Alphabet Blogs, Aviation, Musings

C is for Controllers

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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.

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!