T is for Training

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 in a training environment 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?

R is for Rock

Freight pilots really are a different breed.  Perhaps it has something to do with the demands of a constantly fluctuating  circadian rhythm or the stress “on time performance” places firmly upon the pilot’s shoulders despite the line of  60,000 foot level 5 thunderstorms stubbornly raging on final approach, but a sense of humor seems to be a common denominator in a vast majority of freight dogs.  And in my observations, this sense of humor usually manifests itself as a fierce love of practical jokes.

These practical jokes run the gamut from casually turning off a co-worker’s unattended microwave causing him to believe that his meal is still frozen solid after 10 minutes on high to clandestinely placing tire valve stem caps on a co-worker’s vehicle which illuminate a lovely shade of hot pink when the wheels are in motion.  But the most beloved and time honored freight dog practical joke tradition is covertly placing a large, heavy rock in another pilot’s flight bag.

To fully appreciate this joke, you need to understand that a freight pilot changes aircraft several times a night and must therefore transfer the flight bag containing all of the required charts and manuals to whatever aircraft currently being operated.  But he may only go to five different airports in the span of a year, so digging too deeply in the flight bag for information is a rare occurrence.  Additionally, a pilot schlepping around a “Travel Rock” is usually the only one who is unaware of it’s presence, so the rock is periodically removed by other pilots, aircraft loaders, shift supervisors, or late night pizza delivery drivers, updated with a date and location in permanent marker and then lovingly placed back in the bag for the clueless pilot to transfer to his next aircraft.

When the offending hitchhiker is finally discovered, the embarrassed mule will proudly display his Travel Rock as a trophy declaring not only his stature as a recipient but also his acceptance into the illustrious ranks of freight dogs.  He probably wants to keep an eye on it, too, so that it doesn’t end up back in his flight bag.  This logical escalation of the original practical joke has, to my knowledge, only been pulled off once when a clever photocopied Travel Rock forgery allowed a genuine Travel Rock an opportunity to collect a substantial amount of additional flight hours and autographs before once again being discovered.  Quite an honor.

There are times that I look back fondly on my experiences as a freight pilot.  Then I remember that I have yet to figure out who put the “I hate truckers” bumper sticker on my car.  Rest assured, when I finally do uncover the culprit, revenge will be swift.  I have a rock picked out just for you, Joker.

Q is for Quick

I’m having difficulty keeping up with my A to Z Blogging Challenge, so I figured I could get away with re-telling a little story from my freight pilot days.  Nothing incriminating, mind you, because aviation is a little bit like Vegas – what happens in the airplane, stays in the airplane.  This is especially true when flying night freight and the only one you could possibly scare with your antics is yourself.  If no one saw you do it, it simply didn’t happen.

I was flying a small twin engine aircraft stuffed to the brim with freight four nights a week on a set schedule.  When you fly in and out of the same airports using the same call sign at the same time each night, the controllers recognize you and are able to get a sense of your capabilities as a pilot.  One early morning toward the end of my shift, I was flying into my home base and had to be set up for an instrument approach due to reduced visibility from fog.  It was not unusual for me to have to do several instrument approaches in a night during the course of my 12 hour shift, so I was prepared and following ATC instructions which would put me on my final approach course.

Standard procedure for approach and landing for a freight operation can be vastly different than that of a passenger operation.  The most notable difference is the speed of the final approach.  An aircraft flying passengers will commonly be completely set up for landing approximately five miles from the runway and will therefore maintain a consistent speed throughout the entire final approach.  My company’s standard procedure called for a decelerating approach in which I changed configuration at specific points during my approach and only became fully set up for landing a short distance from the runway, something that this controller had seen me do on several occasions.

So, as I’m waiting for ATC to direct me toward my final course and clear me for the approach, another aircraft checked on, a small 8-passenger jet.  When the jet pilot discovered he was being routed behind a much smaller aircraft for the approach, he attempted to remind the controller that he was flying a bigger, faster (and presumably more important) aircraft and should be cleared for the approach in front of me.  The controller’s response?  “Don’t worry.  You’ll never catch her.”

The resulting silence from the jet pilot had me laughing so hard I had to wipe the tears from my eyes to see the runway lights as I landed a full five minutes ahead of him.  I never found out whether he was more embarrassed that a light twin could best his approach speed or the fact that the light twin in question was flown by a girl.  But I do know that this story still makes me smile and I hope it did the same for you.

I is for Icing

Image
Yes, Mom. This is exactly what I’m talking about.

Today’s post is a cautionary tale, so Mom, you may want to skip this one and just pretend that “icing” refers to the pink stuff on your granddaughter’s favorite cupcakes.

Back in the days of flying freight in a small, twin-engine, propeller-driven aircraft, the company would occasionally have “interns” – usually low time pilots – who would accompany the regular line pilots on their routes to gain experience. I initially welcomed one such pilot to join me on my routes because I had thought that if I could share my workload, I would have less to do.

I was wrong.

I essentially became a flight instructor all over again. My new student was a nice enough person, but he lacked initiative and on one cloudy, cold, miserable night, he tried to kill me.

We were flying from Milwaukee up to Green Bay. The clouds were thick and low, and we had no choice but to travel through them. It was his turn to fly, so I monitored the flight’s progress and communicated with Air Traffic Control.

We were perhaps halfway to our destination when I noted that we were beginning to pick up some ice on our wings. Although this isn’t a critical situation – our aircraft was equipped with rubber “boots” on the leading edge of the wings and tail for the purpose of removing ice in flight – it is certainly a situation that warrants attention. Something that he wasn’t doing in the slightest – he was reading a book.

When I mentioned that we were picking up ice, he casually flipped the switch to activate the boots and returned to his book without so much as a glance out the window.

“That’s it?” I asked, incredulous. “Shouldn’t we think about doing anything else to complete this flight safely?”

“Like what?” he asked, nose still buried in the paperback as the rate of ice accumulation increased.

This is the point where I lost my temper. I immediately asked the controller for a higher altitude where it should be colder and less conducive to icing. Then, I informed him that we would have to come back down through the icing on our approach, which meant we needed to pay attention and fly at a higher than normal speed to avoid stalling, crashing, and subsequently dying. Finally, we would have to make sure the plane was free of ice before we could depart again, which could prove to be an problem since there was no one on the field at that time of night to provide deicing services.

“Can’t we call dispatch for help?” he asked, his attitude (finally!) a little less complacent.

“What are they going to do? We’re on our own out here. You know, if you’re not paying attention and thinking about what’s going to happen next, especially in less than ideal conditions, an airplane – any airplane – will bite you in the ass in a heartbeat.”

I flew the approach, and when we landed, we had quite a bit of accumulation on our leading edges. Thankfully, the boots took care of most of it and I removed everything else by hand prior to departure. We climbed straight up through the icing layer and remained virtually ice free all the way back to Milwaukee.

I hope he learned a valuable lesson. There’s usually a whole chain of little things that lead up to an accident, and all it takes is one broken link to avoid it.

Pay attention.

B is for Banners

ImageDespite having spent a small fortune that will probably never be paid off on flight school, I was very disappointed that I did not land a job as a Boeing 747 captain immediately upon graduation from college. It seems my newly minted Bachelor of Science in Aviation Management, my Associate of Applied Science in Aviation Flight, and my few hundred hours of flight experience meant exactly jack in the real world which, in turn, meant that I needed to find another way to get by until United Airlines realized what it was missing.

Thus, my first “real job” in aviation was towing banners. It was one of the most exciting – and frightening – things I’ve ever done as a pilot, and I was young enough – and desperate enough – to do it for flight time and the price of a trenta caramel macchiato.

I received no flight training for banner towing; my boss went over the procedure with me on the ground. There was no way to do it in the air as the added weight of an instructor combined with the huge amount of drag from the banner once it was picked up would have been… unfortunate.

If you’ve ever wondered how a banner ends up flying circuits over the beach and obstructing your view, you’re in luck, because I’m about to give you the 411.

First, the banner is assembled, letter by letter, and then spread out flat on a grass runway. Two PVC poles – imagine football goal posts – are erected, and a rope which leads from the first letter of the banner is strung like a clothesline between them. The tow-plane is equipped with a pilot operated hitch or clamp on the tail. A rope ending in a grappling hook is secured to the hitch, attached temporarily to the wing strut with masking tape, and finally fed into the cabin through the window.

The pilot takes off, flies a normal traffic pattern as if returning to the runway to land, and tosses the grappling hook out the window before final approach so that it is trailing behind the aircraft. The tow-plane must then pass over the grass airstrip and try to pick up the banner by catching the rope suspended between the two PVC poles with the grappling hook. A failed attempt just meant coming back around for another go.

A successful pick up is immediately apparent. It would feel like a boat dropping anchor in the shallows. The aircraft would lose an alarming amount of airspeed and would be lucky to climb more than 100 feet per minute. Most of my gigs were in the summer, so I had the heat working against me as well, resulting in poorer performance from the plane and engine oil temperatures eking up into the red. I would fly to the designated location at an altitude of only a thousand feet or so above the ground, circle the area for 15 minutes, and then head back to my home field.

Dropping the banner was considerably less harrowing. All it required was a low pass over the grass field and a pull of a lever to open the clamp on the aircraft’s tail. If I was feeling saucy, I could drop the banner and just land straight ahead on the grass field, but that was a lot to be doing after flying around on the edge of a stall for the last hour. It was safer to simply come back around for a normal landing.

Not that I ever thought about how dangerous that job was until now. No wonder my mother never wants to hear any of my flying stories. Well, hopefully you enjoyed this one as much as I enjoyed sharing it.

A to Z Blogging Challenge 2013

The very first thing I did in 2010 when I started blogging is a series of A to Z posts.  I tend to write only when I’m inspired and having a plan of sorts helped keep me consistent and focused.  It also dampened my fear.  For me, writing requires that I expose a bit of my soul, and that continues to be a source of anxiety that I must overcome.

Last year, I found the A to Z Blogging Challenge and decided to re-blog all of my original alphabet posts because I had met so many new friends – other writers, bloggers, and readers from my work at BigWorldNetwork.com – that I wanted to share those posts again.  Thus, I did my own unofficial challenge and was able to concentrate on other writing projects.

This year, I am taking up the gauntlet and smacking my lazy, unprofessional, blogging habits upside the head with it.  I am officially entered in the 2013 A to Z Blogging Challenge and will post once a day – with Sundays off for good behavior – beginning April 1st with letter A. 

Since I’ve been feeling especially nostalgic lately for my days as a freight pilot, I’ve decided to  present an aviation inspired theme for the Challenge.  So, please stop by again and take a flight down Memory Lane with me.  You can sit on the cargo.  It’s pretty comfy.

Another Photostory Competition

I found another writing competition based on this photo:And here’s my submission – I hope you like it:

FLYING SQUIRREL CARGO

He stirs as the sun dips peacefully below the horizon. His deep, even breathing becomes a yawn, followed closely by a very satisfying, bone-popping stretch. Sighing heavily, he sits back on his hind paws, using the other two to groom his fur. “Another night, another walnut,” he mutters to himself, absently scratching his tail. He grabs an acorn from the pile opposite the hole in his tree, snags his flight bag with another paw, and hurries into the deepening gloom.

“You’re late, Sal!” yells a big red squirrel, heralding his arrival to work.

“Bite me,” replies Sal with a rakish grin. He knows Red just likes to bust his nuts. “Got anything good for me tonight?”

“Nah. You’re still on standby,” Red replies.

Sal drops his flight bag next to a recliner and wordlessly pours himself a mug of the thick, stale, caffeinated swill that passes for coffee in the hangar of the Flying Squirrel Cargo Company. Sipping it with only a slight grimace, he scampers over to the computer to check the weather.

All the METARs, TAFs, and FAs indicate nothing but light winds and clear skies throughout the entire system, relegating Sal to a long night of sitting around. The only way he’ll get to fly tonight is if a regular line pilot has a mechanical.

Sal drops heavily into one of the green recliners in the pilots’ lounge, takes another sip from his cup, and calls to Red, “We playing Hearts tonight?”

It takes a few moments for Red to respond. He is busy informing the ramp squirrels which yellow bin of cargo goes to which aircraft and when all the cargo must be loaded for departure. “Yeah. That and a little Texas Hold’em. Gus still wants a chance to kick your tail after you walloped him yesterday,” Red guffaws.

Sal’s grin doesn’t reach his eyes. He’d rather be flying. Well, he thinks, a little sadly, at least the coffee and card games will help me stay awake. If only I was a flying squirrel! Being nocturnal would make this job so much easier!

His reverie is interrupted by Gus’ arrival. “You on standby tonight again, Sal?”

Sal nods once.

“Good. You’re going to owe me a whole bag of peanuts this time, buddy!” Gus settles onto one of the wooden stools and pulls out the deck with a flourish.

Sal sighs in resignation, pushes himself up from the recliner, and grumbles, “I’m going to need a little more coffee before I skin you, Gus. Deal ’em.”

The night passes slowly, painfully. When dawn finally arrives, Sal waves goodbye to his coworkers and makes his way back to his tree. As he curls up in his cozy nest and prepares for sleep, Sal fervently hopes that he won’t be on standby again tonight. He is rewarded with vivid dreams of exuberant, joyous flight through inky skies sprinkled with stars.