Snow Day at the Airport

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to pass a few moments of my hectic day contemplating the falling snow and daydreaming.  It was almost magical, watching as the crystalline drops drifted and fluttered determinedly past my window to coalesce into a unbroken alabaster desert on the far side of the glass.  Until the plows buried the foot of my driveway.  Again.

Before my snow removal work was increased tenfold by the city snowplows, I recalled a few random experiences where snow and aviation collided.  I remembered how, ages ago, when I eked out a living as a flight instructor, I was able to make earn more money clearing the runways with the owner’s decrepit, underpowered pickup truck rigged with an oversize plow blade and minimal heat than the way below poverty level income guaranteed me actually teaching.  Once, to save money, the owner decided to dig out his airport himself and it turned into an unpaid, compulsory two week vacation for me.  That’s how long it took him to get the airport unburied without assistance.  I think it was his way of cutting costs, but it seems to me that it would have been better to have at least a minimal revenue stream during those two weeks.  After all, even though he didn’t have to pay any of his staff, he still had utilities and other fixed expenses.  Either way, I was stuck at home eating Ramen Noodles.  Some vacation.  I didn’t even get a lousy tee-shirt.

Things changed significantly when I worked as a freight dog, though.  I actually did have one snow day during my 5 years of employment.  I was flying a route out of Midway airport that started around 4:00 p.m. and ended at midnight.  I arrived on time, despite the fact that the airport was closed and no one was going anywhere, to find the first of our 3 Beech Barons in the hangar awaiting a visit from maintenance.  The second was also parked in the hangar, which, as it turned out, could not be opened as the door had been blocked by drifting snow.  The third aircraft was almost completely buried outside on the ramp, with only a single propeller blade protruding from its cold shroud.

Dispatch insisted that I wait to see if the airport would open and I and my fellow pilots could simultaneously fly the single usable but trapped Baron to complete our routes.  We decided to pass the time with a snowball fight on the ramp.  After about 6 hours of goofing off in the snow with hourly calls to Dispatch begging to be allowed to go home, they finally relented and let me – and only me – go home an hour before my shift would have ended anyway.  It took 3 guys to push my car, encased in 6 hours of snowfall, out of its parking spot and out into the deserted street.

Ah…good times.   At least I’ll get a chance to go sledding tomorrow.

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?