Walking Log #1 – Here there be dragons

I had a crazy idea.  You see, each time I go for a walk, I snap a quick picture of something that interests me.  Today I thought, what if I wrote about my walks and shared the photos and whatever else might come to mind?  Well, it’s my blog, isn’t it?  Why the hell not?  So here goes.  I don’t know if it qualifies as poetry or not, but maybe someday it might.  Even if it doesn’t, it was fun and that’s really all that matters in the end.

Sent from my iPod –

Trees bending, wiggly, tickle fingers my way
Crimson bushes, heart-shaped, then not
Breeze pushing, increasing the pace
Millipede-leg tree leaves dancing wildly
While conifer partners softly sway
Sudden scent, lilacs
Pounding pulse on concrete
Vivid purple spikes
Spindly spider, Dragons in the clouds

Home.

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I see a dragon taking flight, head held up and back on it’s long neck, with a faint wisp of smoke curling from it’s snout.

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I see only the dragon’s head, mouth gaping, eyes sunken, and horns trailing back to the right of the frame.

M is for Motherhood, Freightdog Style

This post is behind schedule because I spent all day – literally 12 hours – printing and cutting out trading cards for my son’s school project. While I admit to being a huge control freak, the only reason I did not make him do all of this work himself is that he did, in fact, work on their design for two weeks only to end up losing it all to a corrupt computer file.

He was devastated. I had no choice but to help my freightpup. That’s what moms do.

My friends dubbed him “freightpup” while I was pregnant. I continued to fly the Learjet during the first 6 months of my term, and joked about how many flight hours he accrued during that time. I no longer helped load and unload the aircraft, except for my own increasingly unwieldy body. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to sit in the cockpit of a Learjet, you’ll understand what I mean by that. You don’t get in it, you put it on. It was a relief once my doctor excused my from work so that I did not have to climb over the center panel any longer to reach my seat.

Once my son was born, returning to work brought on a whole new set of difficulties. Working a 12 – 14 hour day, at least half of which is spent in the cockpit of an aircraft, is not exactly a lactation friendly environment. In addition, to save money, I would spend all day Monday with my son before working all that night. He would spend the next three days in day care near where my husband worked, and then I would spend all day Friday with him after working all night Thursday. That essentially meant I was up for approximately 28 hours straight twice a week. This proved to be too much for me and I had to find other work.

In my heart, my son will always be my freightpup – much to his eternal embarrassment. Of course, that’s what moms do, too. I think of it as a perk.

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Unless you’re pregnant.

E is for Expedite

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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

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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

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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.

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 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.