Alphabet Blogs, Aviation, Musings

C is for Controllers

Image

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.

Uncategorized

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.

Alphabet Blogs, Aviation, Blog Hops, Musings

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.

Uncategorized

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.

Aviation

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.

Humor, Short Stories

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.

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

Spam?

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, 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!

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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!