the sky was still smooth, if we went much higher the air would be (in a manner of speaking) too thin to keep the wings from stalling—“coffin corner,” it’s called.

Then we hit the turbulence, which started at severe and quickly got worse. Our big Boeing airliner was simultaneously being pushed upward and churned all around the sky! We needed to get down—quickly—before the wings decided to do the job for us. 

I was just about to call for gear down (at this airspeed, it would have probably done some gear damage) to get more drag to stop us from climbing when, in the blink of an eye, the washing-machine sky we were in went dead calm.

We had popped out of this mountain wave-induced wind machine at 35,400 feet. We stopped climbing, the airspeed began to drop, and I then pushed engine power to a low cruise setting. After coordinating with ATC, we turned off our route that had us headed toward the highest mountains and eventually drifted back down to our assigned altitude of FL310.

So that’s what I spent Hurricane Irma doing: narrating the book “Miracle on Buffalo Pass,” which is about the results of a wind-induced accident, while listening to the winds howl around my own home. 

 

Like an old captain once told me nearly 60 years ago, “Son, don’t fool too much with Mother Nature. She can win anytime she wants to.”

Editor at large Thomas Block has flown more than 30,000 hours since his first hour of dual in 1959. In addition to his 36-year career as a US Airways pilot, he has been an aviation magazine writer, a best-selling novelist and the owner of more than a dozen personal airplanes. Send questions or comments to

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Full Circle: A Controller Speaks, Part Three

Highlights from "Spinning at the Boundary: The Making of an Air Traffic Controller" by David Larson. 

This month I’ll be continuing a series that highlights the interesting and entertaining memoirs from an FAA air traffic controller (one of the aviation-themed audiobooks that I’ve produced and narrated), David Larson’s “Spinning at the Boundary: The Making of an Air Traffic Controller.” 

“Spinning at the Boundary” is an insider’s view—with lots of iconoclastic observations and irreverent opinions—from an experienced controller’s career path and the ATC happenings during that long (and often tumultuous) period in our aviation history. With the author’s permission, here are more highlights from his years in the Miami (KMIA) tower and radar facility.

The old airplanes that flew out of the northwest corner of the Greater Miami International Nuthouse hauled more than just pigs and chickens around the world. Sometimes they hauled race horses, and sometimes they hauled other exotic animals from one zoo to another.

One day we’re going about our air traffic control thing in the tower and the guy working local had rolled a DC-6 off 9L. 

“Hey,” the controller said as he flipped his radio to speaker mode, so everyone else could hear it. “This guy keeps whispering to me. Can any of you understand him?”

“Say that again,” he said to the pilot, as we all listened intently to the radio.

“96BL needs to come back and land,” the pilot said in a voice so soft we could barely hear him with the radio on full blast.

“96BL, enter a left downwind, cleared to land Runway 9 Left,” the controller said. “What’s the nature of your emergency?”

“Cleared to land,” was the whispered response. 

“What is the nature of your emergency? Say your fuel remaining, and souls on board.” (We always asked how much gas they had and how many people… or souls. There is a lot of speculation as to why we were required to ask that, but at Miami we assumed that it was because the fire department wanted to know how big the fire was going to be, and how many bodies and survivors to look for. Consequently, supervisors would tell the controllers to ask the captain for bodies and burn time every time they worked an emergency. We never put that out on the air.) 

There was no immediate answer. “We are going to need an animal handler,” the pilot eventually whispered.

“What did he just say?” the controller asked. “Say again, 96BL.”

“We… will… need… an… animal… handler… Out.” 

We all got that message loud and clear. He had no more to say. 

We got everybody out of his way, called the fire equipment out, told them the “animal handler” thing, and sat back to see how things played out. 

The DC-6 made a giant, slow, gentle turn to final and touched down on the runway ever so gently. Even as the plane turned off the runway he was shutting down all four engines. As the big silver dinosaur slid to an almost imperceptible stop, the escape hatch opened, ropes uncoiled down to the pavement, and the whispering crew climbed down to the ramp. 

As the story goes, this particular DC-6 was taking a giant anteater—along with other cargo—to a zoo someplace in the Midwest. At some point as the plane sat on the ramp getting ready to leave, the Vermilingua extricated itself from the cage and ambled up front to spend some quality time with the crew. 

Oddly enough, as soon as it got in the cockpit it crawled up on the pedestal (the console between the pilot seats that has the throttles sitting on top of it) and fell asleep. The crew was whispering because they didn’t want to wake up the giant long-nosed dog that had three-inch razor-sharp claws. 

While we’re on the subject of flying wrecks at Miami, several stories come to mind. My wife, Christy, was working south local one day. The south runway on an east operation at Miami is usually only used for arrivals. Some of the cargo hangars were fairly near the approach end of that runway, and you might get one or two of these departures in the course of working that position.

One of the things that you need to know about the wonderful world of air traffic control is that almost all of the rules were written by lawyers after some type of heinous crash or screwup. Way back in the day, our rule book was known as the ANC, or Army, Navy, Civilian—and it was about 10 pages long. 

Then a few years passed, a few pilots died along with a lot of passengers, and the ANC became the ATP or Air Traffic Procedures. This book was several hundred pages long. Today, this book is called the 7110.65. I keep a copy next to my bed to knock intruders unconscious.

Among other stupid things that have arisen from having bureaucrats make rules is the odd fact that we can’t tell a pilot what is happening to his/her aircraft without first saying “it appears.” That led to a hilarious story about a Cessna 402 that took off without having the door latched correctly. The copilot went back as they became airborne—and the door fell open just as the guy grabbed it, dragging him out into the atmosphere with it.

“Ah, it appears your aft door is open, and someone is hanging onto it screaming.”

Another story is that a cargo DC-8 taxies to the approach end of 9R, and calls ready to go. Christy waited for a gap in the arrivals on the final, and then puts the DC-8 into position, telling him to be ready to go. Once the runway was clear, takeoff clearance was given, black smoke rolled up behind the big jetliner, and it slowly started creeping down the runway.

Just past the tower the wings on the big DC-8 generated enough lift; the nosewheel lifted off the ground, followed closely by the main wheels, and the eager craft was committed to the commerce of aviation. 

That was when one of the engines fell completely off the aircraft, slammed into the runway, and slid down the centerline like a Japanese torpedo at Pearl Harbor.

“It appears you’ve lost an engine,” Christy told the pilot as she watched the engine lazily come to a halt on the runway.

“I know,” said the pilot. “We’re trying a restart but we want to come back and land.”

“No,” she said. “I mean, it appears you have LOST an engine.”

“I know that!” he said, obviously irritated. “We’re coming back.”

“Roger,” she said calmly. “Cleared to land Runway 9L; Runway 9R is blocked by your engine. I suggest you look out the window.”

The scary part is that when the airplane got back to the ramp they found that when the engine flew the coop, it hit the engine next to it, knocking that one loose from its pylon, and it was swinging freely in the breeze just waiting to make a break for it at the earliest possible moment.

Here’s another story. As I said before, we worked a lot of really old airplanes back then, and one of the biggest examples was the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser.  I admit that working this flying museum was pretty cool, and there was no place else in the United States that you could actually see this many working examples of this type of aircraft moving in and out of a major airport. 

The downside was that these aerial crates were really starting to show their age, and anytime you saw one crank up on the ramp, you knew it was just a matter of time before you had some type of emergency on your hands.

This was the case late one night—well, actually, early one morning—on the midnight shift. An inbound B-377 called the approach controller, and shortly after that declared the not-so-surprising emergency of having one of its engines out of service. The radar controller got the “bodies and burn time” numbers from the pilot and passed the information on to the tower controller.

At some point prior to the aircraft getting to the airport, the crew tried to lower the landing gear. Aircraft with retractable gear have a series of lights (usually three) that show green when the gear is safely down, and red when the landing is going to be really noisy and the pilot will need full power to taxi to the ramp. 

The indicator lights in this aircraft showed the crew that the nosewheel was being timid and refused to come out of the safety of its little house under the flight deck. The pilot informed the approach controller; the approach controller informed the tower controller; and the tower controller informed the crash equipment, which immediately raced out to the runway and waited.

The pilot lined up his eager craft on final approach to the runway, and the approach controller instructed him to change to the tower radio frequency.

Now, the guy in the radar room was a little… high strung, so he kept calling the guy in the tower on the override feature asking what was going on with the inbound emergency. 

The guy in the tower was very laid back, and kept trying to work the emergency, feed information to the crash and fire chief, work other traffic he had, and answer the radar guy’s incessant questions. 

Finally, just before the Boeing touched down, the radar guy called again and the tower guy said something to the effect of, “Get XXXX out of my ear!” Shortly after that, the Boeing touched down safely with what was apparently a faulty light in the cockpit, and taxied to the ramp with crash trucks in tow.

Unfortunately, at some point on final the captain had asked one of the crew to go down a ladder in a trap door that was in the floor of the flight deck so he could check the nosegear with a periscope that was installed there for that purpose. 

The crew member verified that the nosegear was actually down, and was on the way back up the ladder as the Boeing touched down. The shock of the landing jarred the crew member’s grip loose from the ladder, causing him to fall back down the trap door—and breaking his arm and a few ribs.

This single incident turned a nonevent into an “aircraft incident with injuries,” which in turn got the NTSB involved.

In the course of the NTSB investigation, they requested all of the pertinent data from all air traffic facilities that had worked the ill-fated Stratocruiser. That included the interphone transcripts from Miami tower. Both of the controllers got some time on the beach for that one.

The full story is available in print and e-book from Amazon, while the audio version can be found at Amazon, Audible and in Apple’s iTunes Library. (Note: this book contains a measure of salty/profane language—be forewarned if you prefer not to hear/read that sort of thing.)

Next time: Some final incidents from DTW and MIA. 

Editor at large Thomas Block has flown more than 30,000 hours since his first hour of dual in 1959. In addition to his 36-year career as a US Airways pilot, he has been an aviation magazine writer since 1969, and a best-selling novelist. Over the past 30 years he has owned more than a dozen personal airplanes of varying types. Send questions or comments to .

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Affirmative Attitude: Taking Us to Incredible Places

Through well-produced YouTube videos, Doug and Denise Winston show just how much fun you can have when flying your own airplane. 

We all know life can be a lot like a game of “Chutes and Ladders,” where one minute we are climbing for the sky, and the next, we are sliding into chaos. Every person reading this has had to overcome some level of adversity, and many of us have been challenged to push on when others would have given up.

I’m currently reading “Never Broken: Songs are Only Half the Story” by Jewel Kilcher, the wildly successful singer-songwriter who has endured decades of struggle to achieve her dream. Jewel’s records have topped the charts and her sweet voice has won her awards, but she would still be living in her car in San Diego if not for a strong instinct to survive anything that came her way. 

Kilcher writes in her autobiography that we must dig deep to pull out every last shred of self-motivation and continue chasing our dreams until they are truly fulfilled. For Jewel, life’s major challenges were merely bumps in the road.

In October 2014, Doug and Denise Winston of Bakersfield, Calif. experienced one of these major challenges. Doug has logged about 2,300 hours since earning his ticket in 1985 and has owned five airplanes. 

A significant portion of his flights were as a volunteer, using his beloved high performance single to fly for Wounded Warrior Project, Veterans Airlift Command, pet rescues or donating flights for Boys & Girls Clubs of America. 

Yet, the Winstons’ volunteer flying could have abruptly ended after Doug received the kind of call that nobody wants to take. 

“Our airplane was in annual inspection,” Doug explained, “when I received a call from the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall AFB in Florida informing me that my new 406 MHz ELT had been activated. 

“I let them know the plane was in maintenance and gave them the phone number for the maintenance facility, thinking it was an accidental activation of the ELT that we all read about. I left a message at the shop, but was not able to talk them until the next day.”

But this was no accidental activation. 

“The next day when I could get in touch with the shop,” Doug continued, “after a very long pause on the phone, the owner of the facility told me that my plane was gone, burned to the ground in a hangar fire. 

“After questioning him on what happened and asking if anyone was hurt, I did an internet search for the airport where the plane was located and sure enough, there was news video, pictures and articles about a big hangar fire the prior day,” he explained. 

“This is something you never want to hear—it was akin to losing a close friend.”

The fire occurred when the pilot-side fuel tank was being emptied to perform an AD. It was draining into a 55-gallon drum on metal wheels via a large funnel. 

The mechanic wiped a dribble of fuel off the aircraft with a cotton rag, and static electricity ignited the fuel, the rag, the mechanic’s hand, and then the stream of fuel into the barrel. 

“Everyone ran for fire extinguishers,” Doug recalled, “and the mechanic grabbed the barrel and began dragging it out of the hangar. 

“This was a mistake as the flaming fuel was now spreading in a large puddle on the floor. They had every fire extinguisher in the building spraying the flames, but once they were spent, the interior of the plane ignited from the heat, and fire consumed the plane. 

“The airport fire truck arrived quickly, but it was too late.”

Denise was out of town on business and when she heard the tone of Doug’s voice on the phone, she knew something was wrong. “He said, ‘The plane is totally destroyed,’” Denise remembered, “then proceeded to walk me though what happened. 

“I felt a pit in my stomach,” she continued. “This plane has taken us to incredible places; provided so much joy and memories for those who flew with us. When I got home, our friends came over with a plaque that said ‘Final Flight Following Request for N234SS’ with a beautiful picture of the plane. 

“It made me realize how lucky we are to be able to do the things we do! General Aviation is an incredible lifestyle that not many get to experience.”

With Four-Sierra-Sierra destroyed, the Winstons could have packed it in as aviation volunteers. But anyone who knows them will confirm that quitting was not an option. The Winstons get extraordinary satisfaction out of their volunteer flights, and nothing was going to take that away from them.

Doug’s inspiration for giving back comes from Denise, a successful financial expert, author and motivational speaker. “Doug has heard me asking my audiences three questions: ‘What are you good at?’ ‘What do you love to do?’ and ‘How can you be most helpful?’ 

“Anyone can write a check,” Denise explained, “But using your time, talent and resources are much more valuable, and you get to see where 100 percent of your donation goes, in the smiles of your passengers, or a wet-nose nudge from a pup. 

“Doug is using his pilot’s license, plane, time and cash for a purpose—and for me, it’s using my video skills to create a lasting experience for those who fly with us, and to promote the GA lifestyle.”

Denise honed her video skills while working on a financial education DVD series. She purchased a variety of video and sound equipment, and learned the craft by working with professional videographers and editors. 

She documented a flight from San Diego to Mammoth Lakes, Calif. during a Veterans Airlift Command flight for her first video, and realized both she and Doug enjoyed sharing the General Aviation experience. 

Together they began producing GA-based travel videos to promote the convenience, fun and adventure of traveling in their flying machine. “We are trying to do our part in public relations for GA, and want to recruit more pilots since the population of flyers has been dwindling over the years. 

“We have gotten emails from some aspiring pilots who watched our videos, so we know it works,” Denise said.

The Winstons’ YouTube channel shows just how much fun you can have when flying your own airplane. It’s a large selection of short videos with good production value, combining great travel scenes and in-flight footage with Denise’s smooth on-camera persona.

Now about that destroyed airplane. There was never any hesitation by the Winstons in looking for a new plane. 

“We had to get back to doing our flying thing,” Doug said. “I was upset and sad, but what better way to make myself feel better than some airplane shopping therapy?”

Doug and Denise Winston are back in the air now, doing what they love, helping others with their airplane—and filming it all for our enjoyment. You can never keep these kinds of generous people down for long.



Dan Pimentel has worked in journalism and graphic design since 1979, and is the president and creative director of Celeste/Daniels Advertising and Design (celestedaniels.com). He’s an instrument-rated private pilot and has been writing the Airplanista Aviation Blog (airplanista.com) since 2005. You can find him on Twitter as @Av8rdan. Send questions or comments to .


RESOURCES >>>>>

Further reading “Never Broken: Songs are Only Half the Story” by Jewel Kilcher. New York, N.Y.: Blue Rider Press, 2015.

 

Flying adventures, weekend trips and more Winstons’ YouTube channel

DougWinston.com

 

Volunteer opportunities Boys & Girls Clubs of America

bgca.org

 

Veterans Airlift Command

veteransairlift.org

 

Wounded Warrior Project 

woundedwarriorproject.org

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Full Circle: A Controller Speaks, Part Two

The last time we were together I began a series highlighting one of the aviation-themed audiobooks that I produced and narrated: the interesting and entertaining memoirs from an FAA air traffic controller. 

Retired after 36 years of working traffic—initially at some small and then on to several very large ATC facilities—David Larson’s “Spinning at the Boundary: The Making of an Air Traffic Controller” is available in print and e-book from Amazon, while the audio version that I narrated can be found at Amazon, Audible and in Apple’s iTunes Library. (Note: this book contains a measure of salty/profane language—be forewarned if you prefer not to hear or read that
sort of thing.)

“Spinning at the Boundary” is an insider’s view—with lots of iconoclastic observations and irreverent opinions—from an experienced controller’s career path and the ATC happenings during that long (and often tumultuous) period in our aviation history. Continuing with our selected excerpts from the audio script, and with the author’s permission, here are a few highlights from his years in the Miami (KMIA) tower, beginning with one particularly boring night shift:

I was working the midnight shift with a friend of mine and nothing was going on, so—idle minds and all—I made up a tag for an aircraft that didn’t exist. To keep it from dropping off the radar, I put it into a handoff status to an unused scope (a target in that mode will sit on a scope indefinitely). 

Then I called the tower and told him a C-130 was going to make low approaches over Runway 09/27. I moved that tag by using the reposition function so that it would appear to be moving when the controller in the tower watched it on his radar display.

I ran the tag out to a 10-mile final and started to move it down the final approach course. When the tag got to a seven-mile final, I used the backup radio and called the tower. Disguising my voice, I said, “Metro Tower, Air Force five-six-nine on a seven-mile final for Runway 27; low approach.” 

The controller cleared “Air Force” for the approach, and I moved the target slowly down the final, “flew” down the runway, and out the other side. 

Needless to say, the tower guy never saw anything. 

I kept up the approaches for the next hour or so while I told the guy in the tower it was a top secret test the Air Force was doing on super stealth aircraft that were really, really quiet. 

I kept at it until the guy upstairs realized that the voice on the radio was me. Oddly enough, he didn’t think it was near as funny as I did. Go figure.

Another story within “Spinning at the Boundary” came from the radar room in Miami. It happened while Larson was training a new controller on approach control and other controllers in the room were carrying on very loud and raucous personal conversations with each other:

The incident that pulled the bottom card out of our card house wasn’t the mistake that was eventually made; the final straw was the action taken to fix a mistake. A British Airways heavy B-747 (callsign “Speed Bird”) filled with happy Brits winging their way to beautiful South Florida was on the final approach for 09L, descending out of 2,800 feet, 10 miles from the airport and already on the control tower frequency. 

My trainee had turned an American heavy jet north from the south side of the airport for a visual approach to 09R. American had called the airport in sight, and the trainee cleared him for the visual approach. 

So, although American was pointed directly at Speed Bird—and also at the same altitude—it didn’t matter because American would turn toward the runway before he became a factor for Speed Bird—in theory.

But instead of hearing the visual approach clearance directed to him, the pilot heard a bunch of yelling in the background of the facility from that bunch of bored controllers, so he kept winging northward—ready to T-bone Speed Bird. 

Luckily, visibility was good and American eventually said, “Would you like us to turn onto the final?”

Now picture, if you will, standing on a pitcher’s mound. In front of you are 20 people with their hands behind their backs. All at once, all 20 of them fling a softball at you, and as they release them, someone yells, “Catch the red one, or
everybody dies!” 

That’s exactly how much time you have to fix this problem involving hundreds of people coming together with a 400-knot closure rate.

My guy had an instant fix: Speed Bird was at 2,600 feet, and he needed 1,000 feet of separation to be safe, and since American was descending, he told that pilot to descend immediately to 1,500 feet. The downside was that American was still at 3,000 feet, so to get to 1,500 he had to descend through Speed Bird’s altitude. 

I took the frequency over at that point, stopped that, and let American pass behind Speed Bird. 

Even though they would miss each other by less than half a mile and 100 feet of altitude, it was the best alternative I had. It was technically illegal, but by using that option, everybody got to go on living. 

Unfortunately, that was when something else turned really sour.

Once I took the position over, I began transmitting at a hundred miles an hour. The fact that 300 or 400 people nearly died at my hand didn’t help my mental condition at all—but I still had to keep ‘em separated. 

At the time, I had 15 to 20 aircraft on my frequency, all going between 250 and 150 knots, and all trying to get to the same spot on the earth. I was talking nonstop as fast as I could, not even taking time to unkey my radio so the pilots could answer me. 

After every instruction I would tell the pilot to “ident to answer”—that would cause a little “ID” to show up on the scope, so I knew they were doing what I told them. I was now “vectoring for Jesus,” as the expression goes.

All things considered, events were actually going pretty well at that point. The rest of my wards were adequately separated, and I could see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. The light quickly turned out to be an express freight train headed directly toward me.

I looked up into the northeast arrival corridor, and noticed that an Air Canada Airbus and a Comair regional jet were winging their way down the arrival chute at the same altitude—but luckily, three miles apart, side by side. I thought I should pull these guys apart a little more.

As a refresher, on any radar scope little “tags” follow each aircraft. A “position symbol” sits over the actual aircraft (this symbol is the letter of the scope that is working that traffic: “S,” “A,” “V,” “N;” whatever). 

Then a line called a “leader line” extends, usually about one-fourth of an inch, to the “data block.” The data block contains the flight information, callsign, aircraft type, altitude, etc. 

This automation also has a cute feature called “auto offset.” This feature will offset a data block that is laying on top of another one, so the controller can read it.

Back to our hapless duo in the arrival corridor. As you may remember, I was going to help them out by pulling them farther apart. The tag for Comair was on the east side of the corridor, and the tag for Air Canada was on the west side, so I turned Comair 20 degrees to the east and Air Canada 20 degrees to the west. 

As I’m sure even the slowest of you have already figured out, the tags had auto offset, and instead of giving the pilots some breathing room, I tried to fly them up each other’s noses. 

All Comair had time to say was “Hey!” as he ripped right behind the Airbus.

The history that was made at this point was this: two “deals” (ATC system errors) in one session that weren’t even related to each other. 

I politicked for my trainee, who had done a smashing job (no pun intended) right up until the deals occurred. So the instructor—me—was decertified with a double deal, and the trainee was checked out.


Next time: The weirdness
of KMIA prevails.


Editor-at-large Thomas Block has flown nearly 30,000 hours since his first hour of dual in 1959. In addition to his 36-year career as a US Airways pilot, he has been an aviation magazine writer since 1969, and a best-selling novelist. Over the past 30 years he has owned more than a dozen personal airplanes of varying types.
Send questions or comments to .

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Closing Time

 KMSO Airport

KSMO will soon join the ever-lengthening list of excellent airports that were killed by obliviousness, lack of imagination and greed.

Santa Monica Municipal Airport (KSMO) is most likely toast. It will be gone soon, and local noise abatement enthusiasts, politicians who say they are serving the people and numerous real estate investors will do a little happy dance. 

Once it’s gone, KSMO—like every other airport closed in order to serve short-term economic goals—will never, ever be back. It will join the ever-lengthening list of excellent airports that were killed by obliviousness, lack of imagination and greed.

We pilots are fighting this apparent suspension of logical thought by the government of Santa Monica, but we are fighting a tsunami of misinformation and avarice. 

Warning: trigger words!

All of the so-called “trigger words” have been used by the anti-aviation groupies to justify killing one of the most historically significant airports in the United States. 

The most commonly used dirty word that I could find was “one-percenter.” Citing the made-up fact that only super-rich people fly airplanes, the anti-aviation crowd demands that these people and their money go elsewhere.

It is true that rich overachievers have been seen slouching around KSMO from time to time. People like Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhart, Harrison Ford and a plethora of talented—and yes, rich—people have flown out of and based their aircraft at KSMO. 

It is also true that During World War II the place was a beehive of aircraft building activity. Originally called Clover Field, it was a vital part of our national defense. And the aircraft manufacturing there not only boosted the local economy, it saved democracy. 

In history as close as yesterday’s flying lesson, blue collar workers have learned how to fly there, pilots who have teamed up in aircraft partnerships have scrimped and saved to have their inexpensive airplanes based there, and history—going back to the founding of aviation in America—has taken place on that piece of ground. 

A disaster movie in the making

The crowded ramp of the bizjets, the working students, the movie stars and all of the people who made their living at KSMO will go away, and they’ll take their talent and money with them. It is a disaster movie that the kill-the-airport crowd of Santa Monica has no idea is coming to a theater near them.

Corporate aircraft that used to fly into KSMO will most likely head down to KLAX, leading the people of Santa Monica to complain about all the delays at Los Angeles International. I am almost certain that more than one of them will write to their local government official to do something about it.

The next earthquake will happen around Santa Monica eventually and I am willing to bet that many of the same people who wanted the airport closed will begin complaining that emergency services—like National Guard helicopters, air ambulances and emergency supplies—aren’t getting to them soon enough. 

I won’t waste any more ink telling you why KSMO is important to the world in general or to you as a pilot specifically. That would be preaching to the choir. You may not even care all that much if KSMO is turned into strip malls, vape shops and overpriced condos. But… 

Let’s all go to that new airport! Wait...

Let me ask you this—and I am asking because I really want to know—when was the last time you heard about or read about a brand-new General Aviation airport being built? Personally, I can’t remember a single instance of this happening in my (rather long) lifetime. 

I can remember dozens and dozens of airports closing. The one that stands out in my mind as I write this was Merrill C. Meigs Field Airport (KCGX) in Chicago. 

Meigs Field was built as a city airport for Chicago. It existed on a little island out in the Lake Michigan and was within easy walking distance or a short cab ride to downtown Chicago as well as numerous museums and attractions.

It was so convenient that a youngish brown-haired Delta Airlines 727 flight engineer could fly his family down to Meigs in a Piper Tri-Pacer and spend a nice day with them visiting The Field Museum. 

At one time, Meigs Field as the busiest single-strip airport in the United States. People could land their aircraft literally in the city and attend to business, bringing tons of money into Chicago.

In 2003 Mayor Richard M. Daley had the place bulldozed in the middle of the night and nobody has flown in or out of there since. I don’t really know what kind of oafish ignorance led to this airport murder, but I do know that the place is still closed and they’ll never build another. (The location was renamed Northerly Island. —Ed.)

I have to tell you that the idea of nice airports facing the same horrible fate of Meigs Field makes me angry because it reminds me of the buffalo. 

When Europeans and others moving and living in the west discovered the huge buffalo herds covering the landscape, they could not believe their eyes. There was no end to the stampeding groups of these large and hardy animals. You could sit in one spot and literally kill hundreds of them and it did not seem to lessen their numbers. 

Been to any buffalo stampedes lately?

Anarchy!

The anarchist in me is yelling in the back of my mind that we General Aviation people should go on some sort of national or regional strike to show people just how valuable we are. Maybe if the Santa Monicans were totally cut off from General Aviation for a few weeks, they’d be begging for us to fly our G550s and Cubs into KSMO. Imagine if their overnight packages took a week to get there!

Of course, nothing like this is going to happen. We General Aviation people are very much like the proverbial chicken in a warm pot of water. It feels like a nice, relaxing hot tub right now. We won’t feel that we are well and truly cooked until it is too late. 

The question we have to ask

I think we need to ask a simple question that may not turn this thing around but will at least let our cooks know that we know we’re sitting in a pot of bouillabaisse. 

The question is this: what next? “O.K.,” we say. “What next? You’ve closed KSMO. Is the next thing to close another nearby General Aviation airport? Will you destroy the next one after that? 

“What airport do you people in Santa Monica—who until only recently were dependent on KSMO to provide a defense for the United States as well as steady jobs—plan to destroy next? 

“What’s next when the movie stars and the one-percenters that you think you are taking to task finally throw up their hands and move their aircraft—and their money—to Montana? 

“How many million-dollar condos do you think you can sell after all the money leaves town?”

We pilots and aircraft owners will suffer if this “burn the seed corn” mentality on the part of the government and the public continues, but you know what? We will adapt and flourish. And maybe we’ll move out to Montana with Harrison and the gang.

 

Kevin Garrison’s aviation career began at age 15 as a lineboy in Lakeland, Fla. He came up through General Aviation and retired as a 767 captain in 2006. Currently Garrison is a DC-9 simulator instructor and a 767 pilot instructor; his professional writing career has spanned three decades. He lives with the most patient woman on the planet on a horse farm in Kentucky. Send questions or comments to .

 

December 2016

 

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Volunteer, It's Good for You

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!

Blue skies,

Jennifer Dellenbusch

*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-
Volunteering-Study.ashx

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Pan American, Part One: The influence of a legendary worldwide airline.

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.)

Editor-at-large Thomas Block has flown nearly 30,000 hours since his first hour of dual in 1959. In addition to his 36-year career as a U.S. Airways pilot, he has been an aviation magazine writer since 1969, and a best-selling novelist. Over the past 30 years he has owned more than a dozen personal airplanes of varying types. Send questions or comments to .

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Push to Talk

 September 2015

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.

 

Screenwriter, philanthropist and good guy Lyn Freeman has been writing aviation articles since before John Glenn joined the Marines. He is the former editor of Plane & Pilot magazine, founder and current chairperson of the Build A Plane organization, a master scuba diver, a championship table tennis player and an all-around Renaissance man. Send questions or comments to .

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Full Circle

September 2015

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.”

 

Editor-at-large Thomas Block has flown nearly 30,000 hours since his first hour of dual in 1959. In addition to his 36-year career as a US Airways pilot, he has been an aviation magazine writer since 1969, and a best-selling novelist. Over the past 30 years he has owned more than a dozen personal airplanes of varying types. Send questions or comments to .

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Left Coast Pilot: Planning a Long Cross-Country

Preparing for a coast-to-coast trip in the summer of 2015.

June 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.

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Push To Talk: Alaska Calling

Alaska is a place where the small airplane still rules.

May 2015-

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.

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Full Circle: Old Notes, Part Three

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.

May 2015-

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.

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