Prime the Pump

It has been incredibly difficult for me to compose anything at all this week.  Whether the ultimate culprit is distraction, lack of inspiration, poor time management, or plain old discombobulation, I feel the need to combat this turn of events by “priming the pump” in the hopes of producing a geyser of creativity.  I am feeling a bit nostalgic today, so I think I’ll tell you a story from my flight instructing days.

In order to gain a private pilot’s license, one of the many tasks a student must complete is flying solo to airports at least fifty miles from their home base.  There were specific things in which I liked each of my students to be proficient before I would allow them to undertake such a cross-country journey on their own.

In preparation for their first solo cross-country flight, students fly with an instructor on a series of trips to learn everything from how to read the navigation charts and find out what kind of facilities are available at the destination airport, to how to get a proper weather briefing and file a flight plan.  Due to one of my own embarrassing experiences, I also made sure my students knew what to do if they should become lost.

On the last leg of the final dual cross-country flight, I would have the student practice unusual attitude recovery in order to get him lost, and then make him find his way home.  To practice unusual attitude recovery, the student would close his eyes with his head bowed forward while I flew the aircraft in random directions, climbing and descending to get him disoriented.  I would then settle the plane in either a climbing or descending turn and have him open his eyes and recover to straight and level flight.  We might do this three times or so.  When the student’s eyes were closed during the final session, I would reset the aircraft’s heading indicator 90 degrees so that when he thought he was going east, he was really heading south.  Then I’d have him recover to straight and level flight, figure out where he was, and head for home.

Not one student ever discovered the discrepancy between the heading indicator, which they used to navigate, and the aircraft’s magnetic compass, which many forgot was installed.  They always became horribly lost, which was my goal in the first place.  Being lost with an instructor on board is infinitely better than being lost alone.  I’d help them work through the problem, remind them of available resources, let them navigate home, and finally celebrate their victory with a solo cross-country endorsement.

Only once did my dirty little trick fail.  One of my students was the sweetest, little old man on the planet.  He was in his seventies and came out to fly with me a few times a month.  I don’t think he was as interested in obtaining his license as much as he was in just tooling around in an airplane every once in a while.  On that fateful flight, I reset the heading indicator as I always did, had him recover to straight and level flight, and told him to fly us home.  Without a word, he headed directly for our destination.

I was astounded.  His heading indicator was reading 90 degrees off, yet he was flying in the correct direction, noting landmarks along the way.  When I finally recovered from my surprise, I asked him how he knew he was going toward the airport.  He pointed to the magnetic compass.  It turned out that he never used the heading indicator, and didn’t even notice that it was incorrect!

Since it seemed that I would not be able to trick him into getting lost, I gave up, and indulged in some pleasant conversation during our leisurely flight.  Many years have passed since that day, but I will always remember his unerring sense of direction, and he will always have a place in my heart as one of my favorite students.

Alphabet Blogs, Aviation, Guest Entries, Humor, Musings, Pet Peeves, Philosophy, Self Promotion


I noticed this in my WordPress Spam folder today:

“The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read, but I actually thought youd have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you could fix if you werent too busy looking for attention.”

Intending to callously delete this comment, I abruptly paused with my index finger hovering over the left mouse button.  What if this is legitimate feedback?  What if the glaring absence of apostrophes is because the commenter had been moved to point out my whiny, attention-seeking ways on their android phone, but lacked sufficient time to insert proper punctuation?

I realize that I am, indeed, a bit of a publicity whore.  From the beginning, I have spent a lot of time writing about myself and my pet peeves without so much as a infinitesimal thought of what anyone who might come across my blog might enjoy.  I have even “borrowed” the work of others when I was too lazy to post my own thoughts.

At times, however, I did believe I had something amusing, or interesting to say.  Whether this was simple narcissism – as the commenter suggests – or something else, I cannot say.  I imagine everyone believes themselves to be witty, gracious, and a touch philosophical.  I am no exception.  I would even go so far as to say that an author must imagine themselves to be all these things and more, else their foray into the hazardous (to the ego) and mysterious world of writing would end before it even began.

Sighing deeply, I returned to the task at hand and decisively clicked the button.  The self-reflection was fun, but I have to get back to writing.

Aviation, Humor

Snow Day at the Airport

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to pass a few moments of my hectic day contemplating the falling snow and daydreaming.  It was almost magical, watching as the crystalline drops drifted and fluttered determinedly past my window to coalesce into a unbroken alabaster desert on the far side of the glass.  Until the plows buried the foot of my driveway.  Again.

Before my snow removal work was increased tenfold by the city snowplows, I recalled a few random experiences where snow and aviation collided.  I remembered how, ages ago, when I eked out a living as a flight instructor, I was able to make earn more money clearing the runways with the owner’s decrepit, underpowered pickup truck rigged with an oversize plow blade and minimal heat than the way below poverty level income guaranteed me actually teaching.  Once, to save money, the owner decided to dig out his airport himself and it turned into an unpaid, compulsory two week vacation for me.  That’s how long it took him to get the airport unburied without assistance.  I think it was his way of cutting costs, but it seems to me that it would have been better to have at least a minimal revenue stream during those two weeks.  After all, even though he didn’t have to pay any of his staff, he still had utilities and other fixed expenses.  Either way, I was stuck at home eating Ramen Noodles.  Some vacation.  I didn’t even get a lousy tee-shirt.

Things changed significantly when I worked as a freight dog, though.  I actually did have one snow day during my 5 years of employment.  I was flying a route out of Midway airport that started around 4:00 p.m. and ended at midnight.  I arrived on time, despite the fact that the airport was closed and no one was going anywhere, to find the first of our 3 Beech Barons in the hangar awaiting a visit from maintenance.  The second was also parked in the hangar, which, as it turned out, could not be opened as the door had been blocked by drifting snow.  The third aircraft was almost completely buried outside on the ramp, with only a single propeller blade protruding from its cold shroud.

Dispatch insisted that I wait to see if the airport would open and I and my fellow pilots could simultaneously fly the single usable but trapped Baron to complete our routes.  We decided to pass the time with a snowball fight on the ramp.  After about 6 hours of goofing off in the snow with hourly calls to Dispatch begging to be allowed to go home, they finally relented and let me – and only me – go home an hour before my shift would have ended anyway.  It took 3 guys to push my car, encased in 6 hours of snowfall, out of its parking spot and out into the deserted street.

Ah…good times.   At least I’ll get a chance to go sledding tomorrow.

Aviation, Humor, Musings, News, Other Stories, Pet Peeves, Philosophy, Poetry, Self Promotion

2011 Wrap Up

A little more than a year ago, I timidly wandered into the Blogosphere hoping for nothing more than a creative outlet.  To my surprise, I have gained so much more than that.  I have no words for the depth of the gratitude I feel for the support, encouragement, and friendship I have received from so many.  I am overwhelmed.  Thank you.

I’ve heard that you can’t move forward without looking back, so I thought this would be an appropriate time to share one of my favorite posts from each month with you.  I hope all of your years to come are filled with joy, adventure and love.  Thank you for sharing my journey with me!














Aviation, Musings, Philosophy

Simulated Fun

As the pilot of a jet, I was required to pass a competency check every six months.  Some of the maneuvers I needed to perform were less expensive and much safer to do in a flight simulator.

It may not look like much from the outside, but inside it's better than Disney World.

These simulators are incredibly advanced, offering full motion and exceptional graphics which are capable of giving the pilot a very realistic experience.  The instructors also have the God-like powers to place you at any airport, in any time of weather conditions, with whatever broken aircraft systems that floats their boat.

For this reason, many a pilot has woken up in a cold sweat at the prospect of simulator training.  Not me.  I loved it.  Where else can you test the very limits of your flying expertise and not run the risk of dying?

My freight dog brethren understood.

Great. Where's the flashlight?

A night time approach in a half mile of freezing fog with clear ice building on the unprotected surfaces of your aircraft was not a far fetched scenario, it was common.  Losing your interior lights may not even be noticed during the day when most pilots are working, but it could be a giant pain in the ass for a freight pilot at 2:00 in the morning.

Some of the instructors particularly enjoyed the freight dog “bring it on” attitude.  Once, after a particularly difficult approach and embarrassingly ugly landing in the Learjet 35 simulator, I had angrily asked my instructor what I did wrong.  He just laughed and said, “I loaded you up with about 3000 pounds of ice.  I can’t believe you didn’t crash.”

Asking one of these folks for a zero visibility approach and landing must have been like manna from Heaven.  How horrible would it be to have omnipotent powers that you could only use when some adventurous and arguably masochistic soul said, “pretty please?”

Call me crazy – you wouldn’t be the first or the last – but I never wanted to be the pilot caught by surprise in a dangerous situation for the first time in an actual aircraft.  I wanted to experience everything from the safety of the simulator first where I could explore different solutions, have the luxury of stopping time, and review what worked and what didn’t.

All the fun with none of the risk.  What could be better than that?

Aviation, Humor, Pet Peeves

STFD (Shut the Front Door!)

If you’re like me, you’ve probably had to be reminded countless times to shut the door.  The consequences of failing to properly shut the door are serious.  Since the door was invented (by Ugg Cavewoman who needed to be alone and wanted something to slam in order to get that point across) many a foolish human has been utterly devastated by a door left ajar.

See the difference?

You may be letting the heat out or, perhaps, air conditioning the Earth.  You may be letting in mosquitoes which will suck your blood while you sleep and then breed millions of additional microscopic vampires in order to desiccate your comatose body in a single night. Or even more heinous, if you do not heed door-shutting warnings, you just may end up naked at work.  This last example is what ultimately cured me of my lax door closing habits.

The first aircraft I flew as a freight pilot was a Beech Baron.  In order to enter this aircraft, you must climb up on the wing on the right hand side.  Once inside, the door must then be latched from the inside in two places before you scoot over to the left seat to get down to business.  If the top, deceptively unimportant-looking latch is not closed correctly, the door will pop open during a critical phase of flight and not even Hercules will be able to close it again while in the air.

"Come into my parlor," said the spider to the fly...

The first time I discovered this Baron door anomaly, I was departing Midway airport on my way to St. Louis.  It was a beautiful, bright, sunny afternoon and the door became decidedly un-shut immediately after takeoff.  The air pressure was such that my hat, which was innocently perched on the co-pilot’s seat,  instantaneously vacated the aircraft.

Cursing my door closing lapse, I turned on the autopilot only to find that closing this door again while in flight was not going to happen.  Ever.  Not wanting to listen to the wind howl my failure while the cold nibbled my extremities all the way to St. Louis, I requested and received a clearance through a small uncontrolled field, landed, shut the door and took off again to continue my flight.

The next leg of my route from St. Louis to Peoria was uneventful except for the mild sting of the loss of my hat.  But, alas, I did not learn my lesson.   This time when the door popped open on takeoff out of Peoria, my jacket was martyred.  I barely managed to sweep my approach plates, which were all cozy underneath my ill-fated jacket, onto the floor to safety.

After coming back around to land and shut the damn door, I took off again for Milwaukee.  Somehow, the next air traffic controller not only knew of my  clothes-depleting shame, but he was also highly amused by the whole situation.  He wanted to chat about it.  Over the radio.  For the world to hear.  Lucky me.  Now everyone was placing bets on whether I’d have any clothes left at all by the end of my shift.

Yet despite my abject humiliation, these misadventures may have saved my life.

A few months after learning my lesson the hard way, I was flying from Milwaukee to Midway with a co-pilot who was about to have a harsher lesson than my own.  We were in an aircraft that was equipped with a single “throw over” control yoke and he was using it to fly from the right seat.  When the top latch of the door opened while in cruise flight, I knew that as soon as he put the gear down, the rest of the door was going to follow suit.  However, while I was prepared for this outcome, my co-pilot was not.  And when the door opened, the wind dried out his contacts, effectively blinding him.

Panicked, he tried to throw the control yoke back over to my side so that I could take over the flight.  This, we found, is not possible in the air.  In that instant, I decided our only recourse was for us to work together.  I operated the rudder pedals and managed the power while talking him through the control yoke inputs he needed to make in order to get us safely on the ground.  Had I not already had my own humbling shut-the-door lesson seared into my being, this flight may not have had such a happy ending.

In posting this blog, my deepest wish is for you to learn from my mistakes instead of having to experience the folly of improper door closing for yourself.  Doors left ajar can only lead to suffering.  Please, stfd!

Aviation, Humor

Names Have Been Changed to Protect my Crazy Friends

I recently received a nudge from a friend who wanted to know when I would publish a new post.  He actually enjoys reading my work.  No accounting for taste, I suppose.  Or maybe he’s just hoping I’ll write about him.  Either way, I aim to please.

As you may know, back in the day I flew cargo for a living.  During my first week as a Learjet copilot, I had the experience of a lifetime, all thanks to Avril Lavigne (I told you names would be changed to protect my crazy friends).

I had completed a two week Learjet training course, passed the required checkrides and been flying the line as a copilot for about a week when I had the opportunity to fly a few legs of my route with Avril.  The first two legs of the trip were completely uneventful despite the fact that I couldn’t keep up with what needed to be done and Avril was essentially flying solo.  It was on the third leg of this trip that things got interesting.  I know I’ve said in the past that whatever happens in the plane stays in the plane, but I think in this case suitable precautions have been taken and a small portion of the story needs to be told.

While cruising at an altitude of FL430 (43,000 feet above sea level where you can practically see the curvature of the Earth), Avril asks me to calculate the distance from the airport that we should begin our descent.  Our company standard operating procedures suggest a rather aggressive 2 to 1 descent profile which basically meant that doubling the cruising flight level would give you a distance to start your descent.  When you’re flying a planeload of cancelled checks at 2 a.m., you don’t normally have to fly through the same hoops to which an airliner going into O’Hare at 6 p.m. would be subjected.  So, when I doubled 43 and added a little padding to come up with 90 nautical miles from the airport, Avril agreed with my conclusion.

“But,” he said, “we’re going to do things a little differently tonight.”

Avril had been a freight dog jet jockey for a long time, and since he flew the same route most nights, he was practically on a first name basis with the controllers working that evening.  Each time we were handed off into another controller’s airspace, Avril would ask if we could maintain our cruising altitude for just a little while longer.  Each time, the request was granted, probably because the controllers were just as curious as I was how we were going to pull this off.

Finally, at 43 miles from our destination, Avril calmly keys the microphone and requests a descent, with a languorous smile for me.  His wish is ATC’s command and he pulls the power back to idle and begins our 1 to 1 descent with a happy little chuckle.  I may have heard the controllers taking bets on our success before the transmission cut out, but I can’t be sure.

My duties at this point include completing the appropriate checklists and monitoring communications while Capt. Lavigne is completely focused on our altimeter winding down at a rate in excess of 6,000 feet per minute.  When I checked on with the tower controller, we were cleared to land straight in after he asked, “Are you going to make it?”

“Of course we’re going to make it!” I replied indignantly and without hesitation.  After all, it’s highly unprofessional to sound wishy-washy over the radio, no matter what happens to be going on in the aircraft.  Then, with a questioning glance at Avril, I said, “We’re going to make it, right?”  In response, I think he actually giggled like a teenage girl.

It was the most beautiful approach and landing I had ever witnessed.  We descended from 43,000 feet to sea level and touched down in the landing zone without ever having to move our power from idle or maneuver to bleed off excess airspeed.  It was exhilarating.  It was glorious.  And I loved every second of it.

And I think there may have been more than a few grizzled old air traffic controllers who thought they had seen everything that went home shaking their heads and just a little richer that night.

Thank you, Avril Lavigne, my crazy friend, for a one in a million experience that I will never forget.  Thank you for reading and encouraging me to continue to write.  It means a lot.  And I hope this post brings a smile to your lips that mirrors the one you brought to mine that night.

Aviation, Musings, Politics

Happy 50th Birthday, Mr. President!

Me and the Prez! (taken before he was the President, but it still counts)

As you pause to reflect on your life’s journey at this most auspicious of milestones,  please remember those of us who helped you get where you are today.  I understand that sometimes we have to take detours and make fuel stops in order to reach our destination, but I, for one, would like you to be sure to return to your original flight plan for our nation.  Don’t give up on us.

Happy birthday!

Aviation, Musings, Philosophy

Drinking from the Fire Hose

There have been several times in my life when I have stepped so far outside my comfort zone that I was unsure I would ever find my way back.

My J.R.O.T.C. Drill Team

While some of these jaunts were exercises in personal growth, such as performing as a member of my high school J.R.O.T.C. drill team, competing in my local Junior Miss Pageant, and even going away to college, most involved flying.

Some milestones on the path to a pilot’s license are mild comfort zone busters:  first solo, solo cross country, check rides, etc.  Others, such as initial Learjet 35 training at Flightsafety International Inc., are akin to drinking from a fire hose.

Learjet training

Prior to my two week indoctrination into the right seat of the Lear, the most complicated piece of equipment I had flown was a Cessna 310.  Going from this relatively docile aircraft to the bad tempered rodeo bronco that hid behind the sleek facade of the Learjet was exhilarating, terrifying, and so far outside my comfort zone that I couldn’t even speak the local language to ask where I might find a bathroom.

For two weeks, I and three of my colleagues were completely immersed in Lear 35 systems, operating procedures, high altitude and emergency operations, and simulator training.  Each night, I would have nightmares about whatever system we had gone over the day before, certain that I would never, ever, be able to remember even a fraction of the information dispensed.  Each day, we were thrown into the deep end of an unfathomable ocean of information and expected to dog paddle our way back to the shore.

It wasn’t until much later on that I realized the only way to truly learn to operate a Lear was to actually fly it.  At first, you are so far behind in your copilot duties that the captain is essentially flying solo until you catch up, which usually occurs about 30 minutes after landing at your destination.  But eventually, your comfort zone expands to the point that you know the cockpit blindfolded.  And that’s usually about the time you’re ready to upgrade and belly up to the fire hose again.

The moral of this story?  Don’t let fear keep you from drinking from the fire hose.  If I had allowed fear to win, I would never had known the pure, unadulterated joy of flying a Learjet.  Who knows what you may miss out on if you won’t break free of your comfort zone?


Aviation, Humor, Musings, Philosophy

It Is What It Is

The weather this weekend did not live up to my expectations.  In fact, it essentially sucked.  As did the lame attempts of weather gurus to deliver a remotely accurate forecast.

Stone: correct. Weatherman: not so much.

Upon consulting three different weather reporting websites, I invariably received three entirely different forecasts.  To be fair, I do understand that meteorological science is not as advanced as I would like it to be and that weather can be relatively unpredictable and highly localized; However, there’s a big difference between “80 degrees with a slight chance of rain” and “65 degrees with thunderstorms likely.”  Let’s get it together, meteorologists.  If it’s going to be wrong anyway, at least try to put out the same scientific wild-ass guess.  Keep it simple.

As I was holed up in the Cuneo Mansion waiting for the nasty red blotches parading willy-nilly across the screen of my Smartphone Overlord to subside, I realized that this was the perfect opportunity for me to practice calming my inner control freak by chanting “It is what it is” over and over again in the style of a Gregorian monk on anti-depressants.  I fear the people nearest to me may have been slightly alarmed by my display, but that just meant that I had room to stretch out and relax while I composed this post.

As a cargo pilot, I recall a few times that I had the opportunity to simply sit in the pilot lounge and watch the radar with my fellow freight dogs.

"Run" indeed.

Some would vehemently curse the storms keeping us on the ground while others would simply sit back, relax and count themselves lucky to be on the ground wishing they were flying rather than the other way around.  Which group I most resembled depended a lot on whether I thought it might be possible to thwart the evil designs of the torrential downpours or if the squall line had squashed even the most fanciful theories of propelled flight within the next 6 hours or so.  Recently, I find myself craving to be the latter group more often and in many more situations.  I mean, really, in most cases, what’s the worse that could happen?  Will anyone die?  Be horribly and permanently disfigured?  Maimed?  Or will I simply be forced to find something to occupy my time while I wait for the skies to clear?

I have reached this level of Zen on a few occasions, though only after considerable mental self-torture.  When I consider the worst possible outcome and realize that the worst really isn’t all that horrible after all, I’m finally able to convince my overactive inner control freak to take a hiatus to Chill Town for a nice, relaxing walk on Itiswhatitis Beach.

No, thank you. Maybe another time.

Now, what would happen if I imagined the worst case scenario BEFORE allowing my inner control freak unlimited access to the Iron Maiden?  I’d certainly save myself a gray hair or two, that’s for sure.  And that means I’d save some money on hair color.  Hey, it is what it is and I’m good with that.