Tag: Lessons Learned

How A Simple Flight With A Friend Cured The Fear Of Flying

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I am not a flyer, and the last time I stepped into a small plane, I was much younger and certainly more adventurous. So when my good friend Eric invited me to go flying in a Cessna, you can be sure that the first thing that came to mind was the image of a parachute. After I took a long pause, the thought of a new adventure had its appeal, and I responded, “Sure, sounds like fun.” I knew Eric was nodding his head affirmatively on the other end of the phone. 

As we drove to a small airport located in Islip, Long Island, the following week, I looked out the car window and felt the comfort of knowing there were four steel-belted radial tires touching the solid ground…and that I was behind the wheel. Thinking ahead to the flight, I knew that, unlike most airline travel I had done, there would be no drop-down oxygen mask, stewardess/steward coaching the passengers through an unlikely catastrophic event and certainly no parachute. It takes a lot of trust to step into a small plane and put your life in the hands of the pilot, knowing that the pilot is the only one who is going ensure your safety and the success of the flight. 

We arrived at the airport, where I saw a number of small planes on the airport apron. They all had that elegant look, their elongated bodies attractively painted as they tapered to rounded noses designed to reduce wind drag. They looked small but mighty. As we approached the plane that we would be flying in, a smaller craft toward the back of the ramp near the runway, that confidence began to fade. Eric went over as I stood by watching, and he started an inspection. I did feel reassured when given an explicit play-by-play of his pre-flight inspection, watching him go through each and every step as he checked the propeller, the wing flaps, the tire pressure, the instrument panel and various other details. And his heartening description of the superb worthiness of the Cessna, its state-of-the-art computerized panel, its TAWS system, and the fact that he had never had a crash in all his days of flying were most comforting. When I asked him what the plane was made of, he responded, “aluminum,” which had a reassuring ring.

For a moment, I almost felt comfortable squeezing into the front passenger seat—until I saw Eric outside taking samples of gasoline from various fuel drains and bleeding the fluid into a glass jar. After climbing into the pilot seat, he readily explained that the bluish gas must be checked for fouling or water contamination. I nervously nodded, thinking about the potential for engine failure on takeoff. With a second once-over of the instrument panel while marking down some figures on a notepad, he adjusted his headphones and instructed me to put mine on. I heard the yammer of the tower as he motioned for me to bring the mike closer to my mouth. 

He gave me the thumbs-up and, after some communication with the tower explaining his flight route, he received clearance for takeoff. 

We taxied a bit to what he described as the short runway. In my mind, I thought the longer the runway, the better, having heard stories of the runway in St. Bart’s notorious for its shortness and difficulty. I had no time to worry. Eric started pressing some buttons and pushed the throttle all the way in. The plane raced forward at a rapid pace and, to my surprise, we were airborne in no time at all with what felt like a minimum of effort. 

As we ascended into the dusk light, my nerves got the better of me, and I gripped the seat, stiffening my back, and peered below, seeing our footing on solid ground rapidly disappear. The world I was familiar with grew smaller and smaller. It was then that I recalled Eric telling me that as long as we attained the altitude of 1,200 feet, if the engine stalled or spluttered, we would be able to turn around and land safely. Searching, with my ears keenly listening to the engine for any gurgling of mechanical indigestion, I found the altimeter on the instrument panel and kept my eyes glued, watching the needle slowly climb to 1,200 feet. With each 100 feet, my stomach slowly unclenched, and then I breathed a sigh of relief. 

When my stomach had finally relaxed, I again looked out the window and was taken by the beauty of the terrain below—everything in miniature, an organized landscape, like a game board. The Atlantic Ocean to my right spreading out in all its glory, the sparkle of many a light bouncing off the waves and illuminating the shoreline. Tiny beetle-like cars with glowing eyes crawled along the roadways. What were mansions on land looked like toy houses from above, appearing neatly side by side, a silent testament to suburban planning. It was certainly magnificent. 

As we continued our easterly flight, the sun setting behind us in a warm glow, Eric masterfully attended to a number of dials, pedals and knobs, all the while listening to the chatter of the tower cackling instructions through his headphones. It was then that I really started to enjoy the flight, knowing I was in the best of hands. Though now closer to the heavens, I stopped silently, invoking a prayer in my head.

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We steadily flew into the evening as night overtook the dusk. Eric let me know that the weather conditions were perfect, with a minimum of wind and noticeable lack of turbulence. Nearing the end of the south fork of Long Island, I could see the white-crested waves roughly brushing the shoreline. We circled the tip of the East End around the ever-watchful Montauk Lighthouse. The gentleness of the night sky, seemingly infinite, and the hypnotic hum of the engine heightened my senses, and I was able to fully appreciate Eric’s love of flying: his appreciation of the mechanical ingenuity granting us the freedom to explore the skies in a metal tube with wings weighing over 2,000 pounds and his appreciation of this other world that resides above us. 

We headed back along the North Fork. Peering down, I observed Shelter Island and surrounding villages from a different perspective. I enjoyed the smooth gliding through the night’s air, surrounded by twinkles above. I looked into the sky, observing the choreography of dancing stars watched over by the faint luminosity of distant planets. A universe to behold. 

Cruising at about 140 mph, we neared our starting point, and Eric started our descent. I felt the nose dip toward mother earth below, and the distinct images of surface vegetation and structures took on shape. 

As I peered out below, I heard coming over the airways a voice from the controller, who informed all nearby planes that the tower was shutting down for the evening. I looked at Eric, but he did not seem concerned, and I deferred my questioning. On our eventual, slow descent toward the runway, even when the lights illuminating the narrow strip momentarily disappeared (Eric explained, because the tower was closing for the evening) and all went dark, my heart did not flutter, and the peacefulness of the connection with the night sky flowed within me. My serenity was confirmed when the visual approach lights engaged, activated by Eric through microphone radiofrequency communication. All was well as we touched back down, and the Cessna evenly came to a slow crawl, and we taxied to our starting position. 

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I came back to earth, leaving behind memories imbued with beauty and the freedom of the sky, knowing that the desire to again take to the air had been kindled within. 

Read “Fear Of Flying” for advice to get reluctant friends and family in the air.

A Father Passes On The Gift Of Flying

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In July 1973, when I was 15 years old, my family moved from Bellevue, Nebraska, to Clark Air Base on Luzon Island in the Republic of the Philippines. This was our family’s seventh move in 12 years because of my father’s service in the U.S. Air Force. We lived in a comfortable house in Angeles City, the town adjacent to the airbase. Not far from our home, and just inside the base perimeter, was the Clark Aero Club—one of many popular Air Force recreational flying clubs providing service and family members a safe and less-costly way to learn to fly.

The Aero Club was a modest facility, consisting of two small buildings, a partially covered maintenance shed and concrete hardstands scattered in the grass for parking airplanes—mostly Cessna 150s and 172s. The “runway” was 2,000 feet of cleared land oriented slightly northeast to southwest. The very first time I watched the Aero Club airplanes flying over our home, I wanted to become a member and learn to fly.  

But I needed my parents’ permission to begin flying lessons. My mother quickly dismissed my proposal, arguing it was too expensive. In point of fact, she simply did not want her young son in a small plane flying over the jungles of the Philippines.

I expected a similar rejection from my father—but for other reasons. By this time, my relationship with my father was strained. Perhaps because of his difficult early life, followed later by the unrelenting pressures of serving on Strategic Air Command bases during the Cold War, my father, a senior master sergeant, could be overbearing, distant and a strict disciplinarian. As the oldest child and only son in the family, I seemed to catch flak from him constantly. And this poor relationship, coupled with the disruption of the frequent moves during my early life, shook my self-confidence, and my school grades and general attitude suffered accordingly. 

I don’t recall how I broached the subject with him—I only recall I was afraid to ask his consent. To my surprise, without any discussion, my father unhesitatingly signed the necessary paperwork. I didn’t think much about his response—I was just happy he gave me permission.

My father had an interesting background. He was one of 13 children from a working-class family in western Pennsylvania during the Great Depression. In 1936, his house was swept away in the Johnstown flood. After World War II began, he left home without finishing high school to work in a defense factory until he was drafted into the Army. He followed his two older brothers to Europe—Nick, a soldier in General Patton’s Third Army, and John, a B-24 waist gunner with the 446th Bomb Group. Dad went to Europe as an 18-year-old rifleman with the 60th Infantry Regiment. At war’s end, he was stationed at the Dachau concentration camp near Munich and later served as a guard at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. He returned home in 1947 and enlisted in the Air Force in 1950.

Shortly after joining the Air Force, my father learned to fly and logged flight time in some of the classic single-engine airplanes of that era. He also bought a Vultee BT-13 trainer for $400. However, before marrying my mother in 1956, he sold his prized possession and abruptly stopped flying—something I believe he missed terribly.

My first flying lesson was in September 1973. Afterward, I flew as often as possible while studying everything I could about flying—including the specific training and safety requirements for Aero Club student pilots mandated by Air Force regulations. I also experienced the unique flying environment in the Philippines.

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Flying in the Philippines in 1973 was largely “unstructured.” Few airspace restrictions existed—apart from the immediate airspace around Clark (ICAO designation “RPMK”) and Cubi Point Naval Air Station (located about 40 miles southwest of Clark). Most of the “airports” I flew to were uncontrolled former WWII Army Air Corps grass or dirt strips—at Rosales, Plaridel and Lingayen. I quickly learned when flying to these airfields the importance of making a low approach before landing—useful for dispersing goats and carabao and assessing the general condition of the field.   

Navigation aids on Luzon—VORs and NDBs—were sparse. Navigation was mostly by pilotage and dead reckoning. Radio communication oftentimes involved a patchwork of relayed messages from other airplanes or via Manila Control.   

Luzon from the air was an impressive tapestry. The island was marked by broad, flat patches of rice and sugarcane fields, crisscrossed with irrigation ditches, dirt paths and a network of unimproved highways and bridges linking small towns and barrios. All of this was framed by miles of broad, white sandy beaches abutting the blue and green waters of the South China Sea. There were three mountain ranges, with some peaks over 9,000 feet high, covered with dense green foliage. Clark, situated on the Luzon plain, was bracketed by two stratovolcanoes—Mount Pinatubo, 14 miles west, and Mount Arayat, 12 miles directly east. When flying over Luzon, one learned to spot and avoid the rice fields in the event of a forced landing—landing in a rice field could flip the aircraft. 

Because the tropical weather changed quickly and constantly, I preferred flying in the early morning—when cooler temperatures usually meant clear airspace and smoother flights. Thunderstorms were prevalent and unpredictable. During the return leg of my long solo cross-country flight to Laoag (on the northwest coast of Luzon), fast-moving thunderstorms developed in the South China Sea. These storms put me in a potentially dangerous situation as I flew south along the coastline, with the thunderstorms approaching rapidly offshore from the west and the Cordillera Central mountain range located off my left wing. Fortunately, I outran the storms and returned safely to Clark.

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I soloed two days after my 16th birthday and took my private pilot check ride in July 1975. A few days after my check ride, my father suggested I take him flying. Early in the morning on the day of our flight, as I carefully pre-flighted our Cessna Skyhawk, he kept a watchful eye while asking me questions about items I was checking. Before we buckled into the airplane, he placed his 35mm camera on the wing of a nearby Piper Cherokee and ran back to stand next to me by our aircraft just as the camera snapped. 

Our flight lasted one hour and 12 minutes. After proudly performing flight maneuvers I had learned, I turned the controls over to my father. He had a big grin on his face as we flew around Mount Arayat and Luzon before returning to Clark for five touch-and-goes. This would be the only time we flew together as pilots.

A week later, we left the Philippines and returned to the United States. I would go on to graduate from high school, college and law school in Nebraska and then serve on active duty as a Navy judge advocate. Following active duty, I worked as a civilian attorney in the Department of Defense. My father passed away in July 2007 after battling a long illness. I presided at his military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.

 “After proudly performing flight maneuvers I had learned, I turned the controls over to my father. He had a big grin on his face…this would be the only time we flew together as pilots.”

I never asked my father why he allowed me to learn to fly and paid over $1,000 for my lessons and flights—no small sum in the 1970s. Learning to fly as a teenager at Clark profoundly impacted my life and triggered a seismic shift in my attitude, maturity and self-confidence. After returning to the U.S., I suddenly saw my future as a young man with the same clarity, confidence and sense of purpose I experienced with every flight I made over Luzon.

I suspect my father knew of this all along because of his love for flying and his experience as a young man learning to fly. His gift to me in the Philippines was his unspoken confidence in my ability while affording me an opportunity, through flying, to help me see where I wanted to go in life and to figure out how I intended to get there. 

In 2010, I returned to the Philippines and spent a day visiting the former U.S. airbase—now called the Clark Freeport Zone. The Air Force left Clark in 1991, after Mount Pinatubo erupted and extensively damaged the base. The site of the former Clark Aero Club was eventually developed into a successful aviation school using the original Aero Club buildings and runway. I rented a Cessna Skyhawk at the school and flew over Luzon for about an hour on a sunny morning. After landing in a stiff crosswind, I parked the airplane and looked to the hardstand where, nearly 35 years before, my father and I stood together before our flight. I thought of the photograph capturing that special moment—and I smiled. Somewhere, I believe, my father was smiling too. 

Lessons Learned: About Alaska

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As the Cessna Amphibian I’m flying emerges from the ragged overcast into the fading light of a cool September evening, I can barely pick out the end of the runway through the rain-smeared windshield. A stiff left crosswind shoves me off centerline, requiring a boot-full of rudder to keep the nose straight. After touchdown at my small central Texas airport, feeling relieved to be safely on the surface, I slowly taxi to a parking spot and shut down the big Lycoming. In the enveloping silence, I remain seated for several long minutes as the realization sinks in that this summer’s Alaska adventure is truly complete.

The trip took nine weeks and almost 100 flight hours, covering thousands of miles through some of the most amazing scenery and some of the worst weather I’ve seen, including furnace-like heat across the southern tier of states, followed by near-constant rain and low ceilings in Southeast Alaska. Throw in an in-flight emergency, and you get to enjoy an unplanned and expensive week in Oregon while engine repairs
are made.

While in Alaska, I was joined by several friends and family members who flew in via airline to spend a week or more sharing the adventure. The mercurial weather left us occasionally trapped in town, sitting in a motel waiting on improving conditions so we could get out to our destination.

Even when we finally made it out to the wilderness cabins of the Tongass National Forest, there were times when we were stuck in a small, dark cabin, unable to do much more than hunker down and watch the rain pour off the wood-shingled roof, unable to fish or explore. Other times, we had to come back earlier than I would have liked to assure that my guests make an airline connection home. On my return trip back home to Texas, there were hours flown through wildfire smoke while dodging Temporary Flight Restrictions, then low ceilings across the final stretch—including a couple of IFR approaches to near minimums.

So why am I telling you this? Sounds like a rather miserable time, right? And, if one were given to focusing on the problems and disappointments that occasionally accompany such adventures, I would agree. And certainly, there were moments when it all seemed a huge mistake to have invested so much time, effort and money, only to have things turn out so differently from expectations.

But now, with perspective altered by the passage of time and distance, a more nuanced and balanced view comes into focus. Call it a distilling of what really matters. A reminder that we should be grateful for the journey and learn to appreciate the small events and activities that add texture to the memories.

“The trip took nine weeks and almost 100 flight hours, covering thousands of miles through some of the most amazing scenery and some of the worst weather I’ve seen, including furnace-like heat across the southern tier of states, followed by near- constant rain and low ceilings in Southeast Alaska.”

Between the challenges, there were breathtaking vistas of pristine mountain lakes and immense wilderness landscapes where clouds fell from the forested ramparts to the rocky shores of the Inland Passage. I remember the lights of Juneau emerging from the mists of the Gastineau Channel at the end of a ridiculously long day. Steep slopes, brooding forest and black rocks, casting ribbons of whitewater onto the tidal flats below. Point Bishop, the JD Bridge, Ship Creek and the heliport, reporting points slowly rolling by before a friendly controller clears me to land on Runway 8.

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The playful banter from the waitress at the Red Dog Saloon, who, facing an uncertain future given the devastation of downtown tourism by COVID- 19, still manages to dispense beer and attitude with a smile that almost hides the worry lines in her young countenance.

A silence beyond imagining as the engine sounds fade away while the floatplane coasts to a stop on the small gravel beach. Slowly, the waves from our landing dissipate, leaving a perfect mirror, reflecting trees, hills and sky of a mountain lake, deep in the forest, ours alone for the next few days. We sit there for a few minutes, unwilling to disturb the quiet, before climbing out to begin setting up camp. Speaking in hushed tones, as if in church, pausing often to simply look and listen. Beauty beyond description.

Home fries and scrambled eggs in a cast-iron skillet. And hot coffee made from filtered lake water. We eat our breakfast sitting at the old table in our small cabin, talking of earlier adventures, telling stories we’ve both told before. Sharing the latest news of children, wives and work. Then, we settle into a comfortable silence, simply happy to share this time and place. Two old friends with no secrets left to tell.

Cut to the sweet release of the Wipline Floats breaking free of the water’s grasp. Instant acceleration and affirmation that flight is our floatplane’s natural element, water streaming off the tails as our reflected image draws away.

These small realizations matter. Call it “mindfulness” if you must, but they are all too easy to miss in the drama and chaos of these turbulent times. Maybe we need to be reminded not to take them for granted but to stop, notice, reflect and appreciate simple pleasures such as…

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The haunting cry of the loons, a curious flock unruffled by our presence, as they follow our small skiff across the inlet, where we hope to fool the trout rising to slurp this evening’s hatch.

Sunlight breaking through the overcast to shine a celestial spotlight on the surrounding boreal forest, too many shades of green to count.

Returning at dark to our cabin just ahead of the weather, soon settled into my camp chair, whiskey in hand, watching skeins of rain drift across the lake while a woman I don’t deserve cooks today’s catch on a Coleman stove.

The values and lessons of uncertainty. Knowing the dangers, accepting this could end badly but convinced the juice is worth the squeeze. The unseemly arrogance of thinking about how we are among the cool kids, the precious few lucky enough to be here, before realizing we are not yet done with this, and there is plenty of time and many ways to screw it up.

Watching the line of floatplanes returning to the Juneau float pond at the end of a working day. Beavers and otters sliding down final, almost close enough
to touch. They turn and taxi to the dock, unloading passengers, fishermen and tourists, soon whisked away by shuttle vans while the young pilots complete their evening chores, shouting and teasing one another, looking forward to a bit of relaxation before it all starts again early tomorrow.

A hot shower after days in the wilderness followed by a cold beer, chips and salsa at the local Mexican restaurant while swapping stories with the waitress about her fishing trip yesterday. She is worried about her husband, who was just laid off due to COVID-19. They may have to sell the boat, she tells me.

The otherworld of the Misty Fjords as we try for Wilson Lake. There is a sense of implacable menace in this place, danger close around, as we weave our way through canyons of cloud and stone. Following the cascading river, a flash of water unveils the small lake far below. Diving now, flaps out, power off, gear up for water landing, deeper into the narrow cloud-choked valley, sinking past any possible go-around point toward a new adventure.

And, finally, the sweet sadness of one last leg, across the West Texas badlands into the hills of home. And, best of all, a warm embrace upon journey’s end.

Finally home, I find myself already yearning to return. And thinking, maybe this isn’t about a trip to Alaska at all. PP

Lessons Learned: Taking Off On Glare Ice With A Crosswind

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The storied town of Greenville, Maine, sits at the bottom end of the northern part of the state in an area called the Great North Woods. It curls around the foot of 40-mile-long Moosehead Lake and is a good three-hour drive due north from Portland, Maine—three hours if you don’t hit a deer or a moose along the way. Maine averages about 10 such collisions every day.

Greenville isn’t just a long car drive north; it’s a trip back in time. Except for a few swells who have built show-off summer homes on the lake, you feel as though you’ve taken a trip back to the 1950s. It’s a good feeling, and thousands of people go there in the summer to share that feeling.

Not as many venture up there in the winter because it’s cold and snowy. Snowy is too fluffy a word to describe Greenville in winter. The snow up there is like the snow anywhere else in Maine in winter, only deeper.

This was my impression when I landed on a moonless night in January at the Greenville airport. The temperature was right around 15° Fahrenheit, not bad for Greenville, but the snowbanks on either side of the runway, as far as I could see with my Tri-Pacer’s landing lights, were at least a couple feet higher than my wings. And the bottom of my wings are more than 5 feet above the ground. The runway lights were on, but many were buried in the snow. It was around 8 p.m., and the airport, like most small fields after dark, was deserted.

I didn’t have a mission in Greenville. I was just “out flyin’ around at night.” I do that from time to time. Since my 1957 Tri-Pacer (160 HP) sits at an unlighted field all summer, my chances for night flying, other than my commute to Boston, are largely in winter. I move the plane from our unlighted grass strip in Phillips, Maine, to Norridgewock, Maine, for the winter, about 45 miles to my east.

There, I rent an open hangar on a field built as an emergency landing spot for bombers on their way to Europe during World War II. Today, it’s Central Maine Regional Airport, boasting two runways, one lighted, a rotating beacon, a snowplow truck, and a heated and unlocked little terminal house.

The flight from Norridgewock to Greenville took about 40 minutes, flying at 3,500 feet above a half- dozen 2,000-foot mountains and below a star-filled night sky. Except for the odd cabin, this terrain is uninhabited logging country dotted with small mountain lakes. There are long stretches with no lights to be seen from the ground.

As I made the approach into Greenville, I noticed the wind from the north was beginning to soften and shift around to the west. By the time I taxied
to a quiet corner—all the corners of the field were completely quiet—scudding clouds had started to cover some of the stars. In the few minutes I sat there, resting and reading the map with a flashlight, the wind had completely shifted to the south and picked up, in gusty fits. Something else also caught my attention.

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When I left Norridgewock that night, I had taken off on good snowpack. We like snowpack in Maine. I don’t know what its coefficient of friction is—it obviously varies with the temperature—but snowpack has decent traction. You can land, take off and taxi on snowpack without more than average caution. Ice (glare ice), on the other hand, is an entirely different animal. Nothing and no one can deal with glare ice—that is, unless your airplane is going straight and easy and no other forces, like a crosswind, are pushing you off a true track. One puff of sidewinder air, and Newton’s Law heads for the nearest snowbank.

The runway at Greenville that night had looked odd. I now gave it closer scrutiny. “Damn, this is glare ice. It must have rained or thawed here recently,” I thought. I turned around and taxied for takeoff in the opposite direction I had landed. The crosswind was now roughly 90 degrees across the runway. I could tell this by some blowing snow. Time to go before it gets worse. I advanced the throttle and headed down the tunnel between the snowbanks.

Right away, the crosswind began drifting me toward the left snowbank. I put in some right rudder and weathervaned about 10 degrees. I had the ailerons tilted that way, too, but I was still too slow for them to take effect. Soon I was 15 degrees right, maybe a little more than that, literally skating slightly sideways down a dark runway. For a long second there, I thought, “Hmm, this is working pretty well.” Then I saw something that changed my thinking. The lights on the Tri-Pacer sit way out on the left wing, so I could see at least a few yards down the runway. And there, coming up fast now, very fast, was a big flaw in this sideways-on-ice idea: a bare spot 10 or 15 yards wide across the runway. No time to think about what would happen if I hit that nice wheel-grabbing asphalt in a full-power sideways skid.

Left rudder, center the nose on the runway, ailerons full hard to the right, full flaps—in a Tri- Pacer, you can yank the flaps down with a Johnson bar in a second—time to get off the ground early, right wing now coming down nicely, holding me square, and “pop,” we are up and into the pure blackness of the North Woods.

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As a non-instrument-rated pilot, I have rarely been as happy to glue my eyes to the gauges and make a 30-degree climbing turn back over the airport. There’s no messing about in the dark out here. Greenville has mountains to the north, east and south. I got the snow-dimmed runway lights back in sight and spiraled back up to unoccupied air.

Any time you fly on contaminated surfaces, there’s the possibility that braking and/or directional control could be compromised. But if you want to
fly in the wintertime in any northern state, you’ve got to accept at least some of that risk. For me, the rule is, no crosswind takeoffs on glare ice unless the wind is right down the middle over home plate. You might get away with sliding around on glare ice if you are on a big chunk of frozen lake, preferably one not cluttered with ice-fishing shacks full of happy campers. But snow-free ice on lakes is rarely smooth everywhere. Best to have an avenue directly into the wind, or just wait it out in place. Always have an out, and if you don’t, wait to fly until you do. PP

Lessons Learned: A (Very Early) Day In The Life Of A Med Flight Pilot

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BE-BEEP…BE-BEEP…

I’m on call for St. Patrick Hospital Life Flight.

BE-BEEP…BE-BEEP…BE-BEEP…

It’s 2 a.m. on a Friday in February of 2004. The King Air was preflighted at the start of my shift. I will need to evaluate any flight prior to our dispatch center confirming the flight with the requesting medical facility.

The weather forecasts call for mostly IFR conditions across our service area. Most of the airports that we serve regularly were reporting marginal VFR conditions at 7 p.m. when my shift started.

BE-BEEP…BE-BEEP…BE-BEEP…BE-BEEP…

I sit up on the edge of the bed. My heart is racing from the abrupt awakening. I pick up the pager: FIXED WING TO SALMON

Rebecca stirs beside me. “Where to?”

“Salmon, Idaho.”

“Be careful.”

After a quick weather check, I call dispatch to accept the flight. That decision will be reviewed as circumstances change. Life Flight protocol states that “it takes three to go, one to say no.” At any time during the mission, any team member can raise concerns that might lead to aborting the mission.

I fast file an IFR flight plan with the “Lifeguard N242LF” call sign, alerting ATC that this is a priority medical flight.

There’s a skiff of snow on the driveway as I leave the house.

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BE-BEEP…BE-BEEP…FLT 3127, FW-SMN, PATIENT WT=145#.

I use the drive time to the airport to think through the various considerations for this routine mission.

Larry and Keith are the medical team; experienced—the best.

Weather should be okay. No pilot reports, but a good chance there will be some icing. No airport surface condition reports; the field is unattended.

My decision to accept the flight is critical. If we can’t get in at Salmon and must return to Missoula, it will add many hours to the transport. Ambulances would be used, and our flight team would go all the way to Salmon and back by ground. At least six hours on the road.

As I drive through the airport perimeter security gate, I’m struck by the isolation of the brightly lit Life Flight hangar. It stands apart like a citadel.

The hangar ramp is free of snow. The mountains surrounding the airport are dimly outlined in the faint light. The peaks disappear into the cloud bases.

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The big hangar is lit by a single fixture above the personnel entrance. The airplane is a shadowy presence in the center of the room. I hit the switch to activate the overhead lights and open the hangar door. No ground support personnel in our operation. I’m working alone.

The medical crew has arrived.

I’m in the left seat of the King Air with ship power and lights on. The crew boards with their equipment and drugs and confirms verbally that the cabin door is secure.

I use a standard “flow” pattern to go through the engine start and pre-taxi checks, then verify my actions with the printed checklist.

I listen to the ASOS, then key the radio transmitter to activate the pilot-controlled airport lights.

The control tower is closed. I key the mike: “Missoula area traffic, Lifeguard 242LF taxiing from the Life Flight hangar to Runway 29.

During taxi, I contact Salt Lake City Center to obtain the IFR clearance to Salmon. Approach control is also closed in the middle of the night. Cleared as filed, report airborne.

“All secure in the cabin?” “Cabin secure,” the crew confirms.

“Missoula area traffic, Lifeguard 242LF departing runway 29. Initial climb to the west on the DIDLY3 departure.”

Pre-takeoff flow is complete, power levers forward, takeoff torque set.

The brightly lit runway seems to rush at us out of the black void that surrounds it. Airspeed through 90 knots, smoothly apply back elevator to bring the aircraft up into the initial climb attitude. I am immediately flying the plane on instruments; there’s nothing to see straight ahead over the nose. Gear up, landing lights off, anti-ice on.

The brightness from the runway lights quickly falls away. Climbing to the west, my night vision improves. I begin to see lights on the ground and clouds above. The rising terrain that surrounds the valley is a lurking presence on each side of the aircraft.

“Center, Lifeguard 242LF is airborne at Missoula, climbing through seven thousand for one five thousand.” I reach for the after-takeoff checklist.

“Lifeguard 2LF, Center, radar contact, 12 miles west of Missoula at seven thousand six hundred.”

I’ve started the turn, “position and altitude check, 2LF.” Rolling out of the turn, I’ve lost sight of the ground. We’ve entered the base of the broken cloud layer.

Turning southbound on V23l, we break out of the clouds into a majestic moon-lit vista. The white carpet of clouds below looks like gently drifted snow on an endless prairie. Stars sparkle above. The ride is smooth as we level at 15,000 feet.

Cruising on the airway is serene. Cruise checklist complete; a great time to use the autopilot and take care of some paperwork.

It is very quiet. There is no sense of motion from this altitude above the clouds, even though we are cruising at nearly 300 miles per hour. The King Air purrs along. The flight and engine instruments are static, each showing a normal reading. It is almost hypnotic.

The spell is broken by the voice of another pilot calling center to report on frequency.

Time to get busy again.

“We are about 15 minutes out,” I say. “I’ll tell dispatch,” says Keith. A volunteer ambulance crew will meet us at the airport to transport the Life Flight medical team to Steele Memorial Hospital.

“Center, 2LF, we are planning the VOR/DME-B approach into Salmon.”

“Roger, 2LF. You can expect that. Descend pilot’s discretion to maintain one two, twelve thousand.”

“Discretion, one two thousand, 2LF.” The plate for this procedure is clipped to the yoke. (See approach plate.)

We are 25 miles from the LKT-VOR, the initial fix for the approach.

“Lifeguard 242LF. Cross the VOR at or above one two thousand, cleared VOR/DME-B approach to the Salmon airport.”

“Cleared for the approach, 242LF.” I listen to the AWOS: 4,000 broken, visibility 10 miles. This will be tight.

Crossing the VOR, I use the prescribed holding pattern to reverse course and line up with the final approach segment between the VOR and the airport.

Reduce power, select approach flaps, adjust elevator trim, confirm anti-ice is on, lights on.

Crossing the VOR inbound, I select landing gear down. There is a steady hum from the electric gear motor, then a comforting thump. The red light in the handle is out. Three green lights confirm gear down. I begin the final descent to the minimum altitude of 8,100 feet, one of the highest minimums in my experience, due to the high terrain that closely surrounds the airport in this narrow end of the valley.

“Everything secure in the cabin?” “Affirmative,” Larry says. No idle conversation now; they know I’m very busy and focused on the approach.

Before landing checklist complete. Looking out the side window, I note that we are still in the clouds; no ground contact. The wing inspection light reveals a trace of rime ice.

“242LF, radar contact lost. Switch to the advisory frequency is approved. Report your cancellation on this frequency or with Flight Service.”

“Switching to advisory. 242LF.” I’ll cancel with Flight Service by phone. We’re still IMC, but I activate the airport lights.

“Salmon area traffic, Lifeguard 242LF, inbound on the VOR/DME-B approach. Six miles southwest descending through niner thousand.”

My plan is to reach the minimum altitude promptly. If I don’t see the airport and the area around it clearly upon reaching the fix over the field, I will execute the missed approach procedure and climb back to a safe altitude.

This approach procedure does not line the flight up with the runway nor does it descend anywhere near the field elevation of slightly more than 4,000 feet. I must be able to descend visually from 8,100 feet to the runway.

Night circling procedures are considered to be quite hazardous, and this one, in a mountain valley, is definitely hazardous. A thorough familiarity with the terrain and winds is essential, as are a high level of skill and confidence with the aircraft.

At 8,500 feet, we are clear of the clouds. Airport in sight.

In this narrow valley, there is no normal approach from 8,100 feet. From experience, I know that I must start the descent to normal traffic pattern altitude, 5,500 feet, right away. My plan is to cross over the airport and enter a left downwind for runway 17. Once established on downwind, I continue to descend while slowing the aircraft to 120 knots. I will make the turn to base leg over Idaho Highway 28.

“Salmon area traffic, Lifeguard 242LF, entering left downwind for runway 17.”

In a larger urban environment, the city lights would reflect from an overcast cloud layer. But there are not many lights to be reflected from a sleeping town of 3,200 people.

Turning final, I spot the VASI lights to the left of the runway threshold. This is a classic “black hole” situation: a well-lighted runway surrounded by few visible features. Without the aid of a VASI or an electronic glide slope, a pilot could easily misjudge the distance to the runway and find themselves prematurely low on the approach.

Speed checks, full flaps, slowing to 100 knots for landing. Before landing checklist is complete.

I can see the runway markings through a thin skiff of new snow on the surface. Looking for any animals that may have strayed onto the runway, I quickly review the memory items for an aborted landing and missed approach. No time to look at charts or checklists now. I’m focused on the landing.

We touch down. Power to idle, gently apply the brakes. Reverse thrust produces a thin cloud of snow in front of the plane that reflects the landing lights. I ease off the reverse; braking action feels good. We exit the runway and taxi to the ramp, where the ambulance is waiting.

Engines are shut down using a flow pattern. Cabin lights on.

“Dispatch knows we have landed,” Larry says.

I assist the crew in moving their equipment and the stretcher to the local ambulance.

Back in the ship to run the shutdown checklist. I call Flight Service to report our landing and cancel our IFR flight plan.

The ambulance is already on its way to the hospital. Back outside, I walk around the ship with my flashlight to do a quick post-flight inspection. The thin ice collected during the descent is gone.

Just as I climb back into the King Air, the timer-controlled runway lights extinguish. Now it is really dark on the ramp. Just the steady flashing of the airport beacon and my flashlight. Half the time the FBO office building is bathed in alternating white or green, and half the time it is just a shadowy shape hidden behind some trees. It has started to snow lightly, adding to the eerie visual effect. How many hours have I spent alone with an airplane on a deserted ramp in the middle of the night? I hear a coyote howling somewhere near the airport.

I close the cabin door (to keep the bears out!), then move back to the cockpit to complete the paperwork for the first leg.

Next, a call to Flight Service to get a weather update and file an IFR flight plan for our return. The briefer is quite chatty; must be a slow night for her.

Snow has stopped.

Temperature is -4˚ Celsius. I probably have another 30 minutes to wait before the return of the crew.

Time to consider how to obtain our clearance for departure. I choose the surest method: a call to Flight Service prior to starting the engines to get a “void time” release. That means I have a time window in which to depart and contact ATC, after which the clearance is void.

Here comes the ambulance. Battery switch and lights on. I help load the patient, an elderly woman who is connected to a ventilator to assist with her breathing. I don’t ask about her condition; I don’t want to know. My job is to fly the aircraft in the safest, most efficient manner in order to deliver her to St. Patrick Hospital. After loading, I move to the cockpit, phone for the IFR clearance and prepare to start. We are cleared as filed. I have 15 minutes in which to depart and climb to an altitude from which I can talk to ATC.

We depart on Runway 35. This allows a straight-ahead climb to the AHEHU fix on the standard departure procedure. Climbing through 9,000, we are IMC as I contact Center.

“Center, Lifeguard 242LF out of niner thousand five hundred for one four, 14 thousand. Request AHEHU direct WURTH for the VOR/DME-B approach into Missoula.”

“Lifeguard 242LF, Center, radar contact, 14 miles northeast of the Salmon VOR. Maintain one four thousand, cleared as requested, expect the Bravo approach.”

I tune in the ATIS at Missoula: 5,000 broken, visibility 7 miles, light snow. I should be able to maneuver visually for the arrival. Another circling approach but in a much wider valley with a lot more reflected light from the city.

Crossing STEVI, I see the airport. “Center, Lifeguard 242LF, airport in sight. Cancel IFR.”

“2LF, Center, roger, cancellation received. Maintain VFR and switch to advisory at this time. Good night.”

“Missoula area traffic, Lifeguard 242LF, five miles south descending through six thousand on left base for Runway 29.”

The runway here also has a dusting of snow as we land.

“Missoula traffic, Lifeguard 242LF clear of 29, taxiing to parking via GOLF.”

I taxi onto the ramp and shut down.

“Dispatch knows we are here,” says Keith.

The procedure to transfer the patient to the ground unit is choreographed from many repetitions: Everyone knows their job and does it with little conversation.

I refuel the King Air and then tow it into the hangar.

It’s 4:45 a.m.

I take a couple of minutes to review and evaluate the flight: Any maintenance issues with the aircraft? Any procedural or safety issues to discuss with the medical team? And, most importantly, how did I do my job?

I’m headed for home. As I step out of the hangar, I feel a nice sense of closure. Mission complete.

It has started to snow again.

BE-BEEP…BE-BEEP…BE-BEEP…FIXED WING TO BOEING FIELD. 

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Lessons Learned: Know When To Call It A Day

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know when to call it a day web - Lessons Learned: Know When To Call It A Day
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Along the Gulf Coast of Texas, we are occasionally, after a cold front moves through, blessed with almost perfect flying weather. The humidity drops, the temperature cools, and all plans for being in the office drop away. And you’re not alone, as almost every pilot within 200 square miles decides to head to their airport of choice to alight and burn holes in the bright blue sky.

Not that long ago, I was looking out my window at such a morning, and I said, “Darn it, I’m going flying!” I called up the training center where I rent my favorite steed—a well-worn Piper Warrior—and found that said steed was “down for maintenance” (an indication of things to come; call it Sign #1), but they kindly offered me an equally well-worn Archer (for a few dollars more per hour) to carry me skyward. I gladly accepted (more horsepower is always worth it, right?) and headed off as fast as the big-city traffic allowed (in other words, glacial—Sign #2).

When I arrived at the training center, the weather was clear with light crosswinds, forecasted to get gusty later. I checked in, was handed the “can” of the required docs, keys, fuel strainer, etc., and was pointed vaguely toward a line of aircraft. I happily marched out to the flight line, hopped into the Archer that was parked in the spot where my assigned Archer was “always” parked and started the cockpit part of the pre-flight. I plugged in my headset, hit the Master Switch to make a quick check of the fuel gauges to see if I needed to order fuel, and got out the docs in the can to check the Tach and Hobbs times.

“Hmm,” I pondered. The Archer’s times were not even within the same galaxy as the figures on the can’s docs. While my brain was absorbing this discrepancy, my eyes caught the motion of a lineman coming to my left window. “Sir, you’re in the wrong aircraft,” he politely said with just a hint of “you, dumb bunny” in his voice. Yes, it was true. I had placed my carcass on (actually, within) the wrong steed. (Sign #3.)

I slowly uncoiled from the “wrong” aircraft, did the walk of shame past the other pilots, maintenance folks and everyone else—all of whom I knew were looking only at me and smirking—and went looking for the “correct” aircraft. After walking all the way to the end of the flight line, I couldn’t find the darn “correct” aircraft. Not wanting to look like a complete fool, I circled around behind the line of aircraft and retraced my steps. When I had exited the “wrong” aircraft, I had turned left to go down along the flight line. I should have turned right because the “correct” aircraft was a mere 30 feet from the “wrong” aircraft. (Sign #4.)

With measured purpose and forethought, I surveyed my assigned Archer, checked its registration N-number about 20 times, and hopped in. Cockpit pre-flight completed—carefully and completely. Same for the exterior pre-flight. It’s time to start this baby up and get flying! I followed the checklist like my life depended upon it (which, in a way, it actually does, right?) and hit the starter. Wrrrr, wrrrr, wrrrr wrrrr, etc. Not catching. Okay, I tried monkeying with the mixture and throttle. Same result. Just then, the same lineman waved at me; I shut things off, and he came to my left window again. “This bird is a bit tricky to get started. So, [rapidly do this, while slowing doing that, cross your fingers, pat your head/rub your tummy, think positive thoughts],” he helpfully directed. (Sign #5.)

At long last, the motor caught, and I got going. I contacted Ground Control and told them that I wanted to stay in the pattern to do touch-and-goes. I taxied out, did my run up, and was ready to fly!

Or so I thought, because while self-detained earlier, the three flight schools at the airport had decided to disgorge their fleets simultaneously, so the taxis, runways and the controller were all suddenly busy. Down by the end of the active runway, there were about four aircraft ahead of me, waiting to take off. Again, with lots of aircraft coming and going—and don’t forget to add in the occasional meandering helicopter doing pipeline inspection—it took a while for me to be first in line.

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When I was, I slowly taxied forward and contacted the tower. No response. Yes, the radios were fineI hadn’t messed them up, which would have been par for the course that day, but it wasn’t. That, I checked! I decided to wait a minute. After all, the controller was busy. So I waited a bit more before my patience gave out. Okay, I thought, I’m paying for the time, the engine is running, my bill keeps going up, and I’m going nowhere.

So I called the tower and nicely and politely restated that I was ready for departure. I was blasted immediately with an admonishment that the controller was well aware of my piddling little existence, as he was busy trying to keep jets and numerous other airborne aircraft from hitting each other and falling out of the sky, that I was safely on the ground, and he’d get to me whenever. All I could do was key the mic twice. (Sign #6.)

But then, as I was visualizing my VISA card balance climbing at best angle toward my credit limit, the controller told me that I was cleared for takeoff, to expedite it and keep the pattern close. I acknowledged and off (finally) I went into the wild, now a bit blustery, blue yonder.

Turns out that that gusty crosswind forecasted had decided to arrive a bit earlier than predicted. It forcefully made its presence felt. Just as I lifted off, a sideways gust of wind ricocheting off of a nearby hanger decided to rapidly move me laterally and yank a wing downward. Well, now, that was fun—not. Easily handled, but a darn good attention getter. I was awake before, but now I was awake! (Sign #7.)

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Up, up I went and turned up-wind. The tower frequency was filled with nonstop calls to various aircraft to turn some compass direction, to contact departures, to extend their downwind, to watch for another aircraft on a 3-mile final, to be cleared as number 6 for landing, following two Cessnas, a Gulfstream, an Experimental, a Learjet, and a kite. Had I been magically transported into arrivals at LaGuardia? I turned downwind and was slowly motoring along looking out for the other aircraft that I was mentally trying to locate from the radio chatter, awaiting my call to turn base. I knew better than to call up the nice (busy) controller, so I kept motoring along, now on the world’s longest downwind.

I was getting a bit worried that I was going to hit the impenetrable big-city Class B south of the field when I was told to turn base and watch out for traffic now coming directly at me at my altitude, as the incoming bogey was about to turn final and land on the parallel runway. And, oh, by the way, they added, you are number three to land.

The term “oncoming traffic” always gets my attention, so while I was looking before, now I was seriously looking! Just to be safe, I had every nav light, beacon, strobe, taxi light, landing light and even the interior dome light on. I really wanted to be seen. I kept looking for the impending head-on collision, but apparently they had turned at the right time.

Then, my attention turned to the other two aircraft ahead of me on final, so I could be sure of my positioning. I have enough experience to know about where the other aircraft should be located, but I swear both of the other two aircraft were visual stealth fighters—absolutely invisible. I finally broke down and called up the controller to say (swallow pride here) that I did not have the other two aircraft in sight. The controller came back immediately (did I detect exasperation in his voice?) that one aircraft was on the ground already and the other one was about 1 mile out. I strained to find that missing aircraft and could not do so. (Sign #8.)

Turns out that the gusty crosswind forecasted had decided to arrive a bit earlier than predicted. It forcefully made its presence felt.

Then I thought it. “That’s it—enough’s enough!” is what I thought. “I’m not about to have folks read about my “pilot error” in an NTSB accident report. I’m in the middle of a beehive of aircraft. I can’t detect a @#$% aircraft right where it’s supposed to be. And I have been presented with more “signs” than the Department of Transportation has in its annual procurement plans.”

I told the controller to cancel the touch and go and that this was going to be a full stop. (Did I hear pleasure in his voice when he acknowledged?) I made a darn good crosswind landing (always nice to go out on a high note), taxied off, parked and shut down.

I walked into the training center and was greeted with puzzled looks of: Why are you back so soon? I told the old chief pilot, a great guy, that today just wasn’t my day. He gave me an approving and knowledgeable smile.

I had really wanted to go flying, but the truth is, I didn’t need to go flying. In some strange way, it became more and more apparent that I needed to call it a day. I have flown many times since then, at the same airport, at times just as gusty and busy, and have been just fine. But on that one day, it was not to be. As the Athenian orator and statesman Demosthenes said in 338 BC (though probably not about Piper Archers), “He who fights and runs away will live to fight [and fly] another day.”

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