G is for Groundspeed


Is it just me, or this thing going backward?

Many years ago as a student pilot, I discovered first-hand that a single-engine Cessna is capable of flying backward.

My instructor and I were working on my first cross-country flight from Clow Airport – a small, but fairly busy local airstrip – to Bloomington, just over 50 miles to the south. The winds aloft were howling out of the north, providing a push that made our first leg almost three times faster than our return flight into the wind. As we inched steadily closer to our final destination, my instructor took advantage of the wind to illustrate the difference between airspeed and groundspeed by having me practice slow flight.

Slow flight is one of the maneuvers that students must master in order to earn their Private Pilot Certificate. The pilot slows the aircraft by reducing the power and maintaining the plane’s altitude by gradually increasing its attitude – or pulling the nose up – relative to the horizon. Once the plane reaches a certain speed through the air as shown on the airspeed indicator, power must be reintroduced in order to avoid a stall – which is simply the point at which the wings no longer produce lift – and maintain level flight at the new airspeed.

On this particular day, he had me slow the plane to about 50 knots – 10 knots or so above stalling speed – and perform slow flight into the wind. Then he had me watch our flight path over the ground, and sure enough, we had slowed enough so that the wind was pushing us backward over the ground, producing a negative groundspeed.

Another way to imagine this is to think about a powerboat going upriver. If you slow the boat enough, the river’s current will be stronger than the boat’s engine output, carrying the boat downstream regardless of the boat’s indicated speed through the water.

Not only was his demonstration a success since I obviously have never forgotten the lesson, it was also a whole lot of fun, and a great way to distract me from the fact that we would have lost a race with cold molasses going uphill. As someone who adores speed in all its forms, I considered this a very welcome distraction indeed.

F is for Feds


A ramp check by an official FAA representative is one of the few things that universally gives a lot of pilots the heebie-jeebies. It’s essentially an pop quiz while you’re working that can happen anywhere, anytime you are on the ground, and can have some repercussions damaging to your career if you are caught doing things you really aught not to be doing.

However, a visit from a Fed was never something that bothered me in the least. While I may have “explored the capabilities” of my aircraft during my years flying freight, I was always very conscientious about my paperwork (weight and balance, flight plans, weather briefings, etc.), had no issues refusing to fly an aircraft that was mechanically unsound, and I was always friendly and accommodating while simultaneously neglecting to volunteer any information that the inspector had not specifically requested. I understood that, like me, they had a job to do, and they weren’t happy about having to do it at 2:00 in the morning any more than I was happy to be checked. It is also quite possible that, for once, being a female in aviation was an advantage.

When an inspector is performing check on the ramp at our main hub, it was common for us to hear the warning “Blue Light” relayed over the company frequency. Where that codeword came from, I have no idea. One rainy night, upon hearing this, the guy I was flying with practically went into spasms checking and rechecking his paperwork, verifying the cargo was properly secured, making sure he had his own identification in his wallet. Then, as soon as we parked and the engines were shut down, he bolted from the plane like his eyeballs were floating and his pants were loaded with fire-breathing ants, leaving me to finish up the paperwork and deal with the Fed.

This is how this particular ramp check proceeded:

  • The inspector respectfully waited until the cargo was clear before he entered the jet and introduced himself.

  • I asked to see his Form 110A, just so that he knew I was familiar with at least the one Federal Aviation Regulation that required he show identification.

  • Once we were both satisfied that we were who we said we were, he said, “That guy sure tore out of here fast. Is he the captain?”

  • When I confirmed that it was, indeed, the captain that left the aircraft so quickly, he laughed and said, “Well, you pass. If you’ve got an umbrella, I’d appreciate it if you would let me share it on the way into the building.”

 Easiest ramp check ever.

E is for Expedite


Wait… THAT’S my ride?! Oh, hell yeah!

As a woman in aviation, I have experienced a lot of weird job interviews. In one, I wore a very nice suit but was still lectured about the dress code – specifically, the part about “no girl shall wear short shorts or tops with their boobs hanging out.” Yes, he seriously said that, and no, I don’t think the same rule applied to “boys.”

In another, the interviewer expressed concern that their clients would balk at being flown around by a “girl.” I can only conclude that the customers are afraid that either breasts get in the way when the pilot reaches for the autopilot button, or that women lack an extra brain in their pants which is used solely for navigation.

There is only one interview that I would consider doing over again, and it had nothing to do with the meeting, per se. It was because of how I got there – I was flown to headquarters on one of the company’s Learjets – and it was the day that I learned how freight dogs define the term expedite.

This potential job was with a freight company, so at about 10:00 pm, I was belted into the sideways-facing jump seat of a learjet and we took off. The jet was configured for cargo operations, which means that, besides the pilot and co-pilot seats in the cockpit, there is only a small bench seat just inside the entry door and the remainder of the fuselage is stuffed completely full of… stuff.

The captain was friendly – the co-pilot was not – and after we arrived at our destination, he chatted with me for a little while before my meeting. I was pleased to learn that I would be catching a ride back home with him after my interview, and he said he would keep an eye out for me.

The interview went well, I got a quick tour of the facilities, and it wasn’t long before I was on my way home again.

In the aircraft, I leaned forward into the cockpit to marvel at all the gauges, switches, instruments, and controls. I had never been in a Learjet before that night, and I was mesmerized. Noticing my interest, the captain said, “We’ve been given a descent to 10,000 feet at our discretion. Since we get a better airspeed up high, I’m going to stay up here as long as they’ll let me.”

As if on cue, the controller came over the radio and told us to expedite our descent to 10,000 feet. The captain flashed me a big grin, said, “Watch this,” pulled the power all the way back, and nosed the jet over.

It felt like we were going straight down. I know that we were descending in excess of 6,000 feet per minute because he showed me the gauge that confirmed it. I couldn’t help myself, I laughed out loud for the sheer joy of it. It was glorious. I don’t know if the captain was testing me, or trying to scare me, but all he really accomplished is making me want that job more than ever.

He smoothly leveled out at exactly 10,000 feet, and before I knew it, we were back on the ground in Chicago.

Luckily, I got the job.  And to this day, I can’t hear the word “expedite” without thinking of that flight, and mirroring the captain’s huge, cheesy smile with one of my own.

D is for Dead Reckoning


Where are we? What does the GPS say?

“DEAD RECKONING – In pioneer flight before radio, beacons, and accurate maps, flying distances much by instinct and guesswork, and referring to whatever landmarks were below, was quite routine. The “dead” part simply meant “straight,” as in the nautical “dead ahead,” and pilots often relied heavily on the IRON COMPASS for cross-country flights over unfamiliar territory.”http://www.aerofiles.com/glossary.html

In my opinion, dead reckoning is a lost art. Pilots have become so dependent on technology, that even when their destination is in sight, they still obsessively consult the aircraft’s GPS to verify their position. Some don’t even glance outside the cockpit anymore, except when forced to for takeoff and landing, content to monitor the flight systems as autopilot does all the work. I honestly believe that this behavior is nothing short of laziness, and that the pilot is voluntarily rejecting of the joy of flight.

As a freight pilot, I was encouraged to fly the aircraft manually. As a charter pilot, I was forbidden to hand fly the aircraft above 10,000 feet. The difference in skill level between my freight colleagues and my charter coworkers was remarkable, and I place the blame firmly on the glittery allure of technology.

One of the most interesting examples of this assertion comes from my days as a flight instructor. Prior to signing off a student to complete their required solo cross-country flights, I would do my best to get them lost and force them to use dead reckoning to make their way home.

My normal tactic involved practicing unusual attitude recovery. The student would close their eyes while I placed the aircraft in either a steeply climbing or rapidly descending turn. They must then safely return the aircraft to straight and level flight after I instruct them to open their eyes. At some point during these maneuvers, I would reset the gyroscopic heading indicator 90 degrees so that when it showed we were going east to return to the field, we were actually southbound. We would fly south until the student figured out that something was wrong, and then I would let them use whatever would be available to them when they were alone to find their way home. We did not have GPS in those old trainers, so they were forced to use dead reckoning.

Only one of my students was not fooled. He was my oldest student – in his 70s, I think – and dead reckoning was nothing new to him. When I tried my little trick on him and asked him to go ahead and take us home, he pointed the aircraft in the right direction without hesitation.

I was astonished.

When I asked him how he knew he was going the right direction, he pointed out the window and said, “That’s Morris to the south of us along the river. The airport is east.”

“But the heading indicator says that we’re going south,” I said, still confused.

“Does it? I never look at that thing. The magnetic compass will never steer you wrong if you give it a chance,” he responded.

That day, I was the one who got schooled, and I have no doubt that I am a better pilot for it.

    – This post is dedicated to Joe Witkowski. Thank you for sharing your love of flying with me. Rest in peace, my friend.

C is for Controllers


One of the unusual things that I learned as a freight pilot is that air traffic controllers play an important role in whether you get your job done on time. In the night freight world, time is money, and subsequently, job security. Any number of things can put you behind schedule – mechanical issues, weather delays, etc. – but by simply being pleasant on the radio, you can minimize one of those variables exponentially. Controllers can either help you by vectoring you to land in front of slower traffic, or they can screw you over by slowing you down and making you wait for the commuter 15 miles out.

When you fly freight, you have the same call sign or flight number every night. The benefit to this is that it allows you to form a sort of symbiotic relationship with the controllers. They understand what you can do for them, and in turn they will do what they can to help you. If you’re not a jerk, that is. No one is going to want to cut you some slack if you’re a jerk.

One of my favorite examples of this give-and-take was during a flight from Milwaukee into Midway airport, my home base. I was flying south along the shore of Lake Michigan, and the controller wanted to know if I would like to land on runway 22L, which is the fastest way for me to get to our hangar on the south ramp.

When I told him, “Heck, yeah!” he asked me to keep my speed up, because he was sequencing me to land before a jet inbound to a crossing runway. “No problem,” I told him, excited to have a chance to make up a little time. Even though I was in a twin engine prop, I could easily outpace an airliner on final approach, and had the maneuverability to decelerate very quickly in order to land. 22L is one of the longer runways. There was plenty of room for me to make a fast approach, decelerate on short final, land and then just coast down to the end of the runway to taxi in.

When I checked in with the tower controller, the pilot of the inbound jet noted my callsign, “Starcheck,” and asked if he was racing a learjet to the airport. I’m pretty sure I made the controllers’ day when I answered in my best little girl voice, “No sir, I’m in a Baron” because I could hear them laughing in the background when I was cleared to land.

Still makes me giggle.

I guess the moral of the story is don’t be a jerk to anyone, but especially not to air traffic controllers.

A is for Altitude

ImageI’m afraid of heights. Well, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I’m afraid of falling. When I was a child, I wanted to be an astronaut – until I got my first gander at the Earth from orbit. I almost had a panic attack just watching it on television.

I rediscovered this aversion in high school. I was a member of the marching band colorguard, and we once had the honor of participating in the Chicago Columbus Day parade. The route took us over a bridge that was really nothing more than a metal grate. The instant I realized that I could see below myself, I freaked and had to have a parent escort me over the bridge on the adjacent, non-mesh, sidewalk.

I will never, ever, go skydiving. It goes way beyond the old expression of “why jump out of a perfectly good aircraft?” – I’ve seen those aircraft. They are most definitely NOT what I would classify as “perfectly good” by any stretch of the imagination. And frankly, I don’t care if the wings have fallen off, I am going down with the ship.

Then why, you may ask, did I become a pilot in the first place? Because my fear of falling never bothers me while I’m in an airplane. I’m enclosed. I’m in control. And I have a glorious view that few have the opportunity to experience first hand.

When you first take off in an airplane, you can barely see the end of the runway. As you gain altitude, you can suddenly make out the entire airport as well as the surrounding community. Higher still, and the entire city is easily discernible. Then, perhaps a majority of the state, until – as I can tell you from personal experience – the curvature of the Earth is visible at 45,000 feet.

As your altitude changes, so does your perspective.

In the grand scheme of things, the average, every day human has only had the opportunity to experience this wondrous, bird’s eye view for less than a century. So, next time you’re taking that business trip on a 737 or an Airbus, take a look out the window. There are so many spectacular vistas only available from the perspective of 35,000 feet. Don’t let the view slip away without appreciating how very special it is.

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.