I is for Icing


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.

H is for Hedonism


Where people think pilots stay.


Where pilots really stay.

It seems to me that many people are under the false impression that pilots lead a life of luxury. While that is certainly true in some circumstances – I’m talking about you, Travolta! – in most cases, it is sadly, not.

There are many different types of pilots, but a majority fall into one of four general categories: limo driver (corporate), taxi driver (charter), bus driver (airline), and truck driver (cargo). Now, don’t get me wrong, there are also a plethora of other occupations available for qualified aviators: air ambulance, sightseeing tours, flight instructor, stunt pilots, aerial photography, and the list goes on. But, be honest, when you conjure up an image in your mind of a generic “pilot,” the older, white-haired, Caucasian male, dressed in airline blues with four stripes on each shoulder that you spotted checking into the same 4-star hotel in which you were lucky to score a room eight months ago, is what you imagine.

I have only had experience in two of the four major categories: cargo and charter. The only thing remotely hedonistic about freight operations is the opportunity to sit in the gorgeous, yellow and black, ’67 Shelby Cobra that one of the mechanics is restoring and brought in to show off – and only after a lot of begging on my part, I might add.

Charter is a whole different story. I have taken clients to some amazing places – Nassau, Bahamas; Veracruz, Mexico; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Marco Island, Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada – and enjoyed every second of the spectacular accommodations afforded us lowly pilots on those trips by spending a majority of my time lounging by the pool with a cocktail. Oh, fine, several cocktails.

But those trips were few and far between. Most of our clients traveled for business, which meant I spent more time ensconced at Signature Flight Support at Teterboro Airport twiddling my thumbs than on any beach ever. I had a 13 on /5 off schedule, and I was on call for those 13 days – I could be sent anywhere, at any time of day or night, for any length of time – and had to be able to arrive at the airport for duty in an hour. Once I arrived, I had the potential to be on duty for the next 14 hours, which could pose a problem if I were called in at 10:00 at night.  It rarely happened, but it was not outside the realm of possibility. All in all, not a schedule that is conducive a healthy lifestyle, let alone one of luxury.  Stable family life?  What’s that?

So, don’t envy those “hedonistic pilots” enjoying a Porterhouse and a glass of Chianti at the Baleen Restaurant in the Naples LaPlaya Beach Resort. Tomorrow, they will most likely be at Teterboro Airport scavenging the smelly cheese left over from the catering they picked up for the passengers five hours ago. Yep, they’ll be living the dream, all right.

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.