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Opinion & Commentary (128)

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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Left Coast Pilot: Personal Minimums and the Fog Season

Widespread fog prompts a change of heart about personal minimums on departure.

April 2015-

I have never been a fan of personal minimums—the idea that you should set limits for yourself short of what’s required by the FAA. Particularly for instrument flying, if you aren’t prepared to shoot an approach to minimums as specified on the chart, you shouldn’t file, because you’re going to have to deal with whatever weather develops.
That’s one reason for the “1-2-3” rule about specifying an alternate if the weather isn’t forecast to have at least a 2,000-foot ceiling and three miles visibility for one hour before and after your planned time of arrival.

But I’ve had a change of heart, at least in one respect: I’ve now set personal minimums for visibility and ceiling when departing on an IFR flight. That came about as a result of planning for a flight to Los Angeles with my wife during the fog season.

We were in a relatively wet winter season here in California’s Central Valley, which makes fog common. When there’s no frontal weather, radiation fog is common most mornings and indeed sometimes builds up to persistent tule fog that can cover fairly large areas.

Most of the time, the fog will burn off as the sun comes up, but deep in the winter you get a condition where the fog never completely burns off—it just rises into a low stratus, then settles back on the ground at night.
Periodically, a weather system moves through and disrupts the stable pattern, but between those systems, morning fog is the rule here until spring. It’s just something we learn to live with, and one of the reasons that an instrument rating really helps.


That had been happening the week before we were due for our trip: on Thursday, visibility stayed at one-quarter of a mile with an indefinite ceiling at about 100 feet until about 4:00 p.m.—and even after that, never got better than half a mile. That caused me to do some hard thinking.
For noncommercial flights conducted under Part 91, there are no minimum visibility or ceiling requirements for instrument departures; if you can see to taxi your airplane, you can get a clearance (which may include the highly significant words “at your own risk”) and take off.
I’ve never been fool enough to do that, but up to now, my departure minimums were basically the instrument minimums to get back into the airport. At my home base of Modesto, Calif. (KMOD), that’s one-half mile visibility and a 200-foot ceiling for the ILS approach.

What got me to thinking, though, was that the fog was so widespread. The whole valley was socked in.

I have flown in these conditions before, and usually there are just a couple of minutes in the soup on climbout, and then gorgeous clear air above. No problem at all—provided nothing goes wrong. If something does go wrong, with widespread fog and low ceilings, where can you go?
I did a Google search and found some really interesting discussions connected to old magazine articles on departure minimums. Then I picked up the phone and talked the whole subject over with my good friend and longtime flight instructor Larry Askew.

I finally decided that my personal departure minimums are basically the same as commercial pilots use: at least one mile visibility and a 500-foot ceiling. That’s enough that you’d have a fighting chance to live through an engine failure on takeoff.

Fortunately on our departure day, the weather cooperated and the fog lifted by noon. We had a great ride down with a 20-knot tailwind. I was a little nervous as there were multiple AIRMETs (and even a SIGMET) for severe turbulence mainly over the Sierras, but all we got was a mild mountain wave after we crossed the first big ridge near the Lake Hughes (LHS) VOR.

I had a Stratus ADS-B receiver running, and actually saw a fair amount of traffic from it on my iPad—enough to make me wonder if I may have been seeing the benefit of flying near another airplane equipped with ADS-B Out.

I took a few screen grabs, and after looking at those, it was clear we were following a PC-12. Since the tail number showed up, I’m betting the pilot was running an ADS-B compatible Mode S transponder, so ground stations were relaying transponder traffic to him, and while nearby we were picking it up.

That illustrates why you need installed ADS-B Out equipment (a 1090 MHz Mode S transponder or 978 MHz UAT) to get reliable ADS-B traffic. With just the receiver, you sometimes see traffic and sometimes don’t.

I also noticed a few scattered areas of light precipitation—evidently the fog or mist was dense enough to show up on ground-based radar, which is relayed by ADS-B ground stations along with traffic.

The only problem with the flight was that we’d gotten out about half an hour late, so we arrived just at dusk—which put the sun in my face on our long straight-in approach to Hawthorne (KHHR) Runway 25. I was almost blinded and got on the gauges, telling Kate to look for traffic.

Fortunately the sun went down when I was still joining the localizer, which let me flare without squinting.
One odd thing: the final approach controller announced, “Cleared into Class B airspace via the Hawthorne 25 localizer; report the airport in sight”—which was ridiculous as I’d been in the Class B airspace for a good 10 minutes at that point.
I replied that I was IFR. He cleared me for the visual approach.

Two days later, I again had to wait for the fog to start lifting before departing for home. I also decided to fly a slightly different route: instead of directly over the mountains into the valley, I planned to fly up the coast, turning inland at Morro Bay.

The MEAs for the route were all 8,000 feet or less, which eliminated any need to use oxygen. The route is also a bit prettier and kept us away from the fog as long as possible.
However, the route that I filed was pretty complex: KHHR HERMO V23 LAX SMO V107 SADDE V299 VTU V25 RZS V12 GVO V27 MQO V113 PRB V113 ROM V113 PXN KMOD 13GPH 8000FT
The routing was complicated enough that I saved it to Notes on the iPad, and hand-wrote it on my clearance pad.
When I called for my clearance, I received this: “Cleared to Modesto via left turn heading 210; radar vectors Ventura [VTU]; then as filed. Climb and maintain 3,000. Expect 8,000 in five minutes…” and the usual departure control and squawk.

ATC’s vectors were pretty close to what I asked for, except that it didn’t hug the coast quite as much, and probably put us four to five miles out over the water, but by that time we were at 6,000 feet, so I was still comfortable.

It was a pretty flight with no turbulence at all, and no more than a 15-knot headwind. Turning inland we could see low stratus and heavy haze filling the valley. Modesto was reporting four miles and clear below 12,000 feet, but I asked for and flew a full ILS and was on the gauges from about 1,500 feet.

I still don’t believe in setting arrival minimums higher than those for the best available instrument approach. If I’m not up to flying a full ILS, I need to get more practice. But taking off into widespread low fog strikes me as an unnecessary risk.

I’ll add that when I’m planning a flight into an area with widespread fog, I pay a lot of attention to the local weather trend and get very serious with my alternate planning. There’s no sense taking off until—and unless—the trend is improving; otherwise you run the risk of being unable to get in, and if that’s a serious risk, then I want an alternate that’s CAVU.
Fortunately, in N4696K we have long-range fuel tanks, so I usually have a lot of good options.

John D. Ruley is an instrument-rated pilot and freelance writer. He holds a master’s degree from the University of North Dakota Space Studies program (space.edu) and is archivist for the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) operational history project. Ruley has been a volunteer pilot with ligainternational.org and angelflight.org, two charities which operate medical missions in northwest Mexico and provide medical patient transport, respectively. Send questions or comments to .

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Push To Talk: How Did This Happen?

We and our airplanes are just getting older.

March 2015-

For a lot of us there was surely that one moment when you caught a glimpse of yourself in the mirror one day. OMG! you may have said. How did this happen?
Day by day, we all get a little older, though we may be no better at accepting the realities. We all love to banter around those cute little sayings about getting older, my favorite being the old Bette Davis line, “Growing old is not for sissies.” The older I get, the more truth I find there.
And if you think your body is showing the wear, what about the poor Piper Cherokee which has lived its life at the hands of countless student pilots, slammed and jammed on to runways for decades?
At the turn of the millennium (that’s 15 years ago, thank you very much) the FAA noted that the average age of the nation’s 150,000 single-engine fleet was more than 30 years old. By 2020, the average age could approach 50 years. Five years from now. 50-year-old airplanes. Average. AVERAGE.

Take a ride in a DC-3 at the next airshow; that airplane made its maiden flight 80 years ago. Let me say that again: 80. (Just so you know, the average age of jet airliners is a prepubescent 11 years old.)
Will there be a giant resurgence in General Aviation where wads of pilots just run out and buy wads of shiny new airplanes so that the average age of the our fleet will come back down? With the price of a 2015 Archer starting at $345,000, maybe not so much. Just like all of us continue to get older, so will the GA fleet.
So what are we gonna do with all these aging airplanes? Well, fly them, I guess.

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Full Circle: Old Notes, Part Two

Fragments of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking in those early days when I flew as a copilot in a Convair 240.

March 2015-

We are back again at my archeological dig, wherein old boxes of aviation notes had been ferreted out of deep storage and dusted off. These are fragmented creations from decades ago when I was flying the original airliners I had laid my hands on—notes made for a future use which I never got around to.

These piles of observations from my earliest years of driving airliners have been put into a semblance of order to provide a sense of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking in those days. Here is part two.
The Convair 240 splashed through the puddles as it swung from the gate. The columns of churning wind behind the propellers had swept a spray against the empty terminal. The agent, who knew better, had already hustled inside to watch from behind thick glass as the lights of the airplane moved across his rain-smeared view and disappeared around the corner.
“Three-eight-six, ready for your clearance?” The controller’s voice was clear and it filled the pilot’s headphones with a friendly closeness, as if the controller were sitting at the next barstool. Damp and dreary weather on a quiet night would somehow become the glue that bound together all those who used the frequency.

“To Boston,” he began in rounded tones, then continued on with his measured litany as he recited the electronic route that had been reserved for them.
The copilot wrote what was said in cryptic shorthand on a clipboard in his lap. The clipboard was lit by a narrow arc of light from above his head. The copilot wrote quickly but carefully, the mechanical pencil etching out the routing in neat numbers and letters on the blank side of their flight plan.
He paused for a moment after he finished writing, then reached for his microphone and read back what he had put down.
The Convair was slowly traveling down the stretch of blacktop that led to the runway. The airliner responded to the motions of the captain’s hand on the nose steering control, and the noises from the hydraulic valves floated up from beneath the floorboards to add a steady and nearly eerie undercurrent to the quiet in the cockpit.
The flight attendant had silently come up to the cockpit and without a word, handed the load slip to the copilot. He examined the paper she had given him: 19 passengers, 500 gallons of fuel. With the cargo, the gross weight was 41,200 pounds.
“Nineteen in the cabin,” the copilot announced. The captain said nothing.

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Left Coast Pilot: Mexico, Lean of Peak and the Value of Overnight Stops

After a medical leave of their own, John Ruley and his wife Kate have resumed their volunteer work for medical missions in northern Mexico.

February 2015-

From my notebook:
Nov. 7, 2014, Hotel La Herradura, El Fuerte, Mexico – I can’t recall ever being so tired at 7:45 p.m. A couple of margaritas probably had something to do with it, as did nine hours flying yesterday and today…
We started out from Modesto, Calif. (KMOD) yesterday. It was a nice flight down with surprising weather: marginal to IFR in the valley (three miles at surface, a lot less at pattern; tops 1,500) and clear in the Los Angeles basin (at least, as clear as it gets). I didn’t see Hawthorne (KHHR) approach lights until we were five miles out.
We were met by a friend who took us out for dinner and we bedded down for the night at a house owned by the Mission Doctors Association (MDA), where we met our passenger for departure the following day.
Our departure was almost an hour late, compounded by the FBO failing to fuel the airplane overnight. We made up some of that lost time when ATC gave us shortcut vectors, and instead of setting our usual 21 inches of manifold pressure at 2,300 rpm, I looked at the performance charts and bumped up the power to 22 inches at 2,400 rpm for 75 percent power at 9,000 feet. That increased our fuel burn to over 14 gph, but we picked up about five knots ground speed.
I wasn’t sure what to make of Mexicali International Airport (MMML). This was my first arrival ever at a Mexican airport where we weren’t met by an armed soldier or Marine, which I found a bit disconcerting.
The folks at the local Dirección General de Aeronáutica Civil (DGAC) office at Mexicali did their best to be helpful but with customs and immigration stops, the process still took an hour—and the fuelers wouldn’t take a credit card, so I burned a bunch of cash.

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Twin Adventures

February 2005

He’s not really my uncle and, matter of fact, we’re absolutely no blood relationship to each other at all. I started calling him Uncle Nelson when my kids were very small, because that’s what they called him. He’s been in and around my life for 55 years so far, so I guess it’s fair to say that we know each other pretty well.

Nelson DeMille—the best-selling, world-acclaimed novelist—has been my good friend since we first met in school back so many years ago that it’s a wonder that we can remember those early days at all, yet somehow we do. We’re talking about a relationship that began in second grade and continued without pause all through elementary, middle and high school. As young adults we went our separate ways along some wandering career paths, but we always stayed in touch.

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Hog Log

February 2005

Where did I begin? Where did I get my start as an aviation-oriented, crazy-about-everything-having-to-do-with-flying kind of guy?

Like many a romantic movie starring Ryan O’Neal, it all began at a quiet little airport in Lakeland, Fla. called Drane Field in the early part of the 1970s. Drane, now Linder Airport, was an ex-bomber training base from World War II that morphed itself into a General Aviation field.

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Left Coast Pilot

February 2005

Here in California’s Central Valley, we’re blessed with good weather—most of the time. A lot of local pilots get along without an instrument rating. That works for about nine months of the year. In the winter and spring, though, they can’t fly all that much.

From the end of November through the middle of February, more often than not, the valley is shrouded in fog—frequently, very thick fog. My wife jokes that we’ve had our share of white Christmases since moving here, but in our case the white starts about two feet above the ground…

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