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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Sleeping on the job

Note: Since I'm away in St. Louis doing ERJ-145 transition training, here's a topic that I wanted to address when it happened but haven't had a slot for. I'll have an update on how ground school went late next week, once it's over.

Almost every airline crewmember has "slept on the job" at one time or another. However, those scare quotes are there for a reason: sleeping on the job isn't what you think of as sleeping on the job, since an airline workday is so much different from the workday that 99.9% of the rest of the world knows.

When Richard Branson (whose book Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way is an absolutely amazing read that I'd highly recommend to almost anyone) dropped into one of his offices last month, he came across an employee sleeping on the couch. In most jobs, this might lead to an immediate dismissal, and since most of the Internet has "normal" jobs, the electronic hills were alive with the sound of outrage.

But not Sir Richard: he laughed it off, took a smiling picture with the napper, and wrote about it on his blog. And that was entirely the correct response from the big boss.

Image from Virgin Australia.
Unless you're a doctor, firefighter, or a member of one of a few professions where shifts can last 24 hours or more, you probably are saying, "But if I got caught sleeping on the job, I'd be fired, and he should be too!"

That's because you've never experienced the dreaded reserve shift.

When I was starting on the airline pilot path, I got to experience it for six months. Reserve is something that most jobs don't have because at most jobs, you're either producing something or you're not. You are either producing that report, cranking out that widget, making that sale, etc. or you're not. As normal bosses like to say, "You're not getting paid to just show up."

In the airline industry, we can't just create more flights. We have a pre-set schedule and slots to fill. We can't randomly tell passengers, "Just be at the airport sometime on the day you want to fly and we'll load up a plane by the end of the day. Maybe we'll have an extra flight if we feel extra motivated, so show up and maybe it will be your lucky day!"

Basically, all our widgets are already made for us, and we're there to make sure they get shipped on time. In a perfect world, where no weather ever delays an inbound flight, nothing mechanical ever breaks, and no one ever gets sick, we would have exactly as many crewmembers as we need for that day's schedule of flights.

However, since each of these annoyances occurs almost every day, airlines keep more crewmembers on hand than there are flights scheduled for them. These extras are kept in reserve just in case... hence the name "reserve" (or occasionally, "standby").

When everything goes smoothly that day, there is nothing to do while on reserve. You have no job other than to be at the airport, ready to take over a flight. That is your whole job: to be there. You can't just work harder and magically create flights that aren't on the schedule. Absolutely nothing is expected of you but to be present, in large part because there isn't anything else you could do, and being there is the only thing needed from you.

If you want to spend your time reading a book, surfing the web, walking up and down the terminal, taking courses online, watching a movie, updating the Jepp charts, or just sleeping away some otherwise dull hours—and I did each and every one of those during my time on reserve—that's all up to you. Richard Branson deserves a tip of the hat for understanding that, since so many people don't. (Then again, most people don't run their own airline, either.)

Does this seem a bit wasteful? Well, again, in a perfect world, every flight would run perfectly and no reserves would ever be needed, and there would be no waste. But in the real world, things happen, and there are two main alternatives:

1. Incur extra expense to have people at the airport on reserve so the flights still go out.

2. Have no reserves and cancel a flight anytime something goes wrong somewhere down the line.

Every airline chooses the first option, since in the end it's cheaper to have some extra people hanging around than to refund money to dozens or hundreds of people for any little hiccup. Since each crew and aircraft tend to do more than one leg a day (the airplanes especially have a longer day than the crews), if one crewmember gets sick, then it's not just one flight that would get cancelled: it affects many, many more down the line, like one domino tipping into another.

When you're at the bottom of the totem pole, you're stuck with reserve. However, like many things in life, those at the bottom have not only the hardest job but also one of the most important. Sitting around wondering if you're going to do anything, having no idea what your schedule will be that day or what city you might end up in is tough, as I pointed out when I was on reserve. However, reserves are what keep the operation running. Without them, the whole house of cards would collapse.

So this guy sleeping on a couch in the crew room? Totally fine. Sleeping in the cockpit, however, is another matter for another day.



See you sometime next week!

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Here I go again

It's just over two years since I started on the path I'm on. It's one I've enjoyed a lot more than I thought I would, because although hauling passengers on the same few dozen routes sounds like it would get boring, the fact remains that at the end of the day I spent hours and hours in the sky. It may have been to places I never would have chose to fly to myself, but it was still flying.

As I noted in last week's post, one of the things that keeps this job from getting boring is that even though in the short term it can be routine, in the longer term there's always something new to do, see, or learn. Day to day is the same, but every year is different.

One of the new things for me to learn is an entirely different aircraft: the Embraer ERJ-145. This means I'm right back to Week 0: studying cockpit diagrams, operating manuals, flows, and limitations. My dining room table even looks like it did two years ago, but with a manual that's a different shade of blue and a diagram of a throttle quadrant that, sadly, is missing the prop levers:

Don't ask me why they didn't use a yoke. I'm sure using a set of kid's big wheel handles seemed like a good idea at the time.
This time, though, I'll be using what I learned about learning to help me out. After all, since I spent most of the beginning of the year writing about it, I should practice what I preach. So here's my list of priorities to work on until I leave for two weeks of ground school on Monday:

1. Flows
2. Memory action items (AKA emergency procedures)
3. Blue book
4. Limitations

If you recall from way back when, my hardest thing was memorizing the flows. And, like most people, since it was the hardest thing for me, I spent way less time on it than I should have. Instead, I spent a lot of time on the blue book (our nickname for the Aircraft Operating Manual, since it's blue). I knew the book very well, but my lack of emphasis on flows caused my sim sessions to be harder than they should have been.

Now that I've laid out what I'm going to study, here is the plan for how:

Flows (30 minutes)

Go through the entire set one or two times. I'm not going for perfection; this is just raising the scaffolding and getting the big picture.

Go through the first flow several times or until I get it correct twice in a row or until the 30 minutes is up, whichever comes first.

Once I get a flow correct twice in a row, move on to the next one until I get that one correct twice in a row or the 30 minutes has elapsed, whichever comes first.

Limitations (10 minutes)

This is just rote memorization. These are broken into groups like weights, speeds, engine, etc. Just like the flows, I'll read them all through, then go to the first section. Once I can recite that section from memory, I'll start on the next section unless the 10 minutes has expired.

Memory Action Items (10 minutes)

There are 20 emergency/abnormal situations we need to be able to respond to from memory. (These are backed up with a checklist later, of course.) This is a bit like a combining flows with rote memorization of steps.

Ten minutes doesn't sound like much for 20 different things, but 8 of them are actually one-step items (for example, the immediate response for "Baggage Smoke" is "Fire Extg Bagg Button... Push in"). The longest one is 10 steps, but the procedure for this happens to be identical to the one we use in the Dash, which means I already have it memorized. So I'm saving the time on these for more important (meaning "more difficult") items to study.

This adds up to 50 minutes so far, which over the years I've found for me to be approximately the amount of time it takes my brain's teacup to fill to the brim. So the next 10 minutes are a break. I'll get up, refill the coffee, play with the dog, and so on.

Flows (5 minutes)

Go back over the flow I'm working on. This time, I'll try the flow without looking at the guide and see how I do. I'm only going to do one or possibly two if I get the first one correct twice in a row. My longest flow in the Dash takes me about 10 seconds, so I should be able to get some decent practice in with only 5 minutes of review.

Limitations (5 minutes)

This time, instead of reading to memorize, I'll say aloud which limitation it is and its value, and only then compare it to the answer. The reason I'm doing it this way with the flows and limitations is to engage the recall function of memory, which does a better job of solidifying knowledge than simply reading and re-reading over and over again does.

Blue book (50 minutes)

This one is the easiest for me, and therefore comes last, after I've depleted much of my mental energy on the harder stuff. Imagine if you wanted to learn to run a 10K. Would you:

Walk 10 kilometers and then run one?
Run 10 kilometers and then walk one?

Obviously, if you want to improve your running, you'd run while you have the energy, and then take it easy. However, when studying, many people tend to do it the first way, then have no mental energy left for the "running" part. I made this mistake myself the first time around.

But if I said that the blue book is the easy part, why am I devoting as much time to it as I did everything else combined? Well, it may be the easiest, but it's still over 1000 pages long, which means there's a lot of it to cover.

I also won't be reading it passively. Fortunately, since I've already read an aircraft operations manual to learn to fly the Dash, a lot of it will admittedly be familiar. As I've already started reading it, I've been saying in many places, "OK, so that hasn't changed," or "This is a little different, so remember not to do it the old way," or "That's totally new," and so on.

That's it. Only 2 hours a day. There is a ton of material to cover, and airline ground schools anywhere are usually described as "drinking from a fire hose", but with a good plan and using good study techniques, I can accomplish what I need to and still have time to have a life. My weekend plan (we do get weekends off in ground school) will remain the same: 2 hours. I'm looking forward to spending the rest of my weekend time exploring St. Louis because I'll have studied smarter, not harder.

This will be my view for the next two weeks.
I will be away in St. Louis the next two weeks, as I'm driving there Sunday. My next update will be on how successful (or not) my plan turns out to be. I probably won't be able to write it next week because my old laptop finally had enough abuse from all the traveling it's done and gave up the ghost. Nonetheless, I'll see you soon!

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Farewell, Fair Dash

"That's the smallest airplane I've ever seen."

"I think I jumped out of one of these when I went skydiving."

"I didn't know this was going to be one of those prop planes. I want off."

Sunset on a pretty evening at Washington-Dulles.
It's hot, it's loud, it's ugly, and it's amazing. It's the Bombardier DHC-8, also known as the Dash-8 (or "Smash-8" due to it being one of the hardest airliners to land softly), or just "the Dash".

In my two years flying what I call "The Little Airliner That Could", I have heard all of the above quotes from passengers about it.

"I miss this thing."
"This is real flying."
"What a great airplane."

I've heard those quotes too... from pilots who used to fly it. I've just finished my last trip as a Dash pilot before I move on to the ERJ-145, so I've now become one of those who used to fly it, and I already say all of those things about it myself.

Me in the Seattle sim the day before the checkride.

Sure, it had its issues. It could be loud inside the cabin if its NVS (anti-Noise/Vibration System) wasn't working, which was often. Cancelling out vibration with a system that vibrates isn't exactly a recipe for reliability.

It wasn't easy to get into, since the pedestal between the seats took up all the available space, meaning you had to put one leg in, then swing the other leg up and over to sit down. Once you were in the seat, though, it was quite comfortable.

It was extremely hot in the cockpit when the engines weren't running, since the -200s had no APU (a small engine in the tailcone that provides power and air conditioning) and although the -300s did have APUs, they worked fewer days in a year than Congress.

But it was still the most elegant ugly duckling I'll probably ever have a chance to fly. It looked a bit strange, as there are hardly any high-wing airliners in the U.S. The 200 was stubby-looking, and had the nickname "Baby Dash" because it looked too small. The 400 looked like a gangly teenager that hadn't caught up with a growth spurt yet. But the 300 was almost the perfect size and proportion.

From this angle, the DHC-8-300 almost looks sleek.
Its strange looks came from its unusual design. It was built to be an odd combination: an airliner that could carry 50 passengers and still land in only about 2000 feet. That's a tiny fraction of almost any runway they go into, and is a lot of overkill.

It doesn't go particularly fast, but it still tops out over 300 MPH. It doesn't go very high, and we very rarely actually went up to its maximum altitude of 25,000 feet, but we didn't need to, because even down low, it burns less fuel doing 300 miles an hour than a lot of planes burn while taxiing.

Since we stayed relatively low, we couldn't get above much of the weather. I liked to joke that we had a hard time topping out valley fog. This meant we ended up slogging through rather than flying over bad weather. Because of this, has a well-earned legendary reputation for being able to carry ice and still fly well—not surprising for a plane that was designed by Canadians.

To address the three comments that started this post and defend my little buddy:

Stepping on board the Dash for the first of approximately 1000 times.

It's not a particularly small airplane. The 300 carries just as many passengers as the 145, which is one of the most popular regional airliners in service today. You can't go into any major airport in the country and not see a 145, and yet both it and the Dash carry the same amount of people.

Looking back from my seat. That's 37 seats there on the stubby one.
Many skydiving operations use the Dash-8's grandpappy, the DHC-6, or Twin Otter. Like the DHC-8, the DHC-6 is a very utilitarian, hard-working airplane, which has led it to a long, successful career in many aviation niches. But the DHC-6 and DHC-8 are as similar as a Ford Focus is to a limousine.
More than once, a passenger has either gotten off the Dash or refused to get on it because "it's a propeller plane". Well, it is and it isn't. It's not a prop like your grandfather's 160-horsepower Cessna with a piston engine. It is powered by two 2200-horsepower jet engines, and those jets just happen to have propellers connected to them. (In fact, before they were called turboprops, this kind of setup was called a "propjet". You can still see that terminology in old aeronautical engineering books.) That means you get the fuel efficiency of a propeller combined with the durability and reliability of a jet engine. It's not the kind of plane you take on a hop around the patch on weekends just because it has props.

Here you can see the jet engine itself inside that long nacelle:

Yeah, that's really a jet engine under the hood.
That long dark tube-shaped object is a jet engine. It looks different from the beefy, high-bypass turbofans you're used to seeing on modern airliners. However, if you're old enough to remember the days before bigger bypass ratios became the norm, it looks familiar.

Here's a picture of an early 737. Notice how long and narrow the engine is—just like the Dash's engine, but without a prop:

Old 737-200 with the cigar shaped engines. Photo by Eduard Marmet.
In its time, the Dash was so popular that Microsoft even included it in Flight Simulator as the generic regional airliner, since it could be found in so many places!

Taxiing the 172 past a -200 in FSX.
Unfortunately, its time has begun to pass. As fuel costs have gone back down, its big advantage on efficiency isn't enough to offset passengers' misgivings about turboprops. As the economy has improved, the lower ticket prices it brings them isn't as big a deal anymore, either. This means that within the next couple of years, all our Dashes will be gone and everything will be jets. An era has passed, but I am glad I had a chance to be one of the last to have a part of it.

Killing time on a rainy day.

Farewell, friend. I'll see you on the other side of that rainbow.

This rainbow was a good way to end my last Dash trip.



Next week, I start preparations to move to the jet. See you next Wednesday!

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Time flies when you do

Dashing heroes. Boring buttonpushers. Depending on who you talk to, airline pilots are one of these.



Like most things in life, the truth lies somewhere in between. I'd describe what I've been doing for two years now (that have flown by!) as the most fun you can have pushing buttons.

I've mentioned several times Bob Buck's book North Star Over My Shoulder. He started off flying DC-2s and retired as a 747 captain for TWA. He did lots of interesting things in between, and that he never lost his love for the job is evident throughout the book. I've had the chance to fly to the same places he went in his early career, see the same farm fields he wrote about, and experience the same bone-chilling winters and pop-up thunderstorm-ridden summers. What he did in a DC-2 I'm doing in a DHC-8, and although we're almost a century apart, the spirit of flying over those old air mail routes is eternal.

Honestly, the longer I do this job, the more I like it. Sure, there are some things that become routine, but the job still isn't. It seems like it would get monotonous, but not a trip goes by when I don't see something I haven't seen before or in a slightly different way, and I sit there for a second and think, "I am so lucky." I still find things to take pictures of, even though I've flown almost every route we have dozens of times already.

And there will always be something more to do or see. We're going to start flying to Memphis, Nashville, Palm Beach, and a few other places I've never been, and if the overnights are a decent length, I'll be able to spend time wandering around new cities that I probably wouldn't have gotten around to going to for a vacation.


I'm leaving on July 24th to spend two weeks in St. Louis: a city I've been dying to visit, and I'll have an entire weekend to myself to explore it. I'll be there doing something else new, too: ground school for the ERJ-145, which means I'll add yet another type rating to the certificate.

I wouldn't be surprised if we got the new Embraer E-Jets in a couple of years—yet another airplane I'd never otherwise have gotten a chance to fly! When I move on to a major, I'll have the chance to fly even more kinds of planes there. The only thing constant in this industry is change.

So there will always be somewhere new to go, something new to see, and something new to fly. But that's just one part of why I'm glad I switched careers. I would say that I regret not having done it sooner, but to be honest, if I hadn't spent all those years in a "normal" job, I wouldn't appreciate just how good I have it right now.


Like most regionals, we have a lot of pilots who are young and only a few years out of college. There are some who whine about the job, but that's because they never experienced just how soul-sucking the corporate life is. Here are some things I used to have to deal with that aren't part of my life anymore:

I never have to take work home with me. (I can't fit a 43,000 pound Dash-8 in the suitcase anyway).

I never have to worry about late-night emails, text messages, or calls about a new thishastobedoneRIGHTNOW problem. It's illegal for them to call you if you're on a required 10-hour rest period, and if you're scheduled off, you have absolutely no obligation to answer the phone.

I never have to worry about my boss' opinion about the quality of my work. We have simulator evaluations twice a year and annual recurrent ground school. You either pass or you don't, and the result is entirely dependent on your skills and professionalism, not whether you kissed the right rear ends.

When you're in the cockpit, you and the pilot you're flying with are the only annoying co-workers you ever have to deal with, and most of them aren't annoying anyway.

There's a lot of autonomy, which is something most cube dwellers will never experience. Just get the flights out on time and don't break anything and you're left alone, which is exactly how I like to work. I get to do my job instead of having my job done to me. 

This isn't to say that the job is all sunshine and roses all the time. Now that reserve is a bad, distant memory, the hardest part of the job is all the time away from home, sitting alone in hotel rooms. I don't think you're a real airline pilot until you've woken up in the middle of the night, tried to remember what city you're in, and then realized you're home.

But for someone like me who is always keeping busy with one thing or another, the downtime is also a huge benefit, since it gives me time to work on a lot of projects without all the distractions of home. I've gotten a lot of work done on the books I'm slowly-but-surely writing, I've been able to catch up on books I've been wanting to read but never had the time, and I'm starting at Embry-Riddle to do something that has been a lifetime goal of mine: get a Ph.D. They have an online doctoral program in aviation, and I have plenty of time to work on it during trips. Although I already have a degree, it isn't in aviation, and with the transfer credit from my current degree plus the 35 hours of credit for having a multi-engine ATP certificate, I can have yet another degree to put on the wall in a year or so.

When I was in initial sim training in Seattle, there was a pilot I chatted with briefly as I waited for the shuttle to FlightSafety. He had been doing the job for 25 years, and he said he's never taken a vacation longer than two weeks because by then he misses the cockpit too much. Now I can see exactly what he's talking about.


I'm at the top of the First Officer seniority list now so my schedules are what would make every cube dweller say, "Bro, do you even work?" (I've been bypassing upgrade since last December so I can enjoy nice schedules for a while, and to avoid as much reserve as I can once I do upgrade.) I had a stretch of 11 days in a row off at the end of June/early July, and I had 9 days in a row off at the beginning of the month. The last couple of days of both of those stretches, I was itching to get back into the air.

I get to fly about 70 times a month, and I honestly don't think I could go back to being an office drone who was ecstatic to have a chance to fly twice a month now. Once you get used to the quirks of the job, you'll get ruined for anything else.

Next week, I say goodbye to an old friend. See you next Wednesday!

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The 9/11 Memorial at ALPA Headquarters

The events of 9/11/01 changed many landscapes on many levels: that of New York City, the political landscape, and in a small way, the landscape outside the Air Line Pilots Association headquarters. I was there to attend the union's Basic Safety School, and the first thing I saw was this:

 


WE WILL NEVER FORGET
September 11, 2001

ALPA's Remembrance Garden was dedicated on September 11, 2006,
to honor the memories of the victims of 9/11 and pay tribute to the crews
of United Flight 93, United Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 11,
and American Airlines Flight 77. Please take time to visit the garden,
located outside in the front court.

From a distance, it is a compact, enclosed, quiet space:


Walking up the entry path, you are silently greeted by two slabs of stone in a hushed reminder of the original World Trade Center. The stone comes from Shanksville, Pennsylvania: the site of the crash of United Flight 93 on that terrible day.


Large stones flank the intersection of the entry path and the inner circle. These have a piece of the World Trade Center itself.


As you make your way around the circle, you come across stone markers in each of the cardinal directions. At one entrance, a piece of the Pentagon lays in repose.







The entry path aligns in a way that at the right angle, the twin stones frame the name over the door.



Thirty-three crewmembers slipped the surly bonds of Earth that day: almost three dozen people who left for work that day, but didn't make it home. I list them in the order that their aircraft were lost:

American Airlines Flight 11

Captain John Ogonowski
First Officer Thomas McGuinness

Flight attendants
Barbara Arestegui
Jeffrey Collman
Sara Low
Karen Martin
Kathleen Nicosia
Betty Ong
Jean Roger
Dianne Snyder
Amy Sweeney

United Flight 175

Captain Victor Saracini
First Officer Michael Horrocks

Flight attendants
Robert Fangman
Amy Jarret
Amy King
Kathryn Laborie
Alfred Marchand
Michael Tarrou
Alicia Titus

American Airlines Flight 77

Captain Charles Burlingame
First Officer David Charlebois

Flight attendants
Michele Heidenberger
Jennifer Lewis
Kenneth Lewis
Renee May

United Flight 93

Captain Jason Dahl
First Officer LeRoy Homer, Jr.

Flight attendants
Lorraine Bay
Sandra Bradshaw
Wanda Green
CeeCee Lyles
Deborah Welsh

Postscript: When I entered the building, I found something else that I didn't know ALPA had: three Collier Trophies:


See you next Wednesday!


Like Larry the Flying Guy on Facebook:





The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Last flight with my best passenger

All lines in a logbook are the same, but not all the hours in it are.

As we fill up the pages of our logbook, some entries are more special than others. Some are written with an ink that weighs heavily on the page, separating those few moments from entries kept just to show we did a certain flight on a certain day. As we fill up the pages of our life, some people and experiences end up being more permanent than others, while others are just another line on a page.

This particular entry is about my last flight with my first passenger: my father. Sunday is Father's Day, and although I've never forgotten him, this week I want to remember him.

My father and I at the Cleveland National Air Show, 2009.

There are two entries in my logbook for July 13, 2008. The first is 1.0 hours in a Cessna 172, with the comment being "Private Pilot Checkride". Directly below that is an entry for 1.8 hours in a Flight Design CTsw, with the very first time there would be a number in the "Passengers" column, and the comment simply being, "Celebration flight". He was passenger #1.

In the time afterward, whenever I didn't already have someone I'd promised a ride to, and assuming it wasn't one of those days when I wanted to fly by myself (flying, like meditation, sometimes requires and rewards solitude), he was almost always ready to jump at the chance to fly around, even if it was for no other purpose than to convert avgas into noise.

His name would appear in my logbook nine more times. I always thought it would be ninety or more. I always thought there would be plenty of time. We always do, until the time is gone.

On page 4 of what is now 106 (and counting) in my logbook is this entry:


10/18/2009: CTLS N566FD, LPR -> UNI -> PJC -> LPR, 4.30 total hours, 359.49 miles, Landings: 2 day, 1 night, 1.10 night hours, 1 passenger. Comment: leaf flight. Passengers: Last flight with Dad

We started with a rough plan: fly to Ohio University to check out the fall colors from the air, fly the 20 or so miles to the Ohio River, then turn back around. Our flight path would take us almost directly over the Mohican River, a place we spent many fun summers camping and canoeing on as I was growing up, so I marked the place to look for it on the sectional, and we took off.

One of the pleasures of being a pilot is the freedom it brings with it. Like many good flights, the plan started with a straight line there and back, but ended up being a meandering exploration to an entirely different state:

It was supposed to be a boring, straight magenta line, but the right half of the flight followed the Ohio River north to see where it is formed.
It started out simply, with a straight-out departure that ends up taking us over downtown Elyria. The hospital where I was born sticks out of the left edge of the picture:

Downtown Elyria.

Although the colors weren't all that glorious in Elyria yet despite the mid-October date, they did start becoming more dazzling as we flew along:



We ended up finding Mohican a little easier than I expected:





As we continued on our flight on an amazingly smooth day, we came across this bit of farm field near Zanesville:


In our part of Ohio, everything is flat. We are where the Great Plains start, and from us it's a thousand miles of grid lines without a curve or bump in sight. By this point in the flight, we were starting to get into the tiny foothills of the Appalachians. This incredibly winding river has carved a path of almost perfect undulations in the rock that tried to get in its way:

The river is visible at the center-left of the picture. The back-and-forth coiling of whatever river this is (still nameless to me now) is so regular, so uniform that it almost looks artificial. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen before, and would be for almost 5 years until I started flying over the Blue Ridge Mountains as an airline pilot.

My mind carries my father with me now as I routinely fly over Harpers Ferry on the way from Washington-Dulles to State College, PA. Along the way, the beautiful Shenandoah converges with the Potomac at the site where John Brown conducted his raid a century-and-a-half ago. The Potomac writhes on northward, and at one point, near Shepherdstown, WV, not far from the site of the Battle of Antietam on the Maryland side, the river makes a similar series of undulations, then travels on a path so unnaturally straight before going back to doing what rivers do as it flows along to the horizon. Every time I fly over this stretch of history, I think back to how similar it is to the first time I ever saw a river do that:

Antietam is at the center-right of this picture.
But that is now; let's get back to then. We stopped at Ohio University's airport to stretch and check out the terminal. Another connection is made: OU's airport identifier is KUNI; now I fly to State College, whose identifier is KUNV, since it's the home of Penn State University. While there, I took a picture--in fact, the only picture I still have--that has my father by a plane:


Had I known he would be gone on page 4, I would have taken so many more. There was supposed to be so much time to do that.

We left Ohio University's airport to take some pictures of what many consider to be a very beautiful campus:

I never imagined that only 19 months later, I would be back on that campus (having driven this time) for a bioinformatics conference in exactly the place that picture captures. We continued on what was supposed to be a short, few-minute hop to cross the river, then turn around:


In no time, we found the Ohio River:


We had driven across that river dozens of times to see family in Eastern Kentucky, where he was from. Since he had never seen it from the air before (and I had only done so once), we decided to fly up it for a little while before turning for home.

After a while, we decided that since we were only a little over half an hour from Pittsburgh, we could just continue up the Ohio to see where it begins. Neither of us had ever seen the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela, where the two meet to make the river that gives our state its name. In an airplane, after all, 70 miles is just up the creek.

Unfortunately, along the way the memory card on the camera became full, so there are no more pictures until landing. This is extremely unfortunate indeed, as we had an uncomfortably excellent view of downtown Pittsburgh along the way. I say "uncomfortably excellent" because on the way to the three rivers, I found out the hard way what those oddly-shaped notches in Pittsburgh's Class B airspace are for:

Turns out, those clusters of obstructions (the things that look like an M with dots in between their legs) are the skyscrapers downtown. Nowadays, with almost 4000 hours more in the logbook, I wouldn't think anything at all of calling ATC and asking permission to enter their airspace. But with less than 100 hours, I still didn't talk to controllers routinely or fluently, so I just stayed below their airspace instead.

Since we had been flying a lot longer than expected, my bladder had had enough. This was supposed to be a 2-hour round trip, and we were now almost 3 hours in and still not even in the same state. We both quickly agreed to land and find a bathroom, and the closest reasonable place to where we were was Zelienople.

We did our business and took off again, this time heading in a straight line for home. It is just under 100 miles as the crow flies, or about 50 minutes. We said little. Some of that was from having been in an airplane for almost 4 hours, and some of that was due to the lateness of the day. But a large measure of the silence was because we had both just enjoyed an amazing, unplanned voyage, and we were still simply enjoying the time we just had.

I wish I knew it was almost all the time we would ever have. He knew he had cancer. But no one else did. He didn't want anyone to feel sorry for him, so he said nothing.

Two months and 25 days later, he would, as John Gillespie Magee would put it, slip the surly bonds of Earth. But for that October night, on the homeward leg, together we "with silent, lifting mind... trod [t]he high untrespassed sanctity of space" for the final time.

He is buried at the Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery, an honor he earned as a Vietnam veteran. A month after he was laid to rest there, I flew over for some pictures:


I have flown to it and back so many times now that I no longer need a chart or GPS to navigate there.





In my days as an instructor, there were some students I signed off to solo before they thought they were ready. I knew they were, as I wouldn't have signed them off if I hadn't had full confidence in their abilities, knowing that I had done everything they needed to have the skills and knowledge to make into the sky and back successfully. They had learned what they needed to from me, and it was time for them to learn the rest solo.

Although he was not a pilot, my father did the same thing for me in his own way.



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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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